The cultural implications and backdrop of the Transgressive Cinema of Peter Kern

By: Marietta Steinhart


This article discusses the role of Peter Kern’s (1949–2015) cinema and the ways in which their transgressive nature may be understood in a cultural context, embedding five of his films in a history of cinematic traditions.


Peter Kern was one of the most eccentric, and thought-provoking contemporary filmmakers of the German-speaking world. In its obituary on Kern, German newspaper Die Süddeutsche Zeitung called him, “the last of the auteur dinosaurs” (Schödel, 2015), a filmmaker who stuck to the movies of 1970s German art-house. “He was the darling of German auteur filmmakers, a scholar and an underground fighter for the just cause”, commented Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Ebbinghaus, 2015). August 26 marks the anniversary of Kern’s death in 2015.

The protagonists of Peter Kern’s cinema are misfits of society; prostitutes, transsexuals, sex-tourists, immigrants. They are vulnerable and wayward, furious and shattered by an over-sexualized, sensation-seeking society. His directing style was defined by a “fondness for crossover montages of impressionistic impressions“, and “a delightfully misleading change of direction in the flow of production“ (Huber/Möller, 2011: 155). According to Kern himself, the main force and idea behind his movies was sensuality (Huber/Möller, 2011: 86) and love (Seibel, 2015). Kern shunned the mainstream and disliked to be labeled. One of his most attentive admirers, Christoph Huber, wrote, “Kern’s uncompromising nature puts him in some kind of underground position“ (Huber/Möller, 2011: 145) — but even that is, again, a label. Often he seemed not to be bothered with finding an audience, sometimes screening in front of a handful of people only. Being famous for offending his audience and critics at festivals, Peter Kern often came across as arrogant and vain, as well as vulgar. He nurtured his image as enfant terrible, public debates often ended in verbal assault. And yet even though Kern often conveyed this impression of an intensely independent personality, he claimed that he did not make films for himself but for others, because “for me film is like a coitus; I need a partner and that’s the audience, no matter if it is complaining, cheering or delivering contradictions“, he said. (Huber/Möller, 2011: 78). Kern’s films are intense, seductive, surreal, symbolically charged, challenging, provocative, often confusing and transgressive. By violating socially established values, pushing limits of cinematic expression, criticizing politics and laying blame directly upon the viewer, he provoked his audience and played with standardized viewing patterns.

This article will try to shed some light upon the inner worlds and — often misunderstood and questioned — meaning of the work of this Austrian director, writer, actor and producer by analyzing five of his films — even at the expense of upsetting Kern connoisseurs — allotting him a place in the history of (Austrian) Cinema and drawing unexpected but important connections to works of other Austrian and international artists.

Peter Kern

Peter Kern was born in 1949 in Vienna, Austria. Growing up in the second district of Vienna, he was exposed to a rather poor environment, which was considered “proletarian” and which fundamentally shaped his filmmaking. He shot his first 8 mm films when he was 13 years old. After being a member of the famous Vienna Boy’s Choir, he went on tour with the musical Hair (from 1968–1971) and started out as an actor, winning awards for his roles in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, Ein Film aus Deutschland (1977) and Walter Bockmayer’s Flammende Herzen (1978). His first documentaries, Die Bootsmänner von Pagsanjan and Die Wasserlilie blüht nicht mehr he co-directed in the Philippines in 1980. His first solo-directed feature film Crazy Boys (1987) is a sex-comedy with a melodramatic touch in which the owner of a nightclub hires a group of male strippers to save her business. Peter Kern worked with and was influenced by directors of the New German Cinema such as Werner Schroeter and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Those and filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders were dealing with:

[…] the construction of a self-conscious mise-en-scène that probed film’s capabilities for producing both truth and illusion, as well as a preoccupation with such topics as postwar historical amnesia and the postwar generation’s historical isolation and psychological alienation. (Grundmann, 2010: 4)

Kern’s work and image as enfant terrible was often compared to Werner Rainer Fassbinder, whose methods he admired, but he never wanted to become part of the “Fassbinder-Clan” and his “system of slavery” (Huber/Möller, 2011: 39). He was no stranger to the German theater and worked with Christoph Schlingensief. Peter Kern’s oeuvre is considerable (he has directed more than 25 and acted in more than 75 films) and still, who has heard of him apart from cinephiles? Who was Peter Kern? And who are the people we encounter in his films? “He’s the undisputed champion of the defeated […]”, said Olaf Möller in Film Comment:

[…] the last remaining German proletarian filmmaker, and the poet laureate of our Third World — the one that consists of those whom the dominant media and their barkers can conceive of only in terms of clichés, pieties, and contempt. (Möller, 2007)

Donauleichen (2005)

In Donauleichen Radio Donau reports the increasing number of suicides among young adults in Vienna. Sick of life, yearning for love, Basti (Christian Blümel) and Claudia (Marie Miklau) randomly meet and decide to jump off Vienna’s Reichsbrücke, right into the Blue Danube. Both seem determined to commit suicide, but because neither of them wants to jump first they end up exchanging life stories in an ice-cream parlor and hot-sheet hotel. For abusing and forcing him to become a butcher Basti takes revenge in an “Oedipal Apocalypse” (Huber/Möller, 2011: 149) by killing his stepfather and raping his rather willing mother. He kills her too as he starts cheerfully singing: “I did it! I did it! I did it. What every boy dreams of doing. I did it! I killed dad and proceeded to screwing…the only girl a boy always takes for a wife…the only one whose love he’s sure of…the only one he can’t be cured of, oh Mama!” As a child Claudia also was abused in reform school and breaks down when she catches her girlfriend cheating on her with another woman. With Donauleichen the spectator is being introduced to an over-sexualized society of child abuse and a withering lack of emotions, and is confronted with themes such as domestic violence, child abuse, and isolation. The protagonists’ dialogues and monologues tell of their lonely existences and the apathy of the rest of the world.

In the end Claudia leads Basti on a dog leash to Vienna’s Reichsbrücke where ironically two plastic dolls float in the water. Once again the audience hears the voice of the radio announcer (spoken by Peter Kern), dismissing the audience, “Happy New Year and keep your chin up!” followed by a request Komm in die Donau (Come into the Danube). Style and themes recall Jim Jarmusch’s first film Permanent Vacation (1981). Like an outcast, the main character Allie (Chris Parker), wanders around a degraded New York, in search for a meaning in life.

Donauleichen was originally a play, written by Peter Kern, with the title Dumm fickt gut (Dummies are the better fuck). The film, a low-budget production, was shot in only eight days, almost entirely on one set (Huber/Möller, 2011: 146f) and with a digital camera, which gives the film its documentary touch.

Die toten Körper der Lebenden (2007)

With Die toten Körper der Lebenden Peter Kern leaned into to the transgressive poesy of French writer Jean Genet’s only film Un Chant d’Amour (A Love Song, 1950), today an icon of gay cinema. Because of its explicit homosexual content, the 26-minute movie was long banned. Inspired by this short film and according to Kern himself, Die toten Körper der Lebenden deals with oppression (Kern in Schiefer, 2007) and the agony of living in an empty, frigid cosmos. As Genet did, the Austrian director told the story of a love affair between two outcasts and implicitly condemned middle-class values, which regard homosexuality as immoral. Two gay sex offenders, Lucien (Andreas Bieber) and Java (Oliver Rosskopf), break out of prison. Hiding in an old cabaret venue near Vienna’s Naschmarkt they randomly meet a former, worn-out acting star (Traute Furthner), who like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) lives in her world of delusion; together with her repressed husband (Heinrich Herki), a former guard in the very same prison from which the two criminals have just escaped. We see a black man lying on the floor who nobody seems to care about, a waiter who is trapped in a freezer and a blind man on crutches starting out the film with the monologue, “Set yourself free, says life — Completely?, asks the man — Completely!, says life“. What follows is a macabre, deadly game, ending in a series of murders. The protagonists of Die toten Körper der Lebenden are, as so often in Kern’s work, outsiders, abandoned by society and caught up in their own inner conflicted worlds. Unfulfilled dreams and depraved love affairs are the compelling forces in this film. One episode in Die toten Körper der Lebenden prominently recalls Genet’s work. In a scene the prison guard makes one of the inmates suck on his gun.

The use of theatrical music lends not only this film a further dimension of irony and absurdity, epitomized at the film’s end, when, appearing in a garbage bin, Kern himself sings words from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol — “Each man kills the thing he loves”. Donauleichen (Corpses of the Danube) and Die toten Körper der Lebenden (The Dead Bodies of the Living) both grew out of theater projects. The titles already imply the themes life and death. Both are eccentric “musical intimate theaters” centered around murder and love. The subjects are universal but the characters are rooted in Viennese culture and history. “I am talking about Austria, about Vienna, sunk in the swamp, about this undemocratic, cultureless city, which always prides itself on Mozart and other figures […], Kern once said. (Kern in Schiefer, 2007)

Christoph Huber argued that in terms of stylistic elements Die toten Körper der Lebenden already foreshadowed the complex “Meta-Hall of Mirrors” of King Kongs Tränen and Mörderschwestern. (Huber/Möller, 2011: 152)

Blutsfreundschaft (2009)

If we turn our attention to what is arguably Peter Kern’s most prominent and scandalous film, we will see, once again, that his motives recur: we meet two outcasts who both seem to be “victims” and perpetrators at the same time. Blutsfreundschaft (Initiation) deals with themes such as isolation, oppression, neo-fascism, guilt, homophobia, immigration and transsexuality, but it also tells the story of a generational gap between two protagonists who are coming to terms with the past, which yet repeats itself. Once again Peter Kern tried to undermine the right wing and criticized Austrian politics and the nation’s narrow-minded mentality: “You really have the best traits of a person”, says Gustav to another character, “Old, disgusting, right-wing, Austrian and clerical”. But above all, Blutsfreundschaft is about people who are in search of love and affection. 16-year old Axel (Harry Lampl) falls out with his stepfather and becomes involved in a neo-Nazi gang connected with a right-wing party, which promotes slogans such as “No EU,” “Think Austrian” and “An Austrian is no faggot!” because as the leader points out, “the slogans have to be clear and catchy”. To join the gang he has to prove himself and follow an initiation by killing a social worker. He runs away and takes refuge in a dry-cleaning shop run by 80 year-old Gustav Tritzinsky (Helmut Berger), a former member of the Hitler Youth. Axel reminds Gustav of the lover he had as a young man during World War II, whom he betrayed to the Nazis. To atone for that betrayal he shelters Axel, who soon has to choose between his homophobic street friends and the friendship with a homosexual old man. When released in movie theaters, the film and its local promotional campaign triggered difficult feelings and controversial opinions in Austria and abroad. Unusual bills with homophobic messages were spread all over Vienna. “Soziale Wärme statt Woarme” (Social warmth instead of fags) and “Islam, bleib’ daham” (Go home, Islam) were two of the slogans.

People took it for another dirty campaign by an Austrian right-wing party. It was an intentional, satirical provocation by Kern himself, and it proved how self-evident the radicalization of political statements had already become. With Blutsfreundschaft, Peter Kern “wanted to bring together two guilty parties, neither of whom can deal with their guilt” (Kern in Schiefer, 2009). The critics were likewise divided into two parties. Neil Young from The Hollywood Reporter did not appreciate Kern’s film:

Occasional flashes of imagination and inspiration hint at why Kern has a passionate following among certain coteries of adventurous cinephiles, but there’s little here to win new recruits to his cause. Recalling Bryan Singer’s “Apt Pupil” and Shane Meadows’ “This Is England,” “Initiation” is pretty conventional fare, with only limited appeal festivals-wise outside gay-themed events. (Young, 2009)

Jay Weissberg of Variety described Blutsfreundschaft as a “kitschy, screamingly ill-conceived piece of nonsense” and wrote furthermore, “one ludicrous scene follows another, including truncated musical numbers that never take off” (Weissberg, 2010). A journalist from Die Presse appreciated Kern’s work: “it is raw, passionate and politically provocative” (Huber, 2009). The film critic of Austria’s newspaper Der Standard thought it was “unrealistic” (Reicher, 2009).

Was Peter Kern misunderstood? Many years ago, the Austrian Film Archive presented a retrospective of Peter Kern’s oeuvre — often in front of only five cinephiles, including Kern himself who asked everyone after the screening why they’d showed up according to film critic Michael Keuschnigg. After the premiere at the Vienna International Film Festival in 2009 people in the audience started laughing. Later, Keuschnigg was irritated by the malicious comments in a variety of social network platforms: “The authors criticize the actors, the editing, the art direction and the dilettantism of the whole film. They dislike the cliché characters, the baldies and the old gays. They are making fools of themselves.” (Keuschnigg, 2009) Blutsfreundschaft is brutal and empathetic at the same time. It can be said to be hyper-realistic and surreal, serious and polemic, physical and poetic, art and trash. It relates to gay coming-of-age-stories, NS-parodies and recalls the Australian action drama Romper Stomper (1992), directed by Geoffrey Wright, featuring Russell Crowe as the leader of a violent neo-Nazi skinhead gang. Christoph Huber also drew connections to Dutch director Paul Verhoefen and his film Zwartboek (Black Book, 2006).

King Kongs Tränen (2010)

“I go to the movies and yearn for King Kong’s tears”, (Kern, 2009a) Peter Kern wrote in the Austrian magazine Datum in 2009, expressing his disappointment in the Austrian high culture industry. Inspired by a critic’s remark, “Please, stop making movies,” one year later Kern produced the film King Kongs Tränen.

Kern’s alter ego Peter Gläubiger (Peter Kern) auditions for the role of King Kong in a silent movie with the title King Kong lebt (King Kong Lives). He is dismissed, followed by a failed suicide attempt, but then he meets his worst critic and enemy (Kathrin Beck), on whom he intends to take revenge for her bad reviews; she, in turn, takes revenge on the mediocrity of his art. In the midst of their dispute, the stage curtain beheads a 13-year-old girl. Chaos sets in when Gläubiger as the main protagonist screams “King Kong lives!” This is followed by another scene in which he, wearing a monkey mask, ends up in an animal shelter, whose visitors complain about the foreigners in the cages. The characters drift into a different world, a meta-film and utopia where the actors, in a bed of flowers, sing arias from composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and an African family lives on an Austrian farm where they take the ironic name, the Browns. The finale is crowned with Gläubiger eating the critic’s brain and triumphantly putting her scalp on his head.

King Kongs Tränen was Kern’s reckoning with snobby and highbrow art critics and once again shows his fondness of the surreal that can be characterized by elements such as transgression, alienation and displacement, the play with paradox and absurdity, a closeness to theater and painting and the inseparability of what is considered reality and dream. (Lommel et al, 2008: 11f)

Mörderschwestern (2011)

Inspired by true events, Peter Kern’s movie Mörderschwestern is his reckoning with the audience. The story is loosely based on the series of murders at the Lainz hospital that took place in Vienna from 1983 to 1989. After 15 years in prison, the former “angel of death” at Lainz hospital, nurse Tabea (Susanne Wuest) has been released. She returns to the hospital as a patient and together with her colleagues (Kathrin Beck, Cornelia Albrecht) resumes her deathly games with the patients. In between coffee parties they “redeem” older patients. “We were the pioneers of a new health care system: removing, clearing the way, economizing […] you don’t do anything else and you call it market economy.” They plugged the film with the catchy line “the first interactive film in the history of cinema”. Nurse Tabea invites the viewer to decide who is going to live or die and push certain buttons on one’s mobile phone, just like on a remote control: “If you push 1, the grandfather is going to die; the old man. If you push 2, the nurses are going to kill the doctor.” Pushing the buttons on the viewer’s cell phone won’t trigger any reaction. It was a game Peter Kern invited the viewer to play. He seduced the audience to be his accomplice. “A terrible crime! But don’t we wait for it to happen?”

Mörderschwestern recalls Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and in some way it is “the productive answer to the repressive didactics of Michael Haneke’s destruction of violence”, suggested Christoph Huber (Huber/Möller, 2011: 169). By breaking the “fourth wall”, by addressing the spectator directly, Peter Kern demanded active participation from the “consumer”. The audience is being put on a spot and accused of seeking mere entertainment and violence. In one scene we see a video clip in which a lion is feeding on a blood-smeared man. “This video was watched 6.000.000 times on youtube,” the crawl informs us. By doing that Kern not only violates the spectator, he also breaks the rules of the medium, as Haneke did in Funny Games:

As concerns the film, the form is wedded to the content, which is effected such that there is no going back to another version — not without violence of the medium itself, as illustrated by the infamous rewinding of the film in Funny Games that truly violates the film. (Speck, 2010: 9f)

Raging emotions versus cruel coldness

Like Haneke’s early films Peter Kern’s latest work is heavily charged with violence while moralizing against the audience. German film theorist and professor Thomas Elsaesser spoke of a paradox in this context:

The paradox I struggle with in Haneke’s earlier work concerns above all his claim that one can ‘critique’ violence through violence: In his interviews, the director suggests that by subjecting the spectator to witnessing, experiencing, or actively imagining acts of extreme violence, he can make him or her aware of the nefarious role that violence plays in our modern, media-saturated world. […] To ‘rape’ the audience into enlightenment, or to educate someone by giving them ‘a slap in the face’, seems to come from a rather peculiar corner of Germanic pedagogy that I thought we had no need to revive. […] Haneke’s stance on cinematic violence […] involve what the discourse philosopher Karl Otto Apel would call the performative self-contradiction, a version of the conundrum better known as the liar’s paradox: All Cretans are liars, says the Cretan. Violence is bad for you, says the director who inflicts violence on me.” (Elsaesser in Grundmann, 2010: 55f)

This is a common complaint: “Haneke would indeed be just another auteur who skillfully ups the ante, only claiming to criticize violence while actually aestheticizing it in new ways” (Speck, 2010: 13). Oliver Speck defended Haneke, for his films “are not violent in the same way as films that receive PG-13 rating in the US”, but “rather are critical reflections on these representations” (Speck, 2010: 8). The New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote: “Americans — to a European intellectual this almost goes without saying — are especially deserving of the kind of moral correction Mr. Haneke takes it upon himself to mete out. […] The ‘Hostel’ pictures and their ilk revel in the pornography of blood and pain, which Mr. Haneke addresses with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.” (A.O. Scott in Speck, 2010: 13)

The public image of Michael Haneke and Peter Kern could not be more different. Both are, or in Kern’s case were, intellectuals but Haneke, with a slender figure, white beard and a sleek appearance, has gained international fame and recognition (Caché, 2005; Das Weiße Band / The White Ribbon, 2009; Amour, 2012), while Kern was always an outsider, homosexual, coming across as vulgar at times, weighing 400 pounds, and having to fight for film funding and requiring continually to justify his art (nevertheless he received the Merit Award in Gold of the City of Vienna in 2010). Haneke’s films do not express raging emotions but are governed by a coldness that dismantles the foundation of the bourgeois society they depict. (Speck, 2010: 103) Violence does not happen off-screen in his films, but rather in what Oliver Speck called “in-between screens” (Speck, 2010: 8). Peter Kern’s movies are heavy on emotions, surreal bloody orgies, intense with body horror, and physical violence is shown on screen. “I like to go to the movies because I want to feel something,” Peter Kern said in an interview, “I have never been able to identify with a somewhat distanced German cinema, which asserts that a thought emerges only through coolness and objectivity.” (Kern in Schiefer, 2010)

Haneke’s films show almost surgical, sterile precision, a somewhat cold cruelness, whereas Kern gets messy, operatic and emotional. What those two filmmakers may have in common is the postmodern experience of a film. “Like Barthes, Haneke’s films ensure that the spectator will experience the image ‘with his whole body’. It is by means of the spectatorial affect that the reality of the body is reintroduced into the experience of the film”, wrote Brigitte Peucker (in Grundmann, 2010:139). That very same “body experience” can be ascribed to Peter Kern’s work. Both wanting to provoke a self-reflection in the viewer and a critical view of what happens on screen.

The Cinema of Transgression

The Transgressive, that which breaks boundaries and violates rules, was Kern’s driving force. According to the director art had to be trangsressive: “It must break out of normality. Art without a vision is ass art! Art in the dark.” (Huber/Möller, 2011: 94) Transgressive elements and themes such as the loss of and search for identity are recurring motives in contemporary film, claimed Alexander Geimer in his essay Der mindfuck als postmodernes Spielfilm-Genre (The mindfuck as postmodern feature film genre). Thomas Elsaesser pointed out that this “destabilization” has increased radically in many works and has led to the dissolution of a consistent, sovereign identity of film protagonists. He has introduced the term of the “Post-Mortem-Film” (Elsaesser, 2004 in Geimer), on the premise that the actors wander the screen like dead people, detached from the order of reality (Elsaesser/Stüttgen, 2005 in Geimer). The same can be said about Kern’s films.

Transgressive art can be found anywhere where rules are being broken or reset. Transgressions are as old as the rules they violate. Still, Anthony Julius claimed, “to revolt against accepted standards, against tradition itself (however tendentiously conceived), has been the prerogative of Western artists since, at the latest, the Renaissance“ (Julius, 2002: 21). Transgressiveness is a hallmark of all kinds of work from the French Salon des Réfusés artists to Dada and Surrealism. The high regard for the transgressive in art may be attributed in substantial measure to the influence of the 20th century French writer Georges Bataille. For Bataille the transgressive was “the utopian aspect of every artwork, the one that offers us glimpses of an existence unconfined by rules or restraints“ (Julius, 2002: 21). Furthermore, Bataille defined taboos as something that protect the structure of socio-symbolic sphere and claimed that transgressions are necessary. He distinguished the “sacred” from the “profane”:

We need to work to detach ourselves from our animal existence; work makes us what we are. Anything that interferes with productive labour risks returning us to that state and therefore cannot be permitted. It is ‚taboo’. However, while work liberates us from one form of subordination, it subjects us to another form. We become caught up in an endless labour of production. And so we need, from time to time, to free ourselves from the means of our liberation. […] Transgression thus represents a desire both for the sovereignty of subjectivity and the extinction of subjectivity — a desire to return to the world from which, through the discovery of subjectivity, man has become separated. […] The existence of taboos and their transgression disclose the division of society into two realms, the profane and the sacred. In the realm of the profane, taboos rule. The sacred realm depends on limited acts of transgression. (Julius, 2002: 22)

However, “many consider that this mission of transgressive art” to subvert social standards “has become excessive”, wrote Kieran Cashell, who asserts that Transgression “goes too far” when:

[…] it violates the remit of the enlightened culture to the extent that it becomes impossible to engage with transgressive practices as art. […] Associated with the cultural project of postmodernism, transgressive art (which includes sub-generic tendencies such as abject art) continues to constitute an important aesthetic force on post-twentieth-century vanguard culture. Professional critics have therefore been faced with a challenge: either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism. (Cashell, 2009: 1)

New York City’s Lower East Side saw an explosion of the downtown film scene, as a variety of filmmakers, photographers and performers, inspired by the post-punk No Wave music scene, began to explore new, direct, and confrontational cinematic forms. In 1984 a rebellion, if not a revolution, against standard and “obsolete“ values was triggered among a group of artists when the manifesto for the Cinema of Transgression was announced. The term was introduced by Nick Zedd to describe a New York-based underground film movement that was looking to transform values by breaking all taboos of cinematic expression, conservative religion, politics and aesthetics. The following is an extract from the Manifesto:

We who have violated the laws, commands and duties of the avant-garde […]. Legitimizing every mindless manifestation of sloppy movie making undertaken by a generation of misled film students, the dreary media arts centers and geriatric cinema critics have totally ignored the exhilarating accomplishments of those in our rank — […] a new generation of filmmakers daring to rip out of the stifling straight jackets of film theory in a direct attack on every value system known to man. We propose that all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again. (Everleth, 2007)

Those artists, or “underground invisibles” in the words of Nick Zedd, including Richard Kern (The Evil Cameraman, 1990), Beth B (Stigmata, 1991), Jon Moritsugu, Tommy Turner and David Wojnarowicz, and actress Lydia Lunch wanted to provoke and explode limits. The followers of Nick Zedd were using shock value and humor and began to make very low budget films with 8 mm cameras. Very much like Nick Zedd’s character (played by himself) in The Police State (1987), Kern’s characters find themselves in Kafkaesque situations characterized by experiences of fear, alienation and uncertainty, absurdity, subjection to (anonymous) bureaucratic institutions, helplessness and inner despair. For no apparent reason, a kid in Zedd’s film is tortured and interrogated by two different detectives, both abusing him mentally and physically. Stigmata, a documentary directed by Beth B, gives a voice to six former drug addicts, dealing with a variety of traumas and issues such as alienation, suicide attempts, murder, loss and death, pain, oppression, violence, loneliness, darkness, dysfunctional families, inner and outer worlds, the lack of love and the never-ending search for wholesomeness.

Austria’s “feel-bad cinema” image

Austria has maintained a remarkable presence in international cinema for many years. Even though some contemporary filmmakers have moved away from that focus, Austria has become well known for its realistic social dramas. In an article in 2006, the New York Times introduced a series of Austrian productions by Barbara Albert (Nordrand / Northern Skirts, 1999), Michael Glawogger (Workingman’s Death, 2005), Ulrich Seidl (Hundstage / Dog Days, 2001) and Michael Haneke referring to Austria as “the world capital of feel-bad cinema” (Lim, 2006). Robert von Dassanowsky and Oliver Speck, editors of New Austrian Film, wrote:

As the critic portrays the major directors, a picture emerges that probably sums up a common sentiment regarding New Austrian film: not unlike other cinematic new waves, Austria’s artists are engaged in a bitter fight against prevailing the petit-bourgeois mindset of their fellow citizens. (Dassanowsky/Speck, 2011: 1).

“Most perverted stories come from Austria”, said Peter Kern in an interview, “Fritzl, Kampusch and also the Mörderschwestern.” (Jahn, 2011) This idea of Austrian cinema as home of somewhat “dark” social dramas, can be confirmed if we turn our attention to Austrian actor Karl Markovics’ first directed feature film Atmen (2011). It tells the story of 19-year-old Roman, who lives in a juvenile prison and — struggling with his guilt — starts working in a funeral parlor. Götz Spielmann’s Oscar nominated drama Revanche (2008) tells the story of an ex-con who works in a brothel, where he falls in love with an Ukrainian prostitute. Their plans to escape collide with the lives of a rural cop and his seemingly happy wife. Another prominent Austrian filmmaker was undoubtedly Michael Glawogger (1959–2014) well known for Whores’ Glory (2011), a documentary and triptych of prostitutes in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico. Nominated for Best Film in Cannes, Michael is a 2011 drama directed by Markus Schleinzer, which resembles the famous Natascha Kampusch case from the point of view of the kidnapper. Then there is Ulrich Seidl, whose films Hundstage (2001) and Import/Export (2007) deal with several forms of human depravity in the midst of Western civilization. The premises of these films find echoes in the motives and aesthetics in Kern’s work that deal with the production of fear, guilt, shock and the effects of violence. Next to Austrian directors Seidl and Glawogger — which are themselves crossovers between fiction and documentary — Peter Kern managed to establish a reputation as fascinating and headstrong filmmaker in the genre. Two great directors in their own right, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (Ich seh Ich seh / Goodnight Mommy, 2014) shot a documentary about the late filmmaker with the title Kern (2012). It was produced by Ulrich Seidl.

Kern turned his attention to outsiders. Even after his death his films take the spectator in the world of hustlers, misfits, thieves, murderers, and convicts, where most people have never set foot; but even as he exposed their lives with excruciating fullness, he revealed — and celebrated — their common humanity. By doing so he tried to give a voice to the invisible. At the same time those characters are presented in a way that might not be accessible for some spectators and might make it difficult to engage with his art: by presenting his subjects as „freaks“, criminals and murderers, by “preaching” to the audience, by directly addressing it as “perverted Nazis under a sinking Austrian sun” (Mörderschwestern) his films may trigger difficult feelings. His very last film Der letzte Sommer der Reichen, “a melodramatic tale which depicts the global dimensions of our catastrophic downfall” (Kern in Schiefer, 2015) showcased “nuns with guns, rubber fetishwear, red-hot lesbian sex, brown paper packages tied up with string — these are a few of Peter Kern’s favorite things”, (Dalton, 2015) wrote The Hollywood Reporter. Kern stayed true to his ideas until the end.

Peter Kern’s films can be seen as a work of transgression, revolt and exercise in free imagination. Being embedded in a wide history of cinematic traditions such as the New German Cinema, Surrealism, Postmodernism and Cinema of Transgression, he combined universal issues with local identity. His oeuvre has yet to be discovered by most.

“Why should you know me?“ Peter Kern once said on his homepage (that now is gone) and provided a playful answer:

If you’re Austrian, you just go on, you do not respond […]. If you are young, as each new day, curious and want to get to know me, then please bring your head in a titled position to allow any prejudices to flow over me and talking to me. When I yell at you, please do not be immediately hurt. If I insult you, take it as a proof of love. Remember, I’m Austrian, insane, hysterical, hypocritical and undemocratic. (Kern, 2009)

About the author

Marietta Steinhart attained her Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication from the University of Vienna. She combined her study of journalism with history, comparative literature and film. As a film critic she frequently contributes to Zeit Online, ray Filmmagazin, and other German-language outlets. She is a member of FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics). A version of this article was submitted as part of the admission process to Columbia University School of the Arts.

Select Filmography

Amour (Austria/France/Germany 2012)Director/Writer: Michael Haneke; Producers: Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arndt; Cinematography: Darius Khondji; with Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert; Runtime: 127 min.

Atmen / Breathing (Austria 2011)Director/Writer: Karl Markovics; Producer: Dieter Pochlatko, Nikolaus, Wisiak; with Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebmann, Georg Friedrich; Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht; Runtime: 93 min.

Blutsfreundschaft / Initation (Austria 2009)Director/Writer: Peter Kern (based on the script by Frank Maria Reifenberg); Producers: Franz Novotny, Peter Kern; Cinematography: Peter Roehsler; with: Helmut Berger, Harry Lampl, Melanie Kretschmann, Manuel Rubey, Michael Steinocher, Matthias Franz Stein, Heribert Sasse; Runtime: 95 min.

Caché (Austria 2005)Director/Writer: Michael Haneke; Producers: Michael André, Rémi Burah, Andrew Colton, Valerio De Paolis, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Margaret Ménégoz, Michael Weber; Cinematography: Christian Berger; with Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou; Runtime: 117 min.

Crazy Boys (Germany 1987)Director/Writer: Peter Kern; Producers: Horizont Film (Berlin) / Albert Heins Produktion (Berlin); Cinematography: Eberhard Geick; with Barbara Fenner, Udo Schenk, Zacharias Preen; Runtime: 90 min.

Das Weiße Band — Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte / The White Ribbon (Austria/Germany 2009)Director/Writer: Michael Haneke; Producers: Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Stefano Massenzi, Margaret Ménégoz, Ulli Neumann, Andrea Occhipinti; Cinematography: Christian Berger; with Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch; Runtime: 144 min.

Der letzte Sommer der Reichen / The Last Summer of the Rich (Austria 2015)Director/Writer: Peter Kern; Producer: Nanook Film; Cinematography: Peter Roehsler; with Amira Casar, Nicole Gerdon, Winfried Glatzeder; Runtime: 92 min.

Die Bootsmänner von Pagsanjan (West Germany 1980)Directors/Writers: Peter Kern, Karsten Peters; Producers: Cinetel (Munich) / Luxor Film (Munich); Collaboration: Kurt Raab; Cinematography: Rudolf Blahacek; Runtime: 44min.

Die toten Körper der Lebenden (Austria 2007)Director/Writer/Producer: Peter Kern; Cinematography: Norman Dieste; with Andreas Bieber, Oliver Rosskopf, Traute Furthner, Heinrich Herki; Runtime: 71 min.

Die Wasserlilie blüht nicht mehr — Impressionen aus Manila (West Germany 1980)Directors/Writers: Peter Kern; Producers: Cinetel /Luxor Film; Collaboration: Kurt Raab; Cinematography: Rudolf Blahacek; with: Danilo Quismundo, Dante Torres, Elmer Bambalau, Lynn Quismundo; Runtime: 43 min.

Donauleichen (Austria 2005)Director/Writer/Producer: Peter Kern; Cinematography: Sven Kierst; with Christian Blümel, Marie Miklau, Deborah Wargon, Hilde Dalik; Runtime 76 min.

Flammende Herzen (West Germany 1978)Directors/Writers: Walter Bockmyer, Rolf Bührmann; Producer: Walter Bockmayer; Cinematography: Horst Knechtel, Peter Mertin; with Peter kern, Barbara Valentin, Enzi Fuchs, Katja Rupé; Runtime: 95 min.

Funny Games (Austria 1997)Director/Writer: Michael Haneke; Producer: Veit Heiduschka; Cinematography: Jürgen Jürges; with Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering;; Runtime 108 min.

Hitler, Ein Film aus Deutschland (France 1977)Director/Writer: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg; Producer: Bernd Eichinger; Cinematography: Dietrich Lohmann; with André Heller, Harry Baer, Heinz Schubert, Peter Kern; Runtime: 442 min.

Hundstage / Dog Days (Austria 2001)Director: Ulrich Seidl; Writers: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz; Producer: Helmut Grasser, Philippe Bober (Allegro Film); Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler; with Maria Hofstätter, Christine Jirku, Viktor Hennemann; Runtime: 121 min.

Ich seh Ich seh / Goodnight, Mommy (Austria 2014)Directors/Writers: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz; Producers: Louis Oellerer, Ulrich Seidl; Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht; with Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest; Runtime: 99 min.

Import/Export (Austria 2007)Director: Ulrich Seidl; Writers: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz; Cinematography: Edward Lachman, Wolfgang Thaler; Ekateryna Rak; Runtime: 136 min.

Kern (Austria 2012) Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala; Writers: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz; Producer: Urlich Seidl; Cinematography: Harald Traindl; with Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz, Traute Furthner, Peter Kern; Runtime: 98 min.

King Kongs Tränen (Austria 2010)Director/Writer: Peter Kern; Producers: Peter Roehsler, Peter Kern; Cinematography: Peter Roehsler; with Kathrin Beck, Cornelia Albrecht, Yvonne Köstner, Silvia Wolmuth, Peter Kern, Oliver Rosskopf; Runtime 72 min.

Michael (Austria 2011)Director/Writer: by Markus Schleinzer; Producer: Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion GmbH; Cinematography: Gerald Kerkletz; with Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger, Christine Kain; Runtime: 94 min.

Mörderschwestern (Austria 2011)Director/Writer/Producer: Peter Kern; Cinematography: Peter Roehsler; with Susanne Wuest, March Bischoff, Helmut Berger, Jens Diestel; Runtime 74 min.

Nordrand / Northern Skirts (Austria/Germany/Switzerland 1999)Director/Writer: Barbara Albert; Producers: Erich Lackner, Martin Hagemann, Rolf Schmid; Cinematography: Christine A. Maier; with Nina Proll, Edita Malovcic; Runtime: 103 min.

Permanent Vacation (USA 1980)Director/Writer/Producer: Jim Jarmusch; Cinematography: Tom DiCillo, James A. Lebovitz; with Chris Parker; Runtime 75 min.

Revanche (Austria 2008)Director/Writer: Götz Spielmann; Producers: Heinz Stussak, Mathias Forberg, Götz Spielmann, Sandra Bohle; Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht; with Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Irina Potapenko; Runtime: 121 min.

Romper Stomper (Australia 1992)Director/Writer: Geoffrey Wright; Producers: Ian Pringle, Daniel Scharf; Cinematography: Ron Hagen; with Russel Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie; Runtime: 94 min.

Stigmata (USA 1991)Director/Writer: Beth B; with Joseph Budenholzer, Kelly Considine, Johnny Lanz, Miriam McDonough, Brian Moran, Laura Miles Wright; Runtime: 40 min.

Sunset Boulevard (USA 1950)Director: Billy Wilder; Writers: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr.; Producer: Charles Brackett; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; with William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim; Runtime: 110 min.

The Evil Cameraman (USA 1990)Director/Writer/Producer/Cinematography: Richard Kern; with Jap Anne, Ice Queen, Little Linda; Runtime: 11min.

The Police State (USA 1987)Director/Writer: Nick Zedd; Producers: Nick Zedd, Cynthia Wright; Cinematography: Deborah Magocsi, Peter Fernberger; with Nick Zedd, Rockets Redglare; Flip Crowley, Runtime: 18 min.

Un Chant d’Amour / A Love Song (France 1950)Director/Writer Jean Genet; Producer: Nikos Papatakis; Cinematography: Jean Cocteau; with Java, Coco Le Martiniquais, Lucien Sénémaud; Runtime: 26 min.

Whores’ Glory (Austria/Germany 2011)Director/Writer: Michael Glawogger; Producers: Erich Lackner, Tommy Pridnig, Peter Wirthensohn; Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler; Runtime: 114 min.

Workingman’s Death (Austria/Germany 2005)Director/Writer: Michael Glawogger; Producers: Pepe Danquart, Mirjam Quinte, Erich Lackner; Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler; Runtime: 122 min.


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Dassanowsky, Robert / Speck, Oliver (Ed.). New Austrian Film. New York: Berghahn Books. 2011.

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Geimer, Alexander. Der mindfuck als postmodernes Spielfilm-Genre. Jump-Cut. Date unknown. In: Accessed on 7/22/2017.

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Huber, Christoph. Blutsfreundschaft: Butterbrot und Brutalität. 11/5/2009. In: Accessed on 7/23/2017.

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