Dir: Ruth Mader. Austria. 2003. 74mins
This is one of those strange films that leaves you scratching your head and wondering 'now what the heck was that all about'' What initially seems like a glum exercise in sub-Dardennes brothers-style neo-realism eventually becomes closer in spirit to Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days (Hundstage, 2001). It is still hard to see who would part with money for the pleasure of its company. The film's only future might lie with masochistic arthouse talentspotters who feel obliged to catch the first feature of award-winning shorts director Ruth Mader. The film screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.
Set on the eastern border of the European Union, the film follows Ewa (Justa) and her daughter as they arrive in Austria to work in the strawberry fields. We see her picking strawberries in the rain; we see her picking strawberries in the sunshine; then there is the very exciting sight of the strawberries being weighed. An Agnes Varda or an Italian neo-realist may have been able to make something compelling out of this. The classic Bitter Rice (1948), for instance, used the migrant workers in the Po Valley as a backdrop to a florid melodrama. In Mader's hands, lengthy sequences, in which little happens, are a recipe for tedium.
The hardship of Ewa's life is further underlined with her menial employment as a cleaner and in a food processing factory, in which there are extensive scenes of turkeys being gutted, beheaded and prepared for mass consumption. Then comes proof that the concept of struggle is not merely confined to economic deprivation. Harold (Breitfuss) is a plump, middle-aged estate agent of apparently comfortable means, yet he struggles to make an emotional connection with his mother or his child.
On one journey with his young daughter, he points to a row of prostitutes plying their trade on a street corner and remarks: 'That is where you will wind up if you don't study hard.' His release from a soulless existence comes in dangerous sex games in which he strips to his underpants as a black, bondage-clad figure regulates the pressure of a hangman's noose around his neck. Apparently, there's nowt so queer as folk, especially if they are characters in this film.
More sympathetic reviewers might be able to sketch some affinities with the films of Todd Solondz and applaud Mader's unsentimental attempts to chart the murky depths of the human condition, but even at this brief running-time Struggle is something of a chore. Combined with Dog Days, it suggests that Austrian cinema is heading down some very strange roads where not too many others will be prepared to follow.
Prod co: Amour Fou Filmproduction
Int'l sales: Austrian Film Commission
Scr: Mader, Barbara Albert, Martin Leidenfrost
Cinematography: Bernard Keller
Prod des: Ilona Glockel
Ed: Niki Mossbock
Main cast: Aleksandra Justa, Gottfried Breitfuss, Margit Wrobel, Martin Brambach, Rainer Egger