In writer/director Johannes Grenzfurthner’s first horror feature Masking Threshold (2021), the shut-in protagonist P.T. Alcorn (played by Grenzfurthener himself) may have been the principal and constant focus, and his narrative commentary (voiced by Ethan Haslan) may have pervaded everything, but his face was never fully shown, as the camera, primarily using a macro lens, only ever revealed parts of him, mostly in a close-up that effaced any bigger picture. Identity comes even more diffracted in Grenzfurthner’s follow-up Razzennest. For at its heart there is an ‘elegiac feature documentary’ (also called Razzennest) which features no characters of any kind, but merely depopulated images of the Rohrwald in Lower Austria, intended to evoke – entirely through emptiness and absence – the senseless atrocities and losses which took place there during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48).
Yet while we may see no one in this psychogeohraphical film, we hear from several people. For this purports to be a live recording – one Sunday at a sound studio in Echo Park, Los Angeles – of a full audio commentary track on Razzennest. American indie film critic Babette Cruickshank (Sophie Kahleen Kozeluh) is moderating, while with her in the studio are the film’s arrogant, narcissistic and misogynistic South African director Manus Oosthuizen (Michael Smulik), his English producer Ellen Zampaglione (Anne Weiner) and the Austrian DP – or as Manus insists, ‘camera operator’ – Hetti Friesenbichler (Roland Gratzer). “I refuse to show the thing I want to address,” insists Manus, as these four attempt to dissect what all these disparate, discontinuous images are conveying to the viewer – and meanwhile, they themselves remain off screen, heard but not seen, even as, under the influence of what they are watching and of all the ‘dead souls’ that Hetti had sought to capture on film, their own personalities will radically alter. So these characters offer a polyphony of invisible selves, while, gradually inhabited by yet other disembodied characters, they become even more legion.
Razzennest satirises both a certain kind of arthouse cinema, and the filters through which such features pass on their way to their final connection with an audience. For even as the film namechecks real directors (David Lynch, Robert Eggers, Werner Herzog), real festival programmers and directors (Peter Kuplowsky, Annick Mahnert, Lisa Dreyer) and real cultural commentators (Steve Dollar, Kier-La Janisse, Aaron Hillis), and delivers on its promise of a closing monologue from (real) filmmaker Joe Dante, its (voiced) characters, especially Manus, are monstrous caricatures of folk on the margins of the entertainment industry, all pushing their own image as much as the images that they celebrate on film.
At the same time, Grenzfurthner’s film – if not Manus’ – is also a self-reflexive slice of metacinema, presenting itself, like Sam Ashurst’s A Little More Flesh (2020) and Peter Strickland’s short Blank Narcissus (2022), as a commentary on a film-within-a-film. For the audio commentary opens a portal on a lost past, letting remote history in to haunt the present. Babette observes how odd it is for Manus’ narrative-free experiment to be having its world première at Fantastic Fest, which is ‘so genre’ – but in the end this will prove to be a ghost story, with the spirits of the Austrian forest and caves taking possession of the commentators so that their own horrific end can be reenacted in the sound studio some 400 years later. No matter how much of a pretentious fraud Manus may be, and how distanced from the subject of his film, reality will find a way to peek through Grenzfurthner’s postmodern project and to impact its characters directly – and yet, paradoxically, the more rooted in historical truth this film becomes, the closer it gets to a genre picture.
“Thank God this isn’t a long movie,” Babette comments, and the truth is that, for all her insincere claims to adore Manus’ work, his film is, taken on its own terms, near unwatchable. What brings it to life is its preternatural correspondence to the unseen goings-on between filmmakers, critic and engineer, as what at first seems an arbitrary montage of dull pictures starts to be reinvested with new, unexpected meaning. A mention of Morgan Freeman coincides with a handdrawn picture of God, Hetti’s reference to the ‘Schwedenhöllen’ or ‘Swedish caves’ in the Rohrwald is accompanied by an image of a tree trunk with a decidedly vulval hole in it, while the sound of Manus urinating is illustrated by a dripping pipe on screen. With the separate scenarios in seventeenth-century Austria and a present-day LA studio merging, what we see and what we hear begin uncannily to intersect, as the visuals of Manus’ film form an ironic commentary on their own commentary.
Much of the humour in Razzennest falls flat, too broad for this critic’s ear and never sitting well with all the suffering, both real and rehearsed – but it is for its narrative sophistication that the film comes into its own, as Grenzfurthner shows how an entire feature, not to mention a fraught period of history, can be conjured with only bare (if carefully edited) location footage, a team of voice actors and an imaginative script to connect them to each other – and to us. In the spirit of that connection, Grenzfurthner also peppers his film with improbable references (both canon and otherwise) to the Star Wars films – despite Manus’ initial claims never to have heard of them – as though to suggest that even a small indie film can trace events that took place a long time ago and far far away to comment on who we are now and (more fancifully) how we might ourselves still be being influenced by the distant past. For in the appropriately named Echo Park, modern Los Angeles proves to be closer than you might expect to the dark woods of the Old Country.
strap: Johannes Grenzfurthner’s feature is all at once metacinematic satire, psychogeographical experiment and fanciful ghost story rooted in real history
© Anton Bitel