Reviewed by: Chris Fyvie

"At once overstuffed and oddly slight, it’s a restrained and sincere work." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Toxic masculinity, generational prejudice, burgeoning progressiveness, workplace sexual politics, the role of the LGBTQ+ community in the military – ideas vying for space in Austrian David Wagner’s promising feature debut. At once overstuffed and oddly slight, it’s a restrained and sincere work. Which might just be what’s holding it back from unqualified success.

After opening with an austere shot of a bombed-out, snow-dappled building and the score’s melancholy wail pushing one’s Arthouse Cliché Meter into overdrive, the action starts in earnest with new recruits being welcomed into their military training programme. Their drill-sergeant’s name is whispered – Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann), the mythical badass who once killed a man with push-ups and blew-up a cow on manoeuvres, so the rumour mill would have it. Among these recruits is Falak (Luka Dimic), a handsome and charismatic Yugoslav who immediately seems to have more confidence and experience than the rest of the cohort.

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Eismayer doesn’t get to simply haunt proceedings for long, however, swiftly introduced and bringing with him a torrent of homophobic, racist, violent invective as he bullies his charges into conforming to his antiquated ideal of the hyper-masculine military man. Because Eismayer is a bit of a joke. His superiors loath him, the recruits make fun of him behind his back rather than cower in fear, and his only allies are the middle-aged, middle-management knuckle-draggers with whom he runs the cadets into the ground. He shouts, he screams, he harasses, he threatens, he smokes seemingly 4000 cigarettes a day, because his persona is carefully constructed to be as comically macho as possible to mask his homosexuality.

It’s an involving, if well-worn idea – the old-school soldier so terrified of losing his position and respect that he overcompensates – and Liebmann plays it beautifully in the early stages. His physicality is crucial; small, wiry, with a face that is all angles and pained, quiet tension, he wouldn’t look out of place adoring the walls of a Gothic cathedral. Ironically, given all the yelling, it is not an overly expressive performance. There’s a blankness, a hollowness to Eismayer that evokes his sadness extremely effectively. As such, in the softer moments with his estranged wife (Julia Koschitz) and son (Lion Tatzber), Liebmann is able to convey a huge amount of emotion by doing very little. There are no heart-stings gaudily tugged by the actor here, and he’s an impressive anchor to the piece.

It is through Falak that Eismayer earns his redemption, and his freedom. Openly gay and a very effective soldier, Falak challenges not just the stereotypes that shape his instructors’ world view, but Eismayer directly. Embraced by the other, younger, cadets as more liberal 21st century attitudes naturally bleed into the armed forces, Falak exposes how redundant the prejudices of those clinging-on to the past are. This is never explicit and speaks to a maturity in Wagner’s approach as a writer. As does the complexity of Falak and Eismayer’s relationship – initially, it is at best opportunistic and creepy, at worst predatory, on the side of the latter. This is skilfully presented as a desperation, a clumsiness – more pathetic than sinister – and though it is uncomfortable to watch at times, Falak being so much more assured than his would-be suitor dispels any lingering thoughts of him being exploited.

So, with all the interesting thematic stuff going on, and two strong leads, why does this feel so minor? Wagner’s aesthetic must shoulder some of the blame. It is so dull, so clinical, the audience is kept at a bizarre distance for what is, in theory, a deeply romantic and moving true story. One thinks of the lush, overwhelming filmmaking in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, and the sweeping genius of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail; tales with similar concerns, told with a great deal more flair. A third act shift to a more tropey, lighter tone as things are tied-up a bit too neatly also feels like a misstep and, at just 87 minutes, there’s certainly a suspicion Wagner is leaving a lot on the table. Which is a shame, because with a bit more breathing space and a bit more ambition in the delivery, this could have been very good indeed.

Reviewed on: 12 Sep 2022
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A closeted Army instructor finds his identity challenged when an openly gay man joins his unit.
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Director: David Wagner

Writer: David Wagner

Starring: Gerhard Liebmann, Luka Dimic, Julia Koschitz, Anton Noori, Karl Fischer, Christopher Schärf, Lion Tatzber, Lukas Johne, Matthias Hack, Harry Lampl, Matthias Böhm, Thomas Momcinovic, Jagersberger Joshua, Paul Winkler, Thomas Otrok

Year: 2022

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Austria

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