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Hothouse of Fear: Gerald Korgl's Angst

Terror knows many forms. It could be the ghost in your bed (or head), the leering Uncle, the power-mad authority figure, the religious zealot basking in willful ignorance or, perhaps, most terrifying of all, you. There is a potential killer in every single one of us. It just takes the roll of the worst dice of the world and the most disturbing threads of your id can come alive. This is a thought that plays well outside most people's comfort zone, especially since to acknowledge such a thing is to also admit that those who do commit such atrocities are not monsters at all but human. Like them. Like us, albeit in a much more damaged manner.

Cinema that has smartly explored the emotional and mental machina of crime can be few and far between. Humanizing killers and predators is and will always be a raw nerve irritant, which is why art that does so is needed because it is, more often than not, thrivingly honest. Whether it is Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 game changer Psycho or William Lustig's forever controversial 1980 film, Maniac, this gray area with darker edges of the human condition is the hallmark of an artist who is uncompromising. Case in point? Gerald Kargl's 1983 art-horror film, Angst.

Inspired by a number of real life cases, including the infamous Peter Kurten, aka “The Vampire of Dusseldorf,” and even more strongly, Austrian serial killer Werner Kniesek, whose murders were still very fresh in the mind of any native to Austria around the time of the film, Angst is one of the most beautiful films about extreme human behavior ever made.

Angst is the masterful fruit of three specific artistic alpha forces. The first being director Kargl, who had previously made the 1980 art-documentary short film, Sceny NarcIarskie z Franzem Klammerem aka Six Scenes With Franz Klammer. Working with Kargl on this short was force number two, uber-genius cinematographer and flat out visual magician, Polish artist Zbigniew Rybczynski. Last, but far from least, is lead actor Erwin Leder, who had previously come to attention for his work in the 1981 German classic, Das Boot. Throw in some music from former Tangerene Dream member Klaus Schulze and notable performances from the tiny supporting cast and created was a film that will seep into you and never ever slip out.

The film opens with the simple sound of water dripping. It feels ominous but your fingertip cannot quite place why. Yet. A young man is in a tidy and stout looking prison nestled in contrast to the natural beauty of the Austrian landscape. He is intense, slender and with large blue eyes, as if an Egon Schiele painting has come to life and is going through the motions of his last days in prison before beign released. He shaves, eats soup, changes clothes and explains in a voice over that prison is there to help one “better themselves,” only to also confess that his in-born urge to torture has never gone away. All this despite the fact that he has “never committed a crime out of pure joy.” But joy and compulsion do not have to necessary be bed mates and since he never received any proper psychiatric care during his incarceration, the man has been left to meticulously stew over his “concrete plan.”

There's an astute observation over the strangeness of having technically lived in a town for several years, yet feeling like a stranger due to being locked down for so long. He needs “somebody” for his plan and wanders into the first coffee shop he finds. There are two very modern looking, young lovelies that first draw his attention, illustrated by a brilliant sequence involving extreme close ups of their red lips, his intelligent, feral eyes and his own mouth chowing mercilessly down on a sausage. But between the suspicious looking old man and the leery waitress, he deems the location ripe with the potential of “too much attention.” Leaving, he grabs a taxi, helmed by a pretty, slightly older blonde who reminds him of an old lover he had at the tender age of 14, named Anne-Marie, whom he would routinely tie up and torture. (There's more exposition on her in the optional prologue on the Cult Epics Blu Ray, where it is revealed that she was 45 and encouraged, if not possibly helped fully form, his taste for sexual sadism.) His inner mania is speeding towards the physical end, with his hands winding and wrapping around a long, black shoelace. Sensing something is up as they drive further into a more isolated looking area, the driver slams on the breaks, causing him to freak and dash out of the taxi, running full speed into the woods.

Fueled by twin adrenaline, one of dark urge and the other of fear of being caught, he runs at full tilt deeper into the woods until it is clear that he is not being chased. Wandering around, he stumbles upon a large estate that is mostly shrouded by fencing and trees. Thinking it is initially abandoned, he breaks in, giddy-like, which only grows when he realizes that the house actually is occupied. It is soon revealed that a family does live there, including the matriarch (Edith Cosset), her wheelchair bound, middle-aged, childlike son (Rudolf Gotz) and her younger daughter (Silvia Rabenreither). Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, our protagonist launches into a one-man assault on a family that is a series of events both expected and not. What unfurls is a visual and gut-punch experience whose reverb rings as strong and true now as it did back in 1983.

Angst, like many a film that is truly vital, to the extent of practically squirming out of any box one may try to put it in, was originally met with some fairly intense negativity. Barely released in some quarters and not released in others, Angst proved to be too extreme for the art house crowds but perhaps too arty and smart for the slash-and-hack horror audience. Given that there were previous titles that were far gorier than Angst, including another controversial film that was framed from the killers POV, Lustig's Maniac, it is heartbreaking that it languished in semi-cult obscurity for many years. It is spiritually closer to a film like John McNaughton's 1986 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, where it is the tonality itself, the human-intimacy of seeing a killer not as a golem-type monster but as a living, breathing person.

The fact that Angst was poorly received initially is proof that it is rarely the obvious elements that offend or disturb. Words like “haunting” are rarely associated with grue-heavy but emotionally-lighter titles like Peter Jackson's Brain Dead. Blood and guts are no match for intrinsic human condition realness and with what Korgl and Rybczynski created, centered on a searingly unforgettable performance by lead Leder, is a work that merges the worlds of beauty and terror and emotional rawness. It is a singularly superb film that is as captivating as it is visceral and is better than anything passing itself as “horror” that has been released in the past twenty years.

The symbiosis of great directing and cinematography has rarely been tighter than it is in Angst. Take two talents and have them merge into one gale wind of a cinematic force and what you get is Korgl and Rybczynski. The screen literally vibrates at times, not so much in jarring motion but fluid, accurately reflecting the emotional state of our lead character. Every visual nuance plays out as an innermost peek into Leder's role. Matching the directorial and visual edge of things tete-a-tete is Leder himself. It is an exquisite and intense performance that reveals one of the most humanely honest portrayals of the mania that possesses the individual compelled to torture, hunt and kill.

His striking physical features alone made him perfect, between his lanky, pale form and wide crystalline blue eyes, but it Leder's ability to convey emotional mania, ranging from fear and sick born compulsion to borderline glee that truly nails it. Unforgettable is a word that has been used to a humping-a-dead-horse level in film writing in general (guilty as charged) but Leder's performance along with the film as a whole, all have the power to revive it and reclaim it in a way that is wholly worthy. The fact that there is so little dialogue, forcing all of the actors, especially Leder, to rely on so much physical acting, makes it all the more impressive and effective.

The use of music is equally tasteful and spaced out at the right times, leaving some of the scenes largely without a soundtrack for the audience to latch onto for any false semblance of comfort. When it is used, it is done expertly and having a talent such as Klaus Schulze at the helm, does not hurt at all. (One of the tracks used here, “Freeze.” would be later utilized for Michael Mann's 1986 Manhunter.)

Making up for years of quasi-cinematic-obscurity, the great Cult Epics have released this masterwork on Blu Ray, complete with extras including trailers, as well as interviews with Korgl (conducted by the equally great European director, Jorg Buttgereit), actor Leder and visual-genius Rybczynski. There's also a beautifully put together 40 page booklet included, but the best treat of all is seeing this film on Blu Ray. Some films are fine to see on DVD or VHS, but this is one that you need to see in all of its remastered glory.

In this world, monsters are not made. They are born and it is our nature, culture, upbringing and, on occasion, faulty justice systems, that create the hothouses for the most fatal type of orchids to bloom. Angst is a film that paints all of this in a way that is never preachy, obvious or cliched. Instead, the emotional and creative intelligence of all the key creators have crafted a film that will sear its way through you long after you have turned your screen off.

Copyright 2015 Heather Drain


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