Vol 0, No 24
8 March 1999
K I N O E Y E:|
Jackboots in the Boardroom
Reinhard Schwabenitzky's Hannah
Andrew J Horton
In the final instalment of articles on the 2nd Brighton Jewish Film Festival, Kinoeye looks at Reinhard Schwabenitzky's Hannah (1996), a film which aims to take on a "risky theme" - right-wing extremism and violence in contemporary Austria - and attempts to shock the viewer "with the reality of our time."
The heroine of Schwabenitzky's film, Hannah Fischer, is an individualistic and incurably dotty PR wizard, who against all odds wins a contract to launch a new advertising campaign for a staid and conservative doll manufacturer. Taken with her eccentric charm and stubborn creativity, the managing director falls in love with her. All seems to be going well for Hannah in both work and romance until she discovers a computer disk hidden in the clothing of one of the dolls. The game saved on it involves SS officers shooting Jews as they run behind the chillingly infamous Arbeit macht frei gates of Auschwitz.
Given her Jewish roots and her intimate connection with them - she is fascinated by Cabbalism - it is a discovery she cannot ignore and she is driven to investigate both the company she works for and her new-found love. Slowly, she uncovers a web of radical-right activism which extends to arms trading, private armies, secret Masonic organisations, conspiracies and murder.
It soon emerges that the company she works for is a haven for Nazi war criminals and their offspring. Her snooping activities do not go unnoticed and no one is particularly pleased to find a Jewess in the company, least of all a nosy one who has captured the heart of the managing director. Hannah's life is suddenly in peril.
A different sort of heroine
Racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are among the most darkly disturbing forces in the Western world. The rise of far-right groups, which has been widespread but particularly strong in Central Europe, threatens the very fabric of the societal axiom on which the post-World War II world has been increasingly based - multiculturalism. In this respect, Hannah is well placed to be an interesting and perhaps even unique film.
What is more, Hannah as a lead character makes a stunning impression in the first twenty minutes. Few films have been given such an energetic boost forward by a character who is such an antidote to the anaemic Hollywood heroine. Hannah is mature, independent and strong-willed, has an eccentric gift of the gab and run rings round the stuffy male-dominated corporate world.
She manages to be sensual without being stunningly blonde and despite being, as she readily admits herself, overweight. Of course she is also consciously engaged in her Jewishness, albeit philosophically rather than religiously. In this respect, it would be no exaggeration to say that she is one of the most original female leads to hit the screens in a long time.
An intriguing flop
With such amazing potential, it is therefore astounding that Schwabenitzky can create a picture that is so unremittingly awful. The deft and original scripting of the first twenty minutes soon gives way to formula and shallow cliché. Hannah's loveable quirkiness soon dissolves and her character becomes barely distinguishable from such well-worn female leads as those in the American TV series Dempsey and Makepeace. The dialogue just becomes a vehicle to propel the plot forward rather than the other way round. The characters are consequently badly thought-out and there is no development, giving rise to that most fatal of combinations - a Hollywood plot on a European budget.
But this is not Schwabenitzky's worst mistake. The director draws on the current vogue for paranoia and conspiracy theories and depicts the radical right as having its foundations deeply rooted within the establishment. World domination and elimination of enemies are discussed by men in sharp suits in swanky chateaux and historic hotels; money oozes everywhere.
Even Helge, the ruffian leader of the secret paramilitary force has a fine moneyed background and dines in stately splendour with his parents. The root of Helge's belief lies in his upbringing by his Nazi-loving parents, who managed to escape the Nuremberg trials. Their political philosophy can only be explained as some sort of inborn inclination for total evil. Schwabenitzky's fascists occupy an island outside of reality, where their Nazism exists despite the logical world around them.
This is a mistake of the highest order. True, I have no doubt that there are many rich people who have an inclination to unhealthily right-wing views and I'm more than happy to accept that there might be a few old Nazis lurking in some Austrian boardrooms. However, the rise of the radical right is the result of a failure of democracy. The same was true in the 1930s.
Today, democracy is such a hallowed word that we scarcely dare admit that it might have faults. This in itself is absurd, for democracy is unable to deliver the prosperity promised on satellite TV and at Disneyland to a large portion of the Central European population. Angry, frustrated and excluded from society, these people look for new answers; usually these answers are radical, sometimes morally reprehensible. Since democracy has little respect for these people, these people have little respect for democracy.
Although fascism is clearly outside the realm of rationality, it is not disconnected from it. One can pass quite easily from the acceptable right to the unacceptable right without many changes to the foundations of one's political thinking. To treat fascism as the exclusive preserve of the psychotic (as is done in the character of Helge) is to seriously underestimate the enemy of multiculturalism.
Some years ago, when I was at university, I had the dubious pleasure of meeting the leader of the student wing of the ultra-right British National Party. I was horrified by his lucidity. He was calm, intelligent and highly personable. His voice was even melodious to the ear. It was clear that he was exceptionally bright and a far cry from the twitching Helge, who is perpetually unable to control his rage.
If neo-fascism poses a threat to Central European society, it does not do so through such figures as those portrayed in Hannah: the mentally disturbed, big businessmen or sons of war criminals. If this were the case, the right would not have been able to make the gains it did in Central Europe. The radical right threatens European unity and multiculturalism because it addresses a section of society which the revolutions of 1989 have betrayed.
Andrew J Horton, 8 March 1999
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