Little-seen movies foment expectations they have a hard time living down. Once a forgotten film resurfaces thanks to home video or a reissue campaign, it has to live or die on its own, without the protecting encrustation of the mythology accrued around it. This is as it should be; any work of art deserves to be seen as it actually is, and not through the distorting lens of reputation.
Gerard Kargl's Angst, unseen for decades, is as good a case study as any for a movie that transcends its own mythology. Barely released in its native Austria in 1983, it survived after that only by word of mouth and by way of bootlegs. Now, on DVD and BD in English after several years' delay*, it stands free of rumor and, more importantly, all the earlier attempts to pigeonhole it as a slasher or horror film. Describing it in those terms is as limiting as talking about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer the same way; those labels come nowhere near what makes Angst special and important.
Like Henry, Kargl's movie is based loosely on a true story, that of Austrian killer Werner Kniesek. A lifelong criminal of impulse from a broken family — he attempted to stab his mother to death when he was sixteen — Kniesek shot an elderly woman in 1973, for no reason other than the satisfaction of whatever urge he was experiencing at the time. Jailed for seven and a half years, Kniesek was released on work furlough in 1980, and almost immediately invaded a house and killed the three people he found there. Angst examines Kniesek's crimes with a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity that complement each other. The movie brings us into the killer's mind, but without making him sympathetic or charming. The better we get to know him, the more pathetic and pitiable he seems. Murder has not made him fearless; if anything, it has only made him all the more uneasy with and helpless to himself.
Kargl and his cinematographer and co-creator, Zbigniew Rybczyńsky, achieve all this by way of a mixture of direction, writing, and photographic effects that announce themselves immediately. The first shots of the Kniesek character, played by harrowed-looking Austrian actor Erwin Leder (later of Underworld, and already then of Das Boot), show him wandering through the neighborhood where he will soon attempt to take the old woman's life. Immediately, we see something strange: while the shot is in motion, Leder is somehow always dead center, with the scenery revolving around him — a technique accomplished by strapping a camera to the actor and using a counterbalance to keep it steady. Darren Aronofsky would later use this technique in π, and the development of lightweight digital cameras like the GoPro has made it more commonplace.
What makes the those methods work here is how they are used for the sake of a cumulative emotional impact on the audience. After the shooting of the old woman, Kargl gives us the justice system's clinical assessment of the Leder character by way of a documentary-like mix of stills, snippets of vérité footage, and voice-overs. This is him through the eyes of the law: a specimen on a slide. Then, after his years in prison, we see and hear him through his own eyes: a predator who has used his time in custody to hide his real desires. The day has arrived for him to be released from prison, and he knows that the only thing he has been waiting for this whole time is the chance to kill again.
Upon being released, Leder's unnamed character (the end credits do not even list him) enters a café and eyes two women seated near him. Potential victims, but he can't take them in public. (The movie wisely demythologizes him by seeing that his "uncontrollable desires" are not so uncontrollable that he can't wait until he's safe from reprisal before sating them.) He tries to strangle a cabdriver, but is caught in the act and flees on foot, with the camera tracking him from a distance. He finds a villa that's in a state of apparent disrepair and disuse, a perfect place to find more victims. Rybczyńsky uses the POV camera but also low, tilted angles (some shot by way of a mirror rig), or a top-down view via a camera on a guy wire, all to to emphasize Leder's isolation and unease by evoking those same feelings in us.
The killer finds new victims. The house is occupied by a young man, wheelchair-bound and apparently developmentally disabled, completely unable to fight back. What's more, his custodians — his fiftyish mother and his twenty-something sister (Silvia Rabenreither) — pull up into the driveway as night falls. They expect nothing, and they are unable to fight back as he terrorizes and murders all three in sequences of jolting intimacy. Normally, in a movie, there's distance between us and the victims, or us and the killer; here, there's no distance between us and any of them.
If the movie were nothing more than a kind of hyper-realistic recreation of a crime, it would amount to a fascinating visual gimmick but not much more than that. What Kargl and Rybczyńsky do, thought, is more ambitious than that. On top of the near-real-time sequences in which Leder's character kills and attempts to move the bodies, there's Leder's voiceover narration creating a parallel storyline to the visual one, one made out of only his own desires and fears. The killer doesn't simply want to take lives, but use the taking of lives as a way to make himself a godlike, terrifying force to others.
But it's impossible for him to meet such standards, and the movie goes to some length to make us understand that. Every expected payoff for one of his atrocities includes a disappointment or a frustration that only makes him more desperate. When the mother dies prematurely of heart failure, the killer realizes he's been deprived of the chance to torment her children in front of her. He attempts to drink the blood of one of his victims, in much the same way he drank the blood of an animal as a young man (a nod towards another true-life murderer, Peter Kürten), only to vomit it all back up. Even in the film's final moments, where he makes one final all-or-nothing ploy to strike fear into the hearts of total strangers, there's no real payoff for him; the movie's coldly robotic camera moves cleverly deny him, or us, any such thing.
Works of art need to be of a piece to be effective, and Angst works because of how all its experimental and conventional elements pull together to create an emotional state I haven't experienced in almost any other movie. Rybczyńsky's POV camera placement is claustrophobia-inducing, making us feel like neither we nor anyone else can get away from Leder's character. When the camera pulls back and glides smoothly around or above him, or when shots go on and on in real time to the point of distraction, it's emotionally provocative in another way: it emphasizes his hopelessness and futility in the face of his desires. We're invited to be witnesses and even unwitting participants in his frenzy, but we're not allowed to be enthusiasts for it. Enhancing all this is Leder's own performance, one so natural and uninhibited that at any moment he seems ready to bite into the screen itself.
Klaus Schulze's eerie, pulsating synthesizer score was my own point of entry for the film some twenty-plus years ago. Schulze's music had already captivated me by way of albums like Blackdance and Body Love. The latter was a film score for one of Lasse Braun's Euro-art-porn productions, so when the liner notes for Angst described the film as "[the] documentary of a true event in Austria which created a judicial scandal", I wondered what kind of film that was. Such a description brought to mind a pressure-cooker courtroom drama along the lines of Ten Angry Men, not this harrowing experience. Because the score is so minimal and unromantic, bordering on unemotional, it hasn't aged the way other synth-driven scores from the period might have. The '80s film scores by Tangerine Dream (which Schulze was a member of in its early incarnation), such as Michael Mann's Thief or William Friedkin's Sorcerer, stand up equally well for the same reasons.
According to a 2005 interview with Schulze, Kargl told the musician "I will cut the film to the music, not adapting the music to the film." From what I see, this seems to mean how the rhythms of the soundtrack tend to dictate the editing rhythms on-screen — e.g., the way the drum-machine driven "Surrender" dictates the cutting of the sequence where Leder's character flees from the taxicab. The 2005 re-release of the album adds another half-hour-long track, "Silent Survivor", the title of which I like to think of as a nod to the family dog in the film — the only survivor of the massacre, and the only thing in the entire story Leder's character shows compassion for.
Much has been said about the need to protect society against men like Kniesek, and most of the conclusions that follow seem to amount to turning society into something scarcely worth protecting in the first place. Karl Ove Knausgård, in an piece for The New Yorker, noted how the life of killer Anders Breivik was "a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances, and what he did was such an anomaly that it makes no sense even to guard ourselves against it." This is not to say that people of Kniesek's ilk shouldn't be imprisoned, only that it is pointless to reconstruct society around protecting ourselves from extreme exceptions to the rule of human behavior. One of the points Angst makes is how its main character thrives not only on murder, but on striking terror into the living by way of murder, and how that impulse may even be the stronger and more overriding of the two for him.
Kargl financed Angst almost entirely out of his own pocket, making it even more of a standout project in terms of Austria's diminutive (and generally conservative) domestic film industry. He earned back almost none of that money, and spent the next several years struggling to pay off his debts with TV commercials and educational films. (Rybczyńsky went on to do groundbreaking and pioneering work with music videos and later HDTV as a medium.) When asked about how he sees the film now, he was pleased by its improved reception over time, but felt uneasy about how explicitly presented some of the sequences are. I'm not sure I agree: the overall atmosphere of the movie subsumes even the most ghastly of the violence and makes it seem tragic, not exhilarating or chicly shocking.
If the best rebuke to men like Kniesek is to give them nothing they ask for, why make a film about one of them? For the same reason, I'd argue, as any kind of art about taboo subjects: as a way to fulfill curiosity about all the flavors of human existence, good and bad. Angst does not make its character into a transgressive übermensch or an embodiment of serial-killer cool. It does what few films can, and what film in general is poised to do best: it tells us an emotional truth. It makes its subject hopelessly violent, grossly repellent, and ultimately, a slave to his passions that can't be slaked even through murder. Where do you go from down?
* Barrel Entertainment was planning to bring out a DVD edition of the film in 2006, but the failure of the company shelved the project. Many people, myself included, were left wondering if that meant Angst would never surface in English as a result. Cult Epics eventually came to the rescue, and even licensed the eye-opening supplementary material created by Barrel, from which many of the notes for this review have been taken.