Austria | 1983 | Directed by Gerald Kargl
Logline: A violent sociopath is released from prison and immediately breaks into a secluded home where he inflicts his sadistic, murderous fantasies on the three occupants.
It’s taken me the better part of twenty years to finally see this movie, as it has not been an easy film to find. It was banned in many countries for a long time, so it existed in a bootleg foreign-language form, and only in the past couple of years has it been officially available in a version with English subtitles. It is an extraordinary piece of cinema, far more powerful than I anticipated. I was expecting a dingy, grimy, relentless assault. The kind of unctuous experience that would leave me feeling like I needed a shower, not too dissimilar to the effect of watching Maniac (1980), for the first time. It was relentless alright, but there was a minimalism and unique atmosphere that was undeniably poetic.
Erwin Leder plays the man at the centre of the movie. He is unnamed, credited simply as The Psychopath, and he is certainly a man deeply unhinged. The movie was titled Schizophrenia in France when it was released on Blu-ray in 2012, but the original title, which means "anxiety" in English, translates as “fear” in Austrian. This double-edged sword fits the movie snugly, for this is a portrait of moral desolation, a study of extreme violence, of isolation and loneliness. It is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful depictions of the intense drive, the erratic behaviour, the impulsiveness, and inherent nihilism of the serial killer, and Leder delivers a blistering performance.
Kargl wrote the screenplay with his cinematographer and editor, Zbigniew Rybczński. In the wake of the movie’s controversy resulting in financial issues for his follow-up project Kargl abandoned directing features, and as such Angst is the only movie he made. Instead he made commercials, documentaries and educational films. Rybczński, on the other hand, went on to direct music videos for artists including Art Of Noise, Simple Minds, Pet Shop Boys, and many more. His extraordinary camerawork on Angst has to be seen to be believed, it is nothing short of revelatory.
In fact, one of the most impressive things about Angst is just how modern the vibe is. The visual stylistic in which it is mostly shot, frequently from a roving crane - that feels like a drone - and also from a body-cam strapped to Leder, gives the movie a distinctly contemporary feel, much like the Steadicam used in Come and See, another movie that feels ahead of its time, despite it being set in World War II. Then there’s the pulsating and percussive electronic score by Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze.
Angst was definitely ahead of its time in terms of its technique. Combined with its bold premise, and uncompromising narrative, including several brutal murders, one in particular that left such a bitter taste in the director’s mouth that he insisted on darkening the image during the killing scene on the Blu-ray release in order to dilute the horrific nature of the scene.
There are two versions of Angst, one is considered the director’s cut and the other is considered the distributor’s version. The international distributor for the home video release insisted on a prologue sequence that would clarify the sociopathic and murderous background of the killer to the audience before his release from prison, rather than the subjective point-of-view from the killer which is relayed in bits and pieces by voice-over narration during the course of the movie.
The director’s cut begins with the convicted killer’s release from prison, having murdered his mother, which is explained in voice-over, but not shown. The prologue is entirely necessary. But the director’s cut also includes the darkened scene of the murder of the young woman (Silvia Rabenreither) . By altering the visual impact of this scene Kargl is essentially doing what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did with E.T. and Star Wars, respectively; they retroactively re-stamped a new moral view, and in doing so ruined two very powerful scenes that spoke volumes about the respective characters and the overall tone of the movie.
Angst is a gruelling experience for those unused to such extremism, but it’s a brilliant and unique piece of cinema and aesthetically rewarding for cinephiles and horrorphiles prepared to go the distance. I’m not surprised it is one of Gaspar Noe’s most influential films, he refers to it as “the rarest masterpiece of cinema.”