A DVD collection covering the short film work of Ernst Schmidt Jr. between the years of 1965 to 1979, including his debut short film "Steine". It's a look into over a decade of work by one of the unsung artists of the Austrian underground.
Index DVD constantly give us lessons in the Austrian underground film scene of the past with their releases, and now we're so lucky to get a piece of Ernst Schmidt Jr. More than a piece, even, as it includes his very first short film, the 30 minute long "Steine", and 20 other short films that vary in length from 1 second to 10 minutes. From the making of "Steine" in 1964-1965, Ernst went on to make quite a few and the majority of them are included here as it covers the years between 1965-1979. Ernst Schmidt Jr. appears to be a name that was very respected in his field, but like with many of these Vienna artists, they haven't really had a worldwide reach until perhaps more recent years (much thanks to distributors like Index DVD).
The experimental documentary that is "Steine" ("Stones") was the start of the filmmaking life for Ernst Schmidt Jr., and it's one that undoubtedly will leave you either bored or intrigued. Yes, it might not have much weight in terms of what it documents, as much of the runtime is footage of stones or the surrounding area. However, there is more to it as the main focus actually is of artists working with stone. Mixing this with upbeat, sometimes trippy, music and quick jumpcuts certainly shows the work of someone who was not out to make conventional films. Schmidt's debut is a sometimes opinionated look at the art and work of stone sculptors, which does give it a little extra spice. This is the type of art that you'd be more enthralled with if you see it in a dark room on a very big screen (which I guess should go for all art films, but some almost need it), but for me personally it speaks mostly as viewing one artist's beginning of filmmaking. There are also some undeniably interesting shots and compositions in the photography.
"Ja/Nein" ("Yes/No") is not much more than a void. It starts with a quick shot of a face, then cuts to black and/or white screens. It appears to be a movie theater screen where the curtains close and open. As pretentious as that may be, there is something beautiful about the grain and noise of a white screen shot on 16mm. I will not look too deep into it, but with a title like this the only real thing that pops into my head is the obvious: an open, white screen is positive, and a closed black screen is negative. Whatever that would say. It's just innocent experimenting I guess, and it goes on for 3 minutes so there's no harm done, though as a reviewer it appropriately leaves me a bit blank.
"Weiß" ("White"), "Prost" ("Cheers"), "Rotweißrot" ("Red-white-red") continues the experimentation of the film reel's natural behavior with scratches, grain, noise, similar to how it did it "Ja/Nein". These three seem to be during the same early stages where the main purpose is to try the many ways of using and manipulating film. "Rotweißrot" did offer some chopped up music, though.
The collection continues with "Schnippschnapp" ("Snip, Snip"), a 2 minute collaboration between Ernst Schmidt Jr. and Peter Weibel. Though this is in the same spirit as the before-mentioned shorts of experimentation, this one does actually say more subconsciously due to actually using footage. It's mostly scratched up film reel, and someone cutting something with a scissor, while there's a low frequency sound behind the sound of scissor blades meeting. Around this point it does start to get more interesting as you've had a few shorts to think (despite them being 1-3 minute long): this is very simplistic stuff, but this is also the early days of people being able to make films by themselves, and there's something interesting in that. Though it has been seen before, of course.
"Filmisches Alphabet" ("Film Alphabet") has a surprising runtime of 1 second, though I would argue it's longer than that with opening and end credits. This falls a bit short (not just because of the runtime), as it's not much more than the previous shorts have offered - just less of it.
With the exception of "Steine", "Burgtheater" ("Imperial Theatre") is the longest short this far into the collection at a whopping 5 minutes. It's at this point that Ernst has left the experimenting with film reel behind himselves, and finally has objects: this time it is a series of portrait sketches. I'd imagine these are found (or were found) at the Burgtheater in Vienna, though I'm far too uneducated to tell you who the people on the portraits are. It's kinda interesting to consider a short film that is just a compilation of shots of other art, as the people who watch this short film are undeniably witnessing art in art.
"Gesammelt von Wendy" ("Collected by Wendy") follows the idea of "Burgtheater", where it's a montage of photographes on a red background being filmed. It's people eating, what looks like mugshots or ID photos, photo booth shenanigans, celebrities, and other random people. It's not much, not at all, but I maintain that this is the most interesting of the shorts so far. The photos do evoke some kind of emotion, and seeing them in quick shots throws impressions over you.
Though "Mein Begräbnis ein Erlebnis" ("My Funeral an Experience") is similar to some of the previous ones, I find the constrast of its title and what actually happens in it to be interesting. The dark titles is far cry from the collection of shots in here. It's a girl being filmed while she makes a number of silly faces, and simply jumping between them. Whether or not they intended to say something here, the fact that it has a name such as "My Funeral an Experience" does seem to indicate an attempt at being controversial by mocking death. I can't tell you if this worked back then, but the short deserves credit either way even if it's just for making me think about this at all. Despite Ernst Schmidt Jr. obviously being an important figure that has been overlooked in the movement, so far I have not witnessed much that has truly fascinated me, but this was the closest it has come so far.
Like "Mein Begräbnis ein Erlebnis", the colorful "12 Uhr Mittags - High Noon" is very basic but manages to give you an uncomfortable vibe. With background noise of violins, moaning and high pitch sounds, and a face that seems to go through every range of emotions on the screen while hyperventilating, I'd argue that this is the strongest short film by Ernst Schmidt Jr. For something that is as short as 4 minutes, it does feel long - but in a positive way because it achieves to create an anxiety in its simplicity.
In a collaboration with Hermann Nitsch, the 6 minute long "N" stands out from the previous due to being a documentation of one of Nitsch's strange performance pieces. "N" is not the only short film in the collection that shows performance art (we see other familiar names later on), but it is the first in line on the DVD, thus the one I have the most urge to speak about. It seems to be around this time that Schmidt got in contact with these artists, and filming them became more common. This is perhaps the sort of film that most conventional underground fans think of when they hear about the strange underground work from Vienna around this time. Though in true Schmidt fashion this jumps between cuts of darkness, audience and the actions themselves in quick successions. Obviously one of the most controversial short films in the bunch due to its portrayal of the performance art of Hermann Nitsch, but not a short film you should seek out if you want to see Nitsch's work. What I mean is that the style of this film is far too erratic to be a true documentation of a performance. And that's okay, because there are a ton of Vienna actionist films that focus on that. "Bodybuilding" is when Schmidt's style and the performances truly go hand in hand, and thus making the most visually interesting short here.
There are a few short films I'm not writing about as I don't have much to say about them. Not always because they're bad, but because they're of very similar nature of the previous ones, I don't understand them (due to language barrier), or simply because they don't give me anything interesting to say. I'll let you be the judge if that speaks more about me than the short films.
Odds are that my review of this collection of short films comes off as a bit bored and unintrigued, but I don't mean to diminish the work of Ernst Schmidt Jr. Some of these are certainly speaking to me in one way or another. Though it is hard to be truly impressed by work such as this when you have seen much that is similar to it, without actually knowing a whole lot about the artist. It's possible that I'd be a better candidate to review this work if I put some effort into digging into who exactly Ernst Schmidt Jr. was, but then again I always want the work to speak for itself. In the case of this collection DVD, it is great that I get to go through nearly 15 years of short films by an obscure director of the fascinating movement that went on in Austria, and a few of the shorts are great ("12 Uhr Mittags - High Noon" especially). But ultimately I think there are more intriguing artists from the time that you should seek out first. But definitely don't forget his name if you get a taste for more! It's experimental art in the traditional sense (as untraditional as that may be).