AT THE ORIGIN, AT THE ABYSS
BY THOMAS MIESSGANG
If there is a trait that characterized Hans Hurch, it was immoderateness. Not, however, in the sense of exorbitance or self-indulgence – money was never important to him – but as a refusal to take as his measure the existential possibilities offered by the public, politics and culture. Immoderateness as a renunciation of bad compromises, consensual backslapping and secret agreements to the parties’ mutual benefit, based on the Mafia model. The “sermons” he preached to open each Viennale were legendary: in them, he held up a jester’s mirror to the powerful and important as well as to those who regarded themselves as such.
In good moments, this immoderateness resulted in his being able to outdo himself, releasing enormous energy and measuring up to criteria that were almost impossible to meet; in bad ones, the fullness of life to which he was devoted and determined to relish, cost what it might, was no longer conducive to good health.
Before Hurch became a public figure and began fighting for a new and different cinema culture, which, as Armin Thurnher once put it, “drew the logical conclusions from the impoverishment of an overabundance of images,” before he became the director of a festival, which under his leadership rejected the manipulative, illusionistic potential of cinema, he led for many years the life of a traditional Viennese “coffee-house writer” with a penchant for decorative decay. A writer, however, who, rather than writing, read the newspapers and meditated on H.C. Artmann’s definition of the “poetic act”: “It is pure poetry and free of all ambition for recognition, praise or criticism.”
“Change the world”
Hans Hurch’s life was never about quantity but rather about quality. With his work as a film critic for the Viennese weekly “Falter” he laid the foundation for his reputation as an unconventional thinker who, by deliberately working slowly and stressing accuracy, discovered an opportunity to undermine the prescribed hectic pace of our present day. It was a constant struggle to find the mot juste and the thought that was worthy of being expressed. One evening he sat down at his office desk to write an article about Wim Wenders. The next morning at nine o’clock he was still there. Meanwhile, his article had reached a length of two lines. The next issue of Falter published an almost full-page still from the film he was writing about. Beneath the photo was a caption. It was signed Hans Hurch.
In all, he probably wrote no more movie reviews than Peter Kubelka made films, with whom he shared a friendship that lasted for decades. But together with his brilliant appearances at the Österreichische Filmtage in Wels they were enough to make him a striking figure who suddenly discovered unforeseen professional opportunities: from the program “100 Years of Cinema”, which he curated, to becoming director of the Viennale.
“The style is the man himself,” said the French naturalist Georges-Louis Buffon, a saying that Hurch liked to quote, and he tried to live his life in that style and with that attitude. He was, to put it a bit dramatically, struggling with form in a period denominated by cultural managers who are quick to trot out figures from their Excel tables but who know little or nothing about what they are supposed to be managing. In this respect it would be accurate to say that Hans Hurch was not so much interested in film per se as he was in film as a means of discovering the truth. Expressing a necessary truth, he once said: “I am not interested in film culture. What interests me is revolution. That sounds old fashioned, but I am interested in changing the world.”
It did indeed sound like a proposition from a different time to be demanding such outmoded things as social justice and societal cooperation in the age of startups and obscene profit maximization. But by making a demand based on Che Guevara – “Let’s be realistic and demand the impossible!” – he at least had the effect that the controversial idea was out in the open and could be discussed. At the same time, Hans Hurch, despite the rigor of his thought and deeds, was capable of resolving the dissonance between his personal aesthetic and political criteria and the demands of a public festival such as the Viennale without – and that is his great accomplishment – sacrificing the artistry of the mass medium film or, conversely, restricting the mass medium to a hermetically sealed, elitist program for aficionados.
In an interview Hurch once said that at the beginning of his career he was far less free: “I tried to be my image: Hurch the critical, incorruptible man from Falter. I hope that I have remained true to that – but at the same time I have become more open with regard to the Viennale program. I am interested in more films than I used to be, when it comes to genre films, for example. I don’t think you really know cinema unless you are aware of all its facets.”
The Viennale is a festival without a competition and thus not a showplace where filmmakers are competing to have their works shown publicly for the first time. Hans Hurch succeeded in giving this relatively small series of events on the sidelines of big-business cinema a shape that made it appear bigger on the international stage than it actually was. The Viennale’s typical mixture of tributes, special programs, carefully selected films from current production, and star guests, who often were not even stars but rather interesting people from the cinema industry, such as the nonagenarian “scream queen” Fay Wray from the early days of talking movies, were responsible for creating a loyalty that brought people back to the festival year after year with the kind of devotion that makes a cultural event sensational. Foreign guests frequently enthusiastically mentioned how the festival’s director used his charm and competence to make them feel welcome, taking so much time in doing so that some of them wondered how he was able to discharge all of his other responsibilities.
The “high noon” of the festival preparation always arrived at the moment when all the films had been selected and Hurch stood in front of a giant board with all the dates and times, deciding like a stage director whether a given film was better suited to the Gartenbau Cinema or should, perhaps, be shown at the Urania instead. This was his kind of creative act and the moment when the fragile fabric composed of a chronological series of film presentations became a perfect composition. In selecting and programming the films, Hurch always underscored the uncompromising authority inherent in his office: “Democracy is out of place in the arts.”
Although that sentence does not do justice to Hurch’s real attitude. He viewed the program for which he was more or less solely responsible as a position – in the philosophical sense – that permitted others to suggest change, following discussion that
was consensual or controversial, positive or negative. In a sense, democracy took place in the aftermath of his presentation. That prevented the kind of artistic mediocrity that usually results from a situation in which a jury makes safe decisions based on competing interests.
The unexpected death of Hans Hurch is a terrible loss, and not just for the Viennale but for culture in Vienna in general. The kind of man he was, who required political strife and disputed content almost like an elixir of life, would probably have little chance of rising today to the kind of position he held. We should mentally prepare ourselves for a coming time in which the most important aspect of a cultural performance is gaining the maximum audience instead of seeing art as a medium of world perception and aesthetic sensitization. More than just an advocate of the moving image, Hurch was a man of words, which at the same time were a weapon, a shelter and a means of expression with which he swam against the current of speech. The words of the essayist Franz Maciewski, written in a text describing the famous visit by Paul Celan to Martin Heidegger, are also a fitting tribute to Hans Hurch: “What else did I have to offer than my language, my most treasured possession, my very own? Did it not put me in the forwardmost position, at the origin, at the abyss?”
Translated from German by John Winbigler.
Born December 18, 1952, in Schärding, Upper Austria. Worked as a film critic, curator and festival director of the Viennale.
Early contact with the short films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in local cinemas. After highschool he moves to Vienna, where he starts studying history of art, philosophy and archeology. Works as a film critic for the city journal “Falter” for more than ten years. Curator of several film series, among others for Donaufestival and Wiener Festwochen. For several years he is a frequently collaborator and assistant of the french filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. 1993 to 1996 curator of “hundertjahrekino” on the occasion of 100 years of film. 1997 he is assigned as head of the Viennale, which he will strongly shape for the next 20 years.
Hans Hurch dies on July 23 in Rome during a working visit at the age of 64.
14 FRIENDS, 14 FILMS
Homage to Hans Hurch
In this selection, 14 friends, whose work is linked to the Viennale, dedicate a film to Hans Hurch.