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by Xaver Schwarzenberger

grade: 7.5

With a sophisticated black and white that recalls the cinematography of Katzelmacher (Fassbinder’s first film, 1969), The Pacific Ocean – the first feature by Xaver Schwarzenberger, Fassbinder’s long-time assistant – is a work that, in its own way, has become a milestone in Austrian and German cinema of the 1980s.

The country doctor

In 1982, one of the greatest film directors in the film history, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, left us prematurely. His loss meant a great deal not only to the world film scene, but also – and above all – to all those who had the opportunity to get to know him personally and to work with him. While Hanno Pöschl, one of the actors he discovered, was deeply touched by his death, so was his long-time cameraman, Xaver Schwarzenberger, who wanted to work behind the camera himself the year after his death. This is how The Pacific Ocean (original title: Der stille Ozean) was created, based on the novel of the same name by Gerhard Roth, starring Hanno Pöschl himself and included in the Diagonale 2019 section dedicated to him.

In a sophisticated black and white that recalls the cinematography of Katzelmacher (Fassbinder’s first film, 1969), The Pacific Ocean tells the story of Dr. Ascher, sent to work in a small village in southern Styria after a serious professional mistake. He has difficulty adjusting to this new reality and things become even more complicated when a mysterious murder is committed in the village.

The Hanno Pöschl of The Pacific Ocean is thus, in a certain sense, the Jorgos of Katzelmacher (played by Fassbinder himself). Both are strangers to the reality in which they live, both are never really accepted by the community, both are victims of a deep sense of unease. In this first work, therefore, Schwarzenberger wanted to create a sort of parallelism between his master’s films and his own filmography. Each of them, in their first films, staged, in one way or another, loneliness in a foreign country. And yet, rather than emulating the late filmmaker, Schwarzenberger wanted to pay homage to him (as, moreover, a clear opening caption confirms). And, as he himself admitted: ‘This is not a Fassbinder film, but a film for Fassbinder’.

References to Katzelmacher, by the way, are much more frequent than they might initially seem. The apparently calm, contemplative atmosphere, which in fact hides a strong sense of estrangement, proves it, as well as women and men filmed with a fixed camera, static, with a wall behind them.

And yet, despite all these deliberate references, The Pacific Ocean has its own identity. This is demonstrated by a good and accurate script, as well as by atmospheres that convey the idea of a country still too closed towards the new, a country where an apparent tranquility and a tired monotony badly hide much more disturbing implications.

Schwarzenberger has thus proved an excellent knowledge of the film language (after all, he has had a lot of good lessons), offering his long-time mentor a film that, in its own way, has almost become a milestone in Austrian and German cinema of the 1980s. This is thanks to the skilful staging, as well as to an always excellent Hanno Pöschl, the only possible face to play the role of doctor Ascher and (not really) the only actor who comes to mind when we think of a possible homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A more than successful acting performance, then, in a simple, powerful story that begins and ends with a locomotive at the station, first arriving, then leaving until it disappears into thin air. Could this also be an indirect homage to the origins of cinema?

Original title: Der stille Ozean
Directed by: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Country/year: Austria, West Germany / 1983
Running time: 95’
Genre: drama
Cast: Hanno Pöschl, Bert Breit, Maria Emo, Marie-France Pisier, Bruno Dallansky, Hannes Thanheiser, Paula Loew, Maria Martina, Sepp Löwinger, Joe Hembus
Screenplay: Walter Kappacher, Gerhard Roth
Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Produced by: ORF, ZDF; Teamfilm Produktion

Info: the page of The Pacific Ocean on iMDb