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HOW I TAUGHT MYSELF TO BE A CHILD

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by Rupert Henning

grade: 6.5

How I Taught Myself to be a Child, directed by Rupert Henning, is a film that often falters, that goes around in circles due to the multiple narrative twists within it, that often goes over the top. Yet all this is complemented by a vitality and freshness excellently portrayed by the young, lively and at the same time extraordinarily composed Valentin Hagg in the title role. Real added value for the film.

How hard it is to be a child!

It is not easy being a child. Especially when everyone, but really everyone – including your family and teachers – is constantly asking you to act like an adult. Or, better yet, to be an adult for them. Young Paul Silberstein (a talented Valentin Hagg) knows something about this, as he is the son of a family of impoverished aristocrats who no longer have the prestige they once had. He is the protagonist of How I taught myself to be a Child (original title: Wie ich lernte, bei mir selbst Kind zu sein), the second feature film – during a long career in television – by director and screenwriter Rupert Henning, based on the homonymous novel by André Heller.

Between an attempted escape from the hated school where he was sent to by his father and a severe reprimand in the family, therefore, there seems to be no chance for young Paul to live fully his childhood. Or maybe not? In spite of the world around him, in fact, the child has a strong, very strong creativity on his side, which will lead him to experience marvellous journeys inside his own head and to influence, in his own way, the people around him thanks to his vitality and, also, to his precocious maturity.

In the background: an Austria of the late 1950s where too little time has passed since one of the bloodiest wars of recent decades and, timidly approaching the era of the so-called economic boom, there are those who still remain firmly stuck in a past that gradually seems to become more blurred, almost a shadow of what it once was. Paul’s strict father knows something about this (an excellent Karl Markovics, on his big comeback – after the remarkable The Dark – to the world of Austrian films, after several years spent abroad). This man, a fallen nobleman who still deludes himself that he still counts for something in national and foreign diplomacy, does nothing but give orders and lock himself in his room, consuming liquid opium and contemplating black-and-white images of a lost love on a projection screen (the scene of his suicide, with Verdi’s Requiem as counterpoint to its setting, is particularly impressive).

Young Paul’s only comfort is his mother (Sabine Timoteo), bored by a life she never wanted, but, at the same time, proud of her son’s vitality, and, last but not least, the thought of a mysterious little girl with whom the boy immediately fell in love after seeing her riding from one of the windows of his boarding school.

And then, of course, a direct criticism of institutions, of religion – or, better still, of clerics, who are incapable of imparting an education based on a sense of respect and tolerance – and, last but not least, of a society incapable of letting go, of seeing beyond, of giving vent to fantasy, which, most of the time, proves to be our only source of salvation.

Too many issues? Definitely yes. And, in fact, precisely because of this ‘communicative impetuosity’, How I Taught Myself to be a Child is a film that often falters, that goes around in circles because of its multiple twists, which do nothing but confuse the spectator due to the large number of themes it deals with. A film that, similarly to what often happens to its protagonist, often goes over the top. Even when this is not necessary. Henning’s long career in television, at this point, often becomes evident, with a mise-en-scène that, except for a few interesting ideas, is often forced. Yet all this is complemented by a vitality and freshness excellently represented by the young, lively and at the same time extraordinarily composed Valentin Hagg, a protagonist with a strong and outstanding personality.

Although, therefore, Rupert Henning – and Author André Heller before him – showed, on the one hand, a total mistrust of the so-called ‘adult world’, on the other hand, with his How I taught myself to be a Child, he showed us that only the vivid imagination of a child can save us all. Even when everything, after all, seems lost. This is demonstrated, in this regard, by the evocative dream scenes – complete with circus elements – reminiscent of Fellini’s works, which conclude the film. Letting oneself be lulled by them, at this point, is not difficult. As long as one learns to be a child.

Original title: Wie ich lernte, bei mir selbst Kind zu sein
Directed by: Rupert Henning
Country/year: Austria / 2019
Running time: 140’
Genre: comedy, drama, fantasy, coming-of-age
Cast: Valentin Hagg, Sabine Timoteo, Karl Markovics, André Wilms, Udo Samel
Screenplay: Uli Brée, Rupert Henning
Cinematography: Josef Mittendorfer
Produced by: DOR FILM Produktion GmbH

Info: the page of How I taught myself to be a child on the website of the Austrian Film Commission