by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel
The faces of those who have witnessed different historical periods one after the other, hands intent on handling old card decks, cosy little taverns and cheerful choirs of old friends enjoying themselves singing – with the accompaniment of an accordion – old traditional Viennese songs are the true soul of Notes from the Underworld, the newest work by documentary filmmakers Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel.
A new side of Vienna
Two names that have long since made themselves known and appreciated beyond national borders, Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. The two documentary filmmakers, working together for many years now, are used to giving us stories almost halfway between fiction and reality, where the spectator often cannot recognise exactly where the border between reality and mise en scène lies. This was the case with the previous La Pivellina (2009) and Mister Universo (2016) and it is also the case with Notes from the Underworld (original title: Aufzeichnungen aus der Unterwelt) – premiered at the Berlinale 2020, within the Panorama Dokumente section – although, in this their newest work, the two directors have opted for a much more classic documentary style.
And, probably, given the topic dealt with and the precious testimonies that made this Notes from the Underworld come to life, this was, perhaps, the only possible staging to make it all work. The result is a portrait of a Vienna we do not know. A portrait of an underground Vienna of suburbs and bad neighbourhoods, populated, in turn, by characters that would seem to have come straight out of a novel.
Sitting at the tables of a small inn, then, the filmmakers listened to the stories told by Kurt Girk – a singer of Viennese folk songs who recently passed away – and his lifelong friend, Alois Schmutzer, considered by all to be ‘the king of the suburbs’. Thanks to their testimonies – also enriched by the stories of those who were close to them and those who, in any case, had the opportunity to hear often about them – in this precious Notes from the Underworld, the story starts from the end of the First World War, continues to the 1960s and then reaches the present day. A story of friendship, poverty, but also of struggle for survival and violence staged here also with welcome humour.
A fine black and white makes us feel part of that seemingly distant world and era, whose portraits are further enriched by old photographs and archive footage showing the events told, taken directly from the ORF archive. And the film-makers, for their part, only ask a few but appropriate questions, being almost completely invisible in front of the camera, just as enchanted by the stories of the two protagonists, their anecdotes and even the amusing game of Stoss, always frowned upon by the local authorities, with which, predicting fortune, people used to gamble even considerable sums of money.
It is, therefore, the faces of those who have lived through many different situations, those who have seen different historical periods follow one after the other, hands intent on handling old card decks, small, cosy taverns and, last but not least, cheerful choirs of old friends who enjoy singing – with the accompaniment of an accordion – old traditional Viennese songs the true soul of Notes from the Underworld.
Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, for their part, have successfully conveyed this unusual aspect of Vienna, with a skilful minimalist direction, letting the protagonists bring their work to life. And so this interesting and sincere Notes from the Underworld can rightfully become part of the so-called ‘Wien-Films’ – films that, each in their own way, portray different aspects related to the city of Vienna – produced copiously in Austria for several decades now, all of them symbols of a great love for their homeland and origins. Important documents of what the beautiful Vienna is and has been.
Original title: Aufzeichnungen aus der Unterwelt
Directed by: Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel
Country/year: Austria / 2020
Running time: 115’
Screenplay: Rainer Frimmel
Cinematography: Rainer Frimmel
Produced by: Vento Film