THE FIRST DAY

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by Herbert Holba

grade: 7.5

Herbert Holba’s cinema, as well as that of many of his colleagues and friends, marks with The First Day the beginning of a new Austrian film movement, in which an attempt was made to break away from national film canons by trying new ways of staging, new ways of understanding the seventh art, new ways of experimenting. And this, then, is also the case with The First Day, set in a no-man’s-land between yesterday and tomorrow and drawing heavily from yesterday to tell of an unusual, possible tomorrow.

It happened tomorrow

As usual, for some time now the Viennale has also presented numerous retrospectives as part of its programme. Specifically, as part of this Viennale 2020, particularly interesting, as far as Austrian cinema is concerned, is the retrospective Austrian Auteurs, curated by the Filmarchiv Austria and which this year consists of a selection of feature films made between the early 1970s and early 1980s mainly by independent filmmakers. This particular section includes The First Day (original title: Die ersten Tage), made by Herbert Holba in 1971 and one of those gems of Austrian cinema that have been forgotten by most.

First feature by the director, editor and radio host, The First Day, although set in a kind of dystopian future, has fun playing with a mise-en-scene that closely resembles early cinema (it’s no coincidence that the film is dedicated to the Skladanowsky brothers as well as the German silent film directors Manfred Noa and Otto Rippert). Perfectly in line with silent films, then, a harsh black and white and sixty-seven captions are there to accompany us into a totally singular reality.

We find ourselves, then, in ‘no man’s land, between yesterday and tomorrow’. Civilisation has now been destroyed. A group of nomadic teenagers wander through the woods. Within their community, rules and roles are immediately established. And there is no lack of figures such as a leader, a simpleton, a loner and two bizarre knights. As well, of course, as a group of young and very young men, who, between one skirmish and another, between one showdown and another, are all looking for their own balance within this newly established reality, which is closely reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

There is no lack of extreme violence in this The First Day, including brutal poisonings, fights and even acts of cannibalism. Yet, at the same time, we cannot fail to notice an entirely light, at times even ironic, approach that strongly softens what the images depict. And Herbert Holba, for his part, aims above all to make this small and precious work of his a political medium, a powerful allegory of contemporary society and all the ugliness within it.

Particularly interesting in this regard is the form in which this The First Day is presented. Its directorial approach, which certainly pays homage to the cinema of the past, but which, at the same time, features a completely agile and dynamic camera, goes well with a pop music score by the Austrian cult rock band Paternoster, now long since disbanded.

A cinema, this of Herbert Holba – as well as of many of his colleagues and friends, such as Antonis Lepeniotis, Mansur Madavi and Wilhelm Pellert – which marks with this The First Day the beginning of a new – albeit brief – Austrian film movement. A movement initiated by a group of independent filmmakers at a time when no major institutions had yet been founded to promote Austrian cinema, when there was still too little money allocated by the institutions to the seventh art, when next to Franz Antel’s erotic comedies, there were mainly films conceived for large-scale distribution and who were slowly trying to break away from the canons of the Wiener Films.

And although this particular movement did not have a long life, it produced many interesting works, each one with its own marked personality, each one attempting, in one way or another, to break away from national film canons by trying new ways of staging, new ways of understanding the seventh art, new ways of experimenting. And this, then, is also the case of The First Day, set in a no man’s land between yesterday and tomorrow and which draws heavily from yesterday to tell of an unusual, possible tomorrow. A small, precious film, still very topical today. Just as when it was first shown on a big screen.

Original title: Die ersten Tage
Directed by: Herbert Holba
Country/year: Austria / 1971
Running time: 77’
Genre: drama, experimental
Cast: Ariane Niehoff, Olga Felber, Heinz Herki, Karlheinz Hayek, Gerhard Stingl, Wolfgang Karner, Peter Kadluz, Wilhelm Pellert, Nora Aschacher, Ingeborg Staudt, Josef Frieser, Robert Trampitsch, Jakob Holzer, Ferdinand Bischofter, Elfriede Stromberger, Helmo Wisser
Screenplay: Ernst A. Ekkert, Herbert Holba, Wilhelm Pellert
Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Produced by: Action Film Club

Info: the page of The First Day on the website of the Viennale; the page of The First Day on iMDb; the page of The First Day on the website of the Filmarchiv Austria