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by John Cook

grade: 8

The inner torments and problems of young Hermann are staged in Clinch with a directorial approach in which the simple observation of everyday life acts as a perfect co-star, a successful counterpoint to the troubled events of the protagonist himself. All with a touch of wisdom in contemplating life and its placid flow, following the natural course of events.

Summer days

Normal everyday life. The hot Viennese summers. Evergreen images of the near past. What could be more poetic and evocative? It all depends on how such situations are depicted by the camera. And Canadian director John Cook, who, after working as a fashion photographer, shot films in Austria for several years, has always shown great sensitivity in depicting the everyday life of his protagonists, their adventures, their troubles, during sunny summer days. This, for example, is also the case with the feature film Clinch (original title: Schwitzkasten), based on the novel Das Froschfest by Helmut Zenker, which was presented again to the audience at the Viennale 2020, as part of the retrospective Austrian Auteurs, curated by the Filmarchiv Austria.

The story staged here is that of Hermann (played by Hermann Juranek), a young man who works as a gardener in the city’s parks. Used to spend his days drinking beer with his colleagues and flirting with passers-by, the man soon finds himself unemployed and, kicked out of the house by his family, spends most of his time in pubs, every day risking letting himself go forever.

Clinch, then, is the story of a downfall and a gradual recovery. The story of a man who, until he has bottomed out, never realised how important certain values are. And in this sense, then, this small and sensitive feature film by John Cook can be interpreted as a sort of never banal or predictable coming-of-age story (even though the protagonist, in this case, is neither a child nor an adolescent).

Hermann has always been, in fact, a kind of outcast. Never really integrated among his colleagues, he was constantly compared by his family to his older, now professionally successful brother. Likewise, the relationship with his girlfriend Vera (Christa Schubert) has never really been defined, never been deepened or appropriately cultivated. But how much longer can a situation like this last? When will the time finally come to regain control of one’s life?

The inner torments and everyday problems of young Hermann are here staged by John Cook with a directorial approach that is totally devoid of frills or redundant virtuosity, focusing on the essential by observing reality as it is. Similarly, this particular mise-en-scène where the simple observation of everyday life acts as the perfect co-protagonist provides a more than successful counterpoint to Hermann’s own troubled affairs, while at the same time showing due detachment in the telling of the facts. Detachment that, in this case, in no way means disinterest in the protagonist himself, but, on the contrary, denotes a certain wisdom in contemplating life and its placid flow, following the natural course of events.

Then, at the same time, there’s Vienna. A Vienna far from being depicted as a tourist postcard. A Vienna where cold warehouses and small inns provide the perfect setting, along with sunny afternoons in the big Prater park or on the banks of the Danube. A Vienna that needs nothing more than a sensitive and attentive gaze to be portrayed at its best. Not even a musical score. And if even the scene of a wedding is depicted in the simplest possible way, it is precisely in the small, tender gestures of everyday life – such as, for example, a fleeting lunch with a friend in order to celebrate the aforementioned wedding ceremony – that Clinch sees all his lyricism, his incredible sensitivity. A sign of a talent, that of John Cook, which has never been properly celebrated, but which, inevitably, has been appreciated over the years. A sign of a sensitivity in depicting youth and Viennese summers as few have managed to do during their careers. And the image of a young couple in love picnicking in the shade of a tree on the Donauinsel will remain impressed in audiences’ minds for a long, long time.

Original title: Schwitzkasten
Directed by: John Cook
Country/year: Austria / 1978
Running time: 97’
Genre: drama
Cast: Hermann Juranek, Christa Schubert, Franz Schuh, Werner Juranek, Waltraud Misak, Josef Boselmann, Elisabeth Boselmann, Johanna Froidl, Ernst Neuhold
Screenplay: John Cook, Helmut Zenker
Cinematography: Helmut Pirnat
Produced by: ebf-Film, Rudolf Klingohr

Info: the page of Clinch on the website of the Viennale; the page of Clinch on iMDb; the page of Clinch on the website of the Filmarchiv Austria