What is the first thing you can think about when you hear about Austria? Most Americans would think of 1965’s classic The Sound of Music, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Film historians might think of famous Austrian director Fritz Lang, the man behind such classics as Metropolis or M.
Others might receive a glimpse of the country in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Yet the city of Vienna was nothing more than a backdrop for an action sequence in that film. It did not explore the culture of the city, or what makes it unique: the city’s unique sense of humour.
Wolfgang Murnberger‘s Come, Sweet Death from 2000 attempted a unique take on Vienna. The film showcased Viennese humour and culture with a murder mystery at its core. It is a film that makes you feel bad that you are laughing at some dark moments. But the question remains: is the film effective in showcasing the Viennese culture and humour?
An Austrian Mystery
Come Sweet Death (Komm, süßer Tod) follows former police officer Simon Brenner (Josef Hader). The former detective is stuck working as an emergency medical technician. Together with the intern Berti (Simon Schwarz), he starts investigating a sudden murder. Along the way, Brenner has to confront former colleagues, a former love, and an annoying boss.
Josef Hader’s character has been around for some time. The character of Simon Brenner is the protagonist of a series of novels by novelist Wolf Haas, who also worked on the screenplay for the film. Vienna is the focus of two novels: “Komm, süßer Tod” and “Wie die Tiere”. Silentium and Der Knochenmann are the only other adapted novels. These films also feature Josef Hader in the titular role.
Austrian In Every Way
In some ways, Come, Sweet Death seems like an attempt at Austrian arthouse cinema. The opening shot of the film uses the blue-light of ambulances to highlight the credits. We get short snippets of shots that at first make no sense, but become clearer after having seen the film. When Brenner gets drunk, the camera starts to sway through the room, and tries to evoke the feeling as if the viewer was drunk to add to the atmosphere. A considerable amount of nudity and sexual content is in the film as well. The actors even mumble their lines at times, which is similar to Mumblecore films.
Yet, these elements are quite distinctive Austrian filmmaking for the time. A lot of films wanted to provoke the viewer with “creative” opening credits. The “drunken camera” shot is more uncommon, but is also in other Austrian productions. While the sexual content is above the usual, nudity is not censored in Austria as much as it is in the United States. Also, the mumbling of lines boils down to the way the Viennese speak, as Northern Austrians tend to mumble at times.
Come, Sweet Death is Austrian, and seeing Vienna from a cinematic perspective is a nice change of pace. To add to the realistic tone of the film, most shooting locations are in Vienna. The film does not use unique environments from the city, and tends to focus on smaller locations that are not memorable, which makes it feel less like it is for the cinema and more for television screens.
A Murder Most Comedic
The film is a murder mystery, but in typical Viennese fashion, the protagonist Brenner does not care about it. He seems more annoyed by the fact that he has to get involved. After his suspension as a detective, his past still makes his life complicated. Instead of brooding, as a true Viennese, he mocks others and tries to get them to leave him alone. At the core of what makes Come, Sweet Death so unique are the interactions between the characters. Brenner’s first reaction to a dead body is to figure out how to avoid the problem.
Also, the characters seem to hate each other, but somehow still get along just fine, which strengthens the humour. Every character has to complain about something with a joke, which Viennese call “sudern”. The core relationship is between Brenner and Berti, the Sherlock and Watson of this film. It is actually Berti’s enthusiasm that forces Brenner to return to his roots as a detective. It is an interesting character study of a man tired of life that somehow finds his spark again. No matter how motivated he gets, in his core he is still quite annoyed that he has to go through with it. Ironically, this type of character is quite typical to Vienna.
This Viennese archetype has a long history in Austrian cinema and TV. The archetype’s name is “Wiener”, as “Wien” is the German name of Vienna. The actor Karl Merkatz is famous for portraying this archetype, and started it in the TV-show Ein echter Wiener geht nicht unter back in 1975 to 1980. He also played a similar character in 1981 in Der Bockerer, which offered a satirical look at the life of a Viennese butcher during World War II. Josef Hader brought this stereotype to the 21st century with a unique charm. His character cannot make a stable relationship with anyone, yet he still attempts it and seeing him do so solidifies that he cares.
Reality Within Imperfections
While the film is more of a dark comedy, it does have some rather serious moments. A common theme is the fact that terrible things can happen to anyone, and even people that should save you may not do so. The police treat people as their enemy, especially Brenner. The Kreuzritter’s competition fakes mileage, as they get paid by the government. Sometimes even the ambulance drivers drink alcohol on duty. This theme is most evident in the title Come, Sweet Death, which is a song from Johannes Sebastian Bach that Brenner hums. The title actually even gives away an important plot point of the film.
The film tries to showcase that no one is perfect. People, organisations, and anything you can think about will have flaws. In a way, the dark humour adds to the horror that, no matter what is happening, we would rather be ignorant. Viennese humour makes the perfect foil for these situations, which derives from the annoyance. It is far from politically correct, which adds to the fact that everyone is flawed.
The film is also not perfect and has some subplots that do not lead anywhere. Watching it with a sense of irony, maybe it was intentional to showcase this same theme.
Come, Sweet Death offers a unique approach for a murder mystery film. It uses Viennese humour to contrast the events in an even darker way. The film is not perfect, as it cannot avoid the fact that it feels like it is made for television. Yet at its core it is Austrian, and it’s interesting to see it reflect a culture and country. Austria focuses more on direct-to-TV films, so it is quite appropriate.
Come, Sweet Death also carries a strong message about imperfection. People and companies have flaws that they cannot ignore. Even the imperfections of the film and characters add to this message. Brenner makes the perfect protagonist by not wanting to be one, and he hates the fact that he has to return to his detective roots. The film teaches us that sometimes it is easier to just laugh off the darker sides of the world we live in.
How do you feel about cultural representation in cinema? Can you think of any film that represents a country perfectly?