Siegfried A. Fruhauf: Exposed Review
Austrian-based filmmaker Siegfried A. Fruhauf made his first short in 1996. Since then he’s completed another nineteen, their running times ranging from less than a minute to no greater than ten. This new DVD - the latest from avant-garde specialists Index - compiles fourteen of Fruhauf’s films, encompassing his first, his most recent and most points in-between. In other words it’s the perfect introduction to a filmmaker who remains little known outside of the festival circuit. Indeed, I would expect that many have clicked onto this particular review simply as a means of finding out who he is, and as such a little background is required…
Fruhauf’s speciality is manipulation. Like a modern day Joseph Cornell he takes ‘found footage’ and tweaks it to his own means: looping, accelerating, juxtaposing… in a word, intensifying. His films are tied to their soundtracks, the visual and the aural embarking on a partnership that is mutually beneficial. Even on the small screen the result is an overwhelming experience, sudden bursts of energy lasting just a few minutes each which leave the viewer with no other option than to be astounded and amazed. This is visceral cinema, but with the freedom to be humorous if it wants to be, or beautiful or mysterious or just plain mesmeric. I can only imagine the impact on a cinema screen, where the intricacies of the soundscapes and the interplay between light and dark are no doubt emphasised exponentially.
In truth such a description is only befitting of Fruhauf’s best films. Understandably it would be quite the task to maintain such a high standard over the twelve years and fourteen titles encompassed on this disc. As such this review will focus primarily on the standouts, although there are more than enough not only to mark Siegfried A. Fruhauf: Exposed as a worthy release, but also to demonstrate just how good Fruhauf’s work can be when realised to its fullest. Mirror Mechanics, for example, is one of the most outstanding experimental shorts of 2000s. Mozart Dissolution, on the other hand, is a perfect miniature; it’s minute-long duration allowing Fruhauf to concentrate only on the essentials. Meanwhile, Exposed is a thing of beauty, Mountain Trip and Blow-Up demonstrate a wry humour, and the likes of Ground Control, Night Sweat and Tranquillity show their director as equally capable of both great intensity and great calm.
Mirror Mechanics, made in 2005, is arguably Fruhauf’s most accessible work given its play on cinematic conventions and genre norms. Here he utilises footage which has reportedly come from some obscure Canadian thriller. The images and sequences selected - that of a girl, presumably post-shower, looking at herself in a steamed-up mirror, waves lapping on a beach, seagulls - bring to mind various horror mainstays and masterpieces: the female in danger, the ominous side of nature, the likes of Psycho, Jaws and The Birds. The soundscape by Jürgen Gruber, comprising of feedback and electronic burbles, is restrained but contains an ounce of tension. Combined with Fruhauf’s images as they are repeated and twinned in a dual projection Mirror Mechanics becomes a horror film reduced to its barest motifs and associations. In a way it’s possible to make connections with Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart: where that film took only the scenes of the eponymous actress from a forgotten pot-boiler and weaved them into a work of strange, magnetic beauty, so too Fruhauf utilises only the essentials of his source to similar means. Yet the genre frictions make it firmly its own piece, slowly building up the tension and playing with audience expectation.
The horror film associations of Mirror Mechanics are replaced by another immediately recognisable hook in Mozart Dissolution. This brief minute-long piece was commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday for Vienna Mozart Year 2006. Thus his familiar profile occupies the centre of the frame only to be scrawled upon, scratched and stretched for those breakneck handful of seconds. Interestingly the soundtrack appears to have been produced as a result of these etchings and visual manipulations in a manner akin to something between Norman McLaren’s Blinkity Blank and television interference. In his notes Fruhauf comments that Mozart Dissolution is a visual representation of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, although you’d be hard pressed to recognise it as such given the sonic onslaught and continually abrasive textures. Rather it is perhaps best to take the film as a more aggressive cousin to the McLaren and similar works by himself and Len Lye; their quaintness, charm and occasional colour replaced by a rougher beauty and strict monochrome.
In contrast 2001’s Exposed opts for techniques which feel very much up-to-date, replacing the analogue pleasures of Mozart Dissolution with a digital dexterity unimaginable during McLaren’s lifetime. The overall approach is similar to that of many Fruhauf’s other shorts: snippets from existing films looped, distorted and superimposed into something quite different. Yet as well as these common techniques he utilises digitally created frames within the frame to not only enhance the texture of the piece, but also to emphasise the sense of what is (and isn’t) being exposed. The two passages of film which Fruhauf has selected - one of a man approaching a door, another of a woman, presumably, dancing - are only gradually revealed as each mini-frame chooses only a portion of each action as its focus. The initial effect is reminiscent of some arty sixties credit sequence (The Thomas Crown Affair, et al), albeit only to a point. Soon the frames build upon each other creating a stunning three-dimensional effect that simply takes the breath away as though Martin Arnold’s ‘cineseizure’ pieces had been taken one step further. I was particularly reminded of that moment in Arnold’s Pièce Touchée wherein the back-and-forth motions render a perfectly casual movement into a glorious dance. Admittedly, Fruhauf’s intents are not quite so playful or humorous as his compatriot’s; in the case of Exposed, it is the beauty that is key - those qualities of Arnold’s are more readily found in other examples of his work.
Indeed, you need look no further than Mountain Trip (1999) and Blow-Up (2000) to find Fruhauf’s more mischievous side. The former, four minutes worth of sprightly colour, takes a series of postcards highlighting the touristic - and slightly tacky - elements of Austria. He places them side-by-side so that mountains blend into mountains and hills into hills, the divisions between each barely discernible. Thus they become a continual scroll, animated so that they pass through the frame from right to left, all the time accompanied by a manic soundtrack that plays out like a parody of traditional Austrian folk music. In fact, the whole thing is a parody: Austria as it presents itself to the outside world now re-presented by Fruhauf in all its kitsch glory. Blow-Up on the other hand works as an alternative to some of the methods employed by Exposed. Again it takes time to discern the fragments this particular piece has chosen. Initially an entire reel is seen dancing over the frame, gradually getting closer and closer. What appears to be a couple kissing slowly reveals itself to be something considerably less romantic - a punchline which is then superseded by another final gag, and all within the space of two minutes. The tensions of Mirror Mechanics and the mysteries of Exposed are replaced with impish qualities; demonstration, surely, that Fruhauf’s method of filmmaking is far from narrow.
Furthering this claim are the shifts in mood these films are able to demonstrate. Ground Control from 2008 - two minutes of insects and interference set to a cacophonous soundtrack - is, put simply, pure intensity. Likewise 2009’s Palmes d’Or, which literally ends with the film going up in flames, and the central passage of the three-part Night Sweat (2008) in which rapid-cut lightning strikes collide with equally fierce aural accompaniment. Yet this latter piece is also bookended by two sequences of tremendous calm: Hi-8 videotape blown up to 35mm so that the moon and the outline of a forest become a wonderfully textured mass of pixels. Fittingly, the music, though still consisting of electronic burbles, is just as tranquil. (Sometimes you wonder whether the images have been composed in order to visualise the soundtracks or vice versa.) And then there’s Tranquillity itself, the 2002 short, accompanied by an ever swelling soundscape intermingled with NASA samples. For every bout of intensity there’s its complete opposite.
Such shifts are one of the reasons why this particular DVD works so well as a compilation. Fruhauf’s cinema, whilst easily encapsulated under a single umbrella of techniques and motivations, is ultimately diverse enough to continually surprise and, occasionally, contradict itself. It can be both serious and very funny, both calming and incredibly fierce, contain mysteries and, in some of the more underdeveloped works, come across as a little too obvious in its approach and end results. Yet such flaws - which I won’t dwell on - are easily sidestepped as the qualities far outweigh them, as indeed do those shorts of an especially high standard. Fruhauf, though I’ve drawn comparisons to the likes of Martin Arnold. Joseph Cornell and Norman McLaren, is a distinctive filmmaker and one who I’m more than happy to have encountered thanks to this collection. Hopefully these films’ newfound availability will prompt a similar sense of discovery in all those who come across it.
Siegfried A. Fruhauf: Exposed is that latest release from Index and presents the films in a manner now standard for the Austrian label. The disc itself is encoded for Region 0 PAL and houses the 65-minutes worth of on-disc material onto a DVD-5. Each of the films is presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios and offers up the soundtracks in Dolby Digital 2.0. Given the presence of soundscapes as opposed to dialogue, no subtitles are required. On the whole both the visual and aural side of things is handled especially well. Ultimately it is hard to maintain just how these films should look and sound given their reliance, more often than not, on rough edges and abrasive textures, but nothing appears untoward. The onslaught of images (especially in something like the extremely rapid cut Palmes d’Or) doesn’t prompt any unnecessary artefacting or the like, whilst the audio side of things copes ably with both the more intense passages and those quieter moments. Supplementary features amount to three additional one-minute shorts (the aforementioned Mozart Dissolution, plus Frontale  and Phantom Ride ; the latter two being trailers for different film festivals yet still maintaining Fruhauf’s common approaches) and a 22-page bilingual booklet. Contained within we find a five-page essay by Stefan Grissemann in both English and German, plus notes and credits for each of the shorts in a similar fashion and a brief bio and filmography for Fruhauf.
For further information on Index DVD and details on how to purchase their releases, please visit their website at www.index-dvd.at.