Friday, June 19, 2009

The Terror of Angst

Gerald Kargl's Angst (Austria, '83) is one of the most disturbing horror films ever made; it is also one of the least seen.

I am ashamed to admit that I only saw it for the first time a year ago. It has stayed with me since then like a deathly stench I can't wash off my hands. It is visually, aurally, and technically groundbreaking.

Originally titled Tango before release, it is based on the true story of a madman who was released from an Austrian prison. His name was Werner Kniesek, and he killed a widow and her two children. One of the children was mentally disabled. At the time, Kniesak gained the notoriety now afforded the subject of Austria's Joseph Fritzl, the Nazi sympathizer who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for more than twenty years.

In Angst, the unnamed madman (Erwin Leder) takes a family hostage immediately after he is released from prison. One of his victims is a mentally disabled male. He proceeds to do away with the man's mother and sister also in vile, unsettling ways.

Kargl creates a tense, poisonous atmosphere with his choices of angles, camera movement, minimalist music, and impeccable casting.

Klaus Schulze, the great German composer, wrote the film's score before a frame was shot. "I will cut the film to the music," Kargl told Schulze, "not adapting the music to the film."

There is almost no dialog in Angst. We are inside the madman's head, and we listen to his matter-of-fact voice-over as he kills, stalks, and repeats his past mistakes. Laying an almost academic voice track over frantic scenes of violence pays huge dramatic dividends in Angst. It removes us from the victim's point of view and replants us in the killer's shoes.

In my imdb review, I wrote:

Twenty-five years ago (three years before John McNaughton made "Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer"), Gerald Kargl made "Angst", a very different and unique portrait of a deeply disturbed man whose childhood traumas have decimated his thinking and fueled his destructive, sexually perverted fantasies.

Released from jail, he sets out immediately to relieve the pressure inside his head by committing murder, necrophilia, and sundry sadistic acts. Breaking into a mansion, he waits for its inhabitants to return home and begins a frantic rampage.

The lead performance by the now well-established character actor Erwin Leder (Das Boot, Underworld) is an exceptional one. His ability to take us with him on his damaged journey to happiness -- psychologically and physically -- reminded me of Klaus Kinski's best work. Leder possesses the same manic energy, the same unpredictability that made Kinski such a dangerous, unnerving screen presence.

Wisely, Kargl does not insist on balancing the film with an opposite of Leder. Instead, the entire movie is told from the psychopath's fragmented, paranoid point of view and narrated by the killer himself.

Worth pointing out is how effective the killer's thoughtful voice-over is when played during key moments of violence.

The technique successfully conveys the lack of empathy the killer felt towards his victims (who were simply players in his fantasy). This singular perspective (of the killer) is further accomplished with bravura camera movement that seems to mirror Leder's thought processes.

No moving shot feels extraneous or unnecessary. On the contrary, I couldn't imagine the film without it.

German electronic genius Klaus Schulze (one of my favorite composer/musicians) provides a throbbing, nightmarish, minimalist score that is as unrelenting in its purpose as the killer himself.

The pacing is measured but unstoppable and the violence is more realistic than sensationalistic.

As serial killer films go, this is truly original and disturbing. My only problem with the film is that it ended too abruptly. Like the killer, I wanted more.

An important aspect of Angst that has no doubt alienated audiences and potential distributors is its refusal to kowtow to genre conventions. It is not a suspense film in the traditional sense. It is not a splatter film, either. It is gory in parts, but Kargl does not film the murder scenes as visual showcases. The violence is wet, messy and odious.

There is no hero. The central subject, a pathetic miscreant, is a failed human being who continues to fail at everything he attempts. Every fantasy he cultivated in his jail cell is shattered once his killing spree gets under way. His desires to be noticed, to be respected, to show his future victims the mutilated corpses of his kills, are not realized.

Kargl and his equally talented artistic collaborator/cinematographer Zbigniew Rbyczynski refuse to provide the usual emotional closure to the horror film audience. The film's finale depicts the final failure of the madman's unrealized ambitions. It is not bloody, action-packed, or cathartic.

There is a terrible, brutal loneliness present in the marrow of this film's bones. It is a loneliness that expresses itself in the ugliest, most unpalatable way.

But don't just trust my word for it. Read all the imdb comments on this movie.

The film's distribution history has been a disaster. Although it is now available in Germany and Spain in non-subbed versions, an official English-subtitled version has been aloof.

The US-based Barrel Entertainment, which put out superb versions of Jorge Buttgereit's Nekromantik films, announced that they would be releasing the film several years ago. The release never materialized, and there has been no follow-up information.

Lovingly fan-subbed versions are out there.

If you're a true horror fan, you owe it to yourself to track down and experience Angst.


  1. I too only discovered this film about a year ago. I was blown away by how great it was and that I'd never heard of it before. The version I have is in German w/no subs and do not speak German, but even in a language I don't understand I thought it was an incredible movie. Like you said, there's not much dialogue anyways. I've yet to get my hands on a fan-subbed version, but I would like to as I'd really love to know what is being said.

    Hopefully Barrel Ent. will stop holding out on us.

  2. I have that German version now and the fansubbed. It's well worth getting the text because the voice-over is pretty impressive. The ravings of a madman... but well articulated ravings.

    Barrel still lists 'Angst' on their site, but they haven't update their "News" section since '2004.

    They may have shut shop (can anybody confirm?)

  3. He scored the film before it was shot?? That's kinda cool. I gotta see this.

  4. This looks like a nice film.

    Plenty of duckies and bunnies too?

  5. It's a real shame that this film is so overlooked. I too am assuming Barrel Entertainment is no longer making product.

    Leder is fantastic. His interior ramblings are a huge part of what makes Angst a success. Eventually I want to extract that fansub from the XViD, clean it up a bit, and apply it to the video files from the Spanish DVD for a higher quality version.

    Another great, overlooked performance in a genre film by an Austrian actor is Werner Pochath as the pathetic character in Mosquito der Schander. Whereas Leder is intense in Angst, Pochath's deviant is a sad little man with whom you are meant to sympathize.