Q & A with the Austrian director Gerald Kargl of the psycho-thriller ANGST (1983)

Intro, photo and questions by Marcus Stiglegger, interview conducted on August 29, 2003, in the Xenon cinema, Berlin. Thanks to Jörg Buttgereit.


A genre such as the thriller is virtually non-existent in Austrian cinema. Well-known especially for their experimental productions, everyday topics and problematic dramas, Austrian films are comparable to the art films of New German Cinema or to the kind of German TV movies that share a similar “anti-cinematic” take on the medium. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Gerald Kargl’s psycho-thriller ANGST (Fear, 1983) has rarely been distributed commercially on videotape. Even today this disturbing film —which follows the bloody course of a twice convicted serial-killer through the Austrian countryside—can hardly be seen.

ANGST is based on an actual case of triple-murder, the “Kniesek case”, which is as famous in Austria as the Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten trials in Germany, or the Ed Gein case in America. Like these and other serial killers, Werner Kniesek from Salzburg—who killed three people out of pure lust in 1980—stands as a threatening symbol of senseless death and destruction for its own sake. “I just love it when women shiver in deadly fear because of me. It is like an addiction, which will never stop”, said Kniesek in front of the judge. His psychiatrist classified him as “extremely abnormal but not mentally ill”— an explosive mixture of lust for destruction and addiction to physical violence.

In ANGST some of the authentic facts are changed, the names of the people and cities altered, and certain events modified. The most obvious and significant change is the director’s decision to add the killer’s voice-over, as he quotes passages from other serial-killers’ confessions, especially those of Peter Kürten, the so-called “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” This strictly subjective one-person drama is shot with a strong use of high-angle shots and handheld camerawork, and the minimal narration shows similarities to Aristide Massaccesi’s Italian stalk’n’slash-epic ROSSO SANGUE (ABSURD,I 1982). But in fact, Kargl manages to direct a European counterpart to John McNaughton’s HENRY:Portrait of a Serial Killer (USA 1986): irritating, gory, and absolutely hopeless.

ANGST is exceptional in Austrian cinema for at least two reasons: it is both a “true crime” semi-documentary, and a stylized 'slasher film' resembling those from the Italian tradition. Yet it is very different as well. The film confronts the viewer with the most horrible details of the authentic case, and stands as the collaborative effort of first-time-director Kargl and his writer-cameraman Zbigniew Rybczynski; the third “author” is composer Klaus Schulze (from the “Krautrock”-group Tangerine Dream), whose cold yet haunting electronic rhythms add a great deal to the alienating atmosphere.

ANGST uses real-time narration nearly all way through; only a few ellipses appear in the second part, but most of the film is staged in detailed on-screen action, filmed with long tracking shots, sometimes even in planned sequences. Dialogue scenes are extremely rare, due to the concentration on a subjective, one-person drama. The film starts in a prison cell, establishing the killer (Erwin Leder) through an off-screen monologue in which he reflects about his past, his deeds, his needs, his sexual desires, and his supposedly lost childhood. The film’s irritating atmosphere is established via clear, often high-key, but always greyish visuals— only broken by some stylish chiaroscuro in the cell. When released from prison ten years later, the off-screen narration leaves the viewer with no illusions: the killer will be stalking his next victim soon. When he enters a small diner we are forced to “scan” the guests through the killer’s eyes. Every human being is a potential victim. First he enters a taxi, directs the female driver into a forest, and tries to strangle her. But he fails, as she has sensed something weird the whole time. His potential victim manages to kick him out of the car and escapes. The killer flees through the forest until he reaches a huge villa. He breaks into this supposedly empty house and meets—here the semi-documentary begins—a disabled and mentally retarded young man in a wheelchair (Rudolf Goetz). Soon the other occupants of the house arrive: a middle-aged woman (Silvia Rabenreither), and her adolescent daughter (Edith Rosset).
Accompanied by his own quietly spoken voice-over, the killer starts his bloody “work”: the son is drowned in the bathtub, and the mother gets strangled in her bedroom. The daughter tries to escape, but the killer hunts her down in the basement garage and viciously stabs her with a bread-knife. Here the most disturbing sequence of Angst runs its course: after massacring the young woman in a total frenzy, the killer rapes the corpse post-mortem. All of this is shot in real-time. After this disturbing climax, the film returns to its low-key narrative, and shows us the killer’s actions after the murders: having slept at the crime scene, he washes himself, stuffs the corpses in the trunk of the family’s car, and—once again—visits the diner from earlier in the picture. While there, he behaves suspiciously. The police are on to him, because on his way he had caused an accident and fled in panic. Finally they force him to open the trunk, a sequence filmed in long, circling tracking shots, symbolizing the circle of crime and punishment in which the killer is so consciously trapped.

What is so frightening about ANGST is that the killer is characterized as a threat to every human being crossing his path. To be seen by him is to be his potential victim. He easily invades the residence of a bourgeois household— a place that is normally synonymous with warmth and safety. And he brings murder to a dispassionate middle-class society in which “death” would appear to be the only and last taboo. Interestingly, the disabled son seems to be “hidden” by his own family in this villa by the edge of the forest.

As noted earlier, ANGST’s dramatic structure is reduced to only a very small amount of narration: we are simply shown the killer’s murder spree on his one and only day of freedom. What might cause some empathy with this dangerous character—his own first-person-narration—in fact functions to alienate the viewer even more. This because the voice-overs simply double on the verbal level the monstrous incidents shown to us in all their graphic horror. Through the use of this technique, the film creates a distance between audience and protagonist that never really subsides. The murder sequences may be visually shocking, but they are also deeply reflective. Kargl avoids providing any type of entertainment, conventional thrill, or suspense. In fact Kargl and Rybczynski seem to believe that entertainment through stalk’n’slash splatter films is a sign of cynicism and should be avoided. As a result, they have tried to develop a directing method marked by intellectual distance. Austria is a true middle-class society, and the greatest fear of the middle class is the invasion of the bourgeois home by unpredictable elements, be they of foreign origin—this is where racism comes into play—or be they mentally ill. ANGST’s killer eventually belongs to the same bourgeois background as his choice of victims. This would seem to be the real Austrian nightmare.

Ikonen: What was the inspirational impulse for the making of ANGST?

Kargl: I was very interested in the psychology of this serial killer and wanted to provide a deep look inside his deranged psyche via mainly realtime narration and his inner voice, present here as the running off-commentary.

What is your biographical background? How did you get into contact with filmmaking? What is your profession today?

I already did short films in the seventies, but ANGST was my first fulltime feature. After this - which I produced completely on my own - I was happy to direct a lot of commercials. Finally I was able to pay back all the money I lost. Later I did some educational films as well. And a new film-project is in development - but this will be very different to ANGST.

What was the economical situation during the making of the film? What was the budget?

The budget was around 400.000 Euro, a sum which was completely provided by myself via debts. I was ruined for years after that...

What is the position of this film within the context of Austrian national cinema at that time?

There are very few films produced in Austria, and most of them are not very interesting. There especially is no genre-cinema. ANGST virtually appeared 'out of nowhere' and was very untypical for its time and place...

The camera-work in this film is very elaborate. E.g. the crane shot in the beginning or the handheld camerawork of Kniesek’s POV. What were the technical conditions during the making of the film? Some words on the Director of Photography?

Especially for this film the cameraman Zbyg invented some technical props. Most of the shots were done via a mirrorsystem that enabled us to use very strange perspectives. But there were also a lot of limits because of this. He developed a rope-system that was used for the very long and fast tracking shots in the woods. All this was very expensive and I am not sure, if it was all necessary in the end, because the mirrors also stood in our way.

In some scenes the camera is very close, strapped on the actor looking at his face. This effect is also used later to great effect in Darren Aronofsky’s PI – THE MOVIE.

The camera was fixed on a ring which loosely swung around the actor. This produced the effect of him always staying in focus, isolating him from his surroundings. He lives in his own world.

Some words on the casting? How did you find the main actors?

Erwin Leder, our main actor, was at the time already wellknown from his performance in Wolfgang Petersen's DAS BOOT. He searched for a new and different role and was very obsessed by this extremely excessive character. In a way he enjoyed playing the 'madman'. He actually grew up in the psychiatric institute his father led. A youth amongst schizophrenic people seems to leave its marks... - The other actors mainly were ambitious young performers - except the old man in the diner, who is played by our special equipmente architect.

How did the connection to composer Klaus Schulze come about?

I knew Schulze's music solo and with Tangerine Dream and liked it. We got along very well when we met in Munich. I like the music versions in the film much more than the mixes on the soundtrack CD, which is probably more well-known than the film itself. When I returned from a meeting in Munich I heared in the news that Kniesek had tried to escape. That was a strange coincidence.

What was the concept in shooting the on-screen violence in ANGST? What were the limitations?

Principally we wanted to show everything and in the most realistic way possible. Unfortunately the most excessive scenes would work much better if they were not shown in such bright detail. Today I would go for more elipses and off-screen action. The really horrible things should happen in the audience's imagination.

Did you have problem’s with censorship concerning the violence?

The film was discussed in Austria in the context of the early video-violence-debate. But it got its cinema release without cuts. In France it was available as a VHS-tape called SCHIZOPHRENIA and became a cult movie. In Britain and Germany some labels were interested but it would have been banned for violent content. Therefor it never came out there... In the USA the film was rated XXX, which marked it as 'pornographical', therefor the distributor stepped back.

How was the critical and commercial reception of this film?

The film got some good critics, but it was no financial success at all. I lost nearly all my money than... The later reception is better and the film has a good reputation now.

What is your own opinion on ANGST seeing it again today?

I am not satisfied throughout. Especially the central violence is over the top and should not be shown that way. I would do it differently today.

Mr. Kargl, thank you for this interview.

ANGST is soon to come on Barrel Entertainment DVD (USA, RC 1 only!). This interview cites some excerpts of the running director's commentary,