The Modest Pilgrim / The Austrian Films of Canadian John Cook

Olaf Möller

“Never heard of him,” Canadians usually reply when asked about Toronto-born and raised auteur John Cook (1935-2001), father of flamenco singer-songwriter Jesse Cook, and one of the most important modern Austrian filmmakers—his three features and two medium-length works are heralded as being amongst the finest Austrian films ever made. Despite two Cook retrospectives in the last decade, most Austrian cinephiles have never been able to see these films until recently, when the Austrian Film Museum struck new prints of his first three independently produced films—Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer (I Just Can’t Go On, 1972/73, two versions), Langsamer Sommer (Slow Summer, 1974/76, done in collaboration with Michael Pilz), and Schwitzkasten (Headlock, 1978)—and showcased them in March, after screenings at the Diagonale in Graz. At every screening many of Austria’s finest filmmakers and critics sat in awe, enraptured as much by their own romantic notion of what once was possible in their country as by the films themselves. They were dreaming—the one thing Cook probably never did. Maybe he couldn’t dream. Maybe he could only live.   

To truly understand the Austrian fascination/obsession with this ur-typical Canadian realist—imagine a radically vérité-styled mix of Jean-Pierre Lefebvre and Allan King, with a dash of Straub—one needs to understand the “Realism Complex” of Austrian cinephilia. Lacking a picture of its own world, it clings desperately to every example of homemad(e) realism, no matter how aesthetically shaky it might be (see recent re-evaluations of films like Harald Röbbeling’s Asphalt [1951], Kurt Steinwendner’s Wienerinnen [1952], or Aldo Vergano’s Schicksal am Lenkrad [1954]).
There was no realist cinema to speak of in Austria until the ‘90s, certainly not in mainstream fiction films, usually attributed to Austrian cinema’s dependency on the German market. Austrians couldn’t afford to look only at themselves; as an industry they had to produce images that would please foreigners as much as folks back home (or they simply didn’t want to look at themselves and found a convenient excuse in Germany’s “might”). In the ‘90s, when the film funds had finally started to work and Michael Haneke cleared a path into the international arthouse market, Austrians could finally start to ponder a realist cinema, as “Our Own Image” was hard currency on said market—for which reason one has to ask how much these images can be owned. Just look at Michael Glawogger: the more Austrian he got in a masterpiece like Slugs (2004), the less interested people from outside Austria were. Thus the prevalence of foreigners in those films which did travel well overseas, such as Barbara Albert’s Free Radicals (2003), was cause for depression in Austrian film culture: a real Austria seemed impossible.

One can imagine how somebody like John Cook must look in a situation like this: The most modern Viennese filmmaker is a foreigner—a stranger sometimes to himself, and always to his background, but never to his culture—an auteur who was able to show Austria like no Austrian ever could (or allow?) himself, a maverick at that who worked for nobody but himself for as long as he could, and when things started to get awkward, he simply stopped. Cook’s the kind of master one can safely admire because nobody really expects one to be like him—and if in doubt: he wasn’t Austrian, he was Canadian, for which reason he could see in a way no Austrian could ever hope to. (There’s a Canadian reverse angle, as Cook epitomizes Canadian culture’s obsession with realism—the flipside of its obsession with a surrealism. His is a typical story of an exiled artist trapped between a need to run away and a longing for heimat, displacement and taking roots. But that’s a story a Canadian will certainly tell more convincingly once the films are shown in Cook’s native land.) 
The story is usually told like this: In the late ‘60s, John Cook, famous Canadian fashion photographer based in Paris, got tired of his métier and stopped working as a photographer for good. Together with his girlfriend, renowned model and aspiring photographer Elfie Semotan, he moved to “her” country’s capital, Vienna, and started a new career as a filmmaker from scratch. To better learn German and to get a grip on his new surroundings, Cook kicked off his filmmaking life right on his doorstep with a portrait of his cleaning woman and her husband, an aspiring but rather untalented pugilist, Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer; before that, he’d only shot some of a film called Peter Altenberg (1970), plus a few commercials.
After the success of his documentary debut, he set out to make a documentary-fiction hybrid, resulting in one of the most unusual Austrian films of the decade: Langsamer Sommer, a sharp-witted, impressionistic-essayistic portrait of a group of Austrian artists, done as a group project with Michael Pilz and Susanne Schett. With his next film, Schwitzkasten, Cook finished his transformation from documentary into fiction filmmaker, Based upon a novel-treatment by Helmut Zenker, the film tells the story of a defiant worker at loggerheads with society. It became an instant classic, the film most people associate with his name, and is usually considered to be the peak of Cook’s career.

Things went downhill fast with his next and final feature-length work, his only professionally produced film: Artischocke (Artichoke, 1982), a Rohmerian study of a young man’s summer and his failures in love. Austria had finally inaugurated a state-funded subsidy system for cinema; Cook was one of the first to get one, for a project called Brönner oder Die weite Reise, which never got made due to one commissioning editor at the ORF who hated either Cook, the screenplay, or both. In his frustration, Cook gave up on cinema—after just having changed his citizenship from Canadian to Austrian to be eligible for state funding—and moved to France, where, more or less secretly, he created one final work on video, Jose Manrubia Novillero d’Arles. L’ apprentissage d’un matador de toros, finished in 1990 but shown only once in his lifetime, in 1996. Like Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer, it’s about a young man trying to find his place in the world by following the path of a macho sport. Cook then stayed in France, lived on a boat, and is said to have done some writing—but all in all, he just seemed to have drifted serenely through the days, until his sudden and unexpected death on September 21st, 2001.

None of this is wrong as such—it’s just that many details are missing. Cook actually made films long before Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer: home movies, shot first on 16mm, then on Standard 8, with titles like The Moose and The Rape, little genre-variations conjured from the lives of those closest to him (thus Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer is likely an extension of his earlier endeavours). Also, his adieu to commercials wasn’t so radical: his final ad work seems to have been a highly influential and corporate identity-defining campaign for Römerquelle sparkling water done with Michael Pilz, which won the Austrian State award for commercial design, and made in 1975, when Cook and Pilz were already busy with Langsamer Sommer. Also, it seems that Cook’s commercial work wasn’t so different from his cinema: the tenderly cool ironies and a certain sense of minimalist beauty seems to have also characterized some of his ads (one he did for Rieker shoes is described as showing a guy sitting in a cafe with a shoe in his hand, accompanied by an Otis Redding soundtrack). Not surprisingly, his farewell to cinema was equally prolonged. Not only did he try to get Brönner oder Die weite Reise financed in France, and not only did he work for years on Jose Manrubia Novillero d’Arles, but he also toyed around with other projects. The man who claims he always wanted to make ten films never really let go, the same way that he never stopped taking pictures, and never stopped writing (his first love, and the only one that he never turned into a career). Cook never stopped doing what he loved—he only stopped living off it when he felt that he was starting to exploit it.

But even when every fact is accounted for, Cook’s official oeuvre—the four Viennese works plus the apocryphal French film—still exudes a cinemythical appeal, no problem as long as it’s directed towards gentle reappraisal rather than a closed narrative. Viewed today, Artischocke is hardly the failure it was turned into over the decades, nor is Jose Manrubia Novillero d’Arles some final feebleness that can be ignored, while Schwitzkasten, for all its greatness, is certainly not the über-masterpiece it was made into.

Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer is, however, a perfect debut: the way it moves, so freely, lively, curiously, inventing itself while progressing thanks to Cook’s spontaneous camerawork; the roughness of its textures; the rawness of its montage (images as well as sounds); and finally, the attention to the authentic, especially in the voices, the way people talk. But the clincher are those stabs at fiction: the film opens with Gisi, the cleaning woman, reading a dramatic letter from Petrus, her wannabe-pugilist husband—the film’s only instance of synched dialogue—which makes all that follows look like an urgent memory, their life condensed into a story. Just a few minutes later the film turns for ten seconds or so into meta-fiction—Cook invents a story of a cameraman videotaping Petrus while he’s shadow-boxing so that he can study himself.  

At that often fatal first glance, Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer could easily be mistaken for a piece of indulgent ‘70s social democratic bull, with a big, guilty society trampling some poor underdogs who’ve made the system work but can’t really go against it. But there’s a whole other system of anarch(ist)ic ironies and ambiguities that seemingly have little to do with the designated story, tiny tales of chance and fate, tender moments of solidarity that are the film’s true essence: scenes of Gisi and Petrus playing ping-pong, of their children walking the streets on Mardi Gras like a flock of funky geese, of Petrus tinkering away at a cupboard. It’s possible to read something sad or desperate into these scenes, but what comes across the strongest is the gentle and affectionate glow cast over Cook’s often harsh world, in which everybody, no matter how weird or awkward they might look, are wonderful and loveable

Which is the essence of Cook’s cinema: There’s no reason to hate people, even if they’re blatant assholes. Well, save for Ehrlich, an arch-‘70s protest literato (improvised with relish by one of Austria’s most remarkable modern essayists, Franz Schuh), the antagonist of the worker hero in Cook’s most classical work, Schwitzkasten. He’s the one guy who gets damned, just as the great photographer Helmut Boselmann is singled out (inversely, this time) as the sole pillar of wisdom among Langsamer Sommer’s self-betraying rabble of artists. 

Schwitzkasten’s extremely controlled beauty—minimal camera movement, exquisite lighting and framing, crisp, authentic, and ur-Viennese dialogues delivered just-so by its cast of illuminated amateurs, no-nonsense editing, and forget about music—is probably why people today feel a bit distanced from it. It’s certainly not as anarchic in spirit as Cook’s other works: it's more composed, self-possessed. Usually, Schwitzkasten is read along Arbeiterfilm lines, as showing a worker’s defeat by the capitalist system, for which reason its controlled aesthetic is commonly seen as expressing certain social inevitabilities. But it seems appropriate that a film about a worker’s progress, about solidarity and how to live it, should be so (self-)consciously organized, as organization is crucial when facing as supremely organized an enemy as capital. In this light, Schwitzkasten is the one Arbeiterfilm that shows how to live solidarity, how simple defiance and decency can be.

In between the anarchy of the outsider (Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer) and measured steps towards integration and self-realization (Schwitzkasten) is Cook’s designated masterpiece, the pseudo-autobiographical Langsamer Sommer. Shot on Super 8 colour stock and then printed on black-and-white 35mm, the film was improvised from a treatment developed by Cook and Pilz. Originally, the film was supposed to be something like a “celluloid-exorcism” for Cook, seeking to rid himself of the images—those in his head and those on 16mm—of Elfie Semotan, who’d left him shortly after Ich schaff’s einfach nimmer. But within a few weeks, the project turned into a self-portrait/analysis of Cook and Pilz’s social milieu of middle-class artists and artisans. It’s a strange film, a bit unsettling in its relentlessness, even if one doesn’t know the people in it. The characters bear the same names as the actors, and the line between truth and dare is so thin it’s often just not there; one can never be certain whether the self-loathing and disgust expressed by these people is real, or part of the fiction. Yet the scabrous content is tempered by the film’s retrospective air: the film’s completion provides the narrative framework, with Cook and Boselmann watching the footage and reminiscing about those bygone days. Langsamer Sommer is very much a film about facing and owning up to the past, and as such is cast in the past’s settled, serene beauty: the leisurely rhythm with which it moves, the warm light of days passing, the world’s amused indifference to man’s feeble foibles.

Cook’s other study of a summer, the roundly derided Artischocke, was his professional “debut,” which alone was enough to ruin the film’s reputation after it became clear that Cook would never make another film. But people were already unhappy at the time of its release: Cook was “getting established” and starting to tell “fluffy vacation stories,” moving, perhaps, but nothing like his important Arbeiterfilm. What nobody noticed or said is that Artischocke, for all its summery relaxedness, is Cook’s bitterest work, a puzzled contemplation of failure and death, in which nobody seems to be able or willing to even learn one simple thing. The second half is something like a repetition of the first; it’s as if the world still keeps turning but its placid indifference has turned bitterly cold.

It’s somehow not surprising that Cook sought solace in notions of destiny and eternity with Jose Manrubia Novillero d’Arles. L’apprentissage d’un matador de toros: for the first time he tells the story of somebody wanting to become one with his culture and world, a man without any doubts about who he is and who he should become. Again, he talks about his own cultural in-betweenness via Jose’s mixed heritage—a Frenchman of Andalusian extraction living in Southern France performing a sport that belongs to the larger region, its culture, and history, and not one of the two nations which divide that region. Even more so than Artischocke, Jose Manrubia Novillero d’Arles is a meditation on death and transfiguration, of the changeability of the unchangeable, about facts and fictions, realities and illusions. It’s probably Cook’s most profound and heartfelt work, and thus, by that particular necessity that makes John Cook John Cook, it’s his least measured film, like Langsamer Sommer a “material bastard” (half 16mm, half video), sublime at times and coarse at others.

From Arles at that time, Vienna must have looked like an illusion, a strange intermezzo of Cook’s life, a detour that was to become the essence of how he would be remembered. And then, there’s still Canada…

The Austrian Film Museum and SYNEMA present
Tribute to John Cook
Director John Cook was born in Canada but chose to spend large parts of his life in Austria. His work reflects two seemingly contradictory positions of Austrian filmmaking in the seventies: that of the outsider, but also that of the protagonist of the period. Although Cook’s cinematic works were few, they have a breadth beyond that of most other filmmakers of the period: one documentary film (Ich schaff's einfach nimmer), three feature films (Langsamer Sommer, Schwitzkasten, Artischocke), and a video documentary completed in France years later (José Manrubia novillero d'Arles. L apprentissage d'un matador de toros), which covers pretty much all of the vast continent that is cinema.

 With the films that Cook shot in Vienna between 1972 and 1982, he has a permanent place in the history of Austrian cinema. On the occasion of the restoration of his three main works and the publication of the first book on Cook’s life, the Austrian Film Museum and SYNEMA present a three-part homage at the Diagonale to this extraordinary artist who died in 2001. (Michael Omasta)

Graz, Diagonale, Festival of Austrian Film, March, 2006