(Austria 2019; Dir: Alexander Gratzer)


Tell me how to live

review by Michiel Philippaerts


length: 7

year of production: 2019

country of production: Austria

director: Alexander Gratzer

editing: Alexander Gratzer

sound: Alexander Gratzer

music: Alexander Gratzer

festivals: Clermont-Ferrand 2019, Go Short 2020, interfilm Berlin 2019, Uppsala Short Film Festival 2019, Leiden Shorts 2020, Encounters 2020

© images: Apfelmus (Alexander Gratzer)

Alexander Gratzers ‘Apfelmus’ seems to be a direct commentary on a very specific and age-old human feeling of Sehnsucht: “Oh, imagine the joy of being an animal: having no one to answer to but our primary instincts.” No more stress, no more questions, no more nights of staring up at the unforgiving ceiling with a head full of existential dread. It would be a wonderful life, wouldn’t it? The Austrian director, however, seems to suggest we might be mistaken.

Two birds, resting in their large nest in a tree, reflect on the disappointments of “being a bird" – their knees drawn up to their chest as little children. "To me the whole thing feels very inauthentic," one mumbles when the other brings up ‘freedom’, the empty concept frequently attributed to birds. "I can't let go of the feeling that I'm just playing a part." Meandering guitar chords on the soundtrack lend the philosophical conversation a certain mystery, while the colorful pencil-drawn animation transports the viewer to fairytale territory. Difficult questions are met with a wandering look – or worse, indifferent whistling and chirping.

The director expertly utilizes the single-panel melancholy of Roy Andersson, though, while his characters are just as desperate as those of the meister of deadpan humour, the notes Gratzer hits feel decidedly more Austrian than Nordic. He leads us through three vignettes (birds, humans, polar bears): the bookending chapters marked by a weirdly calming atmosphere that’s nonetheless injected by anxiety, the middle being a droll musical intermezzo. At first glance this comical centerpiece looks to be giving everything away, but there’s more to ‘the joke’ than it seems. Despite the fact that Gratzer doesn’t exactly withhold the punchline, the way everything is set up feels unique and satisfying.

‘Apfelmus’ is therefore a weird little film. One that seems deceptively small conceptually, but manages to capture its audience through its bizarre charm and low-key absurdism. Like in life, questions remain unanswered. Having said that, there might be some solace in the freeing simplicity of preparing apple mousse: “You just have to wash, peel, cut, and mash it. The apple.” Instructions don’t get much clearer.

'Apfelmus' was elected the Audience Favourite during the ninth week of My Darling Quarantine Short Film Festival.