Eismayer – watchAUT Austrian Film Festival

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: David Wagner

The opening minutes of Eismayer make you think you’re about to watch a typical army training-based movie. A new group of recruits arrive, a little scared, a little cocky, and are soon given short shrift by their sergeant-major, a typically overbearing, shouty man named Eismayer. But David Wagner’s film, screening at the watchAut Festival celebrating Austrian filmmaking, has something else in mind, defying expectations by not only focusing on the life of that sergeant-major and trying to unpick cinema cliches about the role, but also in focusing on a queer love story set in the supposedly homophobic environs of the army where traditional forms of masculinity are daily reinforced.

When a new group of conscripts arrive for basic training, Eismayer begins a programme of activity to instill military discipline into the group through locker inspections, parade ground drills and cross-terrain training days. Increasingly reluctant to go home to his wife and toddler son, Eismayer finds himself drawn to Mario Falak, a Bosnian recruit who is openly gay. But rumours have long circulated about the sergeant-major’s sexuality but is he brave enough to admit who he really is?

Underneath all the yelling and aggressive staring competitions that make up the usual authority versus trainee scenes in any army movie, Eismayer is, deep down, a rather sweet and sentimental romantic drama about a man trapped in an identity he doesn’t want and finding a love that finally releases him from his constraints. That writer-director Wagner is able to do this within the frame of a very different kind of movie is interesting, and while his central character is often ambiguous, the overarching path to self-discovery and the unexpected reactions of others are well-controlled.

Eismayer is particularly clear on the compromises the character makes and the layers of self-restraint that push his behaviours to the extreme. He is certainly not always likeable or rational, and nor is the film always clear about the centrality or purpose of the character, but it provides an interesting study on the ways in which social and work expectations shape the ease and freedom men have to be themselves and how the fear of persecution based on sexuality inhibits and restricts identity.

Wagner digresses occasionally into story points that ultimately lead nowhere including a cancer section and a few run-ins with Eismayer’s superior, the captain, but these are quickly forgotten and have no obvious purpose other than completeness in the story. Likewise, his wife and son are mere backdrop to Eismayer’s own psychological unease about himself and his life but his wife is little more than a betrayal stereotype, waiting at home for him with no life of her own. Yet, restrained and engaging performances from Gerhard Liebmann as Eismayer and Luka Dimić as Mario in particular carry this along and there is a growing chemistry between the actors that makes the development of their relationship believable, overcoming their hierarchical separation.

The ending may be a little treacly, reminiscent of the classic rom com dash to the airport, but it is still great to see an army film that reveals far more human and humane responses to true love.

Eismayer is screening at watchAUT Austrian Film Festival from 23-26 March 2023 at Ciné Lumière, London.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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