Review: Notes from the Underworld (2020)

Courtesy of Viennale

“Viennese underworld” might sound paradoxical given that nowadays Vienna is one of the safest metropolitan cities in the world, but every city has, or at least it used to have, its own underworld. Surely, even in the turbulent post-WWII years, Vienna did not resemble the likes of Chicago or Naples with public shootings and brutal gang wars, but it does not mean that it did not have its share of criminal and anti-social behaviour amongst the ranks of those who felt left behind. It is important to note that even those circles operate by an ethical code of sorts and Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel catch that sense alluringly in their newest documentary Notes from the Underworld.

The film that thematizes another era premiered in the “old”, pre-pandemic era, at 2020 Berlinale (Panorama Dokumente programm), and the festival tour ensued with the stops at IDFA, Gijón and Viennale. Notes from the Underworld also screened at Diagonale in Graz, where it got the Jury Award in the documentary competition.

The two protagonists of the film were in a way members of the same gang. Alois “Loisl” Schmutzer was once dubbed “The King of the Viennese Underworld”, and his friend Kurt “Kurti” Girk was a popular singer with ties to the gangster world, especially the Schmutzer brothers. Two of them have been through different kind of hell together and have lived enough to tell their stories about their childhood in the period between two World Wars, their teen years marked by the war, their hustling and bustling with the illegal gambling in the 60s, conflicts with other criminal groups and, most notably, the treatment the police and the courts gave them back in the day.

Although old and running out of strength, they still think they remember the days, and they swear they are telling the truth. But the truth is elusive, not because they lie (they have no reason for that, after all these years and prison time served), but because their points of view are distinctive and their memories are fading. The inclusion of other witnesses, like Schmutzer’s sister Helli, a prison guard named Peter and some of their “colleagues” and acquaintances don’t help much either because, in the end, there is not “one truth”, but multiple sides of the story.

In the end, Notes from the Underworld is not a documentary about the underworld itself and about the events that should be substantiated in hard facts, but a film about the past and different lives bygone. The underworld here is more like a culture with strong proletarian roots, marked by loss of the beloved ones during the war, and the perpetual conflict that also has its roots in the pre-wartimes. Kurti and Loisl are certainly not heroes, but they cannot be total villains either knowing that on the opposite side, representing “law and order” were former Nazis. However, Kurti, Loisl and the rest of the clique were not some political outlaws, but a bunch of rough and though guys doing their best to survive and live a life much different than the one of ordinary people.

Notes from the Underworld is less about “what” than about “how”, which also reflects on the execution level and the creative choices of the Covi-Frimmel duo. The choice of the shooting format, super-16, might be also seen as a sign of the bygone times, but it is actually the signature of the filmmakers. Here, it works in rarmony with the composition, making every frame of it a wonderful, highly-contrasted, artistic black and white photograph that is quite poster-worthy. Also, the choice of filming the characters/subjects/witnesses in their “natural habitats” proves telling in a way that could not be quite put into words. For Kurti, those are Viennese cafés and old-school bars where he is sometimes joined by his friends, so he can sing, while for the strong-as-an-ox country-boy Loisl, it is a simple table at his modest home outside of the city.

There is an air of nostalgia and romantization which does not come neither from the filmmakers nor from teir subjects. It is simply present, and Covi and Frimmel, as well as Kurti and Loisl, belong to it. Notes from the Underworld is currently one of the richest documentaries on the market.

Original title: Aufzeichnungen aus der Unterwelt
Year: 2020
Runtime: 115’
Country: Austria
Language: German
Directed by: Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel
Written by: Rainer Frimmel
With: Kurt Girk, Alois Schmutzer
Cinematography by: Rainer Frimmel
Editing by: Tizza Covi
Music by: Kurt Girk
Sound design by: Manuel Grandpierre
Sound recording by: Tizza Covi
Produced by: Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel
Production company: Vento Films