Movie Review: Kopfstand (1981)

Monday, December 08, 2014

It's the holiday season, and nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit like seeing an Austrian art house film about someone thrown into a mental institution. 

Got your attention, didn't I? Actually, what I meant to say is that when there's an actor I really like, I'm curious to watch his earlier roles to see if it satisfies some of my inward questions. Was he always so talented? Do these parts give any hint of Oscar success that would come decades later? And perhaps the most important, burning question...was he always so hot, beginning with back in the day?

In the case of Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, the answer to all three of these questions is a resounding yes. A few weeks ago I viewed his first ever film, Kopfstand, on Vimeo complete with English subtitles (a big thank you to the person who uploaded it, as it wasn't previously available on YouTube.) Waltz recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (to promote a very un-Oscar worthy film, Horrible Bosses 2) when he told Kimmel that a lot of his early stuff was heavy. (At that point Kimmel showed everyone a clip of a younger, adorable Waltz singing a song about the new year on a 1970s children's program, wearing a knitted striped jumper that didn't exactly hide the contours of his wiener schnitzel.) Heavy, indeed! 

Kopfstand (the German word for headstand) is also pretty heavy. It's dark, depressing, and thoroughly confusing, since the scenario of the plot is really far-fetched (although entirely possible, I suppose, given the imperfect and immoral world we sometimes find ourselves living in.) "This film is based on facts" the austere, Teutonic opening credits tell us--although I couldn't find any backstory to the film to find out if it were true, but to be honest I didn't do much digging...I'm sure some Austrian or German readers and sites out there have the answers. We do learn, however, that the film is dedicated to Franco Basaglia, an Italian psychiatrist who proposed that mental hospitals be dismantled after witnessing first-hand the horrors that took place in the institution he worked in. 

And for a serious movie, the music played over the opening credits is ironically funky and upbeat--a jazz number called "Going Crazy" (ha, of course) by an Austrian musician named Karl Ratzer. I was so disappointed that I couldn't locate more music by Ratzer uploaded online--it's a great sounding tune. (Although "Mad World" by Tears for Fears might have been more appropriate here, but whatever.)

In Kopfstand, Waltz plays a young man named Markus Dorn. We don't know exactly how old he might presume late teens except that he works as a hairdresser and how many 17 or 18 year-olds do you know who have learned professionally how to cut and style hair? I'm guessing that Markus is in his early 20s, and Waltz himself was 23 when the movie was released. The movie opens with Markus in an arcade (ah, nostalgia!) where he spends a good part of his time because he has a crush on the cashier girl. 

When he returns to his apartment late at night, and tries to enjoy his meal (which is precluded by a strange ADD-like percussion sequence of slamming each food item onto the table) he is interrupted by die mutter...or maybe we should say die mutterf*cker. She is one nasty, despicable, delusional, chain smoking nightmare of a woman, immediately launching into accusations that Markus is clearly taking drugs because he stays out late and that the papers are writing about it. There must have been some really slow news days in Vienna in the early '80s. (Dad either died or divorced and left Markus to suffer with this crazy bat.) 

The only thing that Markus is guilty of is backtalk, and it's not like his mother doesn't deserve it. He is only acting out and being sarcastic like anyone in his situation would--mom has a boyfriend who is just as awful as she is, and she has clearly chosen him over her son. After she slaps him across the face, he retaliates with physical force and threatens to "finish her off" before retreating to his bedroom. It isn't long after that that he's awoken, placed in a paddy wagon, and taken to the local police station where he's interrogated relentlessly. If you didn't know beforehand that this movie was taking place in Vienna, Austria, you'd swear it was happening on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Despite not having a shred of evidence, the cops are convinced that Markus is into pot, LSD, heroin, you name it..."whatever you (kids) use to kill yourselves." Markus is told to name names, at which point the movie gets its (really) only laugh when he answers, "John Lennon." 

And just like that, poor Markus finds himself in a mental institution, signed over by his own heartless mother. The place is a house of horrors. Markus is drugged, and given shock treatment, which puts him into an emotionless stupor. At one point his mother has the nerve to show up for a visit, to which a post-shocked Markus has no reaction. The doctor in charge of the hospital is just as brutal and delusional as Markus' mother, and the cycle of abusive and unnecessary treatment continues with no end in sight. 

Despite the suffering, Markus manages to makes friends with other men in the hospital, one of whom meets a tragic fate. He also escapes twice from his hell while doing outdoor work (which seems strangely unsupervised) only to be caught and returned. During one of his bouts with freedom, he stays the night with the girl from the arcade, only to be kicked out the next morning without being given even a cup of coffee because she's afraid of what her jealous boyfriend would do if he caught him there. 

Redemption does arrive for Markus when the head doctor is replaced by a sympathetic woman, who takes an interest in his case and decides to release him. It becomes pretty evident, however, that things are not going to work out between Markus and his mother. He ends up living with a widower in a large house. She's not exactly warm and fuzzy at first, but the arrangement allows Markus to slowly get acclimated back into the free world. And then the film ends kind of abruptly, and we're left wondering if there was a point, other than the fact that mental hospitals really sucked back in the day. I would have liked to see crazy mom be declared insane and strapped onto the shock treatment stretcher. 

It's a downer of a film, made even more eerie by the fact that it's in black-and-white (which recalls some of David Lynch's earlier movies.) One thing I noticed is that the inside of the apartment that Markus shares with his mother always looks so dark, while the scenes shot inside of the institution are much brighter...symbolizing, I have to suppose, the darkness of this young man's home life. 

It goes without saying that Waltz is the only reason to watch this movie, especially if you're a fan of his like I am. I read on one fan site that if this movie had been released in the States the year it came out, he would have been nominated for an Oscar award back then. I don't think that's entirely true...the movie had a really limited release in Austria and its subject matter and style wouldn't have appealed to most American film audiences. The only reason it's been unearthed now online is because of its star. His character is sympathetic and while he appears passive throughout most of the running time, there are a few moments during his stay in the hospital where the bottled-up rage becomes too much. The part where he got practically kicked out of the arcade girl's apartment made me want to cry. Geez. What female Waltz fan wouldn't want to console that sweet boy after all he's been through and keep him hidden from the police, boyfriend be damned?

Also, I can't hide my opinion that Waltz' gorgeous to look at in this film...beautiful eyes, hair pulled back in a ponytail, his full lips and prominent chin more noticeable here (although I think he got even better looking with age and certainly consider him handsome at any phase of his career.) He's just very European and different looking than young American actors at the time. He also looks nothing like a young Ryan Gosling in my opinion, so can the Internet please stop with those annoying side-by-side comparison photos, already? 

Recalling his Dr. King Schultz character from Django Unchained, there's a great scene of him in his hair salon, wearing a vest and running his fingers through his hair to pull it back in a ponytail. He wears jeans, cowboy boots and a leather jacket in the film...not to mention striped hospital PJs and a bathrobe that call to mind the Beatlejuice suit that Robin Thicke wore at that failed VMA performance. Guess who can rock stripes way better?

All shameless swooning aside, Christoph Waltz has something to be proud of here as his first movie role, even though it's miles away from Quentin Tarantino's imagined worlds and the red carpet of the Academy Awards. Kopfstand's unanswered questions hang in the air long after the movie is over. 

Here's part 1 of the film on Vimeo (the movie is uploaded in five parts.) 


  1. Hey, I'm with you. He was a bit of a looker. I wouldn't have recognized him by a photo if you hadn't told me it was Waltz. I'm thinking the mouth is the most distinctive tie to modern day CW.

    Great, great post! Thanks, Pam.

  2. Thank you, Cherdo. I forgot to mention that Christoph has a new film coming out in a few weeks, Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" (which I am writing a review for that will appear on REBEAT--seeing as it's based on a true story and takes place in the 1960s.) He was also just announced last week as part of the cast of the next James Bond movie, SPECTRE, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. So, the man's career is on fire right now. I should have added a couple of points to my review about the other actors in the movie, who did a very fine job.

  3. Where can I watch this movie for free?? I wanna watch it sooo baaad!


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