Michael Haneke. Ulrich Seidl. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Austrian directors are not exactly known for their comedic streaks. Yet suddenly, here is Josef Hader, originally a cabaret artist and actor, taking a big plunge and writing, directing, and starring in his debut feature Wild Mouse, which rightfully found its way into competition at this year’s Berlinale. Not that it’s a lighthearted comedy, mind you. This wild mouse chase is actually a very acerbic dip into the pool of relational comedy, centered around the topical issue of corporate layoffs and the effects they have on the day-to-day lives of those who have reached that certain age where finding a new job just isn’t easy.
Georg (Hader) is a respected and feared music critic for one of Vienna’s major newspapers. Well into his forties, one day he is called into the office of his editor (Jörg Hartmann), and told that he is being let go. Cost-cutting, they say. Georg has problems at home too. His wife Johanna (a triumphant Pia Hierzegger) wants to have a baby, but Georg is having doubts about that. Pushed into a corner, Georg takes drastic measures. First, he declines to tell his wife about his unemployment, and instead keeps up the appearance of going into the office every day. Second, he takes revenge on his former boss, starting small by keying the man’s car, although this soon escalates into more serious action. Finally, he strikes up a friendship with his old school bully, Erich (Georg Friedrich), an in-and-out-of-jobs failure who has been in Georg’s shoes more often than not. It is this unlikely friendship that starts to have a big influence on Georg’s life, centered around their renovation of an old roller coaster (the titular Wild Mouse). As Georg starts to find meaning in the new shadow life he is living, his marriage to therapist Johanna is unraveling, as she unconsciously senses that Georg perhaps is not going to be the father of her child, and she is trying to branch out.
A contemptuous look at Viennese bourgeois life, Wild Mouse is certainly not a laugh-out-loud comedy, dealing more in wry, and at times vicious, one-liners that elicit somewhat shocked laughter. As a (much) younger neighbor tries to court Johanna by saying that their age difference would keep a relationship between them interesting and dynamic, she deadpans, “I think that’s what they tell child brides”, and that’s it. It’s a kind of humor with a certain European tang, to which one has to be receptive, but for those with a love for dark humor, Wild Mouse will certainly have its pleasures. Because once it’s not being funny, it does go to some very dark places, where the blunt humor turns into blunt hatred, where people lash out at each other out of helplessness. The strength of the film is that it conditions you into laughing at the darkness, until it reaches the confusing point where you’re not sure if you should still laugh. There is a lot of pain in the film, actually, and a lot of pent-up anger, which makes most of the laughter uncomfortable. The quality of writing by Hader walks a very fine line here, and the audible television fragments of news shows that are on in the background while Georg and Johanna deal with their family issues are certainly on the nose and somewhat over that line, but while the pacing can be a little haphazard and at times stagnant, Wild Mouse manages to keep the audience on its toes throughout. As an actor, Hader is perhaps not the perfect lead, as his acting at times lacks the comedic punch needed, but it’s Hierzegger, who can actually be qualified as a co-lead here, who saves him, with her dead stares and ink-black retorts.
Wild Mouse is not a perfect film, and from a directorial viewpoint it lacks a certain visual signature, but Hader has certainly succeeded in putting himself on the map as a comedic counterweight against his dour and dead-serious countrymen. An acquired taste, black as an Alpine night, with a humanistic heart buried deep down beneath its bourgeois heart, the film ends on perhaps not a hopeful, but at least a positive note. They’re not all negative, these Austrians.