In 1949, Maria Zechmeister was sentenced to life imprisonment by the district court of Ried im Innkreis, Upper Austria, for the perfidious murder of her husband. There was no evidence and no confession...
“Zechmeister did not die a natural death”: this first sentence in Angela Summerederʼs Zechmeister is heard off-camera, and is the verdict of a judge, the authority of which still has to be proven. The film re-enacts (and defamiliarises) a trial based on circumstantial evidence. On 25 July 1948, Anton Zechmeister, a war returnee, dies in the Innviertel region of Upper Austria. Summereder takes his gravestone as her starting point.
The people in the village – they too speak off-camera – know all about it. Zechmeister was poisoned, that is clear from the fact that all his hair eventually fell out. A female doctor cannot confirm any such hair loss. Zechmeisterʼs wife is arrested on suspicion of murder – she remains on the side of the camera, is therefore invisible, with the film-maker on her side. Maria Zechmeister speaks for herself, looking back at her case from 1981. She does not directly defend herself, since the film takes as the subject of its investigation the failure of the defence in a historical trial. This trial is documented and at the same time reopened. The court gathers together with Angela Summereder beneath a large tree, a world tree: judge, prosecuting counsel, defence counsel, jury – a magistrate’s court and archaic village justice, which nevertheless speaks in the name of the Republic.
Anton Zechmeister and his wife first became acquainted on 26 September 1932. Their wedding photo figures prominently in the film, accompanied by the popular song Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (‘You are my heart’s delight’), which is briefly to be heard in the background. How can an emotional relationship survive when the parents-in-law snub the bride, when the husband has to go to war in Russia, when their son “goes to pieces” during the last days of the war?
The people who are heard in Zechmeister hardly enter into the picture at all. When speaking, they alternate between their familiar Upper Austrian dialect and formal high German, which they are repeatedly unable to maintain for long. In between, Angela Summereder lets the camera simply travel across a field or along the River Inn, while evidence is being read out. The poison thallium is found in Zechmeister’s exhumed body, yet the last dose must have been administered to him when he was already in hospital. His wife did not visit him in hospital.
People appear before the court and are rebuked if they “depart from the truth”. However, the truth does not come to light in the case of Zechmeister, there is only a verdict, which reasserts what the villagers believed they already knew. In 1948, Austria was a pre-modern society. Now, in 1982, Angela Summereder has released a modern film about it. Maria Zechmeister has at last been listened to. The consequences of which tardiness she has had to suffer physically.
Source: DVD Inlay Zechmeister. The Austrian Film. Edition Standard # 103. Hoanzl.
In 1949, Maria Zechmeister was sentenced to life imprisonment by the district court of Ried im Innkreis, Upper Austria, for the perfidious murder of her husband. There was no evidence and no confession. Yet there were rumours, which are the lifeblood of a certain mentality, and one of the film’s principal aims is to examine this and to demonstrate how the danger which it presents can be underestimated. The rumours formed the basis of the ‘investigations’, whose enforced shortcomings constitutes a further topic of the film.
The text of the film primarily consists of excerpts from court transcripts, pleas, petitions, witness statements and whatever new material was added by the collaborating witnesses or by Mrs Zechmeister when the ‘historical’ texts were re-examined. The sets and landscapes of the film are those that have survived from the story and were accessible to me as a film-maker: mountains of court files and newspaper reports from archives. Appearing in the film are Maria Zechmeister (who was granted an early release from prison after 17 years) and 5 witnesses. The court officials are portrayed by actors, as are the scientific experts, the investigating officers and one of the officer’s wives. The jury and the pub-goers were played by local people from the surrounding area.
What I by no means wanted was:
- a) To “make a historical film” set in provincial Austria. There has recently been a spate of such productions, and I did not wish to be associated with them in the slightest.
- b) To work with the principle of giving the spectators the “possibility of identification”. This principle predominates in present-day film production. It is misanthropic.
It is always fascinating to dive from the darkness of the cinema into the bright living nature of film.
I do not wish to adopt either the stubborn ignorance of that approach to filming which overrides the need to encourage the spectator to watch and listen actively, critically and from a human perspective, or the reckless brutality with which the resulting consumer films then “touch”, “impress”, “overwhelm” and “grip”... People in the cinema should finally stop losing their self-control.*
The spectator must have the possibility of discovering the film. Watching. Listening. Being astonished. A noise. A new image. Surprise. Discovery. Watching a film should be like getting to know another person.
* A spectator is a “spectator” and an actor is not a postman.
Source: Programm Stadtkino 1, Vienna, November 1981