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An Interview with Willi Hengstler, Director of Deep Above

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2009

For films directed by Willi Hengstler
on (re)Search my Trash
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In 1994, you made the rather bizarre horror/fantasy-movie Tief Oben/Deep Above. Could you tell us in a few phrases what that movie's about?


I think you've covered it beautifully in your synopsis (click here), I doubt I can do better. [Thanks - the editor.]


The Eisenerz-region in the Styrian Alps plays a large part in your film. What are your personal links to the region?


My second movie, Auf Erz gebaut (1984), was a historical docu-drama about Eisenerz. For a long time, the region has been important for the economy and identity of Inner-Austria alike. The iron bread was a Styrian landmark even during the reconstruction after World War II, and the decline of Eisenerz is a pretty good metaphor for the decline of heavy industry in our country as such. In the office of the Styrian gouvernor once hung a painting by Boeckl showing the Erzberg in flaming colours ... maybe it's still there even. Anyways, the open cast mining at the Erzberg is still an impressive backdrop.


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How much of your script is based on actual folklore, and what have you made up yourself?


At the time of the counter-reformation, there actually lived a legendary and ingenious but also allegedly very greedy scientist and builder called Gasteiger. Iron flower cases and the cult concerning iron flowers are genuine Eisenerz-traditions, though I'm not sure whether to find that touching or plain kitsch. Other than that ...


Apart from folktales from Eisenerz, what were your main inspirations?


One essential influence were classic horror movies and their structures - the crime against the monster that will resurface, destroyed innocence that leads to punishment, the deeper meaning of seeing ... you can look all of this up in Mindscreen by Bruce Kawin or Planks of Reason by Barry Grant. Apart from that there were of course also fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, where the naivity changes into irony. And of course, one mustn't forget the Orpheus-motive ...


How did you come up with the ingenious idea of having zombies doing nothing more than slowly walking through the landscape and standing in everybody's way?


Well, in World War II, Eisenerz housed a branch of Mauthausen ... Plus, towards the end of the war, a group of prisoners on their way over the Präbichl was shot there as well. I actually planned a concentration camp-like scene in which the extras were to appear naked - but when we were about to film it, they just refused to undress, and after I undressed to show them how banal this is, I was actually the only one who did the scene naked. I was so enraged at that point I didn't even feel the cold. Deep Above as such didn't touch the folks from Eisenerz too deeply, but after my undressing act, I enjoyed a certain notoriety there for a time.

Anyways, the zombies in the film are something like the burden of history, at the same time though they illustrate the question of how all of the dead are able to find room in heaven and hell.


The band H.P.Zinker, a big name in the Austrian independent scene back in the day, and especially their music plays a big role in the film, is pretty much part of Deep Above ... 


Music was vital for the Orpheus-motive of the film. Apart from that, back then The Commitments was going strong, a film which I wasn't alone in liking. Back then, I also produced music with three different bands, but unfortunately that all led to nothing ...


How did the collaboration between you and H.P.Zinker happen in the first place, and were they involved in the project from the beginning?


Actually, I was pretty much at a loss about the music - until I heard a tape by H.P.Zinker in a friend's car - and I knew right away that's it. We immediately contacted bandleadeer Hans Platzgumer via phone, and caught him right before his departure from New York for Vienna, where the band was playing a concert, then had a talk before they left for Tyrol ...


Why a musical finale?


I don't see it so much as a finale in the tradition of the musical, but more as a symbol of music, of art conquering death ... and conquering life, since it's a part of death (or vice versa?). It's the cheesy, sugary sweet, happy ending of a malicious story.


And then there's of course horror icon Barbara Steele [Barbara Steele bio - click here] - what made you cast her in the first place, how did the collaboration come into being, and how was it working with her?


I knew her from the films of Mario Bava [Mario Bava bio - click here] and of course from Federico Fellini's . After we managed to get her phonenumber, it actually wasn't too much of a problem to get her. I wasn't too comfortable with the fact that she went through Eisenerz on her own on her days off, but we simply couldn't affort someone to accompany her.

On set, she was very competent and helpful. There was only one little problem when we wanted to film her from below lying in a hammock. She insisted that this angle was not flattering at all, and thus kept the crew waiting forever. In the end, she didn't look bad at all from that angle, but she might have been right still.


A few words about the rest of your cast?


Jürgen Goslar and Gerhard Balluch were already in my earlier film Fegefeuer/Purgatory (1988). The former was a big star on TV when I was a kid, and the latter still is a very intelligent and popular actor in Graz. Kathy Wressnig was also in Purgatory previously, but had since moved to the USA, so we only asked her when we couldn't find a proper actress here. Peter Simonischek had just returned to Vienna from Berlin. It was tough to get him to Eisenerz, but once he was there, everything worked just fine.


Shortly after its premiere, Deep Above, certainly one of the most unusual and most entertaining films of Austrian cinema, pretty much disappeared without much of a trace. Why?


Quite possibly, I'm not the right person to answer this. It is a fact though that modern, self-reflexive Heimatfilms do notoriously badly at the box office. And my analytic, deconstructive access to horror, with kitsch replacing gore, irony instead of spectacle, disappointed genre fans. It was too little H.P.Zinker for H.P.Zinker fans, too little horror for horrorfans, and the intellectuals didn't get my hidden political agenda. And then everybody expected something closer to my earlier film Purgatory. And so on ...


Before Deep Above, you made Fegefeuer/Purgatory in 1988, a biopic about the Austrian real-life serialkiller Jack Unterweger. A few words about this film, and how much was Unterweger, whose autobiography this film was based on, personally involved with the project?


Unterweger published his autobiographical novel while he was still in prison, and the book, his best, became quite a success. I hoped to turn it into a movie. Initially, I had hoped to write it together with Unterweger, sending stuff to and fro (this was in a time before email). But it wasn't long after I had visited him in prison that his version of the screenplay arrived in finished form - it was just not suitable for our purposes. Ultimately, I wrote another screenplay with Bernhard Seiter and sent it to Unterweger for approval. It was difficult inasmuch as Unterweger wouldn't talk about plenty of what had really happened, so to make up for that we had to build a dynamic structure around a silent, slightly empty center.

Unterweger arrived at the premiere in a white suit and handcuffs. It wasn't until later, after he had been released from prison, that he claimed we tricked him, and I think most journalists believed him, too ... until it turned out that he had in the meantime become a serialkiller.


What can you tell us about your cinematic endeavours prior to Purgatory?


In my formative years (20 to 40), film technology was sill analogue, but narrative structures were modern and diverse. I worked at the university, but my university was the cinema. As an amateur from the provinces I dreamed about making a movie. Together with my friend, author Paul Alfred Schmidt, I ultimately shot Facts & Madness, then a documentary about dog training (Hundeliebe), and finally my docudrama about Eisenerz (Auf Erz gebaut) ... and so on.


According to my information, Deep Above was your last film as director. What have you done since then?


Shows, events, exhibitions, documentaries, a little feature called Hanns durch die Zeit ... and I wrote a lot.


Will you return to movie-directing?


Yes, definitely. With Paul Alfred Schmidt, I am just writing the final draft of a screenplay set in India, about a filmcrew that accompanies a travelling theatre group that's staging the Ramayana, the Indian national epic. On their journey though, the filmcrew loses one recording device after the next - theft, technical fault, etc - and this is why the film gets more and more rudimentary, the longer it runs. In the end, you are actually only hearing offscreen sounds while the screen has gone black ...


Directors who have influenced you?


This changes, also changes with what you're working on. When I was doing Purgatory, I was influenced by film noir directors like Tourneur and also Melville, while Deep Above was strongly influenced by Mario Bava [Mario Bava bio - click here], the Hammer-gothics (especially Terence Fisher's films), and Pressburger/Powell, who had their own problems with Peeping Tom, actually.

And perennial faves? There are so many: Visconti, Antonioni, Melville, always Melville, Godard of course, Pialat, Bunuel, Bergman, Huston, Ozu, Anthony Mann, ... actually, tehre are just too many.


Your favourite movies?


Presently, I love the films of the Brothers Dardenne, La Promesse/The Promise, Rosetta, Le Fils/The Son, L'Enfant/The Child. Haven't seen Le Silence de Lorna/Lorna's Silence yet ...


Films you don't like at all?


Overwhelming spectacle movies as well as pretentious films (often literary adaptations), which are preferred by an audience that doesn't usually go to the movies. People who confuse these films' design with proper cinematic language.


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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Robots and rats,
demons and potholes,
cuddly toys and
shopping mall Santas,
love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

is all of that.


Tales to Chill
Your Bones to
a collection of short stories and mini-plays
ranging from the horrific to the darkly humourous,
from the post-apocalyptic
to the weirdly romantic,
tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
the twisted mind of
screenwriter and film reviewer
Michael Haberfelner.


Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

the new anthology by
Michael Haberfelner


Out now from




On the same day
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and your Ex wants
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... and for the life of it,
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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD