Roger Ebert famously observed that, “Art is the closest we can come to understanding how a stranger really feels.” If that’s the case, Angst might be the deepest that cinema has ever plunged into the mind of a psychopath. Dispassionate, clinical, and obsessed with the minutiae of tortured fantasies, director Gerald Kargl ensnares his audience in a monstrous trap. We have certainly seen more graphic films, but few more disturbing in their depiction of true evil. Fans of forbidden cinema must seek out this demented masterpiece. All others must avoid it at all costs.
If you’ve ever wondered what Alex was forced to watch for his aversion therapy in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, it probably resembled something close to Angst. Austrian filmmaker Gerald Kargl concocts a fiendish blend of fact and fiction; a patchwork of interviews from serial killers and the true-life case of Austrian murderer, Werner Kniesek. During his sentencing hearing, Kniesek told the judge, “I just love it when women shiver in deadly fear because of me.” Terrifying monsters like Kniesek definitely walk among us, and Kargl brings us uncomfortably close to their doomed circle.
The monster in question is a man known only as The Psychopath (Erwin Leder). He had a difficult childhood, including a neglectful mother, a contemptuous grandmother, and an abusive stepfather. Animal torture and petty theft were mere pre-cursors to this psychopath’s true calling; hunting humans. The film opens with a jarring scene of Leder randomly selecting a home, knocking on the door, and then shooting the unfortunate women who opens it. This pervading theme of randomness feels particularly prescient given our cultural predilection for mass shootings and school massacres. Angst is a haunting reminder of the thin line between blissful ignorance and gross misfortune.
Ten years in prison do little to soften The Psychopath’s bloodlust. Quite literally, the moment he emerges from his cell, he begins the hunt for fresh victims. He finds a surrogate family of sorts to torture; a middle-aged woman (Silvia Rabenreither), her beautiful young daughter (Edith Rosset), and a mentally-challenged handicapped man (Rudolf Goetz). What follows can best be described as a methodical examination of homicidal madness, as The Psychopath re-lives family trauma (via his unfeeling voiceover) at the bloody expense of his victims.
While it’s true that Angst is a kindred spirit to the troubling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, each approaches their monster from a different stylistic viewpoint. Kargl and his cinematographer, Zbigniew Rybczynski (who also shares screenwriting credit with Kargl), photograph each scene within an inch of its life. In fact, so expensive was the production that it effectively bankrupted Kargl, who would never direct another feature film. His fluid camera, employing languorous tracking shots (operated via ropes), acts as an unflinching witness to the hunt. Even more unsettling is the handheld camera tethered to Leder himself; a technique resurrected nearly 20 years later in Aronofsky’s Pi. It keeps The Psychopath in focus, even as the world pulses and throbs around him.
The music and sound mix also add to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Composer Klaus Schulze (formerly of Tangerine Dream) provides the techno-trash soundtrack when the action picks up and our “hero” is on the move. Much of the remaining score is comprised of repetitive sound. Dripping water or rhythmic footsteps give the uneasy feeling of inevitability; as if we’re marking time until the next violent outburst.
And when the violence arrives, it’s a hardcore onslaught. Whether it’s before, during, or after the attack, Kargl labors over each detail. “The central violence is over the top and should not be shown that way. I would do it differently today,” he admits in a 2003 interview with Ikonen Magazine. While Kargl may have moral regrets, cutting the violence would only hurt the cinematic impact of Angst. We know from the extensive research of psychopaths that the ritual of murder is what fuels their sadism. For them, the event doesn’t end with the victim’s death… it’s only the beginning. So while it may seem gratuitous to watch The Psychopath labor over lifeless corpses, it’s a perfect conduit into his fevered brain. Simply, it’s what separates detached psychopathy from a crime of passion.
Leder’s performance (Das Boot) is mesmerizing and terrifying. His precise narration is perfectly at odds with his gangly appearance. It’s also a physically demanding performance, as his wiry frame is asked to push, pull, and lift all manner of human cargo. Leder masterfully conveys the impotence and fear of this sadistic coward. While it may seem a backhanded compliment, it’s hard to imagine another actor so convincingly occupying this role.
It’s easy to dismiss a film like Angst as pointlessly exploitative. After all, it is exploitative; an ugly and unrelenting assault on the senses. And yet, it’s also more relevant today than it was back in 1983. Back then, this would be viewed as a cheap ploy to shock audiences, and perhaps that’s a fair accusation. Today, however, with the line between fame and infamy so dangerously blurred, it feels like a manifesto for the disaffected. This is an important film, not only for its esteemed place in the slasher lineage, but as a document of pure, unadulterated evil. Angst is a testament to the visceral power of cinema, with all the danger and beauty that entails.