by Rachel Willis
Based on a true story, writer/director David Wagner’s Eismayer explores themes of repression and masculinity.
Our introduction to Sergeant Major Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann), notorious hardass, is a conversation in the bathroom between several Austrian soldiers giving newest recruit Falak (Luka Dimic) a lesson in the man’s terrorizing behavior.
When we meet the Sergeant Major himself, he oversees a locker inspection and harasses Falak. He is strict and cruel and the talk from the previous scene has not been exaggerated.
At home, he is affectionate with his son, but there is tension between him and his wife. As the film unfolds, a fight between Falak and another soldier reveals that Falak is gay. This puts new pressure on Falak, as well as Eismayer.
Though Eismayer’s coldness and cruelty could be written off as a reaction to his self-repression, the film doesn’t rest on such a simple explanation. His attitude isn’t just about his homosexuality, but his ideas about what it means to be both a man and a soldier.
Liebmann excels. He brings multiple facets to what could be a simplistic or stereotypical portrayal. Dimic initially has less to work with. However, as the film unfolds, the two characters begin to dance around the complexity of their situation.
More of the film’s underlying tensions would come across with a robust knowledge of Austria’s history and culture, including the implications of Falak’s Yugoslavian background. But there’s no missing the discrimination he faces.
Even as Austria and the army move forward, there are some that would hold both back. Eismayer, himself, resists change, even as he’s pushed toward accepting himself for who he is. That men and women still fear repercussions for embracing who they are is both heartbreaking and infuriating. It’s why stories like Eismayer’s still need to be told.