Revolving around a sergeant who falls in love with an openly gay recruit, David Wagner’s Eismayer tells the true story of a man who learns that there’s nothing wrong with being who he is.
David Wagner’s Eismayer begins with a series of new recruits in a line, introducing themselves to their superior on their first day at the Austrian Armed Forces. When the time comes for the confident Mario Falak (Luka Dimić, of Zima) to speak, one of the officers notices that he’s older than most of the other recruits. “Mum didn’t want to let me go,” Falak boldly replies, provoking him, and the man is not impressed. “A typical case for Eismayer, isn’t he?,” he gloats to a fellow soldier, knowing something that Falak still ignores.
That something is Sergeant Major Charles Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann, of Murder: Anatomy of a Trial), the most severe and feared instructor in the Forces, who’s about to become the recruits’ worst nightmare. It’s not long till he makes an appearance, and we are introduced to a man who shouts a whole lot, constantly insulting, belittling and punishing the young men he’s supposed to train, and spending his days reaffirming his authority on them over and over again. But there’s also another side to Eismayer, and that is the man he is in private, when he comes home to his wife (Julia Koschitz’s Christina) and son (Lion Tatzber’s Dominik), and he suddenly becomes softer but also quiet, avoiding confrontations and displays of affection and looking extremely tired, as if leading a life that isn’t really his own.
In fact, Eismayer often avoids coming home until it’s strictly necessary, and spends as much time as possible at work, a place where he’s feared and hated – so much so that even his own superior, Sergeant Karnaval (Christopher Schärf), disapproves of his methods – but where he also has a clear role to play – that of the “man.”
But there’s a story behind Eismayer’s stern facade, and that becomes apparent to us when we discover that Falak is openly gay, and Eismayer finds himself having to put a stop to a fight between the comrades that originated from another audacious remark made by the young man. The fight in question ends with Falak having the best of Eismayer, turning the latter’s attempt of a punishment into an opportunity for making a statement in the boldest, most provocatory way possible. “There’s no room for fags in the army,” Eismayer’s superior would later comment, while discussing the “incident” with the sergeant, and we understand just how deeply-rooted in the system certain prejudices are.
Eismayer himself is part of that mechanism, as his idea of how a “man” should behave couldn’t be more wrong, and the film gives us a clever analysis of toxic masculinity, showing how sticking to certain retrograde ideals can have severe effects on one’s identity and self-esteem, especially in a male-dominated environment such as the Army. But the movie does a lot more than that, as it also gives us an example of a man who confidently embraces his homosexuality at all times, showing us that the other comrades are ready to accept him no matter what, and proving that the times have changed, regardless of Eismayer’s methods.
But that isn’t even the point of the movie. Based on a true story, David Wagner’s movie is first and foremost about an internal struggle that our titular character has been dealing with his entire life, from the moment he confessed to his parents, as a young man, that he was gay, and their reaction was to first tell him that that phase would pass and then send him to the army to learn how to “become a man”. Since then, Eismayer has been hiding in plain sight, burying his own identity deep within him and projecting to the world an image of himself that is pretty much the opposite of who he really is. It takes falling in love with Falak for these dynamics to begin to crumble, but Eismayer’s journey is not as easy as it sounds, as, in order to be able to love someone else, he must first learn to love and accept yourself.
Eismayer is quite simply a brilliant film, combining an unbelievable, important true story that feels like a modern fairytale with the complex character study of a man who only discovers that it’s ok to be who he is when he sees himself in the eyes of the people around him, from the larger-than-life Falak to the disarming Dominik, his own son. It’s an incredibly moving story, but it’s also filled with irony, and you’ll find yourself giggling several times. It’s also a highly enjoyable, effortless watch that’s both beautifully intimate and fiercely potent, led by superb performances from Gerhard Liebmann and Luka Dimić and impressive talent behind the camera.
If you only watch one film at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, let it be David Wagner’s Eismayer. This poignant story of acceptance is a highly enjoyable, meaningful watch, and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.
Eismayer premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2022, as part of the International Critics Week, and will be released on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and EST in the UK on November 20, 2023. Read our interview with director David Wagner.