The advent of the Balkan Wars following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia) – and in particular, the engagement of NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo – forms the destabilized, uncertain backdrop for Barbara Albert’s politically loaded Nordrand, a zeitgeist film on the changing face of Austrian society at the end of the twentieth century framed from the perspective of a pair of working class young women living on the outskirts of Vienna. Opening to the interweaving voices of children in prayer, among them, a girl named Tamara who wants to be a nurse when she grows up and Jasmin who wants to have a large family, the universality of their humble dreams is subverted by an early awkward encounter between Tamara, a shy, Serbian immigrant girl being humiliated, then summarily left out by the other children during play time, after passing a friendship note to Jasmin, the most popular girl in class. Their inability to come together as friends – an imposed distance that is implicitly reflected in Jasmin’s seemingly privileged status as a cherubic, Germanic child – establishes the sense of alterity and exclusion that runs throughout the film, an image that is subsequently reflected in an ideologically divided family’s argument over a loved one’s involvement in the Kosovo War at a hospital where Tamara (Edita Malovcic), now a grown woman, works as a part-time nurse’s aide. But even away from the sensationalism and scarred images of the local news, the corrosive effects of the war on Austrian society prove to be inescapable, as refugees and migrant workers from Eastern Europe converge on Vienna either in search of opportunity or as a gateway to other countries, and soldiers are called into service to reinforce border patrols and stem the influx of illegal immigrants fleeing the neighboring war torn region. Meanwhile, Jasmin’s (Nina Proll) reputation for popularity has taken on a more insidious connotation, embarking on a series of reckless affairs (perhaps a promiscuity brought on by incest) with all too familiar endings of abuse and rejection. Rebuffed by her lovers after discovering that she is pregnant, Jasmin, still living at home, is left with few alternatives but to undergo an abortion, a decision that would unexpectedly reunite her with Tamara who, too, has arrived at the clinic to terminate a pregnancy against the wishes of her boyfriend, a border soldier on weekend leave named Roman (Michael Tanczos). Brought together by the unspoken trauma of their own hidden scars, the two women embark on a long overdue friendship that had eluded them in childhood.
Structured through intersecting episodes of chance encounters and parallel experiences (visually reinforced through recurring shots from a bustling train station and extended, interstitial musical seques), Nordrand provides the blueprint for Albert’s subsequent (albeit, less cohesive) film, Free Radicals on coincidental interconnectedness. However, while the peripheral associations in Albert’s latter film occasionally prove to be abstract, they serve as an integral representation of Austrian society’s state of flux in Nordrand – an uncertainty that has been imposed both externally by the trauma of a virulent, neighboring war, and internally by the challenges of large scale assimilation. Juxtaposing images of a military (and implicitly nationalistic) parade with a targeted police identity check of a group of Eastern European workers waiting at a train station, the film poses the integral question on the essence of Austrian cultural identity at a time when an unprecedented influx of foreigners have raised the specter of Anschluss on a nation’s moral character. Indeed, inasmuch as political pressure towards enacting tighter borders and stricter immigration policies reflected the public’s growing anxiety with an interminable war, it is also a reflection of society’s endemic xenophobia and propensity towards ethnic scapegoating – a bias that is revealed in Jasmin’s flippant dismissal of Serbs during a radio news report on the war while hitching a ride with Roman and Tamara from the abortion clinic (in a seemingly dour episode that is hilariously turned on its ear when Roman changes the station and the trio begins to listen to Ace of Base’s All That She Wants (Is Another Baby)). Far from portraying the seasonal “sameness” of human behavior, the film’s elegance lies in Jasmin’s subtle, yet profound transformation after Tamara (re)enters her life – a metamorphosis that illustrates the human capacity to retain one’s identity even as it learns to accept (and even embrace) change. Concluding with a parallel montage that begins with an emotionally liberated Jasmin crossing a pedestrian overpass (in a shot that uncannily prefigures Hou Hsiao Hsien’s bookend shots of the heroine, Vicky (Shu Qi) in Millennium Mambo), the images of people in transit becomes a metaphor, not of flight, but a redefined homecoming.
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