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The Payoff of Perseverance

'Inheritors' director was told to make a more modest film to prove himself, so he did--and won a prize for it.

October 29, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Inheritors," which opens Friday at selected theaters, is a stunning film from Austria that has brought international acclaim to its 36-year-old writer-director, Stefan Ruzowitzky. Set around 1930 in rural Austria, it tells of the class warfare that festers when a rich old farmer leaves his estate to his peasants. That the farmer was in fact murdered is at first secondary to the man's shocking will.

But then the film masterfully proceeds from the lighter moments of the peasants' euphoria to a darker tone that develops when it becomes apparent to the landed gentry that these low-class "inheritors" may just succeed in self-management. As a result, the murder takes on a personal dimension that yields a tragic effect.

Given the breadth and depth of "The Inheritors," it would be natural to assume that it was adapted from some classic Austrian novel not widely known in America. Not so, said Ruzowitzky in an interview last week at his West Hollywood hotel suite.

"I had this idea to write a soap opera for television," confessed Ruzowitzky, a fair-haired man of much affability and fluency in English. "There would be this group of young people on this farm, and they would have all these problems trying to run it."

But "The Inheritors" evolved over some seven or eight years as Ruzowitzky kept writing away at it as he pursued his career in television, which he entered in 1987 after graduating from the University of Vienna. Born in Vienna and raised partly in Germany, Ruzowitzky lives there with his wife, a former talent agent, and their infant daughter.

Ruzowitzky made documentaries for young audiences on a wide range of issues, won a prize for a TV commercial and eventually completed his script for "The Inheritors." He had no trouble getting it optioned, but DOR-Film, its eventual key production company, couldn't get it financed with a first-time feature director attached. DOR then suggested he first prove himself with a more modest film, and the result was "Tempo," a contemporary coming-of-age story, which Ruzowitzky dismisses as "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," although it won the prestigious Max Ophuls Forderungpreis last year.

Ruzowitzky said that he has become the first director signed by Columbia-TriStar's new Munich-based venture producing German films in Germany for the domestic market; Sony Pictures Classics would get involved should they be deemed suitable for international release. In May he'll make what he calls a "non-Hollywood" horror picture set in Heidelberg. As for Hollywood, United Talent Agency's Howard Cohn signed him up at Telluride, Colo.

Ruzowitzky, who chose his ensemble cast from theater actors because "they have faces," said that "the Austrian mentality remains very conservative in spirit. There is a reluctance to change because we've got a lot of history and tradition. It's not by chance that mine is an Austrian film, and that I'm trying to deal with these issues. We have a long tradition in obedience, in doing what institutions tell you what to do. We have no tradition in civil rights, no big revolution. And we're always trying to get around confrontations."

Ruzowitzky said that he was trying to tell a universal story and didn't want to be too specific as to the exact year of "The Inheritors," which was shot north of the Danube, near the Czech border. The film depicts a rigid, self-righteous society ripe for the Nazism about to overtake it.

In the film, the peasants are virtual serfs, if not quite slaves, and Ruzowitzky said that the stark master-servant relationship on Austrian farms disappeared only in the 1950s as farming either faded or became more mechanized.

"Talking to old people in my research for the film was like to someone right out of the Middle Ages," Ruzowitzky said. "I was told of women being given one day off to give birth, followed by two days of light household work before returning to the fields. These farm workers had two hours off after church on Sunday, and they used it to clean their shoes, mend their socks, things like that.

"One old lady told me that when she goes for a walk she always goes into the forest because she would be too embarrassed not to be seen working."

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