Die toten Fische [Mortal Fortune] (1989)

Die toten Fische
Director: Michael Synek
Writer: Michael Synek
Based on: Boris Vian‘s short story Les poissons morts
Cast: Erwin LederJohannes WeidingerGerhard Swoboda, Joe Berger, Lisa Luginbuhl, Martin Schellnast
Part of: Viennale
Seen on: 29.10.2015

A worker (Erwin Leder) slowly moves through a swamp. He’s fishing, trying to catch the best stamps to bring home to his boss who collects them. After a long and arduous day, he tiredly returns to the city where things become even more surreal and it becomes ever more apparent how much pressure the worker is under – from ticket controllers to his own employer, everybody seems to have it out for him.

Die toten Fische is a beautiful film with a fascinating history so far. Even though it was followed by one of the worst Q&As I ever witnessed, I left the cinema feeling like I saw something special.


When Die toten Fische was produced over 25 years ago, it was a freelance project of Synek who convinced people to join him, managed to borrow money and put everything into making the film. That way, for example, they even managed to shoot inside the Viennese parliament (at night, hauling fish tanks back and forth) and they brought the movie to Cannes, where it premiered and got good reviews. But then the trouble starts: it didn’t actually find a distributor, in Austria nobody was interested in the film and Synek couldn’t pay back his loans, effectively losing all film material in the process as well, first to his creditors and then they were just misplaced.

It was only a few years ago that one film copy resurfaced and they started to restore it – a slow, painstaking process that they finally finished. At the Viennale we got to see that restored version and their efforts really haven’t been in vain – especially since Die toten Fische has excellent and beautiful cinematograpyh – and the restored version makes that completely obvious.

die-toten-fische2But even more impressive than the visuals is the story the film tells. I have never read anything by Vian, but I can only imagine that he writes like Kafka. This film certainly reads kafkaesque with its surreal scenarios that could have potentially hidden the extensive social criticism in the film. Instead, though, the surrealism serves to underscore and emphasize the criticism of working conditions and capitalism in general.

It was also very well acted, with Erwin Leder clearly in the center of the film, both due to the character he’s playing and how he plays him. Especially during the silent strechtes (the dialogues didn’t work that well for me), Leder’s face is just wonderfully expressive.

It all works together to make Die toten Fische a wonderful, enchanting film that I hope will be more widely known now that a good copy is available.

die-toten-fische3Summarizing: Not bad. Not bad at all.

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