These were stories that carried messages that transcended the fantastical and rendered themselves applicable to both child-rearing and moral guidance — making their appeal global rather than regional. Although social mores have changed with time, the international and intergenerational presence of these classic fairy tales is understandably still consistent today across all platforms — film, music, literature, visual art, etc. The stories are found constantly reimagined and recontextualized by artists of all schools of thought. In this sense, Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s film Hotel (2004), serves as a prime example. However, instead of reimagining a single tale, Hausner captures the spirit of the fairy tale tradition to reflect on our contemporary state of precarity.
A dark Austrian forest, allusions to a witch (or forest woman), a secluded shelter, a young protagonist dressed in red, a sense of dread, and temptations and desires galore. Hausner’s film contains many aesthetic and tonal indications of Germanic folk tales — surely evoking some familiar and very specific ones. However, in contradistinction to the tales themselves, Hausner’s film contains no supernatural or fantastical elements; everything that occurs could have rational explanations. Our imagination leads us astray. This also captures the film’s thematic focus: the irrational — or rational — fear of the unknown.
Haunser’s film follows Irene, a mousy twenty-something who has just taken on a job as a receptionist at Hotel “Waldhaus” (forest house). She nervously maneuvers the dark corridors of the foreign hotel whilst trying to present as amicable to the rest of the staff and guests. However, we quickly realize she is in a perpetual state of unease. Constantly looking over her shoulder, wandering aimlessly, and seeking solace by swimming in the hotel pool after closing, Irene is quietly ridden with anxiety. She hears screams coming from the forest surrounding the hotel, discovers that the land is said to be haunted by a “Waldfrau” (forest woman/witch), and finds that her predecessor had disappeared without a trace. Already, Haunser provides a set of narrative devices that provide ambiguity and invite superstition and imagination. We, as the audience, speculate alongside Irene whether or not she is prey and, if so, of what. The film keeps us in the dark and suggests averting our attention from the dark abyss of unlit hallways or forests to Irene’s isolated surroundings.
Aptly, the first shot of the film is of a ceiling corner. It reveals nothing besides beams of hidden light fixtures and a malfunctioning speaker. Similarly, there are shots of curtains, walls, and further corners that also seem to reveal no information to the viewer. When considering why Hausner has selected these images, one could conclude that they are meant to parallel those of the dark forest. In both, we cannot see anything of note, yet one is banal and the other terrifying. The crucial difference: our imagination. If we consider the lesson learned from a tale like Red Riding Hood, this fear becomes justifiable and rooted in our vicarious experience of braving the woods and getting eaten by a predatory wolf.
In providing ambiguous allusion to the threats common to fairy tales — venturing into the wood, disappearance, witches, and the lurking unknown — the film suggests these fears can be found in and exacerbated by a state of precarity. Irene’s place of work is a place of temporary resonance in which nothing belongs to her or its guests. However, Irene takes up residence in this transitory space and feels, appropriately, displaced. She is similarly unsure about pursuing her line of work and quickly make plans to visit her family at home on the weekend. In all areas of her life, Irene is in limbo. She has no answers, uncertain fears, and no home, yet desperately seeks escape and comfort. We see her swim, take smoke breaks, and visit a local club where she meets a young man whom she starts seeing. Yet even these are marked with unreliability. While swimming, her necklace disappears — assumed stolen — from the changing room; while on a smoke break, doors mysteriously close and shrieking is heard from the woods; lastly, the man she meets at the club lashes out violently towards someone else and gives Irene an (almost) terrifying wolf-like grin while she takes him up to her room. Like Red Riding Hood, Irene faces the predator in disguise; at the cusp of being devoured. But devoured by what?
As writer Rudiger Suchsland notes: “Hotel [remains] always at the center of our European reality, it conflates the everyday life with the mysterious atmosphere of a Grimm’s fairy tale.” (Suchsland, my translation). In this sense, Hausner’s film brings the terrors of fairy tales closer to us than ever before, while still remaining loyal to their spirit and tone. Her allusion to genre convention makes its subversion, or obfuscation, all the more thought-provoking and applicable to contemporary issues of stagnation within precarity. However, in order to cease stagnation, Hausner suggests a trip to the woods. As a confident Irene coolly walks into the dark abyss of the forest, so must we. Once and for all, we must discover whether in the shadows lurks a wolf, a witch, a wall, or liberation.