The first moments of intimacy shared between drill sergeant Charles Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann) and his new recruit Mario Falak (Luka Dimic) happen during a training exercise in the Austrian wilderness. During an altercation the night before, Eismayer—renowned for his ruthless, bullying tactics—had ordered Mario, who’s openly queer, to run through the snowy army grounds in full uniform. Mario does it completely naked. There’s an electricity between them as they stand off, something tangibly playful in Mario’s defiance. Crucially, Eismayer’s all-powerful authority has been undermined, making him much more vulnerable than he wants.
The next day, the recruits have to traverse a tightwire suspended above a ravine, but Mario is scared of heights and refuses to go. Again, he defies the unquestionable orders of his commanding officer, and when he’s forced to go across, he backs out, unfastening his harness and sending both him and Eismayer into the waters below. It’s another moment of intimacy: the two freefall in a rush of adrenaline and panic into churning waters. When he surfaces, Eismayer will have to confront more than his superiors; Mario’s abrupt intrusion into his life, not to mention his refusal to conform to the sergeant’s authority, makes the public admittance of Eismayer’s own hidden homosexuality feel startlingly inevitable.
Audiences are beginning to grow tired of this trope: the bully is victimising a queer person because they themselves are struggling with their own repressed queerness. Eismayer’s drama centres on this very premise, but injects it with a realism and humanity that rejects any sense of cliché. What’s more, the fact that it’s based on a real-life Austrian drill sergeant who announced he was in a relationship with a recruit grabs our attention. When we first lay eyes on Eismayer, we’ve already heard rumours and urban legends about his ruthlessness and cruelty, but we’re struck by his appearance: a short, balding man with a slight, mannered frame and a trace of softness in his expression. While Eismayer soon dispels these assumptions by spewing racist, ableist insults, it’s impossible to shake the idea that his overly aggressive personality is a projection to conceal a woundedness of his own.
Eismayer shines when it focuses on its lead performances. Liebmann has a burning intensity that feels threatening even when he isn’t berating his unit, with fierce eyes always searching for signs of weakness. It’s also fascinating to observe him around his family—that is, when he isn’t avoiding them by lying about being needed at the base. He musters a believable cheer even when his son’s drawing-on-walls signals that disorder has crept into the house in his absence. But his good humour is dispelled by slight, inoffensive comments from his wife (Julia Koschitz) that challenge the distance he keeps from them. If everything he does with his family is a performance, and the same applies to his behaviour in the army, who’s the real Eismayer, and how lonely must he feel?
If everything he does with his family is a performance, and the same applies to his behaviour in the army, who’s the real Eismayer, and how lonely must he feel?
Dimic complements Liebmann’s performance perfectly, shining with a vibrant energy that seems counterproductive for a character with aspirations of a strict army career. Every time he’s hounded by Eismayer, it’s like the screams and threats pass straight through him; even though Mario seems unaffected by the sergeant’s intimidation, this reaction completely disarms his superior. Even though they’re rarely openly romantic together, there’s a brightness between Eismayer and the confident, charismatic new recruit that both Eismayer and the audience can’t ignore.
A key detail is how ostracised and outdated Eismayer feels at the army because of his abusive behaviour. It’s understandable why so many of his subordinates exclusively regard him with venom, especially after we watch the sergeant make a slacking cadet shoulder a rifle so excessively that it causes him acute physical pain. But as we see from the scenes he shares with the base’s captain, his superiors are keenly aware how damaging it is to have someone as brazenly cruel on staff.
Does Eismayer welcome this alienation from all sides? Is he intentionally trying to be disliked by everyone for his ruthlessness in order to not risk others getting too close? The portion of the movie focusing on Eismayer’s cancer diagnosis seems to confirm this, as if only through falling ill can he be made vulnerable enough to accept care from the empathetic Mario—not to mention it brings a whole new physicality to Liebmann’s performance.
At times, Eismayer feels a little restrained by its true-life story, even though Wagner has stated that most of the film’s plot was invented. But a growing desire for the narrative to be more expressive is rewarded by moments of affecting romance, ones that feel lifted straight from a Hollywood romcom and dropped in a European vérité drama. It’s almost as if the clipped, abrupt editing and severe framing are trying to constrain the potency of feeling that Eismayer has suppressed within him.
When he’s confronted by Mario’s outpouring of love (complete with a bizarre novelty engagement ring), he shuts it down with a similar cruelty—and the same use of homophobic slurs—that he uses on his cadets. Watching Eismayer overcome this instinctual resentment for meaningful connection becomes the film’s emotional climax, even if his climactic “run to the airport” confession of love feels a little out of place.
Still, a deeper exploration of Eismayer’s brutality would have strengthened the film. There doesn’t necessarily need to be more extended scenes of him abusing his cadets, but after we learn in dialogue that Eismayer’s homophobic family sent him to the military in hopes that it would convert him, you can’t help but feel Eismayer should delve deeper into the military’s enforcement of an almost fascist version of masculinity, how it causes deep psychological damage, and encourages repression. The finished product certainly approaches these issues, but Wagner seems more concerned with telling a compelling and affecting love story. At least this goal, thanks to the two sensitive lead performances, is achieved admirably.
Eismayer made its UK premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Read our exclusive interview with director David Wagner here.
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