In Austria, friends and foes of Sebastian Kurz had been eagerly awaiting the release of a glossy, political documentary about the rise and fall of the former chancellor.
Projeckt Ballhausplatz had its cinema debut on Thursday, promising to lay bare a lurid tale of a conspiracy-fuelled rise to power. But in the weeks before its release, huge billboards appeared around Vienna for a more flattering biopic with equally high-end production values and dramatic sweep: Kurz — The Movie.
In contrast to Ballhausplatz, which takes its name from the chancellor’s palace, the rival movie paints a rosier picture of Kurz’s tumultuous tenure, foregrounding his successes at the ballot box and inviting watchers to consider his ousting in 2021 — amid swirling, still unproven allegations of grand corruption — as a “silent coup”.
Both films have provoked outcry among Austria’s ruling elite — inspiring columns in national newspapers — and catapulting a question once considered ridiculous back into the mainstream of political life in Austria: is Kurz planning a comeback?
“I really don’t see how this can be a coincidence,” said Marcus How, head of research at VE Insight, a Vienna-based consultancy that monitors Austrian politics. “My impression is that Kurz is certainly impatient to return to politics . . . but of course that does not mean he will or can.”
Kurz — who was the country’s youngest chancellor and turned 37 this year — denies having had any role in the funding or commissioning of Kurz — The Movie and has laughed off notions that he still harbours political ambitions.
“Apart from the interviews he gave [in the film], Sebastian Kurz was neither involved in terms of content nor financially in the documentaries that were made about him,” his spokesperson said.
But these are fractious times in Austria.
Since Kurz’s departure, his People’s party (ÖVP) lead has plummeted in the polls. With elections next year, it faces being kicked out of government — which it currently rules in coalition with Austria’s Greens — for the first time in 40 years.
The opposition Social Democrats recently elected a leftwing outsider many commentators consider more divisive than electable. But liberals are still furious with Kurz over the corruption allegations against him. Kurz, who was indicted for lying to parliament earlier this month, strongly denies charges of corruption.
A sprawling probe by public prosecutors into the Kurz government shows no signs of ending soon. The turmoil is a boon for the hard right Freedom party, which for the first time in nearly 70 years is in pole position to field Austria’s next chancellor.
Despite his tumultuous political reign, presiding over two consecutive governments which ended in scandal — the first one over his far right coalition partner in 2019 and the second in 2021 with his own resignation — Kurz was a powerful unifying force in Austrian politics, forging links based on pragmatism and ruling confidently in consequence.
In the wake of his political life, Kurz has embarked on a globetrotting business career — but with mixed success. He signed up as a “global strategist” for billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel and made the United Arab Emirates his new hub, trying to leverage his connections there.
Kurz has branched into fashionable areas such as cyber security, partnering with the controversial Israeli entrepreneur Shalev Hulio. And he has sought to position himself as an expert on Europe’s future relations with China — a subject he displayed no noticeable passion for while in power.
Those close to him say he is, of late, spending more and more time in Austria. His personal office in Vienna is now a hive of activity, with a dozen people working there, according to one regular visitor. Among those frequenting his office is former finance minister Gernot Blümel, who was recently cleared of corruption charges, and former ÖVP secretary-general and current tourism minister Elisabeth Köstinger.
Kurz turned up in person to The Movie’s premier in Vienna, sitting next to former ÖVP chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel — who declared the film a triumph.
The screening was filled with party dignitaries, including former and current ministers. The only person not there, it seemed, was Karl Nehammer, the current ÖVP leader and Kurz’s successor as chancellor.
Kurz’s detractors argue the unusual new film about him says it all: its budget ran to €500,000, according to its director, but no grants or subsidies — which would have required disclosure of funders — were taken from the Austrian state. The Movie was funded by an opaque German group of investors called Opus-R. Questions sent to them by the Financial Times were not responded to.
Project Ballhausplatz, by contrast, received €300,000 in grants from Austrian film-making bodies.
According to the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, the favourable Kurz film sold just under 5,000 tickets in its first few days of release. It would need to sell 250,000 to break even, Austrian film experts estimated.
Stephanie Krisper, a liberal member of parliament, and one of Kurz’s fiercest critics, said she was duped into appearing in The Movie. She was approached as an interviewee for a production about Austria’s turbulent political situation, she said, and had no idea she would feature in a “hagiography”.
“[We] were tricked into interviews under false pretences,” Krisper said, adding that she believed that even the small number of tickets sold for the film reflected bulk-buying by the production company.
“We are working for an end to the corruption that was perfected by Sebastian Kurz,” said Krisper. The film, she added, seemed intended to gloss over the scandals that ended his time in office and encourage the electorate to forget the mistakes that have tarnished Austria’s reputation.
The producers of Kurz — The Movie strongly denied any political interference or motivation and rejected Krisper’s claims that she was tricked into an interview.
Details of a third Kurz film were printed in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on Tuesday. Kurz — The Truth, written by his authorised biographer Judith Grohmann, who has repeatedly praised the young former politician, will be released this week.