Hot Docs Review: Felix Austria!
Felix Pfeifle always knew that he was born for a life that was bigger than his Modesto, California surroundings. Impeccably dressed with the ability to speak on intercontinental issues at a scholarly level, Felix’s fascination with Viennese aristocracy began at an early age. His passion really takes off though when he inherits over 60 years of correspondence between a seemingly affluent American, Herbert Hinkel, and Felix’s idol Archduke Otto von Habsburg. The last living heir to the Holy Roman Empire, Habsburg’s life is viewed as the holy grail of European history in the eyes of Felix. Intrigued by the correspondences, Felix embarks on a mission to learn more about Herbert Hinkel and how he came to be friends with Habsburg.
The journey to uncover Hinkel’s past comes at a very critical time in Felix’s life. His father suffers from Huntington’s disease, a fatal degenerative brain disease that is passed down genetically, and Felix has a 50 percent of inheriting it. After witnessing how the disease caused violent, and suicidal, outburst in his father; Felix knows the clock may be ticking for his own life too. Now at the same age that his father was when first diagnosed, Felix travels across America and over the Atlantic on a historical fact finding mission he feels his whole life has led up to. As the mystery surrounding Hinkel’s life slowly unravels, the possibility of having an audience with Archduke Otto von Habsburg becomes far more than just one of Felix’s recurring dreams.
It is hard not to be instantly charmed by Felix Austria! considering the charisma of Felix Pfeifle. Christine Beebe’s film explores how reinvention can help in achieving our goals, but it will never erase our genetic past. Beebe’s does an exceptional job of diving into the impact of Huntington’s disease on Felix’s subconscious. For every milestone that Felix reaches in the film, his mind is still heavily focused on his father’s condition and what it will mean for him. The film frequently draws parallels between Felix’s desire to escape his own possible fate with his obsession with the aristocracy. Even Felix’s own personal analyst, Michael Pariser, interprets Felix’s numerous dreams involving meeting Archduke Otto von Habsburg as a manifestation of his fear that people will find out his true background.
By keeping the ramifications that Huntington’s disease has had on the Pfeifle family at the forefront, Beebe is able to peel away the layers behind Felix’s exuberant persona. She even captures a surprisingly tender moment when Felix gets emotional while recounting a story he heard about Herbert Hinkel’s funeral procession. This is not to say that Felix Austria! does not have fun with its main character though. Beebe offers playful re-enactments of Felix’s dreams about Habsburg which provide a whimsical feel to the film. She also takes great delight in highlighting Felix’s interactions with many of the locals he meets along the way. In one amusing scene Felix casually educates locals in a small town burger joint on the importance of Archduke Otto von Habsburg.
Felix Austria! is an entertaining and endearing film about passions, fears, and all things in between. It is a film that will educate audiences on Huntington’s disease while charming them at the same time.