Charles Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann) is a Sergeant Major who oversees the Fourth Guard company of the Austrian Armed Forces. One colleague tells him, “Hard-asses like you are why no one wants to join the army.” Eismayer has a reputation for being ultra-demanding of his recruits, and he dehumanizes them as he readies them for service. But seeing him interact with his wife, Christina (Julia Koschitz), he is no less rigid, and disappoints her when she wants to book a vacation. He only seems to be kind to his young son, Dominik (Lion Tatzber), whom he indulges.
“Eismayer,” based on true events, is a penetrating character study of this army man who has long hidden his homosexuality from his colleagues and family. His desires are awakened when he trains Mario Falak (Luka Dimic), a handsome recruit who does not fear this legendary drillmaster. Falak may incur a punishment of 60 pushups for speaking out of turn, but he is justly rebellious.
One night, in the barracks, a fight breaks out between Falak and another recruit after Falak, who has come out as gay, invited the other soldier to join him in the shower. As Eismayer tries to diffuse the situation —ordering Falak to run outdoors in the cold — Falak heads out naked, as if to prove he has neither shame nor regret. However, a training episode, in which Falak must cross a high chasm above a river using a tightrope, frightens the recruit. Eismayer’s efforts to assist Falak end with the Sergeant Major getting injured.
“Eismayer” uses these early scenes to create the dynamic between Eismayer and Falak, which becomes more intimate. A scene of the two men showering side by side brims with sexual tension, and when the men do get passionate, there is a concern of them being discovered.
The film also presents attitudes towards gays in the military, given that various characters express the belief that the army is “no place for faggots.” Another scene has a handful of recruits — unaware of the Sergeant Major’s relationship with Falak — offering Falak their monthly salary to go kiss Eismayer. How that scene plays out is satisfying.
Writer/director David Wagner wisely does not present Eismayer’s story in a sensational way. He, along with actor Gerhard Liebmann, offer a very sympathetic portrait of a man conflicted by his image as a hard-ass and his desires. When Eismayer’s wife catches her husband in a lie, she takes her son to go live elsewhere. This development allows Eismayer to invite Falak over to help him set up a TV, but the evening becomes an overnight stay, and Eismayer crawls into bed with Falak at night, longing to act on his pent-up desires.
The second half of “Eismayer” shows how Falak helps his lover after Eismayer is diagnosed with cancer. Forcing him, like a drillmaster, to exercise an hour a day and take the stairs, not the elevator, Falak whips Eismayer back to health, and these moments only deepen the couple’s affections and emotions. But, the film asks: Can they love openly and honestly in the military? Anyone who knows the true story will have the answer. And while Eismayer has difficulty with being open — even after Falak offers him a ring and the hope of having a civil union — he does come out to his wife, and also has a tender heart-to-heart with his son.
Wagner maintains a firm control over the film, keeping the emotions restrained even during the more dramatic scenes. One exception is Christina’s reaction to her husband coming out; Wagner fixes his camera on her as she processes this unexpected information. But Liebmann’s strong performance does not overplay his expressions or body language, which is in keeping with his character’s tough-as-nails personality. When he tells his wife that his parents put him in the military to “make a man out of him,” it explains why he is so serious and demanding. There are very few scenes of Eismayer experiencing pleasure until he and Falak hook up. But as Eismayer acknowledges — to Falak and himself — that he is in love, this truth distracts him, and he softens. Watching Eismayer’s expressions change as he considers a life without his lover are gratifying.
In support, Luka Dimic makes Falak irresistible, exuding a confidence and self-worth that is appealing. When Falak struggles to be the best in a training exercise, his reaction shows his vulnerability. His character is slightly underwritten; Falak’s feelings towards Eismayer are unclear at first, especially when the Sergeant Major comes on to him during the overnight in his apartment. The film could have showcased Falak’s impressions more since their love is so palpable.
Nevertheless, “Eismayer” is an inspiring film that illustrates the power of the love these two men come to share.
“Eismayer” | Directed by David Wagner | Opening October 6 at the Cinema Village; on VOD/DVD October 10 | Distributed by Dark Star Pictures.