Austria taking 'Bruno' in stride

Sacha Baron Cohen pic centers on Austrian fashionista

VIENNA -- Austrians could be forgiven for bristling at "Bruno."

After all, the film character boasts that his fame is second only to Hitler's and says he just wants "to achieve zee Austrian dream -- find a job, get a dungeon und raise a family in it."

Yet rather than recoil at British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's new spoof about a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista, most Viennese are taking Bruno's own advice: "Get ueber it!"

Judging from a smattering of look-alike contests and Web sites cheerfully hawking skintight T-shirts and short-shorts, some even seem to be embracing their inner Bruno.

"We can all learn a lot from Bruno: style, zest for life, versatility, fearlessness," Doris Knecht, a columnist for the Kurier newspaper, wrote in her blog ahead of Universal Pictures' worldwide release Friday.

"This man is proud of his homeland, so we're proud of him," she said, proclaiming: "Austria has a new ambassador. Thanks, Bruno!"

Not everyone shares her enthusiasm -- least of all a real ambassador: Emil Brix, Austria's top envoy to Britain.

In an interview with Austrian public broadcaster ORF aired Thursday, Brix denounced "Bruno" as "completely improper and unsuitable."

He said he found Baron Cohen's flippant references to Hitler and to Josef Fritzl -- convicted in March of imprisoning his daughter for 24 years in a dungeon and fathering her seven children -- cheap, crass and offensive.

"Everyone should speak out against such a thing," he said, warning that it will tarnish Austria's image.

ORF panned the film in a review. "A lot of expense for a few punch lines," it said.

Most Austrians, though, seem to be taking "Bruno" in stride.

They're used to being ridiculed for the country's past complicity with the Nazis, its flourishing far-right political fringe and the Fritzl affair, which came less than two years after a similar case involving a young woman who escaped after being held captive 8 1/2 years in an underground cell.

They've also taken a ribbing over Austria-born Arnold Schwarzenegger, initially for his "Terminator" films and most recently for becoming California governor. Outsiders have made cracks about lederhosen and yodeling ever since "The Sound of Music" -- still unseen by the vast majority of Austrians -- debuted in 1965.

"Austrians like to laugh at themselves as long as no one gets hurt," Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal said Thursday.

Underscoring the mischievous mood, he quipped: "I hope the lederhosen industry gets a boost from 'Bruno' in this time of recession."

Some Austrians already are familiar with Bruno, a character Baron Cohen has channeled on "Da Ali G Show."

Although Vienna isn't exactly in the throes of Bruno fever, movie posters depicting him in barely bum-concealing bright yellow lederhosen, a matching alpine cap and an over-the-shoulder pout adorn virtually every bus and tram stop in the Austrian capital.

Fans also have been hawking clothing and merchandise emblazoned with Bruno-isms like "Get ueber it!" "Nicht nicht!" and "Ich don't think so."

"Naturally 'Bruno' is tasteless and always has one foot planted over the border of decency. But what else can you expect from Sacha Baron Cohen?" said Alex Rechsteiner, a philosophy student.

Austrian media generally have played down suggestions that "Bruno" will do irreversible damage and even discourage tourists from visiting. They note that some Australians feared the same after "Crocodile Dundee" was released, yet if anything, that film may have lured foreigners.

Baron Cohen is used to getting flak for his work.

After the 2006 surprise smash "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," officials and ordinary people in the former Soviet republic took great offense at being mercilessly lampooned as an incestuous and boorish backwater.

In the end, it didn't seem to inflict any lasting damage: Next year, Kazakhstan will hold the chairmanship of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Alfons Haider, an openly gay Austrian cabaret singer and TV host who some believe helped inspire the Bruno character, has expressed admiration for Baron Cohen while repudiating what he describes as the movie's far-right and anti-Semitic undertones.

Vienna is one of Europe's most gay- and lesbian-friendly capitals, and its annual Life Ball -- a glittery event that draws celebrities from around the world and raises millions for HIV/AIDS research -- is a highlight of the social calendar.

"How could mein film be ein PR-disaster for Austria?" the daily newspaper Oesterreich quoted Baron Cohen as saying in characteristic zis-und-zat "Bruno-speak" in an interview published Thursday. "Hitler, Fritzl, Bruno. Zat has to be ein upswing!"
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