At Swim-Two-Cultures – An Irishman’s Diary about the Austrian director who filmed an unfilmable Flann O’Brien novel

Kurt Palm: has directed only full-length film version of a Flann O’Brien novel

Kurt Palm: has directed only full-length film version of a Flann O’Brien novel


There’s an irony in the fact that the only full-length film version of a Flann O’Brien novel made to date is in German, because the Germans were also complicit in a situation whereby the book in question almost died at birth.

At Swim-Two-Birds was first published, with tragic timing, in 1939. Despite praise from James Joyce and Graham Greene, it sold only 200-odd copies.  

Then, as if to finish it off, the Luftwaffe fire-bombed the London warehouse where the rest of the print-run resided.  

Not until the 1950s would the novel be given a second chance, confirming its cult status.

Kurt Palm’s film version, In Schwimmen-Zwei-Vögel (1997) is as highly eccentric as it is lowly-budgeted.  

It has all of O’Brien’s anarchic cast of characters, including Finn MacCool, Jem “the Poet of the Pick” Casey, and a talking cow, while also introducing Conan the Barbarian in a cameo.  

And if some Flann O’Brien fans have found the finished work to be proof that the book was unfilmable, we can only wonder what viewers unfamiliar with the original must have made of it.

Palm’s surname would seem to give him a leg-up with film critics, but on the occasion of In Schwimmen’s debut in his native Austria, it didn’t help much.  

“They hated it and they hated me,” he said after a special screening for the Flann O’Brien Conference in Salzburg this week. He said this cheerfully, however, because the kind of person who films unfilmable books on €700,000 budgets is not to be easily discouraged.  

Of the many challenges his project faced, he also quoted an old saying in German for which he didn’t have English words.

“Every crutch can become a sceptre”, one of the local Flannoraks in his audience translated helpfully.  

In this spirit, Palm took the lack of palms from the local cinema critics as a compliment.

And having just viewed his film again “for the first time in 10 years”, he professed himself pleasantly surprised at how well it stood up.

He was also surprised that no English language version had yet emerged, despite the long-stated ambitions of Brendan Gleeson, who in 2013 expressed his frustrations about not getting there yet.

“It’s an apple waiting to fall,” Gleeson said then, “but I’m not shaking the tree anymore”.  

Perhaps Palm needs to lend him one of those crutch-turned-sceptres. Or maybe it’s not just an apple that needs to fall. The eclectic cast of At Swim-Two-Birds includes the mad King Sweeney who, in Irish mythology, was transformed into a bird. In Palm’s film, at one point, Sweeney falls out of a tree.

O’Brien apart, Palm’s biggest influence when making the movie was Berthold Brecht, which he admitted may have given the work a feel different to what the author intended.  

He also cited the director David Lynch as a model, because the TV series Twin Peaks had been fresh in his mind at the time.

This and Palm’s suggestion that the film could have lasted “20 hours” raised an intriguing possibility. As a successful television producer in Austria, had he ever thought of turning O’Brien’s book into a series: a kind of At Swim-Twin-Peaks?  

The director appeared to ponder this a moment before shaking his head, gravely: “I don’t think you’d get funding for that.”

Palm’s most recent foray into film-making, by the way, was the 2013 crime comedy Bad Fucking. And before any sensitive readers complain, I should explain that the title is essentially a place-name: bad meaning “spa” in German and Fucking being a perfectly respectable name for a town here.

Thus the film is set in a fictional health resort. And all the rude thoughts were yours, reader (even if the director deliberately planted them).

The real-life Austrian village of Fucking has achieved an unfortunate notoriety in the English-speaking world.  

Against the dubious tourism benefits must be counted the loss of road signs that used to be a regular feature of life there. Now, I’m told, they have theft-proof signs, so that immature tourists have to make do with just taking pictures.

The village is not far from Salzburg, about 30 km away.  

But a side trip for photo-ops is not among the events scheduled on the Flann O’Brien Conference’s social programme. The nearest thing most Flannoraks will get to that are the DVDs of Palm’s work, which were on sale at the screening. And a video of Bad Fucking is not something you’d want to leave lying around your living-room.