Hannes Richter

A short look at a legendary history: The Austrian Film

Hannes Richter
A short look at a legendary history: The Austrian Film

Top photo: A scene from the Austrian classical film Hallo Dienstmann (1952)

By Robert Dassanowsky

Austria-Hungary's subjects were among the world's first film enthusiasts. The lack of the beginnings of a Vienna-based "national" cinema until late in the first decade of the twentieth century actually helped foster the multicultural audience's appreciation for the wide palette of early cinema art that were seen in the Wanderkinos (wandering tent cinemas) that crisscrossed the Empire. The Erika Cinema was established in the seventh district of Vienna in 1900 or 1909 (there are conflicting records), and remained the oldest permanent cinema in the world until its closure in 1999. By the second year of the First World War, Vienna hosted no less than 150 cinemas. As provincial capitals also moved from tent cinemas to theaters, the Edison Cinema in Graz managed to outdo its Viennese rivals by boasting one of the largest screens in Europe.

Contrary to the expectation of Vienna as the setting for operetta, its early silent film tended towards sociocritical melodrama, and the efforts of one of the world's female cinema pioneers, Louise Veltée-Kolm who served as writer, editor, produce and director (with her husbands, Anton Kolm and Jakob Fleck) created Vienna's first film studio in 1910. During the First World War, the Veltée-Kolm studio, specialized in patriotic melodramas such as Mit Herz und Hand fürs Vaterland /With Heart and Hand for the Fatherland (1915), with songs by operetta composer Franz Lehár and Austria's first film star, Liane Haid. Her rival, Count Alexander “Sascha” Kolowrat-Krakowskyconcentrated on war reportage. By 1916, he held a monopoly in newsreel creation with his Sascha-Kriegswochenbericht . Following the war and the creation of the Austrian First Republic, Kolowrat founded the Sascha Film company and became known for his efforts to make postwar Austrian film universally appealing.

With his encouragement, Austro-Hungarian directors Mihály Kertesz (later Hollywood’s Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame) and Sandor Korda (later British producer Sir Alexander Korda) created monumental biblical films for both the Kolowrat and Veltée Kolm studios, such as Sodom und Gomorrah (1922), Samson und Delila (1922), and Die Sklavenkönigin/The Slave Queen  akaMoon of Israel (1924). These films not only demanded a sizeable mass of extras, it also employed a small army behind the cameras. Unlike the wealthy Hollywood industry at the time, the employment of so many people in a monumental silent film shot in Vienna was made feasible by the inflation and unemployment of the First Republic.

Kolowrat employed craftspeople as set builders, technicians, carpenters, metalworkers, prop creators, and pyrotechnicians. He built workshops that employed hundreds of women and men for the creation of costumes, wigs, beards, sandals, jewelry, flags, banners, and equipage. Thousands of the unemployed and their children were paid daily for their work on the film. Kolowrat also managed to utilize much of Vienna's available film crew talent as cameramen, hair stylists, make-up artists, tailors, wardrobe personnel, and their assistants. Influenced by the early mammoth creations of Hollywood's D.W. Griffith, these landmark creations by Kertesz and Korda ultimately rivaled the mammoth films of Cecil B. DeMille on the international market. Biographical dramas on figures from Austria's long imperial history provided satisfying entertainment for a new republic attempting to find a national identity.

The most popular setting in film was the Biedermeier era (1815-1848), which offered escapism from political and economic crisis with its images of a stable and orderly Old Austria and its impressive mix of nineteenth century heroes, legends and myths: Der Graf von Cagliostro/Count Cagliostro (1920), Beethoven (1927), Ein Walzer von Strauss /A Waltz by Strauss (1925), and Vater Radetzky /Father Radetzky (1929). Among the grandest of the final silent films in Europe was Robert Wiene's (the director of the German Expressionist masterwork, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919) adaptation of the Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera, Der Rosenkavalier (1925). Equally important during this period is the development of the contemporary Austrian melodrama. Among the most controversial were H.K. Bresaluer's film of Hugo Bettauer' s prophesying novel on anti-Semitism,  Die Stadt ohne Juden/The City without Jews (1924), and Gustav Ucicky's look at crime and desire in Café Elektric (1927), withtwo important performers discovered by Sascha Kolowrat: Willi Forst and a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich.

With the onset of sound, live orchestras were no longer needed to accompany films, and were instead used on screen in the new genre of the Musikfilm, and vocalists borrowed opera and operetta such as Jarmila Novotna, Maria Jeritza, Joseph Schmidt, Adele Kern, Leo Slezak, Jan Kiepura, and Marta Eggerth found stardom. Films such as Wilhelm Thiele's Grossfürstin Alexandra/The Grandduchess Alexandra (1933) with music by Franz Lehár, and Paul Fejos's Frühlingsstimmen/Voices of Spring (1933) with music by Oskar Straus are notable examples of this trend. The economic crisis and unemployment of the First Republic found resonance in socially critical silent "proletarian" films and in the unique blend of futuristic science fiction and party politics that is the 1932 Social Democratic film, Die vom 17er Haus/House Number 17.

Written and directed by Artur Berger, it depicts Vienna in the year 2032 with spectacular model sets (the St. Stephan's Cathedral engulfed by Bauhaus-style steel and glass skyscrapers), futuristic costumes, and what are ostensibly computer monitors. Although the film evokes a more rational future than its obvious influence, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Germany 1927), its plot is less complex and more overtly political. Lang, like G. W. Pabst and Billy Wilder, have long been associated with the prominent film industry in Weimar-era Berlin, but their origins and early work are Austrian.

A scene from the small masterpiece of film noir Adventure in Vienna

A scene from the small masterpiece of film noir Adventure in Vienna

With the coming of sound production in the early 1930s, a unique film style and genre that would represent Austria's national film into the 1950s was created -- the Viennese Film. The artists responsible for this were actor Willi Forst and writer Walter Reisch. Forst's directorial debut with the Franz Schubert film, Leise flehen meine Lieder in 1933 was so popular that it was reshot in a 1934 British version (co-directed by Forst and Anthony Asquith) for the English language market as The Unfinished Symphony.  The film's theme of sacrificing love for art and its opulently stylized orchestration of historical Viennese setting, cinematography, music, and performance set the standard for the genre.

Forst's following Viennese Film with Reisch, Maskerade/Masquerade (1934), secured his reputation as a major director and made an instant star of young actress Paula Wessely. Maskerade received the award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and was so triumphant at the international box office that Hollywood "borrowed" the story for a less popular re-make entitled Escapade in 1935.

 With Hitler's assumption of power in Germany in 1933, National Socialists began their infiltration of the Austrian film industry. Germany's position as Austria's most important export country, the shared film talent, and the German investment in Austrian production allowed it to place ruinous pressures on Austrian filmmaking.  An Austrian-Czechoslovakian co-production, Ekstase -Symphonie der Liebe/Ecstasy directed by Gustav Machaty, also made international headlines that year.  It might have been praised for its experimental style and metaphoric plot, but it was the nude scenes by the young Austrian actress Hedwig Kiesler, later Hollywood's Hedy Lamarr, that made it a sensation.

The mainstream Austrian film studios were forced to implement German racial laws to be able to export films to Germany and this encouraged a second Austrian film industry to emerge after 1933, the independent Emigrantenfilm (Emigrant Film).  Made with German-Jewish émigré and Austrian talent unacceptable for German audiences, these international co-productions (with Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and Sweden) offered some of the most progressive comedies of the era. Its representative performers were Hans Jaray, Szöke Szakall, Rosy Barsony, Otto Wallburg and most importantly comic actress Franziska Gaal, who was dressed as a boy to survive poverty in Peter (Austria/Hungary, 1934), which was awarded Best Comedy of the Year at the 1935 Moscow International Film Festival, and then found love as an exploited kitchen maid in Katharina, die Letzte (Austria/Hungary, 1936). Her single mother role in Kleine Mutti /Little Mother (Austria/Hungary, 1935) was so admired abroad, that its writer, Felix Joachimson, who settled in Hollywood after the Nazi annexation as "Felix Jackson," recycled his script twice: in 1939 as Bachelor Mother for Ginger Rogers, and in 1956 as Bundle of Joy for Debbie Reynolds.

One of the very few Catholic-themed entertainment films produced during the authoritarian Catholic-political Dollfuss-Schuschnigg corporate state was Singende Jugend/An Orphan Boy of Vienna (Austria/Netherlands, 1936), directed by Austria's most active ilm director of the 1930s, Max Neufeld. It found major success with audiences in France, England, and in Czechoslovakia, where it was voted Best Foreign Film of 1936. In the mainstream industry, Hungarian director Geza  von Bolvary, the only true rival to Willi Forst's style, made two of his most important films of the period: Lumpazivagabundus/Lumpaci theVagabond (1936) based on the work by Austrian folk playwright Johann Nestroy with the trio of Paul Hörbiger, German comic actor Heinz Rühmann, and young Austrian leading man Hans Holt; and Premiere (1937), a contemporary musical written by Max Wallner and photographed by Franz Planer, the film was the first German language film for a Swedish singer and actress who would become the most popular film star of the Third Reich, Zarah Leander.

The involvement of Hollywood's Universal Pictures in Austrian film after the nationalization of Berlin's film industry encouraged Vienna's official film council, Eugen Lanske to attempt a replacement for traditional German support with a stronger American role in Austrian film production. MGM and Twentieth Century Fox promised investment and planned on five Hollywood-Vienna co-productions as well as about fifteen dubbed Austrian releases in the U.S. per year. 

Austrian film has a stronger connection with Hollywood's Golden Age than any other European cinema due to the sheer amount of expatriate film talent, which included among many others: Erich von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, Elisabeth Bergner, Josef von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, Joseph Schildkraut, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Henreid, Max Steiner, Fred Zinnemann, Franz Planer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Joseph Pasternak, Walter Jurmann, Walter Slezak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Otto Preminger. For the large Austrian and German exile community in Hollywood and the popularity of the Viennese Film with Hollywood studios that were remaking them for American audiences, such an creative and financial connection was feasible and desirable. Unfortunately, National Socialist economic and political pressure from inside and outside Austria forced Lanske to withdraw his plans.

Following the Nazi German annexation in 1938 and the imprisonment and deportation of Jewish and anti-Nazi talent, Propaganda Minister Goebbels dictated a specific mission for Vienna as one of the three film production centers (along with Berlin and Prague) of the Reich. The new so-called "Aryanized" and centralized Wien-Film studio would produce mostly entertainment-oriented and generally exportable films, while UFA in Berlin would focus on important dramas, historical spectacles, and on propaganda "documentaries." Even the logo of the new studio, a treble clef, blatantly associated Wien-Film with the mythos of musical Vienna. Viennese-associated traditions and images, even dialect, was to be utilized as an indication of the Reich's greater German cultural variance and to cinematically annex the historical/cultural Vienna (and by extension, Austria) in the imagination of the audience.

But this intention to contain and exploit, actually allowed many directors at Wien-Film to distance themselves from, and to some extent even subvert, National Socialist pan-German ideology with nostalgic images of Old Austria. Nevertheless, four films made by the studio are considered overtly political and propagandistic,  including the infamous Heimkehr/Homecoming (1941), directed by Gustav Ucicky , which attempted to justify the brutal attack on Poland with an inflammatory fiction about the violent abuse of the German minority there.

Hofrat geiger.jpg

A scene from the Austrian classic Der Hofrat Geiger

A strict creative hierarchy existed at Wien-Film: Willi Forst and Geza von Bolvary created the musical and the Viennese Film, actor-turned-director Hans Thimig directed theater and literary-based features, E. W. Emo made comedies, and Gustav Ucicky's was responsible for social drama. Forst's third film in his popular and opulent Old Vienna trilogy, (which included Operette/Operetta (1940) and Wiener Blut/Viennese Blood (1942)), Wiener Mädeln/Viennese Girls, was begun at Wien-Film during the bombing raids of 1944/45.

His first Agfacolor extravaganza would, however, not be completed until 1949, and then in two distinct versions: an East German print assembled without his permission from the material stored in Berlin, and the later director's cut completed in Vienna. Both versions were hits with audiences on their respective side of a divided Europe. An equally interesting fate met Geza von Cziffra's lavish Der weiße Traum /The White Dream (1943), an ice revue-romance film that became one of the most popular of all Wien-Film productions. Prints of the film obtained by the Soviet occupation forces in Vienna were shown in Soviet cinemas throughout the 1950s.  

Many production companies were founded in the immediate postwar years but the first actual studio to produce independently of Allied occupation restrictions was Belvedere Film, founded by August Diglas, former silent filmmaker Emmerich Hanus, and a young woman, the 22-year-old opera singer and musician, Elfi Dassanowsky. It gave first film roles to several major talents in its six year existence, such as European leading lady Nadja Tiller and film and television comedian Günther Philipp.  One of the first major internationally regarded films from postwar Austria was Karl Hartl's family epic dealing with recent Austrian history, Der Engel mit der Posaune/Angel with a Trumpet (1948), which along with his Mozart (1955), gave young theater actor Oskar Werner an international film career. The son of film pioneer Louise Veltée-Kolm and Anton Kolm, Walter Kolm-Veltée made his directorial debut with the Beethoven drama, Eroica in 1949, the most expensive and critically acclaimed postwar film. Hailed at Cannes, Eroica reintroduced the high quality and unique style of Austrian cinema to the world for a brief time but it failed to encourage national government funding for film production at home.

Historical and biographical films, such as Paula Wessely and Attila Hörbiger in Maria Theresia/Empress Maria Theresa (1951) helped reconstruct national history but realistic exploration of Nazism and the war was avoided with only a few exceptions such as the award-winning Austrian/Yugoslavian co-production Die letzte Brücke/The Last Bridge (1954) directed by Helmut Käutner and starring Maria Schell. The expensive, state-supported, all-star science fiction fantasy about a futuristic Austria still under Allied occupation  1. April 2000/April 1, 2000 (1952), failed in its aim to be an international sensation and a plea for Austrian sovereignty, but has become a much discussed cult film today. By the mid-1950s, Austria found itself in a film production "boom" with the “Kaiserfilm” or “imperial epic.” Created by veteran director Ernst Marischka and developed into musical form by newcomer Franz Antel, these opulently produced Agfacolor royal romances set in imperial Vienna managed to compete with Hollywood film at home and throughout Europe. The genre's most famous representative is Marischka's Sissi trilogy which presented the romance of the young Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) and launched the international career of Romy Schneider.

A neo-realist cinema never materialized as a movement in Austria, although two films are notable for their Viennese adaptation of this Italian-based style, Harald Röbbling's Asphalt (1951) and Kurt Steinwendner's Wienerinnen/Viennese Women (1952). It was the Heimatfilm, however, that attracted the largest German speaking audiences. These showcases of alpine landscape and rural morality, were adapted in the postwar era to present allegories on reconstruction as in Der Hofrat Geiger/The Councilor Geiger (1947); economic and technological re-emergence as in Das Lied der Hohen Tauern/The Song of Kaprun (1955), which uses the actual construction of a hydroelectric dam at Kaprun as it background; and complete escapism from Cold-War reality in Echo der Berge/Mountain Echoes, known abroad as Der Förster vom Silberwald (1954). It attained such immense box office success and fan popularity in Austria and West Germany that it was followed with many sequels and imitations, until the original formula was eventually diluted with the pop music revue in the early 1960s.

With the demise of many of classic filmmakers and performers, the growing dominance of West German production, and the lack of national film funding, Austria's commercial film industry disappeared in the mid-1960s. The Vienna Art Club introduced experimental cinema in the late 1950s, but no "new wave" arose to re-create the popular cinema as in Italy, France, Britain or West Germany. Instead, Peter Kubelka, Ferry Radax, Kurt Kren, Günther Brus, and Peter Weibel created isolated and highly abstract film based in Viennese Actionism performance art. These examples of shock-art, which attacked traditional forms and the spectator, alienated established audiences who also abandoned the sex comedy and Hollywood dominated cinemas and turned to television.

The mid-1970s marked a return of narrative film, although these were small, local productions rarely screened in remaining cinema theaters or exported. Counterculture artist Valie Export returned to a more traditional film form and emerged as one of the leaders of feminist filmmaking in Europe.  A national film fund was finally announced in 1980, and with the funding participation of the national ORF television network, more shorts and feature length films found limited commercial or television screenings. These were revisions of traditional Austrian genres, such as the Heimatfilm, which now became neo-realistic, exploring political corruption in Christian Berger's Raffl (1984) and the Nazi past in Wolfram Paulus's Heidenlöcher/Hideouts (1985).

Socially critical film focused on racism, xenophobia, sexual repression, and psychological abuse usually presented in dramas about family dysfunction or the outsider as in Peter Patzak's Kassbach (1979) and Michael Haneke's Der siebente Kontinent/The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny's Video (1992). Veteran director Franz Antel whose classic comedies of the 1950s reunited the 1940s comic "dream team" of Paul Hörbiger and Hans Moser, moved to German-based sex comedies in the 1960s. He returned to Austrian themes with a generational saga of four dramatic films dealing with the recent past as seen through the eyes of a Viennese butcher and his family, beginning with the 1938 annexation in Der Bockerer/Bockerer ( 1981). With actor Karl Merkatz finding popular and critical acclaim as the title character, the film demonstrated that the Nazi period in Austria was now approachable in a commercial film. Hollywood recognition of this new phase of Austrian filmmaking came with an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Foreign Language Film for Wolfgang Glück's drama based on the novel by Friedrich Torberg , 38-Auch das war Wien/38 (1987), which looked at a doomed love affair between a Jewish reporter (Tobias Engel) and a gentile actress (Sunnyi Melles) in the months prior to the Anschluss.  But it was Niki List's detective film parody, Müllers Büro/Muellers Bureau (1986) that was most popular at home and broke Austrian box office records. Filmmakers Axel Corti, Reinhard Schwabenitzky, Paulus Manker, Robert Dornhelm, Houchang Allahyari, and Xaver Schwarzenberger also gained growing popular and critical attention for their cinema and television work in the 1980s and 90s. Austrian film was once again finding national and even international audiences.