Top photo: The open air Opera in Bregenz served as location for an important scene in the Bond movie Quantum of Solace
By Michael Burri
Extraordinary power is said to reside in the act of storytelling. Stories connect events and endow them with meaning; they bind us with others; they mobilize the imagination. Indeed, human identity itself can be understood as a convergence of stories. Psychologists argue that by story editing – by altering negative stories that we may accept about ourselves-- we can change our behavior and improve our well-being. Marketing experts promote the storytelling approach to brand management. The modern individual narrates. Farewell homo economicus, the rational, self-interested individual. Long live homo narrans - the narrating human?
Storytelling is a compelling model for how humans think and behave. But in celebrating it, we risk overlooking the settings and circumstances that inspire stories. Increasingly globalized, we forget that particular locations catalyze certain kinds of stories. Deterritorialized ourselves, we neglect the complex relationship between stories and their places. For Austrian film history, the 2010 exhibition organized by the Wien Museum, “Vienna in Film: A Century of City Images,” marked a sharp bid to restore the importance of place to films set in Vienna. More recently, World Film Locations Vienna (2012), edited by Robert Dassanowsky, confirms how, in Vienna, locations trigger stories, and how filmmakers both work with and struggle against imaginary topographies of the city. For understanding Austria in film, few words help more than these three: location, location, location.
Perhaps no place in Austria is more closely identified with cinema than the Vienna Prater. Already before film, the Prater offered pre-cinematic experiences. On its display grounds, beginning in 1773, fireworks spectacles overwhelmed its visitors’ senses, while a century later, ever more astonishing exhibitions introduced them to distant lands and savage peoples. Not surprisingly, early filmmakers grasped the essential affinity between the stories they told and the Prater experience. Namely, that both offer an escape from the everyday and a chance to lose one’s self in a substitute reality. Austria’s first full-length evening film (now lost), Von Stufe zu Stufe (1908), warned of the dangers of embracing that substitute reality. In a Prater shooting gallery, the young plebian Annerl encounters Count Werner and soon gains entrée to his elite society, only to endure disappointment and be returned to the shooting gallery.
Another early film, Gustav Ucicky’s Pratermizzi (1926), presented a seductive variation on this plot template – the triumph of the substitute reality. Maria, the Pratermizzi, meets Baron von B. in the Prater through a newspaper insert. They fall in love, and love is tested, finally to be redeemed by the Pratermizzi. But the magical transcendence of the everyday in the Prater can also mean entry into a dangerous and uncertain world. Holly Martins unwittingly steps into this world in the perma-classic The Third Man (1949). In Wilhelm Pellert’s satirical Jesus von Ottakring (1976), a factory owner is randomly harassed by Prater hooligans, but shrewdly profits from this encounter by hiring the hooligans for his own crime spree. More often, however, the Prater is a witness to the magical power of romance. A place for the projection of dreams and desires – often evoked in visual shorthand by a brief shot of the giant Ferris Wheel, and perhaps, a close-up of balloons, the tunnel of horrors ride, or the punching figure (Watschenmann)-- the Prater has always been a catalyst for cinematic attractions. Jean-Luc Godard once said that to make a film all one needed was a girl and a gun. In Vienna, all one needs is a girl and the Prater.
Ernst Lubitsch once quipped that he might prefer Paris, Paramount to Paris, France. A studio Vienna, rendered fragmentarily via visually dominant locations, rather than actual location shooting, characterized early big-budget films in Austria. In Der junge Medarus (1923), a pre-Hollywood Michael Curtiz recreated Schönbrunn, St. Charles Church, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral as alternating backdrops for a story about Napoleon’s siege of Vienna in 1809. Of course, some early films did combine studio interiors with iconic city exteriors. Gustav Ucicky’s Café Electric (1927) casts St. Stephen’s as a distant crime scene backdrop, while Paul Fejos’ Sonnenstrahl transfers its visual focus from the old urban landmarks to the monumental apartment buildings recently built in the outer districts by the municipal socialist government. More characteristic, however, is Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a remake of Ludwig Berger’s Ein Walzertraum (1925), filmed at Vienna, Paramount. Stock footage of the cathedral-spired and domed skyline, Hofburg Palace, and Graben set location and then yield to a Vienna of opulent interiors, garden restaurants, and romantic park benches.
Whether briefly quoted or carefully established, locations communicate by referring both to their own history and to their relationship to other locations. Places are more than just the setting for the story; in a sense, especially in films of Austria, they are the story. An enduring tale told by Viennese film locations is that of a love affair between the center and the periphery. Directed by Vienna-born Erich von Stroheim, Wedding March (1928), is an early such cinematic fable, a story of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (and the Hofburg) and the Viennese suburb of Nußdorf. The aristocratic officer Prince Nicki and innkeeper’s daughter Mizzi share a hopeful fantasy in which love can bridge the social distance marked by the two locations. And tragedy follows. Here, as Alexandra Seibel has noted, social values and hierarchies are coded as locations and mapped onto the urban space. The inner city marks the merging of religious and imperial tradition, high culture, and the elite male, while the suburban periphery features popular entertainment, commerce, and the erotically-charged lower-class female. Such allegories of place flourished into the 1930s and beyond. Burgtheater (1936), the story of Burgtheater actor Mitterer and his failed romantic quest for Leni, the tailor’s daughter in Nußdorf, is a distinguished representative of this plot type that would soon become a cinematic cliché. Indeed, newer Austrian films invert, or altogether reject, the older place codings. In Nordrand (1999), the multilingual protagonists from the northern periphery of Vienna count down the New Year at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where they waltz to the Blue Danube, thus resignifying the site’s national import.
Exteriors, landmarks, and typical neighborhoods, even as they alternated between studio and onsite shooting, prevailed in early films set in Vienna. But it was the relocation of dramatic action to interior spaces that in the 1930s films of Willi Forst produced the most enduring and emulated cinematic articulation of Vienna. Indeed, his directorial debut, Leise flehen meine Lieder (1933) may be seen as an ironic farewell to accountability to exterior location. Opening with a shot of St. Stephens’s, the camera pulls back. The image is revealed as a painting, freight on someone’s back, on its way to a pawnshop to be sold. With Maskerade (1934), Forst – whom a 1936 German film trade paper called the “man who created a city” – most fully elaborated the formula of the “Viennese Film.” Its visual center is the ballroom, a location that masterfully fused core elements of Viennese historical and aesthetic sensibilities: high society, music, conviviality, romantic intrigue, and perhaps, above all, the waltz -- the last an element ideally suited to cinematic representation and proprietarily Viennese. The Viennese film constituted a local and international triumph, as producers in both Great Britain and Hollywood remade Forst’s films. The approach of war, however, ended such easy export. In 1946, Forst hoped to reestablish Austrian cinema’s international profile, declaring: “The Viennese film is dead. Long live the Viennese film!” But the Viennese film, as the passing years demonstrated, was indeed dead.
It should be impossible to open a film with the phrase, “I never knew the old Vienna.” But Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) did just that, and in retrospect, the post-war years offered a brief window in which such a clueless confession seemed sensible, even desirable. And Reed’s masterpiece delivered a new synthesis of Viennese characters, situations, and urban topographies. To this synthesis belongs Vienna as a transitory space, a neutral frontier city, located between the “free” West and the Soviet east. Leopold Lindtberg’s Die Vier im Jeep (1951), Michael Winner’s Scorpio (1972), and John Glen’s contribution to the James Bond series, The Living Daylights (1987), among other works, testify to Vienna as a locus classicus of the Cold War genre film. Of course, not every reworking in The Third Man enjoyed such an auspicious afterlife. Emil Reinert’s Abenteuer in Vienna (1952) remains one of the few attempts at a Viennese film noir style. And one wonders whether Reed would claim Guido Zurli’s Lo Strangolatore di Vienna (1971), the story of a narcissistic and murderous profiteer who treats his victims as meat, among his cinematic progeny.
Together with The Third Man, The Sound of Music (1965) represents the most successful export of Austrian locations and landscape. And like The Third Man, The Sound of Music can be told as story in which the locations serve as characters. A timeless and pristine mountain dispatches a chaste young woman on a rescue mission. Her first stop is an abbey, set in a conservative and deeply Catholic city. An avatar of the mountain, the irrepressibly natural young woman cannot be reconciled with the abbey. But the abbey, whose own ancient pedigree makes it a provisional ally of the mountain, wisely aids the woman by relocating her to a villa, an intermediate place between mountain and city. The villa initially spurns the young woman, but eventually yields. And gradually, the purpose of the young woman’s rescue mission is revealed. A dramatic finish finds a stone theater (Rock Riding School) enabling the young women and her new family to escape the city, first -- with the help of the abbey -- finding shelter in a cemetery, before finally returning to the mountain and beyond to freedom.
A 20th Century Fox production, The Sound of Music reworks a number of cinematic codes associated with locations in and around Salzburg. The ideal of a chaste nature (the mountain), together with an unaffected Catholic piety (the Nonnberg Abbey), for example, are a staple of the Austrian Heimatfilm. During the 1950s, the Austrian Film Corporation Atelier in Salzburg excelled in this genre, which generally featured a sentimental story in a rural setting, with such films as Auf der Alm da gibts ka Sünd (1950) and Eva erbt das Paradies (1951). Likewise, the city’s musical heritage – singing in The Sound of Music transcends mountain, abbey, and villa boundaries – has left its mark on Salzburg films. The Salzburg-produced Mozart (1955) brought international attention to Oskar Werner. But it is perhaps in the hybrid forms of the Salzburg-location genre, especially those situated in the Salzkammergut, that achieved greatest success. Set on the Wolfgangsee, Im Weissen Rössl (1960) fuses nature, singing, and physical comedy into a kind of musical Heimat film.
Not that all Salzburg films treat the local landscape as benignly as The Sound of Music. The Salzburg Connection (1972) opens like a promotional film designed by the Salzburg Tourist Office, complete with city panorama and a soundtrack by the Glockenspiel in the Residenz Neugebäude tower. But looks deceive. The official Salzburg soon reveals itself as a Cold War battleground, with the Residenzplatz serving as the unlikely backdrop to a harrowing chase between two horse-drawn carriages. Silentium (2004) uses local sites even more dramatically to tweak official Salzburg. The film opens atop the city’s signature natural landmark, the Mönchsberg, as two men lead a blindfolded third to what they say is their boss’s house. The house door is announced, the blindfold removed, and man is ejected from Mönchsberg onto Siegmundstor roof far below. Still further below at the Pferdeschwemme (Horse Well) on Siegmundsplatz, where Maria von Trapp once playfully splashed, tourists marvel at the blood apparently falling from the sky. And what begins with a murder masquerading as suicide soon yields to a conspiracy involving no less than the Catholic Church, immigrants, and the Salzburg Music Festival.
Orson Welles once observed that “the Vienna that never was, is the greatest city in the world,” and it would be unkind not to deliver the same bon mot about Salzburg. But among the “Viennas that never were” are the films in which Vienna has functioned as a stand-in for other cities. In The Journey (1959) it played Budapest, in The Three Musketeers (1993), Paris; in the Clint Eastwood thriller Firefox (1982) Vienna became Moscow, while A Little Night Music substituted Vienna for Sweden. Then again, in film, Vienna has not always been Vienna. Milos Forman scouted Salzburg as a substitute Vienna in Amadeus (1984) but opted for Prague instead, as did Neil Burger in The Illusionist (2006). And Vienna-born Fred Zinnemann chose Paris over Vienna to shoot the Vienna scenes for his Julia (1977).
Recent generations of Austrian filmmakers have increasingly argued that Vienna films too often say what has already been said, rather than how people actually live in Vienna. As a result, and in response to the widespread perception that the inner city has become an enclave of the rich and famous, New Austrian Cinema has tended to find its stories in the outer districts and social periphery. Ulrich Seidel’s Hundstage (2001) and Götz Spielmann’s Antares (2004) stand here for many. With its refocus on the margins, Austrian film has also become increasingly concerned with individuals from the center who seek new forms of experience, even existential regeneration, at the geographical periphery. In Slumming (2006), two Viennese “yuppies,” Sebastian and Alex, tirelessly pursue new thrills by spending their evenings in hard-luck bars and shabby cafes. Behind such social sport, the film suggests, is a soulless cruelty that manifests itself when the pair deposit a helpless and dead-drunk Viennese street poet on a one-way train to the Czech Republic. Engagement with the geographical periphery in new Austrian film is rarely unproblematic. Paradies: Liebe (2012), structured around an Austrian woman and sex tourism in Africa, is but one recent reminder of this. Meanwhile, a more entertainment-oriented Austrian cinema continues to draw energy from new and unexpected locations. Die unabsichtliche Entführung der Frau Elfriede Ott (2010) is a marvelous advertisement for a quirky and cinematically underappreciated Graz. Back in Vienna, feature television films, like the irregular detective series Trautmann (2000-2008), have invested less traditional public spaces such as the second district’s Karmeliter Markt with new imaginative energy. As Austrian cinema encounters an increasingly attentive international audience, it will be fascinating to see how its directors tell new stories of Austrian location, location, location.