- Several experiments with continuously flowing pictures took place in Vienna just before and after 1850. Perhaps most notable was the effort in 1846 of Lieutenant Field Marshall Franz von Uchatius to display moving images on a wall. It was, however, French technology that produced the first film shown in Vienna, in 1895. Cinemas quickly sprang up all over the city and the Habsburg Empire as a whole, particularly in urban areas. Vienna alone had 150, many of which stood in the Prater until the end of World War II. Some films even incorporated color effects.Creative filmmaking flourished in Austria during World War I and roughly a decade and a half thereafter. The first Austrian film company, Sascha Films, was founded in 1916 by Alexander von Kolowrat-Kratkowsky (1886–1927), a nobleman who was equally adept in commerce and the visual arts. His company continued to work in the central European states spun off from the Habsburg monarchy after 1918. Nor was Vienna the sole center of the industry. Regional companies such as the Exl-Stage (Exl-Bühne) in Tyrol did significant work as well.From the start, Austrian film benefited greatly from the availability of stage performers, who gave their time and their name-recognition value to the new medium. The great classical comic actors Alexander Girardi (1850–1918) and Hansi Niese (1875–1934), beloved by audiences at Vienna’s Peoples’ Theater (Volkstheater), were among the first, followed by many others. Austrian directors and performers were welcome throughout Europe, both in German-speaking regions and, somewhat later, the New World. Legendary film stars made their initial appearances in Vienna. Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s (1885–1967) The Joyless Little Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925) gave Greta Garbo her first major role. Austrian and German cinema personnel crossed one another’s borders to the great benefit of moving picture production in both countries. Filmmakers from areas once ruled by the Habsburg Empire came to Vienna as well. Among the most important was Mihály Kertész (1886–1962), who, as Michael Curtiz, would go on to a major career in Hollywood.The Austrian silent films of the early 20th century were often serious melodramas. They examined social issues such as the exploitation of women and the miseries of urban laborers and rural families. The first Austrian film academy (Lehrinstitut für Tonfilmkunst) opened in Vienna in 1933. But the world financial crisis of the early 1930s and the advent of sound, which sharply raised film production costs, hit the Austrian industry very hard. Directors and producers looked to other parts of the world for work. Box-office returns became crucial, and the Austrian cinema concentrated on being entertaining rather than imaginatively challenging. The specifically “Viennese” film, which exploited the city’s landscape, vocal and behavioral mannerisms, music, and sentimental historical clichés, prevailed, closely associated with one of Austrian film’s most acclaimed performers and directors Willi Forst. Sumptuous costuming and heavy use of the music of Johann Strauss the Younger did their part, too. Cinema in Austria following the Anschluss with Germany continued to rework these themes, encouraged by a Nazi regime that was initially eager to market films that depicted all branches of Germanlanguage culture, provided that they did not glorify the recently removed Habsburg dynasty. Only one film company, Vienna Film (Wien Film), operated in the country; major actors such as Forst, Attila and Paul Hörbiger, Hans Moser, and Paula Wessely (1907–2000) worked for it, laying themselves open after 1945 to accusations of furthering Nazi programs.By 1943, however, the Nazi regime in Berlin had realized that these movies had enough of the specifically Austrian about them to make plain the differences between local culture and the standards of imperial Germany. Government demands for conformity to the norms of standard German became much more intense. After the war, there was some hope that serious filmmaking could revive in Austria, particularly between 1946 and 1959. A step in this direction was Councilman Geiger (Hofrat Geiger (1947), with Moser and Paul Hörbiger trying to recapture the basic nature of Austrians and their society. But local settings and themes, absent Nazi propaganda, continued to prevail in Austrian cinemas after 1945, in part because government support of the cinema was very thin. “Homeland Films”(Heimatfilme) employed some of Austria’s most notable directors, chief among them Franz Antel (1913–2007), who had begun his career with the Wien Film company. With light social comedy his specialty, he hired established actors from earlier cinema and stage, such as Moser and Paul Hörbiger, for such enormously popular ventures as Hey There, Porter (Hallo Dienstmann, 1952). He also capitalized on a latent nostalgia for the former empire, bringing the Habsburg monarchy back to the Austrian screen if not to national politics. Antel’s films remained popular through the 1970s. Though critics scorned him for lack of seriousness, Antel continually identified himself with the popular cinema that had made his career. With the Austrian Broadcasting System entertaining virtually every corner of Austria by the 1970s, audiences no longer thronged to the latest Heimatfilm at neighborhood theaters. Austrian moviemaking dropped from world screens, as the federal government refused to underwrite serious cinema.The socially radical New Austrian Film of the 1980s abruptly reversed this downturn. Morally and aesthetically grounded in the political and social upheavals of the 1960s, it often received financial help from public resources. Nevertheless, the mostly Austrian creative and technical personnel who worked on these productions developed their scenarios independently and with comparatively low budgets. Their work characteristically deals with specifically Austrian themes, but without any sentimentality. Directors focus on the squalid side of human character and behavior, but so unintrusively that audiences could well be watching highly disciplined documentaries. Contemporary settings and real people often take the place of studio scenery and professional performers. Michael Glawogger’s (1959–) Workingman’s Death (2005) exemplifies the genre. With plotlines that are clear antitheses to standard Heimatfilm narratives, several of these productions have been acclaimed by juries at cinema festivals and by audiences worldwide. An Austrian film, The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher), a riveting exploration of the moral ambiguities of the Nazi concentration camp experience, won the American Academy award as the best foreign film of 2007.
Historical dictionary of Austria. Paula Sutter Fichtner. 2014.
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