Despite the global popularity of the German Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Expressionism never took root in Austrian film and only two works stand out as an attempt to bring "Caligarism" to Vienna: an obvious reworking of the original in Das Haus des Dr. Gaudeamus (The House of Dr. Gaudeamus, 1921), which also utilized other stylistic elements such as Jugendstil and Italian Futurism in its heady mixture, and Robert Wiene's Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1925) with his Caligari star, German actor Conrad Veidt.
Despite the monumental films, technological rather than stylistic experimentation was of greater interest to most Austrian filmmakers at this point. Beginning in 1921, attempts at color films by "Hnatek und Leyde" were shown in Vienna. Emil Leyde, who had directed war propaganda drama, offered tri-color (blue/green/red) films such as Fatmes Erretung (Fatme's Rescue, 1922), written and directed by Hanns Marschall, and Fiat Lux (1923), directed by Wilhelm Thiele.
Biographical dramas on figures from Austria's long imperial history also provided satisfying entertainment for a new republic attempting to define its national identity. The most popular era by far was the post-Napoleonic Biedermeier (1815 - 1848), which offered escapism from the economic crisis with its images of a stable and orderly Old Austria and its impressive mix of 19th century heroes, legends and myths: Der Graf von Cagliostro (The Count of Cagliostro, 1920), Beethoven (1927), Ein Walzer von Strauss (A Waltz by Strauss, 1925) and Vater Radetzky (Father Radetzky, 1929). The epic film trend was cut short by Kolowrat's early death in 1927, but both socially critical melodrama and lavish period films continued into the 1930s.
Among the former was director Gustav Ucicky's look at doomed love and the petty underworld in Café Elektric (1927). It stars two extraordinary Kolowrat discoveries: Willi Forst as the small-time gigolo and Marlene Dietrich as the dance hall girl. The already dapper Willi Forst would become one of the great romantic leads in German-language film and Austria's greatest film director during the 1930s and 40s, while Dietrich shows signs of the seductive physicality that was to make her an international sensation in Austrian director Josef von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930).
The Viennese Film and the Emigrantenfilm
The development of sound film in Austria was met by two opposing forces: a moderate upswing in Austrian film production and the sudden world economic crisis led by the American stock market crash of 1929. The first German-language sound film experiments were previewed in Vienna as early as 1928. That same year, director Hans Otto Löwenstein premiered his Ottoton format, a synchronized phonograph recording system he named after himself, with his short film, G'schichten aus der Steiermark (Stories from Styria), which he made in four days. Its success encouraged Löwenstein to expand the film into a feature-length sound production, which was premiered in September 1929.
By that time, the Americans had won the international race to create "talkies" with synchronized phonograph sound. An Austrian brand of sound to film transfer, the Selenophon system, had been in development since the mid-1920s. It was on its way to international utilization alongside the American Western Electric and the German Tobis-Klangfilm processes when the 1938 German Anschluss ended Austria's sound system presence in international cinema.
Although Vienna could boast the cutting-edge technological wonder of its Rosenhügel studio complex, which had been created in various phases during the 1920s by Louise and Jakob Fleck (who also departed for Berlin where they made Vienna-located film romances, melodramas and comedies so popular with German audiences), sound features arrived slowly, but made possible the creation of a genre that became synonymous with Austrian cinema globally during the era - the "Viennese Film."
Willi Forst and Billy Wilder in Vienna, 1957
The artist responsible more than any other for this concept was Willi Forst. In the earliest days of the sound era, he had become known for his distinctive voice and "charming Viennese" persona in German films usually directed by Geza von Bolvary. Forst actively developed his reputation as a great screen lover, but his directorial debut in a romanticized biopic on composer Franz Schubert, Leise flehen meine Lieder (The Unfinished Symphony) in 1933, brought to Austrian cinema one of its greatest filmmakers and influential industry figures, whose lack of presence in the international film canon of important directors is one more casualty of the scholarly negligence that has greeted Austrian cinema since the 1950s. Lieder was so popular throughout Europe that it was reshot in a 1934 British version (co-directed by Forst and Anthony Asquith) for the English language market. The co-writer of the original was Walter Reisch, who later, exiled to Hollywood, would script Ninotchka (1939) and Gaslight (1944) and work with Austrian expatriate Billy Wilder.
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