Austrian Film to 2000

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By Robert von Dassanowsky

The re-emergence of Austrian film on the screens of international film festivals, art houses, cable networks, DVDs, and in the consciousness of film critics and historians worldwide since the turn of the century is hardly the sudden or belated flowering of a national cinema some would have it be. It is the cyclical revitalization of geographically framed film art experiences.

Der Weisse Traum (1943)

What makes this one so different - to the point of both national and international memory lapse - has far more to do with the no fewer than five political incarnations of Austria in the 20th century and a long and nearly fatal lack of government interest and subsidy in the postwar era. The collapse of a commercial film industry for a decade or more, as in the case of Austria's nadir during the 1960s and 70s, can quickly foster amnesia at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the significant contribution of Austria to cinematic art cannot help but surface with interest in New Austrian Film.

Beginnings and the Silent Era

The sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire with its multinational and multicultural nature led to the overlapping of early Austrian film with that of Hungarian, Czech, Slovakian and other Central European national cinemas. During the silent era, language was not a criterion and one cannot only consider Austrian those films made within the territory of German-speaking Austria. Traditionally, Count Alexander von Kolowrat-Krakowsky has been labeled the father of the Austrian film industry, but with due respect to Sascha Kolowrat (as he was professionally known) and Heinz Hanus's missing or unfinished 1908 Von Stufe zu Stufe (From Step to Step), the first Austrians to actually produce feature films were the team of Louise Veltée-Kolm, her husband, photographer Anton Kolm and their cameraman Jakob Julius Fleck. In the late 1990s, early Austrian erotic films were rediscovered that predate the Veltée-Kolm productions, but it was their efforts, beginning in 1906, that mark the mainstream beginning of an Austrian film industry.

Contrary to popular culture clichés of Vienna as the setting for operetta fare, its silent film tended towards socially critical melodrama, and the efforts of one of the world's female cinema pioneers, Louise Kolm (later Louise Fleck) provided a more naturalistic and literary-based alternative to Hollywood comedies, German Expressionism and to Italy's Roman extravaganzas. Although other production companies were founded, the Kolm-Fleck and Kolowrat companies dominated Austrian industry until the eve of the First World War, which transformed their competition. While the Kolm-Fleck studio specialized in patriotic melodramas such as Mit Herz und Hand fürs Vaterland (With Heart and Hand for the Fatherland, 1915), with war songs by operetta composer Franz Lehár and featuring Austria's first film star, Liane Haid, Kolowrat concentrated on war reportage. By 1916, he held a monopoly in newsreel creation with his Sascha-Kriegswochenbericht (Sascha Weekly War Report). Often sweetening these documentaries with studio effects and fictional scenes, the power of such sensationalized images taught Kolowrat a lesson regarding the medium's attraction and also gave him a recipe for its exploitation.

After the founding of the First Austrian Republic in 1919 and through the 1920s, both the Kolm-Fleck and the Kolowrat studios attempted lavish biopics and translated operas for the screen. Sascha Kolowrat had long admired American films and their easy exportability, and his intention to create an Austrian cinema international in theme and groundbreaking in presentation was something that he had planned throughout the war years. Between 1920 and 1925, Kolowrat would attempt to fulfill that desire. It would shape his greatest phase as a producer and contribute impressively to the international development of silent film.

In a genre reminiscent of both the American biblical film and the Italian historical epic, Kolowrat's new work combined the monumental silent and the Viennese social drama to create an entirely new Austrian national cinema style. It was as if the lost Empire and its role as a leading world power would now be continued in the expanse and grandeur of the Republic's cinematic illusions. He employed two Austro-Hungarian directors, Mihály Kertész (later Hollywood's Michael Curtiz) and Alexander Korda to create Sodom und Gomorrah (1922) and Samson und Delila (1922), respectively. These films not only demanded a sizeable number of actors, they also required a small army behind the cameras. Unlike the select practices of the wealthy Hollywood industry, the employment of so many people in a monumental silent film shot in Vienna was made feasible by the high rates of inflation and unemployment in the First Republic. Kolowrat gave craftspeople work 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 and banners. Thousands of the unemployed and their children were paid daily for their work on a 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. Die Sklavenkönigin (1923) directed by Kertész and known in English as Moon of Israel, rivaled Cecil B. DeMille's similarly themed The Ten Commandments (1923) and outdid its special effects. A host of new European actors moved into star careers through these epic films including Anny Ondra, Lucy Doraine and Maria Corda.

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