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Austrian Film to 2000

By Robert von Dassanowsky

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.

These stylized melodramas set in imperial Vienna were underscored with classical music and noted for striking montage editing and highly symbolic mise-en-scene. They were influenced by the elegant Parisian-life films of French director René Clair (but also point to the baroquely-ornamented ironies of Erich von Stroheim and foreshadow Luchino Visconti's detailed operatic flair) and usually deal with the romances and sacrifices of historical or fictional artists. Forst's follow-up in this new genre, Maskerade (Masquerade, 1934), secured his reputation as a significant director and gave him the international recognition he did not quite have as an actor. It made stars of character actor Hans Moser and ingénue Paula Wessely, who would eventually be considered as the world's greatest cinema actress by Laurence Olivier. She would reign as Austria's dramatic film diva through the 1950s and then as the doyenne of German-language theater until her death in 2000. The centerpiece of Maskerade is a meeting between Leopoldine (Wessely) and the society painter Heideneck (Adolf Wohlbrück) at a lavish carnival ball. Its strikingly romantic-decadent, even erotic mood can be credited to the soft camera work of Franz Planer and to the seductive music arranged and composed by Willi Schmidt-Gentner. Maskerade received an award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and ultimately proved to be so successful internationally that Hollywood "borrowed" the story for a new, but less welcomed version entitled Escapade (1935).

With Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, the National Socialist regime began to infiltrate Austria's film industry in order to force it to conform to Nazi ideology and provoke the destabilization of the country for an eventual Nazi coup or invasion. Only eight films a year were allowed into Germany, which had been Austria's greatest export market. No Jewish or anti-Nazi talent was to be present in these films. An Austrian-Czechoslovakian co-production also made headlines that year: Ekstase: Symphonie der Liebe (Ecstasy: Symphony of Love), directed by Gustav Machaty. It might have been praised for its experimentally abstract film vocabulary and symbolic plot, but it was the nude scenes by the young Austrian actress Hedwig Kiesler, later Hollywood's Hedy Lamarr, that made it a sensation. Henry Miller compared Machaty's film with the experimental literary work of D.H. Lawrence, and Machaty followed this cinematic provocation with one of the great visually stylized films of the era, Nocturno (1934), which blends an elegant Art Deco sensibility and minimalism into startling compositions that have been inexplicably forgotten by film artists and theorists. No less controversial than Ekstase, its tale of a woman who finds sexual fulfillment and luxury far from the confines of her lower-class marriage and family dared to suggest that female sexual desire was repressed by a male-dominated society and that money can indeed triumph over love.

Since live orchestras were no longer needed to accompany films, they were overused on screen in the new genre of the musical. Austrian cinema once again managed to cultivate world-class talents, this time with vocalists borrowed from its formidable opera and operetta stages, cabarets and concert halls: Jarmila Novotna, Maria Jeritza, Joseph Schmidt, Adele Kern, Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth were among those who increased their fame as musical motion picture stars. Films such as Wilhelm Thiele's Grossfürstin Alexandra (Crown Princess Alexandra, 1933) with music by Franz Lehár and featuring Maria Jeritza, Joseph Schmidt, Leo Slezak and Paul Fejos's Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring, 1933) with music by operetta composer Oskar Straus, launched a second career for many singers and operetta composers.

Despite the popularity of these films, the other important Austrian genre, the socially critical melodrama, was not neglected in early sound production. The economic crisis and unemployment also found resonance in bittersweet comedies like Hans Steinhoff's Scampolo (1932) with Dolly Haas and Paul Hörbiger. Billy Wilder wrote the script for the film and for the following Steinhoff comedy, Madame wünscht sich keine Kinder (Madame Does Not Prefer Children, 1932), a vehicle for Austria's original movie star, Liane Haid. Wilder's unique iconoclastic Hollywood style is already obvious in Scampolo, where his comedy dared to attack party politics, racism and political oppression with witty, double entendre-laden dialogue. Following these two films, Wilder, who had been born in imperial Austro-Poland and originally worked as a journalist in Vienna, moved to Berlin and ultimately to Hollywood.

Austria's industry essentially split in two after 1934: the mainstream "Aryanized" productions supported by Austrian Nazis that informed Germany of the racial quality of cast and crew, and the Emigrantenfilm, or emigrant film, which included German talent that had fled into Austria and those who were unacceptable to Germany or refused to bow to Nazi pressure. These films were mostly co-produced with Hungary or Czechoslovakia, but also with The Netherlands and Sweden, and were shot in several languages for distribution across Europe, with the exception of Germany. Even as the political Catholicism of the Dollfuss-Schuschnigg era Austrofascism (1934 - 38) influenced cinematic trends, the Emigrantenfilm offered Hollywood-style musicals, class-conflict comedies and questioned archaic gender roles. It gave significant careers to Hans Jaray and Hungarian-born Franziska Gaal, one of the important but forgotten comediennes in German-language film. Also brought to wider fame were dancer Rosy Barsony, Hollywood-bound character actor Szöke Sakall and rotund former UFA comedian Otto Wallburg, who fled to Holland after 1938, where he survived underground until his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. From behind the camera there was director/actor Fritz Schulz; director Max Neufeld, who had helped found the silent Kolm-Fleck Vita-Film company in 1919; and producer Joe Pasternak who continued his work in Hollywood as producer of Henry (Kosterlitz) Koster's first Deanna Durbin film, Three Smart Girls (1936), which saved Universal Pictures from grave financial crisis, and a number of MGM musicals.

Franziska Gaal's Peter (1934), directed by Koster, was shot at the Hunnia Studios in Budapest and was her first of two successful romantic parings with Hans Jaray. The film's class-conscious tragicomedy is couched in the economic and social upheaval of the times. Franziska Gaal plays Eva, a poor young girl who is evicted with her father from their apartment for lack of rent payment and becomes a homeless street musician. Forced to exchange her clothes with a fleeing thief, she finds it easier to live as a boy named Peter. A confrontation with a doctor (Jaray) lands her before the youth authorities, but her impoverishment earns her the doctor's help, who finds Peter a job at a local garage. Eva re-introduces herself to the doctor as Peter's sister and attempts to help his failing practice with disastrous results. An adventure at a dance hall involving a stolen necklace unmasks the role-playing and love, although the financial problems remain unresolved. Peter's poverty farce earned it the award for Best Comedy of the Year at the 1935 Moscow International Film Festival. It might be compared to the depression-era fables of Hollywood's Frank Capra, and with the witty, quick-fire language of the screwball comedy.

Peter certainly demonstrates aspects of this Hollywood genre, which thrived in Austrian film as well from the 1930s into the 1960s. Screwball comedy was essentially a hybrid creation, which continuously evolved between the aspects of American social comedy and the sensibilities of Austrian film-associated talents, such as Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and a host of expatriates and exiles who originally brought its cinematic impulses to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Its development is analogous to that of film noir, which transferred German Expressionism and sociopolitical pessimism to the American gangster and social realist genres, although unlike screwball comedy, noir never truly developed in German and Austrian film. Because these foreign artists spoke German and many had worked in Berlin during the era of expressionist film (even if this style had nothing to do with the artist's work), film noir is labeled a "German influence." Paul Schrader's seminal 1972 article on the genre set this standard for subsequent research on the topic, but no one has bothered to question his conclusion that Hollywood was "bursting" with a "large number of Germans and Eastern Europeans working in film noir: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Franz Waxman, Otto Preminger, John Brahm, Anatole Litvak, Karl Freund, Max Ophuls, John Alton, Douglas Sirk, Fred Zinnemann, William Dieterle, Max Steiner, Edgar G. Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Rudoph Maté." Most of the foreign talent Schrader credits with creating the genre are obviously not "German or Eastern European," as he notes, but Austrian.

At any rate, Gaal's single mother role in Kleine Mutti (Little Mother, 1935) was so popular abroad that Felix Joachimson recycled his script twice in Hollywood (as Felix Jackson) - in 1939 for Garson Kanin's Bachelor Mother, with Ginger Rogers, and in 1956 as Norman Taurog's Bundle of Joy, with Debbie Reynolds.

Singende Jugend (An Orphan Boy of Vienna), a 1936 Austrian/Dutch co-production directed by Max Neufeld may well have influenced the troubled-but-good orphan-boy theme in Hollywood films, such as Norman Taurog's Boys Town (1938) and former Austro-Hungarian Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Jugend begins neo-realistically with an orphaned boy, Toni (Martin Lojda), living in poverty with his street-musician friend (Hans Olden). Toni dreams of joining the Vienna Boys Choir and his friend convinces the rector of the Choir's school (Ferdinand Maierhofer) and a nun, Sister Maria (Julia Janssen), to accept the boy. During a summer trip to the Tyrol with the Choir, Toni risks his life to defend Sister Maria, who has become his mother figure, from suspicion of theft. He recovers from his injuries to find himself welcomed into his new life and home. Despite its strong Catholic framing, it was both humanistic and pragmatic, and perhaps because of its statement on dignity and love, even in unsolvable poverty, it provided an antidote to the social-Darwinist German youth film and found major success with audiences in France, England and Czechoslovakia, where it was voted Best Foreign Film of 1936. Louise Kolm and her second husband, Jakob Fleck, returned from Berlin to work in this independent industry, which took on an anti-Nazi, pro-Austrian reputation. Their third filming of Ludwig Anzengruber's play, Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld (The Priest of Kirchfeld) in 1937 crystallizes the specifically rural-traditionalist, Catholic identity that was poised against Nazi pan-Germanism and promoted (along with monarchist nostalgia) by the authoritarian Austrian government.

A new film agreement between Germany and Austria in March 1936 stipulated that all German performers and crew (except the extras or atmosphere players) in Austrian film bound for German release would have to present their Ariernachweis, or documentation of "Aryan" status. Only 14 Austrian films would be allowed into Germany per year. The involvement of Universal Pictures in Austrian film after the studio's exile from Berlin led Vienna's film council, Eugen Lanske, to seek stronger American involvement in Austrian film production and to open the US market to the independent films. Both MGM and Twentieth Century Fox promised solid investment in the Austrian film industry and planned on five Hollywood/Vienna co-productions in the foreseeable future as well as around 15 dubbing commissions per year. But German pressure forced Lanske to withdraw his plans. The opportunity to create Hollywood-Viennese co-production had been dashed. Given the significant Austrian talent in Hollywood, such a joint effort might have led to a unique chapter in international cinema art, which would have certainly influenced film after 1938 (as a true exile cinema?) and encouraged the return of Austro-Hollywood film talent to the postwar Viennese film industry.

Beginnings and the Silent Era <<< Previous | Next >>> The Anschluss


Beginnings and the Silent Era
The Viennese Film and the Emigrantenfilm
The Anschluss
Postwar Film Through the 1960s
Towards New Visions: 1970s - 1990s (Part One)
1970s - 1990s (Part Two) and Recommendations

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