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Austrian Film to 2000

By Robert von Dassanowsky

Postwar Film Through the 1960s

The four-power division of Austria beginning in 1945 and not ending until the long-delayed return of full sovereignty in 1955, hurt the early return of Austria to the world film market. The former Wien-Film Rosenhügel studio was under Soviet administration, while other sites and production facilities were damaged or in the US, French or British zones. Nevertheless, film production resumed on a limited basis in 1946. Although many production companies emerged, the first new studio to produce independently of Allied restrictions was Belvedere-Film (founded by producer August Diglas, director Emmerich Hanus, brother of silent pioneer Heinz Hanus, and opera singer Elfi von Dassanowsky), which attempted to cleanse genres of its Nazi taint and discovered several major talents in its short five-year run, in particular, European leading lady Nadja Tiller and film and television comic actor/writer/director Günther Philipp.

Although Attila Hörbiger, Paula Wessely and Gustav Ucicky had tainted their reputations with Heimkehr, they eventually joined many of the directors and stars of the 30s and 40s who continued as major forces in the industry of the 1950s. Karl Hartl returned to direction and offered a family epic on recent Austrian history, Der Engel mit der Posaune (The Angel with a Trumpet, 1948). The film was remarkable for its elegant style, its early attempt to deal with Nazism, and for uniting the pre-war generation of stars with new talent. It was also the first postwar Austrian film to be presented at the Venice Film Festival. Alexander Korda, who had become a major British film producer during the war, convinced Hartl to create an English-language version in 1950, which brought stardom to Oskar Werner and Maria Schell. Hartl's dynastic melodrama of Central European family tradition, opportunism and disaster in National Socialism began a trend which continued with such international films as Vincente Minnelli's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1970) and István Szabó's Sonnenschein (Sunshine, 1999), among many others. Werner's turn at portraying Mozart (1955) in Hartl's second biopic on the composer (this time in color) moved him quickly to Hollywood and international productions.

The son of Louise Kolm-Fleck, Walter Kolm-Veltée, made his directorial debut with the Beethoven drama, Eroica in 1949. The most expensive postwar film to that date, it presents Ewald Balser as the composer supported by both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Hans Knappertsbusch, as well as the Vienna State Opera chorus, the Vienna Boys Choir and several vocal and instrumental soloists. The film's story of Beethoven's rejection of Napoleon, of an avaricious nephew (Oskar Werner), and even of love for the sake of his art, follows Viennese Film form, and the more naturalistic rather than stylized performances, outstanding production values and technical excellence helped make it the greatest critical success in Austria's postwar era. Its popularity, like the composer biopics before and after it, demonstrate that the cinematic rediscovery of Austrian culture, even identity, was to be found in readapting the same genre that held the forbidden identity in trust during the Reich - the Viennese Film. While Eroica truly reintroduced the high quality and unique style of Austrian cinema to the world for a brief time (the film was hailed at Cannes), it failed to encourage national funding for filmmaking at home.

Historical biopics helped reconstruct a cinematic national identity couched in the imperial and "high-art" past but realistic exploration of Nazism and the war was largely avoided with only a few exceptions such as Die letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, 1954) starring Maria Schell. An experimental state-supported all-star sci-fi fantasy/comedy/historical pageant about a futuristic Austria still under Allied control, 1. April 2000 (April 1, 2000, 1952) failed as an event film aimed at the international market and as a plea for sovereignty, but it has become a cult film that obviously influenced the non-linear, episodic psychedelic film style of the mid-1960s.

The most important genre to emerge from the 1950s, which saw a "boom" in Austrian film production, was the Kaiserfilm or imperial epic, created simultaneously and in rivalry by veteran Ernst Marischka and newcomer Franz Antel, who had made his mark with light audience pleasing comedies (several featuring Paul Hörbiger and Hans Moser) that exploited and reinvented popular film trends and would remain Austria's most prolific commercial directors into the 21st century. Along with the well-crafted biopics, these lavish color fantasies on 19th century royal and aristocratic Vienna brought Austrian film back onto world screens.

Sissi (1955)

Its finest representative was Marischka's Sissi trilogy on the young lives of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), which was so successful that it typed Romy Schneider as the graceful innocent (to rival Brigitte Bardot's nymphet typing) for European filmmakers and fans until she broke with both Vienna and later Hollywood, moving into French cinema in the hope of obtaining more serious roles. Critics are conflicted on the value of these nostalgic/escapist films and their attempts to delineate Austria's past and its culture away from Germany and its troubled postimperial era and to solidify a positive international "identity" for the film market and tourism, while battling the threat of television and Hollywood imports. The high production quality, painstaking detail and sheer visual beauty of these films certainly gave the American bombast of wide-screen, stereophonic Technicolor musicals and all-star Biblical films (which also fought the onset of television and embedded the entertainment with conservative American sociocultural ideology aimed against communism) true competition at home and abroad. Much of the Western world also seemed to find refuge from the Cold War in royal romance during the 1950s (Princess Margaret, Grace Kelly, Empress Soraya of Iran), and the popularity of these exports proved that no one did majestic Europe on screen quite like Austria.

A neo-realist cinema that was thought (and hoped) might bring Austrian film the sort of critical successes Italy enjoyed never materialized, although two films are notable for their interesting Austrian take on the gritty urban style, Harald Röbbling's Asphalt (1951) and Kurt Steinwendner's Wienerinnen (Viennese Girls, 1952). As the imperial epics devolved into musical comedies and the period costume film was replaced with a retread of traditional operettas, it was the Heimatfilm, or provincial film, which had been present in Austrian and German cinema since the silent era that came to attract the largest German-speaking audiences. These romance/dramas utilize the beauty of the alpine setting and the "purity" of its rural world to enforce a moralistic ideology. In the postwar era, they were adapted to present allegories on reconstruction and gender-role shifts as in Der Hofrat Geiger (State Councilor Geiger, 1947); economic and technological re-emergence as in Das Lied der Hohen Tauern (The Song of Kaprun, 1955), a film that centers on the actual construction of a hydroelectric dam at Kaprun in the province of Salzburg; and escapism from Cold War reality in Echo der Berge (Echo of the Mountains, known abroad as Der Förster vom Silberwald, or The Forester of the Silverwoods, 1954). An Agfacolor production directed by Alfons Stummer with exquisite nature photography, Silberwald is a hybrid between a documentary on nature conservation and a feature romance drama. It attained such a high level of box office success and fan-based popularity in Austria and West Germany that it launched many sequels, imitations and subgenres until the original formula was diluted with the pop music revue, and was fatally transformed by the sex comedy in the 1960s.

With the emergence of television and the artistic powerhouse of Austria's national network, ORF, the passing of many of the stars and filmmakers of the 30s and 40s, the loss of an Austrian film style in large multinational co-productions, the lack of a national subsidy which all other Western European cinemas enjoyed, and with more opportunity in West Germany, Austria's commercial industry basically disappeared in the 1960s. While experimental cinema was introduced by the Vienna Art-Club by the late 1950s, no new wave arose to re-create the narrative cinema. Instead, Peter Kubelka, Ferry Radax, Kurt Kren, Günther Brus and Peter Weibel created isolated and highly abstract films based in Actionist performance art. These examples of shock art, which attacked traditional forms and bourgeois complacency, alienated established audiences who abandoned the cinemas and turned to television.

The Anschluss <<< Previous | Next >>> Towards New Visions: 1970s - 1990s (Part One)


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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