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The Austrian Cinematography: Great Cinema of Small Country

Austrian cinematography evolved in parallel to the other European cinematographies since the Lumiere brothers presented to the world their incredible invention – the cinematography. The first recorded Austrian film company, which went down in history as Wiener Kunstfilm, commenced production in 1910, and this point is often referred to as the starting point of Austrian cinema. Already two years later the rival company, Sacha-Film, was founded. The specific characteristics of the Austrian cinema can be seen as being intimately connected with the history of the country.

Austria – often regarded as Germany’s satellite – was doomed to isolation from the other European countries and was closely dependent upon their fascism possessed neighbour. Following the breakout of World War I the fascist ideology spread throughout with many present and future filmmakers of that time leaving Austria and going on to gain worldwide acclaim only after their emigration. For of Austrian origin were such famous film directors as Erich von StroheimJosef von SternbergOtto PremingerBilly Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, who successfully developed careers in Hollywood. However, the socially engaged cinema was represented by the works of Georg Wilhelm Pabst, whose films Joyless Street (1925), The Pandora’s Box (1928) and The Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) showed the dramatic fates and choices of women during a time of economic crisis.

Austrian filmmakers, though specialising in socially engaging cinema, also yielded to the charms of German expressionism. The essential Austrian film shot in this manner was Robert Wiene’s Der Orlacs Hande (1924). This is a dark story of a man who, after an accident in which he loses an arm,  is given the arm of a murderer. Together with the German star, Conrad Veidt was also cast the renown Austrian actor, Fritz Kortner.

During the years between the Wars, the epic blockbusters reigned supreme over the Austrian cinema. The masters of the genre appeared to be Sandor L. Kellner and Mihaly Kertesz, both coming from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were both better known to the world as Aleksander Korda (Kellner), who emigrated to Great Britain and Michael Curtiz (Kertesz), the leading director of the Hollywood company Warner Bros and the creator of the unforgettable Casablanca, of 1942. In Austria between them, they shot Samson und Delila (1922), Die Sklavenkonigin (1924), and Harun al Raschid (1924), all of which were extremely popular.

The so-called native film genre was called ‘Wiener Film’. This genre of pictures was intertwined with both comedy and drama. Their plots, set in the metropolitan landscape of Vienna during the times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, praised the distant time of happiness and innocence when the world had seemed to be good and fair. ‘Wiener Film’ offered a sentimental journey to the past and gave comfort and consolation in the turbulent times. Among the films of this genre there was: Die Pratermizzi (1927) by Gustav UcickyVorstadtvariete (1935) by Werner Hochbaum and of course the movies made by the most prominent representatives of Wiener Film: Willi Forst (Burgtheater 1936, Wiener Blut 1942 and Wiener Madeln 1949) and Hubert Marischka (Wir bitten zum Tanz 1941, Der Herr Kanzleirat 1948, in which the main parts were offered to the comedian Hans Moser who was extremely popular at the time).

The post-war Austrian cinema was dominated by a propaganda-sentimental trend called “Heimatfilme”. The plots of these films, set amongst the idyllic landscapes of the Austro-Hungarian countryside, were supposed to recall the times when Austria was the real force amongst the European monarchies and to bring comfort to the nation in the hard post-war times. The most popular at that time, which also won acclaim abroad, was Ernst Marischka’s (the specialist in screen versions of traditional Viennese operettas) trilogy about the Empress Sissi (Sissi 1955, Sissi – Die Junge Kaiserin 1956, Sissi – Schicksalsjahre 1957). Playing the lead role of  Sissi was Romy Schneider, who successfully continued her career outside Austria.

Over the next few years, the Austrian cinema experienced regress. A relatively small country like Austria was unable to maintain the production of the more expensive movies which then allowed the flood of productions from the United States. The reason for it was that it didn’t pay to make costly films in Austria, where the film market was subordinated to the distributors from across the ocean, and there was no way for the Austrian distributors to compete with the Hollywood ones. Moreover, the increasing popularity of new media, mainly television, pushed Austrian film production to the edge.

This, however, all changed in the 1990s. Though the hard fact is that film production in Austria is one of the smallest in Europe, the strength of their cinema lies in their quality, not in quantity. Small companies started making films which became famous not only in Europe but across the world. The modern Austrian cinema takes essential and difficult social subjects, reconciles the issues with the past and diagnoses the current condition of the Austrian society. Therefore it continues in the traditions of the Austrian literature, grown out of the leftist, which recognises the tradition that became kind of the showcase of the Austrian intellectualists. The Austrian filmmakers speak with one voice with the writers alike: Thomas Bernhard, who was the leading critic of the Austrian mentality, tackling without ceremony his heritage; Werner Schwab; and the Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, the prominent feminist critic.

One of the most prominent modern Austrian filmmakers, maybe even the most, is doubtlessly Michael Haneke, a winner of the Golden d’Or at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival for Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon). Haneke, like no other filmmaker nowadays, can tell about the violence, what seems to be the leitmotiv of his films which are often stylistically compared to the works of masters like Robert Bresson or Carl Theodor Dreyer. The minimalist, cool, deprived of complex emotions and divagations films by Michael Haneke seem to touch the very core of evil. Their purpose is to show pure cruelty and violence without decoration of the fabulous special visual effects so eagerly used in modern cinema. Haneke films are not vain amusement, and they are not made for the spectator’s fun. Quite the contrary, the cool eye of the camera is pointed at us and set to remove any remnants of morality left in our heads already shocked full of the violence and crime witnessed day after day. Obsessively portraying the utterly unjustified violence, Haneke diagnoses humanity devoid of morality. In his films Benny’s Video 1992, Funny Games 1997, La Pianiste 2001 and the above mentioned Das Weise Band 2009 he showed the patriarchal middle-class society, restricted by etiquette, whose rigorous rules degenerate into revenge and violence. Michael Haneke is, without doubt, an icon of modern Austrian cinematography but he is not the only filmmaker in Austria.

Apart from Haneke the other successful filmmakers are Ulrich Seidl (Hundstage 2001, Import-Export 2007), who passionately, like many documentary makers, criticizes the middle-class society; Barbara Albert (Nordrand 1999, about the fugitives from the former Yugoslavia, Fallen (Falling) 2006, a penetrating psychological picture of three women whose fates intertwine years after they have gone their separate ways, Bose Zellen 2003); Jessica Hausner (Lovely Rita 2001, Hotel 2004, Lourdes 2009) and Gotz Spielmann (Die Fremde 2000,  Antares 2004, Revanche 2008). The trend of cinema which is understood to settle the accounts with the Nazi past and the Holocaust is represented by the outstanding film by Stefan Ruzowitzky‘s Die Falscher (2007), winner of the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Picture. Special mention should also go to the critic of the consumer culture Hans Weingartner and his Das Weise Rauschen (2002) and Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004), both individually stylistic and absorbing views on present life dilemmas.Today the mainstream cinema is represented by the series about the detective Simon Brenner (i.e. Silentium 2004 or Der Knochenmann 2008), based on the crime novels written by Wolf Haas, and directed by Wolfgang Murnberger. The main protagonist, played by Josef Hader, has become the favourite of the Austrian audience over the last few years.

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Filed under: film history

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Magda Olchawska is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and screenwriter. She writes not only about making films and writing but also about financially independent and sustainable lifestyle. Her current projects include Ecotopia Universe and School Runs.

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