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Austria's 1960s Film Trauma: Notes on a Cinematic Phoenix
|Boom times: romantic historical reflections for international audiences: Karlheinz Böhm and Romy Schneider in Ernst Marischka's Sissi, die junge Kaiserin/ The Young Empress (1956)|
In addition to the lack of film funding, which had become the long instituted norm in other Western European countries, the Austrian government continued to view film as something outside of the traditional artistic and cultural establishment. The film tax had gone to support cinema theaters, not film, and the Ministry of Education and Culture, when it recognized cinema at all, considered only documentaries on theater and opera subjects to be of cultural or educational value. Despite the efforts of director Walter Kolm-Veltée, who chaired the film institute at Vienna's prestigious Academy of Music and Performing Arts, the growth of a new generation of Austrian filmmakers was not forthcoming in any significant way, given the lack of government funding, which made artistic or non-commercial productions a near-impossibility. A commercially viable new wave similar to those of other European countries was thus stillborn in Austria. With Austrian filmmakers facing an adapt-or-die prospect, only very traditional styles of the 1950s (adulterated to suit West German popular demands) and internationally created generic entertainment (bound for wider export) survived, while lack of funding and government promotion made film experimentation more marginal than anywhere on the continent. What little experimentation there was failed to achieve a national audience or a critical appreciation that would launch it beyond Austria's borders. Austria's most important production legacy, Wien-Film, had shriveled into a minor releasing firm, and the great Rosenhügel studio was, for a time, surviving on foreign rental and television production.
It was this largely artificial suffocation of Austrian film that allowed for the erroneous and widely spread notion that "there is no real film culture" in Austria. Given the pioneering aspects of the art and its technology in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Austrian First Republic, Austria's seeding of Europe and Hollywood with film talent, the 1938-45 Wien-Film studio's finely crafted costume and musical film subversions of the Third Reich, and the internationally recognized productions of the postwar era, such a statement seems wholly absurd today. But in the short memory of distributors, critics, film festivals and the world audience, Austria's apparent no-show in the international film market for almost three decades would seem to support such negative publicity. The fall of Austrian cinema in the 1960s would, however, not be the end of a national industry that had been absorbed and broken before.
The imperial epics, dramas, and period comedies had been left behind with the boom of the 1950s. The next genre to fade from the screens was the resilient Heimatfilm. Between 1960 and 1966, when the genre finally succumbed, only nine dramatic Heimatfilms were produced. The first of the new decade was made by the man who would provide post-1950s Austrian cinema with its only lasting connection to the early postwar era, to the re-visioned traditions of the Viennese Film and the Heimat genres, and who would in fact, be the only constant in the faltering industry for the next three decades: Franz Antel. Hans Schott-Schöbinger's Der Pfarrer mit der Jazztrompete (The Pastor with the Jazz Trumpet, 1962), an Austrian/West German co-production, continues to explore the religious/secular conflict of the traditional genre, but is an obvious and jarring concession to the West German film market. The central figure, a jazz- and sport- loving Protestant pastor (Joachim Hansen), is a foreign body in a dramatic Austrian Heimatfilm, which even in its most reductive forms has always been associated with mainstream Austrian or Southern German (read: Catholic) rural culture. His modern ways attract the youth but are rejected by the small town mayor. In order not to alienate the Austrian and Bavarian audiences, Der Pfarrer mit der Jazztrompete does include a sympathetic Catholic priest, but with its unconventional embodiment of the good and the safely progressive, the film, which even suggests that several girls can spend the night in the rectory without scandal, is clearly aimed at attracting the widest possible audience, particularly the youth market. It predicts Hollywood's attempt to satisfy a broad international market with the image of the non-conformist nun in such musicals and comedies as The Sound of Music (1965), The Singing Nun (1965), and The Trouble with Angels (1966).
Franz Antel offered a rare dramatic Heimatfilm in 1965, Ruf der Wälder (Call of the Forests), his second filming of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach's novella, Krambambuli, this time modernized to include elements of sex and crime, themes which would overtake Austrian and West German films of all genres during the decade. The final serious Heimatfilm of the era, Georg Tressler's production of Der Weibsteufel (The She-Devil, 1966), was a remake as well. The film was critically lauded for its "experimental" edge and as an antidote to cliché formulas, for its employment of a solidly Austrian cast and crew, a neorealistic tone, and black and white photography. Tressler also rejected any trendy modernization of the original Karl Schönherr novel, aside from the contemporary costumes. The film, which was produced by Otto Dürer, one of the few surviving producers of the 1950s, showcases Maria Emo, the daughter of director E. W. Emo. Dürer had insisted she get the role over the German distributor's preference for the new Austrian "face" of the moment, Senta Berger, a talented Willi Forst discovery, who had appeared in one of his final films, Die unentschuldigte Stunde (The Unexcused Hour, 1957). After losing the Tressler picture, Berger rose to fame in West German cinema and was a stylish foreign sex symbol in mid-1960s Hollywood and international entertainment before returning to West Germany and Austria to seek better parts and to work as a producer. Tressler hoped to restart the Heimatfilm genre and a form of Austrian "new wave" with his film, which was subsequently shown at the 1966 Berlin and 1967 Moscow film festivals. Despite its quality and innovation and the critical praise it received, Die unentschuldigte Stunde failed to influence either filmmakers or the market.
The 1960s began with serious attempts at continuing both the comic and musical versions of the Heimatfilm genre. The first was Paul Löwinger's Dorf ohne Moral (Village Without Morals, 1960), a tale about a village fool lost in the nightlife of a big city. Very popular was the semi-series (made by different production companies and directors) of "White Horse Inn" musicals. These were based on Ralph Benatzky's imperial-era operetta, Im Weißen Rößl/(At the White Horse Inn), which had been previously filmed as a German silent in 1926, an Austrian sound feature in 1935, and a West German feature in 1945 and 1952 (the latter directed by Willi Forst). Werner Jacobs incongruously updated the imperial-era operetta to contemporary times for the 1960 version with Waltraud Haas. Character names were changed to suit modern tastes, the music was given jazz and pop tempi, yet Emperor Franz Joseph still makes an appearance here — albeit as a ghost! Recalling the apparition of Johann Strauss, Jr., in von Borsody's Verlorene Melodie (Lost Melody, 1952), the suturing of contemporary Austria to the imperial myth succeeded as a cinematic reflection of national/cultural identity into the 1960s. The following year's Franz Antel entry, Im Schwarzen Rößl (At the Black Horse Inn, 1961), was not so much a sequel as an exploitation of the 1960 version to adapt and sell yet another summer vacation film. Its thin narrative plot was formulated to give screen time to popular singers Gus Backus, Lil Babs, and Peter Kraus. Antel would revisit the subject one final time in Im Singenden Rößl am Königsee (At the Singing Horse Inn, 1963). It again presents Waltraud Haas as an innkeeper (one of the few female authority roles in Heimatfilm comedy), but this film was a mélange of themes from the original operetta and several other period works, including a 19-century Nestroy play. The blatant advertisement of Königsee, which is in Bavaria, helped market the film in West Germany.
Rolf Olsen's Hochzeit am Neusedlersee (Wedding at the Neusedlersee, 1963) shifted the traditional Alpine Heimatfilm venue to Austria's Hungarian-border lake resort, and also dispensed with any attempt at a traditional narrative by creating what was basically a cinematic variety show featuring West German audience pleasers: Austrian pop singer/composer Udo Jürgens and attractive ingénue Mady Rahl. Curiously, the film was one of the very few that premiered in Vienna at this time. The trend to dilute and vulgarize the Heimatfilm was exploited by Franz Antel's Liebesgrüße aus Tirol (From the Tyrol with Love, a.k.a. Hully Gully in Tirol, 1964), and given blatantly erotic situations in Ernst Hofbauer's Die Liebesquelle (The Fountain of Love, 1966) with Ann Smyrner, the Danish-born sex symbol in Austrian film. The ultimate hybridization that sealed the end of the comic Heimatfilm was Franz Antel's absurdly trendy 00Sex am Wolfgangsee (Double-O-Sex at Lake Wolfgang, a.k.a Happy End at St. Gilgen, 1966), in which the James Bond phenomenon and Beatlemania cross over into the Austrian rural film. While the music is provided by a "mod" pop-rock band, the bikini has replaced the dirndl, and while part of the plot pretends to be a 007 spoof with comedian Paul Löwinger as a secret agent manqué, at its core the film is a typical Antel rustic comedy from the late 1950s. Also attempting cloak-and-dagger comedy was West German television director Sammy Drechsel, who helmed the Austrian/West German/French-co-produced Cold War comedy, Zwei Girls vom Roten Stern (An Affair of States, 1966), which takes place at a nuclear-disarmament conference in Geneva, where an American "super weapon" is revealed. While the Soviets attempt to gain the device by using sex as a lure, the U.S. (Curd Jürgens) and Soviet (Lilli Palmer) delegates fall in love. But the major spy spoof of the year was the Austrian/Italian/French co-production, Gern hab' ich die Frauen gekillt (Killer's Carnival, 1966), directed by Sheldon Reynolds, Alberto Cardone, Robert Lynn, and Louis Soulanes, written by Reynolds, Vittorio Salerno, and Rolf Olsen, and featuring a very non-Austrian international cast including Stewart Granger, Lex Barker, and Pierce Brice. The desire to internationalize Austrian comedy spelled the rapid loss of true national film production, since most of these films aimed at broad export reduced actual Austrian cast and crew to less than a third. Although neither Drechsel or Reynolds could compete with the expensive global-standard spy satires such as Hollywood's "Flint" films, or the mega-star James Bond spoof, Casino Royale (GB/USA 1967) — which employed Austro-Hollywood actor Kurt Kasznar and utilized Billy Wilder as one of the many uncredited writers of the sprawling film — their works remain interesting examples of the brief resonance of the era's Anglo-American cinematic fads in Central Europe.
There were also more serious crime, mystery and spy films, such as Hubert Frank's Das Rätsel der roten Quaste (The Puzzle of the Red Tassel, 1963), Alfred Vorher's Ein Alibi zerbricht (An Alibi Collapses, 1963), Eddy Saller's sexy Geisel des Fleisches (Hostage of Flesh, 1965), the Austrian/Italian/Spanish co-production of Franz Josef Gottlieb's Mister Dynamit-Morgen küßt euch der Tod (Mr. Dynamite-Death Kisses You Tomorrow, 1967), and the Austrian entries in the internationally produced Kommissar X series, a Bond-like series that spanned from 1966 into the 1970s, with various directors, that picked up the trail of Agent Joe Walker, aka Kommissar X, played by Italian-American actor Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella). Another similar series was Ernst Hofbauer's Tim Frazer jagt den geheimnisvollen Mr. X (Tim Frazer and the Mysterious Mr. X, 1964). But the most successful "Austrian" spy film on the global market came at the peak of the craze in mid-decade: the Austrian/Italian co-production of Wie tötet man eine Dame? (Secret of the Yellow Monks, 1966), directed by Manfred R. Köhler, featuring three actors from past and future James Bond films — Karin Dor, Adolfo Celi, and Curt Jürgens.
Because the Austrian federal government refused to support filmmakers with the type of subsidies that had become the norm in other European countries, a 1961 initiative by the Vice Mayor of Vienna, Felix Slavik, led to the establishment of the Stadthalle productions, which would utilize Vienna's large modern city auditorium as a studio. Underwritten by the city of Vienna, this production studio was certainly unique in European film, but rather than strive for artistic excellence, the productions continued the trends that had made Austrian film unremarkable by the end of the 1950s. The first Stadthalle production was the comedy Unsere tollen Tanten (Our Crazy Aunts, 1961), the first of a trio of cross-dressing farces which included Unsere tollen Nichten (Our Crazy Nieces, 1963) and Unsere tollen Tanten in der Südsee (Our Crazy Aunts at the South Sea, 1964), all obviously inspired by Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959). Rolf Olsen, who had begun his career as an actor and screenwriter in the immediate postwar years, directed the series, which featured popular singer Udo Jürgens paired with either Barbara Frey or Vivi Bach, another Danish-born glamour girl in German-language films, and including comedian Gunther Philipp, who also co-wrote the first installment. Geza von Cziffra cashed in on the brief cross-dressing craze with his own treatment of the famous Brandon Thomas play, Charleys Tante (Charley's Aunt, 1963) with Peter Alexander, before the Olsen series ended. The Stadthalle studio also produced the only two true Westerns in Austrian cinema history: Rolf Olsen's Der letzte Ritt nach Santa Cruz (Last Ride to Santa Cruz, 1964), written by Alex Berg, shot on the Canary Islands by Karl Löb, and Olsen's Mein Freund Shorty (My Friend Shorty, a.k.a. Heiß weht der Wind [The Hot Wind Blows], 1964) co-produced with Berolina-Film Berlin. Neither could compete in quality or popularity with the Italian- and Spanish-based "Spaghetti Westerns."
|Broad comedy at the collapse of the commercial industry: Rolf Olsen's Unsere tollen Nichten/Our Crazy Nieces, 1963|
The few foreign directors to utilize the Stadthalle studio at first gave the impression that the undertaking might actually rise above the banality of its comedy factory with more artistic product. Director Steve Previn, who was helming Walt Disney's projects in Vienna, directed a Disney-like Stadthalle production with young German pop-star Conny Froboess, Ist Geraldine ein Engel? (Is Geraldine an Angel?, 1963). Axel von Ambesser gave UFA's leading-man of the 1930s, Willy Fritsch, a new career in fatherly roles in his Das habe ich von Papa gelernt (What Papa Taught Me, 1964), and Wolfgang Liebeneiner returned to the Austrian screen with Jetzt dreht die Welt sich nur um dich (The World Revolves Around You, 1964). One of the international pseudo-epics of the era, The Poppy is also a Flower (1966), which had the most curiously grandiose pretensions of any Austrian film since Liebeneiner's 1. April 2000 in 1952, was also a Stadthalle production. In fact, the same problems that plagued Liebeneiner's "Austria Film" — slim plot, heavy message, overcrowded star casting — contributed to the dismal failure of Poppy at the world's box offices. It had what seemed to be all the fashionable ingredients for a major international hit: based on a story by James Bond author Ian Fleming and directed by Terence Young, with music by Georges Auric, Poppy was commissioned by the United Nations to bring awareness to the crime of the global network of drug trafficking and abuse. The feature film, which was introduced in a documentary-style manner by Princess Grace of Monaco, told the story of United Nations agents who attempt to follow the heroin trade from Iran by injecting a shipment of opium with a radioactive compound. The trail leads them across the capitals of Europe. Young's narrative, which owed more than a little to the plots and location "bump" style of the James Bond films, and to the mid-60s trend for all-star spy spoofs, offers a roster of fashionable and veteran international actors: Senta Berger, Stephen Boyd, Yul Brynner, Angie Dickinson, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Rita Hayworth, Trevor Howard, Trini Lopez, E.G. Marshall, Marcello Mastroianni, Anthony Quayle, Gilbert Roland, Omar Sharif, Harold Sakata, Barry Sullivan, Nadja Tiller, Marilù Tolo, and Eli Wallach. Because of its heavy-handed propaganda slant, the film has not found the cult status accorded the many of the international action/spy extravaganzas of the 1960s. Its reflection of the Zeitgeist and its unique collection of talents, however, have made it a sociopolitical document of an era and a statement on the folly of broad internationalization in Austrian cinema.
|Trevor Howard and Senta Berger in The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966)|
Despite the lack of true box-office successes, the Stadthalle studio created a distribution arm in 1965, in an effort to promote this new studio abroad. But its most ambitious film was also its last, a financial disaster — for reasons had little to do with the state of Austrian film industry, but rather with the shift in audience tastes across the globe. Der Kongress amüsiert sich (Congress of Love, 1966), a grand-scale period musical set at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, was shot in 70mm Super Panorama. This lavish Austrian/French co-production was directed by Geza von Radvanyi and co-scripted by him with Fred Denger and Aldo von Pinelli. The expensive film revised the 1940s Wien-Film musical for the international blockbuster market of the 1960s with a large cast including Curd Jürgens, Lilli Palmer, and Walter Slezak. Like so many overblown musical productions of the era — Star! (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) — it was a major flop that only succeeded in closing the Stadthalle studio and finally killing off the imperial musical-epic genre in Austrian film. But just as Austrian film faded from international recognition, an American recreation of the musical Heimatfilm, shot in Salzburg and Hollywood, gave the world its most indelible image of the nation in Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965). The film was wildly popular abroad and has been either uncritically accepted by Austrians as a vaguely positive ambassador of the nation — despite the lead characters' embodiment of the monarchist/Catholic corporate state ideology under Chancellors Dollfuss and Schuschnigg (1933-38) and the images of Austrian Nazism — or else rejected as an example of Hollywood's kitsch co-opting of Austrian culture. The subject matter, based on the autobiography of Maria von Trapp, had already been the subject of two earlier West German films by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Die Trapp-Familie (The Trapp Family, 1956) and Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (The Trapp Family in America, 1958).
More modestly mounted operetta or remakes of classic Wien-Film musicals continued to have a small niche in the European market, and Austria continued to produce these best. Even this evergreen genre eventually outstayed its welcome with the audiences of the mid-1960s, which no longer accepted Belle Époque sentimentality nor cared for the costume fantasy. Even the widely popular spectacle of the Viennese ice-revue film had also finally lost its novelty. It was now a slickly packaged and safe exoticism, a "Sunday drive" with little fantasy left to it, by comparison with the consciousness-expanding palette of the decade's art. Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) signaled that the French New Wave, contemporary popular music, and pre-psychedelic set design concepts might save the musical genre, but even this refreshing jazz-opera was a dead end, as was the iconoclastic Vietnam era anti-war farce presented in World War I guise, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). The musical survived mainly in the pop/rock variety film, ranging from Hollywood vehicles for Elvis Presley to The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (1964) and its follow-up (partially filmed in Austria), Help! (1965). But most of these works were limited by the immediate popularity of their stars and quickly dated by the rush of the decade's fads and trends. Franz Antel had understood and exploited the quick entertainment value of this genre since the mid 1950s. (He was now in competition with Rolf Olsen, who attempted nearly every genre and film fad the decade had to offer.)
Austria's few West German- and Swedish-inspired sex comedies or dramas that outdid the suggestiveness of Antel's playful yarns were Paul Milan's Das Mädchen mit dem Mini (The Girl in the Miniskirt, 1965), Hubert Frank's Das Mädchen mit dem sex-ten Sinn (The Girl with the Sex-th Sense, 1966), Walter Häuselmayer's Verbotenes Begehren (a.k.a. Die nackte Haut) (The Naked Skin, 1966), and Frits Frons's Via Erotica (1967) and Männer in den besten Jahren erzählen Sexgeschichten (Sex Stories, 1967). These offered adult content unavailable on television but proved to be more popular abroad than at home. Pure variety films like Schlagerrevue '62 (Hit Parade '62, 1961), directed by Thomas Engel, drew in more youth audiences.
Only German-born director Alfred Weidenmann managed, with some critical and popular success, to briefly re-Austrianize international co-productions along the lines of the sophisticated Willi Forst films of the 1950s. His Julia, du bist zauberhaft (Adorable Julia, 1962), based on W. Somerset Maugham's short story "Theater" and scripted by Guy Bolton and Pascal Jardin, featured a stylish French/Austrian cast including Lilli Palmer, Charles Boyer, and Charles Regnier in a film about a young man's love for an older woman. It was one of the few Austrian films of the period to be well distributed internationally and to attract American audiences. In 1965, Weidenmann joined Rolf Thiele and Axel von Ambesser in directing an episodic film (a type of film that had become popular in Italy and France), Das Liebeskarussell (The Carousel of Love, 1965). This solidly Austrian production paired many of the big European names of the era into four stories: Gert Fröbe, a well-known German actor who became a quasi-star that same year in Goldfinger (1965), with France's most popular ingénue, Catherine Deneuve; Curd Jürgens with Austrian sex symbol Nadja Tiller; German comedian Heinz Rühmann with German ingenue Johanna von Koczian; and musical leading man Peter Alexander with the Swedish star of Fellini's La Dolce vita (1960), Anita Ekberg. The failure of this formula led Wiedenmann to return to more traditional filmmaking with Maigret und seiner größter Fall (Maigret and his Greatest Case, 1966), an Austrian/Italian/French co-production with Heinz Rühmann as Georges Simenon's famed detective. The unexpected casting of Rühmann, known for his gentle foolishness, in the role of the serious Maigret attracted comparisons with the earlier French and British incarnations and ultimately did not help the film's reception or Rühmann's career. Franz Antel combined the mystery genre with screwball comedy in Ohne Krimi geht die Mimi nie ins Bett (Mimi Loves Mysteries, 1962). He also attempted a crime adventure in ....und ewig knallen die Räuber (The Robbers Always Shoot, 1962), with Karin Dor, before anticipating psychedelic cinema by writing and producing a bizarre romp directed by Domenico Paolella, Maskenball bei Scotland Yard (A Costume Ball at Scotland Yard, 1963). This black-and-white pseudo-narrative about an inventor of a device that can interrupt any televised broadcast is a series of linked sketches that owed more to the slapdash Italian exploitation comedies of the time than to any Austrian comedic film traditions. The film’s structure, its polyglot cast, and its association of television culture with mind control gives it a vague role in the development of the transnational episodic counter-culture satires of the mid- and late 1960s, but it is largely incomprehensible. More successful, however, than any imported genres were two long-running comedy serials: the Graf Bobby (Count Bobby) films of Geza von Cziffra and the Wirtin (female innkeeper) films of Franz Antel. Not comparable to these directors' period films of the 1950s in any aspect of production, both series functioned through a form of cinematic nostalgia, offering a suggestion of such bygone costume opulence and lacing it with the physical and sexual comedy of the era.
There were a few notable dramas during the early 1960s, but these had become a rarity. Rolf Thiele's cinematic treatment of Franz Wedekind's controversial turn-of-the-century drama about sexual obsession and manipulation, Lulu (1962), with Nadja Tiller as the femme fatale, began the decade. Edwin Zbonek scripted and filmed Theodor Csokor's play on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 3. November 1918, in 1965. One of the few Austrian films of the 1960s to deal with the imperial past, it was a startlingly intimate and neorealistic antidote to the grand imperial costume epics of the 1950s in its portrayal of the divergences of the multicultural Empire, as represented by a group of soldiers in a convalescent home at the end of the Great War. Zbonek, a young Austrian filmmaker of the times who seemed to span the wide cleft between the dying Austrian commercial cinema and the isolated avant-garde cinema, also worked in West Germany and wrote film criticism. Canadian filmmaker John Olden directed a television production (which went on to cinemas) on the then still taboo subject of Austria's brief civil war and the introduction of Chancellor Dollfuss' authoritarian corporate state in 1933-34. The ironically named film, An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube, 1965) starred Attila Hörbiger and Lotte Lang. Finally, Werner Jacobs attempted to outdo Walt Disney with a neorealist-tinged version of Heidi (1965).
The most notable literary material brought to film in the era was certainly Kaiser Joseph und die Bahnwärterstochter (Emperor Joseph and the Stationmaster's Daughter, 1963). The film is based on a play by the one of the final exponents of turn-of-the-century Viennese literary Impressionism, Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando, as interpreted by Hans Holt, Inge Konradi, and Hans Moser. It was Moser's final film, and the first major work for Paris-born Austrian film director Axel Corti, who would be a significant, if too brief, presence in combining experimentalism and commercialism in the lead-in to New Austrian Film during the 1980s.
Goswin Dörfler, who reported on Austrian cinema for the influential British annual International Film Guide, officially declared the Austrian film industry dead in 1968:
Last year we reported that "Austrian film production and cinema attendances are in a state of crisis." As far as 1968 is concerned, this crisis has been resolved — the patient having died peacefully.... In practice there is no more national film production. The Austrian cinema has reached its year zero, thus giving the hope for a new start. Both the state and private enterprise have given serious thought to this, and there are vehement discussions at various levels for the reconstruction of the home industry. The king is dead; long live the king!
By 1966, only eighteen Austrian films (half were co-productions) were made and by 1967, the amount had fallen to twelve, the majority (and the "best" as Dörfler insisted) were co-productions. By 1967, fourteen cinema theaters had closed in Vienna since the start of the decade. Attendance had fallen drastically: from 65.8 million in 1966 to 57.6 million in 1967. The paucity of Austrian cinema art had also compromised a major film festival, the Viennale, which had been founded as the Vienna Film Festival in 1961. Its 1968 theme of "Humorous Cinema" had to be abandoned due to the lack of material and the festival instead managed to convey the disaster of Austrian production and lack of audience by scraping the bottom of the barrel with "Films That Failed To Reach Us." Hungarian and Soviet films were presented in the series to make up not only for the lack of Austrian film but for the obvious uninterest by Western European releasing companies in contributing anything to the failing Austrian market. Even the remaining "art" houses had abandoned Austrian cinema for foreign avant-garde film. Still, the Austrian government continued to resist the concept of support for film production and distribution.
More than ten years after the death of the imperial epic, and while Austrian filmmakers were attempting to break from Agfacolor/Gevacolor nostalgia with more critical examinations of the past, the British, French, and Americans came to Vienna to create a blockbuster version of this Austrian genre with MGM's Mayerling (1968), directed by Terence Young. This lavish examination of the love affair and apparent suicide deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera, was more politically framed than previous versions, particularly as it mirrored the contemporary era in scenes of student revolts and the "generation gap" in the Habsburg dynasty. Filmed on location throughout Vienna, the imperial costume drama was solidly un-Austrian in its cast.
The only true Austrian film of 1968 was one made for television, an ORF production with the regional West-Film (Bregenz) company, and only later entered European cinemas. But Moos auf den Steinen (Moss on the Stones) was without doubt the most remarkable and memorable Austrian film of the decade. Based on the 1956 novel by Austrian author Gerhard Fritsch, the film features Erika Pluhar, Heinz Trixner, Fritz Muliar, Louis Ries, and Wilfred Zeller-Zellenberg, who have all indelibly become associated with this pioneering work. In the midst of the worst crisis in Austria's film history, young filmmaker Georg Lhotsky offered a work that not only embraced and successfully adapted French New Wave stylistics, but also provided a brilliant allegory for Austria's sociocultural problems as a small republic haunted by the memory of a once powerful empire. The film projected the very qualities of what would resurrect Austrian filmmaking late in the next decade: a culturally localized topic, regional on-location photography, mild experimentation, Austrian cast and crew, and a low budget funded by private means and by co-production with television. Shot in black-and-white and color by Walter Kindler, Lhotsky's film interprets the Mitteleuropean meditations of Gerhard Fritsch with great poignancy. In eastern Austria, where the phantom presence of the former crown lands of the Empire are still to be felt, the collision of the past and the present, tradition and pragmatism, monarchy and republic are acted out in microcosm by an old aristocrat whose baroque castle is overrun by visitors who intend to refurbish it as a cultural center. Recalling the nostalgia of the 1950s imperial epics, the film plays between the past and present, the memories of the old Baron and his daughter Jutta, and the enthusiastic plans of Jutta's fiancé, Mehlmann, and his friend, the writer Petrik. As Jutta leads Mehlmann through the rooms of the castle and the family's past, the romantic ritual of imperial life is evoked, but Jutta also offers her memories of the execution of two deserters hiding at the castle in the final days of the Second World War. As they don the antique clothing of her family and joyously romp across the grounds, the temporal boundaries seem to disappear. The Baron parallels this escapism by writing a novel about Austria's past, Moos auf den Steinen, where the characters "love the moss that grows on the crumbling walls of the Danube Monarchy, the soft pillows of transitoriness on stones that are no longer Austria." The bittersweet masquerade in a lost identity must however come to an end: the Baron casts the pages of his novel into the wind, and when the costumed lovers reach the end of the estate, they see the barbed wire and machine gun turrets of the Iron Curtain. Mehlmann ultimately retreats from his modernization plans and allows the castle to find its slow, elegant death. The moss remains on the stones.
|The collision of the imperial past and the Cold War present: Heinz Trixner led by Erika Pluhar in Georg Lhotsky's Moos auf Steinen (1968)|
While it suggests the capitalist exploitation of a romanticized imperial past in the Second Republic, Lhotsky's work also is a metafilmic commentary on the 1950s imperial epic films, in which the audience desired to "costume" themselves in a mythic past for a few hours in a fantasy of identity, which must then be abandoned for Cold War reality. Most important, however, is the exposure of this nostalgia as a symptom of Austria's lingering identity crisis. Literary historian Reinhard Urbach finds that for author Fritsch "preserving traditions also means to mourn their passing. Such an interest in the Austrian past is not about a desire for collapse, or decadence, or cynicism towards a present, which could not preserve the past and had no strength for a new beginning. Rather it is about the sadness for the loss of continuity and about preservation and renewal." Lhotsky's film was not the only 1960s attempt at delivering an Austrian "new wave," but it was the most commercial approach.
Although Austria had no equivalent of an organized movement to dispel poor commercial product, as was announced by young West German cinema artists in their Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, there were several schools of experimentation and avant-garde filmmaking. Unfortunately, these developments were shunned by the failing mainstream industry. The surviving Austrian film publication Film und Kinozeitung (Film and Cinema News) did not even report on the West German Oberhausen event but eventually offered a backhanded explanation for the overall avoidance of what was happening in critical and artistic film outside of Austria. It blatantly admitted that the rising cost of filmmaking and the lack of box-office success in a shrinking Austrian market made feature experimentation prohibitive. Discussion of such trends was obviously deemed useless and unnecessary.
The first appearance of Austria's avant-garde cinema had actually come on the heels of Italian neorealism and before the French New Wave. The early 1950s saw the creation of the Vienna "Art Club" where non-commercial filmmakers found a home. Wolfgang Kudranofsky, Kurt Steinwender, Ferry Radax, Gerhard Rühm, and others assembled a loose-knit alternative-film movement which was launched by the 1951 creation of "Der Rabe" ("The Raven"), Kudranofsky and Steinwender's filmic translation of Edgar Allen Poe's poem. Other literary subjects became the subject of alternative filmmaking, notably Herbert Vesely's Kafka montage, "Und die Kinder spielen so gern Soldaten" ("And the Children Like to Play Soldiers," 1951), and a film based on Trakl's Expressionist poetry, "An diesen Abenden" ("On These Evenings," 1952). Soon, artistic interpretations of short literary works were replaced by original scripts on a similar theme that ran through the French New Wave — the personal interpretation of social alienation. Vesely's "Nicht mehr Fliehen" ("Flee No More," 1955) and Edwin Zbonek's "Erschießungsbefehl" ("Execution Order," 1962) managed to marry avant-garde techniques into a still semi-commercial narrative form. Ferry Radax, Peter Kubelka, and Konrad Bayer led the avant garde into the 1960s, and joined together to create "Mosaik im Vertrauen" ("Mosaic of Trust," 1955), while Jörg Ortner offered "Eine Fuge" ("A Fuge," 1959) as "aggressive melancholy against a city"  Radax, who was one of the few filmmakers who managed to acquire subvention from the Ministry of Education for an experimental work, took advantage of this unique occurrence by making several versions of his abstract "Sonnehalt!" ("Stop Sun!") between 1959 and 1962 with Ingrid Schuppan, Alberto Jolly, and Konrad Bayer. Film historian Walter Fritz has compared Bayer, an avant-garde literary figure who worked on several film projects and committed suicide in 1964, to French New Waver Jean-Luc Godard, for his radical style and overt sociopolitical commentary.
Over 100 films were created between the early 1950s and 1968 by the members of the Art Club movement — such artists as Peter Weibel, Kurt Kren, Valie Export, Marc Adrian, Ernst Schmidt Jr., Peter Kubelka, Otmar Bauer, Hans Scheugel, Günter Brus, and Gottfried Schlemmer. Yet for all their startling new visions and for all the new performance-art tactics that were employed in the showing of these films, the lack of government and media-industry sponsorship disallowed any such showcasing as was available in West Germany, where theaters and television attempted to offer at least a taste of such alternative creations. Another factor that made Austrian alternative filmmaking less accessible to the audiences than its counterparts in other European countries was its radical style. Firmly grounded in trends outside cinema, it began with abstract art and moved only very slowly toward film narrative, instead of moving from narrative film to a more abstract interpretation, as other "new wave" movements tended to do. The intellectual/artistic core of this film movement, which totally opposed dominant or commercial motion pictures (rather than influence them or replace them, as was the case in France, Italy and to some extent, England), found their ideology in modern painting and the Austrian performance art known as Wiener Aktionismus (Viennese Actionism). Its radicalism, as Thomas Elsaesser succinctly notes,
was quite different from that of other European "young" cinemas and New Waves of the 1960s. Austrian experimental cinema divides into an abstract-formalist wing (Kubelka and Radax) and a politically interventionist grouping around Kurt Kren, Günther Brus, and Otto Mühl, who came out of the "fluxus" movement and "happening" aesthetics, scandalizing the public with provocative, often pornographic and scatological body-centered action pieces.
The iconoclastic aim was to angrily protest against what was seen as the calcified, even fascistic sociopolitics and a retrograde cultural elitism of the nation. Since avant-garde Austrian film owed more to such fringe forces as Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono than to any mainstreamed European "new wave" narrative styles, there was little popular interest from national or international audiences, which had already abandoned interest in Austrian product. As with the anti-establishment performance pieces, Actionist film aimed at local allusion rather than universal message. Through its visceral references to ecstasy, wounding, pain, and death, Actionism could, in fact, trace its visual art to the Baroque, which presented the metaphysical through the extremes of the physical.
|A frame from Kurt Kren's Actionist film "Selbstverstümmelung"/"Self-Mutilation" (1965)|
Ultimately, it was conservative censorship that won the day, and several proponents of Viennese Actionism emigrated to West Germany to avoid prosecution in Austria and set up an "alternative Austrian government in exile." In response, film artists Kren, Weibel, Schmidt, Scheugl, Schlemmer, and Export formed the Austrian Filmmakers Cooperative in 1968. It managed to promote and distribute the alternative films of its members and even broke through the export barrier that had severely limited the audience for Austrian film experimentation. The influential West German publication Film named Hans Scheugl's "ZZZ Hamburg Special" (1968), which consisted of thread being pulled through a projector, as one of the ten best films of 1967/68 along with Godard's Weekend (1968) and Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Scheugl commented: "In this way the viewer is forced to think about whether the thread is really on film or whether it is really running through the projector. Thus an important requirement of intermedia is fulfilled: the creative input of the projectionist."
Peter Weibel and Valie Export had also obliterated the axiom that "film requires celluloid" or even a screen with their theory of "expanded cinema," which professed to move illusion cinema to material cinema by creating what they called "Instant Film":
Film was brought back once again to its value as a medium, liberated from any linguistic character which it had taken on in the course of its development. The formal arrangement of the elements of film, whereby elements are exchanged or replaced by others — for example, electric light by fire, celluloid by reality, a beam of light by rockets — had an effect which was artistically liberating and yielded a wealth of new possibilities, such as film installations and the film-environment. In the production of the film medium, celluloid is only one aspect that could (also) be deleted. Instead of the projected image, the film strip itself can become a site for expanding the medium and, consequently, if the celluloid becomes a filmic image as material rather than through projection, a transparent PVC-foil, held before one's eyes, can supply the desired image, since if the user projects his own image of the world onto the foil, he sees the world in accordance with his own image
Beyond these metafilmic experiments, Kurt Kren's abstract "Schatzi" (1968), which presented shock images in rapid positive/negative manipulation, gained cult attention, and Peter Kubelka, who had become the curator of the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna upon its founding in 1964, moved towards semi-narrative style in "Unsere Afrikareise" ("Our Africa Trip," 1966). Ferry Radax moved even more so in this direction with "Testament" (1968), a political satire depicting Vienna run by a mad dictator and in the midst of a revolution led by the literati. The apolitical hero James attempts to topple the dictator, but the results are as contradictory as the global anti-war and youth revolts of 1968. Otto Mühl remained loyal to the Actionist ideology and form and took part in a presentation by several Actionist artists and filmmakers including Oswald Wiener, Günter Brus, and Peter Weibel at the University of Vienna on June 7, 1968. Their "Kunst und Revolution" (Art and Revolution) included a "lecture" which featured excretion, vomiting, and masturbation. It resulted in arrests, psychological examinations, and jail sentences for the artists. Günter Brus later commented that aside from Austria, only Franco's Spain and the Eastern Bloc had such negative attitudes towards progressive art. Mühl went on to film "Sodoma" (1969) and "Der geile Wotan" ("The Lascivious Wotan," 1970), which blended sex acts and body-oriented performance art in anarchic/abstract non-narratives.
|Political protest and cinematic experiment: Ferry Radax's Testament (1968)|
The most internationally recognizable exponent of this alternative filmmaking is Valie Export, a photographer and performance and video artist who successfully made the transition from the "expanded cinema" experiments and abstract shorts of the mid-1960s to narrative feature films in the late 1970s and beyond, as one of the inspirations to New Austrian Film. Working with her partner Peter Weibel, she created the "Tapp und Tastkino" ("Touch Cinema," 1968), which she called the "first real woman's film." This performance art action consisted of inviting the viewer to insert their hands into the box strapped to Export's chest. It was intended to transcend male-dominated cinema by a female material destruction of cinematic illusion. Export maintained that:
Tactile reception counteracts the fraud of voyeurism. In state-sanctioned cinema, they sit in the dark and see how two people make it with each other, and they themselves are not seen. In Tapp und Tastkino, social prescriptions are no longer obeyed; the intimate sphere of what the state permits is forced open into public space. Since the consumer can be anyone — child, man, woman — it is an unveiled intrusion into the taboo of homosexuality; the morality of state prescriptions, the state, family, property, is exploded. For as long as the citizen remains satisfied with a reproduced copy of sexual freedom, the state will be spared a sexual revolution.
She continued to "redefine the audience-performer relationship and to extend cinematic conventions" in other film "happenings" such as "Cutting" (1967-1968) and "Der Kuß" ("The Kiss," 1968) which explored the value of the female body in a patriarchal society. Her twelve minute film, Mann&Frau&Animal ("Man&Woman&Animal," 1973), returned to her Actionist roots, which features among other visuals, the artist filming her menstruation in a visceral examination of gender and the "artistic nature of blood." Experimental filmmaker Friederike Petzold took this voyeurism to its ultimate step with "Toilette" (1979). In 1977, Export offered her first feature film, Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Adversaries), written by Peter Weibel, which was not only a cohesive narrative, but showed that humor and wit could also exist in a film about female identity, social representation, and the environment. Export called the film a "feminist science-fiction film" which managed to be both visually and ideologically progressive and entertaining. A tabloid newspaper, Die Kronen Zeitung, launched a campaign against the film labeling it "perverse trash" and condemned the rare government subvention it received for supporting its "call to anarchy." Although Export's work was selected by a jury for the 1978 Austrian State Prize in the arts, Fred Sinowatz, the Minister of Education and Culture, refused to award Export and gave no prize that year. She followed this scandal with Menschenfrauen (Human Women, 1979), and later with a widely seen traditional narrative film, Die Praxis der Liebe (The Practice of Love, 1984), a leading feminist work regarding a female journalist whose sudden encounter with a "glass ceiling" suggests social and political cover-ups in a dystopic Austrian republic.
Despite the shock value of Viennese Actionism and the few alternative films that received significant attention inside and outside Austria, the mainstream film industry continued its nadir into the new decade of the 1970s. Even bleaker than the previous year, in which the Austrian film industry was declared "dead," 1969 offered only four commercial films. The only critical success was Peter Beauvais’ Austrian/West German television film of Arthur Schnitzler's Das weite Land (The Distant Land), with O. W. Fischer and Ruth Leuwerik, which was given belated theatrical distribution in 1973.
Although the Socialist majority government and its pragmatic chancellor Bruno Kreisky promised a law to encourage film production and promotion in 1970, committees, party demands, and official procrastination delayed any implementation of support until the end of the decade. The city of Vienna again attempted to support film production while there was still something to be saved, and upstaged the national government in its creation of a film promotion law in 1977. That same year, the national government shelved its planned law, and offered only the "laughable" sum of about $1,500,000 as an annual subsidy for the entire national industry. In the meantime, Austrian television had only strengthened its hold on audiences.
On New Year's Day, 1969, Austria's national television network ORF began color broadcast, and as Goswin Dörfler reported, the accessibility of great entertainment and art was on the small screen: "Why bother to go to the cinema, when every week one can view in the comfort of one's own home (and in color too) a cross-section of all the major films (including famous classics like Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis, and premieres of works such as Wajda's Pilate and Others and Saura's The Garden of Delights)?" While Austrian cinema floundered, Austrian television presentations developed into one of the best sources of filmed entertainment on the continent. As the audiences stayed away from the ever-decreasing number of cinema venues, registered television owners in Austria increased at a rapid rate. After having lost its large Gartenbau cinema (the second largest in Vienna), which was demolished to make room for a computer center, and given the paucity of material, the Viennale Film Festival no longer even attempted to offer a theme, and resorted to selecting national and international works wholly on the basis of merit. An association known as Der gute Film (The Good Film), which had offered an Austrian film series and awards since 1956, began to show works by foreign directors. The Austrian Film Archive managed to mount several well-attended retrospectives, ranging from G. W. Pabst to Hans Moser, suggesting that while the commercial industry languished and the avant garde marginalized itself, Austria was nevertheless a nation of film fans, one that might again be made aware of its significant role in the development of the motion picture. The decade of the 1970s bore this basic fact out. As the government stalled on film support, and commercial production was only to be found with a few multinational co-productions, a new generation of filmmakers arrived on the scene to re-invent the national narrative cinema with privately raised funding, vastly downsized productions, and unknown talent. Despite all odds against it, the embryonic New Austrian Film was being formed.
Remnants of the commercial film modes of the 1960s maintained a presence throughout the 1970s, but as the Actionists returned to performance art or evolved into narrative filmmakers, and the internationally co-produced sex comedy or thriller receded, the only commercial director of the 1960s to outlast the 1970s would be Franz Antel. After a brief pause, he would reinvent his style once again in the 1980s and become a part of the early New Austrian Film. His tragicomic series centering on a curmudgeonly Viennese butcher, Karl Merkatz, and his family, beginning with Der Bockerer (The Bockerer) in 1981, would take on Austria's past under Nazism and later the Cold War, blending subjects that had been avoided by mainstream Austrian cinema into the entertainment approach Antel was known for.
Cable television was introduced in 1979, and with the proliferation of home video recorders and films on video, there was a sense that the medium might well succeed in closing Austria's remaining cinema theaters. Nevertheless, post-1960s filmmakers succeeded in attracting a younger generation whose parents had abandoned cinema during the decline of commercial product and in the period of Actionism and marginalized experimentation. Unlike the directors of the New German Cinema's Autorenfilm during the 1970s and 80s who saw themselves in the tradition of the French cinéma d'auteur in their all-controlling combination of writer, director, and producer, Austrian multitasking, while also a rejection of commercial cinema conventions, was driven by poverty and necessity. While New German Cinema was made possible by generous government funding and promotion, and West German critics helped elevate the movement as artistically and culturally important, Austria's early film revival was mostly heralded by word-of-mouth and the perseverance of its creators. A growing interest in the new narrative style, in critical subject matter, and in local production indicated the path for Austrian filmmakers into the following decade and kept the theaters open.
issue #3 (11.2006)