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HEINZ HANUS – THE ORIGINS OF AUSTRIAN CINEMA AND A GREAT MISTERY

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With a running time of about thirty-five minutes, Von Stufe zu Stufe, the first Austrian film in film history, directed by Heinz Hanus, was first screened in 1908. Yet, it is still a mystery today. That, in fact, this film has unfortunately been lost is something one can easily imagine. Yet, in spite of what Heinz Hanus himself and others have told us, there are, to this day, no testimonies in the newspapers of the time concerning these screenings.

The “nonexistent” film

It’s nice to see that sweet old man with a smart fedora hat on his head who, pointing to old abandoned buildings on Marchfeldstrasse in Vienna’s 20th district, tells us about what was once the headquarters of Astoria Film, one of Austria’s first and most important film production companies. The gentleman is Heinz Hanus, one of the pioneers in the history of Austrian cinema, who, in the documentary Heinz Hanus dedicated to him and made in 1969 by Helmut Pfandler, tells us, along with his career, also about the origins of a film industry that, unlike in the rest of the world, took a long time to take off. Yet such beginnings are as interesting as they are shrouded in an aura of mystery.

We are now in 1908. The cinematograph had been invented by the Lumière brothers for a good thirteen years. Heinz Hanus, born in 1882, for his part, after an early career as a silk hat designer and textile merchant in his father’s firm, had been working as a full-time stage actor for a good two years. His career, however, had already taken a turn in 1907, when the Viennese actor, then aged 25, had met the director and – later – film producer Anton Kolm (the first husband of Louise Kolm-Fleck, one of the best-known female directors of the origins of Austrian cinema) at the Dobner Café. The two became immediately friends. According to official sources, it was during this meeting, in fact, that Kolm asked the young Hanus to take part in the production of Von Stufe zu Stufe (Step by Step), the first Austrian film in the history of cinema, in whose writing, together with Heinz Hanus himself, contributed also Louise Kolm-Fleck, who, at that time, was still married to Anton Kolm.

With a running time of about thirty-five minutes, the film was screened for the first time the following year, i.e. in 1908, in many Viennese cinemas and, according to many, it was a success. Yet, everything remains shrouded in mystery today. That, in fact, such a film was unfortunately lost, is something one can easily imagine, given that not so much attention was paid to the preservation and conservation of films at the time. The strange thing, however, is another. In spite of numerous testimonies by Heinz Hanus himself and others who worked in the film industry at the time, there are, today, no testimonies in the magazines of the time regarding the aforementioned screenings. In later years, up to more recent times, it was even the Filmarchiv Austria itself that was interested in the investigation of this particular case. Yet, to this day, nothing else has been discovered, except the testimonies of Heinz Hanus himself along with a few other people involved. What we are dealing with, therefore, can be defined as a real “ghost” film.

But what was Von Stufe zu Stufe actually about? According to the director himself, it was about a love story between the young Annerl and Count Werner, set along the avenues of the Preterhauptallee, near the legendary Ferris wheel. According to Hanus’ statements, therefore, it was precisely the walks of the two young protagonists that represented the most evocative element of the film.

With a running time of approximately thirty-five minutes, this film was extraordinarily long compared to the standard films of the time. This, therefore, suggests a huge capital outlay on the part of Anton Kolm himself. These huge expenses, however, were partly made up in the following years – and specifically from 1910 onwards – following the foundation of the Erste österreichische Kinofilms-Industrie, Austria’s first production company.

And yet, despite these uncertain origins – and despite the fact that the love story staged in Von Stufe zu Stufe was reprised over and over again in later films, also by other directors – Heinz Hanus is still considered one of the most important pioneers in the history of Austrian cinema. His career in the years to come was, in fact, quite prolific.

Author of no less than thirty-six films – among which we recall, in particular, Der Idiot (1919), Stephansdom (1924), Frauen aus der Wiener Vorstadt (1925) and Nokturno (1932) – Hanus also continued, at the same time, to work in theatre, as well as being, in 1922, among the founder members of the Filmbunds – a federation of the major Austrian production companies – and among the main animators of Astoria Film, where, while making some cartoons, Heinz Hanus himself was often in charge of some of the stop-motion shots.

And it is precisely about this legendary production company that the director tells us – during Helmut Pfandler’s documentary – with most nostalgia, despite a life full of interesting moments. A life, his, which wasn’t free of shadows and unpleasant events, among which, above all, his adhesion to the National Socialist Party and the consequent severed relationship with his brother, the actor and director Emmerich Hanus, which was never resumed until the director’s death in 1972 in the small town of Bad Aussee, in northern Styria.

And yet, despite this and, above all, despite the mysterious existence of the first film in the history of Austrian cinema, this cinema undoubtedly owes so much to Heinz Haus. A man who is nowadays forgotten by most, but who, with his elegant fedora to give him the aspect of a man from another era as he nostalgically tells us about his unusual career, conveys all that passion and enthusiasm that made the birth of this varied cinema possible.

Info: the page of Heinz Hanus on geschichtewiki.wien.gv.at