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AUSTRIAN HEIMATFILMS OF THE 1910s

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When discussing about Austrian cinema, we often come across the concept of Heimatfilm. But what are actually these Heimatfilms? To better understand this, we have to go back in time to the origins of the aforementioned cinema.

Reality and fiction through objects and landscapes

When discussing about Austrian cinema, we often come across the concept of Heimatfilm. But what are actually these Heimatfilms? To better understand this, we have to go back in time to the origins of the aforementioned cinema.

If, therefore, Austria, in regard to cinema, started relatively late compared to other European nations when it came to taking its first steps in the field of cinema (just think that the first film in the history of Austrian cinema, Von Stufe zu Stufe , directed by Heinz Hanus, dates back to 1908), it is true that, thanks also to what had in the meantime been invented in the rest of the world, the Austrian cinema of the 1910s gradually proved to be more and more sophisticated in terms of the staging of films, gradually taking on more and more stratified meanings and significance.

And if, especially with regard to the first works realised, the objects on set seem almost casually placed there, just to fill the frame, they soon became an essential part of the story, to the point of becoming extremely important elements, capable of completing the films and communicating what, from time to time, the director wanted to stage.

And is it not, perhaps, the director’s task to ensure that casuality and intentions come together to create a perfect work of art, in which everything is studied down to the smallest detail and nothing is left to chance?

Now, we should take some practical examples, looking at some of the most emblematic films of the Austrian cinema of the 1910s. The first film that comes to mind is Die Zirkusgräfin (The Circus Countess), directed by Felix Dörmann in 1912. Here is staged the story of the young and charming dancer Minka (Eugenie Bernay), a friend of a clown who is very jealous of her (Heinrich Eisenbach), and of her extraordinary social ascent thanks to the acquaintance with a local nobleman. This drama, filmed entirely in a film studio, despite its sophisticated staging and set design, still shows a somewhat rudimentary approach, with many indoor scenes shot with great attention, but in which too little attention and importance is given to details, without any intrinsic significance for objects and locations, contrary to what would happen in the years to come.

And if cinema, since its origins, has been used to literally tell stories through images, this is something that Austrian cinema of the 1910s became increasingly aware of as new films were produced.

Another particularly interesting film in this regard is Der verlorene Knopf (The Lost Button), a lively comedy of misunderstandings dated 1917 and directed by Eugen Kemendi, which takes place entirely in a big mansion. It is here that a young couple, while visiting relatives, get involved in furious arguments after one of the characters accidentally finds a button on the floor, which is claimed by almost all the characters. On this occasion, then, the filmic space takes on an ever greater significance, with interiors that show us opulent furnishings, combined with objects that represent a growing consumerism resulting from ever more powerful industrialisation. This tendency, also emphasised by Water Benjamin in his essay Rückblick auf Stefan George, becomes more and more constant in the films shot in these years and mirrors the society of the time, which is increasingly linked to objects, with shapes and sets becoming the main actors.

A new way of telling homeland stories, the Heimat (hence the concept of Heimatfilm), which became the focus of attention of numerous directors of the time and which, for the first time, was portrayed in all its possible forms through the films produced by Wiener Kunstfilm GmbH. This production company, the first and most important in Austria, was founded in 1912 by Louise Kolm-Veltée (better known as Louise Kolm-Fleck, daughter of Louis Veltée, owner of an optical theatre), her then husband, photographer Anton Kolm, and their assistant Jacob Fleck (later married to Louise in a second marriage).

As producers of documentaries as well as feature films, Kolm and Fleck began filming scenes of everyday life, as well as official events in Austria between 1910 and 1911, similarly to what the Lumière brothers and their cameramen used to do. On the other hand, strongly influenced by the French production company Film D’Art, they also soon started to work on feature films, mainly based on literary and theatrical works by Franz Grillparzer, Ernst Raupach or E. T. A. Hoffmann. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is the drama Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld (The Parish Priest of Kirchfeld), directed in 1914 by Louise Kolm and Jakob Fleck, in which the inner conflict of a young parish priest (played by Max Neufeld) who falls in love with a woman who will inevitably end up marrying another man, is staged in a mountain village with mountains as an ideal backdrop. In this perfect example of Heimatfilm, in which the landscape plays a fundamental role, Kolm and Fleck – abandoning film studios to shoot only in real locations – successfully stage, through a series of symbolic images, the conflict experienced by the protagonist, in a feature film in which principally the Church is strongly criticised, in a country that is still too bigoted and closed. For this purpose, the location, isolated and surrounded by high mountains, makes the protagonist’s loneliness all the more perceptible.

This close relationship between nature and the characters is more emphatically portrayed in the feature film Der ledige Hof (The Isolated Court), also produced by the Wiener Kunstfilm in 1919 and directed by Max Neufeld – here at his first directorial experience – who had played the leading role in Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld. In this drama – in which are staged the vicissitudes of the peasant girl Agnes, who falls in love with a local nobleman – nature takes on an if possible even more central role. In fact, it is no longer presented to us as a metaphor for the feelings and inner conflicts of the protagonists, but even becomes an attribute of their condition. Almost as if it were an integral part of the protagonists’ bodies. Just as the emblematic boat trip of the two young people, with the imposing mountains in the background, shows us.

A director who has taken this concept of landscapes and sets that become necessary actors in the telling of the staged story to the maximum level is Emil Leyde, who, towards the end of the 1910s, made only two films, two so-called Heimatfilms, each of which, however, was particularly significant in terms of the symbolic use of locations.

The first is Der Sonnwendhof (Summer Solstice), made in 1918, in which a fire – causing the death of an entire family – opens a story in which conflicts among human beings and their consequences are in the foreground.

Leyde’s second and best-known feature film is, however, Alpentragödie (Tragedy in the Alps), made in 1920, a drama of passions, repressed anger and jealousies that takes place in a house – completely isolated by snow – in which four characters are involved: a painter, a young teacher, a countess and a former seminarian who has abandoned his religious path. Here nature immediately comes into close contact with the four protagonists, becoming an integral part of a drama in which all the ugliness of mankind comes to the surface, in a film in which the vast expanse of snow plays a central role, perfectly in line with the concept that “what is not permitted in war, is permitted on the screen”.

And so, a little bit later than the rest of the world, Austria was finally beginning to tell its story in pictures in such a central decade as the 1910s, through a series of successful Heimatfilms aimed at introducing the whole world to a nation yet to be discovered. At least cinematically speaking.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the page of the Wiener Kunstfilm on www.bfi.org