The feature films produced in Austria in the 1920s were generally based on literary works or, alternatively, dramas involving historical events from the past. Within them, successful time shifts transported the spectator, time after time, to new worlds and new realities.
Travelling through time and space
Also within Austrian cinema, a new kind of mise-en-scene began to spread between the end of the 1910s and the beginning of the 1920s, whereby frame stories were inserted into the feature film, linking the different time levels. Just as David Wark Griffith had already done in the glorious United States in the famous Intolerance.
The feature films produced in this period are generally based on literary works or, alternatively, dramas that involve historical events from the past. Within them, successful time shifts transport the spectator, time after time, to new worlds and new realities. If we think, for instance, of a film like Die Memoiren eines Mönchs (directed by Friedrich Feher in 1923 and based on a short story by Franz Grillparzer), we can see how the action gets into full swing at the moment when a monk begins to tell two guest of the monastery about the history of the place they find themselves. The same applies to Vier Nächte einer schönen Frau (Josef W. Beyer, 1924). In this feature film, the story of Saida, a young Arab woman left home alone as her husband is travelling for work, is staged. The man, in order not to make his wife feel lonely, gives her a bird. This bird will begin, on nights when the woman is alone, to tell her four different stories. And so, the vicissitudes of the newlywed and her conversations with the companion bird serve as the perfect frame story for the whole feature film.
This format has undoubtedly fascinated many directors over the years. Yet, on the other hand, there were also those who disliked the use, in film, of all these time levels. We are talking about the historian Béla Balasz, who, in an essay he wrote in 1924 entitled Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films, focused precisely on frame stories and the resulting space-time shifts. He considered, in fact, that while such narrative choices might work in literature, in cinema they only made it more difficult for the spectator to understand the story, destroying the space-time perspective itself. Cinema, according to Balasz, basically needed a pure and linear language. In short, a visual continuity. This, in fact, would be impossible to achieve by creating different time levels. Cinema and literature, then, were to be considered, according to the author, as two arts in their own right and the language of one could not be adapted in a different context.
Yet, apparently, not only directors, but also the audience liked such solutions. If we think, for instance, of the feature film Alte Zeit – neue Zeit, directed by Emil Leyde in 1919, we see how the different time levels can trace the entire history of Austria over the last decades. The events of young Helene, who used to live an unconventional life, are staged here. The girl, after being sent to her aunt’s house in a small village, will hear many stories from her grandmother and learn to relate to society, to behave as an adult and to understand what the real values of life are. In a nutshell, a film, this one, that is released with clear pedagogical intentions. And this was not the only case of feature films made both with the intention of entertaining the audience and with ulterior aims. This is the case, for instance, of Opfer des Hasses (Hans Marschall, 1923), at the end of which, by means of a caption, an appeal was made to make donations in favour of the poor, as well as Joskor (Sidney M. Goldin, 1924), which denounced the living conditions in which people of Jewish origin had to live.
And so, despite the perplexities of the time, frame stories and different space-time levels were apparently the ideal solutions for making propaganda films, parables or pedagogical films. A new way of understanding cinema was born in Austria during these years. And spectators, directors and producers of the time were decidedly enthusiastic about it.