THE WIENER FILMS – PORTRAIT OF A MERRY AUSTRIA

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Most of the time light-hearted, sometimes even rather melancholic, the Wiener Films were intended to depict the splendour of an era and its upper-class society, within which, however, love stories between people of different classes contributed to the drama of the story, or to the creation of funny and enjoyable comedies of errors.

Dances, music, costumes and desperate love stories

Since the end of the World War II, Austria – in film terms – has been open to any ideas from all over the world, trying its hand at new film genres for the first time and making the Austrian experimental cinema genre itself one of the most prolific in the world. But what would Austrian cinema be like today without the Wiener Films?

Would there still have been so much curiosity about the new, or, at any rate, so much desire to experiment, if for many decades there had not been a series of feature films all with the same imprint? If, in fact, the so-called Wiener Films began to spread in Austria as early as the 1920s (thus, already in the silent era), it was mainly in the 1930s – through to the 1950s and even part of the 1960s – that they achieved their greatest success.

An example? Simple: the very famous trilogy dedicated to Elisabeth of Austria and started by Ernst Marischka in 1955 with Sissi. These films are probably – together with the equally famous Willi Forst’s Maskerade (1934) – the most famous ones, even abroad. But, in fact, what were these Wiener Films?

Wiener Film refers to the film genre that developed in Austria (but later also spread to Germany) consisting mainly of romantic and often also musical feature films almost always set in the past, in the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of the time light-hearted, sometimes even rather melancholic, these films depicted the splendour of an era and its upper-class society, in which, however, love stories between people of different classes contributed to the drama of the story, and at other times to funny and enjoyable comedies of errors.

Colours, dances, magnificent costumes, music – complete with biographies of the great composers of the past – were the hallmarks of these Wiener Films. And if the image of Karlheinz Böhm playing his famous Ave Maria as Franz Schubert in church while his beloved is about to marry another man moved thousands of spectators (in the film The House of three Girls, made by Ernst Marischka in 1958), the lively and irreverent Franziska Gaal drew many smiles, singing and joking in the romantic A precocious Girl, directed by Max Neufeld in 1934.

Due to their ability to stage the splendours and glories of the empire – complete with a portrait of an Austria in which prosperity (almost) always reigned – while remaining mainly apolitical, the Wiener Films were further promoted during the Nazi dictatorship. Yet even in this era – during which the freedom of expression of each individual author was severely restricted – there was never any talk of politics in films. On the contrary, what was primarily aimed at was to entertain and amuse the audience without making them ask themselves too many questions while watching a film.

And in order to play mainly on the comic aspect, what better tool than the Viennese dialect with all its many nuances? The latter was another of the elements that most characterised film productions of the time and each actor, in turn, enjoyed playing with it and creating his very own variation. Just like the great Hans Moser, one of the best-known faces of this film movement, together with Attila Hörbiger and Paula Wessely, Paul Hörbiger (Attila’s brother), Franziska Gaal, Rudolf Carl and even Wolf Albach-Retty and Magda Schneider, who met on one of these sets and would later become the parents of the famous Romy Schneider.

The years in which the Wiener Films saw their heyday were, as we know, rather difficult years for Austria. And if a large part of the film directors and, more generally, of the artists and writers, were forced to emigrate now to the United States, now to South America in order to have more freedom of expression, those who decided to stay at home were nevertheless forced to adapt to certain dictates. And in the case of film, precisely, the feature films produced aimed exclusively at keeping a low political profile.

At the same time, however, it is also true that directors like Willi Forst, Ernst Marischka, Werner Hochbaum or Franz Antel (just to name a few) were able to realise true gems at times, as well as real pleasures for the eyes, thanks also to the carefully designed sets and elegant costumes of the protagonists.

Many, over the years, have had occasion to criticise the Wiener Films and the historical period in which they were made. Yet, abroad, there are those who have been able to appreciate and rework them in their own way, creating something totally new and personal (the cinema of Max Ophüls, in this regard, is an example). And always considering the numerous artistic movements that came to life in Austria after the World War II, a question arises: would there really have been such a strong desire for renewal without such a copious production of Wiener Films? And would Austrian experimental cinema itself have had such an incisive presence?

Probably, music, colours, costumes and the passionate – and sometimes tormented – love stories of the Vienna told here did their bit. And looking at these small but well-made feature films today, they seem to us to be a precious testimony of a bygone era, still made alive and pulsating by that powerful and magical machine that is film.

Info: the page of Maskerade on iMDb; the page of Sissi on iMDb; the page of The House of three Girls on iMDb; the page of A precocious Girl on iMDb