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Holocaust and Austrian cinema are, today, undoubtedly a much less common combo than Holocaust/German cinema, although this theme is undoubtedly a constant within the national film production.

The importance of memory

When, on Oscar Night 2008, the feature film The Counterfeiters was awarded Best Foreign Language Film (Austria’s first ever Oscar), director Stefan Ruzowitzky, during his acceptance speech, could not help but think of all those Austrian directors who, due to the Nazi dictatorship, were forced to leave their homeland in order to be able to freely exercise their profession. Among them, we cannot fail to mention, for example, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger, just to name a few. But if it is true that these directors were successful once they arrived in the United States, it is also true that the Nazi dictatorship was in its own way decisive for the development and diffusion of Austrian cinema (of the time and beyond). In the same way, Holocaust and Austrian cinema today are undoubtedly a much less common duo than Holocaust/German cinema, even though this theme is undoubtedly a constant within the national film production. But in order to analyse this issue at its best, we need to take a step back in time.

Considered, to this day, a true milestone within Austrian cinema, The City without Jews (original title: Die Stadt ohne Juden), directed by Hans Karl Breslauer in 1924, was made several years before World War II and the rise of Hitler, yet, in its own way, through a clever and sophisticated comedy of errors, it portrayed the living conditions of Jews at the time. The film, based on Hugo Bettauer’s novel of the same name, was released just a few months before the release of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and proved to be very forward-looking for the time, to the point of raising quite a few questions. Unfortunately, a much sadder fate befell Bettauer: a year after the film’s release, the author was mysteriously shot dead. In short, already in the silent era, Holocaust and Austrian cinema represented something ‘troublesome’ for the authorities of the time.

But what happened, then, following the coming of the Nazi dictatorship? After the Anschluss in 1938, numerous laws came into force in Austria too, which provided for strong censorship of national culture production. This also applied to film, which was strongly influenced by the dictatorship. In this period, in fact, the image of a happy, wealthy Austria, where prosperity was common and culture reigned supreme, despite what was happening in politics at the same time, had to be conveyed to the world. Thus, alongside numerous propaganda documentaries – many of which were broadcast during newsreels – the focus was mainly on the production of sentimental melodramas or mostly costume musical comedies – the so-called Wiener Films – where the figure of the woman exclusively devoted to waiting for her man to return from the front was almost a constant. A particularly striking example of this is the film Heimkehr, directed by Gustav Ucicky in 1941, starring an excellent Paula Wessely. Wessely, for her part, like many of her colleagues who had remained in Austria – among them her husband Attila Hörbiger, his brother Paul Hörbiger and the great Hans Moser – was highly regarded by the government and, for this reason, was given numerous privileges at the time. This, however, would have consequences immediately after the war, when numerous artists who remained in Austria (and Germany) would be accused of collaborating with the Nazi dictatorship.

However, during World War II, despite the numerous films made, Austrian cinema suffered a setback, qualitatively speaking. And if we consider that, at least until the 1980s, it was not customary to invest much in films, this inevitably affected all national film production in the years to come. Artists, however, never hesitated to have their say in the matter.

Holocaust and Austrian cinema, then, although not an overly recurring theme in Austria, coexist above all in the works of many exponents of the Austrian social theatre of the 1960s – the leading names of which are Thomas Bernhardt, Efriede Jelinek and Peter Turrini – in the numerous cabaret shows subsequently staged and even in many of the artworks made by the members of the Viennese Actionism. In these particular contexts, more than the war and the ugliness of the Nazi dictatorship, a strong criticism of the society of the time, guilty of a latent fascism, was staged.

And in film, in the meantime, what has happened? As already stated, unlike what has happened – and continues to happen – in Germany, not many Austrian films, at least to date, have dealt with the topic of Nazism and Holocaust. And alongside fictional feature films such as The Counterfeiters by Stefan Ruzowitzky, Fog in August (Kai Wessel, 2016), Little Big Voice (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2015) and the excellent Murer – Anatomy of a Trial (Christian Frosch, 2018) – just to name a few titles – there are mostly numerous documentaries that outline the situation at the time, focusing on a certain aspect or a specific character. And Holocaust and Austrian cinema, in fact, see their greatest fulfilment in documentary films, in a series of excellent works, including The Decent One (Vanessa Lapa, 2014), The Children of Etzelsdorf (Carola Mair, 2006), Love it was not (Maya Sarfaty, 2020) and, above all, The Last of the Unjust (2013), the result of a co-production with France and directed by director Claude Lanzmann. All this in a series of films designed to keep alive the memory of what was and what, even today, in one way or another, continues to influence the everyday lives of many of us. And film, in fact, could not stand by in silence.

Info: the page of The City without Jews on iMDb; the page of The Counterfeiters on iMDb; the page of The Last of the Unjust on iMDb