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After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the election of Charles I of Austria to the throne was a completely unexpected event for the Austrian people. What was to be done, then, to make the people begin to trust him and start considering him as a kind of reference point at such a difficult time? Here, then, cinema came into play.

The new Emperor’s face

The Story is the one we all know. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand – nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and heir to the throne of Austria and Hungary – was assassinated in Sarajevo at the hands of the militant Gavrilo Princip. This event led to the outbreak of World War I shortly afterwards. Emperor Franz Joseph had by then been reigning for several years. His figure did not need to be known any further by his people. His supporters felt reassured by him during such a dramatic time as war. Yet things suddenly changed when, on November 21, 1916, at the age of eighty-six, Franz Joseph died at his residence in Schönbrunn. If, then, the sovereign had had no need, during his lifetime, to make himself known to his people and other nations, the same was not true of his successor: Charles I of Austria, grandson of Karl Ludwig, younger brother of the late Emperor.

Nobody knew Charles I, his election as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary was a completely new event for the Austrian people. What, then, could be done to make people begin to trust him and start to consider him as a kind of reference point at such a difficult time? And so, finally, cinema came into play. This new invention, perfectly capable of engaging thousands and thousands of spectators, proved to be the winning solution to get people to start getting to know their new sovereign better. And Charles I of Austria immediately realised the importance of this new medium in order to be able to do the right propaganda.

Particularly noteworthy, then, is the film Unser Kaiser, made in 1917 by Eduard Hoesch and produced by Sascha-Film, in which the character of Charles I of Austria was portrayed in every single aspect of his everyday life concerning his public appearances.

Unser Kaiser, then, considered from the perspective of a documentary produced during the early years of cinema in Austria, is to be regarded as a particularly sophisticated film from a purely stylistic point of view. A series of frames – all strictly in neat black and white – show us now the vicissitudes of Charles I of Austria, now real battle scenes. The leitmotif of the entire work: the reliability of the Emperor himself and his ability to handle the situation under such extreme conditions as a war can be.

At the opening of the film, we see a close-up of the emperor with picturesque mountains behind him. The Emperor shows a resolute gaze and extraordinary self-control. During the following minutes, we see him mainly walking around the country, speaking to his troops, stepping off the train at the station and being greeted by a cheering crowd and, finally, being cheered by a large group of children in white robes, intent on throwing flowers at him. The love for a nation is expressed here in something mystical and extremely poetic. Likewise, the Emperor would even seem willing to die for his homeland. And dying for the fatherland, then, would be a truly heroic act for anyone.

Charles I of Austria knew perfectly well what message had to be conveyed to his people. And cinema, for its part, proved to be a perfect means of communication and propaganda to achieve this. It is interesting to observe, in this regard, how, unlike Charles I, Franz Joseph did not feel the need to exploit the seventh art in his favour, although there are, even today, several documentaries dedicated to him – such as, for example, Zu den Geburtstagsfeierlichkeiten S. M. Kaiser Franz Joseph I. in Ischl (1913) and S. M. Kaiser Franz Joseph I. kehrt aus seiner Sommerresidenz Bad Ischl zurück (1913) – that show us the sovereign during his birthday celebrations, on a hunting trip or returning from his summer residence in Bad Ischl.

During World War I, times had changed. And the main purpose of cinema was no longer to entertain spectators, making them spend pleasant moments in the darkness of a theatre. Now there was war and the seventh art also had to adapt to a new ‘standard of living’. Propaganda, in all its forms, was something to be pursued constantly. Everything else was to come later.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the page of Charles I of Austria on the website of the Enciclopedia Treccani