Thanks to director Willi Forst, the glorious Wiener Films were appreciated all over the world. Thanks to him, we can still laugh, be moved and dream before a tender love story in the magical city of Vienna.
Images of a faraway Vienna
When we think of one of the greatest directors in Austrian film history, the name Willi Forst cannot fail to come to mind. Willi Forst, more than anyone else, ensured that the Wiener Films could have a good international resonance. Willi Forst, with his unmistakable style and almost perfect stagings, almost gave birth to a new film genre in Austria. A film genre that even after many years continues to thrill us, to make us laugh, to make us dream.
But Willi Forst was not only a successful filmmaker. Born on April 7, 1903 in Vienna, Wilhelm Anton Frohs was the son of Wilhelm Frohs – a porcelain painter – and Maria Perschl. After finishing his studies, Forst immediately started working as an actor, although he had not studied acting. Successes, however, were not long in coming and the public was able to appreciate the young Willi Forst in the best Austrian and German theatres. Soon, however, the film world also took notice of him and his first film appearance came in 1922 in Michael Curtiz’s Sodom and Gomorrha. With his seductive voice and innate class, Forst immediately won over audiences.
The characters he played were generally Viennese gentlemen, sometimes even petty criminals, each of them extremely elegant and seductive. This is the case, for instance, of the thief Ferdl, the protagonist of Café Elektric (Gustav Ucicky, 1927). This was his first leading role, which he played together with Marlene Dietrich. Thanks to this film, Willi Forst became an increasingly popular actor. But could a versatile artist like him – who in the meantime had also established himself as a singer – be satisfied with a simple acting career? Of course not. And indeed Forst finally made his first film as director in 1933: Lover Divine, based on the life of the famous composer Franz Schubert, starring Hans Jaray and Luise Ullrich and written by Walter Reisch, who worked with Forst for many years.
Willi Forst’s directing style is unmistakable. His favourite films were set in a bygone Vienna, in Biedermeier Vienna, in an opulent, luxurious, often upper-class, but also incredibly romantic and dreamy Vienna. It was not uncommon to witness tender love stories between people from different classes, between lower-class girls and rich bourgeois and vice versa. Dancing, singing and elegant costumes did the rest. And, in this respect, the great protagonist of Willi Forst’s films was music. Music and dialogue were perfectly balanced, just like in operettas. This was one of the main trademarks of Forst’s films. This was one of the characteristics of feature films such as Maskerade (with an extraordinary, young Paula Wessely, made in 1934), Court Theatre (1936), Tomfoolery (1936), Bel Ami (1939) and Vienna Blood (1942), just to name a few.
These films were extremely successful. Similarly, Willi Forst’s career became increasingly brilliant. In 1936, the director founded the Willi Forst Filmproduktion, which also had an office in Berlin. Meanwhile, the political situation was changing and there was less and less freedom of expression in Austria. Many artists and writers were forced to emigrate (Walter Reisch himself left for the United States) and those who stayed at home inevitably had to follow certain rules. Among the better-known filmmakers who decided to stay in Austria and who also sometimes devoted themselves to specific propaganda films were Geza von Bolvary, E. W. Emo, Gustav Ucicky and Eduard von Borsody. Yet there were some directors who were so highly appreciated by the National Socialist government that they could avoid dealing with political issues in their films. Among them, therefore, was Forst.
Particularly admired by both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Willi Forst continued to stage during the 1930s and 1940s mainly romantic comedies and musicals set in turn-of-the-century Vienna. And the audience liked this very much. About the fact that he was somehow ‘protected’ by the National Socialist Party, Forst later stated that he was forced to continue making films while his home was occupied by the National Socialists. Yet, despite everything, he had decided to avoid dealing with political issues in his films (something he had also advised actor Curd Jürgens to do at the time). According to him, his films were almost a silent protest, in which he had begun to stage his beloved Austria, just when Austria no longer existed.
After the war, Willi Forst’s career was, however, not particularly satisfying. His last successful film was The Sinner (1950), but after directing a few lesser-known feature films, the director decided to end his film career and, after directing Vienna, City of My Dreams (1957), his last film, to devote himself mainly to journalism. His style was no longer popular among production companies and, at the same time, it was no longer so easy to produce a film in Austria, as there was no state funding for film production companies at that time, unlike in the rest of Europe.
Retiring to private life with his wife Melanie at an old villa in the Dehnepark in Vienna’s 14th district, Forst died on August 11, 1980, seven years after his wife. During his important career, the director created a new way of filmmaking in Austria. His style, which was inspired by the films of René Clair, Luchino Visconti and the early works of Erich von Stroheim, is unmistakable. It was thanks to him that the glorious Wiener Films were appreciated all over the world. Thanks to him, we can still laugh, be moved and dream before a tender love story in the magical city of Vienna.