In the years around World War I, the need to defend oneself from the ugliness of a dramatic present and to try to keep every slightest hope for the future was felt more strongly than ever. The seventh art did not remain indifferent and in these years took a totally new direction, becoming the voice of every human being, his weaknesses, his fears, his desperate desire for happiness.
Fears and hopes
World War I, as we know, turned millions and millions of lives upside down. After the dramatic war, perspectives, attitudes towards life and hopes for a better future changed abruptly. This is a fact. And how did cinema, at the same time, react? As we have seen, numerous propaganda films were produced during the war to convey to the nation and the world the image of a victorious Austria always ready to defend its people.
But what happened afterwards? Or rather, how did the understanding of entertainment cinema change before and after the war? In this regard, three films are particularly significant: Fluch dem Schicksal – made by Karl Lajthay in 1919, i.e. immediately after the end of World War I – The great Love – directed by Otto Preminger in 1931, between the two wars, and also the only film the famous filmmaker made in Austria – and Ein Leben lang – made by Gustav Ucicky in 1940, i.e. during World War II.
Emotions, thus, finally became the absolute protagonists, in whatever way they could manifest themselves. In 1919, then, the war had recently ended, people all over the world were shocked and disillusioned, and optimism seemed a distant memory. In Flucht dem Schicksal, we see the drama of a man (played by Karl Mihalyfi) forced to deal first with the death of his wife, then of his only daughter. In the film, shadows constantly prevail over light, the atmospheres suggest something terrible. The sets, especially the interiors, depict rich, elegant, upper-class homes that suggest a prosperity belonging to a bygone era. Maya, the daughter of landowner Thomas Eichwald, reappears to her father in the form of an alter ego and seems to know well what her father’s fate is. The characters show their double nature, to the point that in everyday life they seem to wear sometimes masks. Poverty, violence, prostitution are now part of everyday life. Death seems almost a liberation.
By contrast, when Otto Preminger shot The Great Love in 1931, several years had passed since the end of the war and cautious optimism could finally emerge. What is staged in his film, therefore, is a strong, very strong desire for rebirth, the chance to restart one’s life after a dark period. After many years as a prisoner of war, Franz (Attila Hörbiger) is finally about to return home. Train tickets and old photographs tell a lot about his past and that of his mother and his fiancée, who have been waiting for his return, although they have not heard from him for a long time. The man is now jobless, but upon arriving in Vienna, he accidentally rescues a child who had moved away from his parents. The two women recognise him from the newspapers, the reward is quite satisfying and Franz can finally start a new life and a new job. Emotions – which have been stifled for too long and which are excellently depicted here by objects that emphasise the various class differences – can finally find cautious vent.
Unfortunately, however, as we all know, things turned out differently. In 1933 Hitler came to power, National Socialism quickly took hold and in 1939 a new war began. The past seemed to return dramatically, hopes for a better future were almost completely forgotten. At the same time, few filmmakers remained in Austria and each of them had to highlight certain realities and feelings in order to convey certain messages also acceptable to the government. Among the filmmakers who had the opportunity to continue working in their homeland was Gustav Ucicky, who, in 1940, i.e. when World War II had effectively begun, made the drama Ein Leben lang. The story staged is that of Agnes Seethaler (played by the great Paula Wessely), who has waited a long time for her beloved Hans (Joachim Gottschalk) – forced to leave town, just before the outbreak of World War I, after having mortally wounded one of his rivals in a duel – without telling him that, in the meantime, their little son Hansi had been born. Returning home after the war and now confined to a wheelchair, the man finds happiness with his family. A happiness that was destined to end when, several years later, young Hansi also enlisted to fight during World War II.
In Ein Leben lang – as in many other feature films made at the time – the need to stay true to oneself was stronger than ever, focusing on human emotions with all their many facets. Close-ups on the protagonists’ faces suggested something deep and often ambivalent. The delicate interpersonal relationships almost took on metaphysical connotations. The human being came finally and necessarily first.
In spite of certain dictates, therefore, cinema has always conformed to history, once again proving itself to be a valuable witness of the various eras. In these years, therefore, the need to have one’s say, to assert one’s rights, to defend oneself against the ugliness of a dramatic present and to keep every slightest hope for the future was stronger than ever in Austria. The seventh art did not remain indifferent and in these years took a totally new direction, becoming the voice of every human being, of his weaknesses, his fears, his desperate desire for happiness.