This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian) Deutsch (German)

In the course of just two years, we see how people began to become more aware of their identity and rights. What better medium, then, than cinema to finally give them a voice? In this sense, then, Austrian proletarian cinema played a central role.

Everything changes

When we started talking about Austrian proletarian cinema, we saw how it was born already in the early 1910s, when the first newsreels were made and when at the funeral ceremonies of the likes of Karl Lueger – the mayor of Vienna – and Franz Schuhmeier – who had done so much for the lower classes – we noticed how people were involved in certain events and how they finally began to make their presence and importance perceivable before the camera. This became more evident a few years later, when fictional cinema began to prevail over documentary cinema.

As early, important protagonists of Austrian proletarian cinema, therefore, two feature films are particularly noteworthy: Der Kampf der Gewalten – Ein Drama der Arbeit, produced by Herold Film in 1919, and Alle Räder stehen still, made by Franz Höbling in 1921.

It is interesting to observe how in the two feature films, made only two years apart, the approach to workers’ uprisings changes. In Der Kampf der Gewalten, for example, the workers’ uprising is still observed with a certain diffidence. The staged story, therefore, features a woman, dissatisfied, just like her colleagues, with the working conditions to which everyone is subjected in the factory. It is up to her, therefore, to start an uprising, during which the workers will finally take control of the factory and decide how to manage their work. Everything initially seems to be going well, yet none of them really knows how to run a factory. It is not long, in fact, before the first problems begin to emerge: no one really knows how to organise themselves with timing and many deadlines are missed. It will be up to one of the bosses to return to leadership and restore order, while also trying to create optimal working conditions and protect the rights of the workers.

If, therefore, in Der Kampf der Gewalten we notice how workers’ struggles are still observed with a certain diffidence, things change just two years later, when Alle Räder stehen still is made. Here, in fact, the events – taking place over a period of time from 1901 to 1921 – concern the young Herta, the daughter of a factory owner, who falls in love with the worker Karas. The latter, however, after organising some workers’ uprisings is forced to hide, but, in order to meet up with his Herta, he is discovered, arrested and, following an escape attempt, killed by the police. Twenty years pass and in the meantime Herta has married. Now the factory that once belonged to her father belongs to her husband. One day, Heinz, a young engineer, is hired at the factory. Meanwhile, because of the working conditions, the workers rebel and organise a strike. Heinz, who does not know that he is the son of Herta and the late Karas, is on the workers’ side. Finally a compromise is reached, Heinz learns of his origins and becomes head of the factory. A better future awaits each of them.

In the course of just two years, therefore, we can see how the approach to such a delicate topic changed significantly. People were beginning to become more aware of their identity and rights. What better medium, then, than cinema to finally give them a voice? In this sense, then, Austrian proletarian cinema played a central role between the 1910s and 1920s. Anyone could have their say before the camera. The Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed. Things were about to change forever. Cinema faithfully documented all this.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the page of Der Kampf der Gewalten – Ein Drama der Arbeit on; the page of Alle Räder stehen still on iMDb