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'Films from Vienna'

What do the famous ''Casablanca'' and ''Sunset Boulevard'' have in common with the little-known ''Zechmeister'' and ''Blind Owl''? What do ''The Merry Widow'' and ''Julia'' share with ''Exit - Don't Panic'' and ''The Memorable Pilgrimage of Emperor Kanga Mussa From Mali to Mecca''?

Simple. They all have close ties with Vienna. In fact, each of them was made in Austria, has an Austrian setting, or was directed by a filmmaker with an Austrian background.

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And all of them are featured in a tribute to Films From Vienna taking place through May 15 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in New York -- and its sponsors, the Center for Public Cinema and the city of Vienna, hope it will travel to other cities and spread its message widely. It's a freewheeling show that stretches from ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and ''The Great Waltz'' to ''Ministry of Fear'' and ''The Last Ten Days of Hitler.'' There's something for everyone, be you a dedicated movie fan or a casual Saturday-afternoon entertainment hound. If the likes of ''Scholar Gerber'' and ''Moon of Israel'' don't grab you, surely ''Moonfleet'' or ''The King Steps Out'' will.

Austrian films have been generally overlooked by American audiences, even though the Austrian movie industry is thriving. This is ironic, since Hollywood has been gobbling up Viennese talent since the days of the silent screen, and Austrian expatriates have made colossal contributions to the celluloid melting pot of American cinema. Think of Michael Curtiz making ''Yankee Doodle Dandy,'' or Erich von Stroheim directing ''Greed,'' or Joseph von Sternberg conjuring up ''The Shanghai Express'' with Marlene Dietrich. The current series pays homage to all these creators, and gives an overview of the ''now'' scene, as well.

Looking beyond Austria's past contributions to world film, what do current Austrian pictures have to offer that's unique and valuable? The answer seems to be: an acute social awareness and political conscience. In the best of the new Austrian cinema, stories and characters exist in a larger context of issues and ideas, some of them intensely topical.

In the drama ''Kassbach,'' for example, director Peter Patzak gives a harrowingly credible (and sometimes brutally realistic) portrait of an ordinary businessman who happens to be a neo-Nazi. ''The Uppercrust,'' also by Patzak, plunges an American ''hit man'' into a web of Viennese corporate crime. ''Headstand'' is Ernst Josef Lauscher's cautionary tale of a young man almost destroyed by an impersonal social-welfare system. ''Zechmeister,'' made by young Angela Summereder, probes an actual murder case of the late 1940s, radically blending fiction and documentary techniques. The eerily effective ''Blind Owl,'' by the Iranian-born Mansur Madavi, follows a writer as he explores the short and sad life of a woman he never met.

Yet not all Austrian films have such real-life roots. The colorful film about ''Kanga Mussa,'' directed by Goetz Hagmueller and Dietmar Graf, traces a legendary journey by an Arabic king. Even less conventional are the works of Peter Kubelka, whose classics range from ''Our Trip to Africa,'' a visionary documentary, to ''Arnulf Rainer,'' a film that consists of alternating black and white frames. Kubelka is adding a verbal touch to the festival, too, with a special lecture on ''The Essence of Cinema.''

Will the Viennese festival establish a solid beachhead for Austrian films in the United States? It's too early to tell. At the least, though, it is providing a hefty sampling of recent and past activity in a busy corner of the movie world.

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