Tales of the City

Nick Pinkerton on “Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema” at MoMA

Billy Wilder, The Emperor Waltz, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 106 minutes.

“I NEVER KNEW the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm,” begins the narrator of The Third Man (1949). He’s referring to the most recent war—though cinema itself had missed Vienna in its sparkling heyday. The city has never been a European film capitol on the order of Paris, Rome, Berlin, Stockholm, or London. By the time movies had entered their early maturity, the days of Vienna as the center of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and crossroads of a cosmopolitan empire were already over, the Dual Empire having taken its Humpty-Dumpty fall and been permanently partitioned shortly before the Armistice in 1918.

Nevertheless, there are few cities to which cinema owes as much as it owes Vienna. It was either the birthplace of or a vital creative incubator to a passel of important filmmakers. Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger both grew up there, as did a Jewish hat-maker’s son, Erich Oswald Stroheim, who became an aristocrat sometime around Ellis Island, just as Jonas Sternberg became Josef von. The more democratic Samuel Wilder, who’d once covered the crime beat for newspaper Die Stunde, assimilated simply as “Billy.”

Championing American gumption over European breeding, Wilder allowed Bing Crosby to thumb his nose at the stuffy Hapsburg court in 1948’s The Emperor Waltz—which, along with The Third Man and movies by vons Stroheim and Sternberg, is among the “some seventy films” playing during the four-week exhibition “Vienna Unveiled” at the Museum of Modern Art, put together in conjunction with the Carnegie Hall–organized festival “Vienna: City of Dreams.”

As the title “City of Dreams” implies, there are two Viennas: the metropolis of some two million souls in Eastern Austria which can be physically located by geographical coordinates, and the city that exists in the popular imagination. Vienna made a legend of its own vaunted civilization, a reputation fit to be skewered: In William Dieterle’s Pre-Code Jewel Robbery, the best stoner comedy of 1932, William Powell’s thief wears a tux to work and puts waltzes on the phonograph to soothe his victims. Many a Viennese, however, held that civilization in almost sacred regard. Here is a passage from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1942 The World of Yesterday, remembering “the old Vienna before the war”:

There is hardly a city in Europe where the drive towards cultural ideas was as passionate as it was in Vienna. […] The first glance of the average Viennese into his morning paper was not at the events in parliament, or world affairs, but at the repertoire of the theater, which assumed so important a role in public life as hardly was possible in any other city.

Zweig’s memoirs are an acknowledged influence on Wes Anderson’s forthcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel, largely set in a luxury resort hotel in a fictional alpine nation in the years immediately preceding World War II and global tragedy. In MoMA’s program, Zweig is represented by a supremely masterful film adapted from one of his short stories, Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), for which “Vienna about 1900” was created on the Universal lots, including an interlude in the winter Wiener Prater. (Ulrike Ottinger’s 2007 Prater was not available for screening, though the description of this unorthodox documentary portrait of the famed amusement park is fascinating.) More than any other single figure, however, the star of this program isn’t a filmmaker, but another author: Arthur Schnitzler.

Hans Karl Breslauer, Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews), 1924, black-and-white, 80 minutes.

Schnitzler was an ex-doctor famed for his diagnostics of sexual vanity and compulsive behaviors; Sigmund Freud, a contemporary resident of Vienna, thought that Schnitzler was simultaneously pursuing the same investigation into the subconscious that he was, though by literary rather than pseudoscientific means. Today, the most famous adaptation of Schnitzler’s work is Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The ostensible setting of this somnambulistic, trickle-paced sex odyssey was New York City—a Manhattan of second-unit shots and underpopulated streets, with Kubrick forming a simulacrum of Greenwich Village in his adopted London. But is this NYC, or somewhere else? The ballroom sway of the camerawork, the ornamental floral paintings in the Harman’s Central Park apartment by Kubrick’s wife which evoke the Wiener Secession, and the opening “Waltz No. 2” by Shostakovich—everything nods toward old Vienna, an affinity for which would be a natural outgrowth of Kubrick’s love of classical music. (Recall Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube,” in 2001: A Space Odyssey—and check out Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1955 Oh… Rosalinda!, an adaptation of Strauss II’s 1874 operetta Die Fledermaus.)

On the cusp of a new millennium, Kubrick was reaching toward the last, anxious fin de siècle. Traumnovelle was a later novella by Schnitzler—published in 1926 after two decades of reworking—which Kubrick had owned the rights to since the early 1970s. (G. W. Pabst, whose 1925 The Joyless Street is playing at MoMA, had once proposed to adapt it.) It was through Ophüls that Kubrick came to Schnitzler. Inasmuch as Kubrick deigned to acknowledge a master, that was Max. “His camera could pass through walls,” Kubrick marveled. “I loved his extravagant camera moves which seemed to go on forever in labyrinthine sets. [Their staging] appeared more like a beautifully choreographed ballet than anything else: a spindly waiter hurrying along with a tray of drinks over his head, leading the camera to a couple dancing, who, in turn, whirled the camera to a hussar climbing the stairs, and on and on the camera would go, all to the beautiful music.” This gliding style matched Ophüls to Schnitzler; to a contemporary critic, the author’s “dramatic method is the intellectualization, the refinement of the Viennese waltz.”

Ophüls, who came from Saarbrücken, Germany, on the French border, led the rare truly international career. He was for a time creative director at Vienna’s Burgtheater, before turning to filmmaking at Berlin’s UFA. In years to come, Ophüls would retreat from the Nazis, making films—always in the indigenous tongue—across France, Italy, the Netherlands, and into Hollywood. But a dream of Vienna, and its literature, remained Ophüls’s taproot. His 1933 Liebelei comes from a Schnitzler play: It’s a goodbye to a prewar world soon to be forever left behind, seen herein to contain the seeds of its own destruction in its suicidal martial culture. Liebelei was released simultaneous to Hitler’s rise, and its Jewish author and director went uncredited in Germany. At this a word should be said about a truly unique experience at MoMA, a screening of Hans Karl Breslauer’s 1924 speculative fiction The City Without Jews, which imagines the dire straits of a Vienna stripped of its Semitic genius, and which very soon came to have the aspect of a prophesy.

Ophüls would return to Europe, and Schnitzler, with La Ronde (1950), an adaptation of succès-de-scandale stage play Reigen, a roundelay of immediately pre-and-post coital dialogues set to the music of Viennese Oscar Straus. (Oddly, just after she filmed Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman starred in a London stage production of The Blue Room, David Hare’s adaptation of Reigen.) Both Reigen and Liebelei are at MoMA, as is Jacques Feyder’s 1931 Daybreak, a considerably Hollywoodized and declawed version of Schnitzler’s Spiel im Morgengrauen.

Such softening of life’s harsh truths is hardly commonplace in the work of many of the postwar Austrian filmmakers that are showing here, works in which the City of Dreams is seen as closer to a nightmare. Representative samples include films by Kurt Kren, an affiliate of the Vienna Aktionists and participant in their project of artistic affront in the ’60s, as well as one movie each from a trio of famous Viennese contemporaries whose names are hardly synonymous with light viewing: Michael Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance [1994]), Ulrich Seidl (Good News: Newspaper Salesman, Dead Dogs, and Other People from Vienna [1990]), and Michael Glawogger (Slumming [2006]). There is, then, an almost palliative effect in the most recent film on the program, Jem Cohen’s 2012 Museum Hours, which depicts the tentative relationship between two middle-aged strangers, a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and a Canadian woman abroad. It’s a film of very little glamour, but infinite easy charm.

“Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema” runs February 27–April 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.