It is not the canonical “Vienna films” -- the big budget romances and operettas of the 1930s and 1950s -- that provide the focus for the DVD VIENNA 1900. PICTURES OF A METROPOLIS, but rather a collection of rare film documents from the collection of the Austrian Film Museum. These works and fragments were saved from oblivion by the Film Museum's archivists, and offer vivid glimpses of urban life in Vienna during the last decade of the Empire. The coexistence of technological modernization and traditional imperial customs, of spectacle and the vernacular pervades these pictures, shot by international crews and viewed by movie theatre audiences throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of Europe.
These films were uncovered and digitized in the course of “Film. Stadt. Wien”, a research project exploring the relationship of cinema and urban space from a historical perspective. The selection is dedicated to presenting the vernacular landscapes of street life, traffic, pastime and festivities. The two last films (THE EMPEROR ON FILM and THE FUNERAL PROCESSION FOR FRANZ SCHUHMEIER) relate to the politics of the era, juxtaposing rare shots of the Imperial family with a newsreel item demonstrating the rise of the suburban working class and the dawn of the republic. For the first time these motion pictures are available on DVD in new digital transfers, featuring piano accompaniment and English subtitles. The booklet presents historical and topographical information on the films. Seventy years later, in VIENNAFILM 1896 – 1976, Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Ernst Schmidt, Jr. created his subjective collage of Viennese life, using a combination of found footage and newly-shot material.
The First World War and its aftermath saw an increase in the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the cities of the West, fleeing the chaos caused by the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mostly Orthodox Jews with distinctive dress, beliefs, and customs, they became a visible foreign presence on the streets of Western Europe. As a result, half a dozen feature films made between 1919 and 1924 in Germany and Austria focused on the plight of the Jews in postwar Europe -- the tensions between tradition and modernity, the problem of rising anti-Semitism, and the issue of social assimilation and interfaith marriage. The most well-known of these movies is DER GOLEM (1919); a more obscure film by a famous director (Carl Th. Dreyer) in this vein is LOVE ONE ANOTHER (1922). Another one of these movies, THE ANCIENT LAW (1923), reenacts an earlier migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the capital of the Austrian Empire in the 1860’s, through the journey of Baruch Mayer, an Orthodox Jew and aspiring actor, from a shtetl in Galicia to the stage of Vienna’s preeminent theater the Burgtheater.
THE ANCIENT LAW was directed by E.A. Dupont (VARIETY, 1925), with cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl (THE LOVES OF PHARAOH, 1922). The film stars Henny Porten (the Mary Pickford of German cinema) and Ernst Deutsch (who much later played Baron Kurtz in THE THIRD MAN).
In the film, Baruch (Ernst Deutsch), the son of a rabbi, becomes fascinated by the theater. Against his father’s wishes, Baruch leaves home and finds his way to Vienna, where an archduchess at the imperial court (Henny Porten) falls in love with him. She becomes his patroness, facilitating his successful career as a classical actor. But Baruch continues to long for home, and must find a way to reconcile his religious heritage with his love of secular literature. The movie paints a complex portrait of the tension between tradition and modernity. THE ANCIENT LAW seeks to defuse mutual anxieties around ethnic difference or Jewish minority and dominant Gentile elites in postwar Weimar Germany, by offering a conciliatory Enlightenment model set in mid-nineteenth-century Vienna that allows both groups to maintain their integrity. THE ANCIENT LAW is considered to be a kind of precursor to THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), made only four years later but a world apart in Hollywood.
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