A Cinephile Goes Walking Before Sunrise

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) discover 1990s Vienna | Photo: Before Sunrise

I don’t know what originally compelled me to retrace the steps of Jesse and Celine in Richard Linklater’s engaging meander through Vienna, Before Sunrise. Maybe it was just that I was here and all those locations lay at my feet. Or because no one else had done it. Or maybe I was hoping for a kind of reverse Purple Rose of Cairo, where if the situation were just right, I would be able to enter the world of this 1995 philosophical-romance, and see the city through their eyes.

In Before Sunrise, a young American Jessie (Ethan Hawke) meets a young French woman Celine (Julie Delpy) on a Vienna-bound train from Budapest, and they decide to see the city together before he catches his flight the next morning. They talk about everything from their exes to the “transitory” nature of Georges Seurat’s paintings as they wander through the city. Vienna is far more than a backdrop here; it facilitates the artless intimacy growing between them.

I decide to visit each location in the order they appear, to allow for magic to unlock the world of the film. This is not a route any sane person would take: It’s more like the flight path of an obsessive-compulsive housefly, ricocheting back and forth at neighbouring spaces from different angles, or veering off to remote locales, as if they were around the corner. On a map, the entire journey is about 50 kilometres and the timeline of the movie impossible without mass transit.


Finding the movie magic

One of the first locations is the Zollamtsbrücke (Customs House Bridge) near the Stadtpark, where Jesse and Celine meet a pair of charmingly flaky would-be actors. They’ve just left the Westbahnhof train station, and arrive in minutes. It took me the better part of an hour to cover the 3.8 kilometres. Finding the bridge was easy enough; of the half dozen pedestrian paths across the Wienfluss, this is the only one that features the graceful curves of the forest green ornamental ironwork by Otto Wagner for Vienna’s state-of-the-art public transit in 1900.

Still, recognising the exact spot required some help from my iPod, where I had loaded the movie for reference. Without getting into the technicalities of aperture, focal length or depth of field, the bridge of the film looks both taller and wider than the one I’m presently standing on. It’s here that I experience the first of many instances of being both “there” and “not there.”

Augartenbrücke. Mölker Bastai. Salvatorgasse: As I check locations, many seem unremarkable, at least for Vienna, so familiar that I had walked by them many times not realising a scene had been filmed there. Was I killing the magic by slavishly visiting them all?  Perhaps I’d be better off spending 24 hours with a stranger from the train…

No, there was no doubt about the buzz: Consider the record store Teuchtler Schallplattenhandlung that Jesse and Celine visit on Windmühlgasse, and the charged atmosphere of its ‘50s listening booth. It’s a great shop, but my many visits here over the years have been primarily because of its role in the movie. And while I might have made a trip to the Friedhof der Namenlosen – the Cemetery of the Nameless – in the 11th District of Simmering, now I will always hear Celine’s voice recounting a visit here as a child, wondering about the lives of the lost sailors, even some children who had washed up on shore.

Twenty minutes on the 76A bus, and another 10 past farmyards full of machinery, I arrive at the tiny burial site, as well-kept as it is inaccessible. The graves each bear the same identical black-and-white crucifix and approximate dates of death. iPod in hand, I search for the child’s grave Celine remembers, meticulously matching the camera’s path with my own. What seems most remarkable is how little has changed. There are a few newer plaques by the nearby stone chapel, but otherwise it’s as if I’ve wandered onto the set.

Maybe that’s the appeal of my little odyssey; the more I retrace the route, the more I want to disappear into this alternate world. I walk down the same stairs the actors did towards the cemetery entrance gate, taking time to match my speed with what’s playing on my iPod. For those brief moments I’m at one with the passing frames, seeing everything the characters saw as they walked down the same steps, noticing things the camera couldn’t, like the sounds or the smell. It’s like an optical illusion where an image is a vase or the silhouette of two faces. After finding the faces, the vase seems gone for good.


The same, only different

Back in town, I find my bearings again at the Maria am Gestade church, which perches dramatically at the head of a plunging stone staircase in a corner of the 1st District. Inside, Celine had wondered about “all the people that who have come to a place like this looking for answers.” When I find the same pew, it dawns on me that though other locations will change, this 15th-century church will probably look the same 50, or even 100 years from now. Still, my visit is unique, as I am stepping into the philosopher’s river of time, never twice the same. It’s the same with film: While Jesse and Celine are forever captured in a night of mutual discovery, each time I watch them, I will have become an altered version of myself.


Recreating romance

I reach for the “there/not there” feeling again in the venerable Café Sperl. In Before Sunrise, Jessie and Celine play a game of imagined phone conversations, where they describe each other to an imaginary friend. I’ve made it a point to sit at the same booth as Ethan Hawke’s character, so that I might imagine the disarming Delpy sitting across from me. But unlike the cemetery or the church, getting pulled back into this movie world requires the proper bit players. On a weekday afternoon, the late-night eclectic mix of couples, art school professors or part-time philosophers aren’t populating the café as they did in the movie; there were more guidebooks than Wittgenstein.

It’s time to move on. Between Sperl and the end, there are the requisite stops to the terrace of the Albertina overlooking the Opera, the a-little-worse-for-wear Johann Strauß cruise boat on the Danube Canal, and the gardens of Palais Schwarzenberg before returning to Westbahnhof, my final location.

It’s here that Jesse and Celine say a tearful goodbye and make a promise to meet in six months time. Anyone who has seen the 2004 follow-up Before Sunset knows that outcome: Filmed and set nine years later in Paris, the sequel too begs walking-tour treatment.

The film ends with a montage of the places Jesse and Celine have been, now empty, our story over and gone. In the end, I realise, my journey has had more in common with this final sequence, as each, bleary-eyed and alone, reflects on the events of the previous 24 hours. Now, the settings are empty once again, as ordinary as they were when I walked by them, stripped of significance except as markers of the past.

I was there and not there.

For another tour of Vienna through Before Sunrise, see “Wien: A Romantic Interlude” in Oct. 2012 TVR.

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