A Morning at the Movies

At the break of dawn, cinephiles of all ages gathered at this year’s Viennale film festival for an early fix of entertainment

Photo: Die Presse

For weeks, we had been seeing the posters on taxis and tramways, on billboards and buses. Three silhouettes on a blue background, and five words in bold yellow letters across the top of it: “Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival.”

For weeks, we had been discussing the offerings, comparing our lists of favorite documentaries and feature films, trying to coordinate our schedules, while promising ourselves that this year, we would make it to at least three movies. “This year will be different!”

In 2009 in fact, we had failed to get hold of even one of the highly coveted Viennale tickets. Naive and new to Vienna (from a small town where cultural events never sell out – if they exist at all), we had underestimated Vienna as a city of movie lovers. On a Friday night last year, the long lines in front of the box office in the city center had left us disappointed and disillusioned.

This time, however, we would plan better, we told ourselves; we would get the tickets in advance… But things being what they were, we didn’t. So there we were, once again, a week into the 13-day festival, and almost no chance to get tickets.

“But what about the early bird showings?” The what? It turned out that even if we couldn’t get tickets for movies showing at normal hours, we could go in the early morning – the breakfast shift, as it were – and double our chances. Leaves of Grass, for example, would be shown at 6:30a.m. at the Künstlerhaus, the fifth venue for the main program of the festival. How many people would want go to the movies at such an ungodly hour on a weekday? we told ourselves, and cradled ourselves in the secure sense that we’d figured it out at last. As it turned out, we were very wrong.

So on the morning of Oct. 27, still drowsy at 5:00 a.m. and barely able to keep my eyes open (as a university student 5:00a.m is when one comes home, rather than the other way around), I made my way to the city center. Karlsplatz subway – usually Vienna’s busiest station – was completely dead, not a single person except a solitary figure in a black coat, stepping from toe to toe, rubbing his hands to one another, freezing. It was my friend Tobias, already there waiting. As we ventured into the darkness of the early morning, hearing only the howling of a siren somewhere in the distance and guided by the flickering lights of street lamps, we were overcome by the peacefulness and tranquility of the place.

A full house at the Künstlerhaus for Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass | Photo: Klaus Vyhnalek

By the time we reached the Künstlerhaus – an imposing old building with white bricks – we had finally woken up, thanks to the chill in the air and the relentless wind blowing directly in our faces. Our steps hastened with excitement and anticipation – excited at the novelty at seeing a film so early in the morning, and hoping there would be at least a few other people…

And then we saw the line: even at this hour (5:45 a.m.) some 15 or 20 people were already ahead of us, a little bleary-eyed, muttering to each other with lowered voices – no popcorn, no loud talk as you would expect it in a movie theater. But then again, most of the people at the Künstlerhaus that morning were probably still half-asleep.

As we were waiting for our turn, we observed our surroundings and fellow cinephiles. Although most looked younger than 30, there was a good mix of students mingling with eccentric-looking professors, artsy people with wild hair, and business women in ironed suits.

Although the place was packed, we felt neither rushed nor stressed; people didn’t bump into each other but were patiently waiting in line. The tempting smell of freshly brewed coffee lingering in the air added to the cozy atmosphere.

“No worries, you should get your tickets soon,” a friendly woman told us en passant having noticed our worried faces. And we did! Relieved and exhilarated by the prospect of seeing what we hoped to be a good movie, we made our way to the food counter at the back of the room. Instead of nachos and popcorn, we helped ourselves to pains au chocolat, coffee and chocolate drinks. I wish there were more movie theaters with morning shows, I thought while taking a bite of my delicious crispy croissant.

At 6:15 a.m., we were let into the cinema whose 285 seats were quickly taken. Sinking into the comfortable dark red satin chairs, we got ready for Leaves of Grass, a movie directed by American Tim Blake Nelson, and hailed as a “artful and eccentric masterpiece” by American film critic Robert Ebert.

So for the next 100 minutes, we watched Edward Norton – known from American History X, the Illusionist and Fight Club – in the double role of identical twins, one an aspiring Ivy League professor, the other a drug dealer in Oklahoma. Dynamic, funny and compelling, the movie was everything we had hoped and we agreed that we had never experienced a film more consciously!

When we walked out of the Künstlerhaus at 8:30 a.m., the early morning air was bracing, to say the least, bright daylight dazzled our eyes, causing us to flinch, like werewolves facing the sun. For others, the day was only about to start – but we were already well on our way.

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