City of Celluloid Dreams

At the Wien Museum: a portrait of Vienna in film clips that explores and explodes the enduring mythology

A scene from Michael Curtiz’s Der junge Medardus filmed in Vienna in 1923 | Photo: Filmarchiv Austria

“Wien im Film” (Vienna in the Movies: Images of the city from 100 years), the current exhibition at the Wien Museum, is not a film festival. Instead, it is a unique and innovative exhibition comprised solely of film clips that cumulatively create a portrait of the city.

Vienna is the star here. The exhibit is not about the films—there are no props, scripts or other filmmaking artifacts on display—it is about the city, and how film has created an image and a feeling, an impression of Vienna, along the way giving insight into the city’s psyche.

Three film historians, Christian Dewald, Michael Loebenstein and Werner Michael Schwarz, sifted through thousands of hours of material, reducing it “like in the film cutting room” to a manageable three hours or so, about the time for a full-length film. The result is an evocative exhibition that explores and explodes the city’s mythology.

On two floors of the museum, film clips lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes from over 80 Austrian and international films spanning the past century are shown on a grove of screens.  Earphones dangling from the ceiling allow viewers to listen in.  The show is organized thematically: Of course, the idealized, romantic version of Vienna is there, the city of waltzes and empire, of elegant hussars and Mädel in dirndls, the tipsy summer evenings at the Heuriger, the cafés peopled by bourgeois bon vivants.

Comedy and romance are balanced by pathos. We also see the hardships of everyday life for ordinary people, and the harsh realities of the contemporary city, especially for immigrants and people living on the edge.  Vienna is not always so pretty.

Most intriguing are the changing panoramas of the city—even in this city that can sometimes seem so unchanging—from the earliest years of the 20th century to 2010.  We see cars driving down Kärtnerstrasse, right past Stephansdom; the trendy beach bars are missing on the Donaukanal.

And of course the changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war: We see pre-war landmarks that no longer exist, the ruins of the post-war Trümmerstadt, and the bustle and glitter of the reconstruction.  But some things remain constant: the majesty of the imperial buildings, even after being battered by the Red Army, the glittering lights of cafes, the narrow lanes and alleys of the Innere Stadt, the city aglow at night. The view of the Danube from Kahlenberg seems immortal.

“A history museum shouldn’t reduce the past to facts, because reality is also generated by the imagination,“ says Wolfgang Kos, director of the Wien Museum. “That’s why pictures of a city in movies are very important evidence, especially for a city like Vienna, whose image has developed out of media imagery and clichés.

Rendezvous and journeys, escapes and dead-ends. Vienna, both poetic and rude, at once orderly and falling apart. The exhibit is a story of how films have established and also contradicted the pictures or motifs of Vienna, also as they have shifted over time.

The exhibit is remarkably coordinated, with complementary scenes playing out on adjacent screens, or music from one film perfectly matching the action of another.  In the section devoted to the city’s history of Cold War intrigue, the iconic zither music of The Third Man suits a spy-vs.-spy chase through the Karlsplatz station in 3/4 Takt just as well as it does Holly Martins’ fateful encounter with Harry Lime.

There are other cities whose identity has certainly been shaped in our inner eye by the cinema. Berlin or Paris, New York or Tokyo would all be ideal for such an exhibition. They are waiting for their chance.

For those whose appetites have been whetted for the uncut versions of the films in the exhibition, all 1,000 hours or so, “Kino unter Sternen” (Cinema under the stars) will be showing many of the films from July 2–25 at Karlsplatz, just in front of the Wien Museum.


Showing until Sept. 19, 2010
Wien im Film: Stadtbilder aus 100 Jahren
For more information, see
For Kino unter Sternen, see

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