The Man Who Lived at the Café Central

A new documentary about Viennese writer Peter Altenberg: seeing fin de siècle Vienna in miniature

Peter Altenberg was a writer who wore sandals in the snow, chased underage girls, and wrote small works that could reflect an entire world.  Altenberg: The Little Pocket Mirror is a documentary about his life, well worth watching for its beautiful images, its eloquent stumble through modernist and modern day Vienna, and its spotlight on a largely forgotten, yet also iconic figure from the city’s fin de siècle period.

Filmmakers David Bickerstaff and Gemma Blackshaw trace Altenberg’s steps around Vienna and beyond, bring together academics and writers to discuss his life, and intersperse excerpts from the writer’s own work. The documentary itself is a pocket mirror’s glance into Altenberg’s world.

Peter Altenberg spent long days writing and ­talking with friends in the ­venerable  ­Kaffeehaus on Herrengasse where he received phone calls and mail. Today a life-sized statue of the writer sits by the door, eternally coining phrases | Photo:  atomictv.com

Peter Altenberg spent long days writing and ­talking with friends in the ­venerable ­Kaffeehaus on Herrengasse where he received phone calls and mail. Today a life-sized statue of the writer sits by the door, eternally coining phrases | Photo: atomictv.com

Putting a writer on film

It can be difficult to depict the life of a writer – too often introverted, desk-bound creatures – but Altenberg was never one to shun life for writing. He spent much of his time in Vienna coffee houses, had his mail delivered directly to the Café Central, and resided for years in the Hotel Graben on Dorotheergasse. He was not shy of drink nor cabaret, and he entertained a lively coterie. The more ambitious cultural stars of the era – Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Kraus – were all fans of Altenberg and his work.

He was known for capturing a world in a few words: “There are three kinds of people who have no money: the spendthrift, the poor and the greedy,” he observed.

Kraus claimed that one of Altenberg’s sentences could be equal to an entire Viennese novel: “Everyone is relentlessly engaged in deceiving himself about something or other,” Altenberg wrote, “and other people should help him do it.  Those who don’t are of dubious character.”

The documentary likens Altenberg’s fin de siècle Vienna to our Vienna of today, switching between historical stills and modern footage.  This works well; it gives a sense of Vienna as an evolving city, and it also carves out a space for Altenberg in the present.

The montage of the amusement park at the Prater – with the tacky statues of the dark bear with the fish in its mouth, and the swaying synthetic woman in a bikini – accompany Altenberg’s own description of the amusement park, and its ability to evoke “your cruise ship emotions”, “your absinthe-ecstasies of life”.

This is the best example of Altenberg’s work in the film, demonstrating both its playfulness and darkness. When his work is read aloud, the footage is most effective when it strays from the strictly literal, and provides an additional layer to the words.

Still, it is difficult to get at the life of Altenberg’s writing through the screen. The film tries to grasp Altenberg’s irony, his sense of play, but it’s tricky to demonstrate the effect of a sentence ending in a mad spray of punctuation: ?!?  This is a man who wrote a short piece “My Gmunden” which begins: “You’re already making a long face reading this title.”

Elsewhere, Altenberg solemnly declared: “There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.”

In his writing as in his life, Altenberg’s power was an effortless coupling of light and dark, comic and tragic.

While Altenberg’s fondness for underage girls is unsettling, the ominous music that more than once accompanies the discussion, and the repeated reference to how condemnable this behaviour is, end up telling us less about Altenberg – who, unacceptable as his behaviour may be, presumably got a great deal of delight from it – and more about the people who are speaking.

This leads, however, to more intriguing discussions – such as the high rate of child abuse in fin de siècle Vienna, how Altenberg’s fascination might connect with Freud’s interest in child sexuality, or the suggestion that he talked about chasing 13-year-olds because the age of consent was fourteen.

Another lovely detail is that Altenberg’s first name – for he was really born Richard Engländer – came about because of one of these very young girls he fancied. The girl’s unlikely nickname was Peter, because her brothers considered her their manservant. At its best the film gives surprising glimpses of its brilliant, but also ridiculous and tragic subject.

Joining text and image – in brief

Overall, Altenberg: The Little Pocket Mirror provides a valuable glimpse of the writer’s life and of the Vienna of his time, ending with a consideration of his role as an artist, and his prescient merging of text and image.

But the other way Altenberg may seem relevant today is his knack for brevity, for condensing matter down to its pith. The polymath Egon Friedell, a good friend of Altenberg’s, said that “only in the era of telegraphy, lightning fast trains and automobile-cabs, could there emerge such a poet whose passionate desire it is to always stick to the essential.” Altenberg would have fit easily into the realm of status updates, Twitter and texting.

You can imagine his delight in swimming around the internet, with his self-made name, his stream of wild punctuation, and his fondness for crafting persona, such as the coat-clad, giant-moustached, sandal-wearing man who had his mail delivered to his favourite café.

 

Altenberg: The Little Pocket Mirror

A story of obsession, depression and passion in Vienna circa 1900

by David Bickerstaff & Gemma Blackshaw with Plymouth University (2012) 

www.atomictv.com 

 

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