Wien On Screen: The Expert Amateur Eye

The YouTube generation comments on yesteryear’s videos in new exhibit at the Wien Museum

Wiener Schmäh (2012), a student film at Wien Museum | Photo: Wien Museum

Fifty years from now, someone may look at such popular YouTube hits as, “Charlie bit my finger” and see something completely different from the small boy getting his baby brother to bite his finger. Or at least that is the conceit of the new Wien on Screen exhibit, which opened on 29 March at the Wien Museum.

Selections of amateur, promotional and experimental films from Vienna’s past are displayed alongside the work of about four-dozen students from the Haizingergasse and Theresianum Gymnasia. Considered “ephemera” by film scholars, like brochures, pamphlets, posters and other printed matter designed for transitory use, these are films of an era when the easy access to technology as made recording things on film as casual as campaign posters or greeting cards.

“For every chapter, we’ll show the ephemeral films to the students and the students will interpret the films in their own way,” said Isabel Termini, the Wien Museum’s head of Mediation, Education and Visitors’ Service.

One video from 1961, which always gets a laugh, depicts a Viennese man attempting to cross a busy street, only to be stopped by a police officer. The man complains, “All of this for my money?” The officer then lectures him and the surrounding pedestrians on the wonders of the city’s new traffic light system and how the order it keeps was made possible by their tax dollars.

At the end the now-gracious man exclaims, “And only for a small amount!”

Jawohl!” replies the voiceover, fading to the stereotypical choral sounds of a 60s promo film.

Wem gehört der U-Bahnschacht? (2012) | Photo: Wien Museum

Another film called Flirt, from the same year, opens with swinging soundtrack and a grinning man driving his car behind a bus, all the while making eyes at the woman sitting near the back window. As he fumes over the traffic and (far worse) the sight of a rival on board making a move on the lady, the man shakes his head, as a voiceover admonishes, “Dann, lieber mit dem Autobus,” or, “Shoulda’ rode the bus, buddy!”

To the eyes at the time, this was just an innocent promotion to get people interested in riding the “sexy” new fleet of double-decker buses on line 13A. Many of the students saw something else: the trivialization of a stalker.

This generation gap is typical. An earlier exhibit in the series showed the students some of the fashions past, things like furs or alligator handbags, which appeared horrifying to kids more accustomed to wearing organic cotton blends and carrying recycled shoulder satchels.

“For the young people, this is completely out, they cannot understand why people would wear that,” Termini said, adding that the older people can learn about the experiences of the younger people, who contributed their own material to the project.

“They made a new film, which I haven’t seen, so I will be surprised too,” Termini said. The students’ film was in response to Hernals, a quick-cut experimental film set in the 17th District. The 11-minute film alternates between people buying fruit from the now extinct Greißler grocery store, to workers speeding away on mopeds, all filmed with multiple angles and little plot.

The running theme of all of these films is everyday life in Vienna, some of which, like the purchase of a box of Smart cigarettes from a vending machine in Hernals, is still going on, and some not.

“The main thing is what you can read in these films about the city,” Termini said.

Metro (1970) | Photo: Wien Museum

The oldest film in the exhibit was shot by American tourists visiting the city in 1938, depicting everything from people using the new Hitlergruß, or straight armed “Heil Hitler” greeting, to feeding the squirrels in Türkenschanzpark, to a woman tossing a loaf of bread in the air.

Outsider amateur films like these offer a perspective of everyday life that would have otherwise have been lost, from street scenes to even the type of muzzle dogs wore at the time. The buildings and streetscapes may have not have changed all that much, but the presence of the men and women walking around with gigantic bundles of sticks strapped to their backs surely has. It’s likely that the way these things are seen today will be similar to how contemporary students’ films of their everyday lives will be viewed with the passing of time.

The students’ involvement in the project, which is a collaboration between the Wien Museum, the Austrian Film Museum, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, also brings a new perspective to the curating of museum exhibits.

“It is important that the students see the results,” Termini said: That the way we see things can change, and that their ideas matter.

Through 6 May at Wien Museum,

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