Vienna on Film

An interview with Thomas Ballhausen, head of research at the Austrian Film Archive

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in A Letter From an Unknown Woman, set mostly in Vienna in the early 1900s

When I meet Thomas Ballhausen, we are obliged to enter his offices via the gates to the Vienna Boys’ Choir because of the ongoing and sometimes intense protests against the redevelopment of that corner of Augarten. He is neat and intense, bookish and clearly passionate about his subject. And not always easy to pin down: he is fascinated with melancholic modernism, yet recommends the first “Sissi” movie, a quintessential glossy Heimat film of the 1950s with Romy Schneider; his favorite émigré actor is the darkly comic Peter Lorre, yet he admits to The Sound of Music as a “guilty pleasure.”

If you’ve ever attended the Kino unter den Sternen (Cinema under the Stars) outdoor series in the summer, then chances are it was Ballhausen who programmed the films you watched. Many more of you will have seen his work since he puts on themed seasons for the Film Archive. When not at the FilmArchiv, he also teaches film and comparative literature at the University of Vienna. The conversation began with some thoughts on why Austrian film is so successful around the world at the moment.

“It has a very particular tone in telling its stories,” he began, “telling big stories that everyone can relate to, a quality in how to think about love and death and everything in between.”  On a teaching exchange in Toronto, he was surprised at the interest in Austrian film, especially in the English-speaking countries and in academia.

“Our films often talk about bad living situations, with relationships and so on,” Ballhausen continues, “negative without being cynical. They talk about very common things that in the end are also big topics. People can relate to those stories.”

At the Archiv, they are interested in film as a historical and social record as much as entertainment or art. “Even in early 20th century,” he says, “people were aware of the possibilities of film, that it’s not just seeing ghosts and having fun; people also sensed that is was a source of history and of seeing aesthetics as well.” So the film archives were established, to preserve, catalogue and make film accessible.

The Austrian Film Archive collects Austrian films and all films with an Austrian context and makes them available to the public, as well as some 30,000 books and magazines on the history of cinema – “the whole world of film from an Austrian perspective.” People drop by at the archive where Ballhausen and other staff help them with their research. Sixty percent of the visitors are academics – professors and university students – as well as teenagers working on their Matura.

“Anybody interested in film is important to us. Even someone whose auntie played in a film, we can find it for them,” Ballhausen adds, “Our main task is to offer them to the public.”

Austria was one of the leading film nations before the First World War. In the thirties, there were influential Austrian films, critically reviewed and considered important worldwide. The FilmArchiv tries to make that visible.  At the Archiv, Ballhausen is head of the Studies Department, which is a library and small cinema where visitors can come see 30,000 movies. The staff helps people find resources, come up with ideas and literature, and work with references and a broad range of archival sources. They have scripts, letters, newspapers and specialist journals.  For someone interested in film, it sounds like a dream job.

“It’s very satisfying to help people,” he confirms. “I can move things, I can also influence – In the best way – how things are going in research and how to think about film generally and Austrian film in particular.”

The public face of the Film Archive is the Metro Kino on Johannesgsse in the 1st District, where there’s a daily programme dedicated to Austrian film. Behind the scenes, 45 people work for the institution, funded by the governments of both Vienna and Austria. “In every position sits a specialist in her or his field,” Ballhausen says. And clearing up some common confusion, the Film Archive is an entirely separate institution from the Film Museum [under the Albertina gallery], with a different mission. The Film Museum is primarily a theatre; it screens a lot of international films, and themed programmes and retrospectives. They also have a small library and some holdings of avant garde films.

“But it’s not a typical archive,” Ballhausen says, “We have an official agenda, a mission statement, to make film accessible. This is an ambitious thing to do.”

The films scheduled for the festival series give a good introduction to the variety of themes, voices and tones in Vienna film. Now as in it’s early years, Viennese film has carried a pronounced and recognizable stamp,  “a very Viennese art of melancholy, to fail at a very high level. That’s typical,” he says, “and you’ll find it in many films made here.”

But it’s certainly not the only one choice. “The possibilities are great,” Ballhausen says. “There isn’t one atmosphere, but many.”  And not just the stories of the city’s “golden age.”

“Vienna is also a very young city in parts.”  I look surprised. He laughs. “Yes, in parts of it, there is something very fast and dynamic going on.”

A lot of this is on or behind the camera, both making films and also being depicted in them. With the latest wave of very successful films, from the early nineties on, he says, there are a lot of young protagonists, some very troubled.

“Young Vienna is now the focus of the cameras.”

Many films made in Vienna do not make the city look at all attractive – even ugly in the case of Ulrich Seidl’s infamous Hundstage or Barbara Albert’s Nordrand. But the Vienna Film Commission is largely financed by the city’s tourism authorities, acknowledging the strong connection between sumptuous films based in a place and a subsequent rise in visitor numbers – think of films like Manhattan, Roman Holiday or The Sound of Music. So what are we to make of this wave of claustrophobic, colorless, depressing local movies? The tourisism authorities must hate them. Not Ballhausen. Or the public.

“That’s one approach that has been highly popular, well-reviewed and well-received,” says Ballhausen. “[These films] look at the Austrian self and its surroundings and the Austrian space in a very critical perspective. I like this approach. Yes, there are beautiful things but not everything is shiny. It’s an honest way to think about yourself. Maybe I’m going too far, but I see a philosophical back draft in these films.”

But do films like this make him proud to be Austrian?

“Of course!” he assured me. “It’s the same feeling as your soccer team winning. But in the end it should be about good films, and not only which nationality they are. Austria’s higher profile is a way to open up to a wider public and to make new things possible. You have to think about Austrian film in a European perspective.

“National cinema is fine, but there’s transgression going on in a very positive way,” Ballhausen said. “And I like the idea that there’s a European market producing high-quality film and contributing to world cinema in the best sense thinkable.

“If Austria can participate in that, great.”


Der Standard series of 150 Austrian Classics Films
Cost: €10 at Satyr Filmwelt
1., Vorlaufstrasse 2
(01) 535 53 260

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