Wien: A Romantic Interlude

In Before Sunrise, Vienna has the starring role

Jesse and Céline spend their final moments together in this modern classic | Photo: Monpti Parapluie

New Years’ Day, 1979. In the middle of a snowy walk through Vienna, my father leads my mother into the cozy lobby of the Hilton, warms her hands between his, and in a burst of emotion, proposes.

Sixteen years later, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) step off a train in the opening sequence of Richard Linklater’s magical film Before Sunrise and experience Vienna in one spontaneous night out of time, 24 hours of intimate conversation and mutual discovery.

Now it’s 2010, and I’m joining the ranks of these whimsical 20-somethings, sitting in Vienna’s Westbahnhof and wondering what a city can offer those who have no prior relationship with it. With the red and gray trains lurching in and out of the station, it could almost be Jesse and Céline’s Westbahnhof of 1990. I realize there is something timeless about the romantic synergy in European train stations, encapsulated in the mystery of travelers’ comings and goings and shared longing of wanderlust.

Unlike airports – often remote and detached – train stations lie in the center of town, a hub of reunions and goodbyes. Watching people bustle around me now, I imagine their lives and the possibilities waiting for them in the Vienna that held so much magic for my parents and for Jesse and Céline. Around the corners of Vienna, they’ll discover the perennial allure that has drawn artists, intellectuals, and cultivated coffee-drinkers… and that induces the impecunious to do something a little crazy.

The story of Before Sunrise’s leading guy and gal begins with rushing train tracks and a conversation beside a picture window. A serene first moment for a romance which, compressed into a short-lived pocket of life, never lets up – every minute counts once Jesse convinces Céline to interrupt her trip home to Paris and step off the train with him in Vienna for a day of exploring, getting lost, and wondering if there’s a difference between the two. “Let’s spend the afternoon – we can’t take it with us,” Annie Dillard once wrote. And that’s exactly what Jesse and Céline do.

After boarding my own train that will take me from Vienna to Munich, I slide into a seat next to a similarly big and inviting picture window – the kind that “allows you to have ideas you wouldn’t normally have” says Jesse, in the film’s first conversation. As I watch towns glide past, I think back to the settings of Jesse and Céline’s brief whirlwind in Vienna and wonder: How can places, or modes of transportation, bring people together?

The film relies on the charm of Vienna, and the city itself is as much the star as either of the actors. Before Sunrise is interspersed with location shots of the lovely old city as well as of its vivid present, and reminds us that environments are as poignant as the people who occupy them. Cultured, historic, self-aware Vienna is impossible to ignore.

There are so many voices, from Rilke to Freud, to Wittgenstein and Otto Wagner, Vienna has always blended the visual and the philosophical. And, as a microcosm of intellect, the city is home to political satire and jaded self-mockery, experienced through Wienerlieder or on the stage in cabaret.

Here, it struck me, life itself was close to art, reflected and staged, moving through the settings of city life. I thought of the various locations of Before Sunrise, ranging from a record store to the Friedhof der Namenlosen, from the Prater to the candlelit Maria am Gestade church. Jesse and Céline share a kiss on the terrace of the Albertina; they stroll alongside the Danube Canal, lost in conversation. When they’re not pausing in some special place, they’re meandering among the cobblestone streets, barely aware of where they have come from or where they might be going.

“If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, of sharing something,” Céline says to Jesse on a bench on a tucked-away side street. In that spirit, they come to understand and share Vienna – their romantic backdrop and our main character.

While their romance may or may not be transitory, the faithful city is here to stay. That’s the allure of it – the music and the art, the commitment to culture and the life of the mind, the irresistible charm of continuity juxtaposed with traditions that serve as the wellsprings of change.

Jesse and Céline spend hours getting lost in all of it before finding themselves, appropriately, falling asleep in a park under the stars, realizing that maybe all of us only ever get a few chances to say yes to getting off the train for a little while.

But leaving is inevitable – yet close to impossible. When Before Sunrise moves to scenes of early-morning, empty Vienna, we follow Jesse and Céline back to Westbahnhof, back to where they started. The train whistle blows, and it’s the end – but not before, in their rush, they try to hold onto what’s good.

As we watch them say goodbye, we wonder: These days, do people even meet on trains anymore, or spontaneously propose on a cold walk in a foreign city? Maybe there isn’t one single thing that causes characters like Jesse and Céline or my parents to be swept up in the moment, inhibitions suspended.

But perhaps too, there is something about Vienna that helped things along.

For another Before Sunrise stroll, see “A Cinephile Goes Walking Before Sunrise” in TVR Jun 2012.

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