Matt Wolf, Teenage, 2013, 16 mm and 8 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes. Rose Schlossberg, Elizabeth Raiss, and Alden Ehrenreich. Photo: Rose Holmer.
“TEEN” IS NOT AN AGE, or if it were, the Western adolescing could be neither an identity nor an interest group. Yet in nation-places from the US to Russia, the figure of “teenager,” putatively anyone aged thirteen to nineteen, didn’t exist until World War I, at which point those who matched the description were rendered virtual immigrants. Invented, they were promptly feared. And rationally so: What monster has the body of an adult, the mind of a child, and the heart of an animal? From 1920-ish to 1945, teenagers were Othered, vilified, sent to camps (Boy Scouts in America; Hitler Youth in Germany), released on certain conditions, promised equality, punished for rioting when equality failed to show up, then co-opted, target-marketed, and emancipated again in a kind of compromise that exists only to preempt revolution. Later they were idolized and sacrificed by turns, and now that they speak for themselves—on Tumblr, Twitter, Kik, and also on more traditional online publications, some bossed by teens themselves—they are fetishized perhaps oftener than they’re respected.
Matt Wolf’s new documentary, Teenage (2013), ends at the compromise of 1945, when the New York Times published a “Teen-age Bill of Rights,” although Bradford Cox’s cresting score seems fitter for a revolution. We also get a definition of the subject that explains its astatistical status. Simply: Not everyone belonging to the seven years ending in “teen” is actually a teenager. Some, like the children before or without labor laws, go straight from innocence to adulthood. Some, like me, turn twenty-one (or more) before entering the category of experience, not age, we call youth, while others pass as adults ’til they are. And though none of that is said on the surface of this coruscating doc—a finely animated collage (is there a more teenaged art form?) of archival film and reconstructed “footage” voiced-over by several young actors, including Jena Malone and Ben Wishaw—it’s dead-on obvious that being a teenager means abiding by a set of rules that contradict the wishes of authority. “I don’t trust my parents anymore,” says one. “I just want to be with my friends.” Another aches to “blot out the past,” adding that post–World War I, “there was a reckless sense of release.” After World War II, the sentiment is echoed, louder: “We knew we could be blown up in an instant, so we only wanted to live in the now.” Since forever exists for seconds at a time, less frequently every year, there are repeated pleas to live or stay young for good: “I love being seventeen,” etc. Teenagers, in Wolf’s eyes, want to get older only to the point of being free and equals, without having to become like the rest of us. Adults want to build a bridge between obedience to parents and obedience to the state, or to circumstances. Teenagers want to blow it up.
Wolf worked with researcher Rosemary Rotundi and Teenage author Jon Savage, on whose terms the film is based, to find the four lives, drawn from history, that anchor the chronological plot: Brenda Dean Paul, a proto–Cat Marnell in 1920s England who’d rather die than age (and does); Melita Maschmann, a member of the Hitler Youth who betrays her first-blush idealism by choosing National Socialism over her Jewish friends; Tommie Scheel, a seditionary German swing kid in the same wartime; and Warren Wall, a black Boy Scout turned rebel in the 1943 Harlem riots. No two of the four would sit together at lunch, which is part of why you feel for all of them. Since teenagers defined themselves against adults, adults would eventually counter this by defining teenagers against each other, telling girls and boys and especially girls what kinds of kids not to be, then making movies about the ineluctable cliques and class wars that arose. (What Tina Fey won’t tell you is that slut-shaming was cooked up by moms.) “It wasn’t just us having fun,” says the actor playing Scheel of his hijinks. “It was a direct threat to the nation.”
Teenage is sick for the last years without nostalgia. What the teenager wanted was a future in which we would not be defined by our parents, but by our friends; not by our grades, but by our vagaries; not by what we do, but by what we love. Consider a line from the aforementioned Bill of Rights, by then-teen Elliot E. Cohen: “To the ’teen-ager love is serious.” Nearly seventy years later, youth are commanded to “do what you love,” and when they do it, find that they no longer want it and cannot admit it ’cause they’re lucky. We are becoming a freelance nation under one slogan: “It’s not work when it doesn’t feel like work!” Well, nor does it feel like love when you’re constantly having to prove it.
“American culture spread,” says Melita. “They took away our weapons and gave us Coca-Cola.” Given, after all, that Coke is poison, you might find yourself wishing the kids had kept their guns—and remembered who the enemy was.
Teenage opens Friday, March 14 at the Landmark Sunshine theater in New York, and Friday March 21 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles before a national rollout in the US.
NO: Liza Minnelli says this sixteen times to Robert De Niro in their first scene together in Martin Scorsese’s voluptuous, heart-piercing musical from 1977, New York, New York. (Five years earlier, in the incomparable Bob Fosse–directed TV special Liza with a “Z”, her opening number was a song called “Yes.”) Their characters, Francine Evans, smartly done up in her USO uniform, and Jimmy Doyle, who’s chucked his soldier’s attire for a Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with Big Apple landmarks, are among the hundreds of revelers celebrating V-J Day in a Times Square ballroom as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra plays. Snapping his Juicy Fruit, Jimmy is on the make; Francine vigorously rebuffs his come-ons. But she is intrigued enough by this volatile ex-GI that she ends up accompanying Jimmy, a sax player, to his audition at a Flatbush Avenue dive—a tryout she rescues from another of his hotheaded outbursts by breaking into the 1930s standard “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” Shortly after this, they go on tour with a band, but their creative and romantic union will eventually be riven for good by emotional dissonance.
Scorsese, Little Italy’s most famous (and movie-besotted) son, followed up Taxi Driver (1976), his seminal portrait of New York as Sodom, with a far more sanguine tribute to his hometown, here mostly re-created on Hollywood backlots and sets. “I wanted to make it in the style of the forties films, with all their artifice and the idea of no reality,” the director says of New York, New York in the book-length interview Scorsese on Scorsese. “The sets would be completely fake, but the trick would be to approach the characters in the foreground like a documentary, combining the two techniques.” Augmenting the raw, vérité quality of this lavish, otherworldly musical is the fact that most of the dialogue was improvised. (After Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Scorsese notes in that same interview, “we got big heads and felt that no script was good enough.”)
The casting of Minnelli—the only child produced during the union of two of the greatest artists of the film era and genre that Scorsese salutes—further deepens New York, New York’s authenticity. In her simultaneously ferocious and elegant performance, the actress—who sings both standbys from the Great American Songbook and tracks written for the film by her frequent collaborators Kander and Ebb, including the title anthem—also pays homage to her parents. She does this quite explicitly in the lengthy “Happy Endings” number, which recalls her mother’s “Born in a Trunk” sequence from George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle after MGM had suspended her contract four years earlier. At times Minnelli’s intensity suggests nothing less than filial exorcism—a volcanic recognition of Mama’s colossal talent and her equally enormous tendencies toward self-sabotage, traits that she passed on to her daughter. Or, as Sam Wasson, in perhaps the most incisive assessment of Minnelli ever written, says in his recently published Fosse biography: “Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby.”
New York, New York was not a success either critically or commercially, partly owing to the fact that, for all the film’s lush decor and surface sunniness, it forswore a typically happy Hollywood ending. “It’s about two people in love with each other who are both creative,” Scorsese said of his musical. “That was the idea: to see if the marriage would work. We didn’t know if this marriage was going to work, because we didn’t know if our own marriages were working.” After looking at a rough cut, George Lucas, then the husband of Marcia Lucas, the supervising film editor of New York, New York, told Scorsese he could increase his box-office take by $10 million if he reunited Francine and Jimmy. Scorsese, who was after—and gloriously reached—a level of truthfulness amid so much make-believe, wisely ignored the director of Star Wars, released less than a month before New York, New York.
New York, New York screens at BAMcinématek on March 19 as part of the series “Under the Influence: Scorsese/Walsh,” which runs March 12–26.
“I THINK HIS WORLD had long vanished by the time he entered it. But he managed the illusion with such grace,” one character says of another in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest Kool-Aid-colored diorama, set primarily in the fictional Eastern European country Zubrowska between the wars. The statement applies just as easily to the writer-director, an incorrigible nostalgist who relies on impeccable mise-en-scènes to function as emotional ballast.
That’s especially true, and egregiously so, in GBH, inspired by the fiction and memoirs of Austrian Stefan Zweig, one of most acclaimed authors of the interbellum period. Though Anderson’s eighth film is his first to be rooted in epoch-defining history, the events of the past are treated like a handful of prized bibelots—an impression amplified by the movie’s matryoshka-doll-like structure. Three different eras are nested inside one another: GBH opens in 1985 with Tom Wilkinson, identified in the credits simply as the Author, recalling his younger self—played by Jude Law—in 1968, the year he stayed at the once-glorious spa resort of the title to cure his “scribe’s fever.” It is while taking the waters that Law’s character meets the Grand Budapest’s owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, the solemn hotelier recounts his time as a lobby boy—his teenage incarnation, a refugee from an unnamed land, played by relative newcomer Tony Revolori—at the hotel in the 1930s, when he was under the tutelage of the effete head concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Doused in his signature cologne, L’Air de Panache, the gerontophilic Gustave (who swings both ways) spends many seasons bedding the octogenarian Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, buried under layers of latex and makeup, giving her an Edith Sitwell–meets–Trash Humpers look). Her death sets in motion a plot that strains—against perfectly framed interiors ablaze in orange, purple, pink, red, and lavender—to reach the supple yet sober screwball of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), his comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland. In due time, the Grand Budapest will transform ignominiously from a bastion of Old World elegance to a barracks for the jackbooted thugs of the “ZZ,” led by Madame D.’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Still popping his peepers the same way he did as Salvador Dalí (and to the same wearying effect) in Woody Allen’s own recent romp in the Continental past, Midnight in Paris, Brody is also called upon to respond to Fiennes’s hyperarticulate suavity with grating vulgarity: He refers to the polished hotel employee—who also occasionally interrupts his own smooth oration with a string of obscenities—as “that fucking faggot” or “you goddamn little fruit.”
Never funny, this coarseness instead typifies the tonal imbalance that impairs most of GBH, a project that, despite its lofty aims, shrinks everything to precious mini-size, much like the pastel-hued confections made by Zero’s baker’s-assistant sweetheart, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, embellished with a port-wine stain on her face in the shape of Mexico). Anderson’s film looks good enough to eat; swallowing it is another matter.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in limited release on March 7.
Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess, 2013, analog NTSC video, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes.
ANDREW BUJALSKI’S COMPUTER CHESS (2013) is set in an undistinguished hotel that gradually is revealed to be haunted by the problem of “the ghost in the machine.” The year is roughly 1980, and teams of unkempt, bespectacled computer science pioneers with MIT and Stanford pedigrees are competing in an annual chess tournament which pits program against program, with the winner then matched against a putatively human expert, the tournament’s organizer (played by film critic Gerald Peary, one of Bujalski’s first supporters).
Although no one would have predicted it, this most oddball of Bujalski’s four features is his biggest success—critically and commercially, playing for weeks in theaters and now available for downloads and on DVD from Kino-Lorber with such invaluable extras as “4 Computer Chess reference games” and a “1969 Sony-AVC-3260 video camera tutorial.” A fetishist of nearly extinct moving-image technologies, Bujalski shot and edited his first three features—Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2006), and Beeswax (2009)—on 16 mm. He one-ups himself here by choosing a black-and-white analog video camera: the clunky Sony AVC-3260, which probably would have been used to document a weekend where the future of Basic was hotly debated and attendees lugged their twenty-pound PCs and funnel-like terminals from their cars to their rooms to the convention conference room, and back again.
Some of the humor in Computer Chess derives from our astonishment that, just thirty years ago, such hardware dinosaurs and maddeningly slow software programs were the cutting edge, and our consequent recognition of how ridiculously primitive our iPhones and Google Glasses will appear three decades hence. Bujalski doubles down on the joke with the AVC-3260. He fell in love with the look of early black-and-white video when he saw excerpts from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton in Michael Almereyda’s documentary on the photographer, William Eggleston in the Real World (2005). In 1973, Eggleston had a brief flirtation with video and employed a Sony Porta-Pak rig, which he souped up with high-grade lenses, to shoot a documentary of the usual suspects who appeared in his photographs. Bujalski has cited Alan and Susan Raymond’s “video-vérité” documentary The Police Tapes (1977) as another documentary that interested him in the possibilities of early video technology. Had he investigated further, he might have found other genres of long-form black-and-white analog video pieces: Vito Acconci’s The Red Tapes (1976) and Ed Bowes’s Romance (1976) remain notable forays into novelistic video narratives.
Bujalski and his ingenious cinematographer Matthias Grunsky performed their own modifications on the AVC-3260, converting its analog signal to digital as they were recording. Since the conversion was not exactly seamless, the postproduction was neither cheap nor easy. Still, the tube camera is what gives Computer Chess its future/past sci-fi tone, just as Chris Marker’s use of black-and-white stills does in La Jetée (1963). The movie seems like something retrieved from a thirty-five-year-old time capsule, which, in terms of the speed of technological change over that period, might have been light years away.
The first scenes look as if they are merely an inexperienced videographer’s documentation of the weekend, replete with nerdy participants spouting a combination of practical and theoretical artificial intelligence jargon combined with stuff that I’ve been told by software programmers makes no sense at all. It serves as an introduction to the characters, including Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), the young man who gradually becomes the movie’s focus. Bujalski has an amazing ability to discover nonprofessional actors who are able to live quietly but fully in front of the camera, and Riester is as vulnerable, curious, and willful as Kate Dollenmayer, who played the unforgettable heroine of Funny Ha Ha.
No sooner has the camera left the conference room than it discovers that another meeting is being held in the hotel, this one as touchy-feely as the computer chess conference is cerebral. In the funniest and most disturbing scene of the movie, a middle-aged couple from this Esalen-like group attempts to seduce Peter. “Think of us as your parents,” says the husband as he suggestively unbuttons the blouse that barely conceals his wife’s terrifyingly ample bosom. Patrick flees into the hotel corridors where spectral cats roam, their slightly disembodied forms the result of the analog camera’s propensity to “ghost”—to leave trails of light, like the supposed ectoplasm in nineteenth-century “spirit” photographs.
As the movie syncs more closely with Peter’s subjectivity, Computer Chess becomes more dreamlike, fully exploiting the AV-3260’s gauzy, smeared, ephemeral images. Peter’s devotion to computer chess is sabotaged by his sexual anxieties and his projection of his unconscious fears and desires onto his surroundings. The hotel becomes haunted by apparitions from Stanley Kubrick films: a room filled with those ghostly cats; ominous hallways out of The Shining, which coincidentally or not was released in the same year as the film is set; and a computer which, like Hal in 2001, begins to function on its own, posing questions about mind and soul, i.e., about “the ghost in the machine.”
That endlessly suggestive metaphor was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his analysis of how the Cartesian mind/body duality, with its profound categorical error, haunts philosophy. Techies use it when they cannot come up with any obvious reason for hardware or software malfunctions. In evoking the ambition and anxiety around artificial intelligence—even in such a convoluted manifestation as computer chess—Bujalski, in a glorious act of association, collapses AI, the mind/body split, and the ghosting effect of black-and-white video. As a final fillip, he places Peter’s sexual initiation in the hands of a lovely robot, like the one created by Thomas Edison even as he was inventing motion pictures, and which Annette Michelson, in a brilliant essay in October (issue 29, summer 1984) dubbed “the Eve of the future.” Is that a motherboard Peter sees inside her head?
Emmanuelle Bercot, On My Way, 2014, color, sound, 113 minutes.
I’VE NEVER HEARD Catherine Deneuve laugh as much as she does in On My Way; then again, I’ve never seen her wear an enormous neon-pink clown wig or share the screen so effortlessly with a flamboyant eleven-year-old. Emmanuelle Bercot’s film, which opens this year’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” in New York, was written expressly for the icon, whose tobacco-deepened chortles reveal a looseness and vibrancy all too rarely tapped in the fifty years since she became a superstar in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Deneuve plays Bettie, a former beauty queen partial to subdued leopard-print blouses. Crowned Miss Brittany in 1969, she’s never left the region, running a bistro and living in the house she was born in with her mother. Shortly after learning that her longtime married lover has taken up with a twenty-five-year-old, Bettie walks out during the middle of the lunch rush, her head-clearing getaway soon turning into a nearly weeklong road trip through deepest rural France. Bettie’s desultory travels—involving pit stops in itty-bitty towns where an ancient, arthritic farmer hand-rolls her a cigarette and a group of hard-looking women invite her to share a beer at the only bar seemingly for hundreds of miles—account for much of the film’s easy charm. These scenes, which pair the most famous Frenchwoman in the world with nonprofessional actors, effervesce with their unpredictability, showing off Deneuve’s nimble give-and-take with these game first-timers. But the most exhilarating duet occurs between Deneuve and Nemo Schiffman (Bercot’s son), playing Bettie’s grandson, Charly, a melodramatic tween who belts out show tunes. Neophyte Schiffman’s formidable drama-queen energy gooses his fluid dynamic with Deneuve even further while never overshadowing his luminary costar.
If On My Way shows us new dimensions of a legendary actress, two other standouts in the “Rendez-Vous” lineup—Serge Bozon’s Tip Top and Axelle Ropert’s Miss and the Doctors—revitalize entire genres. Frequent collaborators, Ropert and Bozon cowrote the script for the latter’s La France (2007), a singular war movie/musical hybrid that celebrated 1960s-era pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. Tip Top similarly upends categories: This sui generis policier, in which Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain play internal-affairs officers summoned to investigate the death of an Algerian informant, audaciously balances slapstick—often deployed to excellent effect in the heroines’ unorthodox practices, both on the job and in the bedroom—with a fiercely intelligent probing of the still-knotty legacy of France’s colonialist past.
Ropert’s film also has a remarkable way of making the most shopworn conventions seem dazzlingly fresh—a skill already on display in her first feature, The Wolberg Family (2009). Like that earlier movie, which astutely explores the thorny struggle of how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin, Ropert’s follow-up project also addresses blood ties. Set in Paris’s thirteenth arrondissement, the home of the capital city’s rarely filmed Chinatown, Miss and the Doctors concerns two pediatrician brothers, Boris (Cédric Kahn) and Dimitri (Laurent Stoker). So close that they live in the same apartment complex and write prescriptions at desks positioned side by side, the siblings find their bonds tested when they both fall in love with the same woman, Judith (Louise Bourgoin), the single mother of one of their charges, a diabetic preteen girl. Yet this deceptively small project about a love triangle slowly reveals itself to be nothing less than an expansive, deeply compassionate look at universal dyads: physicians and patients, parents and children, immigrants and the native-born, the beloved and the loveless.
“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 6–16, the IFC Center March 7–13, and BAMcinématek March 7–10. On My Way will be released in New York on March 14; Tip Top will be released later this year.
“I NEVER KNEW the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm,” begins the narrator of The Third Man (1949). He’s referring to the most recent war—though cinema itself had missed Vienna in its sparkling heyday. The city has never been a European film capitol on the order of Paris, Rome, Berlin, Stockholm, or London. By the time movies had entered their early maturity, the days of Vienna as the center of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and crossroads of a cosmopolitan empire were already over, the Dual Empire having taken its Humpty-Dumpty fall and been permanently partitioned shortly before the Armistice in 1918.
Nevertheless, there are few cities to which cinema owes as much as it owes Vienna. It was either the birthplace of or a vital creative incubator to a passel of important filmmakers. Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger both grew up there, as did a Jewish hat-maker’s son, Erich Oswald Stroheim, who became an aristocrat sometime around Ellis Island, just as Jonas Sternberg became Josef von. The more democratic Samuel Wilder, who’d once covered the crime beat for newspaper Die Stunde, assimilated simply as “Billy.”
Championing American gumption over European breeding, Wilder allowed Bing Crosby to thumb his nose at the stuffy Hapsburg court in 1948’s The Emperor Waltz—which, along with The Third Man and movies by vons Stroheim and Sternberg, is among the “some seventy films” playing during the four-week exhibition “Vienna Unveiled” at the Museum of Modern Art, put together in conjunction with the Carnegie Hall–organized festival “Vienna: City of Dreams.”
As the title “City of Dreams” implies, there are two Viennas: the metropolis of some two million souls in Eastern Austria which can be physically located by geographical coordinates, and the city that exists in the popular imagination. Vienna made a legend of its own vaunted civilization, a reputation fit to be skewered: In William Dieterle’s Pre-Code Jewel Robbery, the best stoner comedy of 1932, William Powell’s thief wears a tux to work and puts waltzes on the phonograph to soothe his victims. Many a Viennese, however, held that civilization in almost sacred regard. Here is a passage from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1942 The World of Yesterday, remembering “the old Vienna before the war”:
There is hardly a city in Europe where the drive towards cultural ideas was as passionate as it was in Vienna. […] The first glance of the average Viennese into his morning paper was not at the events in parliament, or world affairs, but at the repertoire of the theater, which assumed so important a role in public life as hardly was possible in any other city.
Zweig’s memoirs are an acknowledged influence on Wes Anderson’s forthcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel, largely set in a luxury resort hotel in a fictional alpine nation in the years immediately preceding World War II and global tragedy. In MoMA’s program, Zweig is represented by a supremely masterful film adapted from one of his short stories, Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), for which “Vienna about 1900” was created on the Universal lots, including an interlude in the winter Wiener Prater. (Ulrike Ottinger’s 2007 Prater was not available for screening, though the description of this unorthodox documentary portrait of the famed amusement park is fascinating.) More than any other single figure, however, the star of this program isn’t a filmmaker, but another author: Arthur Schnitzler.
Hans Karl Breslauer, Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews), 1924, black-and-white, 80 minutes.
Schnitzler was an ex-doctor famed for his diagnostics of sexual vanity and compulsive behaviors; Sigmund Freud, a contemporary resident of Vienna, thought that Schnitzler was simultaneously pursuing the same investigation into the subconscious that he was, though by literary rather than pseudoscientific means. Today, the most famous adaptation of Schnitzler’s work is Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The ostensible setting of this somnambulistic, trickle-paced sex odyssey was New York City—a Manhattan of second-unit shots and underpopulated streets, with Kubrick forming a simulacrum of Greenwich Village in his adopted London. But is this NYC, or somewhere else? The ballroom sway of the camerawork, the ornamental floral paintings in the Harman’s Central Park apartment by Kubrick’s wife which evoke the Wiener Secession, and the opening “Waltz No. 2” by Shostakovich—everything nods toward old Vienna, an affinity for which would be a natural outgrowth of Kubrick’s love of classical music. (Recall Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube,” in 2001: A Space Odyssey—and check out Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1955 Oh… Rosalinda!, an adaptation of Strauss II’s 1874 operetta Die Fledermaus.)
On the cusp of a new millennium, Kubrick was reaching toward the last, anxious fin de siècle. Traumnovelle was a later novella by Schnitzler—published in 1926 after two decades of reworking—which Kubrick had owned the rights to since the early 1970s. (G. W. Pabst, whose 1925 The Joyless Street is playing at MoMA, had once proposed to adapt it.) It was through Ophüls that Kubrick came to Schnitzler. Inasmuch as Kubrick deigned to acknowledge a master, that was Max. “His camera could pass through walls,” Kubrick marveled. “I loved his extravagant camera moves which seemed to go on forever in labyrinthine sets. [Their staging] appeared more like a beautifully choreographed ballet than anything else: a spindly waiter hurrying along with a tray of drinks over his head, leading the camera to a couple dancing, who, in turn, whirled the camera to a hussar climbing the stairs, and on and on the camera would go, all to the beautiful music.” This gliding style matched Ophüls to Schnitzler; to a contemporary critic, the author’s “dramatic method is the intellectualization, the refinement of the Viennese waltz.”
Ophüls, who came from Saarbrücken, Germany, on the French border, led the rare truly international career. He was for a time creative director at Vienna’s Burgtheater, before turning to filmmaking at Berlin’s UFA. In years to come, Ophüls would retreat from the Nazis, making films—always in the indigenous tongue—across France, Italy, the Netherlands, and into Hollywood. But a dream of Vienna, and its literature, remained Ophüls’s taproot. His 1933 Liebelei comes from a Schnitzler play: It’s a goodbye to a prewar world soon to be forever left behind, seen herein to contain the seeds of its own destruction in its suicidal martial culture. Liebelei was released simultaneous to Hitler’s rise, and its Jewish author and director went uncredited in Germany. At this a word should be said about a truly unique experience at MoMA, a screening of Hans Karl Breslauer’s 1924 speculative fiction The City Without Jews, which imagines the dire straits of a Vienna stripped of its Semitic genius, and which very soon came to have the aspect of a prophesy.
Ophüls would return to Europe, and Schnitzler, with La Ronde (1950), an adaptation of succès-de-scandale stage play Reigen, a roundelay of immediately pre-and-post coital dialogues set to the music of Viennese Oscar Straus. (Oddly, just after she filmed Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman starred in a London stage production of The Blue Room, David Hare’s adaptation of Reigen.) Both Reigen and Liebelei are at MoMA, as is Jacques Feyder’s 1931 Daybreak, a considerably Hollywoodized and declawed version of Schnitzler’s Spiel im Morgengrauen.
Such softening of life’s harsh truths is hardly commonplace in the work of many of the postwar Austrian filmmakers that are showing here, works in which the City of Dreams is seen as closer to a nightmare. Representative samples include films by Kurt Kren, an affiliate of the Vienna Aktionists and participant in their project of artistic affront in the ’60s, as well as one movie each from a trio of famous Viennese contemporaries whose names are hardly synonymous with light viewing: Michael Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance ), Ulrich Seidl (Good News: Newspaper Salesman, Dead Dogs, and Other People from Vienna ), and Michael Glawogger (Slumming ). There is, then, an almost palliative effect in the most recent film on the program, Jem Cohen’s 2012 Museum Hours, which depicts the tentative relationship between two middle-aged strangers, a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and a Canadian woman abroad. It’s a film of very little glamour, but infinite easy charm.
“Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema” runs February 27–April 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.