AS IT WAS. AS IT IS
A History of the Viennale from 1960 to the Present
It was a “leaden time”: on one of the geopolitical borders of the Cold War, a superficially denazified Austria was attempting to reinvent itself as a cultural superpower, an “intellectual continent” in the words of the historian Friedrich Heer. The so-called “long 1950s” continued far into the next decade and were dominated by the cultural and educational policies of the first post-war education minister, Felix Hurdes of the conservative Austrian People’s Party. The policies reflected right-wing Catholic “culturalism” and were almost seamlessly connected to the period before the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. In the official state cultural doctrine of the post-war era it was especially important that the foremost institutions, the Burgtheater and the State Opera, be actively involved in the creation of sense and meaning, and a certain wallowing in Habsburg mythology was also a fitting accompaniment to a cultural understanding that sought refuge from the immediate past in sublime timelessness.
Cinema, on the other hand, was considered an inferior artistic phenomenon, a leisure activity for the lower classes and a reflection of the typically American culture of chewing-gum that a middle-class elite preferred not to find sticking to the soles of their shoes. Domestic Austrian film production consisted mostly of theatrical comedies, rural farces, tourism films, Vienna musical comedies and the revue films of producer Franz Antel, and they stretched in a never-ending line towards the horizon. Hardly anything was done, however, to promote the production of art films, apart from the isolated initiatives of the French or Soviet occupiers, the series of proletarian films, the religious film weeks and, finally, the “good-film campaign” Aktion der gute Film, which the Ministry of Education launched in 1956 after the occupiers had gone home. Film ratings were believed to be a superweapon for separating the wheat from the chaff and raising the deplorable level of mainstream taste.
Austrian film journalists at the time believed that cinematic culture had reached a historical low ebb, and they sought ways and means to reverse the flow. A group formed around the journalist Sigmund Kennedy, who was to become the Viennale’s first director.
Text: Thomas Miessgang