Vienna 1900: Pictures of a Metropolis Review

Throughout the summer the Neue Galerie New York has been dedicating a number of its floors and screening rooms to Vienna 1900. The main exhibition is subtitled Style and Identity and takes in turn-of-the-century Viennese art, architecture, music and fashion: Klimt, Kokoschka, Mahler, Schönberg, and so on. Alongside this we also have Politics, Art, Society, a series of weekly film screenings encompassing, amongst others, Bruce Beresford’s Bride of the Wind (which happened to portray all four of the artists mentioned in the previous sentence), Terence Young’s Mayerling, and István Szabó’s Colonel Redl. Both conclude in just over a week’s time, having been active since May, yet those wishing to pick up a memento of the season have two options. On the one hand there is the expected tie-in catalogue, entitled Birth of the Modern: Styles and Identity in Vienna 1900; on the other there is the item under review, a supplementary DVD programmed and produced by the Austrian Film Museum.

Vienna 1900: Pictures of a Metropolis compiles a series of newsreels, fragments and amateur endeavours to document the Vienna of Klimt, Kokoschka, et al. Though the pedantic may complain a little, it is the years between 1906 and 1916 which have been captured on celluloid and presented here for our consumption. Amongst the selections are a ‘phantom ride’ along the Viennese tramlines, an early example of the travelogue, footage of the Emperor Franz Joseph I, scenes from the funeral of Franz Schuhmeier, the Social Democrat MP assassinated in 1913, and a rare glimpse at the city’s inner suburbs. Such a mixture therefore combines the historical, the political, the famous and the poor; a social and cultural record of the time that - needless to say - makes for fascinating viewing. Though the title of the disc explicitly links to the Neue Gallerie exhibition, it is worth stating that Pictures of a Metropolis is also the result of the Film.Stadt.Wien research project undertaken in co-operation with the Austrian Film Museum. Active over the past two years, Film.Stadt.Wien has set about mapping the representation of Vienna onscreen via documentaries, newsreels and experimental film. (Amongst those involved was Gustav Deutsch, creator of the various Film ist. projects, and therefore a man well-versed in archive material.) In other words, the cultural and historical aspects of these compiled films and fragments are no fluke. Whilst Pictures of a Metropolis may only total a 40-minute running time and ultimately be just an adjunct to the much bigger Vienna 1900 project, it is no mere throwaway disc.

Of course, the type of cinema demonstrated in Pictures of a Metropolis - that of newsreels and actualities - is hardly a rare one. Pick up any compilation on early filmmaking and you’ll find the expected examples from Edwin Porter, William Dickson, the Lumières, etc. Alternately an online resource such as the Library of Congress’ YouTube channel is chock full of turn-of-the-century delights, whilst themed sets seem to be increasingly drawing on the era (recent examples including the Royal Belgian Film Archive’s Docks and Dockers, the British Film Institute’s similar Tales from the Shipyard or Edition Filmmuseum’s Screening the Poor). This rise in availability is hardly surprising given the intrinsic fascination such material prompts. The age of the footage, now over a century old, allows cinema to become a literal time machine, transporting the viewer back to a past both familiar and distant. Whether it be a boat race in Cork or a mule train along the Santiago Trail, each frame deserves poring over for the stories they tell: the people, the places, and all of those elements in-between. Indeed, consider the Mitchell & Kenyon discovery here in the UK, prompting a three-part television series for the BBC which did just that. Faces were identified, family members were found and those stories were told. This wasn’t just film history, but social history - and it’s that blend which highlights the appeal (and no doubt explains why Mitchell & Kenyon could be treated to a number of subsequent DVD releases).

It’s debatable as to whether geography plays a part in this appeal. Are the Mitchell & Kenyon films of greater interest to British and Irish audiences than they are those from overseas? By extension, does Pictures of a Metropolis therefore have a similar issue insofar as those who do not live in (or have not visited) Vienna will find the disc’s inclusions less immediate? Of course, the target audience is primarily those who have been to the Neue Gallerie exhibition; not necessarily Austrian, but still the Viennese connection looms large and remains the bedrock. Yet as someone who has never lived in nor visited the capital I can hopefully confirm that an appeal nonetheless remains and is, to some degree, universal. After all, the nuts and bolts of these films are much the same as those of, for example, the Mitchell & Kenyon titles: the matter-of-fact and unobtrusive filming style that simply allows the viewer to watch; the kids who can’t resist having a nose at the cameraman and so just idly stand there and return our stares; the succession of hats, moustaches and umbrellas. All are aspects which prompt a smile, none are specifically Viennese.

And yet to ignore the specifically Austrian aspects would clearly do Pictures of a Metropolis a huge disservice. After all, there is the remarkable architecture to take in, not to mention the massive streets and avenues. The details may prove more immediately fascinating - the sight of a woman darting in front of a tram, for example - but the backdrop is also truly magnificent. At times you imagine there must be camera trickery at play or after-the-fact CGI such is the scale and the array of wonderful vistas. Of course the Austrian Filmmuseum is well aware of the appeal from this side of things and so has added location notes for each of the films in the booklet. Thus as we take a tramride in 1906 or witness the travelogue that is Vienna 1908 we can also cross-reference and note the State Opera, Schwarzenbergplatz or the Hofburg Palace. Arguably the touristic concerns of Vienna 1908 are just as valid to a 21st century audience today such are the obvious delights on display.

All of which would count for nought were the presentation quality not there. After all, with the appeal lying so heavily with the places and people, we should at least be able to see them. Thankfully the results are mostly favourable, and certainly where it’s most needed. There are the expected lapses in contrast, the missing frames and the unavoidable damage that come with century-old footage. But happily there is also the clarity and detail allowing us to make out the street signs, the individuals and those wonderful backdrops. (Those wanting the technical information should no doubt be satisfied to learn that a single-layered disc is more than sufficient for 40-minutes worth of material, whilst original aspect ratios are dutifully obeyed. The disc itself is encoded in the NTSC format owing to the Neue Galerie connection.) The simple filming techniques - tripod, no close-ups, occasional camera pans - benefit greatly as we are able to watch and nothing more; no flash, no distractions. In this respect the ‘phantom ride’ of the first film is exceptional: a literal journey through the past full of vivid details as our eyes dart across the frame. Similarly, the sheer simplicity makes the more overtly historical pieces all the more immediate. The footage of the Emperor is footage with which we can easily connect, likewise the funeral procession. Our ability to focus on the faces enhances the human element and, consequently, the weight of such moments.

Sharing this lack of fuss is the piano accompaniment by Elaine Brennan. Irish-born and Austrian-based, Brennan specialises in live improvisation to silent cinema and has, appropriately enough, performed a number of times at the Irish Film Institute and regularly at the Austrian Film Museum. (Her official website, for those seeking further information, can be found here.)The accompaniment here was recorded live over two days in February and opts for a simple approach. There is an invisible presence, if you will, one that certainly exists but never once imposes itself too heavily on proceedings or makes itself known. Respectful is arguably the most appropriate description, and this is exactly what Pictures of a Metropolis deserves. Once again, the invitation to the viewer is simply that we watch these images unfold at our own pace without the bells and whistles. The disc itself provides much the same courtesy of the crisp two-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack that simply gets on with the job and does all that is required.

There are no supplementary features on the disc other than the four-page booklet containing brief notes and introduction, but then the disc itself is essentially a supplementary in itself. Further emphasising the point is the fact that the Austrian Film Museum are releasing this outside of the usual Edition Filmmuseum imprint and, understandably, at a much cheaper price than such releases. (Their most recent was the superb edition of Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law.) There’s little fanfare around the disc which is one of the reasons why it’s being reviewed here. Whilst some may dismiss Pictures of a Metropolis as too flimsy and inconsequential to justify a purchase, there is no denying its pleasures and that it should be celebrated and promoted as a result. Indeed, if only all low-key releases were as good.


Vienna Tramway Ride Eine Fahrt durch Wien (1906)
Vienna 1908 Wien 1908 (c1908, surviving fragment)
Matzleinsdorf Procession Matzleinsdorfer Umgang (c1909)
The Emperor on Film (c1910-1916, compilation)
The Funeral Procession of Franz Schuhmeier Das Leichenbegängnis des Reichstagsabgeordneten Franz Schuhmeier (1913)


Excerpts for two of the titles have recently been uploaded to YouTube and can be found as follows: Vienna Tramway Ride and The Funeral Procession of Franz Schuhmeier.


Vienna 1900: Pictures of a Metropolis can be purchased via the Neue Galerie or the Austrian Filmmuseum.

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