Going to Vienna for the city’s annual autumnal film festival, the Viennale, is like stepping back in time. That could be because of all the Belle Epoque palaces lining the Ringstrasse, or the Jugendstil metro stations, or because the entire city resembles a fin de siècle film set, as Edmund de Waal puts it in The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
It could be because of the way pedestrians stop at traffic lights, obediently waiting for the lights to change before crossing the quietest of side streets; or the fact that people still – gasp, cough, choke! – smoke in public places. I suspect, though, that what really makes the Viennale an experience in time travel is down to the festival’s delicious mix of old and new films, setting the odd up-to-the-minute Hollywood movie and art-house find alongside lovingly curated retrospectives.
I’d already seen the festival’s opening film, Ben Affleck’s gripping retro thriller Argo (here’s my review), and I missed Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s acclaimed Tabu, two of the festival’s hottest tickets, but I did catch Fritz Lang’s classic 1955 swashbuckler Moonfleet, together with two other films by the Austrian-born, Hollywood-exiled director, his 1940 Western The Return of Frank James, a Technicolor gem starring Henry Fonda, and his 1953 film noir The Big Heat – the one where Lee Marvin throws a pot of scalding coffee into the face of Gloria Grahame.
Manners are, as you would expect, rather different in Vienna’s legendary cafés, where you can indulge in Kaffe und Kuchen in spots where Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert once performed. Manners are pretty good in the cinemas too, though the fact that numbered seating hasn’t caught on yet here explains the presence of the Bitte nicht laufen (Please Don’t Run) sign in the lobby of the Gartenbaukino, one of the festival’s key venues.
That’s where I caught a screening of Jean Renoir’s 1952 homage to the spirit of Italian commedia dell’arte, The Golden Coach, another Technicolor treat and a showcase for the great Anna Magnani, whose leading lady in a troupe of travelling players in 18th-century Peru finds a viceroy, a nobleman and a bullfighter competing for her charms. Asked ‘How do you like the New World?’ one of her companions replies, ‘It will be nice when it’s finished.’
The Golden Coach isn’t entirely typical of the Viennale line-up. Much of the festival programme is as high-minded and serious as Vienna itself, a city that boasts a pavement star to Pierre Boulez, rather than Lassie’s paw prints. This year’s Viennale, the 50th in the event’s history, showcased a pair of European directors with appeal to hard-core cineastes – Alberto Grifi, one of the founders of Italian Experimental Cinema; and Manuel Mozos, heir to the New Portuguese Cinema of the 1960s.
Further evidence of the festival’s earnestness comes from its commitment to documentaries, which make up half the festival line-up. Of the ones I managed to see, the highlight by far was the heartrending documentary 5 Broken Cameras, almost entirely composed of footage shot by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who acquired the first of the titular cameras in 2005 to record the birth of his youngest son but ended up recording the non-violent resistance offered by his West Bank village as the Israeli security wall and a nearby Israeli settlement encroached on the villagers’ land and lives. As the title indicates, Burnat got through five different cameras, each one smashed or shot by the Israeli army over the succeeding years. With Burnat’s footage skilfully edited by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, 5 Broken Camera is powerful, moving, and a strong contender for my film of the year.
But not everything in the Viennale is serious. Indeed, in some of its aspects, the festival doesn’t reflect Vienna at all, being playful where the city is sober, and intimate rather than grandiose. (Walking in the shadow of the city’s monumental architecture during my stay, I can say Bill Bryson was spot on when he wrote ‘a Martian coming to earth would unhesitatingly land at Vienna, thinking it to be the capital of the planet’.)
This year’s Viennale trailer perfectly embodies the festival’s playful side. Created by the great French filmmaker Chris Marker before his death in July at the age of 91, the special anniversary trailer wittily presents the quest by a series of legendary cinematic pioneers – Georges Méliès, DW Griffiths, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard – for the perfect viewer, before capping their search with a cheeky payoff.
Indeed, the Viennale doesn’t shun crowd-pleasing gestures, as is shown by this year’s Tribute to Michael Caine, ten of his films ranging from Alfie, Get Carter and Sleuth to Hannah and Her Sisters and Harry Brown. Elsewhere in the programme, German film director and horror expert Jörg Buttgereit selected 16 films that had influenced him. I gave Cannibal Holocaust and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a miss, but I did catch a special screening of The Trollenberg Terror in the relaxed festival hangout the Zentrum. This cheesy 1958 B-movie, a black-and-white science-fiction chiller set in the Swiss Alps, is laughably bad in places, but what made the screening even more of a hoot was the accompanying audio commentary by John Carpenter (not live, alas, but available on the German DVD release), whose affection for the film he’d first seen as a 10-year-old shines through his cheerful analysis of its manifest flaws. Like much else at this year’s festival, it takes you back.
Chris Marker’s special anniverary trailer for Viennale 2012.