Like the enigmatic city that hosts it, the Viennale has fluctuated and evolved in response to the cultural and political considerations of the past half-century. Early on, cowed by anticommunist criticism for its Eastern Europe-skewing lineup, organizers reinvented the event as the Festival of Gaiety, focusing exclusively on comedies — a change that lasted five years. Now, as the festival prepares to celebrate its 50th edition, the Viennale’s mission is clear.
“First, it should be a festival for the people of Vienna,” says Hans Hurch, contrasting the program’s community focus with showcases such as Cannes, where the public does not have access. “But also, our goal is to have a very articulate and well-selected program, so it is also interesting to people from abroad.”
Unlike most esteemed European fests, the Viennale does not insist on world premieres, nor does it thrust participating films into cutthroat competition, providing Hurch and his programming team with the luxury of selecting a diverse and eclectic mix of the year’s finest films — resulting in what many view to be among the continent’s best curated annual showcases. Also part of the Viennale tradition are deep retrospectives (Austrian expat Fritz Lang will be featured this year) and laser-focused sidebars (Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” screens in 2012’s “Five Women” program).
“One of the things that makes the Viennale special is that the balance of fiction and documentary films is almost 50/50,” Hurch says. At first, the fest began programming nonfiction pics simply as a way of filling a gap in local programming, since only the highest-profile docus reach Vienna screens.
“Since Lumiere, cinema has always existed as a kind of realistic medium, capturing 25 frames of reality a second. And yet, everything becomes fiction in front of a camera,” Hurch says. “With the Viennale, we try not to fall too much to one side or the other.”
Recent years have brought a blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction cinema, evident in such 2012 selections as Chris James Thompson’s “Jeff,” which blends fresh police interviews with reenactments of Jeffrey Dahmer’s life before arrest; Antoine Bourges’ “East Hastings Pharmacy,” wherein real methadone patients visit an artificial clinic; and Jem Cohen’s Vienna-set “Museum Hours,” which weaves travelogue- and art-doc-appropriate footage into a sweet, cross-cultural romance.
According to Hurch, such hybrids pose unique challenges when deciding how to classify films chosen for the festival: “This makes it very interesting for the audience sometimes, because you have to rethink your own categories and ideas of what you think about cinema.”
Founded in 1960, the fest showed just 8 features. For budgetary reasons, it went dark two years. Now in its 50th edition, the program offers nearly 300 films.
Advice & consent
At the opening of the 1978 edition, Austrian-born Otto Preminger unveiled a scheme to make Vienna a center for European film production.
Werner Herzog, who served as director of the Viennale in 1991 and ’92, appears as the guest of honor this year, presenting his four-part “On Death Row.”
The following year, in 1993, the fest celebrated Austrian superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger with an enormous banner hung across the Vienna Hilton.
Fest director Alexander Horwath organized a landmark project that brought talents who had fled Austria in 1938 back to Vienna for a two-month exposition.
March of times
In 2001, Fay Wray attended for a retrospective in her honor, addressing the audiences after a screening of von Stroheim’s Vienna-set “The Wedding March.”
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