Austria Made in Hollywood: “But the Austrians were never so bad as the Germans”

Just out from Camden House is Austria Made in Hollywood, which focuses on films set in an identifiable Austria, examining them through the lenses of the historical contexts on both sides of the Atlantic and the prism of the ever-changing domestic film industry. The study chronicles the protean screen images of Austria and Austrians that set them apart both from European projections of Austria and from Hollywood incarnations of other European nations and nationals. It explores explicit and implicit cultural commentaries on domestic and foreign issues inserted in the Austrian stories while considering the many, sometimes conflicting forces that have shaped the films. Here author Jacqueline Vansant touches on a few examples of this.

Florian, 1940.

Despite intersecting histories and cultures, Austria and Germany have been portrayed in Hollywood films in radically different ways. This is perhaps most humorously captured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) when Elsa, the attractive Austrian Nazi, gives the tied-up Indiana Jones a long juicy kiss and states, “This is how Austrians say good-by,” followed by Vogel, the mean German Nazi male, who strikes him with a billy club and comments, “This is how we say good-by in Germany.” In Hollywood, even when Austrians are Nazis they have been given a pleasanter face than Germans. Hollywood’s imperial Austrians, too, were not seen as enemies of the United States during and after World War I. For example, in Edwin L. Marin’s Florian (1940), the Germans are viewed as the aggressors who ultimately provoked World War I. When Franz-Josef declares war in the film, he does this with great reluctance.

However, the apportioning of guilt to the Germans after World War I was not only a screen phenomenon. A New York Times article from August 3, 1919 with the intriguing title “An Austrian Invasion” distinguishes between the two former enemies. “Resumption of friendly relations with the enemy is a somewhat delicate matter, made so by the enemy’s character. But the Austrians were never so bad as the Germans, and the distinction between people and Government, though hardly valid in either country, is much more obvious in Austria then in Prussia.” Although Austria is admittedly viewed as a combatant, the author implies that Austria’s prewar relations with the United States were much friendlier than those with Germany and consequently affable post-war relations should also be resumed. The article, which is actually not about politics, but Austrian composers touring the States, goes on to underscore the fact that “Germany still has much of the will and something of the power to harm; apparently what is left of Austria has neither,” assuring readers that the Austrian composers touring the United States could and should be greeted with open arms. Later Austria’s musical heritage as well as Habsburg history would prove an asset for Hollywood filmmakers because of the industry’s reluctance to produce anti-Nazi films.

The Great Waltz, 1938.

Austria’s musical heritage and stories set in imperial Austria provided Hollywood the opportunity to attack German politics by proxy, while ideally attracting diverse audiences in the United States. By reworking Austrian stories and fictionalizing the history of Habsburg Austria in The Great Waltz (1938), Florian (1940), and New Wine (1941), the filmmakers draw analogies between the distant past and the contemporary situation. In The Great Waltz and New Wine they specifically use the music of Johann Strauss Jr. and Franz Schubert to construct a distinct Austrian identity. The highly fictionalized historical events and composer biographies set in imperial Austria with their embedded messages reflect on the ever-changing political situation in Europe. In 1939 the makers of The Great Waltz engaged with nostalgia and music, distancing Austria from its pugilistic German cousin. With its revolution and peoples’ demands, the film argues that Austria shared traits with the democratic United States. In Florian the diversity of the multi-ethnic empire compares favorably with the United States, while the fate of the aristocracy and patriotic Austrians during the short-lived “revolution” after World War I echoes the events of March 1938. In 1941 the film New Wine conveys Schubert’s creative and emotional struggles through his music that serve as comfort and inspiration in troubled times.

This guest post was written by Jacqueline Vansant, Professor of German at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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