10 great films set in Vienna

To celebrate the big screen return of The Third Man, we revisit 10 other remarkable cinematic portraits of Vienna.

David Parkinson
Updated:

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

But for Elizabeth Montagu, this would have been a very different article. Intrigued by Paul Tabori’s 1942 tome, Epitaph for Europe, producer Alexander Korda had long contemplated an espionage story set in the dark heart of the continent. But things only started to take shape after he commissioned novelist Graham Greene to produce “an original postwar continental story to be based on either or both of the following territories: Vienna, Rome”. The result, of course, was Greene’s masterly screenplay for The Third Man (1949).

In February 1948, Greene was shown around the Austrian capital by the daughter of the second Lord Montagu, who had joined London Films after having a highly eventful war. “I took him everywhere,” Montagu later recalled. “I took him to the ruins, I took him to the places still standing, I took him everywhere you can think of, including the Great Wheel and all that. He became absolutely enamoured of Vienna.”

Montagu seemingly also introduced Greene to intelligence officer Charles Beauclerk and Times correspondent Peter Smollett (aka Hans Peter Smolka). Opinion is divided as to whether Greene learned about the sewer network and the postwar penicillin racket from his confidential chats with Beauclerk or from Smollett’s collection of unpublished short stories. But what is not in doubt is that he was sufficiently inspired by his sojourn with Montagu to pitch writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) into the five zones of occupied Vienna in his quest to discover the truth about his supposedly deceased best friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

With Welles often AWOL raising funds for Othello (1952), director Carol Reed had to have replica sewers built at Shepperton Studios. The odd scene was also filmed at Isleworth and the Sascha Films studio in the suburb of Sievering. But Reed also made atmospheric use of the city that was slowly emerging from the rubble after being “bombed about a bit” by the Allies. Indeed, while Welles could once claim that “the Vienna that never was, is the greatest city in the world”, this most photogenic of locations has consistently revealed contrasting sides of its character since Louise Veltée became the first native to produce moving images, around 1906 with husband Anton Kolm and cameraman Jakob Fleck.

Thus, while aristocratic producer Alexander Kolowrat could sponsor the likes of Michael Curtiz’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) and Gustav Ucicky’s Café Electric (1927), Hans Karl Breslauer could adapt Hugo Bettauer’s satirical allegory The City Without Jews (1924), which painted a very different picture of Vienna to the one seen in such post-Hapsburg slices of nostalgia as Willi Forst’s Gently My Songs Entreat (1933) and Maskerade (1934). More ‘Wiener Filme’ followed, including Georg Jacoby’s Tales From the Vienna Woods (1934) and Max Neufeld’s Eternal Waltz (1935), and, even after the Anschluss put paid to independent Austrian cinema, Forst continued the genre with the wartime trilogy of Operetta (1940), Viennese Blood (1942) and Young Girls of Vienna (1945).

Exiles also perpetuated the romanticised myth of the old imperial capital, with Hollywood silents like Erich von Stroheim’s Merry-Go-Round (1922) and The Wedding March (1928) being followed by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz (1948). But The Third Man highlighted Vienna’s noirish potential, and its complex geopolitical status informed features as different as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955), Arthur Hiller’s Disney Lipizzaner saga, Miracle of the White Stallions (1963), and Gerald Thomas’s Carry On Spying (1964). But indigenous filmmakers kept looking beyond the tourist landmarks and, among many others, Emil Reinert’s Adventure in Vienna (1952), Guido Zurli’s The Mad Butcher (1972) and Peter Patzak’s The Uppercrust (1982) captured the changing face of the city before the likes of Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days (2001) and Götz Spielmann’s Antares (2004) introduced a starker brand of new Austrian realism.

The Joyless Street (1925)

Director  G.W. Pabst

The Joyless Street (1925)

The Joyless Street (1925)

It may seem invidious to begin a tour of screen Vienna with a picture that was filmed entirely in Berlin, but G.W. Pabst’s much-censored study in greed, guilt, desire and desperation is one of the most important ever made about the city. With screenwriter Willy Haas putting a socialist spin on Hugo Bettauer’s right-leaning bestseller about the impact of defeat in the Great War, the fall of the Hapsburg dynasty and the crippling hyperinflation of the early 1920s, this late entry in the ‘street film’ subgenre saw Weimar cinema start to edge away from expressionism towards the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) that ensured a greater thematic and aesthetic realism. Designers Otto Erdmann and Hans Schule built the rundown Melchiorgasse set in the Staaken Studio that had been converted from a Zeppelin hangar, while the interiors were customised from standing sets at the Zoo Atelier. But Pabst bathed them in shadow to achieve the Stimmung (atmosphere) that made the plight of the impoverished Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo all the more sombre, as they contemplated prostitution in order to feed their families. “What need is there for romantic treatment?”, Pabst declared in justifying his technique. “Real life is too romantic and too ghastly.”

Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

MGM tasked Cedric Gibbons to build 200 sets, including a recreation of the Schönbrunn Palace, for Julien Duvivier’s The Great Waltz (1938). Viennese production designer Oscar Friedrich Werndorff may not have had the same resources, but he still recreated his home city with considerable charm on a soundstage at Gainsborough Studios for what must be considered Alfred Hitchcock’s most atypical feature. Although he had little time for this fictionalised account of how Johann Strauss II composed ‘The Blue Danube’, Hitchcock filled it with trademark flourishes and an impish humour that saw him debunk both the conventions of the musical biopic and the imperial elegance of the Wiener Film.

The bakery scene, in which Strauss (Esmond Knight) is inspired by the rhythms of bread-making, demonstrates the mastery of subtle camera movement and montage that would later prove crucial in more familiar Hitchcockian scenarios that employed music rising to a crescendo to sustain suspense. But, with its witty script by Alma Reville and Guy Bolton, this can be savoured in its own right, as a frothy confection that flits around its romantic triangles, scheming aristocrats and disapproving fathers with the grace of a Willi Forst operetta or a Max Ophüls roundelay. 

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Director Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Although Max Ophüls directed two Viennese features based on plays by Arthur Schnitlzer, Liebelei (1933) and La Ronde (1950), this exquisite flashbacking adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s 1922 novella contains his finest evocation of the city. Muscovite Alexander Golitzen was responsible for the exceptional fin-de-siècle settings, as Joan Fontaine’s hopeless passion for concert pianist Louis Jourdan takes her from cosily cluttered tenements to outdoor cafés, chic restaurants and palatial opera houses. They even go to the Prater Park to see the waxworks and be transported to Venice and Switzerland on the cyclorama. But such is the refinement of Ophüls’s direction, the sly acerbity of Howard Koch’s literate screenplay and the gliding elegance of Franz Planer’s camerawork and Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score that, even as Jourdan reads the reasons why he has been challenged to a duel, this rarely feels like an old-fashioned costume melodrama. Yet contemporary critics were more impressed with the uniforms of the marching band and, as a consequene, Universal did little to promote it and Ophüls drifted into the noir pairing of Caught and The Reckless Moment (both 1949) with James Mason before returning to Europe to rebuild his reputation in an alternative Vienna designed by Jean d’Eaubonne at the Studios de Saint-Maurice outside Paris. 

Sissi (1955)

Director Ernst Marischka

Sissi (1955)

Sissi (1955)

The imperial splendour of Schönbrunn had adorned musicals like Erik Charell’s The Congress Dances (1931) and such melodramatic recreations of the doomed romance between Crown Prince Rudolph and Baroness Marie Vetsera as Mayerling (Anatole Litvak, 1936 and Terence Young, 1968) and From Mayerling to Sarajevo (Max Ophüls, 1940). But the Baroque palace never looked more majestic than in the trilogy idealising Elisabeth of Austria, the beloved wife of the Emperor Franz Josef. Under the watchful eye of veteran Viennese director Ernst Marischka and her German actress mother, Magda Schneider (playing Sissi’s mother, Ludovika), 17 year-old Romy Schneider became an international superstar as the Bavarian duchess who won the heart of her cousin (Karlheinz Böhm) and his people in both this lavish adaptation of a play by Ernst Décsey and Gustav Holm, and its sequels, Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). Much of the action in the first instalment takes place around the Imperial Villa at Bad Ischl, but this makes the entry into Vienna on a Danube steamer and the gilded carriage procession to the wedding ceremony at the Michaelerkirche (standing in for the Augustinerkirche) all the more spectacular. Marischka would make more extensive use of Schönbrunn in the ensuing pictures, as he sought to exploit lingering affection for the Hapsburg Heimat in order to reassert a sense of national identity after the shameful Nazi capitulation. 

The Night Porter (1974)

Director  Liliana Cavani

The Night Porter (1974)

The Night Porter (1974)

Rarely has Vienna looked more sinister than in Liliana Cavani’s controversial study of the Stockholm Syndrome romance between a former concentration camp inmate and an SS guard. Set in 1957, the story opens with Charlotte Rampling recognising night porter Dirk Bogarde when she checks into the Hotel zur Oper with husband Marino Masé, who is in the city to conduct a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Volksoper. As flashbacks to 1942 reveal the nature of their sadomasochistic relationship in the Lager, Rampling and Bogarde meet at his flat in the Karl Marx-Hof and resume their intimacy with a desperation that is intensified by the fact they are being monitored by the members of the Nazi cabal to which the remorseful Bogarde reluctantly belongs. Climaxing on the Floridsdorfer Brücke, this gruelling drama is filmed in forbidding greys by Alfio Contini, while Nedo Azzini’s interiors chillingly connect the tenement with the barracks that were familiar to Cavani from her contribution to the tele-documentary series, History of the Third Reich (1961-62). She also drew inspiration from the expressionist canvases of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt (whose career was chronicled from a Viennese hospital by Raúl Ruiz in 2007), claiming that Bogarde and Rampling were “a couple worthy of Klimt: sophisticated, distorted, with a great taste for the underground”. 

The Seven-per-cent Solution (1976)

Director  Herbert Ross

 The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Sleuthing and psychology clash in Herbert Ross’s slickly entertaining adaptation of the first of Nicholas Meyer’s three novels about Sherlock Holmes. The author earned an Academy Award nomination for reworking a story set in 1891 that sees Dr Watson (Robert Duvall) enlist the help of Mycroft Holmes (Charles Gray) to lure his younger brother Sherlock (Nicol Williamson) to Vienna, so that he can be cured of his cocaine addiction and fixation with professor James Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) by fellow user, Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). It’s a brilliant premise and, while much of the action was filmed at Pinewood, Ross managed to gain access to the Austrian National Library in the Hofburg Palace and Freud’s consulting rooms at Berggasse 19. In the course of trying to prevent war and rescue kidnapped patient Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave), Holmes and Freud visit a bordello and the Spanish Riding School, with the master detective teaching the father of psychoanalysis about dreams. However, Holmes is not informed of the childhood trauma that shaped his obsessive personality. Such reasoning might be frowned upon by Montgomery Clift in John Huston’s Freud (1962) and Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), but it works out better than shrink Art Garfunkel’s decision to exploit Theresa Russell’s depression, as Viennese inspector Harvey Keitel discovers in Nicolas Roeg’s bleak thriller, Bad Timing (1980).

Amadeus (1984)

Director Milos Forman

Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus (1984)

This eight-time Oscar-winning adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri at the court of Emperor Joseph II proved an emotional homecoming for its director. However, Milos Forman was returning to Prague, as Vienna was too expensive and Budapest too poorly maintained to represent the imperial capital in its 1780s heyday. “You can turn a camera 360 degrees and not have to change anything,” Forman purred and, consequently, he only had to build four sets at Barrandov Studios: the interior of Mozart’s apartment, the staircase where he meets his father, the Volkstheater and Salieri’s hospital room. Forman was able to restage the opening night of Don Giovanni in Prague’s Nostitz Theatre, where it had first been performed on 29 October 1787. But the court finery was replicated by the archiepiscopal palaces at Prague and Kroměříž, which also featured in Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved (1994), which culminates in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemetery, Ludwig van Beethoven’s final resting place. 

Before Sunrise (1995)

Director  Richard Linklater

Before Sunrise (1995)

Before Sunrise (1995)

Vienna may seem an unlikely choice for a story that was inspired by an episode that occurred in Philadelphia and is set on a day more usually associated with Dublin. Yet, as Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy spend 16 June getting to know one another after impetuously disembarking from a train bound from Budapest to Paris, it quickly becomes clear that there is nowhere else that their brief encounter could possibly have taken place. As Richard Linklater explained in justifying the decision to shoot Before Sunrise in an unfamiliar environment, “when you’re travelling, you’re much more open to experiences outside your usual realm”.

Sticklers will complain of the geographical illogicality of a route that sees the pair ricochet between landmarks that are often miles apart. But from the moment Delpy and Hawke leave the Westbahnhof and chat with the actors on the Zollamtsbrücke, Vienna becomes crucial to the evolution of their relationship, with the Teuchtler Schallplattenhandlung record shop, the Friedhof der Namenlosen cemetery, the Riesenrad, the 15th-century Gothic church of Maria am Gestade, the Donaukanal and the Café Sperl all prompting Hawke and Delpy to reveal more about themselves and draw each other closer to the moment of intimacy that prompts them to make a pact to meet again in six months time. Miraculously, cinematographer Lee Daniel makes Vienna feel like a living city rather than a tourist trap. 

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Director Michael Haneke

The Piano Teacher (2001)

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Warning: this section contains spoilers.

In truth, Vienna is almost a bit player in Michael Haneke’s adaptation of Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel. But the city’s association with psychology and music (in this instance Franz Schubert and Arnold Schönberg) make it the natural setting for a study of creative expression and institutionalised culture that also has an underlying connection to the author’s own Viennese upbringing. As a child, Jelinek was something of a musical prodigy and, at the insistence of her mother Olga, she learned to play the recorder, piano, organ, guitar, violin and viola before being accepted by the Vienna Conservatory. However, Jelinek was unable to meet Olga’s exacting standards and had to abandon a course in art history and theatre at the University of Vienna when an anxiety disorder left her housebound for a year.

These experiences clearly inform the disturbed personality of Isabelle Huppert’s fortysomething professor, who is confronted on a daily basis with the fact that she is only good enough to teach and not find fame on the concert stage. When not spying on couples canoodling in the Prater Park or copulating at the Autokino drive-in, the sadomasoshistic Huppert watches pornography in sex shop booths and punishes herself by mutilating her genitals with razor blades in the apartment she shares with her controlling mother, Annie Girardot. But music remains at the root of her issues and it’s no coincidence that Haneke uses the Konzerthaus for the key sequences in which Huppert first attempts to maim promising pianist Anna Sigalevitch in the cloakroom by putting broken glass in her coat pocket, then seduces star student Benoît Magimel in the washroom and, finally, stabs herself in the shoulder with a kitchen knife in the foyer before hastening into the night. 

Museum Hours (2012)

Director  Jem Cohen

Museum Hours (2012)

Museum Hours (2012)

Jem Cohen encourages viewers to look beyond surface artifice in this beguiling treatise on small details and bigger pictures. Imaginatively cutting between quotidian objects and the priceless canvases and artefacts in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Cohen sends gallery invigilator Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara on a tour of the lesser-known parts of Vienna after she drifts into the KHM after flying in from Canada to visit a comatose cousin in hospital. Their perambulations take them to the Judenplatz, the Kirche am Steinhof, the Café Weidinger, the Naschmarkt flea market and the Seegrotte Hinterbrühl that irresistibly recalls Harry Lime’s sewers. Moreover, in conjunction with art historian Ela Piplits, Cohen prompts the audience to seek the intentions of the creator and the bigger truths about life, love and death in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Lucas Cranach.

But Cohen and co-photographer Peter Roehsler also reveal a city of cranes and scaffolding, graffiti and litter, skateboarders and advertising hoardings, and trains and tenements, where the architectural glories that Sommer rediscovers have as little relevance for the average Viennese citizen as the KHM artworks that attract the tourists. No wonder General Director Sabine Haag places so much hope in the redecoration of the famous Kunstkammer cabinet of curiosities in Johannes Holzhausen’s undervalued documentary, The Great Museum (2014), as the very future of such institutions relies on them convincing the public that they exist for more than just the elite.

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