- Screening Vienna: The City of Dreams in English-Language Cinema and Television by Timothy K. Conley
Every effective story needs to have compelling characters. Most of those characters are the people whose stories are being told, but often, especially in film and television, the setting becomes an additional character, so central to the plot that it could not be exchanged for another location. Vienna is often cast as that type of location—an integral part of the story that deserves as much attention from viewers as the characters portrayed by actors. In his book, Screening Vienna, Timothy Conley has compiled a comprehensive list of movies and television productions set in Vienna and examines the ways that they depict the Central European capital. He shows that English-language filmmakers have made use of Vienna in many ways, nearly from the beginning of the history of film, and that the Vienna they depict has changed along with current events, often saying more about the way the English-speaking world felt about Austria at the time and less about the actual conditions in Vienna.
Conley comes at this project from a unique position. He is an associate professor of English at Bradley University but has extensive experience in Vienna, both as a Fulbright scholar and as the director of his university’s study abroad program in the city. He has compiled an impressive filmography of media featuring Vienna, either as an actual filming location (sometimes standing in for other cities, such as Budapest or Moscow) or as the setting for a film made at a studio elsewhere. A Germanist or an Austrian historian might [End Page 188] have had different priorities when choosing what to focus on in this text, but his choices make a great deal of sense for someone who is looking at Vienna through the lens of English-language literature and media. The selections that American and British filmmakers have made when depicting the Austrian capital are as indicative of the cultural biases of Anglophones as they are of actual trends in Viennese life. As Conley notes, these representations are often highly romanticized, especially when the subject is the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At other times, Vienna is portrayed as a sinister place, particularly in films set during the war or in the immediate postwar period. Conley notes that he initially believed that Vienna’s depiction would be darker in films produced in the second half of the twentieth century, but that was not the case. In reality, whether the city was a romantic or menacing place depended more on the genre of the film than on the year of the production. Films that focused on the Empire or romance continued to depict the city as a happy, gemütlich place, whereas those that dealt with political or military themes had a darker view of Vienna.
The book is organized into chapters based on the subject matter of the films and television shows included, starting with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and including subjects from science and medicine to composers (a whole chapter is dedicated to filmic depictions of the Strauss family). I found the chapter on immigrants and foreigners in Vienna to be particularly interesting, mostly because there are so few examples of films or television productions that depict the lives of immigrants to Vienna. Considering that Vienna is a major center of migration today, it is a shame that there are not more English-language films that focus on this important topic.
In some respects, Screening Vienna is covering territory that other scholars have also investigated. Conley himself acknowledges four texts, two in German and two in English, as his most important secondary sources. The text that seems to have captured Conley’s imagination the most was Robert Dassanowsky’s 2012 book World Film Locations: Vienna. He quotes from the seven essays included in that text and his organization aligns roughly with the themes of these seven essays, but Conley only uses that as a springboard for a larger project. Conley’s text is...