Willi Forst

b. Wilhelm Anton Frohs

b. 7 April, 1903, Vienna, Austria-Hungary
d. 11 August, 1980, Vienna, Austria

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Willi Forst and Marlene Dietrich in Café Elektric

A specific blend of historical and aesthetic sensibilities melded into a unique style in Austrian cinema during the early sound period in the 1930s. It soon became known as an entirely new and geographically focused genre in European cinema, the Viennese Film. The artist responsible more than any other for this concept was Willi Forst. He began his career at age 16 as an actor on the provincial stages in the Austria–Hungary and the German Empire, and appeared as a featured performer in the post World War I operetta theatres of Vienna and Berlin. His early career in Austrian silent film ranged from being an extra in Michael Kertesz’s (Michael Curtiz) monumental Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) to a notable second lead in Gustav Ucicky’s Café Elektric (1927) opposite a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich. He made his sound and singing film debut in Atlantic (Germany 1929) and soon became known for his distinctive velvety voice and “charming Viennese” persona (1) in German films usually directed by Geza von Bolvary. He subsequently appeared in two of the best Austrian comedies of the early 1930s: with the first-lady of the Viennese stage, Hedwig Bleibtreu, in Karl Hartl’s Der Prinz von Arkadien (The Prince of Arcadia) (1932), written by his future production partner Walter Reisch; and in what Forst considered the best learning experience for his future role as director, So ein Mädel vergisst man nicht (Unforgettable Girl) (1933) directed by expressionist film actor-turned-director Fritz Kortner. Forst actively developed his reputation as a great screen lover, but his directorial debut in Leise flehen meine Lieder (The Unfinished Symphony) in 1933 brought to Austrian and Central European cinema one of its greatest filmmakers and influential industry figures, whose lack of presence in the international film “canon” of important directors today is one more casualty from the negligence that has greeted Austrian cinema since the collapse of its commercial film industry in the 1960s. International attention to New Austrian Film since the 1990s has also helped bring Austria’s film heritage art to the fore, and Willi Forst is now gaining a very belated “comeback” with world cineastes.

Hans Jaray and Luise Ullrich in Forst's Leise flehen meine Lieder

Leise flehen meine Lieder was so popular throughout Europe that it was reshot in a 1934 British version (co-directed by Forst and Anthony Asquith) for the English language market as The Unfinished Symphony. The co-author of the original was Walter Reisch, who in later Hollywood exile would script Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) and Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944), and work with Billy Wilder. In Lieder, he took on the love affair between composer Franz Schubert, ostensibly Austria’s favourite dramatised musical figure, and the Countess Esterhazy. With Hans Jaray as Schubert, Luise Ullrich fresh from Max Ophül’s Liebelei as Schubert’s innocent love, future comedic superstar Hans Moser as her father and Marta Eggerth as the seductive Czardas-dancing countess who disrupts the composer’s life, Reisch attempted to subvert the clichés of previous Schubert films and stage works. Forst’s impressionistic images of Biedermeier Vienna, costumed by the “Edith Head of Austrian film”, Gerdago (Gerda Gottstein, aka Gerda Iro) (2) whose opulent and often startling designs made her more comparable to Adrian at MGM, and framed by the lavishly detailed and stylised sets by Julius von Borsody, were underscored almost continuously by selections of Schubert’s music, arranged by Willy Schmidt-Gentner, the leader in the new art of Austrian film composition and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Boys Choir. The orchestration of image, lighting, music and performance in Lieder suggests a unique personal style that had not been previously seen in the new musical film. The style-cum-genre genre was certainly Viennese from its very roots: theatrical and visual values of the Baroque, the near operatic equality of dialogue and music, and the balanced blending of all aspects of the film into a seamless Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, a goal of the Romantics and turn of the century Viennese artists who attempted aesthetic, even spiritual transcendence are at work here. Forst’s greatest influence as director was René Clair, (3) which suggests what Forst hoped to adapt and transform: “As the melody of Paris resounds through all the films of René Clair, which one can hear and feel, so the films of Willi Forst offer a Vienna in which the music, the atmosphere, the essence of the city is nourished by and grows from its past, from the tradition of music and history, from theater and culture.” (4)

But Forst’s Schubert film, which was a success in both German and English language versions, also represented a specific sociohistorical ideology. Set in the Biedermeier era, that repressive, bourgeois-centered period between the Napoleonic era and the failed revolutions of 1848, the film celebrated the average man and woman – and the values of love and hard work as opposed to the Romantic idealism that had brought about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The spirit of the Biedermeier offered perfect escapism for the anxiety-laden year of 1933 as it had done in previous troubled times. It was also very typically Viennese in its enshrinement of art above even love. Walter Fritz sums up the style and success of the Forst/Reisch Viennese Film:

Why was it that the Viennese Film emerged as a widely discussed concept in the wake of Leise flehen meine Lieder and burst forth so suddenly from its bewildered dormancy during the silent film era? The reason is not to be sought in the soundtrack alone but in the use of music as an essential element of the dramatic impact. Even the presentation of the figures was permeated by the dramatic structure of the music. The real effect of the film derived from the blending of music and plot, whereby these films managed to avoid resuscitating the mannerisms which had crept into the acting tradition of the silent film era. The screen exuded highly personal chamber music, the images were in soft focus, the acting was restrained, the landscape endless and the palace settings sumptuous. The sun set over the fields and the golden light was caught in the folds of the curtains, the language was soft and informal, and the music played and played… (5)

Paula Wessely and Adolf Wohlbrück in publicity artwork for Maskerade

Forst’s follow-up in this new genre, Maskerade (Masquerade) (1934), secured his reputation as a significant director and gave him the international recognition he did not quite have as an actor. It also made an instant star of Paula Wessely in her lead debut. A foremost figure in German language motion pictures and theatre for five decades and the wife of Attila Hörbiger, Laurence Olivier considered her to be the greatest film actress of the twentieth century, and Bette Davis was known to have studied her performances. Her role as the impoverished but morally upright art student Leopoldine in the decadent atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vienna, set the tone for the female lead (along with Luise Ullrich in Lieder) in the Viennese Film, and it also typecast Wessely as the innocent or “good” woman for most of her work in the 1930s and ’40s. The centrepiece of Maskerade is Leopoldine’s meeting with the society painter Heideneck (Adolf Wohlbrück) at a lavish carnival ball. Its strikingly romantic-decadent, even erotic mood can be credited to the soft camera work of Franz Planer and to the seductive music arranged and composed by Willi Schmidt-Gentner. Maskerade received an award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and ultimately proved to be so successful internationally, that Hollywood “borrowed” the story for a new, but less welcomed version entitled Escapade in 1935, with Luise Rainer.

Following Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, Nazi Germany set in motion a policy of economic and cultural infiltration designed to foster a National Socialist coup in Austria and/or prepare it for annexation. As Austria’s largest film market, Germany sought to strangle the Austrian film industry by insisting on the “racial purity” of the cast and crew in Austrian films, which were to be distributed in the Reich. The clerico-authoritarian government (often called Austrofascism) in Vienna led by Engelbert Dollfuss, and following his assassination by Austrian Nazis in 1934, by Kurt von Schuschnigg, attempted to create a national front against Germany. The Austrian film industry subsequently split into two: a mainstream one, which acceded to Germany’s wishes, and an independent Emigrantenfilm which employed those not acceptable to Germany, including exiles from the Reich, and offered a strong “Austrian Ideology” (Central European multiculturalism and co-production, Viennese/Hollywood cinematic genres, Austrian patriotism, Catholicism) aimed against Nazi propaganda. Willi Forst, arguably the most famous of all Austrian directors at the time, and considered “Aryan” by the National Socialists, could ignore much of this political intrigue. Hollywood’s Universal Pictures offered him and Walter Reisch a team contract in 1934, but Reisch moved towards his own directorial career and their partnership ended. Moreover, the studio’s serious financial problems were not encouraging. Forst ultimately abandoned the offer and founded his own film production company in Vienna in 1935, followed by a branch in Berlin. He nevertheless toyed with the notion of a Hollywood career until the outbreak of war in 1939 while he rapidly developed himself into a four-way talent, as producer, director, writer and actor in German films: Mazurka (1935), Allotria (1936) and Serenade (1937) among them. Forst briefly returned to Vienna in 1936, however, to film Burgtheater (The Court Theater). The film starred German actor Werner Krauss as a great stage actor whose life is altered by one late love. As usual in Viennese Film, renunciation of passion and its sublimation into art provides the dramatic conclusion.

Following Austria’s annexation to Germany in March 1938, Vienna’s film industry was wholly integrated into the structure and ideology of the Third Reich and given a specific cultural mission – the production of lavish musicals, costume dramas and other “Vienna style” entertainment films for the Reich and its Axis partners. With strong control from Berlin, the new Viennese mega-studio Wien-Film (6) echoed the concept of the Hollywood studio system more closely than had been normal in previous Austrian cinema development. Many Austrian talents at UFA in Berlin, including Forst, returned home to participate in this new phase of Vienna’s industry. Although such products were films of the German Reich, many of its talents hoped that their efforts would be seen as sub-rosa Austrian cinema. In addition to production head Karl Hartl, Wien-Film’s directors were all “Aryan” Austrians who had established themselves in German film prior to the Anschluss or were leading exponents of the Viennese Film: Willi Forst, Geza von Bolvary, Eduard von Borsody, E.W. Emo and Gustav Ucicky. Like the Hollywood star-system, particularly that of MGM, Wien-Film cultivated and promoted the fame of its screen talent, and this roster was composed of internationally recognisable names. Also like Hollywood, pairings would be created to “sell” a film: the comedies of Paul Hörbiger and Hans Moser were among the most popular, followed by the dramas of Paula Wessely and Atilla Hörbiger, and the dapper Willi Forst with almost any leading lady.

Forst led and even dominated Wien-Film’s reputation and style. He had secured his reputation as a major star, director, screenwriter and producer with his 1939 Forst-Film production of Bel Ami, based on the novel of the soon to be banned Guy de Maupassant, and followed it with the test of any great film actor – the double role – in Ich bin Sebastian Ott (I Am Sebastian Ott) (1939). Unlike the other directors, he preferred to use relatively untested talent as co-stars, and thus managed to create stardom for several leading ladies: Lizzi Waldmüller and Ilse Werner in Bel Ami; Trude Marlen in Sebastian Ott; and later Maria Holst, Dora Komar, Judith Holzmeister and Senta Berger. His most important work of the period is known today as his Wien-Film trilogy: Operette (Operetta) (1940), Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood) (1942), and Wiener Mädeln (Viennese Maidens) (begun in 1944 but not completed until 1949). While he certainly used the Reich to further his career, Forst was nonetheless aware of the distinct opportunity he had to continue Austrian content and style in such entertainment films while appearing to satisfy the official mission of Wien-Film. He would later reflect on his involvement with the Nazi propaganda machine and the effort to create both personal and “Austrian” cinema in such a totalitarian state:

I never wasted much thought on the kind of films I was making. They came about by themselves, born of my relief at no longer having to “reproduce,” and of the growing pressure exerted by the Nazis. My native country was occupied by the National Socialists, and my work became a silent protest. Grotesque though it may sound, it is true that I made my most Austrian films at a time when Austria had ceased to exist. I hit upon exactly the things people yearned for: distraction, joy. What I began doing – I would again say, with almost unerring accuracy – turned into a program, was fashioned ever more consciously into a program. Of course, we couldn’t go looking for what we wanted in the present, which is why virtually all of my films are set in the past. I created films reviving the spirit of an age in which charm, sophistication, delicacy and courtesy were important qualities. I freely concede that this was the product not just of a mental attitude, but also and to a significant degree of the need to ward off the interference of the Reich Propaganda Minister. Indeed, at a time when the Nazis had just abolished the final remnant of a once vast empire from the map, there was a certain mischievous appeal and gratification in demonstrating to people what an intellectual power Austria had been – albeit in the guise of lightheartedness, music and humour. (7)

Gertraud Steiner suggests that this commentary was no simple hind sighted self-justification. Forst’s Wien-Film projects managed to provide a subtle resistance to the dictates of Nazi socioculture. His popular success in presenting what seemed to be harmless excursions into a romanticised Viennese culture of the past provided him an escape from having to create an overt propaganda film, but his allusions and references often contradicted National Socialist dictates and became a point of friction with the censors: “One step further and he would have been barred from making films.” (8) Sabine Hake, however, finds such a subversive aesthetic strategy little more than “fantasy resistance”, since the unreal and the masquerade, which now might represent difference, had always been part of the Viennese operetta construct. Nevertheless, she concedes that transformed through Forst’s “deceptive lightness and ironic self-awareness, the Vienna myth became a game between the filmmaker and his audience.” (9)

Willi Forst and Maria Holst in Operette

Operette has become Forst’s best-known work. It is certainly a high point in the Viennese Film genre and brings together all of Forst’s talents as auteur. As the film’s leading man, writer, director, producer, also responsible for overseeing the artistic and music direction, his superbly orchestrated and uniquely detailed Romantic/decadent style can only be compared to the baroque silent films of Erich von Stroheim, to the elegant comedies of French director René Clair, and to the later operatically orchestrated style of Italian director Luchino Visconti’s nineteenth century period films (Senso, The Leopard). Returning to the place and time best suited for the Viennese Film, imperial Austria between the Congress of Vienna and the Belle Époque, Forst’s images are photographed with an eye towards nineteenth century court paintings by Hans Schneeberger and Sepp Ketterer, and are underscored by the music of Johann Strauss Jr., Karl Millöcker and Franz von Suppé, as arranged by Willy Schmidt-Gentner and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Choir. One of the most famous songs in the film sung by Forst, “Ich bin ja heute so verliebt”(I am so in love today), was reportedly based on song material sketched by Forst during an infatuation with actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, who had once briefly appeared on the stage in Vienna (10). Forst’s script, written with Axel Eggebrecht offers the backdrop of the historical Viennese theatre world (with all Jewish personalities missing) at the end of the nineteenth century for the genre’s typical theme of love that is sacrificed for art. Forst gives an intelligently nuanced performance as the historical Franz Jauner, a provincial theatre director who rises to the heights of Viennese society as its opera director, but falls when he is imprisoned for his responsibility in the catastrophic 1881 Vienna Ringtheater fire (11). His rival, the diva and director of the Theater an der Wien, Marie Geistinger (Maria Holst), adores him, but has renounced love for a successful career in the more elevated world of opera, and she resists both Jauner’s advances and his promotion of Viennese operetta. Although he successfully stages the new entertainment form, he is only forgiven and able to reclaim his place in society because a fatally ill Geistinger persuades the audience to welcome his “revolution of the operetta”. Following Geistinger’s death, it is the naïve singer Emmi (Dora Komar) who earns Jauner’s true love. But Geistinger, like Austria in the Reich, maintains a spectral, influential presence, and Jauner sees a vision of her face at the triumphant conclusion of the operetta. The film includes portrayals of personalities which are not simply cameos, as is often the convention in such historical romances, but are convincingly woven into Jauner’s story: Leo Slezak as operetta composer Franz von Suppé, Paul Hörbiger as Alexander Girardi, Edmund Schellhammer as Johann Strauss Jr., Viktor Heim as the painter Hans Makart, and Curd Jürgens as composer Carl Millöcker. Although Operette suggests that artistic fulfillment and fame is available only to men, it is nevertheless unique in its portrayal of a nineteenth century woman who was as powerful behind the stage as she was on it. Such an image was hardly harmonious with the woman-as-mother dictates of National Socialist ideology. Sabine Hake also considers that gender and sexuality are central to the representation of Austrian cultural superiority in Forst’s work in the figure of the composer/conductor, whose threatened masculinity “resonates with larger concerns about Austrian culture and its own emasculated condition” (12) under the Third Reich.

Forst followed the immense success of Operette two years later with the second of his Wien-Film trilogy, this time based on an actual operetta, Wiener Blut, which was created posthumously from Strauss’s music. Forst was again director, writer and producer, and brought on Jan Stallich as cinematographer and Schmidt-Gentner as music director. The film takes place during the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), which attempted to restore European “order” following the final defeat of Napoleon (and where the early waltz was supposedly given one of its first public presentations), and is a romantic comedy regarding Count Wolkersheim (Willi Fritsch), the ambassador of a fictional German principality (the remnants of the many states of the Holy Roman Empire in the post-Napoleonic German Confederation were not united into an Empire until 1871) and his beautiful Viennese wife (Maria Holst), whose marriage is imperiled by her attempts to reconnect with Vienna, and the Count’s bored flirtations with a chorus girl. But as exquisitely mounted and performed Wiener Blut may be, its formulaic quality often seems to parody the Viennese Film. Moreover, the central allegory of the historical “love” between the Germans and the Austrians is so contrived and enforced as to border on sarcasm. While the Count distances himself from a Vienna that “is not for us” and from the “noise” of its musical culture, it is the introduction of the new dance – the waltz – that ultimately reunites husband and wife, the Germans and the Viennese. Although the utterance “Viennese blood cannot be denied” explains the films conceit of a pseudo-biological impulse to dance, it also provides a statement of unyielding difference. Forst’s next film was a rare contemporary salon comedy set aboard a luxury liner, Frauen sind keine Engel (Women Are Not Angels) (1943). Although not a Viennese Film, Forst made this high-society romp about the creation of a musical a similarly stylised entertainment that existed as far from the realities of the time as was possible.

Forst waited until nearly the end of the Reich and the war to create the final film in his Viennese trilogy. Wiener Mädeln (Viennese Maidens), was begun at Rosenhügel during the bombing raids of 1945, but the nearly continuous exodus of the lead actors and more than 1,700 costumed extras from set to air raid shelter necessitated the production’s move to the Schönbrunn studio facilities and finally to Barrandov Studio in Prague. The film is remarkable as the first colour Viennese Film and for expressing the process of resignation, exile and re-emergence that suggests Austria’s experience under the Third Reich from an already post-war perspective. Forst again takes the leading role, this time as troubled Viennese composer Carl Michael Ziehrer, whose attempt to find fame alongside the already legendary Johann Strauss Jr. meets with some early success, but he abandons the rise after his love, Klara Munk (Judith Holzmeister), rejects him for the diplomat Count Lechenberg (Curd Jürgens). Ziehrer goes into self-imposed exile and gains prominence abroad. Upon his return, he settles for a more accessible love interest and is strengthened by this relationship and his new celebrity. Sent to “defeat” the film’s stand-in for John Phillip Sousa, John Cross (Fred Liewehr) at a highly fictionalised 1894 Chicago World’s Fair, Forst’s Ziehrer at first rejects the competition, but in due course emerges as the proud representative of Viennese culture, as his band appears in old Austrian uniforms and perform his now famous Wiener Mädeln waltz. The reconciliation of Ziehrer, Klara and Lechenberg at the Fair in support of Vienna and to dispel the pain of the past, allegorises a future Austrian reconstruction through the return of Vienna’s culture (Ziehrer) to Vienna’s state (Lechenberg). Sousa’s music was not used for the film because he was thought to be Jewish. Instead Schmidt-Gentner and Karl Pauspertl composed several Sousa-esque numbers for Cross’s band to play.

Despite the continuous interruptions from air raids and location changes, production was reportedly near completion by February of 1945. Negative material was stored in Prague and Berlin, but the colour processing could only be accomplished at the Berlin facilities, which was nearly impossible given the bombings. By March, the costumes and equipment for the film were removed from the studios and stored in the countryside. The film’s music recordings, lost in the final months of the war, had to be re-recorded by Schmidt-Gentner and the Vienna Philharmonic at Rosenhügel Studios during the Allied occupation. Forst’s Wien-Film colour extravaganza would not be completed until 1949, and then in two distinct versions: an East German print assembled without his permission from the material stored in Berlin, and the later director’s cut completed in Vienna.

Actor Curd Jürgens, whose early career ascent was due to Wien-Film but whose criticism of the regime prompted Goebbels to label him “politically unreliable”, resulting in labour camp internment in late 1944, commented about Forst’s ideology in 1971:

Willi Forst would have made these films anyway, even if there had not been a Ministry of Propaganda; and he made them although there was a Propaganda Ministry. I know for a fact that the authorities kept asking Forst to make a political film. He refused to do anything of the kind. He took refuge in the dream factory, as it were. Dr. Goebbels was quick to take advantage of his good fortune: these films were shown in those parts of Europe under German occupation – and in some unoccupied countries – and conveyed the enchantment of Austria as being a [Nazi] German enchantment. Nevertheless, in my view, Willi Forst put up an unparalleled resistance to the regime and protected us all to the extent that I – and many of my friends – will owe him a debt of gratitude all our lives. He told us exactly what to do. In 1941 he said to me, “Curd, never ever make a film which says anything political. One day you’ll have to account for it.” (13)

Of course Forst refers to blatant propaganda, since all films are political statements of some kind. But since the entertainment films Wien-Film specialised in were not understood to be overtly political, this could allow them to be subversively so, by evoking a great deal of material that ran counter National Socialist ideology and even the regime’s cinematic conventions. As the war progressed, official criticism of the non-conformist aspects of the Wien-Film product increased. Although Propaganda minister Goebbels appreciated Willi Forst’s work as a director, he found his presence as a leading man too soft for the times, and believed that there was perhaps even something “Jewish” about his on-screen persona (14). Forst’s cinematic “gentleman” did not present the ideal of a National Socialist hero and Goebbels lamented that Operette was hindered by Forst’s performance. He had no knowledge of Forst’s bisexuality, which was a secret widely known and kept in the industry, and if exposed would have immediately ended Forst’s career and imperiled his life. When Goebbels strongly advocated that Forst play the title role in the anti-Semitic Veit Harlan film Jud Süss (The Jew Suess) (1940), the director managed to bluff his way out of a role that despite his career opportunism in Germany after 1933, would have been unthinkable for him.

Forst emerged on the postwar film scene with the intention of reestablishing Austrian film as an internationally important cinema, and founded a new publication in April of 1946. Film, which was edited by Josef Malina, was as much a sounding board for Forst’s tireless encouragement as it was a serious cultural magazine. In the first issue he rejected notions of the postwar “Zero Hour” (the fallacy of a new culture with no connections to the past) and of the hardships of re-establishing an industry in a four-power occupation by declaring that “The Viennese film is dead – long live the Viennese Film!” (15) His premature optimism faded in later issues, particularly given the fact that none of the Austrian films produced in 1946 were exported to Western Europe, and the hopes for a re-established American connection, resulted only in the subsequent purchase of a few films by the Casino Film Exchange in New York for limited showings at minor “art house” cinemas (16). The missed opportunity to link the Vienna and Hollywood film industries in the late 1930s had not been forgotten, and the fact that so many Austrian film exiles had established themselves there after 1938 made this a reborn, but finally unrealised goal for many Austrian producers.

Poster from Die Sünderin

Forst’s West German production of Die Sünderin (The Sinning Woman) (W. Germany 1951), caused the largest scandal in postwar German language cinema. The film starred German actress Hildegard Knef, who had been a draughtswoman for UFA Berlin’s special effects department and had attained star status with her leading role as a concentration camp returnee in Germany’s first postwar film, Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Amongst Us)(1946), which was produced by the Soviet-controlled replacement for UFA at the Berlin-Babelsberg facility, DEFA. After several other productions, it was Forst’s film, which cast her as Martina, a woman who becomes a prostitute to support her artist lover and ultimately commits suicide with him, that brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Die Sünderin was a major departure for Forst, who desired to spearhead a new German language neorealist style with a frankness and adult subject matter that reflected the times as art. The film’s stylised metaphoric imagery and a narrative structure made up of random flashbacks lashed together by Martina’s monologue were revolutionary for the time and the genre. It is influential in the late 1970s and early 1980s “women’s pictures” of New German Cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in current postmodern filmmaking. In addition to the character’s “immorality,” Knef’s brief nude scene caused protest, particularly by the Catholic Church, which condemned the values presented in the film. All this helped make it a lucrative production, but it also had interesting repercussions in Austria. Forst, whose reputation had become too associated with the past when his final Wien-Film, Wiener Mädeln finally appeared in 1949, had reinvented his career and German language cinema with one film. It was a shock to the industry that Forst, who found such promise in a reborn Austrian cinema after 1945, made his “comeback” film in West Germany with a German star. Although Forst would return to make his final films in Vienna, Die Sünderin demonstrates that his loyalty was always to his art, and not to political or national interests, a fact already apparent in his participation in both independent and “aryanised” productions of the 1930s and in his work for Wien-Film. He had been greatly disappointed by Austria’s dismissal of his attempts to recall exiled film talents from Hollywood and the overall lack of support and recognition due him (compared with the national promotion of directors in Italy and France) as Austria’s historically important and world-class filmmaker. Die Sünderin also reawakened the debate regarding censorship in Austrian film. When audiences eventually lost interest in one of Austria’s mainstay genres of the 1950s, the epic imperial drama and musical, a new subgenre developed, the imperial military comedy, which managed to cut the sentimentality of the epics while still retaining the lavish costume spectacle and feeding the notions of Austrian cultural identity. Willi Forst led the pack with Kaiserjäger (The Emperor’s Regiment) (1956) featuring Adrian Hoven, Erika Remberg and Atilla Hörbiger.


By the end of the decade, the film production boom in Austria faded and many of the talents that had begun their careers in silent and early sound film retired or had died. Production aimed at a more lucrative German market or moved entirely to Germany. Television absorbed many performers, and the new generation of filmmakers had no national film subsidy (as was available in other European countries) to foster their work. Forst’s final two films, Die unentschuldigte Stunde (The Unexcused Hour) (1957) and the suitably named Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume (Vienna, City of My Dreams) (1957), heralded the end of an era in Austrian cinema. Forst had once again reinvented his style and with it the sophisticated contemporary urban comedy that had eluded him and had been too rare in the 1950s. However, the films were not the breakthroughs he had hoped for, and the director quietly retreated into retirement. At the nadir of the Austrian film production in the mid-1960s, Austria’s greatest auteur briefly explained his absence from the screen when his expertise was obviously missed the most: “My style is no longer in demand. I exit, somewhat dented, but in proud greatness à la Garbo. It is better to leave, then to be considered gone.” (17)


  1. Gertraud Steiner, Film Book Austria, Bundespressedienst, Vienna, 1995,p. 25.
  2. For information on this important costume designer who has few personal facts in print, see Walter Fritz and Gerhard Tötschinger, Maskerade: Kostüme des österreichischen Films. Ein Mythos, Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna, 1993.
  3. Walter Fritz, Im Kino erlebe ich die Welt. 100 Jahre Kino und Film in Österreich, Brandstätter, Vienna, 1997, p. 151.
  4. Fritz, Im Kino, p. 151. Translation by Robert von Dassanowsky.
  5. Fritz quoted in Steiner, Film Book,p. 26. Translation by Gertraud Steiner.
  6. Wien is German for Vienna. While the city was celebrated as a southern German centre of music and culture, the concept of Austria and its history as a sovereign nation was banned under Nazism. As a province it was first called the Ostmark (Eastern March), but as that still recalled Austria’s name in German (Österreich), it was further degraded as the Alpen- und Donau Gau (The Alpine and Danube District).
  7. Steiner, Film Book, p. 35.
  8. Gertraud Steiner, Traumfabrik Rosenhügel, Compress, Vienna, 1997, p. 45.
  9. Sabine Hake, Popular Cinema of the Third Reich, UP Texas, Austin, 2001, p. 159.
  10. Steiner, Rosenhügel, p. 56.
  11. The fire caused by a backstage gas lamp during an evening performance on 12 December, 1881, killed over 386 people (exact figures are unknown). Panic broke out as the stage curtain exploded into flames and the theatre lighting was extinguished. Most of the audience in the balcony could not reach the exits in time to save themselves. Moreover, the doors opened inward, and were blocked by the crowds. The nominal procedures to guard against such a fire were apparently not implemented and the fire brigade was not called until more than ten minutes after the start of the blaze. The disaster led to a trial accusing theatre director Franz Jauner and others of criminal negligence. Vienna’s mayor, Julius Newald, admitted originally covering up the incompetence of the theatre personnel and subsequently resigned. The Ringtheater tragedy was ultimately responsible for increased safety regulations for theatres in Austria-Hungary and later throughout Europe, and led to the general use of a metal curtain to prevent stage fires from spreading. See Felix Czeike, Historisches Lexikon Wien, Band 4, Kremayr & Scheriau, Wien, 1995, p. 679.
  12. Hake, p. 163.
  13. Steiner quoting Jürgens from his interview in the 1971 Austrian television broadcast of Filmgeschichten aus Österreich, created by film historian Walter Fritz. Translation by Gertraud Steiner. Film Book, p. 39.
  14. Steiner, Rosenhügel, p. 41.
  15. Fritz, Im Kino, p. 214.
  16. Gertraud Steiner, Die Heimat-Macher: Kino in Österreich 1946–1966, Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, Vienna, 1987, p. 49.
  17. See biography at Filmportal. Translation by Robert von Dassanowsky.

Willi Forst and Billy Wilder


Leise flehen meine Lieder (Unfinished Symphony) (1933) also writer with Walter Reisch

The Unfinished Symphony (with Anthony Asquith) (1934) also writer with Benn W. Levy

Maskerade (Masquerade in Vienna) (1934) also writer with Walter Reisch

Mazurka (1935) also actor

Allotria (1936) also writer with Jochen Huth

Burgtheater (The Court Theater) (1936) also writer with Jochen Huth and producer

Serenade (1937) also writer with Curt J. Braun and producer

Bel Ami (1939) also writer with Axel Eggebrecht, producer and actor

Ich bin Sebastian Ott (I Am Sebastian Ott) (with Viktor Becker) (1939) also producer and actor

Operette (Operetta) (1940) also writer with Axel Eggebrecht, producer and actor

Wiener Blut (Vienna Blood) (1942) also writer, producer and actor

Frauen sind keine Engel (Women Are No Angels) (1943) also producer

Wiener Mädeln (Viennese Maidens) (1944/49) also writer with Franz Gribitz, producer and actor

Die Sünderin (The Sinner) (1951)

Es geschehen noch Wunder (Miracles Still Happen) (1951) also writer with Johannes Mario Simmel, producer and actor

Im weissen Rössl (The White Horse Inn) (1952)

Kabarett aka Dieses Lied bleibt bei Dir (This Song Remains With You) (1954) also writer with Johnnes Mario Simmel

Kaiserjäger (The Emperor’s Regiment) (1956)

Le chemin du paradis (The Way to Paradise) (1956)

Die unentschuldigte Stunde (The Unexcused Hour) (1957) also writer with Kurt Nachmann

Wien – Du Stadt meiner Träume (Vienna, City of My Dreams) (1957) also writer with Kurt Nachmann

Other credits

Writer/Co-Writer (for films not directed)
Capriolen (1937) with Jochen Huth
Alle kann ich nicht heiraten (I Can’t Marry Them All) (1952)

Producer (for films not directed)
Capriolen (1937)
Hundstage (Dog Days) (1944)
Der Hofrat Geiger (1947)
Die Frau am Wege (Woman By the Road) (1948)
Das Kuckucksei (The Cuckoo’s Egg) (1948)
Die Stimme Österreichs (The Voice of Austria) (1949)

Actor (in films not self-directed)
Der Wegweiser (The Road Sign) (1920)
Sodom und Gommorrha (1922)
Oh, du lieber Augustin (Dear Augustin) (1922)
Lieb’ mich und die Welt ist mein (Love Me and The World Is Mine) (1923)
Strandgut (Driftwood) (1924)
Die drei Niemandskinder (Three Lost Children) (1927)
Die elf Teufel (Eleven Devils) (1927)
Café Elektric (1927)
Amor auf Ski (Love on Skis) (1928)
Ein besserer Herr (A Distinguished Gentleman) (1928)
Die lustigen Vagabunden (The Merry Vagabonds) (1928)
Die blaue Maus (The Blue Mouse) (1928)
Unfug der Liebe (Mischief of Love) (1928)
Die Frau die jeder liebt, bist Du! (You Are The Woman Everyone Loves) (1928)
Die weissen Rosen von Ravensberg (The White Roses of Ravensberg) (1929)
Fräulein Fänreich (Miss Ensign) (1929)
Der Häftling aus Stambul (The Prisoner of Stambul) (1929)
Gefahren der Brautzeit (Dangers of Engagement) (1929)
Atlantic (1929)
Katharina Knie (1929)
Ein Burschenlied aus Heidelberg (A Student’s Song from Heidelberg) (1930)
Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt (Two Hearts in Waltz Time) (1930)
Das Lied ist aus (The Song is Ended) (1930)
Ein Tango für Dich (A Tango for You) (1930)
Der Herr auf Bestellung (The Call-Boy) (1930)
Die lustigen Weiber von Wien (The Merry Wives of Vienna) (1930)
Petit officier … Adieu! (1930)
Der Raub der Mona Lisa (The Theft of the Mona Lisa) (1931)
Peter Voss, der Millionendieb (Peter Voss, Who Stole Millions) (1931)
Der Prinz von Arkadien (The Prince of Arcadia) (1932)
Ein blonder Traum (A Blonde Dream) (1932)
So ein Mädel vergisst man nicht (Unforgettable Girl) (1932)
Brennendes Geheimnis (Burning Secret) (1932)
Ihre Durchlaucht, die Verkäuferin (Her Highness, The Shopgirl) (1933)
Ich kenn’ Dich nicht und ich liebe Dich (I Don’t Know You But I Love You) (1933)
So endet die Liebe (So Ends Love) (1934)
Königswalzer (The Royal Waltz) (1935)
Es leuchten die Sterne (The Stars Shine) (1938) cameo as himself
Ein Blick zurück (A Look Back) (1944) cameo
Leckerbissen (Tidbits) (1948)
Herrliche Zeiten (Wonderful Times) (1950)
Bei Dir war es immer so schön (It Was Always So Beautiful With You) (1952)
Weg in die Vergangenheit (The Way into the Past) (1952)
Ein Mann vergißt die Liebe (A Man Forgets Love) (1955)
Die drei von der Tankstelle (Three Good Friends) (1955)

Select Bibliography

Elisabeth Büttner and Christian Dewald, Anschluss an Morgen. Eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart, Residenz, Salzburg, 1997.

Elisabeth Büttner and Christian Dewald, Das tägliche Brennen. Eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Residenz, Salzburg, 2002.

Robert Dachs, Willi Forst. Eine Biographie, Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna, 1986.

Robert von Dassanowsky, Austrian Cinema: A History, McFarland, Jefferson NC and London, 2005.

Walter Fritz, Im Kino erlebe ich die Welt. 100 Jahre Kino und Film in Österreich, Brandstätter, Vienna, 1997.

Walter Fritz and Gerhard Tötschinger, Maskerade: Kostüme des österreichischen Films. Ein Mythos, Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna, 1993.

Hilde Haider-Pregler, “Das Theater hört nie auf. Willi Forsts Film vom Burgtheater”, Modern Austrian Literature, vol. 32 no. 4, 1999.

Sabine Hake, Popular Cinema of the Third Reich, UP Texas, Austin, 2001.

Armin Loacker, Willi Forst, Ein Filmstil aus Wien, Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna, 2003.

Gertraud Steiner, Film Book Austria, Bundespressedienst, Vienna, 1995

Gertraud Steiner, Die Heimat-Macher: Kino in Österreich 1946–1966, Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, Vienna, 1987.

Gertraud Steiner, Traumfabrik Rosenhügel, Compress, Vienna, 1997.

Gertraud Steiner-Daviau, “Willi Forst. Bel Ami in the Third Reich”, Modern Austrian Literature, vol. 32 no. 4, 1999.

Gertraud Steiner-Daviau, “Willi Forst nach 1945 – ein Weltregisseur im Schatten. Die verlorenen Jahre: 1945 bis 1950”, Das Märchen vom Glück. Österreichischer Film in der Besatzungszeit. Special issue of Maske und Kothurn, vol. 46 no. 1, 2001.

Web Resources

Biography at Filmportal (in German)
Use “search” function. In German

Biography at Deutsches Filminstitut Online
In German

Filmography at Internet Movie Database

AEIOU: The Austria Lexicon Online
Brief Biographical notes in German

Click here to buy Willi Forst DVDs and videos at Facets

Click here to search for Willi Forst DVDs, videos and books at

About The Author

Robert von Dassanowsky is Professor of German and Film Studies, director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and an independent film producer. His cultural, literary and film criticism is widely published. He is the author of Austrian Cinema: A History, editor of New Austrian Cinema and the forthcoming Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: A Manipulation of Metacinema.

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