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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Welcome in Vienna' in the Wake of War

January 22, 1988|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"Welcome in Vienna" (Fine Arts), the concluding portion of Axel Corti's superb, six-hour "Where To and Back" trilogy, is a bittersweet valentine to Austria, at once an expression of love of one's homeland--and hate for its pervasive and enduring anti-Semitism.

It is set in Vienna just as World War II ends, but its implications for Kurt Waldheim's Austria are clear and devastating. "Welcome in Vienna," however, resists the judgmental and is above all a quest for identity.

In the vision of Corti and writer Georg Stefan Troller, who drew upon his own experiences, Vienna is the eternal, wholly amoral seductress--even its partial ruins. The film opens in December, 1944, in Alsace, in the bitter, paranoid final skirmishes of the war. There we meet Freddy Wolff (Gabriel Barylli) and his friend Adler (Nicolas Brieger), both of them American soldiers and both Jews--born, respectively, in Vienna and Berlin.

In Salzburg they meet Claudia Schute, a beautiful young actress who is the daughter of an Austrian Nazi colonel (Heinz Trixner)--soon off to the good life in Washington in exchange for his Russian military intelligence. Their lives will soon become intertwined in occupied Vienna.

Despite his struggle to adjust to life in New York (covered in the trilogy's second film), Freddy is really still an innocent upon his return to Vienna seven years after he fled it. The son of a dedicated Communist, Adler is as cynical about America as he is naive about Russia.

Like all the films in the trilogy (shown in its entirety at UCLA in August), "Welcome in Vienna" is an amazingly persuasive period re-creation. Cameraman Gernot Roll's steely, harshly lit black-and-white images and art director Fritz Hollergschwandtner's expansive ruined cityscapes combine with Corti's impassioned yet detached direction to give the film the gritty, documentary-like immediacy of Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero" (1947). (At the same time the film has much of the sophistication and irony of Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair" and Carol Reed's "The Third Man," but it is more serious in tone.)

Against a background of rubble and 19th-Century grandeur, Vienna's citizens are slowly rebuilding and surviving any way they can. The black market flourishes; American soldiers pack the nightclubs, and daily life is beginning to resume its normal routines.

What Freddy discovers in both pain and increasing confusion is that nothing has essentially changed, especially for Jews. Casual, open anti-Semitism abounds, and when Freddy visits his bomb-damaged home he discovers it inhabited by old neighbors who keep insisting they obtained it legally from his mother "before she died." Freddy toys with the idea of regaining his Austrian citizenship, yet wonders where he really belongs.

Adler is initially so appalled by the corruption he finds everywhere that he attempts to defect to the Russian sector, but is rebuffed by a woman officer (Liliana Nelska). In one of the film's most beautifully sustained passages Adler expresses his feelings to her; not unkindly, she confronts him with his naivete, pointing out that if he is truly sincere in serving the Communist cause, he would become a spy and stay on in the U.S. Army.

The wife of an Austrian Jew who decided they should emigrate to Russia rather than America in 1938, she is such a subtle, intelligent woman that Adler may not even realize that sending him back to the West is meant as an act of kindness and salvation. Its effect, however, is to confound his disillusionment.

In his new post as "cultural liaison officer," which includes the impossible job of determining just which Viennese performing artists were Nazis--and to what degree--Adler signs on Freddy as his attache. Freddy can never be sure whether Claudia, with whom he has fallen in love, loves him in return for himself or for what he can do for her career.

Corti's cast never seems to be acting. The boyish Barylli and the tall, virile Krieger make Freddy and Adler very ordinary guys who are completely unprepared to deal with the corruption that threatens to engulf them; perhaps they spent too many formative years in America to comprehend the complexities of the old world. And what a lovely temptress is Messner, as ambiguous as Vienna itself, a woman who wants to get on with her career and put the past behind her as rapidly as possible. The true symbol for Vienna, however, is Treschensky--a man of the theater, a musician, a black marketeer, once "a little bit Nazi" and an all-around survivor--played suavely by Karlheinz Hackl. Joachim Kemmer is forceful as a burly German-American lieutenant--his character was introduced in the second film--who complains of World War II: "Some Jews cause trouble, and we have to cross the ocean."

"Welcome in Vienna," which is Austria's official entry in the Oscar sweepstakes, is thankfully more self-contained than "Manon of the Spring," but hopefully its equally extraordinary predecessors, "God Does Not Believe in Us Anymore" and "Santa Fe," which takes its title from Freddy's fantasies of America's Old West, will soon be released.

'WELCOME IN VIENNA' A Roxie release of Thalia Film GesmbH production, commissioned by ORF in association with ZDF and SRG and sponsored by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Sports. Director Axel Corti. Screenplay George Stefan Troller, Corti. Camera Gernot Roll. Art director Fritz Hollergschwandtner. Costumes Ulli Fessler. Music Hans Georg Koch. Film editor Ulrike Pahl, Claudia Rieneck. With Gabriel Barylli, Nicolas Brieger, Claudia Messner, Hubert Mann, Liliana Nelska, Kurt Sowinetz, Karlheinz Hackl, Joachim Kemmer, Heinz Trixner. In German and English, with English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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