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'Welcome in Vienna'--Ironies of Prejudice

February 23, 1988|ANNETTE INSDORF | Insdorf is the author of "Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust."

In the light of the controversy surrounding Kurt Waldheim's presidency of Austria, the current film "Welcome in Vienna" is a timely reminder that there are probably some skeletons rattling behind Viennese closet doors. Although this drama--directed by Axel Corti and now playing at the Fine Arts--is set at the end of World War II, its depiction of Austrian anti-Semitism, convenient forgetfulness and opportunism is hardly limited to 1945.

" 'Welcome in Vienna' is the third part of 'Where to and Back,' " Corti explained in a recent telephone interview from Austria. "The others deal with his departure from Vienna as a youth, arrival in New York in 1940 and his life as an immigrant in America." The entire trilogy was presented earlier this month at the Miami Film Festival to critical acclaim.

Bill Cosford, film critic of the Miami Herald, attributed to the trilogy "the weight of Fassbinder's 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' and the accusatory fervor of 'The Sorrow and the Pity' and 'Hearts and Minds.' "

Winner of the grand prize at last year's Chicago Film Festival, "Welcome in Vienna" is an Austrian-German co-production based on the experiences of its screenwriter, Georg Stefan Troller, a Viennese Jew born in 1921.

Like the film's protagonist, Freddy Wolff (Gabriel Barylli), Troller and his family were forced to flee Austria in 1938 . . . but he returned in 1944 as an American soldier. The slightly surreal feeling of returning to one's war-ravaged homeland, pockets filled with chewing gum and cigarettes, is one of the emotions the film explores.

When "Welcome in Vienna" was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, Troller recalled that in 1938, "after the Nazis entered Vienna, we knew we had to leave. But it was a wrenching idea: I adored this country that hated me. I didn't want to emigrate." But the Troller family did flee, via France and North Africa, to the United States.

Along the way, they learned how isolated refugees could be: After 15 days on foot, they arrived in France and were placed in a camp for "foreign enemies." According to Troller, "The French didn't know there was a difference between refugees and Nazis."

The Viennese exile joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and, along with other German-speaking soldiers (many of them Jewish), was dispatched to Austria in a unit which interrogated prisoners of war.

"Welcome in Vienna" focuses on two uprooted "Americans"--Freddy and Adler (Nicolas Brieger), a Jewish intellectual from Berlin--and their relationship with the Austrians. Freddy falls in love with Claudia (Claudia Messner), a Viennese actress whose father is welcomed by American intelligence agents despite his Nazi allegiances. And when Adler and Freddy are cast in the role of occupiers at war's end, they must deal with Treschensky (Karlheinz Hackl), a clever, opportunistic Austrian who sides with whomever is in power.

For Corti, a leading Austrian director of cinema, theater, television and radio, "Welcome in Vienna" is partly an attempt to create awareness by confronting Austrian anti-Semitism. "An anti-Semitic attitude has been a long tradition among Austrian Catholics," he observed in Cannes during an interview last year. "It was imprinted on the political platforms of the Christian People's parties."

Troller, also attending the Cannes festival, added that "the Austrians were always more anti-Semitic than the Germans. Hitler didn't invent anything: He merely elaborated on the ideas of his time. After the Anschluss, 10% of the Austrians signed up with the Nazi Party--in Germany only 7% of the population did so.

"In 1943, at the Moscow Conference, the Austrians managed to obtain the status of a country annexed by Hitler. But in reality, they threw themselves into his arms! What's happening today shows that they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing."

Corti was born in Paris in 1933, then grew up in Italy, Switzerland, England, Germany and Austria. The director-actor collaborated with Troller on what is now a trilogy of the writer's experiences.

Whereas the first two parts of the trilogy--"God Does Not Believe in Us Anymore" and "Santa Fe"--were made for TV, "Welcome in Vienna" was designed for the big screen. Shot in black and white evocative of the period, the cinematography is by Gernot Roll, who also filmed Edgar Reitz's 15-hour "Heimat."

Corti, who is not Jewish, suggested that Austrians tend to shrug off the burden of the recent past "because they are afraid of pain. Franz Werfel, an outstanding Austrian novelist, poet and playwright (whose 'A Woman's Pale Blue Handwriting' Corti directed), said 'Whatever happens in this life is a result of being afraid of pain."

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