Professor explores Vienna through movies

English professor Timothy Conley gave a talk about the cinematic portrayal of Vienna, Austria, in the Wyckoff room in Cullom-Davis Library Tuesday. The presentation was based on Conley’s book, “Screening Vienna: The City of Dreams in English-Language Cinema,” which was published February.

Conley said he has a long history with Vienna, visiting first in 1991 as a Fullbright Scholar and returning frequently ever since. He said he decided to write a book about the city after seeing the film “The Illusionist” with his wife in 2006.

“As the film went on, I kept pointing out the familiar sites that I knew in Vienna,” Conley said. “She was really annoyed, but a little impressed. Unfortunately, the film was actually filmed on location in Prague, not Vienna. That compelled me to ask, ‘How had I been screening the screen of Vienna?’”

Conley said he then watched over 150 movies that portrayed Vienna and found major differences between reality and cinema.

“Vienna has been portrayed as an innocent, enchanting, musical and attractive imperial city,” Conley said. “In reality, it has many complications in every one of those areas.”

According to Conley, the films ignored the Catholic and Jewish presences within the city. They also generally ignored the fact that Austria fought against the United States in both World Wars as well as its complicity with the Nazis.

Conley said the emphasis on Vienna’s imperial history in cinema revealed the United States’ affection for empire and royalty.

“The Austrian empire is seen as a friendly empire,” Conley said. “This is why Franz Josef, an emperor of Austria, is often portrayed as a benevolent patriarchal figure, which ignores his own personality historically. On the screen, he becomes an emperor who’s more interested in the love affairs of the nobility than geopolitics, and that’s the kind of emperor Americans like.”

English professor Caitriona Moloney said she was fascinated by how films from the 1930s depicted a fusion of Austrian and American culture.

“Despite the fact that the Great Depression was going on and Austria was slipping into fascism, the films were about these opulent parties where American jazz and the Austrian waltz came together,” Moloney said. “The protagonists were usually these handsome American men who’d fall in love with an Austrian woman and than return to America with her.”

Moloney said Conley’s presentation reminded her of the film “The Quiet Man.”

“In that film, a young American comes to Ireland and falls in love with an Irish woman,” Moloney said. “The thing is it portrays all the Irishmen as little, drunk people who like to fight. The film is very skewed towards American conceptions of Ireland and doesn’t really correlate with my own experience of the island.”

Conley said every city and nation has a cinematic twin, and it can be difficult to separate the two because of the persuasiveness of the medium.

“Cinema makes us feel like we are onlookers to a real world,” Conley said. “As a result, despite knowing all of the tricks of the camera, we are less critical about what is being presented to us.”