Considered the pinnacle of '30s Austrian cinema, Maskerade embodies much of the best of 30s European filmmaking, in which the camera dances to a distinctly musical rhythm of movements and countermovements. It sits comfortably among the '30s films of Rene Clair, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir, as well as Ernst Lubitsch's work in Hollywood. Compared to most of those films, its topic may seem relatively fluffy: an artist creates a minor scandal by painting a masked nude suspected to be an aristocrat's fiancee; when he names an innocent girl in an attempted cover-up, it leads to unexpected romantic entanglement. Willi Forst takes a well-worn continental costume milieu as a starting point, doing everything he can to breathe life into it. The camera darts with ease through ballroom scenes, connecting the eyelines of characters as they scope each other's movements. He laces the film with clever tricks both visual (dialogues filmed in silhouette) and aural (a montage of citizens making animal sounds while reading the gossip pages). Driving everything is a buoyant soundtrack of 19th century waltzes and opera, whose lilting rhythms can be found in the film's pacing even when the music subsides. The film itself feels like a symphony of varied movements: robust allegros, minuet-like montages, and a climactic rondo that brings everything to full circle. Overall, life is presented as an irresistible society ball, governed by status, gossip and decadent desire.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Maskerade among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Friedrich Luft, Sight & Sound (1952) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982) Kazakh Cinematheque World Poll - 100 Best Films (2006) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
It is unfortunate that we should have seen "Escapade" before having had an opportunity to admire "Masquerade in Vienna," the Viennese film which Metro copied in 1935 when it sought an introductory vehicle for Luise Rainer. "Escapade," we now realize, was a rather bad imitation. Like most copies, it tended to exaggerate the distinctive qualities of the original, understating one, overemphasizing another and throwing the entire theme slightly out of focus. "Masquerade," which opened yesterday at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, has none of "Escapade's" defects. It steers a deftly guided course between farce and drama and it emerges as a frivolous, yet tender, romantic comedy.
Willy Forst's direction has kept his narrative spinning gayly, and an engaging cast, headed by the charming Paula Wessely in the Rainer rôle, has enlivened it with a series of deftly executed character studies. Miss Wessely, more self-contained than Miss Rainer, is wholly attractive as the shy little person innocently drawn into the spicy scandal of the lady in the mask. Particularly captivating is she in the scene where she timorously enters the artist's studio, expecting to find cushions, incense and drugged wine, and is, instead, subjected to a growling bullying by the conscience-stricken painter. I cannot find much virtue in Anton Walbrook's portrayal of the artist Heideneck, but Walter Janssen is knowingly comic as the badgered conductor whose wife has been indiscreet, Peter Petersen is excellent as the gruff Dr. Harrandt, and Olga Tschekowa, Julia Serda and Hilde von Stolz are faultless.
- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, January 26 1937
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.
- Robert von Dassanowsky, Senses of Cinema
Anton Walbrook, young and elegant, plays the artist who sketches the wife of a prominent Viennese surgeon in nothing but a mask and a muff, and then is forces to invent a model. Paula Wessely is the girl he invents. Walter Reisch's light, romantic screenplay is an almost perfect example of writing for the screen.
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies. Macmillan, 1991. Page 470
ABOUT WILLI FORST
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.
-Robert von Dassanowsky, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Willi Forst to date is the greatest talent in Austrian film history, with the possible exception of Billy Wilder, who had to emigrate.
Together with Walter Reisch, an Austrian scriptwriter in Berlin who had tailored nearly all of Willi Forst's German roles for him, Forst coauthored the screenplay for the Schubert film Leise flehen meine Lieder (1933). Thus was the "Viennese film" born, with its inimitable blend of music and action. The film was romantic, but Forst did not dwell on a sugary Biedermeier image, but also showed the poor living conditions and class barriers. In 1934 he produced and directed the big production, Maskerade (1934), the film which launched Paula Wessely on her way to film stardom and Hans Moser as comic. This social comedy set in turn-ofthe-century Vienna featured the big ball scenes of which Willi Forst became the unsurpassed master, and a frivolous love story ending very conservatively: the famous painter (Adolf Wohlbrück) chooses not the jaded, elegant society lady (Olga Tschechowa) as his wife, but the plain, wholesome poor girl (Paula Wessely), thus reflecting the contemporary ideological attitude toward women in the Austrian corporate state. Beginning with this big success Forst as actor, director, screenwriter, and producer dominated the Austrian filmmaking scene for the next fifteen years. In life as in film, he was the quintessential elegant Viennese gentleman. As a film maker he aimed at perfection.
- Gertraud Steiner Daviau, Film Reference.com
ABOUT WIENER FILM
Wiener Film (German; plural: Wiener Filme; literally, "Viennese film") is an Austrian film genre, consisting of a combination of comedy, romance and melodrama in an historical setting, mostly, and typically, the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Wiener Film genre was in production between the 1920s and the 1950s, with the 1930s as its high period.
These films are always set in the past, and achieve a high emotional impact by their oscillation between extreme emotional states, between hope and suffering, for example, or pleasure and loss. Most of them are set in the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when as the capital of the multiracial monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it had its greatest social and cultural significance. The protagonists belong to a variety of social classes, which adds to the interest of the relationships between them. The concepts of honour and morality of the period are often of great significance in the development of the plots. The Wiener Film is almost always happy, life-affirming and relaxed. Music and song feature prominently, either in the form of orchestral and musical scenes or as interpolated songs by the characters. Humour often arises from misunderstandings, mistaken identity, misadventures and the resultant efforts to restore order, with often farcical consequences.
Dramaturgically the Wiener Film generally contains several principal characters and several more subsidiary characters, all of whom recur frequently throughout the film as the action develops. They do not always all know each other, but are nevertheless connected by the plots and sub-plots running in parallel. The action mostly centres on love affairs great and small, often with elements of the comedy of mistaken identity. The films are generally unchallenging in terms of the contemporary socio-political issues and environment (for some rare exceptions see below).
The first films that can be classed as Wiener Filme were created in the 1920s, in the days of the silent film. The genre trached its full potential however with sound film, when the specifically Viennese dialect (see below), verbal dexterity and the characteristically Viennese acid wit (Wiener Schmäh) were able to come into their own and made the genre popular not only in Austria but also in Germany. Willi Forst's production Leise flehen meine Lieder, a biography of Franz Schubert, was so successful that an English-language version was made, under the title Unfinished Symphony. Willi Forst is one of the most significant directors of Wiener Film, and made what is generally reckoned to be the best of the genre, the 1935 film Maskerade.