Viennale festival opens with historical drama

The Vienna International Film Festival opens on Thursday, showing new films from around the world, some of them international premieres.

Viennale festival opens with historical drama
A still from Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou. Photo: Stadtkino Filmverleih

The Viennale festival begins with a gala screening of Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s new film Amour Fou, a portrait of the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist and his friend Henriette Vogel, and the steps leading to their 1811 suicide pact.

The festival also features a retrospective of John Ford films, and a tribute to the late German director Harun Farocki.

A special programme has been dedicated to Danish-American actor Viggo Mortensen, who was invited to appear as a guest at the festival but had to cancel. American actor Willem Dafoe (who stars in Abel Ferrara's film Pasolini) was also invited but declined – so the festival will lack star appearances this year. Harry Belafonte, Michael Caine and Will Ferrell have appeared at previous Viennale festivals.

However, over 75 of the 391 films have already sold out, with festival favourites from Cannes and Venice such as Deux Jours, Une Nuit with Marion Cotillard, and Clouds of Sils Maria with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart proving especially popular. 

German directors Christian Petzold (Phoenix), Thomas Heise (Städtebewohner) and Dominik Graf (Die geliebten Schwestern) will attend and introduce their films, as will American independent filmmakers Debra Granik (Stray Dog) and Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) and the British director and screenwriter Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy and Björk: Biophilia Live).  

Die Presse newspaper writes that Viennale director Hans Hurch is known for his love of “uncomfortable, political, and often marginalized stories", and that this year's programme reflects that. 

Austrian cinema is dominated by its most controversial and influential director Michael Haneke, who is the most internationally successful Austrian filmmaker working today.

Other Austrian directors such as Ulrich Seidl, Markus Schleinzer, Stefan Ruzowitzky and Barbara Albert are also known for their thought-provoking and often dark and disturbing films.

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‘Love in midst of horror’: Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition

The two newlyweds have dressed up for the picture, but they are not smiling. And for good reason: their union was sealed at Auschwitz -- the only wedding known to have taken place in the death camp.

'Love in midst of horror': Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition

The yellowed photo of Rudolf Friemel, an Austrian communist who resisted the Nazis, and his Spanish wife Margarita Ferrer Rey, is now on show in his home town Vienna.

It is the centrepiece of an exhibition, “The Wedding of Auschwitz”, which uses papers donated by their family to tell the couple’s heart-breaking story.

Friemel met Ferrer Rey in Spain after going there to fight with the International Brigades in 1936 against General Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

He was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 after returning home.

In the camp he was set to work repairing SS vehicles, and was held in “better conditions than other prisoners”, according to Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Ludwig, who wrote the introduction to the catalogue.

But why the Nazis granted the Friemels — their bitter enemies — “such an unique privilege to be able to marry remains a mystery to this day,” Ludwig added.

Escape attempt

“What I find most interesting is that we see that there was love in the midst of horror,” the couple’s grandson, Rodolphe Friemel, told AFP from his home in southern France.

He wondered if “maybe my grandparents did all this just to see each other again,” with Margarita allowed to travel to Auschwitz from Vienna for the wedding with their son — who was born in 1941 — and Friemel’s father.

The marriage was registered at 11 a.m. on March 18th, 1944, as the slaughter at the camp reached its peak.

Some one million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as homosexuals, prisoners of war and others persecuted by Germany’s Nazi regime.

Photos of the Gestapo Vienna detection service, September 1941. (Rudolf Friemel Estate, Vienna Library in the City Hall)

Friemel, 48, gave the wedding documents, including congratulations messages from other prisoners, to the Vienna City Library early this year to ensure their preservation.

His grandfather was allowed to wear civilian clothes and let his hair grow for the occasion, and a cell was made available to the couple for their wedding night in the camp brothel.

But the respite was shortlived. Rudolf Friemel was hanged in December 1944 for helping to organise an escape attempt. The camp was liberated a month later.

All his wife and child — who moved to France after the war — were left with were his heartbreaking letters and poems.

Margarita died in 1987.

The show runs at Vienna City Library until the end of the month.