Without their emblematic musical leitmotifs, what would we remember about Rose and Jack with their arms stretched out on the bow of the Titanic, or the sinister appearance of Darth Vader or the mission of Captain Jack Sparrow? When you remember stirring movie scenes, you often remember them with the film score in mind. Used skilfully, music touches our emotions, directs our attention, and repeating motifs have great recognition value. The propaganda officers of the Nazi regime knew all of that when they garnered the services of the Wien-Film production company as soon as they had seized power in Austria.
What was produced in Vienna had to be approved in Berlin. “Fifty more or less ideologically charged feature films were produced in Vienna during the Nazi era. The filmmakers in the ‘capital of music’ were often recruited to produce light-hearted entertainment,” says Stefan Schmidl in describing the restricted autonomy the film studio had under Nazi control. Music historian Schmidl has also analysed forthright propaganda films such as Heimkehr, Der Postmeister or a dozen music-enhanced “cultural films”. The latter were short films designed to educate that audience in Nazi ideology before the main feature. Funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the current project aims at reappraisal in terms of music and film history of the complete output of Wien-Film between 1938 and 1945. The sources used by the researcher include original scores with and without handwritten notes, scripts, different versions of music arrangements, cast lists, contracts, correspondence and the finished 35mm films.
Music affects people
Where does one draw the line between music as a good conduit for emotions, as it became popular with the advent of talking films from 1927 onward, and its use for propaganda? “In general, the music was of high quality, but it was not always used in the final version of a film. The film scores were recorded by the best and most famous orchestras of Vienna, which contributed to the well-known and approved style. And the musical elements used did, of course, tie in with listening habits at the time,” says principal investigator Stefan Schmidl from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Schmidl pays close attention to what music was used, and when and how, to enhance the effect of the film scenes. In simplified terms, he distinguishes two categories: a well-known piece of music is placed in the service of ideology, or pieces specifically composed for the film emphasize important points, create highlights and direct the audience’s attention.
Waltzes and songs gone astray
A case in point is the iconic Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss II, which features as a fanfare at the beginning of Wien-Film’s signature tune. Another example of its continued use, albeit completely unlinked to the subject of the project, is the signature tune of the Austrian television news Zeit im Bild that also makes reference to the Blue Danube waltz.
The Deutschlandlied, or Kaiserlied in Austria, by Joseph Haydn may serve as a further example. It was rearranged from string quartet to orchestra and was used in the propaganda movie Heimkehr starring the famous actress Paula Wessely. The basic idea of this film was to justify, in a roundabout way, the conquest of Poland by the Wehrmacht with numerous ideological allusions.
For the researchers, the number of people who came into contact with the films and the music also constitutes an important measure of the mass impact. Box office figures have always been an indicator of whether a film is a blockbuster or not. Stefan Schmidl is convinced that the musical tools and mechanisms would work just as well today as they did then. The team is also working on annotated scores for films that can be shown in schools for educational purposes: in addition to Heimkehr from 1941, a propaganda film in its most unadulterated form, these include Der Postmeister (melodrama from 1940) and Liebe ist zollfrei (a comedy from 1941).
From crates and archives into a database
Before the project began, the extensive material on the company’s history, the people involved, the working methods and the films was stored in crates at the Filmarchiv Austria. The researcher was also able to find material missing from these sources, unless it had been destroyed either by acts of war or by those in charge. He reconstituted it like a jigsaw puzzle in cooperation with international archives and bequests from individuals. In the course of the interdisciplinary processing of all the films created by Wien-Film between 1938 and 1945, the team set up a modern database which opens the gates to further research on the third location of the Nazi film industry besides Munich and Berlin.
What is novel in music history research according to Stefan Schmidl is “the density of the material, because we were able to evaluate all production material of the film studio from this period in a comprehensive manner”. In Schmidl’s eyes, the most important and surprising insight was the level of meticulousness, perfectionism and perfidious quality that went into the film productions. “1938 marked a turning point in Austria. Our results do, however, refute the belief that all that was left was a cultural wasteland. The results show that we have to revise the pessimistic perception of culture in that field. There were still many talented creative people who supported the regime’s ideology or at least adjusted to it and conducted their work at a high level of quality.” One of the team’s planned research projects is to continue their project with an analysis of the legacy and continuities of film and music production in Vienna after 1945. It would be interesting to tap into international archives that are based on material from the former Russian occupation zone.
Stefan Schmidl is a Professor of Music History at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna (MUK) and a researcher in the Department of Musicology at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage, which is part of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.