Billy Wilder used to joke about his former compatriots in Austria. He would say, “The Austrians are a marvelous people: they have convinced the whole world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German.” Axel Corti, a Paris-born, half-Italian, half-Austrian filmmaker, would have undoubtedly appreciated this jibe. Corti, who died of leukemia in 1993, spent his entire career as a film, theater and radio director putting the Austrian-Jewish connection under the microscope of his art with scathing results.
Corti’s most significant achievement, his “Where to and Back” trilogy, has not been seen in the United States for many years but, thanks to the National Center for Jewish Film, the three films of the trilogy — “God Does Not Believe in Us Anymore” (1982), “Santa Fe” (1985) and “Welcome in Vienna” (1986) — are now available on DVD, along with Corti’s adaptation of Franz Werfel’s “A Woman’s Pale Blue Handwriting” (1984), which may be seen as a sort of prequel.
The trilogy is based largely on the experiences of Corti’s frequent collaborator, screenwriter George Stefan Troller, a Viennese Jew whose family fled the rising tide of Nazi violence in 1938. Like Ferry, the young protagonist of “God Does Not Believe,” Troller survived by his wits as he was shuttled like a pinball to France, to North Africa and finally, to the U.S. After three years of working in a bookbindery, Troller joined the U.S. Army and worked as a translator interrogating POWs. After the war he spent time with the Occupation government in Austria, returned to the University of California for a degree in English literature, and ended up in Paris working as a journalist. He had already written the script for Corti’s “Young Doctor Freud” (1976) when the pair decided to create the trilogy.
It was a serendipitous collaboration. Both Corti and Troller brought to the partnership long experience in the dramatic arts and a lifelong dedication to anti-Fascist causes. (Corti’s father had been an active member of the French Resistance and, like Troller, the Cortis had bounced all over Europe running from the Nazis.) And each member of the duo brought a highly literate, Old-World detachment to material that was undoubtedly fraught for both of them. As a result, the three films of the “Where to and Back” cycle are unusually intelligent and darkly ambivalent works, graceful as a Viennese waltz but as potentially poisonous as a wild mushroom.
“God Does Not Believe in Us Anymore” traces the desperate wanderings of Ferry, a 17-year-old Viennese Jew whose family begins to unravel almost from the very first shot of the film. Indeed, the film opens on Kristallnacht with a black screen and shouts and screams on the soundtrack. Someone says that the Jews are being given “a gym lesson,” a door opens and the first things we see in the trilogy are Ferry furtively watching from a basement window as a circle of elderly Jewish men is marched around a courtyard and forced to drop periodically for push-ups. It is a startling opening that effectively sets the scene for what is to follow, a seemingly random odyssey through Central Europe to France, and across France to Marseille.
Throughout the film — indeed, throughout each of the three films — characters drop in and out of the narrative with the seeming randomness of an extended Kafkaesque torture. Gradually, Ferry loses everyone around him, from his family to the friends he acquires on the road, most notably Gandhi (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a German who resisted Hitler, and Alena, a Jewish aid worker who becomes a surrogate mother to him. Corti and Troller construct a chaotic Europe poised on the edge of, then hurtling into, war, a place of arbitrary and capricious identities in which the French can intern German and Austrian Jewish refugees as enemy aliens. At one point in his travels, Ferry asks innocently “Do I have to belong somewhere?” The answer comes not in that conversation but in the buffeting surge of history that carries him away from his home.
At key moments in all three films, Corti uses fog and mist to create the feeling of a void, a displaced world in which conventional spatial coordinates are irrelevant if not dangerously misleading. It is the perfect visual correlative to a world in which morality is made out of shifting sands. In the middle of “Santa Fe,” which is a stark and moving portrait of the agonies of exile in America, an elderly Jewish-German writer says of his former countrymen with a faint smile, “They’ll never forgive us for what they did to us.”
That mordant aphorism echoes through the final film of the trilogy, “Welcome in Vienna,” in which another Jewish emigré, Freddy, experiences first-hand the cynicism with which de-Nazification and the black market cheerfully coexist in a still utterly anti-Semitic post-war Vienna. The most corrosive of the three films, “Welcome,” is perhaps the most realistic and forbidding cinematic portrait of the ways in which the imperatives of the Cold War and the selfishness of individuals warped and distorted the postwar reconstruction. Ruthlessly unsentimental, it is a fascinating riposte to the conventional sentimentality of such films as “The Third Man” and the naiveté of American encomia for the Marshall Plan.
Although each of the three films in the trilogy stands on its own, the trilogy is best taken as a whole, a realistic and bleak portrait of one of the darkest of dark ages.
Axel Corti’s “Where to and Back” trilogy — “God Does Not Believe In Us Anymore,” “Santa Fe,” and “Welcome in Vienna” — and “A Woman’s Pale Blue Handwriting” are available on DVD from the National Center for Jewish Film, and can be ordered at www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm.