(2/10) In a nutshell: This 1952 musical comedy is a propaganda film made in Austria during the occupation of the Allied forces, intended to promote the withdrawal of international troops and boost the national identity. Set in the year 2000, it follows the proceedings of a prime minister rolling out the greatest hits of Austrian history, art and music in order to convince the leaders of a global police force to finally lift the occupation from the country. Much singing, dancing and historical re-enactment, but very little actual plot. Plus for gathering the creme de la creme of Austrian stage talent, minus for blackface.
April 1, 2000 (1952). Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by Rudolf Brunngraber and Ernst Marboe. Starring: Hilde Krahl, Josef Meinrad, Waltraut Haas, Judith Holzmeister, Elisabeth Stemberger, Ulrich Bettac, Karl Ehmann, Peter Gerhard, Curd Jürgens, Robert Michal, Heinz Moog, Paul Hörbiger, Hans Moser. Produced by Karl Ehrlich and Ernst Marboe for Wien-Film and the government of Austria. IMDb score: 5.9
This is one of the more interesting science fictions films to come out of Europe in the early fifties. That’s not saying a lot, though, as the sci-fi craze didn’t quite catch on in the Old World with the same speed as in Hollywood. With the exception of the British The Man in the White Suit (1951, review), the Europeans really didn’t make science fiction worth noting between 1950 and 1953, when the TV-series The Quatermass Experiment (review) renewed the continent’s interest in the genre. April 1, 2000 (or 1. April, 2000) also has the distinction of being only the third science fiction film to come out of Austria, unless you count The Hands of Orlac, which I stubbornly call a supernatural horror film. Even more interesting is that it was commissioned by the Austrian government.
Directors Henrik Galeen, Karl Hartl and Fritz Lang were all born in Austria, but made their films primarily in Germany at first, and later in the United States, which bereft Austria of the possible sci-fi films they might have had. Unfortunately Austria didn’t just export good directors to Germany, but certain Nazi leaders as well, which oddly enough is relevant for April 1, 2000.
To understand the movie, one must rewind the clock to WWII, when Austria, willingly or unwillingly, allied with Nazi Germany – others would say they were occupied by Nazi Germany, which is the point that this film implicitly tries to make. When the war ended in 1945 Japan and Germany were occupied by the Allied powers, but few today remember that Austria was another country that got ”invaded” so to speak. A union between France, USA, UK and USSR were in charge of a transitional government, much like Nato took control over Kosovo in the nineties. This move was widely seen as unjust in Austria, that considered itself a victim of Nazi atrocities as much as any other conquered European nation. Austrians liked to point to the fact that the four Allied Countries themselves had stipulated in the 1943 Moscow Declarations that Austria was the first country to fall victim of the Nazi aggression through the Anschluss in 1938. After the war the Allies decided to occupy Austria for an undisclosed future, until a stable and democratic government had been established.
When the occupation of Austria showed no signs of ending in the fifties, the Austrian people and government became ever more frustrated. They felt they were being unjustly punished for the outbreak of WWII, for which – in their opinion – they had no guilt. Add to this the fact that Austria had also been heavily punished for the outbreak of WWI, as Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The occupation of Austria finally ceded in 1955, but that probably had more to do with the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, than with the impact of this propaganda comedy.
That was the historical background when the Austrian government decided that it was time to take a stand for Austrian independence through light ridicule of the occupying powers. This was possible partly because the country’s cultural sector had been rebuilt largely with American funds, ironically enough. As the communists occupying parts of the country and parts of the capital Vienna didn’t take lightly on criticism, it was decided that the story was to be told as a futuristic fable, rather than a contemporary piece.
The film is set in the year 2000, on April Fools Day, of all days, and foresees that the occupation of the country has lasted 55 years. The newly elected Ministerpräsident or prime minister of Austria (Josef Meinrad) unilaterally declares Austria independent and tells all Austrians to tear up their quadrilingual ID cards issued by the allied forces. But this is seen by the Allies as a threat to world peace, and the leaders of the ”Global Union” are called in to preserve the peace. The World Police arrives in rocketships, and parachute down in the country, dressed in Michelin Man-outfits and retro-futuristic helmets, along with death ray guns. The leaders of the Global Union descend in front of the Schönbrunn Palace in a hovering sphere, not unlike a flying saucer.
The Union is led by its beautiful but stern North American president (Hilde Krahl), who is accompanied by delegates from Latin America (Judith Holzmeister in brownface), Africa (Ulrich Bettach in blackface), China (Robert Michal in stereotypical Chinese makeup and wardrobe) and the Arab countries (Heinz Moog dressed as a sheik). The president declares that they are there to evaluate whether Austria should be crushed by military force or whether the Austrians should all be sent into exile in sparsely inhabited areas, and the country itself turned into a giant museum and recreation area. The five delegates take place in the grand hall of the Schönbrunn Palace to hear the evidence from the four occupying forces and the prime minister.
The premier, however, has set a plan in motion to convince the delegates that Austria is a peaceful country full of beauty, art and culture. To do this he has engaged thousands of actors, musicians and performers to play out tableaus of Austria’s history, showing how the country has always worked for peace, co-operation and good will towards all men. Rolled out are Mozart, Prince Eugen, Maria Theresia, Viennese wine, the Wiener-Waltz, the defence of Vienna against the Turks, the Alps, the Spanish riding schools, the folk songs, and so forth. Huge re-enactments of royal weddings and balls are made, the piety and goodness of the Austrian leaders are shown.
The delegates slowly warm to the spectacle, but the icy president isn’t swayed – history is history, and no excuse for threatening world peace. Austria will be erased from the map, she says. But the premier doesn’t give up, but gathers all the residents of Vienna in a huge parade, singing a newly composed ”Song of Austria”, and he takes the president on a romantic walk through the city to show her its beauty. Finally she changes her mind and declares Austria an independent and peaceful nation. The end.
I have written in an earlier review that any film crew has problems when it becomes more important to make a statement than to make a good film, and that is certainly true about April 1, 2000. This is purely a propaganda piece, and no effort was really made to turn it into a good film as such. It was partly commissioned to help sway foreign dignitaries, who were invited en masse to the film’s premiere, but more importantly to help build a national identity and boost the morals of a disillusioned country under foreign occupation.
One of the sins of this propaganda film is revisionist history. Portraying Austria as a peaceful nation (historically speaking) is absurd, since the nation has been in the focus of numerous European wars and has a history of aggressive expansion. The filmmakers have conveniently ended their historical resumé with Maria Theresa in the 18th Century, and completely forgotten about the suppression of Hungary during the Austro-Hungarian empire and the fact that between the two world wars Austria developed into a fascist autocracy several years before Anschluss. This has been a taboo in Austrian history, and it wasn’t until the seventies that the chancellor officially admitted that the fascist regime in the country may well have been partly to blame for the outbreak of WWII.
The ”plot” if one can call it as such, is flimsy at best, one might even say non-existent. More than anything it is a patchwork of historical tableaus, dance performances and musical numbers interspersed between narration and ideological monologues. Although supposed to be a comedy, the humour is mostly tacked on in short interludes that have little to do with the proceedings of the movie. All characters are one-dimensional stereotypes designed as spokespersons for ideas, which there is – in the end – very little of in the film. The light-hearted tone of the film actually works against it, as there is never really any sense of danger or stakes. We all know from the very beginning that the premier is going to sway the delegation in the end, and the rest of the film is merely a transportation from point A to the inevitable point B.
The film has no interesting personal drama or characters to invest in. Even the main character, the prime minister, has no real personal stakes in the movie, as the idea of what would happen – on a human level – if the delegation wasn’t swayed is never really presented in any cinematic way. The idea of turning the whole of Austria into a recreation area is so outlandish that it is impossible to take seriously, and thus the absence of characters to invest in undermines the film’s chance of working as an effective satire. The screenwriters Rudolf Brunngraber and Ernst Marboe (who also produced) were respected authors and social commentators, but lacked any experience in writing for stage or film, and fail to grasp what makes a good screenplay. Another proof of the production team’s inexperience with film is that fact that the movie ended up costing ten times its original budget. I can’t find any numbers, but the film must have been one of the more expensive made in Central Europe at the time.
At least the director Wolfgang Liebeneiner was a man of experience. Liebeneiner was a German theatre and film actor and director born in current-day Poland. He made his first film in 1937, and by 1938 had advanced to the position of artistical director at Babelsberg film academy, and later took over as production chief at the film studio Ufa. Four of his early films were nominated for the Mussolili Cup for best foreign film at the Venice Biennale. The fifth and las one, the controversial I Accuse (Ich Klage an, 1941), a propaganda film for euthanasia, won the award. Both his 1951 film A Devil of a Woman (Die Weibsteufel) and April 1, 2000 were nominated for the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the latter probably more because of political reasons than anything else. In the late fifties Liebeneiner garnered considerable success with his films The Family Trapp (1956) and The Family Trapp in America (1958). In the sixties he transitioned into TV, where he worked alongside his undertakings in theatre, until the mid-eighties.
Liebeneiner enlisted three cinematographers, of which the best known is Fritz Arno Wagner, a legend in German expressionist cinema, who filmed movies like F.W. Murnau’s The Haunted Castle (1951), and Nosferatu (1922), G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (1931), as well as Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), Spies (1928), M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).
Unfortunately Wagner’s fame doesn’t do much to help the movie. Not that there is anything wrong with the cinematography, which is stylish and professional, but rather dull. The film’s decor is wonderfully lit and the shots from the Schönbrunn Palace and the Stephansdom cathedral are stunningly beautiful. But the nature of the film makes it difficult to infuse much originality into it, and Liebeneiner wasn’t a very original director. Apart from a few tracks and pans of mass scenes, the shots are static and stiff.
When it comes to the design of the sets and the wardrobe, the film scores big. The period tableaus invoke the feel of lavish costume dramas, and the design of the World Police is hilarious. The futuristic garb of the elite is so-so, but has some nice quirks, like the striped leggings of the prime ministers’s secretary Mitzi (the wonderful Waltraut Haas) and the electronic device that the elite wear on their chests, like a foreshadowing of the handsfree or the iPod. But unfortunately the production budget doesn’t seem to have allowed for any sort of design for the commoners, who all dress like it’s 1952 – in fact for the ordinary citizen progress seems to have completely halted in that year, which is just a sign of sloppy screenwriting, direction and design.
When it comes to the actors, we get the ceme de la creme of Austrian theatre actors, most of them more or less unknown outside the German-speaking world. The cast is headed by Hilde Krahl, one of the most respected theatre actresses is Austria, and one of the screen’s biggest stars as well. She got her breakthrough on the screen in the 1940 movie The Postmaster, based on a story by Alexander Pushkin. In the late forties and early fifties she had a string of leading roles, not seldom in films directed by her then-husband, Wolfgang Liebeneier. Just prior to April 1, 2000 she did the role she is best remembered for, when she played the first Nobel peace laureate Bertha von Suttner in Herz der Welt (1952), which got the English title No Greater Love, and later, oddly, The Alfred Nobel Story. She starred on TV up until 1996. In April 1, 2000 she is wonderfully icy, but without making a caricature, as the president of the Global Union, and brings much life and nuance to what is a very flat role on paper.
The same goes for Josef Meinrad, who is utterly likeable as the prime minister of Austria. He’s also able to infuse the cardboard cutout of a character he is entrusted with with much humanity and charm. Meinrad is considered one of the best stage actors in Austria’s history, and between 1959 and his death in 1996 he was the keeper of the fabled Iffland Ring, a prize awarded to ”the best and worthiest actor in German-language theatre”. The history of the ring is shrouded in mystery, but it is a prize that is given for life, and the current bearer appoints a successor in a will, and the ring changes owner after the keeper’s death. Meinrad awarded the ring to its current bearer, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, best known for his viral performance as Adolf Hitler in Downfall (2004), and a few thousand fan-made Youtube videos.
Waltraut Haas brings her great comedic and chirpy talent to the role of the secretary Mitzi, grounded in a steady theatrical background. Haas was also a talented singer, and one of the most popular comediennes in Austrian cinema in the fifties and sixties. She made a huge impact in her first film role Der Hofrat Geiger (1947) as Mariandl, the illegitimate daughter of an innkeeper in a small village whose life is turned upside down when her father, a retired government minister, comes knocking. In the 1961 remake Mariandl and its follow-up Mariandls Heimkehr (1962) she played the mother Marianne. Her other famous roles include the leads in the musical comedy The White Horse Inn (1960) and the German comedy Wenn der Vater mit dem Sohne, opposite German comedy star Heinz Rühmann (1955), who incidentally starred in the sci-fi movie Der Herr von Andern Stern (1949, review).
The one actor of the cast that international viewers should recognise is Curd Jürgens, a theatrical actor with a long experience in film. He did his first film role in 1935, 20 years old, but it wasn’t until 20 years later he got his real breakthrough as a daredevil fighter pilot and general in The Devil’s General (1955). He became an internationally known actor when he played Brigitte Bardot’s older lover in Roger Vadim’s French film …And God Created Woman (1956). The film caught the eye of Twentieth Century-Fox, who was always in need of good-looking, English-speaking European actors, and cast him as as German submarine commander in the Robert Mitchum film The Enemy Below (1957), which sealed his typecasting in roles as European military types and villains.
Of course Jürgens couldn’t escape the Hollywood notion that anyone with an accent can play any ethnicity, which led to him playing Chinese Captain Lin Nan in the Ingrid Bergman film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1959), opposite another Chinese character, played by Robert Donat. That same year he starred in Edward Dmytryk’s The Blue Angel, and in 1967 he played Carl von Kesser opposite stars like Joan Crawford, Herbert Lom, Telly Savalas, and of course Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. film The Karate Killers. He had previously played the role in the TV series. Two years later he found himself in Britain, surrounded by Michael Caine, Ian McShane, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer and Michael Redgrave in Battle of Britain.
And in 1977 he played the role which he is forever immortalised for, as the crazy industrialist who wants to turn the whole world into an ocean in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, with Roger Moore, Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel as Jaws. In 1979 he played a Neo-Nazi doctor who tries to make a superwoman out of his daughter in Goldengirl, and in 1980 he played in a film with the rather odd name Warum die UFOs unseren Salat klauen – or: Why the UFO’s Steal Our Lettuce. I would really want to know the answer to that question. Despite his numerous films, Jürgens never left the stage and considered himself mainly a stage actor, which is perhaps why he found it easy to accept quite a number of silly film roles as well.
In two minor supporting roles we see Paul Hörbiger – known for his one English-speaking role in The Third Man (1949), and Hans Moser, one of Austria’s biggest comedy stars at the time.
The acting is not a problem in this film, in fact the acting is rather stellar. Neither is the design or the budget. The problem is that it is less a film than a nationalistic revue of Austria’s greatest hits throughout history rolled out as a theatrical spectacle. Although understandable considering the circumstances, the white-washing of Austria’s history and especially the country’s role in WWII is problematic, as is the fact that a film that is trying to take the moral high ground engages in such blatant stereotyping of different ethnicities. Kudos to the film for placing a strong woman as the president of the world, in effect, but the move is quickly counteracted by Ulrich Bettac’s blackface, which is unforgivable, even in 1952. Blackface in movies had long since been banned in Hollywood, even if the stereotype lingered on for many years regarding Asians and other ethnicities (and indeed blackface does turn up for effect in many later films in Hollywood as well).
The movie is also way too long for its flimsy plot, and it soon gets tedious to watch yet another big dance number or an opera medley or a horse show or a singing rally that goes on for much too long. Perhaps it worked as a piece of moral-boosting propaganda back in the day, but as a feature film it falls flat. However, the film was chosen as one of Austria’s 150 best films, that were all re-released on DVD in the year 2000 – ironically the same year as many European countries implemented sanctions against Austria when Jörg Haider’s far-right party rose to the country’s government.
April 1, 2000 (1952). Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by Rudolf Brunngraber and Ernst Marboe. Starring: Hilde Krahl, Josef Meinrad, Waltraut Haas, Judith Holzmeister, Elisabeth Stemberger, Ulrich Bettac, Karl Ehmann, Peter Gerhard, Curd Jürgens, Robert Michal, Heinz Moog, Guido Wieland, Paul Hörbiger, Hans Moser, Hans Holt, Elfi von Dassanowksy. Music: Josef Fiedler, Alois Melichar, Robert Stoltz. Cinematography: Sepp Ketterer, Karl Löb, Fritz Arno Wagner. Editing: Henny Brünch-Tauschinsky. Art director: Otto Niedermoser. Costume design: Leo Bei, Elli Rolf. Production manager: Josef W. Beyer. Sound: Herbert Janeczka, Otto Untersalmberger. Choreographer: Erika Hanka. Produced by Karl Ehrlich and Ernst Marboe for Wien-Film and the government of Austria.