The Austro-Italian film relations during the 1930s make for an interesting chapter in Italy’s film history, as well as in Austria’s one, but hardly anything has been written about it so far. The topic has been mostly neglected by both Italian and Austrian scholars, and the Austro-Italian film relations between the two world wars represent an almost unknown territory which still needs to be explored.
Two factors essentially explain the co-operation that developed between the Italian and Austrian film industries around the mid-1930s. One is the political affinity between Italy and Austria at that time. The Austrian Ständestaat and the Italian fascist regime were close. Italy supported Austria against Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and when the Führer tried in 1934 to annex Austria to the Third Reich, the Italian Duce Benito Mussolini defended Austria’s sovereignty. The other factor was inherent the Italian cinema. There was a general effort to re-conquer some prestige after the deep crisis of the 1920s. The Italian cinema wanted to go international again, and the Italian producers tried to take advantage of the situation in Germany after 1933, when many Austrian film directors, actors, technicians had to leave the country because of their Jewish origins.
Between 1934 and 1938 there was a clear effort to build up a film axis between Rome and Vienna. The Austrian film industry needed international partners to counterbalance the increasing pressure that the Third Reich put on the Austrian producers, and the Italian cinema hoped to profit from the worldwide rennomée that the Wiener Film enjoyed at that time.
The Italian film Casta Diva is probably the most interesting result of such a strategy. Carmine Gallone’s film of 1935 represents one of the major Italian productions of the 1930s. Every history of Italian cinema would mention the film, but what hardly any scholars acknowledge is the fundamental contribution of the Austrian cinema to Casta Diva. The script was by Walter Reisch, who later emigrated to Hollywood, and Casta Diva starred the Hungarian operetta singer Marta Eggerth, who had played in 1933 in Leise flehen meine Lieder, one of the most famous Austrian films of the 1930s. Franz Planer was the director of photography, Werner Schlichting the set designer, and Willy Schmidt-Gentner composed the music. There was also an English version, The Divine Spark, and Arnold Pressburger, Gregor Rabinowitsch and Wilhelm Szekely, who had all left Berlin after 1933, participated in the production. The film won the Coppa Mussolini for the best Italian production at the Venice festival, and Casta Diva circulated worldwide.
The success of the film stimulated the Austro-Italian co-operation, and Casta Diva is at the center of a group of pictures that were shot between Rome and Vienna around the mid 1930s. Other films are Opernring, Blumen aus Nizza, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, and Una donna fra due mondi. Opernring and Blumen aus Nizza were produced by Wilhelm Szekely, and Opernring was again directed by Carmine Gallone, while the Italian Augusto Genina directed Blumen aus Nizza. Franz Planer photographed both films, and Willy Schmidt-Gentner composed the music of Opernring. The Austrian producer Eduard Albert Kraus, beside Opernring, produced also Tagebuch einer Verlorenen and Una donna fra due mondi. The latter was directed by Goffredo Alessandrini, while Arthur M. Rabenalt took care of the German version Die weisse Frau des Maharadscha. Both Tagebuch einer Verlorenen and Una donna fra due mondi starred the Italian diva Isa Miranda, and a prominent writer, Corrado Alvaro, contributed to the script.
Tight production links, as well as personal continuities and aesthetics resemblances characterize Casta Diva and the other Austro-Italian pictures, which should be understood as transnational films, in which different cultural traditions as well as stylistic influences coalesce. The result are some complex and intriguing movies, that deserve to be studied.