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Vienna Before Nightfall (Vienne avant la nuit), the latest documentary from 86-year-old director and author Robert Bober, is a haunting portrait of a place and a people whose greatest years would give way to the horrors of World War II.
One such person was the filmmaker’s great-grandfather Wolf Leib Frankel, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who died in Vienna in 1929, a few years before Bober himself was born, and whose memory sends the director on a quest to uncover the city’s tortured yet intellectually vibrant past — a past where writers like Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth found their lives upended by the rise of the Third Reich. Released in France after a festival run that included FIDMarseille and Jerusalem, this intelligent and intimate history lesson deserves further exposure overseas.
Bober was born in Berlin in 1931, the child of German Jews who fled the Nazi regime and eventually settled in France. He is perhaps best known for his 1980 documentary Ellis Island Tales, which he made with the great experimental French writer Georges Perec. Before that, he was the assistant director of Francois Truffaut, working on such classics as The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim.
Here, Bober turns the camera on his own family to show how its tragic story shadowed the greater movements that took hold of Europe in the 1930s. “To compel the dead to remain present” is one way he describes his method, departing on a journey from Paris to Vienna to find whatever traces are left of his ancestor Frankel, who can be seen in a few surviving photos that offer a glimpse onto Jewish life before the dual events of Anchluss and Kristallnacht would mark the beginning of the end.
Anecdotes about Frankel — some of which are depicted via a series of elegant hand-drawn tableaux — are intertwined with the stories of Jewish intellectuals like Roth, who lived in Vienna until the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, and Zweig, who fled Austria in 1934 and killed himself in Brazil eight years later. At one point, Bober reads from Zweig’s suicide note, which underscore’s the film’s portrayal of a thriving pre-war culture that would find itself extinguished by the onslaught of Fascism: “I send greetings to my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.”
Alongside all the biographical information, Bober cuts in footage of Viennese life in the 1920s and ‘30s, including images of Jewish quarters that were wiped out after 1938, along with excerpts from the Max Ophuls films La Ronde and Letter From an Unknown Woman — the latter of which was based on a Zweig novella set in Vienna’s glory days of the early 20th century. The mix of past and present, with the director lingering in cafes and trolley cars as he searches for remnants of life before the fall, makes for an unsettling effect, as does the foreknowledge that a swath of Bober’s family would all but vanish from the city.
The sad irony is that while Bober’s Ellis Island Tales remains his most memorable work, he explains at one point how his great-grandfather Frankel was actually rejected from that same island when he tried to immigrate to the U.S. at the turn of the last century. Had he been able to stay, several of his children and grandchildren may have known a different fate than the one they would suffer at the hands of the Nazis, and the only existing photograph that shows the whole family united together would have been more than just proof of so many lives lost.
Production companies: Les Films du Poisson, Riva Filmproduktion, KGP Production
Director-screenwriter: Robert Bober
Producers: Estelle Fialon, Michael Eckelt, Gabriele Kranzelbinder
Director of photography: Giovanni Donfrancesco
Editor: Catherine Zins
Composers: Denis Cuniot, Yom
Sales: Les Films du Poisson
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