BAFTSS New Connections Talk: ‘A Failed Film Project in Austria: Interwar Star Franziska Gaal’s Unmade Post-War Comeback’ – A Blog post by Dr Hanja Dämon

BAFTTS New Connection talk - picture of Franziska Gaal, Dr Hanja Dämon and the BAFTTS logo

Dr Hanja Dämon has written a Blog post further exploring some of the topics raised in a recent BAFTSS New Connections Talk, with a brief introduction by Dr James Fenwick. You can also watch the recorded talk on Vimeo; the talk took place on Friday 23 April 2021 and was a fascinating insight into the world of the unmade and in particular the unmade Austrian post-war “Franziska Gaal Film”.

A Failed Film Project in Austria

The study of unmade film and television from across history, and across industries, continues to grow apace. It is a field of inquiry that can serve as a vehicle to uncover hidden histories of marginalised, overlooked, and forgotten figures and events. The unmade typically resides in the shadows: it is not a tangible media object that one can watch, or hear, or see. The unmade remains absent from history, forgotten even, while the remains of the unmade are often scattered across archives, incomplete and fragmented. So what is the use in studying something that is so mysterious and that defies typical methods and approaches? Well, arguably, it is in how the unmade can act as a conduit to understand a range of intersecting histories of gender, nationality, culture, politics, and industry. The unmade can tell us much more about the way film and media industries operate and the barriers that many have faced to production throughout history. As part of the BAFTSS New Connections programme, and hosted by the CCRI, Dr Hanja Dämon recently delivered a talk examining the radical possibilities and the multiplicity of histories that a case study of the unmade can reveal. What follows is a reflection from Hanja on the implications of her ongoing research.

James Fenwick

My academic research interest in unproduction histories—engaging with films that were never made or remained unfinished in some way—was sparked during the last year when looking into the contexts of Austrian film production post World War Two. Having written my PhD thesis on German film production in occupied Germany between 1945-1949 (in which I also mention unmade film projects and argue why these might not have got off the ground), I had been wondering how the Austrian film industry fared in the early post-war years. In contemporary newspapers, I came across titles that were planned but never made and I started to wonder why.

My subsequent (independent) research has focused on an unmade film project that was publicised in the Austrian and Hungarian press, as well as in US trade papers like Variety, between 1946 and 1947. It was slated to feature and be crewed by well known figures, such as the actor Anton Walbrook (born Adolf Wohlbrück in Vienna and at that time living in the UK, although his participation was never confirmed) and the operetta and film music composer Robert Stolz. The planned film’s main attraction, however, was the return to Vienna of Hungarian-born interwar star Franziska Gaal, who had risen to international fame in German-language films of the 1930s and who had made her Hollywood debut under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille alongside Fredric March in 1937. Two more Hollywood films followed, after which she returned to her native Hungary. When mass deportations of Hungarian Jews began she was forced into hiding, where she remained until freed by the Soviet troops, who recognised her due to the immense popularity her films had enjoyed in the 1930s in the Soviet Union.

One post-war German-language project starring Franziska Gaal commenced production in Budapest’s Hunnia-film studio after 1945. It was reportedly about a young king who eventually turns out to be a woman, but the film, which alongside Gaal would have boasted an additional stellar cast including the famous Austrian actor Hans Moser, remained unfinished.  It was the production conditions in post-war Hungary that must have contributed to this film remaining unmade. While this project, entitled Renée XIV or, alternatively, Der König streikt (The King is on Strike), has been mentioned in connection with Gaal, no one has so far ever addressed another project planned for production only a little later. In development by the production company Kollektiv-Film between 1946-47, it was intended to be filmed in Vienna’s Rosenhügel studios. Entitled Tizia (or sometimes Pingulin), it was scheduled to start filming in February 1947, but it too remained unmade.

Austrian newspapers announced the planned endeavour as a “Franziska Gaal-Film”, which was a trademark in the 1930s guaranteeing entertainment in the form of well-made musical comedies.  The intended project was to be “a humorous film with a serious background”, casting Gaal as a “female Chaplin” character (Mein Film, 3 Jan 1947, p. 18). Gaal was presented with forty-one story proposals to choose from. She selected a story that focused on an innocently convicted woman just released from prison after five years. It depicted her subsequent life in a fantasy republic. It was to propagate humanism and to show in a satirical way how existing rules and regulations can sometimes interfere with leading a happy life (See Österreichische Kino-Zeitung, 21 Dec 1946).

At this time, the Rosenhügel premises in the Soviet sector of occupation allowed for the making of only one film at a time (Vienna was at this time divided amongst the four Allied powers into a Soviet, British, French, and US sector). The writer Carl Zuckmayer, on the occasion of a trip to Vienna to inspect the film situation there for the Americans, found the premises well suited for film production. He believed the premises were owned by the Kollektiv-Film company, run by two Polish brothers whose unexplained wealth made them seem rather dubious. However, his belief was a misconception, with the Rosenhügel studios used by many other companies to produce films, while the Wien-Film was most typically associated with the studio. Yet, Zuckmayer’s concerns about where the Polish brothers had obtained their money from to finance films was mirrored in the Austrian press, which alluded to the brothers as being mysterious.

A co-founder of the Kollektiv-Film company was the Austrian filmmaker Franz Antel, who would become a prolific director in terms of the numbers of films made in his decades-spanning career (as a feature film director from 1946-2003). At this time, Antel was treated with suspicion by the three western powers for his “wartime Nazi activities”, so had to kick-start his post-war film career under Soviet auspices (see Variety, 13 Aug 1947, 10). Antel also wrote in his memoirs that he did not know where his two Polish co-founders, Alexander and Julius Sheberko, had gotten their money from, but he did not care, citing it would have been “naïve” if one had probed too deeply in such matters. It turned out that Antel at this time bore his own secrets that would interfere with the company’s production success, affecting his ability to obtain a trade license necessary for making films in post-war Vienna. This mainly relates to his transfer from Austria to Germany in 1936, where he soon took up German citizenship which he retained until 1960, an aspect of his biography that remains underexplored.

Kollektiv-Film’s first (and in the end only) film was Das singende Haus (The Singing House). The shooting of the film was, according to Antel’s memoirs, “no fun”. Indeed, the film’s production took much longer than planned due to the difficult filmmaking conditions in post-war Vienna. One problem was an electricity shortage in the winter of 1946/47 , which required all filming to stop for weeks. By the time the second film planned by the Kollektiv-Film—the project with Franziska Gaal—was scheduled to start shooting, filming of Das singende Haus was still ongoing and had not yet wrapped up. Franziska Gaal’s Austrian comeback was thus delayed and, in the end, never made.

Time-bound difficult production conditions aside, Franz Antel’s failure to procure a trade license (in German: Gewerbeberechtigung) impacted on the Kollektiv-Film’s ability to continue making films. Its possession would even have been a prerequisite to start producing films in Austria in the post-war period, so for this reason it is in fact surprising that the company managed to make The Singing House. The Kollektiv-Film was under pressure from the Austrian “Association of the Film Industry”  to provide the trade license and subsequently reported Kollektiv-Film’s lack of one to the municipal authorities.

The trade license was, however, withheld. This was because when Franz Antel finally requested the license in the midst of filming The Singing House, information emerged that he had been a member of the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP) since 1933. This made him unsuitable in the eyes of the relevant magistrate to work as a film producer. As a consequence, he was going to be added to the registry of  former Nazi party members. Antel tried to clear himself to avoid such registration. No NSDAP membership number emerged in connection with his name, which helped his case. It is therefore plausible that the filmmaker indeed had never joined the party, despite having claimed in 1936, after arriving in National Socialist Germany from Austria, that he was a party member (but, like he argued in the post-war period, he might have stated this to gain employment in the German film industry).

However, even after he was deemed exempt from registration in post-war Austria, a trade license was never issued to the Kollektiv-Film.

Antel’s presumed association with the Nazi party aside, which rendered him an unsuitable candidate to be a film producer, one further argument in not granting the Kollektiv-Film a trade license was that too many production companies had been founded since the war. There was approximately sixty companies in total, an extremely large number compared to the scant studio space available in Vienna where films could be made, although not all of them were in operation or possessed the means to actually make films. Therefore, since Antel, in contrast to other companies, had proved his capacity to produce a film with The Singing House, his lawyer contested the decision, but ultimately without success. Unable to continue making films under these circumstances, the Kollektiv-Film collapsed. One of the Sheberko brothers allegedly soon left the country after co-founding the company and assumed a different name, while the other brother was later imprisoned in Germany and charged with having been involved in dollar forgery. In the years that followed, Franz Antel tried to hold off the company’s liquidation (intended for 1952) because the Kollektiv-Film had been inactive for years; he hoped he could still receive revenues from the The Singing House as long as the company existed. For the reasons stated above, the Kollektiv-Film never made its planned second film.

I find the case of the unmade Austrian post-war “Franziska Gaal-Film” important because of how so few former stars and filmmakers of the interwar German-language films who had been forced into exile eventually returned to participate in the Austrian film industry. In the case of Franziska Gaal, the assumption had previously been that her ‘type’ had remained ‘unwanted’ after 1945, as had been the case during the National Socialist dictatorship. Yet, the planned post-war Kollektiv-Film project reveals numerous newspaper articles that heralded her return to Vienna, which I find slightly reframes the story and the history of Gaal. My archival research, as well as my use of contemporary newspapers (both in library collections and online databases), reveals reasons why the planned film was never made and illustrates the complexities of filmmaking in post-war Austria. Electricity shortages that severely delayed film production in the winter of 1946/47 certainly contributed to Kollektiv-Film’s second film from being produced, as did—and arguably more importantly—denazification policies. Finding out about Antel’s NS registration case prompted me, moreover, to investigate further into the filmmaker’s past, findings which will be addressed in a forthcoming article. This exemplifies how studying an unmade film project—which was my starting point—can reveal multiple layers and facets of those involved.

It is unclear when Gaal herself knew that she would not be making the project. On the 7th May 1947, Variety noted that Gaal was ‘passing up a film role’ with the Kollektiv-Film, when the actress was about to return to the USA. Reports about the planned Gaal-project continued to appear in the media until August 1947 (claiming that Gaal was expected to return from the USA to be involved), but nothing ever came out of it, and the plan for this post-war film project drifted into oblivion.

Studying the unmade invites the exploration of production contexts of a certain time and place, and investigating this case study made me curious about what other films were planned for production in Austria but never were. This is why I am currently planning to develop a post-doctoral project on this topic. As the case of the unmade Franziska Gaal-Film demonstrates, researching unmade and unfinished projects may reveal hidden histories that have been forgotten. They merit rediscovery and analysis to expand historical knowledge as well as to re-examine previous assumptions about the past.

Dr Hanja Dämon

Cited Sources

Antel, Franz, Verdreht, verliebt, mein Leben (Vienna: Amalthea, 2001)

Zuckmayer, Carl, ‘Allgemeiner Bericht über die Filmsituation in Deutschland’ in: Deutschlandbericht für das Kriegsministeriem der Vereinigten Staaten, ed. by Gunther Nickel, Johanna Schrön and Hans Wagener (Götttingen: Wallstein, 2004)

Archival documents held in Österreichisches Staatsarchiv and Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv

About the BAFTSS New Connection Programme

The New Connections Programme is a BAFTSS scheme supporting early career researchers and academics on fixed-term contracts, encouraging them to broker a fresh relationship with an academic institution. BAFTSS provides travel bursaries or book vouchers to enable them to present their research to a new audience. Find out more about BAFTSS here.

Dr Hanja Dämon

Dr Hanja Dämon

Dr Hanja Dämon recently finished her PhD at the German Department at King’s College, London, working on post-war German film in the British and US zones of occupation between 1945 and 1949. Her research was sponsored for three years by the European Research Council project “Beyond Enemy Lines”, which engages with the role of culture in the context of occupations. Previously Dr Daemon studied History at the University of Vienna with a focus on Visual, Cultural and Contemporary History as well as a year abroad at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her first monograph will deal with British film policies in post-war Germany (upcoming with Peter Lang).



Dr James Fenwick

Dr James Fenwick

Dr James Fenwick is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for BA (Hons) Media. He is the author of Stanley Kubrick Produces (Rutgers University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (Bloomsbury, 2020). His research focus is on the role of the producer, production companies, archives, and cultural industries. He is the co-convenor of the Archives and Archival Methods Special Interest Group, an editor of the Open Screens journal, and mentor for the Early Career Mentoring Scheme.