After 52 years, Film Academy Vienna is leaving this history-steeped building on Metternichgasse and moving to its new home in the Future Art Lab on the mdw Campus. Screenwriting and directing student Albert Meisl provides his own very personal look back at the history and spirit of this building.
The saying that whoever leaves last turns out the lights is really kind of hackneyed. And even so, I went back to Metternichgasse 12 one last time so that with this text, I could at least symbolically turn out the lights on this building and its history—a history that, unfortunately, wasn’t always characterised by self-confidence. If we’d been the Reinhardt Seminar, then giving up the department’s traditional location just like that would have been unthinkable. After all, the Film Academy had made its home at the former palace of the princely Festetics family for 52 years. And in the 1970s and ’80s, Metternichgasse 12 was even the title of an ORF TV series that regularly showed works by Film Academy students—something that seems unimaginable today.
However, the fact that the departure from Metternichgasse is happening at all (and with barely a nod at that!) speaks to more than just this institution’s insufficient pride in itself: it’s also testament to its strength. After all, the Film Academy had always been characterised by modesty and noble reserve: its home was less a “palace” in the traditional sense and more of a gutted turn-of-the-century townhouse. It had been remodelled for use by the Film Academy in 1968 after serving as the Brazilian Embassy. And to the very last, the architecture and design of that period were integral to this building’s character. There was one remaining solitary witness to its proud past, namely the magnificent Mirror Room with its disused fireplace and that wonderful yellowed wallpaper—for it would seem that they didn’t gut buildings nearly as thoroughly back then as they do today. But the rest was fully in keeping with the mid-century building style of the Second Austrian Republic: simple, solid, and robust, from the linoleum floors and the lift with woodgrain adhesive film on its inner walls to the door signs with removable grey letters.
Maybe it’s in part due to this style that Metternichgasse 12 always exuded a spirit of modesty, of understatement, of encounters on an even footing. The building ended up accumulating quite a few scrapes and bruises over the years, but these just made it all the more lovable. And it was thus that for many students, especially during the past two decades, Metternichgasse 12 was far more than a place of instruction: it was a piece of home, a place where people could come together in a way that was spontaneous and unforced. A building that provided everyone with their own place, that didn’t spit you out, and where you could return again and again—enriched by the experiences and frustrations of life on the outside.
At the same time, the Metternichgasse building was also an impressive historical location that was central to the history of Austrian film like virtually none other. The circle of students who passed through here is legendary. Among them were film artists such as Fritz Lehner, Käthe Kratz, Kitty Kino, Ulrich Seidel, Barbara Albert, Michael Glawogger, Martin Gschlacht, Christine A. Maier, and Karina Ressler—to name a representative few among many hundreds. And when you walked up the steps at Metternichgasse 12, it not infrequently seemed like those people could be felt there—their spirit, their hopes and dreams.
When former students returned here to give seminars or to visit the Film Academy’s two good souls Anneliese Weidinger and Doris Lagler, most of them were surprised at how little had changed and at how they felt transported back through time to their own student days.
Those were the moments when people realised just what Metternichgasse 12 had given rise to: a family. A family whose members look out for each other, give each other a chance, and encounter each other with cordial respect regardless of all differences and divergent substantive orientations. A family that left and is still leaving its mark on Austrian film. A family whose brilliance and qualities often and especially only become visible at second glance—as was the case with the building at Metternichgasse 12, too.
As we move forward, it will be a tough challenge to rescue this spirit in a new, modern, representative building without any nooks and crannies or anarchic “in-between” spaces like the ÖH Room, the smokers’ balcony in front of Editing Room 313, or the foyer where students rubbed shoulders with construction workers, package delivery people, and bike couriers.
The ÖH Room, where I’m sitting as I write these words, Is practically empty. The decluttering service is just picking up the last boxes. The lights are out, and Metternichgasse 12 is history. There are lots of people who won’t shed any tears for it, but for those among us who lived, worked, and dreamed here, it will always live on—in our memories and in our attitude toward film and filmmaking, an attitude characterised not by a hunger for glamour and the superficial but rather by inner substance and a sharp eye for that phenomenon we call society.