Fred Baker: Vantage Point Vienna
The Austro-British filmmaker on projectionism, resisting Haider and The Third Man
Filmmaker Fred Baker has a favourite table at Café Sperl. It’s in a bay window, towards the back by the billiard tables. It was here that he interviewed writer Robert Menasse for his acclaimed 2010 documentary on the new Austrian resistance, Widerstand in Haiderland, and here where he first met with Brigitte Timmermann to plan their 2002 photo-history Der Dritte Mann: Auf den Spuren eines Film Klassikers (in English, The Third Man’s Vienna) that formed the basis of Baker’s 2004 film Shadowing the Third Man that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
And it was at this café among others, that as a young journalist, he would sit for hours writing his articles in the congenial quiet of the vaulted spaces.
"When I had trouble with a story, I would look around the coffeehouse and say, ‘How do I tell this story to those people over there’," Baker recalled, nodding at a group at a nearby table. "The Kaffeehaus is one of the things that keeps me in Vienna. It’s the genius of being alone in company, that exists nowhere else."
I had joined him at the gracious old café on Gumpendorferstraße in Vienna’s 6th District on a late Sunday afternoon in March. It was still light outside, and the setting sun streamed through the tall windows, throwing dramatic shadows across the room. Very Film Noir, I thought, smiling to myself. But that is undoubtedly part of what attracts him: Light and shadow, line, contour, and composition of space.
Fred Baker – "not to be confused with the 19th century English clerk who murdered Fanny Adams!" – is something of a phenomenon in the Vienna film world: Born in Salzburg in 1965 to an Austrian mother and British father, he was raised in London and is thoroughly at home in both cultures, giving him a particular lens on Austrian life. After studying archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, he came back to Austria in his 20s to make a documentary on the late stone-age Ice Man found in Ötztal, in Südtirol in 1991, for Britain’s public service Channel 4. Out of this came a co-production with the ORF, and in 1995, a move to Vienna.
In the years since, Baker has made some three-dozen documentaries on both political and cultural topics, including portraits of social historian Eric Hobsbawm, and Austrian screen legend Romy Schneider, the late Czech president and poet Vaclav Havel, and the German Chancellor of reunification Helmut Kohl. Cultural pieces included explorations of the
"Mozart Effect" on intelligence, the mournful Fado music of Portugal, and the history of the Austrian Christmas carol Silent Night.
His most recent piece was part of a Wien Museum exhibition on the 18th century African Angelo Soliman, a house slave of the Liechtensteins in Vienna, who bought his freedom with money he made at games of chance. A multi-lingual, cultivated man, Soliman married an Austrian woman and established himself as a teacher in the prince’s household. Guided by historian Philipp Blom, curator of the exhibit, the film follows a group of migrant youth through the Liechtenstein Palace where Soliman had lived, listening to their voices as they interact with the African’s remarkable story.
"To know that black history had something to do with the cultural capital of Vienna, that’s what seemed to gob-smack them," Baker said, taking a final sip of the tea he had been nursing since long before I arrived. We had been talking for 20 minutes, when the waitress finally came to take my order. I had hardly noticed. (In a Kaffeehaus, "it’s the conversation or the writing that leads your pacing," Baker observed later, "and then you can order.") What I did notice was that he wasn’t using his right hand; he had injured it that afternoon while horsing around with his niece and nephew. He hadn’t mentioned it, or suggested we postpone. He’s a professional. He’s also British.
Shadowing The Third Man
Of all his films, Baker is proudest of Shadowing the Third Man, a "making of" portrait of the iconic movie of post-war Vienna, combining archival footage of director Carol Reed and screen writer Graham Greene, plus stars Joseph
Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard and Alida Valli – as well as then Austrian super stars Paul Hörbiger and Herwig Bleibtrau – with contemporary interviews with the descendants of producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick and two key crew members. It is a remarkable film, moody and richly woven, its insights are provocative and fresh even to devotees like me.
And in the course of it, Baker developed a technique he called "projectionism", where footage from the original movie was projected as translucent "shadows" against locations or
effects being filmed in real-time.
"I always had my loops from The Third Man and shot them onto smoke, water, walls, lights, whatever was relevant to telling the story – to get the kind of textures, and the feeling, I needed," Baker said. "But also to give me an aesthetic that was totally different from what Carol Reed did. Because his work was so perfect, there was no way I could pastiche it. I wanted to create another layer – that’s the archaeologist in me – a visual layer, by using colour and then by projecting on all those surfaces."
The technique, developed on site from the first night of filming Shadowing the Third Man in the Vienna sewers, was to become a new theory of film art – what his website calls "a niche art-form between film, performance and graphics" – that became a doctoral thesis and later his book, The Art of Projectionism, published by Czernin Verlag in 2008.
"The thing about The Third Man, is the mood: There’s a Weltanschauung which is particularly Viennese, and which attracts certain types of people," he said. "Vienna in this film is a kind of topos, a kind of mental space, that is physically Vienna, but it’s more than that. It stands for a whole world view." Here he paused.
"I would say, it’s about melancholy. And it’s about unrequited love, and about disillusionment. But there is also humour." Often quite dark, I note, but also endearingly human. The Good does win the day, but always with a heavy dose of realism.
"But it’s also a British film," Baker points out. "These people are raising their heads out of the rubble, fighting to survive. So it’s not a sweet, nostalgic melancholy, it’s actually quite matter of fact, in that sense British, where you just get on with the job."
From here, the conversation moves on through a few of the other films and projects, all absorbing and each worthy of an evening in itself. And again, we came around to the role of the Kaffeehaus itself in Baker’s life.
"Over there was the location of the very first BBC film I did in Vienna," he said, gesturing across the room. "I interviewed Angus Robertson right there in that alcove." Robertson was then a reporter for ORF’s Blue Danube Radio with whom Baker did several film projects and who is now leader of the Scottish National Party in the British Parliament.
"Sperl was always accommodating, and a fantastic location," he said, warmly. And with it’s recent "role" as the setting for a meeting between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s in A Dangerous Method (See "Screening Sigmund", TVR Dec./Jan. 2011), it’s still the film coffeehouse of Vienna.
Baker misses coffeehouses when he’s in London. "Sometimes in Soho you just wish for a place where you can sit and think and work, but also relax," he said, a little wistfully. "In London, the coffeehouses are consume and go." Of course, there’s always the pub, but "there, you’ve got to drink. It’s a tradition of talking, but not writing. That’s what’s special here. And I still know of no other country that has that."
So when he’s travelling, he looks for outposts of the Viennese café: In New York, he goes to Café Sabarsky, in the Neue Galerie on 5th Avenue and 68th Street. In Berlin, he does to the Café Einstein, on Kurfürstenstraße.
The tone of the table service is key, he said. In a restaurant, it’s too invasive. In a buffet-style coffee shop, "you have to get up to get what you want. So your train of thought is broken," he said, revealing something that seems to be close to a philosophy of life.
"In a Kaffeehaus, that never happens. It’s the energy of the conversation or the writing that leads, and the food is brought when you need it." So a set-up like Starbucks defeats the purpose; "no matter how good the coffee is, the rhythm is different," he said, gesturing emphatically with his left hand. "It’s a fundamental point!"
The Art of Projectionism (German and English)
By Frederick Baker
Czernin Verlag (2008), pp 270
Der Dritte Mann: auf den Spuren eines Film Klassikers
by Frederick Baker and Brigitte Timmermann
Czernin Verlag (2002), pp. 288
Published in English as The Third Man’s Vienna,
Shippen Rock Publishing (2007), pp. 420