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Vienna's old cinemas tap retro charm to survive

2014-01-22 19:00
Vienna - Buy your ticket to an art house movie, order a glass of wine and kick back on century-old seats: Vienna's half a dozen old picture houses still draw crowds with their retro charm.

At the Bellaria, a cinema founded in 1911 in central Vienna, there is only one screen, no bright lights and no posters of the latest Hollywood action blockbusters or Pixar animated capers.

Instead there is slightly worn floral wallpaper and black and white photos of the German and Austrian film stars of yesteryear: Paula Wessely, Hans Moser and Magda Schneider and Wolf Albach-Retty, parents of the acclaimed German-French actress Romy Schneider.

Some pictures are even signed, much to the delight of visitor Heidrun Poschinger, 72. "Cinema was like that in the old days. I used to collect all their autographs back in the day," she said.

Helga Santner, who came to the Bellaria with her two grown-up daughters to see an Austrian family drama on the big screen, is also happy.

"It is more relaxed here than in the big cinemas," she tells AFP.

But these are tough times. Faced with stiff competition from modern multiplexes, which account for two-thirds of the Austrian capital's 150 or so cinemas, the musty, reassuring authenticity is all the small places can tout.

Even if they have a loyal base of regulars original version afficionados, students, film buffs and retirees they cannot only rely on showing art house films to attract clients.

"Since in Vienna there are too many cinemas and seats compared to the amount of demand, multiplexes are also showing art house films and are competing with us," says Michaela Englert, manager of the Admiral Kino, founded 101 years ago.

The smaller cinemas charge 7.00-8.50 euros ($9.50-11.50) for a ticket, but this is only a couple of euros cheaper than the big boys and not enough to attract punters in large numbers.

'Chance to experience the past'

Over at the Breitenseer Lichtspiele (BSL), which first opened in 1905 and claims to be the oldest continuously operating cinema in the world, manager Anna Nitsch-Fitz accepts that she cannot compete.

"There are hardly any films now that come out in 35 mm," she says. And going digital would be too dear.
As a result Nitsch-Fitz, in charge since 1969, tries to make the BSL which also suffers from being off the beaten track in Vienna unusual, a bit like going back in time.

On the programme are visits to the projection room, silent films accompanied by a pianist and even knitting evenings with the lights not too low when the movie is showing,

"It's a chance to experience the past. It's like a living museum of cinema," says Sabine Rosenkranz-Froemmel, a philosophy teacher, sitting in one of the BSL's 168 wooden seats cushions are available for a silent movie.

The Admiral meanwhile, a veritable Viennese institution in the hip seventh district of the Austrian capital and a former hangout of the late writer Arthur Schnitzler, has moved more with the times, going digital a few years ago.

"Just because it's old doesn't mean it has to be dilapidated," says civil servant Elmar, catching the latest Woody Allen film with friends.

Seated on one of the century-old refurbished red leather seats, Mia Unterharnscheidt from Bavaria in southern Germany, a glass of red wine in her hand, feels at home  or rather in someone else's.

"I find the atmosphere really nice, it's like being in someone's sitting room. You feel good," she says, sipping her drink as she waits for the film to begin.

Oswald Bacovsky from the leisure and culture section of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce says that cinemas like the Admiral, the BSL and the Bellaria are doing better than expected.

"Ten years ago they were all expected to disappear soon," Bacovsky says. "Today nobody talks about the death of cinemas anymore."

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