Robert von Dassanowsky
Robert von Dassanowsky
A Cinematic Heritage
By: Jenny Maloney
Austrian culture and cinema are in Robert Von Dassanowsky's blood. The son of Elfi Von Dassanowsky, Austrian opera singer and Belvedere Film studio founder, he was born into an Austrian world of film and creativity. So, it's no surprise that he has focused on research which centers on the two things closest to his heart.
"I have found a very unique intersection between my specific fields - Austrian and German literature and culture, and film studies," says Von Dassanowsky. "I realized there was actually very little research available on Austrian cinema internationally. Even in Austria it had been neglected since the end of the country's postwar commercial film boom in the 1960s and was just reawakening with the growth of its long-developing New Wave that has become globally respected in recent years."
Since discovering this lack of research, Von Dassanowsky has rushed to fill in the gaping holes. Originally, he focused on the work of Alexander Lernet-Holenia - an Austrian author who was viewed as a major literary figure from 1930s-1960s, but who fell into obscurity. Von Dassanowsky's work has helped breathe new life into Lernet-Holenia's oeuvre.
"My 1996 study on his socio-politically critical novels, Phantom Empires, helped kick-start new interest in his work outside of Austria and I was able to co-found the Lernet-Holenia Society in Vienna in 1998, which is still going strong."
But Von Dassanowsky has not stopped with Lernet-Holenia. He has tackled various aspects of European and Hollywood film, penning several books, articles, and papers on the subject. He has written the first English-language history of Austrian cinema, edited a book on Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and with colleague Oliver Speck, co-edited New Austrian Film which focuses on the current New Wave. The Austrofascist period of 1933-1938, when Austrian filmmakers used their art to stand up to Hitler is also a particular subject of his work.
"Austria attempted to thwart Hitler's designs on annexation to Germany through its own clerico-authoritarian means," Von Dassanowsky says. "The cinema of that period involves Jewish and anti-fascist exiles from Germany and co-production with Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and a Hollywood that found such a strong affinity with Viennese film style and content that it remade many films during the 1930s and 40s."
Von Dassanowsky's exploration of Austrian film asks penetrating questions about how a country under a Catholic, authoritarian government manages to go against Nazism and lean toward Hollywood, of all places. According to Von Dassanowsky's research, that seems to be what happened.
The Viennese film industry created truly progressive entertainment with studios in Budapest and Prague - entertainment which was banned from Germany because of Jewish or anti-Nazi cast or crew members. "Known as Emigrantenfilm - emigrant film - it later provided Hollywood with significant exile talent." In 2014, Von Dassanowsky's book Screening Transendence: Film Under Austrofascism will be released, detailing a decade of research on the subject.
Von Dassanowsky's breadth extends beyond the written word, however. As the recipient of seemingly countless awards, including the CASE/Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Award and the 2013 UCCS Faculty Excellence in Research Award, Von Dassanowsky has proven himself both in the field and in the classroom.
"Robert von Dassanowsky's teaching abilities are well known to most of us on campus," University of Colorado Colorado Springs Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak stated when Von Dassanowsky's CASE/Carnegie award was announced. "To have his work recognized nationally is both gratifying and warranted."
As his research has accumulated, Von Dassanowsky utilizes it in different ways than he has in the past. "I find I use my research in my curriculum development much more and in turn gain interesting new directions in discourse with students," Von Dassanowsky says. "Often I am able to mentor a student's independent studies project that is in line with my very specific questions or concepts - in research or in production - and help move it along to the real world. That is the best feeling there is."
Von Dassanowsky is not a teacher and filmmaker by chance. His own mother was a talented, determined mentor herself, and she has passed on her heritage to her son. Elfi Von Dassanowsky, at twenty-two years old, was an opera singer who co-founded the first new film studio in post-war Vienna.
"She was not only an amazing role model to women in the arts, she 'taught me everything I know,' as the saying goes." Because of her influence, Von Dassanowsky works hard to keep her example central to his own teaching and research.
"Underscoring the importance of women in film, in literature, in every creative and scholarly avenue is absolutely vital to me - as producer, researcher, and teacher," explains Von Dassanowsky. And, indeed, most of the films he has worked on have been directed by women.
"I have done some game-changing work on the careers of the still controversial Leni Riefenstahl and on the once totally forgotten Louise Kolm-Fleck - the so-called mother of Austrian film and a major silent director in 1920s Germany."
Now Von Dassanowsky works to continue his mother's example directly, by presenting an annual award to women filmmakers in her name at the Vienna Independent Short Film Festival, and grants to a variety of artistic and cultural projects. "I am very proud to be running the Elfi Von Dassanowsky Foundation," says Von Dassanowsky, "which was my mother's dream and has become my treasured reality."
Find out more about Von Dassanowsky at his website.