Frederick Baker, in Memoriam

The Austro-British filmmaker stretched the boundaries of documentary and film technique, exploring interactive storytelling and the application of virtual reality to the experience of art.

In an era of specialization, it’s a special joy when a true polymath makes an appearance on the stage of our lives – a person with a pallet of interests and talents that provide a broad canvas on which to envision and understand the world.  

Such a man was Austro-British filmmaker Frederick Baker, a historian and archeologist, a director, media scholar, author and university lecturer, who died August 24th at the age of 55, after a long illness. Fred’s range was vast, and through the vehicle of documentary and narrative films, he took on the political and social shifts of three decades. 

All the while, he was also pushing the boundaries of film technology and its imaginative terrain in a new field he christened “projectionism,” best evidenced by his award-winning “making of” documentary, Shadowing the Third Man, and the multimedia project Zeituhr 1938, with historian Heidemarie Uhl, a 24-hour, real-time reenactment of the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, made for the 70thanniversary of the Anschluss.

And in parallel, he was also exploring the possibilities of virtual reality with Klimt’s Magic Garden that had opened just a month earlier, a fantastical landscape of Klimt design elements experienced in three dimensions, freely entered and ever shifting based on a viewer’s choices.

The project had grown out of a casual encounter with MAK director Christophe Thun-Hohensteinat Forum Alpbach in 2016, when Baker shared an early experiment with 360° virtual reality. By the end of the conversation, the idea of using the technology for a Klimt project had been born. “Working together became more fascinating with every meeting,” Thun-Hohenstein remembers, “and turned into an incredibly inspiring exchange.”

“Everybody thinks they know Klimt,” Baker told us at the time. “I wanted to refresh their eyes.” Technically impressive, the result was awe-inspiring. It was also a huge success with the public, first extended and ultimately becoming part of the museum’s permanent exhibition on Vienna 1900.

(C) Fred Baker

Kaffeehausliteraten

Fred Baker had a favourite table at Cafe Sperl, where we met for an interview early in 2012. In a window bay toward the back by the billiard tables, it was here that he interviewed writer Robert Menasse for his acclaimed 2010 documentary of the new Austrian resistance, Widerstand in Haiderland, and here where he first met Brigitte Timmermann to plan their 2002 photo-history Der Dritte Mann: auf die Spuren eines Filmklassikers (The Third Man’s Vienna), which formed the basis of Baker’s 2004 documentary Shadowing the Third Man that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

And it was at this café, among others, where 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 Gumpendorfer Straße 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 attracted 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!” – had long been a phenomenon in the Vienna film world: Born in Salzburg in 1965 to an Austrian mother and British father, he grew up in London and became 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 twenties to make a documentary on Ötzi, the late stone-age Ice Man found in Südtirol in 1991, for BBC Channel 4. Out of this came a co-production with the ORF, and, in 1995, a move to Vienna. 

In the years since, Baker made some three-dozen documentaries for the BBC and ORF on both political and cultural topics, including portraits of social historian Eric Hobsbawm, 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.”  

He became something of a fixture at the ORF. “Fred Baker was remarkable for his combination of sensitivity and meticulousness,” said Martin Traxl, the station’s Head of Cultural Programming in a commemoration. “He could reach so deeply into a theme, that a film often wasn’t enough to accommodate his ideas.” Seeking a richer palette, Baker expanded over time into multi-media projects, often cooperating with other historians, with museums and designers. These were not always easy cooperations: From an invitation to write an introduction to Brigitte Timmermann’s history of the making of The Third Man, “he gradually took over,” Timmermann said recently, making for tense negotiations and unhappy compromises. Still, her respect for his talent was undimmed. “He was brilliant, and definitely added more glamor to the book.”   

His most recent project when we met was a Wien Museum exhibition on the African Angelo Soliman, an 18th century house slave of the Liechtensteins in Vienna who bought his freedom with money he earned at games of chance. A multilingual, 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 Palais Liechtenstein where Soliman had lived, listening to their voices as they interact with the African’s remarkable story.

We had been talking for 20 minutes when the waitress finally came to take my order. I had hardly noticed. In a Kaffeehaus, Baker observed later, “it’s the conversation or the writing that leads your pacing. Everything else follows from that.”  

Of all his films, Baker told me, he was proudest of Shadowing the Third Man, 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 superstars 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, whose insights are provocative and fresh even to devotees.

In the course of it, Baker developed a technique he called “projectionism” where footage from the original movie was projected as translucent “shadows” – smoke, water, walls, lights – against locations or effects being filmed in real time, forming another visual layer using colours, textures and surfaces. The technique was to become a new theory of film art – “a niche art form between film, performance and graphics” – that became a doctoral thesis and later book, The Art of Projectionism (2008). 

That day, the conversation kept coming back to the Kaffeehausand its importance in Baker’s life.  He missed coffeehouses when he was in London. “Sometimes in Soho, you just wish for a place where you can sit and think and work.” Alone, in company. “That’s what’s special here. And I still know of no other country that has that.”

The Imagined Future

To Thun-Hohenstein of the MAK, Baker was “one of the most innovative filmmakers and digital artists of our day,” someone who, “in the best sense, joined worlds together through art.” Following the pioneering work on the Zeituhr 1938 and the astonishing success of Klimt’s Magic Garden, one can’t help wondering what projects were surely brewing in Fred Baker’s fertile imagination that we now will never see.

Austria’s public broadcaster honored Baker with memorials on its ORF III evening report Kultur Heute and on Ö1 radio, its Sunday Menschenbilder portrait, the latter available through September 6 digitally on ORF Radiothek.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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