ORF has the entire city wondering about the new big-budget mini-series filming at the Hotel Sacher

Crossing the street from the Vienna State Opera, past the film production vans, I wiped the crumbs of a Sachertorte off my jacket. I was about to enter the Urquelle of Viennese confections, the elegant Sacher Hotel, to meet its 140-year old founder, and to interview Robert Dornhelm, the Emmy-winning film director who is turning her story into an ORF mini-series.

“It’s a Schnitzlerian story,” explained Dornhelm, “Vignettes of people falling in love at the hotel over 26 years, with Anna Sacher as a central character.”

The 21st Century receded into a gentle murmur as the Sacher’s liveried staff obligingly ushered me into its antique lobby. Grey weather gave way to well-honed pampering. The Sacher Hotel has been making its guests – from royalty to movie stars to selfie-stick-toting tourists – feel exactly this way since 1876. The world-­famous maison meublée is a Viennese icon in both brick and cake form, an ossified Dowager Duchess of Downton reminding us the past is not only bad plumbing and unequal rights, but often the mirror of our own times. As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

From conception to birth
Sacher_17Walking up a staircase beside the concierge’s desk, a century fell away as a chambermaid in Victorian dress scuttled past. The film set’s Best Boy led me to Suite 108. We waited with bated breath by the door – the shoot was in progress. A second later, I was let in to the hot, stuffy period rooms where a jumble of high-tech film equipment surrounded a large monitor. On it was Anna Sacher, played by Ursula Strauss. Beside her, Bernhard Schir, playing her purported lover and supporter, Julius Schuster, advisor to the Rothschilds. Dornhelm watched intently. The Assistant Director yelled “Achtung! Wir drehen!” Dornhelm, “Bitte, los.” And through anamorphic lenses, the past rolled to life.

The scene ended, Dornhelm thanked everyone and sank exhausted into his seat as the crew prepared the next setup. The TV mini series, a co-production with ZDF, ORF & Beta, had been shooting ­11-hour days for over a week, with many more ahead. “Usually it’s nine months, like a child,” said Dornhelm. The €8 million production has a thousand costumed extras. “Doing something like this, you are under the gun, shooting four or five pages a day. Our story has a long span, so the same day Ursula has to be 20, and in the afternoon she’s 46.” Dornhelm paused to instruct the Director of Photography on an insert of painstakingly reproduced photos of Anna Sacher originally shot by the famous Madame D’Ora. “Even Peter Coeln (of Westlicht) couldn’t tell the difference,” he grinned. The beautiful Strauss passed us on the way to make-up. “I’m just going to get myself ‘younged-up’”, she smiled, still radiant despite the punishing schedule.

A French bulldog was brought on set, its handler recording its panting into a microphone.

Dornhelm has produced award-­winning films and TV mini-series on Anne Frank, Crown Prince Rudolf and Spartacus. He shrugs at being typecast as the history guy.

Robert Dornhelm (left) on the set (Photo: ORF)
Robert Dornhelm (left) on the set (Photo: ORF)

Still life
“I prefer markets to museums,” he said. “I found the script for this fascinating, because it’s not just history. Here you are dealing with a story that could take place today. It’s the beginning of WWI. We’re experiencing a similar move to the right in Austria.” Dornhelm reacted passionately when I asked how filmmakers should respond to our times.

“If a filmmaker does not have a social conscience or a feeling that he has a responsibility, then he should not be allowed to make films. We can’t cheat the public by giving them fast food.”

The crew broke for lunch. I paused alone in the time-warp of Anna Sacher’s office, a mere murmur of traffic wafting through the open windows: an antique desk cluttered with ink-stained ledgers, porcelain dogs, a manual typewriter; a Jugendstil ashtray with Anna’s half-smoked cigar by a satin-covered sofa; a china cockatoo in the corner; a wall of period family photographs, several in turn-of-the-century uniforms, half-­covered by a large aspidistra. In the bedroom next door, Anna Sacher’s husband had died of pneumonia the previous day.

Despite this astonishing attention to detail, Dornhelm’s style is more cinéma vérité than art house: “I don’t care for paintings. I care for life,” Dornhelm said. “If it becomes a picture book, then emotion is short-changed. I prefer irregularities and mistakes to perfection, because then the emotional journey is stronger and gutsier. I believe in rough edges.”

After lunch with the crew – made by two Filipino chefs flown in from Germany – I rode an elevator with a business executive holding a bag from the Wien Museum gift shop, their slogan written on it in large white letters: “The Past Makes a Lovely Present.” Indeed.


The mini-series is planned for broadcast on ORF around New Year’s 2016/17

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Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app