The Viennale promises two weeks of movie magic, marred by the passing of director Hans Hurch

Late October is a special time for Vienna’s movie fiends. It’s when the Viennale, the city’s international film festival, kicks off, a celebration of the celluloid arts in an art obsessed town. And while the festival has had its share of glitzy galas and acclaimed filmmakers on hand, it has often been the lesser-known films that have had the most impact: With its extensive selection of documentaries, retrospectives and non-Western cinema, taking a chance on something you’ve never heard of has often been the most rewarding.

This was largely the doing of genial longtime director Hans Hurch, who died unexpectedly from heart failure on July 23 in Rome, where he was meeting director Abel Ferrara. Ferrara then created the Viennale’s trailer as a tribute to a man who spent 20 years curating a film festival for film lovers, emphasizing quality over glamour. Hurch’s dedication to the festival paid off, winning over countless actors and filmmakers and putting Vienna on the map with a long list of distinguished guests including Ferrara, Michael Caine, Kenneth Anger, Lauren Bacall, Yoko Ono, Mike Leigh, Sofia Coppola and David Cronenberg.

Celebrating the present

Fortunately for cinephiles, Hurch had already selected most of this year’s films, maintaining his signature mix of crowd pleasers, documentaries and masterworks of international cinema.

These included Austrian director Barbara Albert’s latest picture Licht (Light), set in 18th century Vienna about a blind piano prodigy who could be cured at the expense of her talent; Sandome no Satsujin (The Third Murder), an exploration of the act of killing, cleverly disguised as a courtroom thriller; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a pitch black, star-studded comedy by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) about an angry mother who shames her small town into solving her daughter’s murder and Teheran Tabu, a feverish, rotoscoped (an animation technique where live-action footage is traced over) descent into the sleazy underbelly of the Iranian capital.

The documentary lineup is no less impressive, featuring 78/52, an in-depth analysis of Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene from Psycho; A L’Ouest du Jourdain (West of the Jordan River), a look at the occupied territories by controversial Israeli director Amos Gitai; and American documentary legend Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, a mammoth 3 hour and 17 minute portrait of a treasured institution serving a very diverse clientele.

In addition, 14 of Hurch’s fellow travelers were asked to dedicate a film to his memory; among them are celebrated cinematographer Ed Lachman, who chose Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love and actress Tilda Swinton, who selected Robert Bresson’s minimalist Au Hasard Balthazar.

Honoring the past

Various retrospectives and special programs round out the selection, offering a closer look at past masters, forgotten artists and lesser-known creators. The German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach will be honored with her own special including her latest, Western; there will also be a series on “New Neapoli- tan Cinema,” showcasing the particularly fertile filmmaking era of 1980-90s Naples.

The Filmarchiv will reintroduce the pioneering Austrian silent era star Carmen Cartellieri, a huge draw in the early 20th century but almost forgotten today; while the Filmmuseum will be looking eastward with a large retrospective on Soviet cinema, juxtaposing Stalinist era masterpieces by the likes of Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein with later works from the comparatively less repressive 1950s–70s.

And as an extra treat, there will be a Christoph Waltz special, showcasing his work from his early days in Austria to his more recent Hollywood blockbusters, with the man himself scheduled to appear for the gala screening at the Gartenbaukino.

As the Viennale has yet to appoint Hurch’s permanent successor, next year’s festival may be uncertain, but at the very least we’ll get to enjoy the vision of a man who saw lm as an aesthetic rather than a commercial medium, someone who loved the sheer art of it – and the artists on both sides of the camera. For one last time.

Oct 19-Nov 2, various locations. viennale.at