Vienna’s vintage movie theatres endure and thrive with niche programming.

Cinema is a young medium, around for just over a century. But it’s made up for it with nostalgia. Self-referential and prone to looking back, some of the greatest films are about cinema itself, like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. And since it’s been upstaged by television, and now online streaming, the big screen wistfully yearns all the more for its own glorious past – with ever-bigger remakes, re-imaginings and reboots shown at enormous-yet-charmless multiplex theatres.

But when it comes to ambiance, authenticity trumps size. And fortunately for us, Vienna boasts a remarkable number of classic movie houses, many largely unchanged since the 1950s. While some have tried to keep up and failed, others have survived. The beloved Flottenkino shut down in 2002, and the lovely Auge Gottes (Eye of God) lasted until 2011; both are now supermarkets. The Apollo Kino, originally a vaudeville stage opening in 1904, survived by bulking up to 12 screens, including the only IMAX projector within the Gürtel – while losing its charm in the bargain. Other theaters have instead courted niche audiences, many by showing films in English or with subtitles.

Cinephilia in all Sizes

The Breitenseer Lichtspiele (BSL) is one of the survivors, bearing the honor of Vienna’s (and possibly the world’s) oldest cinema since the century-old Erika Kino (now Theater Spielraum) closed in 1999. This old nickelodeon has screened films in a quiet part of the 14th district since 1905. A far cry from glitz and glamour, BSL may be small and Spartan with wooden seats, but it has room for a piano: They still put on silent matinees with musical accompaniment, with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Whispering Chorus, Alfred Hitchcock’s Downhill and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Dec 15-17) up this month. Otherwise, they specialize in documentaries, Austrian films and international art house fare, usually in English or subtitled. Still, its survival remains precarious, so catch a show while you still can!

The Gartenbaukino is on the other end of the spectrum: Devised as a glamorous venue for premieres on Parkring, it still boasts one of the biggest screens in the country, largely unchanged since opening in 1960 with Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, with Kirk Douglas in attendance. Run by the Viennale film festival as of 2002, Gartenbau shows international films in their original languages; since last year, they’ve even retooled themselves for the rare, high-res 70 mm format, not seen there for decades.

vintage cinema vienna
Hallway at Gartenbaukino // © Astrid Johanna Ofner

The Stadtkino im Künstlerhaus just around the corner screens films in a stunning auditorium converted in 1949, under murals by Austrian artists Rudolf Eisenmenger and Rudolf Holzinger. The Künstlerhaus specializes in offbeat films, screening independent documentaries and features, mainly from Austria, Germany and far afield. Then there’s the Filmcasino, a 1950s jewel in dark wood and brass restored in 1989. Catering to both cinephiles and expats, it stays afloat with original-language programming and quirky events like the annual /Slash film festival, a celebration of cinema’s lunatic fringe.

Moving History

And finally, two honorable mentions: The Filmarchiv Austria’s Metrokino is dedicated to preserving cinema as an art form, but the place itself is a special treat. A 19th century stage (once run by Otto Preminger) converted to a cinema in 1951, the interior is a mash-up of both eras, dark wood panels and cut-glass chandeliers offset with bright, geometric carpeting – quite possibly the prettiest (certainly the most unusual) movie theatre in town.

The Unsichtbares Kino (invisible cinema) of the Austrian Film Museum, a plain black auditorium underneath the Albertina, certainly can’t compare, but intentionally so: It tries not to distract from the screen. With major retrospectives every month – including one honoring Kathryn Bigelow and other American women filmmakers in December – the Film Museum has even created some nostalgia of its own: every year on Christmas Eve, they show The Wizard of Oz and hold a Marx Brothers mini-festival in the run up to New Year’s.

Watching larger-than-life stories on the big screen in a packed house remains cinema’s greatest appeal – something you can never replace at home. Like other allegedly obsolete entertainments, mainstream cinema may have to lose its “bigger is better” mantra and reinvent itself to survive another century – as theater and radio have before. But in venues like these, the magic of the silver-screen will never die.

Old-School Cinemas

Breitenseer Lichtspiele

14., Breitenseer Strasse 21

(01) 982 21 73

bsl-wien.at

Gartenbaukino

1., Parkring 12

(01) 512 23 54

gartenbaukino.at

Stadtkino im Künstlerhaus

1., Akademiestrasse 13

(01) 522 48 14

stadtkinowien.at

Filmcasino

5., Margaretenstrasse 78

(01) 587 90 62

filmcasino.at

Metrokino

1., Johannesgasse 4

(01) 512 18 03

filmarchiv.at

Austrian Film Museum

1., Augustinerstrasse 1

(01) 533 70 54

filmmuseum.at