The BBC documentary Vienna: City of Dreams is about as entirely marinated in modernism’s institutional bias as it is possible for a film of an hour and a half to be. And yet it is beautiful in spite of itself. In spite of itself, even as it describes the various births of modernism that the city has inflicted upon the world (also in spite of itself!), it focuses the viewer’s attention on its classicism, which refutes every “modernismism” uttered by narrator Joseph Leo Koerner, of Harvard, whose Viennese father, after immigrating to the United States, took his family back to Vienna regularly. His son cannot resist doing the same, though by the end of the documentary one questions the narrator’s own Freudian analysis of why. Very entertaining, in spite of itself. Very lovely, in spite of itself, too.
Especially endearing is a passage where Koerner is in the modernist house designed by the philosopher Wittgenstein. The narrator describes a door handle that took Wittgenstein a year to design. “It is a door handle that shows what it is,” says Koerner. “The functionality is obsessive here.” He struggles to latch a nearby window, pauses, then adds, “There’s nothing more deflating to modernism than when its purified forms don’t actually function.” This is the most direct apology for modernism in the film, but there are many more of greater subtlety and unintentionality that offer a greater sublimity of satisfaction to those of us not as besotted as Koerner. (The window segment is at 1:03:40.)