House Of Atonement – A Documentary Haunted House Film from Vienna

»Today a number of (…) things have occurred which I do not yet completely understand.
Curiously enough, they take place in the lower floors." «
(Sigmund Freud, letter to Wilhelm Fließ, 1899)

Short Synopsis

»House Of Atonement« is the story of an unlucky address: Schottenring 7 in Vienna.
The Ring Theatre used to stand here. When it burned down, 400 people died.
This is where the Austro-Hungarian Emperor decreed that a House of Atonement should be constructed, to make up for everything. And nobody wanted to live in it.

At this address a young neurologist opened his surgery. But he soon moved out, when one of his patients threw herself down the stairwell to her death. His name: Sigmund Freud.
This is where the Gestapo set fire to files, destroying the Emperor’s legacy, which was supposed to be fireproof.
This is where the fears of the Cold War were preserved in concrete: Vienna's secret Command Centre, 18 metres below ground, untouched to this very day. The essay film »House Of Atonement« takes a close look at this address, when misfortune has been repeated as if by some uncanny pattern over the centuries. Does some mysterious aura surround this place? A haunted house – in the middle of Vienna?

Long Synopsis

How would it be to make a documentary haunted house film? Not a fake documentary but a documentary film exploring a real address and its history. An address where misfortune occurs regularly. A place that is unwilling to behave itself. An evil address – but do things like that actually exist?

In the genre of haunted house films a building draws attention to its poisoned atmosphere by certain symptoms: cracks appear in the walls, blood oozes out of gaps between the floorboards. Houses become alive, expressing the suppressed feelings of their inhabitants. Generally it is an injustice that manifests itself in a haunted house, like the American horror film about a native American cemetery which has been flattened and now lies beneath a house where white people live.

In Vienna there are many addresses with histories, many with grim pasts. It becomes interesting in the places where the past is suppressed.

Schottenring 7 is one of those places. The building that stands there today is an anonymous, functional structure from the 1970s, the Regional Police Headquarters. Discussions are already under way about moving this to the outskirts of the city to make space for a hotel or another building that could be profitable in this premium location. The days of the Police Headquarters with its concrete slab facade and square windows are numbered.

The building that stood here until 1952 was funded by the Emperor, popularly known as the Sühnhaus – the House of Atonement – designed to make amends for the sins of the past. A building that was intended for a positive purpose – yet only succeeded in keeping alive memories of the most catastrophic fire in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This is the place where the Ring Theatre burned down in 1881, one of the most magnificent theatres in the city, constructed to hold an audience of 1700 in an extremely cramped space. The Ring Theatre was consecrated to the muse of light entertainment, a stage for the new, wealthy middle classes. The theatre stood at this address for seven years, seven managers of the building came and went, before it burned to the ground at seven minutes to seven on the evening of 8 December 1881, causing the deaths of almost 400 people in the audience.

Hardly any event in the history of Vienna is as well documented as the fire at the Ring Theatre. From eye-witness reports and records of the inquest to stereoscopic photographs of the charred auditorium, everything is distributed right across the city in about a dozen archives. So why do people know so little about it?

Virtually the only thing most people can say when the subject of the Ring Theatre fire is raised is that as a consequence the Vienna Rescue Service was founded. And that since the fire, safety measures have become stricter, and a safety curtain has become obligatory in all theatres – which is true. But there is also another story.

The film Sühnhaus sets out to trace the 400 victims of fire, and on the basis of their stories the perspective of the film pulls back from individual cases to develop a history of life and customs in the city of Vienna, a driving force which can be traced over centuries, throughout different political systems in terms of constant influential pressures: craving for recognition, greed for profit, respect for authority and of course, again and again, fear of death. These emotions animate the building at Schottenring 7 – and are perhaps why this cycle of misfortune is repeated here.

Incidentally, the Sühnhaus, the building erected to camouflage this unpleasant incident and cause it to be forgotten, was the first home of the young couple Sigmund and Martha Freud. Although he himself experienced curious, menacing incidents in this place, Freud was determined to live in the magnificent new building on the Schottenring. Freud's daughter Matilda was the first baby to be born in this house of death, and the patron of the Sühnhaus, the Emperor, sent his congratulations to the as yet unknown young doctor in the form of a vase. In the spring of 1891 one of Freud patients, the wife of a man who had been his best friend, threw herself from the top of the stairwell and died. In the autumn of the same year the Freud family moved out.

The Sühnhaus, Freud's first home, which was pulled down by the city of Vienna in 1952 although it had only suffered superficial damage in the Second World War, provides the title for the film. Today it only exists in plans, sketches, photographs and in the memory of the last living person to have resided there. In this film too, the Sühnhaus remains an enigma. The mysterious symptom of suppressed guilt. An ideal subject of investigation for Sigmund Freud… who, after five unhappy years, left his apartment in the Sühnhaus to seek his fortune elsewhere.

The Style

»House Of Atonement« is an essay film which takes a look at events from an extremely subjective perspective: the perspective of the director. In associative style the narrative of the film moves through the epochs. The shredding facility at Vienna Central Cemetery, where occasionally, alongside old gravestones, a few bones are also reduced to powder, becomes in the flow of ideas that shapes Sühnhaus a symbol of that which has been forgotten. Just as the burning theatre, in the final analysis, also stands for our society in crisis.

As a musical leitmotif Mozart's Requiem, which was played at the burial of the victims, runs through the film: »Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde. Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem." – "That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.«

Since there are no pictures of the building that was burned down and the people who died there – at least no moving images for use in the film – the Vienna artist Michaela Mandel has created animations for the film: they appear like dreams and guide the transition from research to narrative.

Just as in classic haunted house films, all that remains of the former inhabitants is a subjective view of the location: a camera (Steadicam) floats along the corridors. A view without a body.