For as long as I can remember I have felt and thought in rooms, read about rooms, perceive rooms like personalities, dreamed about rooms. When I was a child one of my favourite stories was »The Downfall of the House of Usher« by Edgar Allan Poe, and I ended up writing my final university dissertation on a novel about a haunted house, »The Lime House« by Thomas Bernhard.
As a film critic and – I don't particularly like the word, but I don't know a better one – a cineaste, I love film’s rooms of fear: haunted house movies, which in my view touch something deep within us. A house that repels us… it is the fear we all probably carry within us.
C.G. Jung, a student of Freud's, liked to describe the human psyche as a house, where the super-ego rules in the attic and the ego in the ground floor, while the id is banished to the cellar. Depending on how fully you are at peace with yourself, you tend to gravitate towards the darker lower floors. I think this image applies to both people and society. The more you suppress, the more rumblings arise from the cellar, where the unpleasant truths slumber.
I had been interested in the story of the Sühnhaus for a long time before I thought of it as a film. Initially my fascination was focused on the Vienna Criminal Museum, an antediluvian place in the Second District of the city where blood stained sheets, rusty murder weapons and wax imprints of axe and stab wounds are on display. It's also a kind of cellar of Viennese society, a place which pays homage to the esoteric but at the same time produces its own brand of esoteric – such as a woman's head exhibited in a glass display case. The small, charred head belonged to an unknown victim of the fire at the Ring Theatre… and how it ended up in the museum is something the Director, a police historian, refuses to talk about.
It seems to me that here a victim is turned into a victim for a second time. According to the logic of horror films the place should be haunted: a spirit must be hanging around, demanding that justice be done to its body so that it can finally be buried after 135 years. But do ghosts even exist anyway?
I started to conduct some research into the history of the fire at the Ring Theatre, and I was amazed at how well this historical event is documented. And astonished at how little of it has been retained in the memory of the city. Again and again the response I got was: »The Ring Theatre? Wasn't that the building that stood on the Ring before the Burg Theatre?« No. It was somewhere else. Destroyed by the most catastrophic fire in the history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. 400 people died on 8 December 1881. Virtually everybody in Vienna knew at least one of the victims personally. That year the approach to Christmas was marked throughout the city by deep, inconsolable despair, which was transformed into acceptance and grief by decree from above.
Digging deeper into the whole issue reveals that Emperor Franz Josef I, Austria's »good Emperor Franz«, decreed a building should be constructed on the site of the theatre which burned down, a foundation he paid for from his own pocket. Soon it became known merely as the Sühnhaus, the House of Atonement: a description now used on city plans and postcards. The Sühnhaus was designed by Friedrich von Schmidt, the architect who designed the town hall in Vienna: it was a symbolic decision. With its neo-Gothic pointed arches, the Sühnhaus on the Ring resembled a small version of that town hall. A building that was supposed to compensate for everything. To make people forget what had happened on 8 December 1881: that the Vienna Police used force to restrain volunteers from rescuing people from the building where 400 people were burned, suffocated or trampled to death. That there was a blatant failure on the part of the authorities, the people supposedly in charge. That there was sufficient cause for an outcry, criticism of the city, a scandal or even a revolt. But none of that happened.
Instead, after 8 December what happened in Vienna was clearly systematic: rage was transformed into grief. Instead of going on the barricades and making demands, people merely muttered criticisms. And on the street the officially choreographed funeral procession was seen, led by those very men who were in the final analysis responsible for the tragedy.
When I began investigating the history of the Sühnhaus I discovered to my amazement that Sigmund Freud was one of the first tenants: curious, because at that time he was far from a wealthy man. In order to pay the rent in this extravagant building with its perfidious reputation, he even had to pawn a gold watch. Why did this young neurologist, who had just married his great love, Martha, want to live at the site of the terrible fire, of all places? Especially since, as his sister Anna wrote, he himself had tickets for that fateful performance in the Ring Theatre on the night of 8 December.
What drove him to search out the very place that was avoided by everybody else in Vienna? In the Imperial State Archive in Vienna there are letters from companies who rented premises in the Sühnhaus at the same time as Freud… and demanded a reduction in rent, arguing that there were too few tenants anyway; everybody in Vienna avoided the place. Schottenring 7 was the Ground Zero of the year 1881.
But Freud stayed at that address for five years. It was in this apartment in the rear wing of the Sühnhaus, which also served as his office, that his wife gave birth to three children. To mark the birth of the first daughter, Mathilda, the Emperor arranged for a porcelain vase to be sent as a gift, in gratitude for the new life that was coming to this grim location.
The years Freud spent in the Sühnhaus were less successful in professional terms. He may have had the same problem as several companies in the building, since it appears that his most psychologically disturbed patients avoided the place. Dozens of desperate people had jumped to their deaths during the fire in the original theatre, and the newspapers of Vienna had taken considerable voyeuristic delight in describing the great drama, with etchings and drawings showing the bodies. Images of screaming people plunging to their deaths and charred bodies were associated with the building. On 14 May 1891 history repeated itself when one of Freud's patients, a young woman called Pauline Silberstein, jumped to her death from the top of the staircase in the Sühnhaus. In the autumn of that year Freud moved out, making a home for himself in Berggasse – the building regarded today as Freud’s only apartment in Vienna. Although the Sühnhaus had only suffered superficial damage during the Second World War, it was demolished by the city of Vienna in 1952, Freud's first apartment and office along with it.
In contrast, the graves at the Central Cemetery of those who perished in the Ring Theatre – they were buried in 1881 with great pomp and a number of speeches – were allowed by the city to fall into disrepair.
It seems to me that the phenomenon of repression is not confined to individuals: a society can also fall victim to it. The fire at the Ring Theatre is the kind of incident that can give rise to this. An evil incident, one might say, which resonates under the surface to this very day.
The Sühnhaus itself was a kind of camouflage intended to cover up this evil incident, to transform it into its complete opposite: a benevolent gesture on the part of the Emperor… whose system of social injustice had actively encourage the catastrophic fire in the first place.
However, sometimes the reaction to an act can be quite different to what was anticipated: I regard Freud's radical change of course shortly after he moved out of the Sühnhaus, whereby he adopted the system of »talking cure«, partially as a reaction to the crisis he must have experience at the death of his young female patient there. During his time in the Sühnhaus he used the typical therapeutic methods of the day, including hypnosis, electrical apparatus and prescribing water cures, and (as can be seen from the few letters from that period which survive) he was well aware that he was »botching the job&lraquo;. So he now chose a course of absolute openness – or, as I would put it, he chose to explore the deeply buried memories of his patients and shed light on what was buried in the cellar.
So bearing in mind Freud's interpretation of dreams, his writings about the act of forgetting – which is never entirely unintentional – and his interest in the »uncanny« as a hidden element in the psyche, I set off to search Vienna for the buried rubble of the Ring Theatre and the Sühnhaus, recording the search together with cameraman Martin Putz – initially holding the tape recorder myself, later with a professional sound recordist.
I discovered that people in Vienna operated a regular cult of relics with rubble from the Ring Theatre: stones can be found in all possible museums, pillars from the front of the theatre, after the soot was cleaned away, were used in the construction of a church in the suburbs. But remains of the Sühnhaus can also still be found: neo-Gothic stone fragments adorn a front garden in the north of Vienna. The stairway windows of the Sühnhaus are now in a small wooden church in the suburbs, whose Polish priest welcomed us warmly. Remains of the bombastic Sühnhaus are today the most valuable ornaments of this »poor people's church«. Unfortunately, there was not room in the film for all the peripheral storylines in the history of the Ring Theatre and the Sühnhaus. While we were editing it became more important to me and the editor and dramaturg of the film, Oliver Neumann, to arrange all our findings and narrative strands in the service of a clear thesis: is it possible to decree to a society from above what it will remember and what is to be forgotten? And if it is, what happens to the memories that are suppressed? Do we create our own ghosts in this way?
And thus I found myself returning to my initial fascination with a belief in ghosts and a fear of particular spaces. Is it possible that Schottenring 7, the site of the unfortunate Ring Theatre where 400 people died in a single hour, is haunted? I found this question extremely interesting, running alongside my historical research and my political convictions. I am not flirting here with a belief in ghosts, but I am at least firmly convinced that past events etch themselves into the atmosphere of a place. That fortune and misfortune is retained in some form.
And I love telling stories. I hope that comes across; I hope it’s possible to perceive my film »House Of Atonement« as what it is trying to be: a haunted house film in the Jungian – and perhaps also a concrete sense.