By Rick Steves
To learn more about Austria past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
For an overview of Austrian history, try The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey (Brook-Shepherd), though most of its focus is on the 19th and 20th centuries. Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor and Thunder at Twilight tell the story of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's last years in a light, lively way. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Schorske) is a dense but comprehensive analysis of the birth of modernism through Klimt, Freud, and other Viennese luminaries. The Spell of the Vienna Woods: Inspiration and Influence from Beethoven to Kafka (Hofmann) blends personal anecdotes, history, tourist information, and stories about artists who found inspiration in the 540-square-mile area that serves as Vienna's playground. Beethoven: The Music and the Life (Lockwood) includes details about the musician's life in Vienna and his contributions to its culture.
Memoirs: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, written by Maria von Trapp, tells the true story behind the musical phenomenon. Stefan Zweig's World of Yesterday looks at how he became a successful writer in the “lost world” of prewar Vienna. In The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal insightfully recounts the rise and fall of his storied family, whose Vienna home, the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, was confiscated by the Nazis in the Anschluss.
Much fiction set in Vienna concerns the imagined lives of famous artists. The Painted Kiss (Hickey) reflects the lush elegance of fin-de-siècle Vienna and the relationship between painter Gustav Klimt and his pupil Emilie Flöge, who posed for Klimt's masterpiece The Kiss. The rediscovered Embers (Márai) also paints a rich picture of cobblestoned, gaslit Vienna just before the empire's glory began to fade. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Meyer), Sherlock Holmes travels to Vienna to meet with Sigmund Freud and gets involved in a case. Henry James' Midnight Song (Hill) is another literary mystery with a cast of famous historical characters. Mystery fans could also consider Airs Above the Ground (Stewart), with Lipizzaner stallions and the Austrian Alps as a backdrop, as well as A Death in Vienna (Tallis), which involves a cover-up by the Catholic Church.
Austrian feminist Elfriede Jelinek, known for exploring dark themes, won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her most famous novel, Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Player, made into a movie) is about a troubled piano teacher who messes up the lives of her students. Robert Schneider's Brother of Sleep, set in an Austrian mountain village in the early 19th century, tells the story of a musical prodigy who goes unappreciated by the locals. Viennese writer Joseph Roth's classic novel Radetzky March follows four generations of a family during the decline and fall of the Habsburgs.
The Great Waltz (1938) portrays the life of composer Johann Strauss. Orson Welles infuses The Third Man (1949, actually shot in bombed-out Vienna) with noir foreboding. In Miracle of the White Stallions (1963), the Lipizzaner stallions are the stars in this true story of how the horses were liberated by General Patton after World War II. The beloved musical The Sound of Music (1965), also partially set in World War II, helped turn Julie Andrews into a star. Mayerling (1968) is about the suicide of Habsburg heir Archduke Rudolf (played by Omar Sharif), which played a pivotal role in Austrian history.
Mahler (1974) describes the man behind the music, and Amadeus (1984) made Mozart into a flesh-and-blood man (who giggles), as did Immortal Beloved (1994) for Beethoven. To familiarize yourself with Sisi (a.k.a. Austria's Empress Elisabeth, a 19th-century Princess Diana), look for the series of 1950s films starring Romy Schneider.
In Before Sunrise (1995), Ethan Hawke sightsees, talks, romances, and talks some more with Julie Delpy in Vienna. The Illusionist (2006) set in circa-1900 Vienna, is about a magician who uses his abilities to gain the love of a woman engaged to the crown prince.