Alexander Joseph Count Kolowrat-Krakowsky, usually referred to as Count Sascha Kolowrat, is generally credited as the founder of the modern Austrian film industry. Equally important, he helped establish a means for the development of a distinctly Austrian cinema that became a significant patriotic force decades after his death. Born in New York City in 1886, Kolowrat was one of the more flamboyant members of the Austria-Hungary aristocracy and one of the most forward-looking in his thinking, as well as being a great businessman and judge of creative talent.
Film as an art and entertainment form had taken root in Vienna as early as 1896, when the Lumière brothers brought their short documentary work to the imperial city. An actual, identifiable Austrian film industry had its birth in the years 1908-1910. Count Sascha Kolowrat had a keen interest in movies, and had even cultivated some skills as a photographer on An Dalmatiens Herrlichen Gestaden (1912). A year later, he was working on the first large-scale films ever shot in the city, among them Der Millionenonkel (1913), on which he directed second unit footage. Three years later, in the midst of the World War I, Kolowrat built the first large studio in the country, the Sascha Film Factory, on the outskirts of Vienna. That studio attracted such future greats as screenwriter Walter Reisch and directors Karl Hartl and Gustav Ucicky, both of whom started there as production assistants in their teens. Sascha Films weathered the hardships of the war, the Austrian defeat, and the dismemberment of the empire that ensued. Indeed, the count used the configuration of the former empire as a guide to his own marketing strategy; Kolowrat sold the releases of Sascha Films in the territories of the former empire, and was eager to sell his releases in America, which he saw as a still largely untapped market for quality European movies.
The Bohemian nobleman was a seriously colorful character, and not just in film circles. He also played a role in the history of the automobile when he commissioned the design of an unprecedented one-liter engine car from Ferdinand Porsche, which was called "The Sascha." In the early '20s, Kolowrat aspired to compete with Cecil B. DeMille in the making of costume epics, producing such films as Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) and The Slave Queen (1924, aka Moon of Israel). Both movies were directed by the most respected young filmmaker in Central Europe, a Hungarian-born contemporary of Kolowrat's named Mihali Kertesz, who, based on those releases, was snatched up by America, where he achieved fame as Michael Curtiz. Another future great who came to Sascha Films was Alexander Korda, one of the top young directors of his day long before he became a producer and studio owner in his own right; in many ways, Korda's London Films was modeled after Kolowrat's Sascha Film Factory. By the second half of the '20s, Ucicky and Hartl were also making films at the studio and establishing themselves.
Kolowrat's health began failing in the mid-'20s and he was hospitalized for most of 1927, which coincided with a downturn in the domestic film business in Austria caused by a flood of foreign-made movies sweeping the country. Among the films made in the later part of Kolowrat's regime at Sascha Films were Die Pratermizzi, starring Anny Ondra, which Kolowrat co-directed, and Café Elektric, which starred Willi Forst and a young, up-and-coming former extra named Marlene Dietrich. Kolowrat died of cancer in December 1927, and while his brother Heinrich attempted to keep the company afloat, he lacked the count's combination of business acumen and fascination with films, and the studio was ultimately closed and sold.
The physical Sascha Films facility kept going into the 1930s, converting to sound a little late but producing good movies. The last big success there was Maskerade (1934), Willi Forst's first talking picture, which introduced the Viennese film musical to the world. With its mix of easy charm, an old-world setting, wry wit, and music, the movie created a uniquely Austrian musical genre which became politically important in the ensuing decade. In 1938, days ahead of a planned vote on an annexation with Germany that the Nazis would have lost, Germany crossed the border and forcibly annexed Austria. Amid the fallout of the invasion, the German Ministry of Information proposed that the Sascha Studios be reorganized as the Ostmarkische Filmkunst to produce movies on behalf of the Third Reich. Unbeknownst to Berlin, the people who were employed at the company -- mostly former Kolowrat protégés -- had no intention of shooting a single frame more than was absolutely necessary on behalf of Germany or the Hitler government (whom they regarded as foreign occupiers). The studio was rechristened Vienna Film, with Karl Hartl in charge of production, but these presumed "puppets" had no intention of having their strings pulled by Berlin. Rather, they contrived over the next seven years to delay and, ultimately, shelve the production of every major project thrown their way by Berlin, and avoided making all but a tiny handful of the propaganda films that they were ordered to produce. Instead, the studio made more Viennese romances as well as Austrian historical dramas and, in the process, subtly became a focal point for Austrian nationalism and resistance to German and Nazi rule. This allowed Vienna Film to survive the Second World War intact, without being dismembered by the Allies, and to last into the 1960s and through the boom years in Austrian film production. In the '50s, a filmmaking prize called the Sascha Cup was created, memorializing the studio and the nobleman who founded it.