Chapter 7 of Behind the 7th Veil
by Barry Fulton
10:35 am. Thomas Scott stood in front of the reception desk at the Hotel Altwienerhof, a comfortable distance from the city center. He was alone. The receptionist must have stepped away. The flight had been pleasant enough. He had slept. And he had two cups of Austrian Airlines coffee when he awoke. Still, he was exhausted. He had an appointment in the afternoon with the director of the Filmarchiv Austria. Before then, a few hours’ sleep and a shower would revive him. He would be okay if the receptionist showed up. He stretched. He paced. He checked the time. Finally, she appeared.
“Guten Morgen,” she began, but immediately switched to English. He was a tourist, she was sure. Light stubble, wrinkled jacket, and a forced smile. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”
“No, no,” he said, in an apologetic tone. He knew the drill, so handed her his passport.
“Mr. Scott,” she said, “welcome to Vienna. May I assume you have a reservation?”
“Yes, certainly, I’ll be here for five days.”
He waited as she checked her computer. And waited as her smile disappeared.
“Your name’s not here, but don’t be alarmed. There are no names here. Happens every week, and I’m supposed to improvise when this computer is… completely fucked. Isn’t that what you say in America? What do they expect me to do? Pick some room at random? Well, no. I have to confirm it’s available, that the prior guest has checked out, that the linens have been changed.”
“I understand,” Scott said, still patient, but eager to get to his room, any room.
“Once I forgot to check, gave a key to some American woman. We still use keys here for good reason. Those plastic cards would never work with our so-called computer system. So, she opens the door and here’s a guy lying in bed stark naked watching porn on the telly. I know you’re in a hurry, so I’ll spare you the details. Shall I just say our guest was rather unhappy. Now we have a 24-hour cancellation deadline, but my supervisor allowed me to waive it. I told her we’d find her another room, but she got all indignant and sassy, so I said, have it your way, go somewhere else. She was so rude, so I didn’t actually take the charge off her account. Let her protest to American Express and see if I care.”
“Any chance you have an unoccupied, clean room?”
Scott showered, shaved, unpacked, and checked his phone for messages. A text from Rachel confirmed hotel reservations in Istanbul and a suggestion he visit The Third Man museum in Vienna, “to remind you of the treachery of friends.” If she was alluding to Orson Welles’ portrayal of Harry Lime, she had confused his Vienna visit with Istanbul. He ignored a few other texts and dozens of emails, then eagerly opened a message from Father McManus.
Vienna is dangerous, I fear
For intrigue, there’s simply no peer.
Avoid all temptation
And strong libation.
If there’s trouble, please cover your rear.
Scott decided to sleep for a few hours, have a light lunch, and take the U-Bahn to the archive for his appointment with Professor Manfred Schneider. He lay down, closed his eyes, turned over, and after fifteen minutes was back on his feet. Vienna promised to be relaxing compared to his onward assignment, but Istanbul commanded his attention. He wasn’t a man lacking in confidence or skills. Yet he knew his target was a genius, who might well be setting a trap for him. Or for Rachel. He respected her expertise and her intuition, but felt responsible for her safety. He was old enough to be her father.
He stopped at the reception desk for directions.
“The U-Bahn’s just a stone’s throw from the lobby. You’ll be there within a minute, unless you decide to check the merchandise across the street. Just turn left and look for the sign: Gumpfendorfer Strasse.”
With a mischievous smile, she nodded toward the door. He thanked her.
“You’re welcome, I’m sure, but aren’t you a bit curious? I mean about the neighborhood. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Warn me? Sorry, I’m still a little jet lagged. What warning? The dog behind your desk keeps growling, but he looks tame enough.”
“Mister, I’m trying to say that the building directly across the street, the one with the purple shutters, is a brothel. And if I may say so, not one for a gentleman like you. I’m just saying. An American guest here just last week never made it as far as the subway, and returned a few hours later without his wallet. He had been robbed, but couldn’t file a police report for the obvious reasons.”
“Thank you for the good advice. I’ll head straight to the U-Bahn without a pause. And please give that shaggy dog a pat on the head for me.”
Midday on the Vienna U-Bahn was as quiet as the NYC subway at two in the morning. One passenger was looking at a map, the others reading. Scott had the DVD of the Schwarzer film in his inside jacket pocket. He was eager to share it with the archive director.
Dr. Schneider was no less eager to see it, as he was waiting at the door when Scott arrived. “Guten Tag, Mr. Scott. Please enter. Your visit has been much anticipated. I hope you enjoyed a pleasant journey.”
“Thank you, yes. It is a pleasure to return to this beautiful city.”
“I don’t have words to tell you how excited we are. The man who rescued the Schwarzer films is long retired, but at my invitation returned today to see your discovery. But, first, please join me in my office for a glass of wine. And then we’ll get right to work. Did I say work? No, it will be a great pleasure to see the film.”
Dr. Schneider was a man in his mid-fifties whose stride and bearing was that of a marathoner. His prominent features were highlighted by heavy dark eyebrows. His office was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books and framed photos. Behind his desk was an Egon Schiele painting of colorful houses at waters’ edge.
“Original? I wish. Not on my salary. But it’s a wonderful reproduction, captures the colors of the original. And here’s another Vienna original: Wiener Gemischter Satz. The grapes are grown just outside the city. The wine is a complex mixture of many grape varieties from the same vineyard. A glass or two will enhance our viewing of the Schwarzer print.”
Raising his glass, Scott said, “Prost!”
“And in English, if I am not mistaken, you say cheers.”
“Yes, cheers to you. The wine is exceptional. I must confess, I know nothing about Austrian wine, so this is a memorable introduction.”
“Before we go to the screening room, where my staff will be waiting, might we take a fast look at the film here in my office? But, I shouldn’t rush you; please enjoy the wine.”
The archive director looked at his watch when the video began. It started with a curtain in front of a small stage superimposed with the words “Tanz der sieben Schleier… … Musik von Richard Strauss.” The curtain opened to a beautiful young woman, arms outstretched, who stood motionless for fifteen seconds. She was dressed in layers of gauzy veils. With a glance offstage, perhaps responding to recorded music, she began a graceful dance. Classically trained, her execution was flawless. The camera zoomed toward her as she removed one layer of clothing, never missing a step. As she removed each of the remaining veils, her movements were faster, more dramatic, but no less graceful. Her nakedness showed beneath the last veil. When she threw it toward the camera, her classic dance slowly morphed to eroticism. She appeared to be possessed as her movements became more suggestive. The camera zoomed to her face to suggest she had lost control. She appeared to be in the grasp of some primitive animal spirits. Then she stopped, smiled, and curtsied, revealing her mastery as a dancer and performer. It was the film audience that must have lost control when the film was shown in Vienna over a hundred years earlier.
“Mr. Scott, I am speechless. May I confess to an earlier suspicion that you might have found a forgery? This is absolutely genuine, absolutely priceless. And the artist has no peer, even today, in interpreting the music of Strauss and the intention of Oscar Wilde.”
“Dr. Schneider, you just described my reaction when I first saw it. Do you happen to know the name of the dancer, of Salome? The film must have been especially popular among the men who saw it.”
Schneider paused, looked again at his watch. “The film was about eight minutes long. In its time, it would have been shown with three or four others to all-male audiences. But our research suggests this erotic masterpiece was shown in public only once. As word spread, it was quietly removed from circulation. And, according to our findings, the prints were destroyed after an unnamed party paid Johann Schwarzer a small fortune.”
“And the woman? Who was she?”
“There are rumors, of course, but her true identify is unknown. Insofar as we know, she never performed again. The film was made in Vienna, as our archivists have seen the setting in other movies and have identified its exact location. But Salome vanished, disappeared with her seven veils.”
“You’ve piqued my curiosity,” Scott said. “In my business, a good rumor is often an important clue. Might not mean a thing to a guy from the mountains of West Virginia, but I do enjoy a good mystery.”
Dr. Schneider nodded, opened a drawer in his desk, sorted through some papers, shrugged his shoulders, and then slowly replied. “I was looking for an old newspaper clipping, but can’t immediately put my hands on it. A bit of an embarrassment for an archivist, but… ”
“It’s nothing. Just curious.”
“Actually, Mr. Scott, your print of the film may be the solution to a century-old mystery. There are no other copies of the film. Let me propose we go to our screening room where a few of my colleagues will be waiting to see this pristine masterpiece. After that, I suggest you meet with the retired archivist whom I’ve invited to the showing. He doggedly set out years ago to discover who starred in the film and why it was hastily withdrawn from circulation.”
“It would be a delight to hear about his investigation,” Scott said as they walked toward the screening room.
“Investigation? Yes, it was that, even more. It became a passion, and if I may confide in you, even a distraction from his archival duties. His theory is compelling, but may well be a complete invention. I worry a little about his reaction to the film, particularly if seeing the dancer challenges his conclusions.”
Dr. Schneider smiled broadly when they entered the screening room. The Strauss score of Salome was playing. Perfect to set the mood. Scott guessed the older of the three was the retiree, who sprung to his feet to greet him with a handshake and a hug. “I have not slept for the last two nights, waiting to see this. But it’s impossible to imagine it’s real, so I have convinced myself the film isn’t what you believe.”
The director told Scott that archivists are trained to be doubters, to demand a high level of proof before a manuscript or any artifact can be judged to be genuine. The provenance of an object is a key factor in deciding its authenticity.
“Provenance?” Scott replied. “That’s easy. I found the film at the bottom of a box in an auction house in Pittsburgh. How did it get there? I have no idea.”
The lights were dimmed and the film began. The curtains opened and there she stood, arms outstretched.
“Gott im Himmel. Es ist authentisch.” He repeated in English, “It is authentic.”
Günter Zimmer had spoken. His younger colleagues agreed. An American from West Virginia had found a missing treasure in an auction house in Pittsburgh.
Zimmer suggested they see it again. And again. He was ecstatic. “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” Zimmer said, “has never been performed so well. Her interpretation was just as Strauss intended. The recording by the Vienna Philharmonic could have been the very music she heard when the film was made. No surprise that the censors banned it.”
Scott had seldom received such adulation, despite his insistence the film came into his possession by accident. “I bid ten Euros for three cartons of encyclopedias and found the recording at the bottom of one of the boxes when I returned home. Attribute it all to dumb luck.”
More questions, more discussion, and more expressions of gratitude before Scott and Zimmer left together for a nearby brauhaus.
“Mr. Scott, you have brought me such happiness. But first, let me order. The weissbier here may be the best in the city. And with fresh pretzels, nothing better!”
“Thank you. A great way to celebrate.”
They chatted. Spoke about life, music, art, and retirement. Scott wanted to ask Zimmer about his research, but paused until the beer and pretzels arrived. “Herr Zimmer, I understand you have spent some time researching the dancer on the film—and may have reached some conclusions.”
“I thought you would never ask,” he said. “No reason to expect an American tourist to be interested in a hundred-year-old Viennese rumor, unless… ”
“I love mysteries, particularly those with international intrigue. Is there any city in the world more associated with secrecy, conspiracy, and even danger?”
“And you Americans are not immune from that. When was it? 1989? Do I recall that the number two man at your embassy here was caught passing secrets to the Russians?”
“Caught? Well, almost. Even with compelling evidence, there was never quite enough to prosecute him. Felix Bloch was photographed by French counterintelligence agents meeting with a KGB agent who walked out with a black bag Bloch had left behind.”
“A front-page story here for weeks. And the clandestine meeting took place in Paris at the Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli.”
The waiter returned to the table with two wheat beers and two fresh pretzels. “To your health,” Scott said.
“If Bloch had only been charged with swapping secrets with the Soviets, the story would have gone away in a few days. Vienna has more spies and counterspies than any city in Europe; at least that’s what they say. But few of them are caught with their pants down.”
“And Felix was?” Scott asked.
“Tina Jirousek. At the time, nearly as well-known as Felix Bloch. A former prostitute, she specialized in sadomasochistic sex. And he was a regular customer—every Saturday morning for seven years, she greeted him dressed in leather and high boots, carrying a whip. They say it cost him eight thousand Euros a year.”
Scott tasted the beer, nodded approvingly, and commented on the charm of the brauhaus and the courtesy of the waiter. “I’ve been in your country six hours, and already I feel at home.”
“You asked about my research on the film,” Zimmer said. “It began years ago when I ran across an item in our archives from a 1909 newspaper. It reported that the film was confiscated by authorities, and Schwarzer was charged with violating standards of decency. After a brief description of Saturn Films and their erotic nature, the article concluded with an anonymous quote, which I will paraphrase in English: It was not the nudity that alarmed authorities, but the dancer whose family intervened to protect their reputation.”
“So, let me guess,” Scott said, “you couldn’t resist. You had to know who she was.”
“Precisely,” Zimmer said. He ordered two more beers and continued. “I never saw the film, not till today, but heard she was stunning, classically trained, and about twenty-one years of age. And that was confirmed today. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Delighted to help, but don’t stop now. You have my full attention.”
Zimmer removed his glasses and closed his eyes. He was thinking, considering how he would share his hunch with a stranger, after friends had poked fun at him for his so-called princess obsession. He opened his eyes, looked at his watch, and hurriedly signaled to the waiter.
“I’ve been so mesmerized by the film that I completely lost track of time. I’m due to meet my wife at this very moment at a restaurant that’s twenty minutes away. Could we meet again tomorrow to continue our discussion?”
“Of course. How about the bar of the Hotel Sofitel at twelve noon? I’m told it’s on the eighteenth floor with a stunning view of the city”
Zimmer paid the check and rushed away, every bit as giddy as he had been while viewing the film. It was still early, at least in West Virginia. Don Giovanni was being performed at the Vienna Opera. It had been sold out for months, but Scott had learned he could get standing room tickets by waiting in line. It was a long wait, but well worth it. Three Euros instead of 250 Euros for the best seats. Before the opera began the gentleman standing next to him introduced himself, said he was retired and came to the opera practically every week. He offered a brief history of the opera and a synopsis of what Scott would hear.
“I regard it as Mozart’s greatest comic opera,” he said. It premiered in Prague in October 29, 1787.”
“1787,” Scott said, “the very year the American Constitution was written. And a mere two days after the publication of the first of the Federalist papers by Alexander Hamilton who urged its ratification. Pardon me for the interruption, but I was struck by the coincidence of this famous opera being performed at the very moment our nation was being born.”
His companion continued, “You will be amused halfway through the second act when Don Giovanni’s servant, Leporello, reads from his little black book listing the women his master has seduced in several nations, including one thousand and three in Spain alone.”
The houselights went down and the overture began.
No one was attendant at the front desk when Scott returned. The dog welcomed him with a muted growl. The sign on the elevator said Außer Betrieb. So, he walked the stairs to the fourth floor, lay awake for hours, and after finally succumbing to sleep, struggled to wake up by ten am.
Arriving a few minutes after noon at the Hotel Sofitel bar, he was welcomed by his new best friend, Günter Zimmer. “I took the liberty of ordering what we Austrians call Grüner Veltliner. Americans who live here call it simply green wine.”
“You’ve been very gracious. Lunch is on me, but while I try this wine, I’m all ears.”
“All years? Pardon, but I don’t understand.”
“Sorry, it’s American slang,” Scott said. “I meant to say that I wish to listen with care to your discovery.”
“It may make more sense after a few glasses of wine, but here’s my reasoning. First, I would remind you that the film was produced, shown only once, and censored by authorities during the reign of Franz Josef. You may remember that he was married to Elizabeth, known as Sisi. She was assassinated in 1898. What you may not know: Franz Josef had a long-standing relation with actress Katharina Schratt whom he met in 1885. Some scholars claim their relationship was strictly platonic, but few believe that.”
“Günter, I’ve been in Vienna barely more than one day,” Scott said, “and this is already my second history lesson. I’m afraid you wouldn’t find the same attention to our past if you were to visit the United States.”
“Those were the facts, the solid rock on which my theory is built. Mind you, Schwarzer’s other films, all featuring naked women, continued to be shown for another three years. And none of them had the artistic merit of Salome. So, who had both the motivation and the authority to have this one film withdrawn from circulation? I believe there’s only one answer: Franz Josef himself or some member of his court.”
The bartender filled their glasses. Scott, as promised, was listening to every word. He nodded to convey his understanding. Zimmer hoped these gestures meant even more: approval, even agreement.
“Franz Josef? The emperor? How old was he in 1909?”
“Seventy-nine. And he was to remain on the throne for another seven years.”
“You spoke of motivation,” Scott said. “The court had the means, but what was the motivation?”
“Let’s assume Franz Josef’s relationship was not platonic. We might then assume she could have become pregnant, say a year or two after they met. And let us assume a baby girl was born in 1888, give or take a year or two. Schratt, of course, would have delivered the child outside of Venice, maybe Munich, or any city in Germany where she could have been raised in a fashion befitting a princess. She would have studied languages, music, ballet. And by 1909, she would have celebrated her twenty-first birthday. And maybe, maybe she may have visited Vienna.”
Scott admired Zimmer’s enthusiasm and his imagination, but his conclusion was so laced with assumptions, hunches, and guesses, it could not be taken seriously. Günter, on the other hand, was a delight, so Scott encouraged him to continue. No one could say for certain that he was wrong.
“Here’s where it gets complicated,” Zimmer said. “From a print of the film, she is recognized by her mother and persuaded to return to her adopted city. Again, I’ll suggest Munich, because I’ve discovered that Katharina Schratt had relatives living there who would have agreed to raise her.”
Scott suggested they might take a break and continue the discussion over lunch. “I’m eager to hear what follows.”
“Thank you, but first, consider the probabilities and do the math. Our dancer finds a companion in Munich, raises a family, perhaps a little girl born six or eight years later.”
Scott interrupted to demonstrate he was following the argument. “That would make her daughter a hundred years old, if she’s still alive.”
“Well, yes, but my argument is strictly based on probabilities. So, she’s not alive. But, her children may be, and her grandchildren would be in their fifties, right?”
They left the bar for lunch at Das Loft. Quiet and nearly empty, they were greeted with the attention warranted a pair of international spies. “In a way, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” Zimmer said with a laugh.
“Yes,” Scott began, “but…”
“You Americans are always straight forward, so tell me, do I have a good case?”
“Hmm, to be candid, maybe not.”
“Well, you’d be right, but only because I’ve left out a few details. If I were to tell you what I learned from a private investigator, you’d be more positive. I didn’t stop there. After the investigator found some very compelling leads, I engaged a genealogist. She was brilliant. Built a case that would dazzle a judge.”
“And?” Scott asked, now feeling the rush of discovery.
“The road led to Munich as I hinted, but within a generation, back to Austria. The great-granddaughter of Salome is very much alive and living in Salzburg. She is an accomplished designer, well known in the world of haute couture.”
“So, is this now clearly established, well known?”
“No, not quite. Aside from me, there’s only one other person who has the full story. And that, Mr. Scott, would be you.”
“Gentleman,” the waiter said, “may I suggest a cocktail or a glass of wine before lunch?”