Silent cinema and empty seats at Vienna's Breitenseer Lichtspiele

VIENNA (Reuters) - Cinema buffs familiar with movie theaters in Los Angeles, Cannes and Berlin do not necessarily link their passion with Austria’s capital Vienna.

A general view of the building housing Breitenseer Lichtspiele cinema in Vienna, Austria, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

But in a quiet suburb of the imperial city one of the world’s oldest cinemas has been running since 1909 on a shoe-string budget. Its license dates back to 1905, when founder Anna Nitsch-Fitzfirst started showing moving pictures in a tent.

Vienna’s Breitenseer Lichtspiele cinema was the place to go to watch silent movie classics such as “A Woman of Affairs” with Greta Garbo in the 1920s. It got its first sound system in 1930.

Over the years, the cinema’s technical equipment has been updated several times but Nitsch-Fitz, an 80-year-old who has been running the business for 48 years, never earned enough to switch to a digital movie system.

The former teacher would have had to close the cinema long ago were it not for a small cultural grant from the state and if she had not put in a good cut of her pension.

She invested in DVD and blu-ray players and in a digital beamer and borrows films from small, independent distributors instead of the expensive big ones. She also still uses the old 35 mm projector to show silent movies.

People keen on old Laurel & Hardy movies, Karl May’s Winnetou westerns or kids’ classics from the 1970s can indulge their passion at the Breitenseer Strasse. They have a good chance to have the cinema all to themselves as the old interior and the program selection do not attract too many visitors.

“I have been coming here for over 30 years once or twice a month,” said visitor Axel Walde, 47. He said he always came alone as most of his friends were not interested. “I prefer old movie theaters, they are quaint.”

Nitsch-Fitz plans to run the cinema for two more years, to celebrate her 50th anniversary, and wants to hand over to her niece afterwards.

“But she only wants to take over if I manage to break even,” she said. “So I am gonna have to put in a lot of effort for the next two years.”

Nitsch-Fitz’s endurance and devotion is appreciated by many local artists who support her. A cult film event with singer-songwriter Voodoo Juergens next Saturday is completely sold out.

Reporting by Lisi Niesner, writing by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise