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`VIENNA BEFORE THE FALL' STUMBLES DESPITE LOFTY INTENT

The idea behind "38: Vienna Before the Fall" is a noble one: To explore the inaction of a people when their culture, their lifestyle - their very lives - are in imminent danger.

It's unfortunate that the manner in which this Austrian film by Wolfgang Gluck delves into these matters is so slow, dull and oblique. The period is recreated quite faithfully and the performances are earnest, but too often the film is so passive it becomes uninteresting when it should be compelling.The central character is Martin, a renowned Jewish playwright who, in 1937, is oblivious to the gathering storm as Germany plots to occupy his beloved Austria. Martin's world is superficial, and essentially twofold - his work, which has made him something of a celebrity in elite social circles, and his love for Carola, a beautiful stage actress.

The closest we come to character depth is the realization that Martin has apparently never come to terms with his heritage, which he is forced to do before the film concludes. This no doubt fuels his blindness to the terror about to consume his country, causing us to conclude that the culprit is not simply naivete but perhaps also self-imposed. Martin apparently feels that what he ignores will eventually go away. The audience knows, however, that the Nazis will not go away.

So when Martin rents an apartment and coaxes Carola to move in with him, he shrugs off the nasty anti-Semitic comments from his landlord - and later those he hears from people on the street. He seems unconcerned that his housekeeper's young son has taken the swastika to his arm and is willing to turn in his own parents if he feels the need. And he doesn't notice, or more likely, chooses to ignore the subtle warnings from those around him that there is great peril on the horizon.

Eventually, both Martin and Carola are forced to face what is happening, though, naturally, by the time they do it's too late.

As the film drifts into its final third there are a series of events through which Martin manages to get Carola to safety. But despite his attempts to get to freedom himself, he makes some decisions that seem rather dumb.

Martin is not dumb, of course, but some of the film's final twists and turns are filled with obscure moments that remain unclear, at least in this viewer's mind, such as a suicide that seems ill-explained. Even more baffling, however, is the strange aspect that Martin, when he could easily hide out once he arranges safe passage to freedom, instead roams the streets as if he's daring Gestapo agents to pick him up.

"38: Vienna Before the Fall," unrated but in restrained PG territory, is not without its pluses, especially in the performance of Tobias Engel as Martin. Engel resembles a young Jean-Paul Belmondo and he has great screen presence. And as Carola, Sunnyi Melles is quite touching in her love for Martin and pitiable in her careless career moves (I especially liked the scene where she "sells out" to the Nazis by starring in a bad black-and-white musical).

But it is a shame that a film with as much potential as this one seems so bogged down in artless meandering.