Introduction

In exploring the final detritus of cinematic projection, embodied in the shattered and gutted projection-boxes, the dust-encrusted cans of negated celluloid, and the once-luxurious, now-decrepit auditoria of the cinema-palaces of the 1920s, whose facades still constellate the Broadway avenue, in Los Angeles’ Downtown, for my book Abandoned Images, I often experienced the sense that filmic time was held on a knife-edge in that precarious urban location, erasing any linearity of futures or pasts or presents, and could veer from one extreme to another, from film’s end to its origins, or back again, in the blink of an iris. And that preoccupation with the seminal welding-together of cinematic projection’s end and its initiation then took me from Los Angeles to Berlin, where two near-forgotten brothers, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, had originated public film-projection by showing a program of their own films, on celluloid stock, to a paying audience at the Wintergarten Ballroom, in Berlin’s Central Hotel, on 1 November 1895, almost two months before the Lumière Brothers undertook their own first film-projection for a public audience, at the Grand Cafe in Paris, on 28 December of that year. The Skladanowsky Brothers were almost immediately overtaken, in both technological and aesthetic domains, by their many rivals, so that they became stranded in film-historical no-man’s-land, their status overlayered within the conflicting, multiplicitous traces both of film’s origins and of the onset of film-projection. Just as the end-point of film is vitally indeterminate, but can be tentatively excavated in fragments in the lavish ruins of cinema-palaces, the origin of film is itself correspondingly indeterminable: quantifiable only within limits, in terms of speed, media, audience and location, among other factors, and also in the non-collaborative, often-vitriolic competitiveness of film’s 1890s pioneers. The impasses generated by such multiple and irreconcilable narratives invariably lead to re-invention, in which the time of film’s origin becomes malleable, subject to contrary imperatives according to the priorities and demands of narration, with the result that any origin forms a tenuous one, in its telling. The Wintergarten film-screening of 1895 constitutes an initiating event that is tightly enmeshed within conflicting historical, film-historical, urban-historical and cultural strata, and subject, across the intervening decades, to an intermittent process of visibility, oscillating between prominence and near-extinguishment. But the Skladanowsky Brothers’ hold on the temporal origin of film-projection remains a distinctive and ineradicable one, in many ways perversely enhanced by the vanishing of many of its traces and locations, within the urban space of Berlin.

The Skladanowsky Brothers hand-constructed their own projector, with the explicit aim of enabling spectators to assemble in a specific location, orient their vision towards a large-scale screen, and view a program of films, together, as an audience. They named their projector the ‘Bioskop’, from the Greek: ‘to see life’: an instrument that would exact an ocular and sensorial form of entrancement. They also built their own film camera and shot a number of films, and had already reached the stage of experimenting with test-projections of those films, for private audiences of friends and colleagues, in the entertainment room of a cafe in one of the industrial districts of northern Berlin, before they were commissioned by the directors of a far larger and prestigious venue, the Wintergarten Ballroom, to project those films to a paying public, over the duration of a month, as part of a program that would predominantly feature live performances. After undertaking those projections, they toured across northern Europe with their films, for a period of eighteen months, before abruptly encountering obstacles which halted their experiments and consigned them to oblivion for several decades. The two brothers, Max and Emil, possessed elements both of showmen and of untrained, resourceful inventors, though Max worked principally with the technical aspects of their filmmaking and projection, and Emil’s primary contribution involved the promotion of their inventions and arrangements for bringing those inventions to public audiences.

The audiences for public manifestations of moving images, across the pre-filmic and early-cinema eras, from the 1880s to the beginning of the twentieth century, ranged widely. Eadweard Muybridge’s scrapbooks of annotated press-articles on his pre-filmic public slide-projections of moving-images, with his ‘Zoopraxiscope’ device, indicate a breadth of spectators encompassing artists and scientists, aristocrats and royalty, alongside the public audiences that attended his lecture-demonstrations at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. From 1905, the audiences and venues for film-projection began to acquire elements of a disreputable aura, through the prevalence of nickelodeons, their projection-spaces often improvised through the adaptation of shopfront rooms in rundown urban areas, intimately packed with spectators. The envisaging of a moving-image audience, and of film-spectatorship itself, constituted an intensively mutable one, in perpetual transformation and reorientation, across those formative decades. But the public audience for the Skladanowsky Brothers’ first film-projection event, on 1 November 1895, had a particular form: it was a wealthy audience, of sensation-avid Berliners and international travellers, in sharp distinction to the relatively impoverished artisan-showmen who projected their films to that audience.

The Skladanowsky Brothers possessed a specific urban location, in their attachment to industrial northern Berlin, especially the heavily-populated tenement-districts of Prenzlauerberg and Pankow, which were inhabited at that time mainly by factory-workers, employed notably in the area’s many breweries; as well as living in those districts, Max and Emil Skladanowsky also rented their workshops there, and shot their first film on the rooftop of a building above one of the area’s main avenues, the Schönhauser Allee, its images holding a panorama of factory-chimneys and church-steeples. When the brothers made incursions into central Berlin, and took on engagements to demonstrate their inventions in deluxe venues, such as the Wintergarten Ballroom, it was largely unfamiliar territory for them. But alongside their localised urban attachments, they were also itinerant showmen, who had already spent many years crisscrossing Europe for performances of their earlier inventions and spectacles. That quality of itinerancy, with its incessant exploratory trajectories, is imprinted too in the work of many other critical figures of the first decades of moving-images: Muybridge, above all, with his travels from Kingston-upon-Thames to San Francisco and out into the then-remote regions of California, such as Yosemite Valley, and also Louis Le Prince, who shot the first-ever film, in 1888, while displaced from France to the industrial English city of Leeds, before mysteriously disappearing without trace in the course of his travels. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ work took place in fixed, localised parameters in northern Berlin, while simultaneously being encompassed by spatial dimensions that rapidly expanded through the necessity of making public that work.

In many ways, it is the volatile city of Berlin itself which makes the Skladanowsky Brothers’ projection-event insurge into life, as though the localised, internally-focused dimension of their work, devised on the urban periphery, were being overruled through the all-engulfing compulsion to strip innovations down and thereby extract new sensations for the constant revivification of the city-centre’s lucrative public spectacles. In the 1890s, after many decades of being dismissed as a militaristic, austere city, Berlin had finally emerged as a pre-eminent European site of avid, visually-based spectatorship and lavish over-consumption, manifested above all in the form of variety reviews, staged in luxurious venues such as the Wintergarten Ballroom. The urban historian Alexandra Richie notes: “The new reviews extolled the virtues of the big city, glorying in its consumerism and cosmopolitan nature and advertising new forms of entertainment which would later be associated exclusively with the Weimar period.”(1) It was in that context that the Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projection event took place: swallowed-alive by that desire for urban spectacle, but simultaneously, in some ways, a profoundly misplaced, aberrant presence within it, as though, even at its origin, film possessed an element of the resistant inassimilability and idiosyncrasy that formed such an essential part of its future history.

The Skladanowsky Brothers

In many ways, the Skladanowsky Brothers conjured public film-projection into existence, their blind determination indicating that they were aware of undertaking something unprecedented and original, and at the same time, unsure exactly what direction they were heading in, or precisely how to accomplish their plans, technologically or financially, but, out of audacity, simply heading on (like the young bell-founder in the final sequence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev). Like that of Muybridge, the Skladanowsky Brothers’ work forms a volatile amalgam of showmanship and invention, with, in their case, the former element often taking the upper hand. In the way in which their career shifted abruptly and illogically, intersecting directly with film for a relatively short period, and also in their capacity to vanish almost without trace and reappear unexpectedly, decades later, in a different guise, they are, in one sense, immediacy-obsessed ‘tricksters’. The press reviews of their Wintergarten Ballroom projection-event intimate something of the near-diabolical transmutations which the unleashing of film-images into the audience’s space generated; although enthralled, those spectators appeared simultaneously disturbed, as though subject to a maleficent, askew conjuring-trick able to steal-away their faculties, their hold upon time and reality, and even their corporeal presence. But alongside that capacity to initiate the uncanny, capricious power of film-projection, with its uniquely mysterious aura, the Skladanowsky Brothers were also irrepressible, keenly-focused inventors, finetuned by their social and urban origins to disregard all setbacks and calamities.

The Skladanowsky Brothers, like much of the population of industrial northern Berlin, originated from a social history of displacement, with their name revealing Polish family origins, their ancestors having relocated to the city in the early nineteenth century at a time of mass migration from the impoverished rural regions to the east of Berlin.(2) After the Nazis took power in 1933, their main priority, in assessing the potential for the Skladanowskys’ innovations in film to be co-opted into their nationalistic and expulsive agenda, was to determine whether the brothers came from a family of Polish Jews. Their father was a skilled glass-worker but also a performative showman, involved with developing popular public spectacles using ‘Nebelbilder’: literally, ‘fog-images’: a particular variant of magic-lantern projections that often exhibited terrifying or macabre images; however, the Skladanowsky family’s adaptation of ‘Nebelbilder’ spectacles focused particularly on historical and mythical scenes, and on spectacular landscapes. Their involvement in ‘Nebelbilder’ spectacles was situated during the medium’s last phase; its main decades of popularity were from the 1800s to the 1890s. Sequences of non-photographic glass slides, hand-painted or inscribed with images, were projected in intricate, rapid sequences, onto a large screen, with complex dissolves and overlayered optical effects, sound-elements, and an ongoing vocal narration. Although he had received only a limited apprenticeship in glass-making, Max Skladanowsky was especially proficient in constructing multi-lens ‘Nebelbilder’ devices, capable of simultaneously projecting up to eight or nine separate sequences of images. The two brothers, Max and Emil, accompanied their father on numerous cross-European tours of ‘Nebelbilder’ spectacles in the years from 1879 until 1895, from their mid-teens to early thirties; their older brother, Eugen, worked for several decades as a clown and acrobat, employed by prominent European circuses for touring engagements, and was not closely involved in their experiments with film-projection. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ final ‘Nebelbilder’ tours of the mid-1890s were undertaken without their father; they re-named themselves ‘The Hamilton Brothers’, and began to experiment with incorporating new elements, such as fireworks displays and water-spectacles, into their performances, in order to accentuate an atmosphere of innovation.

In part, that obsession with expansion and innovation, and their capacity to design and execute intricate projection devices, led the Skladanowsky Brothers to film. Although the first films had been shot several years previously, in 1888, by the engineer and inventor Louis Le Prince, the technological capacity to project films before public audiences had not been realised in the intervening years; many inventors, including Edison, saw the development of public film-projection as a dead-end, and potentially worthless, while other inventors from engineering backgrounds, including Le Prince himself, approached the dilemmas surrounding film-projection with conflicting imperatives and aims from those of the Skladanowsky Brothers. In some ways, after the demands of his excessive, multiple-projection ‘Nebelbilder’ devices, the realisation of Max Skladanowsky’s film-projector, the ‘Bioskop’, may have been in some ways a less exacting challenge: almost an exercise in streamlining his previous work. The Lumière Brothers, in Lyons, operated on a sophisticated and well-funded technological basis, in contrast to the Skladanowsky Brothers’ artisanal and impecunious form of production in Berlin; but, as with the Lumière Brothers, Max Skladanowsky flexibly meshed precedents and pre-existing experiments. Such technologies were, to varying extents, accessible for adaptation, through accounts in patents and trade journals, and could, for itinerant performers such as the Skladanowsky Brothers, often be witnessed at close proximity during the course of their travels around Europe. At the same time, the Skladanowsky Brothers’ movement into filmmaking and film-projection forms an aberration and an unprecedented leap into the dark, exhibiting a reckless desire for innovation akin to that of Muybridge, with their conception, however partial, of film as possessing a distinctive entity as a new moving-image medium, with, integral to that medium, the amassing in front of a projection-screen of an admission-paying audience.

The Skladanowsky Brothers devoted their primary attention to the medium of film from 1894, during breaks between their ‘Nebelbilder’ tours. Although Max Skladanowsky retrospectively backdated the construction of his first film camera, and of his shooting of experimental test film-footage, to 1892, even according a specific date to that first act of filmmaking in Germany, 20 August 1892, the historian Joachim Castan has established that a far more probable date for the film-footage was that of the summer or autumn months of 1894, with the possibility that Max Skladanowsky had been gradually developing his camera, towards that eventual experiment with filmmaking, since 1892 or 1893.(3) Such strategic or hallucinatory manipulations of time were rife, among early cinema’s competitive participants, in the subsequent decades’ establishment of stratified chronologies and ‘formative events’ for film. Since the Wintergarten Ballroom film-projection event would only take place in November 1895, Max Skladanowsky justified the inexplicable three-year delay, from his own 1892 starting-date, as being the result of the consistent refusal of funds for the development of his experiments, by bank-managers who derided his plans as being mad and delusional; the financial necessity of constantly having to leave Berlin to undertake extensive ‘Nebelbilder’ tours had also contributed to the long delay. In 1925, he asserted: “I could really have made the world the gift of cinema three years earlier.” (4)

The date of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ first engagement with film as a medium has vanished in those retrospective conjurations of memory. But by July 1895, they definitively possessed the three vital artefacts for the exhibition of self-shot films to an audience: a film camera, films, and a film projector. As well as having assembled a program of their own films by that time, they had also hand-constructed both their camera and projector, in their workshop, housed in a five-storey building containing innumerable other artisans’ workshops, in a small street that led off the Schönhauser Allee avenue in the Prenzlauerberg district of northern Berlin. While the Skladanowsky Brothers, as adept glass-makers, had previously been able to produce all of their own, hand-painted glass-plate negatives for their ‘Nebelbilder’ spectacles, they had needed for the first time to order an industrially-produced medium, Eastman-Kodak celluloid film-stock, for their new experiments. But with everything in place, they now envisaged their first public film-projections.

The Wintergarten Ballroom Film-Projection

The Skladanowsky Brothers undertook their experimental film-screenings in the entertainment room of a large cafe, the Cafe Sello, in July 1895, projecting films which they had shot two months earlier. The Cafe Sello was located on the avenue which led from the Prenzlauerberg to Pankow districts of northern Berlin; it was a popular venue for factory workers to drink beer and dance to music. In the future, the entertainment room would become one of Berlin’s first cinemas, before being demolished in 1927 and a new, purpose-built cinema, the Tivoli, constructed in its place; the Tivoli, situated in the postwar eastern zone of Berlin, survived the decades of East Germany intact, but not the redevelopment frenzy of the re-unified city, being demolished in 2003 and the site used for a supermarket. The Skladanowsky Brothers invited small, non-paying audiences of friends and fellow photographic artisans and showmen to their test-screenings. Emil Skladanowsky’s role was to publicise the brothers’ innovations, and Franz Dorn and Julius Baron, the proprietors of the far grander entertainment venue, the Wintergarten Ballroom, attended one of the experimental screenings. Dorn and Baron had taken over the Wintergarten eight years earlier and transformed it into an upmarket variety review venue, one of the most successful in Europe, in which original, international spectacles were especially prized by the audience, though the program’s format and content also drew on that of the small-scale local satirical cabaret-shows, of story-telling and music, distinctive to Berlin, that were pervasive at that time in cafes and beerhalls in industrial areas of the city, such as the Cafe Sello. Impressed by what they saw of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ experiments, Dorn and Baron decided to commission the brothers to demonstrate their film-projector as part of the variety review spectacle they were developing for the month of November, four months into the future; a contract for the engagement was signed in September. But the Wintergarten proprietors were not only interested in the Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projection ‘act’ for that spectacle, and were searching for attractions in any medium that could serve to seize the attention of their innovation-avid audiences; they also engaged the brothers for the entirety of the preceding month, October, to present an entirely different attraction: a water-theatre spectacle which the brothers had recently been developing as an addition to their ‘Nebelbilder’ performances, in the form of a spectacular re-staging of the Roman Empire-era sea-battle of Alexandria.

Max Skladanowsky had hand-built his film-projector, the dual lens Bioskop, in his workshop, from wood, glass and steel components, during the months immediately preceding the Cafe Sello test-screenings. It was entirely his own work, and used a dissolve technique adapted from his previous ‘Nebelbilder’ projectors; he had commissioned a set of steel parts from a nearby artisans’ workshop, and bought lamps for the projector’s two lens, but had assembled everything singlehandedly. The result was an unprecedented, irreplicable and idiosyncratic artefact: one of its kind, as with Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope – and utterly dissimilar, in its effective but maladroit construction, from the far more technically proficient device employed by the Lumière Brothers, for their own film-projections in December of that year. The projector used a manually-turned wooden handle with a metal chain, which advanced two separate reels of film, their trajectory extending, via revolving cogs at the base of each side of the projector, almost to floor-level. To reach the projection-speed of 16 frames per second necessary for the images’ movement to be perceived as a continuous sequence by the human eye, without excessive flicker, each film’s images were assigned alternately to the two reels, and a serrated, revolving circular steel-plate, positioned in front of the two lens and regulated by the handle which also advanced the film-reels, allowed one lens to project while the other was obscured. Max Skladanowsky used his Bioskop projector for both the Cafe Sello and Wintergarten Ballroom events.

The Wintergarten Ballroom was situated within the lavish Central Hotel, one of Berlin’s new, grand hotels, modelled on those of Paris and New York, and taking up an entire street-block in the Friedrichstrasse, an avenue of shopping arcades and restaurants in the centre of the city; the hotel was one of the first buildings to be seen by travellers disembarking from trains at the adjacent Friedrichstrasse railway station. The ballroom was a vast, elongated and glass-roofed space with several stages, extending from one end of the hotel to the other, along its ground floor; its clientele sat around circular tables, on several levels, rather than in rows. That clientele encompassed both wealthy, elegantly dressed Berliners, avid for new sensations, and also the hotel’s international guests, who reflected Berlin’s abrupt expansion as a new destination for prosperous travellers. As Alexandra Richie notes: “a million visitors a year were arriving via the new water and rail networks which encircled the city, and the small dank inns of old gave way to the newest additions to the Berlin skyline, the grand hotels. In the late nineteenth century the size and style of hotels were considered a measure of the city’s greatness, and Berliners were eager to compete with their rivals.”(5) The Wintergarten program was not intended for spectators from the overcrowded and impoverished industrial areas of the city, nor for its artists and scientists. That site of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ initiatory film-projection event would vanish almost fifty years later, when the Central Hotel was destroyed by British wartime bombing on 21 June 1944; the ballroom’s roof-less ruins survived for several years before being dynamited and razed by the East German authorities in the 1950s and left as a wasteland. The site is currently occupied by newly-built multi-storey offices and shops.

The Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projection event began on 1 November and continued for four weeks, with a total of 23 projections in all. The entire evening’s program lasted for over three hours and was held daily at 7.30pm, with the Sunday shows beginning at 7pm. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ contribution to the program appeared on advertising posters mid-way down the hoardings, with an exclamatory emphasis on its status as a never previously experienced innovation. Top-billing went to Mlle Gabriele Juniori, advertised as travelling to Berlin ‘from the Empire Theatre in London’, along with other acts, such as Mr Tompson (‘with his three elephants’), ‘Die Wϋstensohne’ (‘The Sons of the Desert’), and ‘Griffin und Dubois’ (‘eccentrics’). The Wintergarten Ballroom held 1,500 spectators and each show was invariably at full capacity, but not all of the audience watched the Skladanowsky Brothers’ films. Their contribution to the evening was spatially assigned to a small side-stage at the northern end of the auditorium, away from the main stage, and could only be experienced by spectators sitting around tables directly in front of the screen. And the film-projection was kept until the conclusion of the evening’s entertainment, when part of the audience had already dispersed. The curtained screen was surrounded by elaborate gilt decorations featuring winged angels and mythical figures. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projections lasted for around fifteen minutes in total. (6) The screen had to be kept wet to enhance its transparence and the clarity of the film-images; rear-projection was used, with the Bioskop situated directly behind the screen, rather than in front of it, and a loud music score had been especially composed, capable of drowning out the cacophony of the projector’s operation .(7)

The film-projections were successful; although the Skladanowsky Brothers had no fallback device on hand in case the Bioskop malfunctioned, the month’s projections passed without major mishap. Press reviews of the Wintergarten program especially emphasised the three performing elephants as the evening’s main attraction, but the Skladanowsky Brothers’ contribution was evoked as being well-received, by audiences who responded with prolonged applause and threw flowers at the screen. Max and Emil Skladanowsky appeared on stage at the conclusion of their projections, appearing from opposite sides of the screen and thereby replicating the content of the final film in their program, in which they had been filmed performing the same manoeuvre. Berlin newspapers of the time were rarely critical of variety reviews staged by the city’s principal venues, since they depended on advertising revenue from those same venues; no criticism was made, for example, of the technical limitations of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ projections, which were praised for being innovative and enthralling, but with a distinct undertone of unease. The Berlin newspaper, the Staatsburger Zeitung, reviewed the projections on 5 November 1895: “The skilful technician employs delightful moments of photography here, bringing them in enlarged form into representation, but in a living rather than stilted form. How he does it, only the devil knows.” (8) In that evocation of the devil omnisciently masterminding the Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projections, a trace is present of the future suspicions of outlandishness and ungodliness, closely associated with film and its cinematic sites for their first thirty or so years, before such qualms were finally dispelled in the 1920s by the architectural lavishness of ‘cathedrals’ or ‘palaces’ of film, their decor often literally replicating that of religious buildings, such as Segovia Cathedral, and embodied above all in that era’s designs for the cinemas of Los Angeles’ Broadway district.

The Skladanowsky Brothers had been paid a substantial sum – 2,500 gold marks – by the Wintergarten Ballroom’s proprietors for the month of November 1895. (9) The success of their projections, at such a prominent venue, led to further commissions, but they had only achieved the first public film-projection event by a hairsbreadth, and that success rapidly unravelled. The brothers were contracted for an engagement at the prestigious Folies Bergère venue in Paris, to begin on 1 January 1896, and travelled to Paris with the Bioskop on 27 December; on the 29th, one of the proprietors of the Folies Bergère took them to see the second evening of the Lumière Brothers’ film-projections at the Salon Indien, situated in the basement of Paris’s Grand Cafe (a far smaller projection-room than the Wintergarten Ballroom, seating only around 30 spectators, each of whom had paid one franc for admittance), and abruptly cancelled their contract, either due to international patent conflicts, or else because the Lumière Brothers had requested that cancellation. In addition, the technical superiority of the Lumière Brothers’ ‘Cinématographe’ projector and the image-quality of their films was evident. Another engagement, at the Empire Theatre in London, was also annulled. But the Skladanowsky Brothers were able to tour extensively with the Bioskop, until September 1896, in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia, including occasions, as with an engagement at the Concerthaus in Hamburg in mid-December 1895, when only their films were shown, without an enveloping program of variety-acts. As their tour progressed, it became apparent that the Skladanowsky Brothers were being rapidly surpassed by their competitors.

The Films of the Skladanowsky Brothers

The films which the Skladanowsky Brothers projected at the Wintergarten Ballroom during November 1895, and on their subsequent film-tour until September of the following year, were almost exclusively sequences showing variety performers: together, their films assembled a slightly downmarket program of variety acts to those appearing on the main stage of the Wintergarten, so that spectators exposed to those moving-images must have felt they were experiencing – through the medium of film, and at the evening’s end – a concertinaed, phantasmatic variant of the live performances that had just finished. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ films of the urban life of Berlin, recorded both in the peripheries and at the heart of the city, would be shot only in the following year, and projected only once, for their final screening-event in the city of Stettin in March 1897. And the brothers’ very first film, shot as an experimental test on the rooftop of a building above the Schönhauser Allee avenue, belongs more to that second set of films than the first. In the film, Emil Skladanowsky is seen standing on the building’s roof, dressed in a suit and tie, and holding his hat; he performs exaggerated corporeal gestures, pitched between gymnastics and clowning, alternately lifting each leg high into the air. The film camera is facing south, towards the centre of Berlin, in the opposite direction to the Skladanowsky Brothers’ own local districts, as though intimating the direction in which their experiments were now taking them. The shadows cast by Emil Skladanowsky’s figure indicate that the film was shot around midday, in direct sunlight. Behind his figure, a panorama is visible of factory and brewery chimneys, and large tenements, with the distinctive pointed steeple of the nearby Zionskirche church prominent in that cityscape. A notable strategy of early filmmakers was to focus their cameras on sites in which a maximal concentration of urban traces could be registered by their potential spectator, as with one of Le Prince’s first films from 1888, of human and vehicle traversals of Leeds Bridge; with the Skladanowsky Brothers’ film, the gesturing human body is in the foreground of the image, with the Berlin cityscape forming a cohering framework for it. But, as with Le Prince’s film of Leeds Bridge, the Skladanowsky Brothers’ first film was never projected, and was not included in the Wintergarten program. (10) It survived only in fragments; the Prenzlauerberg Museum in Berlin possesses four celluloid frames, two of them exceptionally clear, with considerable detail of the urban panorama behind Emil Skladanowsky’s figure, and the other two frames blurred and scratched, holding residues of damage in the form of scorch-marks from fire or smoke. The entire film had comprised 48 frames, so if it had been projected at 16 frames per second, it would have had a projection-duration of three seconds.

The eight short films projected at the Wintergarten Ballroom were all longer, comprising between 99 and 174 frames, and were each shown repeatedly, in loops. Shot in May 1895, two months before the Cafe Sello test-projections, they showed physical spectacles, dances and acrobatics. The first film to be projected each evening simulated an Italian peasants’ dance, performed by two children; a further film depicted a wrestling contest featuring a celebrated bodybuilder and wrestler of the era, Eugen Sandow, fighting another wrestler named Greiner; the other films showed a boxing kangaroo, an acrobatics display, a human pyramid, a juggler, and a Russian cossacks’ dance; finally, the film of the Skladanowsky Brothers themselves, appearing from either side of the screen, ended the program. In some cases, the films held only a fragment of the complete action, which had either already begun before the camera started to record it, or else continued after the film had run-out. Other than their shared recording of contemporary variety performers, the program’s film-fragments held no linear or interlocking cohesion; together, the films formed a disjointed sequence of moments of eruptive and compelling spectacle, similar, in some ways, to the forms of 1960s European and American experimental cinema, such as the films of Kenneth Anger and Kurt Kren, which also possessed something of the aura of diabolical outlandishness, noted by the Wintergarten program’s press-reviews. In compiling and filming that program, even before they had been commissioned to show their work at the Wintergarten, the Skladanowsky Brothers evidently devised a content which could be dependably well-received at a city-centre variety hall, and would allow their spectators, to the maximum possible extent, to recognise, situate and respond to the moving-images they were faced with. The brothers’ specific choice of performers was clearly influenced, too, by their recent exposure to the Edison company’s ‘Kinetoscope’ individual film-viewing machines, designed by William Dickson, which had been installed at another prominent Friedrichstrasse entertainment-venue, Castans Panoptikum, in March 1895, two months before the brothers shot their own films, and which showed similar physical feats and dances.

For the Wintergarten Ballroom projection, the Skladanowsky Brothers used film-strips of 44.5mm-wide unperforated Eastman-Kodak film-stock, which they meticulously cut and perforated by hand, so that it could run with the minimum disruption in front of the Bioskop’s twin lens. The film-celluloid was also coated with a special emulsion, devised by Max Skladanowsky and applied with a brush. The films were all shot out-of-doors, either in the garden of the Cafe Sello or those of the venues in which the performers were then appearing, in direct sunlight, to achieve clarity and contrast. But most of the work of preparing both the shooting and projection of the films was undertaken in the Skladanowsky Brothers’ own workshop, which functioned in that sense as an improvised and formative film-studio, prescient, in its artisanal dimensions, of the studio of the film-pioneer Georges Méliès, similarly installed on the urban periphery, in the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil, and in which Méliès (who, like the Skladanowsky Brothers, attended the Lumière Brothers’ film-projections at the Salon Indien in December 1895) began to shoot his hundreds of extravagant film-conjurations from March 1897 onwards. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ workshop-studio also, in some ways, prefigures the spatial form of the far larger Weissensee film-studio, constructed in 1913 as a one-storey brick building in a Berlin district adjacent to that of their own workshop, and in which many of the seminal films of early German cinema, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) were shot, before that studio abruptly went out of business in the late 1920s, in the face of competition from industrial-scale film-studios, with the derelict Weissensee film-studio building eventually being utilised, as it is today, as a sub-divided space for numerous artisans’ workshops, in much the same way as the Skladanowsky Brothers’ workshop-building operated in 1895. The brothers’ first film, of Emil Skladanowsky’s gestural movements against Berlin’s urban panorama, was shot only a short distance from that workshop; access to the building’s roof could be gained since a friend of the brothers operated his own business there.

The Skladanowsky Brothers’ final films were shot during the later months of their projection-tour across Germany, Holland and Scandinavia, and also immediately after it, upon their return to Berlin. By that time, the original films shown at the Wintergarten Ballroom had worn out through over-use, and had become severely damaged (nothing now survives of the originally-projected films, only copies); in addition, the brothers had become aware that they urgently needed new films to seize the attention of their future audiences, and urban film-sequences fulfilled that desire. For their new films, they used 63mm-wide celluloid film-stock. In the centre of Berlin, they documented concentrations of horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians in one of Berlin’s main squares, the Alexanderplatz, and along the Unter den Linden avenue; in their own districts of industrial northern Berlin, they filmed at the Schönholz railway station, and also shot a further panorama from the rooftop of the building on which Emil Skladanowsky had performed his gymnastics movements, but this time with the camera facing in the opposite direction, northwards, focused on a busy street-corner, the Ecke Schönhauser, and without the foregrounded presence of a human figure. They also shot extremely brief ‘fiction’ films, depicting choreographed quarrels, such as one filmed in a public garden in Stockholm during the final phase of their projection-tour. In anticipation of future public screenings of their new films, Max Skladanowsky constructed a more sophisticated projector, the single-lens Bioskop-II, during the summer of 1896. But a second film-tour proved impossible to arrange. The Skladanowsky Brothers demonstrated their new projector and films to the Wintergarten’s proprietors, with a view to being commissioned for a second engagement there, in February 1897, but were turned-down in favour of rival film-exhibitors with more advanced projection-devices and films. The only engagement they could secure was in the provincial port-city of Stettin, north-east of Berlin, at the 2,000-capacity Zentrallhallen-Theater (later destroyed, like the Wintergarten, by British wartime bombing, along with most of what was then a German city, but became the postwar Polish city, Szczecin, its surviving German inhabitants expelled, and replaced by a population displaced from Polish territory annexed by the Soviet Union); the Skladanowsky Brothers showed their new city-films there for the only time, adding to that program a new city-film shot and then rapidly developed in Stettin during the course of their two-week engagement. It was also the only occasion on which the brothers used their new projector, the Bioskop-II, for public screenings. On 31 March 1897, exactly seventeen months after their first Wintergarten screening, the brothers projected films for the last time.

The Oblivion and Memory of the Skladanowsky Brothers

The Skladanowsky Brothers’ brief film-career collapsed abruptly, in disarray and acrimony, on their return to Berlin from Stettin. In that highly regulated and bureaucratic era, expensive trade licences were required in Germany for such activities as public spectacles; the Berlin authorities declined to renew the brothers’ license, which had expired on the last day of their engagement in Stettin, on the grounds that too many other film-exhibitors were now in operation (since the Wintergarten Ballroom projections, further film-screenings had become commonplace, and the first cinema-space in Berlin, devoted exclusively to the projection of films, had been opened in April 1896 by the film-entrepreneur Oskar Messter, in the backroom of a restaurant on the Unter den Linden avenue). In addition, the Skladanowsky Brothers would have had difficulty in paying for a new license even if it had been granted, since their long film-tour, with its cancellations and its necessity for sustained technological investment, had not been profitable. The two brothers, Max and Emil, fell out bitterly in June of that year, on their father’s death, in a dispute over inheritance matters; Emil Skladanowsky was accused of attempting to defraud the other family members, and was ostracised by them. The quarrel was never resolved, and the brothers remained alienated from one another for the rest of their lives. In the following years, Max Skladanowsky switched his operations to the production of ‘Daumenkino’: small-format flick-books, which proved relatively lucrative. The flick-books’ images were shot with a film-camera, with the resulting stills then compiled into handheld, elongated books, thumb-flicked to create continuous visual movement; the flick-books’ contents ranged widely, from mild pornography to Berlin street-scenes and sequences showing political or aristocratic figures. Max Skladanowsky also created promotional flick-books to sell to manufacturing companies, such as one showing his daughter Gertrud drinking a meat-extract called ‘Liebig’s Fleischextract’. (11) Although he was not a pioneer of flick-books (they had been in existence since the 1860s), his original use of film-image sequences as their contents gave his products a distinctive aura, and he was able to make a living for at least a decade by producing and distributing them. During that period, he still had a residual interest in film-projection, and experimented in the years 1901-03 with ideas for colour film and three-dimensional technologies; however, he had no resources to exploit those experiments further, and with the decline of interest in flick-books, he instead established a workshop, in the industrial Prenzlauerberg district, for the production and sale of amateur photographic and filmmaking equipment. During the subsequent decades of obscurity, in which his film-projection innovations had been almost completely consigned to oblivion, he concentrated on taking photographs during long journeys on foot around northern Berlin, notably images of advertising hoardings announcing the building of new tenements in wastelands, as Berlin rapidly expanded northwards, and also panoramic photographs, often taken from the elevated summits of water-towers, documenting the traces of that urban expansion; at least some of those photographs were intended to be used for postcard-images. In some senses, Max Skladanowsky moved backwards in time after the dissolution of his seminal film-projection innovations, to the pre-filmic era, with his flick-book and photographic work. Emil Skladanowsky also returned to the kinds of spectacles he had been involved with before the Wintergarten film-screenings, notably managing tours of a successful water-theatre spectacle, before eventually gambling away all of his money.

Max Skladanowsky experienced an unexpected resurgence, and a return to public prominence, when the Nazi government came to power in Germany in 1933. Determined to recast all cultural lineages in order to highlight the pre-eminent role of Germany, the Nazi cultural authorities seized on the Wintergarten Ballroom film-projection event in order to elevate the now-elderly and semi-forgotten Max Skladanowsky to the status of a great German inventor. The propaganda minister Josef Goebbels appeared at a gala-evening dedicated to Max Skladanowsky at the lavish Atrium cinema in Berlin on 4 May 1933, and Hitler himself attended a private screening of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ films in 1935. (12) Celebratory tours around Germany were arranged at which Max Skladanowsky spoke about his projection experiments and showed the 1896 city-films, which had since been transferred onto 35mm film. On the 40th anniversary of the Wintergarten projections, a month-long commemorative event was held at that venue, and Max Skladanowsky projected copies of the original 1895 films with the Bioskop; the estranged brothers were unwillingly brought together for the first time in almost forty years, for photographs in which each stares fixedly in opposed directions. Max Skladanowsky was fully complicit in the Nazis’ support for his 1890s work, adding numerous ‘Heil Hitler!’ exclamations to his letters and also declaring the Bioskop to be an authentically German, non-Jewish invention; however, that support came at a moment when he was impoverished, following the collapse of his photographic business, and his enthusiasm for Nazism may have been, to some degree, feigned. The Nazi authorities were also ambivalent in their endorsement of Max Skladanowsky, in part because of his Polish family origins, but also because it was apparent that, since the mid-1920s, he had been clumsily reinventing the chronology of his filmmaking activities, backdating the rooftop film of Emil Skladanowsky to 1892, and also including the 1896 city-films among those screened at the Wintergarten in the preceding year. The Nazis’ interest in him had declined by the time of his death in 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War; Emil Skladanowsky outlived his brother, and died shortly after the war’s end, in 1945. During wartime British bombing-raids on Berlin, many of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ filmmaking and film-projection artefacts, stored at the Reichsfilmkammer building, were incinerated; other materials, kept at the Skladanowsky family home in the district of Pankow, were destroyed during the chaotic house-to-house looting which took place once the invading Soviet army had reached northern Berlin in April 1945.

In the postwar era, the Pankow district was incorporated into the eastern, Soviet-controlled zone of Berlin. The surviving collection of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ artefacts became dispersed. Max Skladanowsky’s children sold much of that collection, including the Bioskop projector itself, to the East German state film-archive in 1966; an initial assessment of the material’s condition categorised it as being ‘in a terrible state’. (13) Much of that newly-acquired material was then sent to Paris on loan, in 1970, to the Cinémathèque Française, and was either forgotten or neglected there, before finally being returned to the now re-unified Germany in 1994; that material eventually became part of the German Bundesarchiv collection of film and theatre artefacts in the city of Koblenz. The Bioskop projector was not sent to Paris, however, and since 1983 has been exhibited at the Potsdam Filmmuseum, close to Berlin. In Berlin itself, surviving artefacts of the Skladanowsky Brothers are held at the Deutsche Kinemathek film-centre, including copies of the films shown at the Wintergarten Ballroom in 1895, the Bioskop-II projector from 1896, together with flick-books, travel-schedules, and press-books from the brothers’ film-projection and ‘Nebelbilder’ tours (disordered counterparts, in some ways, to Muybridge’s meticulous scrapbook-documentation of his own Zoopraxiscope tours). The Prenzlauerberg Museum, in the district of industrial northern Berlin where the Skladanowsky Brothers undertook their workshop-based experiments and shot their first film, holds many of their fragile glass-plate negatives, along with the photographs taken by Max Skladanowsky during his final decades.

At the time of celebrations for the centenary of public film-projection, in 1995, a new engagement with the Skladanowsky Brothers’ work led to the restoration, from surviving copies or photographic images, of the program of films shown at the Wintergarten Ballroom in 1895, undertaken, in part digitally, by the Optronik company in Potsdam; that program of films was then shown in February 1995 at the Zoo-Palast cinema in Berlin, as part of that year’s Berlin Film Festival. In the same year, Wim Wenders completed his semi-fictional film on the Skladanowsky Brothers’ projections with the Bioskop, Die Gebrϋder Skladanowsky (Trick of the Light), directed in collaboration with film-students of the Munich Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film, and incorporating a sequence shot at the Potsdam Filmmuseum of the actor Udo Kier, playing Max Skladanowsky, operating the original, re-illuminated Bioskop projector; the film also includes extracts from interviews with Max Skladanowsky’s youngest daughter, Lucie. At the film’s end, a horse-drawn black carriage, carrying ghosts of the Skladanowsky family, disappears into the vast construction-site then engulfing the Potsdamerplatz in central Berlin. On the 70th anniversary of Max Skladanowsky’s death, in 2009, the German Bundesarchiv completed its digitisation of images of its archival artefacts, and made them openly available online. (14)

The traces of the Skladanowsky Brothers in contemporary Berlin are simultaneously engrained, and erased: subject to oblivion, but also held within the profoundly shattered urban and filmic memory of the city, which compulsively projects its twin dynamics of illumination and catastrophe: a projection to be intimately experienced, in standing directly in front of the Bioskop, with its dual lens, one open, one closed.

Thanks to the Potsdam Filmmuseum, the Prenzlauerberg Museum, and the Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin. Translations from German are by the author.

Endnotes

  1. Alexandra Richie, Faust’s Metropolis, Carroll and Graf, New York, 1998, p.221.
  2. Theo Fϋrstenau, Max Skladanowsky: Deutsches Institut fϋr Filmkunde: Sonderausgabe (special issue), Deutsches Institut fϋr Filmkunde, Wiesbaden, 1970, p.12.
  3. Joachim Castan, Max Skladanowsky, oder der Beginn einer deutschen Filmgeschichte, Fϋsslin Verlag, Stuttgart, 1995, pp.33-35.
  4. Fϋrstenau, p.10.
  5. Richie, p.212.
  6. Albert Narath, Max Skladanowsky, Deutsche Kinemathek, West Berlin, 1970, p.23.
  7. Castan, p.57.
  8. Narath, p.23.
  9. ibid, p.23.
  10. Castan, p.216.
  11. Narath, p.24.
  12. Castan, p.166.
  13. Undine Völschow, Nachlass Max Skladanowsky, Bundesarchiv, Koblenz, 1995, p.2.
  14. The images are on the website: www.bild.bundesarchiv.de