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When cinema was in the air
A UK region 2 DVD review of A TRICK OF THE LIGHT / DIE GEBRÜDER SKLADANOWSKY from Anchor Bay's Wim Wenders Collection by Slarek
 

The history of several countries includes individuals with a viable claim to have been at least partially responsible for the birth of cinema, names that are often forgotten in the discussion surrounding the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Edison. We in Britain have William Friese-Green, an inventor whose pioneering work with moving picture and projection systems too often goes unmentioned and is even the subject of dispute in some circles, but was canonised by John Boulting in his 1951 biographical feature The Magic Box.

Friese-Green's German equivalent has to be Max Skladanowsky, who with the assistance of his brothers Eugen and Emil, invented an early movie projector known a the Bioskop, which was first demonstrated to a public audience on 1 November 1895, a good two months before the Lumière Brothers wowed the world with their own technically superior projection system, the cinematographe. Yet even in his home country, the name of Max Skladanowsky is largely unknown. In 1995, director Wim Wenders, working with students from the Munich Academy for Television and Film, set about putting that right. The result was Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky (The Brothers Skladanowsky, known in the UK and the US as A Trick of the Light), a warm, lively and affectionate tribute to these home-grown film pioneers.

Built around an interview with Skladanowsky's daughter Gertrude, who was a still sharp 91 at the time of shooting, the film interweaves her recollections with silent movie-style recreations of the story of the Bioskop's development, old-school trick photography superimpositions and some enjoyable film-within-a-film game-playing. The silent movie sequences in particular are winningly executed, Jürgen Jürges' spot-on cinematography (these sequences were apparently shot entirely on an authentic hand-cranked camera) and Laurent Petitgand's cheerful, piano-led score really capturing the feel of early cinema, while the actors, led by a not instantly recognisable Udo Kier (it's that moustache and those glasses), strike just the right note in the slightly exaggerated physicality of their performances. The opening sequence in particular, which details the Bioskop's invention and is enthusiastically narrated by young Gertrude-as-child actress Nadine Buettner, is a delight.

Informative and entertaining, Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky is film history seen through film-makers' eyes, and it seems only appropriate that a story of early cinema should be told in such a fashion. Carrying a dedication to all of cinema's forgotten pioneers, the film reaffirms the Skladanowsky brothers' contribution for a wider international audience. If the details of the first public screening are to be believed, then they can still lay claim to having been the first filmmakers to do a retake and use a body double and, many decades before the likes of Jackie Chan and It'll Be Alright on the Night, were responsible for showing the first ever film outtakes.

The film's only questionable over-indulgence has to be the end credits, which run for over ten minutes and are intercut with extracts of the film and some unused footage and are followed by five minutes of the same short Bioskop loop, just to recreate the experience for a modern audience. The extra footage does include a telling response to the silent sequences from the real Gertrude Skladanowsky, which is worth hanging around for.

sound and vision

Framed 1.33:1, the image is a blend of colour and monochrome 35mm and a rather nicely faked Old Movie sequences, shot on a hand-cranked camera. The transfer quality is best judged by the colour interview material, and this is first rate, displaying very good colour, sharpness and contrast, and has that special film quality that high def still has yet to quite capture. The slightly lower contrast and definition on the silent movie recreations (they're still pretty damned good) is inevitable and appropriate.

The mono Dolby 2.0 and surround 5.1 soundtracks are very similar, with not real surround work on the 5.1, although it is slightly louder than the 2.0.

extra features

None. Once again we lose out to the US release, which at least has a Wenders commentary.

summary

A fascinating slice of film history presented in a playful manner and thoroughly engaging manner, very much the work of a man in love with cinema, a love that he most effectively communicates here. It's a very welcome inclusion in the Wim Wenders Collection, even if the credits are too long.

A Trick of the Light
Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky
The Wim Wenders Collection

Germany 1995
76 mins
director
Wim Wenders
starring
Gertrud Skladanowsky
Nadine Buettner
Udo Kier
Otto Kuhnle
Christoph Merg

DVD details
region 2
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
German
subtitles
English
extras
none
distributor
Anchor Bay
release date
26 March 2007
review posted
24 March 2007