A trick of the Light – Wim Wenders reminds us the German’s did it first. (Film Review)

When Martin Scorcese’s Hugo came out at the end of 2011, we were all re-entranced with the Lumier brothers again, and the birth of cinema. The interest sparked a kind of revival of sorts, with the rocket in the eye of the moon motif suddenly being found all over the place.  However Wim Wenders charming film made with film students in 1995 reminds us that great inventions never happen in a vacuum and often it is the competition going on around them – the race to be first – that provides the momentum for the act of creation.  Two famous examples of this are: The united states  moon landing of Apollo 11 that was part of the space race against Soviet Russia and another good illustration is the Manhattan project, where atomic bombs were “invented” in an unprecedented four years because of the desire to win the war and access to almost unlimited support and funding were made available. Equally as dramatic (in my humble opinion) is the race between the Lumiere brothers in France and the Skladanowsky brothers in Germany to produce the first film projector, and therefore (virtually) invent the concept of cinema.

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Fortunately for me, Wim Wenders also thinks this race is important for us to remember and so we have this lovely little docu-drama, beautifully made, about the Skladanowsky brothers and their rush to produce the Bioskop, which ended up being inferior to the Lumiers Projector. The Lumiers and the Skladanowsky’s were very aware of each other, and each knew they were working on something very important.  It was the competition in the latter part of 1895 between the two sets of brothers that pushed the Lumiers to hurry to produce their projector, which was available for early screenings in December 28. However the Skladanowsky’s, desperate to beat them after they’d seen an earlier, informal showing a few months before, made their first public showing of their bioskop in November.

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Wenders is well aware he’s making a bit of a something out of nothing here, so he never takes himself, the Skladanowsky’s, or the film too seriously.  However he does have great respect for the work and for the competition that pushed this important medium to an early start. Therefore the film is made with a light playful reverential note.  even the interviews with the Lucie Skladanowsky including the images of an enthralled Wenders and his student crew listening to her stories and smiling at each other are enhanced with actors playing ghosts of the past wandering around as Lucie goes through her pieces of history laid out across her dining room table.

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The historical components – the story itself – is filmed by actors, with Udo Kier NOT being a terrifying mutant or horrific villain, but the older and the most productive of the Skladanowsky’s, Max. The rest of the cast is Nadine Büttner, Christoph Merg , Otto Kuhnle with Lucie Hürtgent-Skladanowsky playing herself in an extended interview. The blurb on the Trick of the Light website says this:

This film by Wim Wenders and students of the Munich Film Academy deals with the birth of cinema in Berlin, where the brothers Skladanowsky built a projector, the “Bioskop,” at the same time as the Lumiere Brothers in France and Edison in America, and thereby co-invented “moving pictures” in their very own poetic, poor, endearing and rather “un-German” way.

The film starts a hundred years ago and it ends in present day 1996 with Max Skladanowsky’s daughter Lucie who still remembers her dad and those early days of cinema very well.

The film was shot mostly on an old hand-cranker from the twenties, silent, in the best slapstick tradition.

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I’ll end this short review with a nice little addition from The Digital Fix, who give a lovely little write up of this film I can’t really beat:

This story is dramatically re-enacted as a black-and-white silent movie. Brilliantly achieved by Wenders – although evidently inspired by Guy Maddin – with a great sense of authenticity and no small amount of charm, the film is both instructive and entertaining, capturing the undoubted thrill of seeing moving images projected onto a screen for the first time. More than that however, the film is intercut with colour interview footage of Lucie Hürtgen-Skladanowsky – 93 years old at the making of the film – who guides the assembled film crew through the old photo albums, memorabilia and artefacts that she has preserved. The two sections are linked by dramatis personae from the fictional enactment interacting with the documentary filmmaking – coming to life as it were through the reminiscences. It’s a nice poetic touch, connecting the past with the present and thereby testifying to the power of cinema to breathe life and personality into the past, but showing how those memories are part of what we are today, something perhaps alluded to in a magical carriage ride at the end of the film through the on-going reconstruction of the post-Wall Berlin.

A Trick Of The Light is a short film that doesn’t outstay its welcome, unless you are intent on watching it through to the end of the extended credits. The film itself is 60 minutes long, stretched to 71 minutes with additional footage inserted in the end credits, extended further to 76 minutes with a loop of simulated bioscope imagery.

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