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A Trick of the Light

Max Skladanowsky Udo Kier

Max Skladanowsky Udo Kier

Gertrud Skladanowsky Nadine Buttner

Eugen Skladanowsky Christoph Merg

Emil Skladanowsky Otto Kuhnle

Postman Bodo Lang

Spy Alfred Szczot

With: Lucie Hurtgen-Skladanowsky.

A tribute to forgotten pioneers of the moving image, “A Trick of the Light” is a sweetly compelling homage to the dawn of cinema made in the style of the earliest screen images. Conceived as a teaching exercise, the project grew into a feature and emerges as a very playable specialized film (it opens commercially in Italy this month). With a bit of pruning, the film would fit more effectively into a TV slot, where it could generate brisk sales.

This is a lengthening and elaboration of a 54-minute film that bowed in Paris in July under the title “Les Lumiere de Berlin,” which is in the midst of a 27 -city tour of France with live orchestra accompaniment. Updated, and presumably definitive, version will have its first commercial run beginning Dec. 4 in Paris.

The Skladanowsky Brothers the subject of the piece were variety artists in turn-of-the-century Germany. In addition to acrobatics and juggling, their act included shadow-play effects.

With no formal training, Max (Udo Kier), the eldest, devised a method of filming and projecting the images of jugglers, dancers, boxers and the like. They presented a show of eight film loops at Berlin’s Wintergarten on Nov. 1, 1895 six weeks before the more famous Lumiere freres’ exhibition in Paris.

Director Wim Wenders captained “Trick” in his role as professor at the Munich film school. Beginning with a 20-minute vignette, Wenders and his students expanded on the pic over two years. The idea was to present the story in a way that visually recalls those early films. To that end, pic was shot at 18 fps using a vintage, m.o.s. hand-crank camera. In post-production, composer Laurent Petigand used a silent-film organ to record the score.

It all sounds a bit precious, but fortunately, the conceits never get in the way of the story. The visual style and storytelling have a wry, slapstick quality, and pic conveys enormous affection for the three brothers and Max’s eldest daughter, Lucie. Though eschewing direct sound, pic underscores its images with voiceover by Max and his young daughter.

While the film’s events essentially keep to the facts, the tone is whimsical. Max appears to stumble onto success by dint of persistence and despite the presence of industrial spies. (At pic’s premiere in L.A., the film was preceded by a presentation of the seven remaining loops from the Skladanowskys’ original show.) But Max soon realized that the Lumieres’ process was far superior, and his was doomed to obscurity.

The crown jewel here was tracking down Max’s daughter Lucie, a spry 91 -year-old with a keen memory. She provides the ultimate endorsement of the exercise, while noting that her father never wore spectacles, unlike his screen incarnation.

“A Trick of the Light” is not only a testament to the Skladanowskys but to Wenders and his class. They have taken a simple story and added to it without diminishing its charm.

Pic lags only in its last 10 minutes, when repetitions are introduced to bring the picture to feature length.

A Trick of the Light

(DIE GEBRUDER SKLADANOWSKY)

  • Production: (German) A Wim Wenders/Hochschule fur Fernsehen und Film/Veit Helmer production. (International sales: Road Sales, Berlin.) Produced by Wenders, Helmer, Wolfgang Langsfeld. Executive producer, Nikolaus Prediger. Directed, written by Wim Wenders with students of Munich's Hochschule fur Fernsehen und Film.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W, color), Jurgen Jurges; editor, Peter Przygodda; music, Laurent Petigand; production design, Michael Willadt, Andreas Schroll; art direction, Barbara Rohm, German Kral; costume design, Katrin Kath, Inez Raatzke; sound, Barbara Rohm. Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, L.A., Sept. 27, 1996. Running time: 79 MIN.
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