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ARRI, at 100 Years, Looks Back at German Roots and Ahead to World Markets

Beginning in 1917 in Munich, the company has gone on to spread its expertise across the globe

Like few other companies over the past century, ARRI has helped shape the world of cinema and had an immense impact on the art and technology of filmmaking.

August Arnold and Robert Richter were still mere teenagers when they launched their film equipment company in 1917 in a small former shoemaker’s shop in Munich. Their first product was a film printer they built out of a lathe that Richter got for Christmas from his parents.

“They were film enthusiasts,” says Dr. Joerg Pohlman, one of two members of the Executive Board at the ARRI Group. He adds that Arnold and Richter also worked with cameras and lighting. “They had cameras of other manufacturers and tried to improve them. At the same time, they were cameramen.”

The company, originally named Arnold & Richter Cine Technik but soon known simply as ARRI, served the bourgeoning local film industry by renting equipment while also producing films, particularly Westerns and thrillers. Titles included the 1918 hit “Der schwarze Jack” (Black Jack), on which Arnold served as cameraman; “Der Todescowboy” (Killer Cowboy); “Der Vampyr” (The Vampire); and “Der gelbe Würger” (The Yellow Strangler).

Cutting-edge innovations spurred the company’s growth. Arnold and Richter worked closely with filmmakers and their collaborations resulted in the development of equipment that met specific on-set needs. They developed their first camera in 1924, the Kinarri 35, a hand-cranked 35-millimeter camera housing 100 feet of standard film. The Tropen followed, an improved design with an adjustable rotary shutter.

But it was the legendary Arriflex 35, introduced at the 1937 Leipzig Trade Fair, that really put the company on the map. Designed by ARRI’s chief engineer, Erich Kästner, it was the first industrially produced 35mm camera with a reflex system and “the envy of Allied cameramen throughout the War,” according to Canadian cinematographer Osmond Borradaile, as quoted by Norris Pope in his 2013 book “Chronicle of a Camera: The Arriflex 35 in North America, 1945-1972.”

In the silent era, the ARRI partners multi-tasked on shooting and producing films with their equipment.

After World War II, Arriflex cameras made their way to the U.S. and it wasn’t long before the Cameraflex Corp. of New York was selling a near identical U.S.-made imitation. It was nevertheless an original Arriflex that director Delmer Daves found ideal for his 1947 film “Dark Passage,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the first Hollywood production to use the German camera. The film’s unconventional first-person perspective called for a light, hand-held camera, and the Arriflex surpassed expectations.

Pope quotes a memo written at the time summarizing camera tests conducted for the film at Warner Bros.: The Arriflex’s lens quality was “magnificent under all conditions. Almost unbelievable sharpness for great depth of focus. It is possible with this camera to do an insert in the foreground and still carry superior definition in the background; on full shots it was noted that leaves in the foreground and the leaves on trees 50 feet away were sharp — thus this camera, as to lens quality, is way superior to any camera we have on the lot.”

During the war, ARRI had moved production from Munich to more remote locations, including Brannenburg Castle near Rosenheim. When hostilities ended, Arnold and Richter rebuilt their company, which continued to grow and expand internationally throughout the 1950s, thanks in large part to the Arriflex, which became a hugely successful export.

In 1952, ARRI set up a factory near the Bavarian city of Rosenheim for the design and manufacture of ARRI lighting fixtures and camera magazines. The same year it developed its largest lamphead to date, the ARRI Gigant 20kW. ARRI also expanded its operations in Munich, built a cinema complex, film studios, post-production facilities and color labs. It also continued to further develop the Arriflex.

Throughout the 1960s, Arriflex cameras left their mark on a new generation of filmmakers and cinematographers. The camera allowed Gilbert Taylor to keep up with John, Paul, George and Ringo on Richard Lester’s 1964 hit “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Peter Fonda, a star of 1969’s “Easy Rider,” looks through the viewfinder of DP Laszlo Kovacs.

The newly released Arriflex 35 II CT/B for use with the Techniscope process not only facilitated Tonino Delli Colli’s work on Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” but also contributed to the cinematographer’s unique style.

In 1966 ARRI won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Engineering Award for the camera — the first of many it would win over the years for its technical innovations.

The Arriflex 35 went on to play a crucial role in the Hollywood New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s. Renowned cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs used the camera in such films as “Hells Angels on Wheels,” “Targets,” “Psych-Out,” “The Savage Seven,” “Easy Rider” and “The Last Movie.” Stanley Kubrick shot most of “A Clockwork Orange” with his own Arriflex 35II cameras.

“The reason that we are all enjoying the 100-year anniversary in good health is that we stay concentrated and listen to the industry,” says Franz Kraus, the other member of ARRI Group’s Executive Board. “We are never afraid to do something new.”

Indeed, the onset of digital filmmaking led to new technological achievements that have taken the company to new heights. “Looking at the 100 years of ARRI, of course 90 or so years were analog and only the last five to 10 years have been really digital,” notes Pohlman.

ARRI again won the Scientific and Engineering Award at the 89th Oscars (its 19th since 1966) — this time for the “the pioneering design and engineering” of the Super 35 format Alexa digital camera system.

Introduced in 2010, the Alexa has not only become one of the most widely used digital cameras in the industry, it has also shot every film that has won the cinematography Oscar in the past five years.

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