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A Trick Of The Light

     A Trick of the Light is German filmmaker Wim Wender's attempt to resuscitate the celebrity of three pioneer movie inventors, what he has done with Cuban musicians in The Buena Vista Social Club.

     As Wenders demonstrates, history has not been sweet to the Skladanowsky brothers---Max, Eugen, Emil--whose claim to immortality was that they arranged the first public screening ever of cinema, November 1,1895, at the Berlin Weingarten. I'd never heard of them. But it's true: six weeks before Auguste and Louis Lumiere's December 28, 1898, public showing of actualities at the Grand Cafe, Paris, what is celebrated as "the birth of the movies," die gebruder Skladanowsky had already produced a night's entertainment-- their patented two-projector Bioscope and six different photographic loops.

     But it was the Lumieres who got acclaim around the globe with their dazzling invention, the Cinematographe, a camera and (single) projector in on cranked box. Says C.W. Ceram in Archeology of the Cinema about the poor Skladanowskys: " fact the Bioscope, as a double projector, was to have no future. None of its parts were adopted in new devices, was no longer in use after 1896."

     In 1923, the Skladanowskys were briefly rediscovered by the silent-movie Fox News, which went preposterously overboard saying that the trio had produced movies by 1890. Before A Trick of Light, that was their last moments of fame. From World War II on, the three Germans' achievements, if mentioned at all, were dismissed as Nazis propogandizing.

     So how does Skladanowsky vs. Lumiere play out today?

     The Lumieres can hold tight to the title of Fathers of Cinema, because:

     (A) Half a year earlier than the Skladanowsky public show, they held a private projection of a film, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, unveiled to the Societe d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale on March 22, 1895.

     (B) They shot and projected real movies. In contrast, the Skladanowkys copied and recopied still photographs, then cut and pasted them into celluloid roles of twenty pictures each. These were manually perforated and then projected on a loop, round and round, the same twenty pictures going through phases of motion.

     In A Trick of Light, Wenders, using costumed performers, ingeniously recreates the "lost" 1896 Skladanowsky program. His little loops are crude, minimalist, and charmingly nostalgic, few-second cinema bonbons: a boxing match of man vs. kangaroo (!); barrel-chested Greco-Roman wrestlers; a family of gymnasts on a horizontal bar; a pre-Isadora Duncan barefooted female dancer. A Gay Nineties The Ed Sullivan Show!

     Made with Wenders' students at the Munich Film Academy, A Trick of Light is genuinely,that cliched adage, "a collaborative work of love." It's a film about film, so Wenders is seen on screen with cinematographer, Jurgen Jurges, and their four-person student crew. Sometimes Wenders asks questions, sometimes a female student conducts interviews. The key Q&A (the film was shot in 1996) is with Max Skladanowsky's surviving 91-year-old daughter, who still remembers all, who comprehends and can articulate film technology, and who is an appealing great-great-granny type with humor and spirit.

     A Trick of Light is such a relaxed, informal work that it feels reasonable when documentary slides into fiction, docudrama flashbacks of the life and times of the Skladanowskys. Simulating 1896, Wenders creates a persuasive silent-movie look via an ancient handcranked camera, underexposed lighting, iris shots. His exteriors are still-extant German cobblestoned streets deja vu of the 1920s gothic ambiences of Lang and Murnau.

     Wenders also performs some magical sleight-of-hand, as his late-19th century personages pop up as apparitions on the movie set, casually walking between the camera crew and the old lady at a table telling her family story.

     Most of A Trick of Light goes down easily. Only at the finish does Wenders get impish, with tiresome retreads of earlier shots wedged between endlessly stretched-out credits. After that: an enchanting loop of two adolescent girls doing a hop-skip-and-jump into the shot and then out of the shot, round and round, into the shot and out. When you finally leave the theatre, that two-girl loop is still going.

(October, 1999)


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