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FROM LUMIÈRE TO AUSTRIA

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What cinema does is, in fact, to set images in motion, to change the state of things and to isolate objects. It has done this since the very first documentary films, and it continues to do so as fiction film slowly begins to take hold.

Fiction or reality?

Paris, 1900. Why Paris if we are talking about the history of Austrian cinema? Simple: because it is precisely from the birthplace of the cinema – invented in 1895 by the Lumière brothers – that we start our reflection, in which cinema gradually becomes more and more self-aware, while at the same time its relationship with the spectator becomes closer and closer, not to say symbiotic.

Back to us, we are in Paris in 1900. The cinematograph was already five years old and, after a screening, a translation of an article from the French weekly “L’Illustration” appeared in the feuilleton “Frankfurter Zeitung und Handelsblatt”, with the title Vor dem Kinematographen (In front of the Cinematograph), written by Maurice Normand.

The article has the form of a fictional story and tells us about the young Delia, who one day receives a letter from her boyfriend Jerry – on mission during the Boer War – who tells her about a bizarre episode that happened to him: one day the young man, together with his fellow soldiers, met a kind of war reporter who had in his hands a very unusual camera. With that camera – said the reporter – one could film reality as it is and send the footage abroad so that everyone could see their soldiers at the front. Jerry made sure to give Delia clear signals when he was filmed with the other soldiers so that she could recognise him.

And so it was. Delia, who went to the screening alone, immediately recognised her distant love, and was then irretrievably enraptured by the images that followed one after the other on the screen, be they images of landscapes, soldiers in battle or mutilated and murdered bodies.

Distances suddenly became shorter. Cinema has made it possible for distant people to be part of their loved ones’ everyday lives. In a nutshell, cinema has overturned every pre-existing form of communication, perception and vision.

Suddenly, the world itself appears smaller, more ‘on a human scale’. Knowledge becomes more accessible to everyone and soldiers, so far away, dispersed in unknown places, are perceived by those waiting for them at home as incredibly close. The same applies to the dead and their memory. Thanks to cinema, it is as if they live forever on the white screen.

And yet, as usual with every new invention, every new reality, there has been no lack of controversy and perplexity about it. Since 1907, in particular, the authenticity of the screened images has been questioned. While on the one hand there have been viewers who, like Delia, have been fascinated by the images on the screen, on the other hand there have been sceptics (most of them from the press) who have immediately supported the theory that what was on the screen was nothing more than stage actors or sets made to look as close as possible to reality.

At a closer look, therefore, spectators and press were in fact supporting two different functions of cinema: the documentary one (as, for example, the film showing Jerry, Delia’s fiancé, fighting with other soldiers) and the purely fictional one. Aren’t both of them, then, two different ways in which the seventh art manifests itself? As in most cases, therefore, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Since the first films made by the Lumière brothers, in fact, cinema, at least in its early years, didn’t try to invent fictional stories to be staged as if the camera were filming a theatre stage. What was aimed at was the spectator’s own perspective, the fact that the spectator might be surprised to find reality in front of his or her eyes.

This was the case for the first films in the history of cinema, as it is also for the first Austrian film that has come down to us: Expedition nach Neuguinea, directed in 1904 by ethnologist Rudolf Pöch and part of a series of films showing the author’s studies. On this occasion, therefore, what we see is reality as it is: the camera doesn’t remove or add anything. And so we see the aborigines busy in their daily work and interacting with the (completely static) camera in total freedom.

As the years went by, and although the approach tended to remain the same, the cameras became more manoeuvrable, improvised movements, changes of shot became more frequent and, often, cameras were placed on mobile supports. This is the case, for example, with a second important Austrian film from 1910. We are talking about the documentary Österreichische Alpenbahnen. Eine Fahrt nach Mariazell , of Austro-Hungarian production, in which the camera, placed on a train carriage, explores landscapes and the beauty of nature (by crossing forests, fields, railway stations or tunnels) during the journey to the destination Mariazell.

What cinema does, then, is in fact to set images in motion, to change the state of things and to isolate objects. It did this from the very first documentary films, and continued to do so when fiction cinema slowly began to take hold. This is the case, for example, of Das goldene Wiener Herz, produced in 1911 and written by Ernst Klein, of which only a nine-minute clip has survived, in which – as we watch the story of a little girl intent on writing and sending her letter to Santa Claus – we can notice not only the staging of a fictional story, but also the use of both indoor and outdoor locations, as well as frequent changes of shot.

And so, as one becomes more familiar with the medium of film, one realises that, whether simply representing reality as it is, or experimenting with fictional stories, real life and film tend to merge more and more, until arriving at a fundamental concept: the frame of the cinema screen is none other than reality itself.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag