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The first film archives were created in the 1930s with the intention of preserving what had been made since the origins of cinema. Yet, it has not been possible to recover many of the works previously made, of which several fragments have been permanently lost. This is also the case with Wellen schlagen gegen die Küste, beobachtet von einer Frau, which was also able, in spite of everything, to allow the spectator to be carried away by the feature film itself while watching it.

Waves crashing on cliffs

“In cinema, there is no present, except in bad films”, said Jean-Luc Godard in his time. And this statement can only be fully shared. If, in fact, we think about the experience of watching a film, we realise how, every time, the spectator forgets about the time and space in which he or she finds himself or herself, to let himself or herself be carried away by the pleasure of the screening. This happens today just as it happened in the silent era. And if we think back to that era, we sadly realise that, to this day, with the exception of films of which we only have sporadic fragments, only about 10 per cent of all works made at that time have reached us. Yet, as we know, at the time when the cinematograph was invented, people did not yet realise its real importance and the impact it would have on audiences all over the world. No wonder, then, that it was not yet common to preserve the films produced from the wear and tear due to time and to preserve them as required.

It is no coincidence, then, that the first film archives were created in the 1930s with the intention of preserving what had been made since the origins of cinema. In spite of their excellent work, however, it has not been possible to recover many of the works previously made, whose films have been irreparably damaged and many fragments of which have been permanently lost. And yet, it is precisely precious fragments that give us evidence of the existence of remarkable works of the time. This is the case with numerous films made before sound films came along, as well as – if we finally want to move to Austria – a real gem dating roughly from 1914 to 1918. We are talking about Wellen schlagen gegen die Küste, beobachtet von einer Frau (Waves breaking on the coast observed by a woman). That – in contrast to the numerous Heimatfilms produced in Austria at the time – this film – of which only fragments with a total running time of about one minute have remained to this day – does not have any elements that make one think of something made in Austria – particularly with regard to its unusual setting in a small maritime village, is something that immediately stands out. Yet that the film – of which both the opening and closing credits are missing – is an Austrian film is in no doubt, thanks to the labels on the film’s margins ‘Sascha-Film Wien’ and ‘Vienne Vienna Austria’.

Only a few, very few fragments, then, of a precious document of the time, of which only three shots are available to us today: that of a picturesque seaside village, that of a young man looking into the camera and pulling an ox cart, and, finally, the shot of a woman, now from the back, now from a three-quarter perspective, watching the waves crash on a cliff, with rocks as the ideal setting for such a moment.

And it is precisely at this point, then, that the screen does its duty and the magic of the screening is accomplished. In spite of the lack of particularly significant events (a frequent occurrence, especially with regard to the very first films), the spectator, as soon as it gets dark in the theatre and the projector turns on, immediately lets himself be transported by the images on the screen, which, in turn, arouse emotions and memories in him, making him forget that he is inside a theatre and become almost one with the film itself.

This Wellen schlagen gegen die Küste, beobachtet von einer Frau is, however, only one of many works capable of such magic. A magic that cleverly tends to annul time and space and transport the audience directly into another dimension. Regardless of the number of film fragments that have survived to date. Many people have described this process over the years: from Michel de Certeau to Emilie Altenloh to director Alexander Kluge, just to name a few.

A process, this one, that does nothing but demonstrate once again the enormous power of the cinema and that, at the same time, also underlines the undisputed fascination of silent films, protagonists of an era so far away but, at the same time, so necessary. And Austria, for its part, in its own particular way, can be said to have done its part very well.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the website of the Filmarchiv Austria