After Frenchwoman Alice Guy-Blanché, the second female director in the history of the seventh art – also a very prominent figure – was an Austrian. We are talking about Louise Kolm-Fleck, who, in her time, helped Austria begin to establish its own identity in the world’s film scene.
A lifelong passion for cinema
If we think of the first woman director in history, we all know that she is Alice Guy-Blanché. But who came immediately after her? If, in fact, the French actress and producer can be considered one of the pioneers of world cinema, the second female director – also a very prominent figure – was an Austrian. We are talking about Louise Kolm-Fleck, who, in her time, contributed to ensuring that Austria also began to establish its own identity in the world film scene.
In tracing the stages of Austrian film history, therefore, it is impossible not to mention the name Louise Kolm-Fleck over and over again. But who was actually this interesting figure about whom, however, there is still far too little information to help us get to know her better?
Louise Veltée (the surname by which she is known today derives from her two marriages) was born on the 1st of August 1873 in Vienna. Her father, Louis Veltée, was a pyrotechnician who, in the autumn of 1896, founded – in the shopping street of Kohlmarkt – the Stadtpanoptikum (the first optical theatre in Austria) and became one of the most prominent businessmen in the city. His daughter Louise was no less involved in spreading this new, exciting invention – the cinematograph.
And although the first film in the history of Austrian cinema, however, only dates back to 1908 (we are talking about Von Stufe zu Stufe, directed by Heinz Hanus and now, unfortunately, lost), it is also true that, from 1906, Louise Kolm-Fleck started to shoot the first documentary shorts on the streets of her city together with her husband Anton Kolm (owner of a photo studio) and cameraman Jakob Fleck.
These were documentaries, which, similar to what the Lumières had begun to do first in France, then in the rest of the world, were showing scenes of everyday life, horse races, official events and, last but not least, moments of leisure at the Prater, the favourite place of the Viennese during their free time.
The business became so popular that only four years later the three founded the Erste Österreichische Filmindustrie (renamed a year later as Österreichische-ungarische Kinoindustrie) with the financial help of Louise’s father. This company, however, was not at all easy to manage and the three dissolved it after only a couple of years, only to found the Wiener Kunstfilm soon afterwards, inspired by the successful French production company Film d’Art. Thus began the production of feature films – together with documentaries – by a production company which, together with the Viennese Art Film in Budapest, ranks as the major contributor to the very origins of Austrian cinema. Things, however, were not always easy.
Having to deal with an audience used to foreign films (for example, there were numerous films from France, Germany and Great Britain), Louise Kolm-Fleck, together with Anton and Jakob, had to work hard to achieve a certain national relevance, as the films they produced were often of a much lower quality than those from other countries. In order to overcome this problem, their company and their films were immediately launched on the market with clear nationalistic intentions, emphasising that there were very few Austrian films to show its beauty and using slogans such as: ‘Austrians! Support local industry! Free yourselves from foreign influences! In fulfilling your patriotic duties you will soon see numerous benefits for the nation and homeland!”. And all this, of course, could not leave the local press indifferent, to the extent that Louise Kolm-Fleck, Anton Kolm and Jakob Fleck even obtained permission to film the funeral of the mayor of Vienna, Dr. Karl Lueger.
Particularly predisposed to the staging of transpositions of literary texts and dramas (which they often also directed), however, while the three received a good deal of attention from journalists and historians, everyone could note their lack of experience with the staging itself, as well as with space management and acting direction, which was still considered too theatrical. The same applies, therefore, to the two films made at that time and which have survived to us, namely The Miller and his Child (Der Müller und sein Kind, made in 1911 and considered to be among the earliest Austrian films ever to have survived to us) and The Ancestress (Die Anhfrau, 1919), based on the play of the same name by Franz Grillparzer.
In addition to film adaptations of literary texts, the three’s favourite subjects included crime films, comedies and, quite interestingly, numerous works featuring charismatic female protagonists (and here too the influence of Louise Kolm-Fleck in particular was evident), leading to numerous films like Mother (Mutter, 1911), The Lucky Doll (Die Glückspuppe, 1911), The Golden Viennese Heart (Das goldene wiener Herz, 1911) and The female Detective (Der weibliche Detektiv, 1912), just to name a few.
And yet, in addition to the aforementioned works, if there is a genre in which Louise Kolm-Fleck and her colleagues first distinguished themselves, it is that of so-called cross-dressing, which saw in the comedy Martha in Coulottes (Martha mit dem Hosenrock, 1911) its leading title. A comedy, this one, entirely scripted by Louise (whose favourite activity was, in fact, screenwriting) in which she tenderly mocks women’s clothing and vanity, opening up a much broader and more complex discourse on feminism and the conditions of women in contemporary times.
Their activity, therefore, was prolific and full of interesting ideas, culminating in 1919 when Anton Kolm founded Vita Film, another production company, which also focused mostly on transpositions of literary texts and historical dramas. Kolm, however, sadly died only a few years later, in 1922. Having been widowed, Louise married her long-time collaborator Jakob Fleck in 1924 and the two, also thanks to their numerous national awards, travelled to Germany where they began to work with production companies such as Hegawald Film and Ufa, directing a copious number of films, including Liebelei (1926), Der Orlow (1927) and Die Warschauer Zitadelle (1930).
The troubles, however, were not yet over for the two and, in 1938, as Jakob Fleck was Jewish, they were interned in Dachau and Buchenwald, from which, however, they managed to escape to Shanghai with the help of a friend. Their time in China, however, despite new collaborations with local production companies, was never remembered by Louise as a particularly happy time in her life and, following further imprisonment after the war arrived there too, she and her husband finally managed to return to Vienna in 1947. Louise died in 1950, Jakob in 1953.
An undoubtedly remarkable life, then, this of Louise Kolm-Fleck. And even if, technically speaking, her films have never stood out for their artistic quality, her attempts to promote cinema on a national level are commendable. Who knows who else, in her place, could have done so much for Austrian cinema. What is most regrettable, however, is precisely the fact that, nowadays, most of her works have been irretrievably lost. Yet, there would certainly be much, much more to learn about this courageous pioneer of the seventh art.