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COLOUR IN SILENT FILMS

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Many will have noticed how, in some silent films, it often happens that the film takes on specific shades of colour. This happened, both in France and the United States, already in the early 20th century, i.e. just a few years after the invention of the cinematograph. And in Austria?

Colourful black and white

Silent films, as we know, are still fascinating to this day, both for film professionals and cinephiles of all ages. And if, in the same way, black and white continues to be used, frequently, in order to make each work extremely sophisticated, many will have noticed how, in some silent films, the film takes on sometimes specific shades of colour.

This happened, both in France and in the United States, already in the early years of the 20th century, i.e. just a few years after the invention of the cinematograph. And in Austria? Since Austria started its journey into the world of the seventh art relatively late (specifically in 1908 with Heinz Hanus’ film Von Stufe zu Stufe), it was not until the 1910s that colour finally appeared on the films of the time. Yet, in one way or another, the miracle happened. Suffice it to say that, from around the mid-1920s, almost all films on the market were coloured. But how was this effect obtained?

The procedure is, even today, quite fascinating. Everything was done with special aniline dyes – water- or alcohol-based – that were applied directly on the film. Similarly, the films were dipped in a kind of gelatine for a true colour bath. Thanks to this technique, therefore, any shade of colour could be obtained and, in addition, the transparent parts of the film could, at the same time, remain colourless.

This was a big step forward compared to an initial technique that foresaw, on the contrary, manual colouring. Once this new way of obtaining colour had been experimented with, it became more and more elaborate, thanks also to the use of special moulds applied directly on the film, so that only specific outlines could be coloured afterwards with a sort of small roller. Further progress in the field was achieved when Pathé – the well-known French production company – created approximately six colour gradations with these new techniques.

The colours gradually began to take on specific meanings: yellow for daytime scenes, blue for night scenes, while red, for example, was mainly used when there was a fire in the screenplay. In this regard, one cannot fail to mention the Austrian feature film Der Sonnwendhof (Summer Solstice, 1918), in which precisely in one of the key scenes, that of a fire, the colour of the film is markedly red.

Yet, given the quite high costs of such operations, each colour was not necessarily always used according to the intended meaning, but only for purely aesthetic purposes. For sophisticated effects obtained after years and years of experimentation. An example of such use, again in an Austrian film? One only has to think of The Ancestress (Die Ahnfrau), made in 1919 by Louise Kolm-Fleck and Jakob Fleck and considered, to this day, to be one of the most important Austrian films of the time that has survived to us.

And so, just a few years before the invention of talkies, there had also been a lot of progress from a purely cinematographic point of view. All this, then, makes the distant silent era even more fascinating and richer in ideas, even though the invention of technicolour was, at that time, still a long way off. But that, of course, is another story.

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