This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian) Deutsch (German)

In 1906, photographer and chemist Johann Schwarzer founded Austria’s first production company: Saturn-Film, which was boycotted, however, from its foundation. For what reason? Simple: because it specialised exclusively in the production of short erotic films.

The other face of cinema

There is a singular reality – in Austrian film history – that was hidden (as far as possible) from a large number of spectators in its time. A reality that was often misunderstood, problematic, that little (or it would be better to say not at all) pleased the conservative society of the time. And if, then, the first film ever produced in Austria is officially considered to be Von Stufe zu Stufe (step by step), directed in 1908 by Heinz Hanus and unfortunately definitively lost, only recently has the name of the controversial Saturn-Film returned to the limelight. But what, in reality, was this Saturn-Film?

If we think that since the Lumière brothers had invented cinema in 1895, all films shot in Austria between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century were only made by foreign production companies and cameramen (mostly from France), then – finally – in 1906, the first Austrian production company was founded. And we are talking, precisely, about the Saturn-Film.

The paternity of this production company can be attributed to the photographer and chemist Johann Schwarzer, a true pioneer of Austrian cinema, whose name, however, did not receive in his time the right prestige. But why, then, was the poor Saturn-Film so boycotted since its foundation? Simple: because it specialised exclusively in the production of short erotic and pornographic films. And this, as one can well imagine, was disliked by the press and even less by the authorities of the time. Especially if one considers that, as Austria’s first film production company, it would have presented itself abroad as a real “business card” for the seventh art there. But in spite of all the impediments it had to face, its founder – Johann Schwarzer, in fact – must be acknowledged for his great entrepreneurial talent, as well as for his subtle foresight.

The photographer was actually very young at the time he founded his Saturn-Film. He was, in fact, only twenty-six years old and after having opened a small photographic studio in Fasangasse 49 (within Vienna’s third district), it was not long before he began to relate himself personally to cinema, by which he had always been fascinated. All those fascinating and uninhibited models who flocked to his studio every day could not fail to lead him to the production of the aforementioned erotic films (first advertised in an Austrian film magazine on November 3, 1906), which also began to be distributed abroad in 1907 via a catalogue through which sales were made.

All the films in the 1907 catalogue have been recorded in detail, but unfortunately nothing has come down to us today about the catalogues made in later years. In any case, the Saturn-Film was gradually becoming so successful that Johann Schwarzer expanded and opened a new studio on the Arenbergring, near the city centre of Vienna.

During its few years of activity, the Saturn-Film, in spite of all the controversy it raised, had its admirers (also easily imaginable). And its activity was decidedly prolific for the time: no less than fifty-two films were made, of which, unfortunately, only twenty-six have survived to the present day. We are talking about decidedly short films, whose maximum running time barely reached ten minutes.

What characterised Schwarzer’s controversial works was a very rudimentary directorial approach, with copious use of fixed shots and a staging of the everyday that relied entirely on the desire for voyeurism. The models who starred in these films often found themselves in rather commonplace situations, such as at a doctor’s appointment ( Der Hausarzt, 1908), while cleaning the house (The vain Housemaid, 1908), while taking a bath (Baden verboten, 1906) or even while being sold at a slave market (Am Sklavenmarkt, 1906). A true constant within these films is a subtle and delicate humour.

No sexual intercourse was ever shown in Johann Schwarzer’s films. The actresses always appeared nude, but – as the production company’s slogan stated – the Saturn-Film’s main goal was to make films with purely artistic intentions. Just like the photos Schwarzer himself used to take in his studio. And yet this did not appeal at all to a society that was still too closed-minded towards such realities.

And so, in 1911, a large number of films belonging to Schwarzer were confiscated and destroyed by the police and the much cheerful and carefree Saturn-Film had to close. And an even worse fate awaited Johann Schwarzer himself, who, having enlisted as a reserve lieutenant during the First World War, died in battle on October 10, 1914, at the age of only thirty-four.

Time, subsequently, did the rest. Many, many years were to pass before Schwarzer and his Saturn-Film finally returned to the limelight. The films that have come down to us today, after careful restoration work by the Filmarchiv Austria, have been redistributed to the audience. But unlike in the past, they are no longer viewed as problematic or scandalous works, but – at last – as a true milestone in Austrian film history. As precious historical documents which, apart from entertaining for a few minutes, are above all able to make us laugh: probably the best gift that the courageous and far-sighted Johann Schwarzer could have left us.

Info: the biography of Johann Schwarzer, founder of the Saturn-Film on iMDb