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by Markus Heltschl

grade: 8

The contemplative Paradise Threatened presents itself immediately as a completely unique film, almost like a virtual visit to a museum displaying the precious works of photographer Heinrich Kühn, one of the most important precursors of modernism.

Pictures of a distant world

Family scenes and portraits of children playing in the fields. Beautiful women – often shown from behind – and evocative landscapes that seem so reminiscent of a Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting. And again, still lifes, unclothed women and old toys. These are some of the images photographed by Heinrich Kühn (1866 – 1944), considered to be one of the first great photographers in history, when photography was not yet actually considered a form of artistic expression. Yet the world soon realised the great value of his works, which, in turn, helped to make him immortal. And in Paradise Threatened (original title: Das bedrohte Paradies), director Markus Heltschl has focused precisely on the figure of Kühn, on a real journey through the life and works of the Dresden-born – but Austrian by adoption – artist, as well as a true visual experience in the fascinating world of photography here at its origins. This documentary, made in 2015, was included, following the cancellation of the Diagonale 2020, in the programme Diagonale 2020 – The Unfinished.

Paradise Threatened presents itself immediately as a quite unique film, almost like a virtual visit to a museum displaying Kühn’s precious works. There are numerous academics, photographers and curators who, here, tell us about the artist’s life and approach to the new medium of photography. And next to some very exciting moments in which we are given a detailed look at how photographs were developed in those days by patiently exposing the negatives, there are also amusing anecdotes about the exhausting preparation work carried out by Kühn before taking a photograph, with long waits in order to get the right exposure or long moments in which his children had to wait still before the photos were finally taken.

Scrupulous in the development of his works, clever inventor, used to draw even preparatory sketches before taking a photo, Heinrich Kühn was one of the first – together with his friends and colleagues Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen – to experiment with the use of new means in order to obtain an ever higher quality of his works. And if, thanks above all to the autochromatic plates invented by the Lumière brothers, it was possible to take the first colour photographs, then, from the early 20th century onwards, his works are even more reminiscent of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, from those of Renoir himself, without forgetting the works of Georges Seurat or even Caspar David Friedrich, with their soft, slightly blurred colours and contemplative images of a quiet bourgeois life. The image of an ideal world that existed only at the beginning of the 20th century, but was, unfortunately, ruined forever with the outbreak of the World War I.

And Markus Heltschl, in this precious Paradise Threatened, has tried as much as possible to reproduce the world photographed by Heinrich Kühn, opting for an essential and contemplative mise-en-scene, within which the interviews alternate with long moments in which, one after the other, we are shown Kühn’s photographs, for a series of magnetic pictures whose power is further enriched by a quiet piano accompaniment. And so, at the end of the screening, we have the impression of having almost woken up from a dream or of having just come out of a museum, enriched by the knowledge of a new world for one of the most important precursors of modernism in photography, as well as one of the most important photographers in art history.

Original title: Das bedrohte Paradies
Directed by: Markus Heltschl
Country/year: Austria / 2015
Running time: 90’
Genre: documentary
Screenplay: Markus Heltschl
Cinematography: Jan Betke, Bernd Neuburger
Produced by: Markus Heltschl

Info: the page of Paradise Threatened on the website of the Austrian Film Commission