The Skladanowsky Brothers

Stephen Barber explores the work and legacy of Berlin’s first film makers…

Max and Emil Skladanowsky, 1895

In exploring the final detritus of cinematic projection, embodied in the shattered and gutted projection-boxes, the dust-encrusted cans of negated celluloid, and the once-luxurious, now-decrepit auditoria of the cinema-palaces of the 1920s, whose facades still constellate the Broadway avenue, in Los Angeles’ Downtown, for my book Abandoned Images, I often experienced the sense that filmic time was held on a knife-edge in that precarious urban location, erasing any linearity of futures or pasts or presents, and could veer from one extreme to another, from film’s end to its origins, or back again, in the blink of an iris.

And that preoccupation with the seminal welding-together of cinematic projection’s end and its initiation then took me from Los Angeles to Berlin, where two near-forgotten brothers, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, had originated public film-projection by showing a program of their own films, on celluloid stock, to a paying audience at the Wintergarten Ballroom, in Berlin’s Central Hotel, on 1 November 1895, almost two months before the Lumière Brothers undertook their own first film-projection for a public audience, at the Grand Cafe in Paris, on 28 December of that year.

The Skladanowsky Brothers were almost immediately overtaken, in both technological and aesthetic domains, by their many rivals, so that they became stranded in film-historical no-man’s-land, their status overlayered within the conflicting, multiplicitous traces both of film’s origins and of the onset of film-projection.

The brothers hand-constructed their own projector, with the explicit aim of enabling spectators to assemble in a specific location, orient their vision towards a large-scale screen, and view a program of films, together, as an audience. They named their projector the ‘Bioskop’, from the Greek: ‘to see life’: an instrument that would exact an ocular and sensorial form of entrancement.

They also built their own film camera and shot a number of films, and had already reached the stage of experimenting with test-projections of those films, for private audiences of friends and colleagues, in the entertainment room of a cafe in one of the industrial districts of northern Berlin, before they were commissioned by the directors of a far larger and prestigious venue, the Wintergarten Ballroom, to project those films to a paying public, over the duration of a month, as part of a program that would predominantly feature live performances.

The public audience for the Skladanowsky Brothers’ first film-projection event, on 1 November 1895, had a particular form: it was a wealthy audience, of sensation-avid Berliners and international travellers, in sharp distinction to the relatively impoverished artisan-showmen who projected their films to that audience. The brothers possessed a specific urban location, in their attachment to industrial northern Berlin, especially the heavily-populated tenement-districts of Prenzlauerberg and Pankow, which were inhabited at that time mainly by factory-workers, employed notably in the area’s many breweries.

As well as living in those districts, Max and Emil Skladanowsky also rented their workshops there, and shot their first film on the rooftop of a building above one of the area’s main avenues, the Schönhauser Allee, its images holding a panorama of factory-chimneys and church-steeples. When the brothers made incursions into central Berlin, and took on engagements to demonstrate their inventions in deluxe venues, such as the Wintergarten Ballroom, it was largely unfamiliar territory for them.

In many ways, it is the volatile city of Berlin itself which makes the Skladanowsky Brothers’ projection-event insurge into life. In the 1890s, after many decades of being dismissed as a militaristic, austere city, Berlin had finally emerged as a pre-eminent European site of avid, visually-based spectatorship and lavish over-consumption, manifested above all in the form of variety reviews, staged in luxurious venues such as the Wintergarten Ballroom. The urban historian Alexandra Richie notes: “The new reviews extolled the virtues of the big city, glorying in its consumerism and cosmopolitan nature and advertising new forms of entertainment which would later be associated exclusively with the Weimar period.”

Film Makers & Magicians

In many ways, the Skladanowsky Brothers conjured public film-projection into existence. their blind determination indicating that they were aware of undertaking something unprecedented and original, and at the same time, unsure exactly what direction they were heading in, or precisely how to accomplish their plans, technologically or financially, but, out of audacity, simply heading on (like the young bell-founder in the final sequence of Andrei Tarkovsky s 1966 film Andrei Rublev).

The press reviews of their Wintergarten Ballroom projection-event intimate something of the near-diabolical transmutations which the unleashing of film-images into the audience s space generated; although enthralled, those spectators appeared simultaneously disturbed, as though subject to a maleficent, askew conjuring-trick able to steal-away their faculties, their hold upon time and reality, and even their corporeal presence. But alongside that capacity to initiate the uncanny, capricious power of film-projection, with its uniquely mysterious aura, the Skladanowsky Brothers were also irrepressible, keenly-focused inventors, finetuned by their social and urban origins to disregard all setbacks and calamities.

The Skladanowsky Brothers, like much of the population of industrial northern Berlin, originated from a social history of displacement, with their name revealing Polish family origins, their ancestors having relocated to the city in the early nineteenth century at a time of mass migration from the impoverished rural regions to the east of Berlin.

After the Nazis took power in 1933, their main priority, in assessing the potential for the Skladanowskys innovations in film to be co-opted into their nationalistic and expulsive agenda, was to determine whether the brothers came from a family of Polish Jews. Their father was a skilled glass-worker but also a performative showman, involved with developing popular public spectacles using Nebelbilder: literally, fog-images: a particular variant of magic-lantern projections that often exhibited terrifying or macabre images; however, the Skladanowsky family’s adaptation of Nebelbilder spectacles focused particularly on historical and mythical scenes, and on spectacular landscapes.

Their involvement in Nebelbilder spectacles was situated during the medium’s last phase; its main decades of popularity were from the 1800s to the 1890s. Sequences of non-photographic glass slides, hand-painted or inscribed with images, were projected in intricate, rapid sequences, onto a large screen, with complex dissolves and overlayered optical effects, sound-elements, and an ongoing vocal narration. Although he had received only a limited apprenticeship in glass-making, Max Skladanowsky was especially proficient in constructing multi-lens Nebelbilder devices, capable of simultaneously projecting up to eight or nine separate sequences of images.

Max Skladanowsky, hand-painted glass projection-slide, 1890s

The two brothers, Max and Emil, accompanied their father on numerous cross-European tours of  Nebelbilder spectacles in the years from 1879 until 1895, from their mid-teens to early thirties; their older brother, Eugen, worked for several decades as a clown and acrobat, employed by prominent European circuses for touring engagements, and was not closely involved in their experiments with film-projection.

The Skladanowsky Brothers  final Nebelbilder tours of the mid-1890s were undertaken without their father; they re-named themselves The Hamilton Brothers , and began to experiment with incorporating new elements, such as fireworks displays and water-spectacles, into their performances, in order to accentuate an atmosphere of innovation. In part, that obsession with expansion and innovation, and their capacity to design and execute intricate projection devices, led the Skladanowsky Brothers to film.

Although the first films had been shot several years previously, in 1888, by the engineer and inventor Louis Le Prince, the technological capacity to project films before public audiences had not been realised in the intervening years; many inventors, including Edison, saw the development of public film-projection as a dead-end, and potentially worthless, while other inventors from engineering backgrounds, including Le Prince himself, approached the dilemmas surrounding film-projection with conflicting imperatives and aims from those of the Skladanowsky Brothers.

In some ways, after the demands of his excessive, multiple-projection Nebelbilder devices, the realisation of Max Skladanowsky s film-projector, the Bioskop , may have been in some ways a less exacting challenge: almost an exercise in streamlining his previous work. The Lumière Brothers, in Lyons, operated on a sophisticated and well-funded technological basis, in contrast to the Skladanowsky Brothers’ artisanal and impecunious form of production in Berlin; but, as with the Lumière Brothers, Max Skladanowsky flexibly meshed precedents and pre-existing experiments.

The Skladanowsky Brothers devoted their primary attention to the medium of film from 1894, during breaks between their Nebelbilder tours. Although Max Skladanowsky retrospectively backdated the construction of his first film camera, and of his shooting of experimental test film-footage, to 1892, even according a specific date to that first act of filmmaking in Germany, 20 August 1892, the historian Joachim Castan has established that a far more probable date for the film-footage was that of the summer or autumn months of 1894, with the possibility that Max Skladanowsky had been gradually developing his camera, towards that eventual experiment with filmmaking, since 1892 or 1893.

Such strategic or hallucinatory manipulations of time were rife, among early cinema’s competitive participants, in the subsequent decades’ establishment of stratified chronologies and formative events for film. Since the Wintergarten Ballroom film-projection event would only take place in November 1895, Max Skladanowsky justified the inexplicable three-year delay, from his own 1892 starting-date, as being the result of the consistent refusal of funds for the development of his experiments, by bank-managers who derided his plans as being mad and delusional; the financial necessity of constantly having to leave Berlin to undertake extensive  Nebelbilder tours had also contributed to the long delay. In 1925, he asserted: I could really have made the world the gift of cinema three years earlier.

The date of the Skladanowsky Brothers first engagement with film as a medium has vanished in those retrospective conjurations of memory. But by July 1895, they definitively possessed the three vital artefacts for the exhibition of self-shot films to an audience: a film camera, films, and a film projector.

As well as having assembled a program of their own films by that time, they had also hand-constructed both their camera and projector, in their workshop, housed in a five-storey building containing innumerable other artisans  workshops, in a small street that led off the Schoenhauser Allee avenue in the Prenzlauerberg district of northern Berlin. While the Skladanowsky Brothers, as adept glass-makers, had previously been able to produce all of their own, hand-painted glass-plate negatives for their Nebelbilder  spectacles, they had needed for the first time to order an industrially-produced medium, Eastman-Kodak celluloid film-stock, for their new experiments. But with everything in place, they now envisaged their first public film-projections.

The Wintergarten Ballroom Film-Projection

The Skladanowsky Brothers undertook their experimental film-screenings in the entertainment room of a large cafe, the Cafe Sello, in July 1895, projecting films which they had shot two months earlier. The Cafe Sello was located on the avenue which led from the Prenzlauerberg to Pankow districts of northern Berlin; it was a popular venue for factory workers to drink beer and dance to music.

In the future, the entertainment room would become one of Berlin’s first cinemas, before being demolished in 1927 and a new, purpose-built cinema, the Tivoli, constructed in its place; the Tivoli, situated in the postwar eastern zone of Berlin, survived the decades of East Germany intact, but not the redevelopment frenzy of the re-unified city, being demolished in 2003 and the site used for a supermarket. The Skladanowsky Brothers invited small, non-paying audiences of friends and fellow photographic artisans and showmen to their test-screenings.

Emil Skladanowsky’s role was to publicise the brothers’ innovations, and Franz Dorn and Julius Baron, the proprietors of the far grander entertainment venue, the Wintergarten Ballroom, attended one of the experimental screenings.

Dorn and Baron had taken over the Wintergarten eight years earlier and transformed it into an upmarket variety review venue, one of the most successful in Europe, in which original, international spectacles were especially prized by the audience, though the program’s format and content also drew on that of the small-scale local satirical cabaret-shows, of story-telling and music, distinctive to Berlin, that were pervasive at that time in cafes and beerhalls in industrial areas of the city, such as the Cafe Sello.

Impressed by what they saw of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ experiments, Dorn and Baron decided to commission the brothers to demonstrate their film-projector as part of the variety review spectacle they were developing for the month of November, four months into the future; a contract for the engagement was signed in September.

But the Wintergarten proprietors were not only interested in the Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projection ‘act’ for that spectacle, and were searching for attractions in any medium that could serve to seize the attention of their innovation-avid audiences; they also engaged the brothers for the entirety of the preceding month, October, to present an entirely different attraction: a water-theatre spectacle which the brothers had recently been developing as an addition to their ‘Nebelbilder’ performances, in the form of a spectacular re-staging of the Roman Empire-era sea-battle of Alexandria.

Max Skladanowsky had hand-built his film-projector, the dual lens Bioskop, in his workshop, from wood, glass and steel components, during the months immediately preceding the Cafe Sello test-screenings. It was entirely his own work, and used a dissolve technique adapted from his previous ‘Nebelbilder’ projectors; he had commissioned a set of steel parts from a nearby artisans’ workshop, and bought lamps for the projector’s two lens, but had assembled everything singlehandedly. The result was an unprecedented, irreplicable and idiosyncratic artefact: one of its kind, as with Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope – and utterly dissimilar, in its effective but maladroit construction, from the far more technically proficient device employed by the Lumière Brothers, for their own film-projections in December of that year.

The projector used a manually-turned wooden handle with a metal chain, which advanced two separate reels of film, their trajectory extending, via revolving cogs at the base of each side of the projector, almost to floor-level. To reach the projection-speed of 16 frames per second necessary for the images’ movement to be perceived as a continuous sequence by the human eye, without excessive flicker, each film’s images were assigned alternately to the two reels, and a serrated, revolving circular steel-plate, positioned in front of the two lens and regulated by the handle which also advanced the film-reels, allowed one lens to project while the other was obscured. Max Skladanowsky used his Bioskop projector for both the Cafe Sello and Wintergarten Ballroom events.

The Wintergarten Ballroom was situated within the lavish Central Hotel, one of Berlin’s new, grand hotels, modelled on those of Paris and New York, and taking up an entire street-block in the Friedrichstrasse, an avenue of shopping arcades and restaurants in the centre of the city; the hotel was one of the first buildings to be seen by travellers disembarking from trains at the adjacent Friedrichstrasse railway station. The ballroom was a vast, elongated and glass-roofed space with several stages, extending from one end of the hotel to the other, along its ground floor; its clientele sat around circular tables, on several levels, rather than in rows.

That clientele encompassed both wealthy, elegantly dressed Berliners, avid for new sensations, and also the hotel’s international guests, who reflected Berlin’s abrupt expansion as a new destination for prosperous travellers. As Alexandra Richie notes: “a million visitors a year were arriving via the new water and rail networks which encircled the city, and the small dank inns of old gave way to the newest additions to the Berlin skyline, the grand hotels. In the late nineteenth century the size and style of hotels were considered a measure of the city’s greatness, and Berliners were eager to compete with their rivals.”

The Wintergarten program was not intended for spectators from the overcrowded and impoverished industrial areas of the city, nor for its artists and scientists. That site of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ initiatory film-projection event would vanish almost fifty years later, when the Central Hotel was destroyed by British wartime bombing on 21 June 1944; the ballroom’s roof-less ruins survived for several years before being dynamited and razed by the East German authorities in the 1950s and left as a wasteland. The site is currently occupied by newly-built multi-storey offices and shops.

The Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projection event began on 1 November and continued for four weeks, with a total of 23 projections in all. The entire evening’s program lasted for over three hours and was held daily at 7.30pm, with the Sunday shows beginning at 7pm. The Skladanowsky Brothers’ contribution to the program appeared on advertising posters mid-way down the hoardings, with an exclamatory emphasis on its status as a never previously experienced innovation. Top-billing went to Mlle Gabriele Juniori, advertised as travelling to Berlin ‘from the Empire Theatre in London’, along with other acts, such as Mr Tompson (‘with his three elephants’), ‘Die Wϋstensohne’ (‘The Sons of the Desert’), and ‘Griffin und Dubois’ (‘eccentrics’).

The film-projections were successful; although the Skladanowsky Brothers had no fallback device on hand in case the Bioskop malfunctioned, the month’s projections passed without major mishap. Press reviews of the Wintergarten program especially emphasised the three performing elephants as the evening’s main attraction, but the Skladanowsky Brothers’ contribution was evoked as being well-received, by audiences who responded with prolonged applause and threw flowers at the screen. Max and Emil Skladanowsky appeared on stage at the conclusion of their projections, appearing from opposite sides of the screen and thereby replicating the content of the final film in their program, in which they had been filmed performing the same manoeuvre.

Max Skladanowsky demonstrates his flick-books, c.1900

Berlin newspapers of the time were rarely critical of variety reviews staged by the city’s principal venues, since they depended on advertising revenue from those same venues; no criticism was made, for example, of the technical limitations of the Skladanowsky Brothers’ projections, which were praised for being innovative and enthralling, but with a distinct undertone of unease.

The Berlin newspaper, the Staatsburger Zeitung, reviewed the projections on 5 November 1895: “The skilful technician employs delightful moments of photography here, bringing them in enlarged form into representation, but in a living rather than stilted form.

How he does it, only the devil knows.” In that evocation of the devil omnisciently masterminding the Skladanowsky Brothers’ film-projections, a trace is present of the future suspicions of outlandishness and ungodliness, closely associated with film and its cinematic sites for their first thirty or so years, before such qualms were finally dispelled in the 1920s by the architectural lavishness of ‘cathedrals’ or ‘palaces’ of film, their decor often literally replicating that of religious buildings, such as Segovia Cathedral, and embodied above all in that era’s designs for the cinemas of Los Angeles’ Broadway district.

The Skladanowsky Brothers had been paid a substantial sum – 2,500 gold marks – by the Wintergarten Ballroom’s proprietors for the month of November 1895. The success of their projections, at such a prominent venue, led to further commissions, but they had only achieved the first public film-projection event by a hairsbreadth, and that success rapidly unravelled.

The brothers were contracted for an engagement at the prestigious Folies Bergère venue in Paris, to begin on 1 January 1896, and travelled to Paris with the Bioskop on 27 December; on the 29th, one of the proprietors of the Folies Bergère took them to see the second evening of the Lumière Brothers’ film-projections at the Salon Indien, situated in the basement of Paris’s Grand Cafe (a far smaller projection-room than the Wintergarten Ballroom, seating only around 30 spectators, each of whom had paid one franc for admittance), and abruptly cancelled their contract, either due to international patent conflicts, or else because the Lumière Brothers had requested that cancellation.

In addition, the technical superiority of the Lumière Brothers’ ‘Cinématographe’ projector and the image-quality of their films was evident. Another engagement, at the Empire Theatre in London, was also annulled. But the Skladanowsky Brothers were able to tour extensively with the Bioskop, until September 1896, in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia, including occasions, as with an engagement at the Concerthaus in Hamburg in mid-December 1895, when only their films were shown, without an enveloping program of variety-acts. As their tour progressed, it became apparent that the Skladanowsky Brothers were being rapidly surpassed by their competitors.

This is an abridged version of a longer Sense of Cinema article and was re-printed with the kind permission of the author. To read more about Stephen Barber, and in particular his marvellous Walls Of Berlin book, click here.