'A Trick of the Light': Film Review

Wim Wenders Stiftung
This doc/fiction hybrid will prove fascinating to cinema buffs

Wim Wenders' documentary about early cinema pioneers the Skladanowsky brothers receives its belated U.S. theatrical debut.

Even the most ardent cinema buffs can be forgiven for not knowing who the Skladanowsky brothers were. This trio of German siblings presented film screenings to the Berlin public in 1895, a month before the heralded Lumiere brothers achieved the same feat in Paris. But because the Lumieres' Cinematographe was unmistakably superior to the Sladanowskys' Bioskop, the Germans' creation fell into relative obscurity.

Director Wim Wenders attempted to rectify that historical neglect with his 1996 fiction/documentary hybrid only now receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere as part of NYC's IFC Center's monthlong retrospective, Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. And while it hardly ranks alongside Wenders' classic works, A Trick of the Light is a fascinating curiosity that well deserves this long overdue exposure.

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A collaboration between Wenders and the students at the Filmhochschule Munchen (University of Television and Film Munich), an institution the director attended, the film uses a variety of styles to depict the early efforts of Max (Udo Kier), Emil (Otto Kuhnle) and Eugen (Christoph Merg) Skladanowsky to present their homemade films using the Bioskop, a crude projector inspired by magic-lantern technology and descended from their highly popular photo flip books. Using themselves as performers, they created such films as The Boxing Kangaroo and The Wrestling Match, whose images you may well find familiar even if you don't know their provenance. 

The scenes showing the brothers at work are narrated by Max's young daughter, Gertrude (Nadine Buttner), who occasionally becomes their subject, and are shot using a vintage hand-cranked camera whose silent, black-and-white and herky-jerky images effectively suggest the original works.

These playful interludes are intercut with contemporary footage featuring an interview with the then-91-year-old Lucie, daughter of Max, still living in the house in which she was born, which had been her family's residence since 1907. Still mentally sharp, she movingly describes her father's and uncles' ambitions and accomplishments with the enthusiasm of the young girl she was at that time.

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The film falters occasionally in its attempts to weave together the past and the present, with its contrasting styles proving a bit jarring. And it all too obviously attempts to stretch out its brief running time by featuring no less than 10 minutes of credits, followed by another five minutes of silent Bioskop footage. But such self-indulgence is to be forgiven in this well-meaning collaborative project that succeeds in bringing much overdue attention to the cinematic pioneers who are its subject.

Production: University of Television and Film Munich, Wim Wenders Produktion, Veit Helmer Filmproduktion
Cast: Udo Kier, Nadine Buttner, Christoph Merg, Otto Kuhnie, Bodo Lang, Rudiger Vogler, Aldred Szczot, Hans Moser, Thomise Rosie
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenwriters: Eva Munz, Alina Teodorescu, Barbara Rohm
Producers: Wim Wenders, Wolfgang Langsfeld, Veit Helmer
Directors of photography: Jurgen Jurges, Andreas Giesecke
Editor: Peter Przygodda
Composer: Laurent Petitgand

Not rated, 76 minutes