Film History Essentials: Wintergartenprogramm (1895)

(English: Wintergarten Program)

What it’s about:

A series of 9 short films featuring a variety of different types of performances, including athletes, dancers, acrobats, and jugglers, presented together as one complete program for an evening’s entertainment (as detailed below).

Why it’s essential:

Between mid-1894 and early 1895, a German named Max Skladanowsky designed and built a film camera and a projector that he named the “bioskop” (anglicized as “bioscop”). Skladanowsky was already an experienced showman, having toured throughout Central Europe for many years with his brother, Emil, giving dissolving magic lantern shows. These shows involved a magic lantern simultaneously projecting two overlaid images, gradually reducing one and increasing one so that they “dissolved” from one to the other. This experience formed the basis of the bioscop, not only because the Skladanowskys were well-versed in existing screen practice, but because Max’s projector actually used two loops of film, with a mechanism that alternated projection between them.

In May of 1895, two months after the arrival of the first Edison kinetoscopes and the final show by Ottomar Anschütz and his projecting electroytachyscope, the Skladanowsky brothers began shooting films. Their choice of subjects seems to have been inspired both by the films that were showing on the kinetoscope, and by whatever acts were readily available in Berlin at the time. Without a designated studio space, they had performers go through segments of their acts outside of the theaters they were performing in, against a blank background, so as to have sufficient sunlight for filming.

In July, they held a private screening at a restaurant in Berlin, and among the attendees were the directors of the Wintergarten Theater, who contracted the brothers and their device for a series of performances. The program they prepared was several minutes long, part of (as was often the case in the early days of motion pictures) a much longer slate of live performances totaling some 3 hours. However, at a time when movie-length was still generally under half a minute, even as little as a quarter of an hour or less could be a daunting time slot to fill.

Each of the eight films they showed (which concluded with a 9th clip of them both bowing to the audience) was repeated multiple times. This probably wasn’t done simply to pad out the time, but to give the audience a better opportunity to appreciate the novelty of what they were seeing, and actually be able to take it in. There was also a specially-composed, live musical score accompanying the show, which supposedly helped drown out the noise of the projector. The Wintergarterprogramm:

German TitleEnglish TitlePerformer(s)Length
Italienischer BauerntanzItalian Peasant DanceKindergruppe Ploetz-Larella0:18
Komisches ReckFunny BarMilton Brothers0:20
Das Boxende KänguruhThe Boxing KangarooMr. Delaware0:17
Der JongleurThe JugglerPaul Petras0:19
Akrobatisches PotpourriAcrobatic PotpourriFamily Grunato0:16
KamarinskajaKamarinskayaBrothers Tscherpanoff0:19
Die SerpentintänzerinThe Serpentine DancerMademoiselle Ancion0:18
RingkampfWrestling MatchJohn Greiner & Eugen Sandow0:20
ApotheoseApotheosisBrothers Skladanowsky0:16

Their first show was on November 1, 1895. It was the first-ever projected film in Europe to be shown before a paying audience, and the second in the world. The bioscop remained at the Wintergarten Theater throughout the rest of the month of November, and then moved on for a brief engagement in Hamburg. On December 28, 1895, the Skladanowsky brothers arrived in Paris to prepare for an opening at the Folies Bergère on January 1st, but that show never took place because of another famous arrival that happened the same day as theirs.

Why you should see it:

There’s something for everyone in this variety of acts, and if you don’t care for one show, just blink a few times and the next one will be on. The dances don’t do much for me, particularly without musical accompaniment, though the ever-popular serpentine dance is quite nice. The jerkiness of the motions in that particular segment suggests how much lower the Skladanowskys’ recording framerate was than that of other filmmakers. All of the other acts are fun, but in particular the Milton Brothers and their acrobatic antics had a surprise ending that caught me off-guard and got a laugh. You may also notice a familiar name buried in the program: One of the wrestlers is the celebrated Eugen Sandow, who apparently was in Berlin at some point between filming for the kinetoscope in America in 1894 and in 1896.

Overall, this is a charming and novel program, and it’s particularly interesting to be able to see it all cut together, as it would have been in 1895. The transition from a movie audience moving between several individual coin-fed machines to simply sitting in a room with a projector meant that many early projected programs kept that same format of a series of extremely short clips all strung together. And even though films would soon get somewhat longer, it would be many years before any film was long enough to carry an entire program by itself.


~ by Jared on February 9, 2023.

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