Saturn Filme 1906 - 1910 Review

A few days ago I wrote a piece on Pictures of a Metropolis (link), a new DVD compilation put together by the Austrian Film Museum. It was produced to supplement the Vienna 1900 season at the Neue Galerie New York and concerned itself with turn-of-the-century Vienna courtesy of various newsreels and actualities of the day. Here was a Viennese tramride from 1904 and rare footage of the Emperor Franz Joseph I; professional and amateur material combining to become a literal time machine back to the early twentieth century. Yet early Austrian filmmaking wasn’t simply the recourse of newsreel cameramen and enthusiastic novices as another DVD compilation makes abundantly clear. The set under consideration today, which was released last year but also plays a part in the Neue Galerie exhibition, documents much the same period as Pictures of a Metropolis albeit through the work of a single company, Saturn Films. On a single disc we find their entire surviving output, a reported 52 films reduced to 22 complete shorts and nine fragments. But Saturn were not concerned with taking their equipment out onto the streets so as to immortalise its residents on celluloid. Rather the intentions were purely commercial and arguably somewhat spurious. Erotica was the name of the game, and for four years between 1906 and 1910, Saturn Films proved incredibly successful.

The mastermind behind the company was Johann Schwarzer, a photographer who started out in family portraits but soon made the move into less immediately wholesome practices. Noticing the improvement in fortune as he made this shift it is perhaps understandable that he decided upon switching from the still image to the moving one. His films are all essentially stag films (what Google Translate somewhat awkwardly, but aptly, described as the “gentleman evening film” when researching this review), designed as brief entertainment to accompany more macabre fare such as recordings of medical procedures or close-ups of deformities. As with those particular works, Saturn Films’ output was very much straightforward: minimal plot, plenty of female nudity. A typical entry in their catalogue would feature little more than a group of women in a situation which calls for them to be entire nude - taking a bath, skinny dipping, indulging in some innocent play. And innocent is the key word as Schwarzer’s films are most definitely not pornographic; whilst male characters may appear onscreen they are generally inactive, i.e. no nudity on their part and certainly no intercourse. If a comparison is needed then the titles on Saturn Filme 1906-1910 more closely resemble those found on Film First’s Betty’s Bath compilation (various coy examples of early Hollywood erotica) than on silent porno compendium The Good Old Naughty Days.

Nevertheless, Schwarzer success did cause problems and earn Saturn Films the label as purveyors of “pornography from Vienna”. Such were the complaints from other countries it was decided that Schwarzer and his company were bad for the reputation of Austria. The culmination was a court ruling in 1911 banning Saturn Films from production and the confiscation of their materials. It is only through the work of private collectors and enthusiasts that these early instances of erotica still exist, the main source being nitrates (mostly negatives) which were donated to the Austrian Film Archive during the 1990s and have since been fully restored. Indeed, there is something of an irony to the fact that Austria, once the cause of these films disappearing from view, is now subjecting to them to the first class treatment. This particular DVD set is labelled the first in the Austrian Film Archives ‘Treasures’ series and comes in an attractive metal case so as to further entice the potential buyer. Add to this the intelligently programmed additional features and it’s plain to see that Schwarzer has (finally) been given his due.

So are they any good? Of course, there is plenty of historical curiosity to be satisfied given both the age and the nature of the titles, but what of the quality? Firstly it’s worth pointing out that not all the films follow the exact same template. There is some repetition, but also enough exceptions and oddities to make the set easily digestible in a single sitting or perhaps two. In most cases simply the titles will suffice to give an impression as to what to expect: Bathing Forbidden, Diana Bathing, In the Bath, In the Studio, At the Photographer’s, and so on. Indeed, bathing - both in the conventional tub and skinny dipping - is remarkably popular. (It would appear that no self-respecting Viennese woman could resist an innocent outdoor dip during the 1900s!) And if they’re not frolicking in the nearest lake then the women in these films are either dancing in the nude, playing in the nude (skipping, croquet, a drunken variation on strip poker in which the rules aren’t especially clear) or getting ready for bed. In all cases the appeal is to the voyeur; the audience is expected to simply spy on various girls and women and nothing more. Occasionally we even get an onscreen voyeur (as titles such as The Fisherman should make obvious) as a form of surrogate. Though note that he only watches and, generally speaking, adheres to the ‘dirty old man’ cliché.

In other words plotting is kept to a bare minimum. For the most part these are films taken from a fixed camera position and running time of no more than a minute or two. Some break away from this - notably the proto-Benny Hill chase of An Exciting Hunt and its numerous set-ups - whilst others may go as far as to incorporate a pan, but the static approach is the norm. As a result it is the smaller details which have a tendency to appeal. There’s the curious way in which so many of these girls tend to look towards the camera as though seeking instruction thereby giving away the slightly amateurish edges despite Saturn Films being a proper production company; Female Conscripts even ends with one of the props falling over, though clearly a retake wasn’t deemed necessary. There’s the manner in which Schwarzer’s company logo is incorporated into the background (even if that means simply pinning it to a tree or a grandfather clock) so as to protect against copyright infringement, just as so many early filmmakers did. There’s the rip-offs of contemporaries such as Méliès-esque The Magic of the Mandarins and its simple camera trickery producing semi-nudes out of thin air. There’s the temptation to see At the Photographer’s as potentially autobiographical given its ‘plot’ of a family portraitist who makes the move into nudes. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the many in which the films introduce the occasional subversive idea into their standard heterosexual fare. Sadly the title Two Men in Bed is One Too Many doesn’t really represent the film in hand, but elsewhere we do find some unexpected fare. Foot fetishists, for example, are catered for with The Eroticism of the Footwear. Meanwhile the likes of The Family Doctor and The Power of Hypnosis present the woman as being the seductress and firmly in command of the situation. Unsurprisingly such examples also feel somewhat risqué compared to the innocent norm.

Occasionally this risqué nature can move into more queasy territory as in The Slave Market and Female Conscripts. In the both the woman are lined up to a seated male and partially undressed by other men whilst he nods approval (or not, as the case may be). Of course it comes across as incredibly leery (with the acknowledgement that such accusations could be levelled as most of these shorts given their voyeuristic basis) and, to this reviewer at least, brought to mind those early scenes from Pasolini’s Salò in which the various youths were put through a selection process that was only the first of the indignities they were to go through. (Of course, there is none of Pasolini’s ideological rigour at play in Schwarzer’s efforts.) Furthermore, these scenes of male approval and disapproval sit somewhat uneasily amongst a collection of films which are refreshingly non-judgemental when it comes to body shape and size. Admittedly The Fisherman does opt to have only the young girl of its mother-daughter pair go for the full skinny dip, but otherwise the Saturn Films remit didn’t seem encumbered by any particular ideals of female beauty. Of course, it may very well have been the case they simply had to work with whoever was available, though I would like to think that such touches add to the overall innocence.

And ultimately it is the innocence that wins through making this DVD compilation - despite the odd misgiving - a perfectly charming viewing experience. There is none of the shock and surprise which came with The Good Old Naughty Days and its juxtaposition of sodomy and bestiality against ancient film materials. Instead the more likely response is a smile at the quaintness and simplicity of it all. Of course, whether such a reaction is therefore enough to prompt a purchase is debatable, although the ability to check out such a byway of early cinema is a welcome one as is the amount of effort put into this set. Non-German speakers should be aware, however, that a couple of additions come without translation as shall be discussed in the ‘Disc’ section…

THE DISC

Saturn Filme 1906-1910 compiles its 22 shorts (and nine fragments) onto a single DVD-9. The disc itself is packaged in a metal keep-case that feels sufficiently sturdy and comes with ‘Film Archiv Austria’ embossed into the design. (This is presumably going to be standard practice for their ‘Treasures’ series, although I’ve yet to see a volume two.) The packaging is also adorned with a cardboard ‘ribbon’ which is firmly attached and can be opened, quite easily, courtesy of a tiny circle of Velcro. It’s quite a sleek design and also finds space for an eight-page booklet containing a brief introduction and a rundown of each of the included shorts.

In terms of presentation the disc mostly does a good job. The age of the films, and the fact that hadn’t received proper treatment until the nineties, understandably means that we shouldn’t expect pristine visuals, although for the most part the results are really quite pleasing. Only the fragments which appear amongst the extras have a tendency to be a genuinely rough state (Forfeits, for example, is really quite soft and has plenty of damage to contend with). Of the main shorts there are some instability issues for The Family Doctor to contend with, otherwise nothing sticks out as being in noticeably poor shape. With that said, the transfers do occasionally suffer from compression artefacts, especially (for some unknown reason) during the middle of the programme. The heavy movement which characterises An Exciting Hunt prompts heavy blocking, as do the fade ins and outs on the two subsequent shorts, A Modern Marriage and At the Photographer’s. Oddly, no such issues - or at least not to such an overt degree - during the earlier stages or the later ones, suggesting something has gone awry at the transfer stage and certainly not any problems with the films themselves. All of the films are in black and white, except for The Sand Bath and A Modern Marriage which have been tinted.

Soundtracks have been newly composed for the shorts in the main programme with duties split between Ajioscha Zimmermann, Florian C. Reithner and Gerhard Gruber. Each film gets its own individual accompaniment and they’re a somewhat eclectic bunch utilising a wide range of instrumentation. At times it works rather well - the mischief in The Vain Housemaid affecting its score perfectly - but not always as The Fisherman’s ill-fitting combination of almost-funk and almost-jazz proves. Just as bizarre is A Funny Story at the Window’s mix of military drumming and a single trumpet. But then this particular short is very strange anyhow… Three woman playing a game of catch leads to one of them exposing herself as she gets stuck whilst peering out the window. Enter an over-the-moon voyeur who begins to indulge in some excessive leg rubbing à la Vic Reeves. Technically the soundtracks present no untoward issues.

As for extras here we also find the remaining surviving Saturn Films productions, all in fragmentary form though some are longer than others. Indeed, Room for Rent lasts only eight seconds. As noted the picture quality is generally worse than those in the main programme and it is also worth pointing out that no new scores have been commissioned for these pieces. They simply unfold in silence. The disc also finds room for a five-minute introduction that is in German and comes without English subtitles, much like the booklet notes which come similarly non-translated. Insert the disc into your PC or laptop and you’ll also be able to see Saturn Films’ original 1907 catalogue with its copious illustrations. Again, no translation is available, but none is really necessary. Indeed, much like the films themselves - of which only one has recourse to intertitles - the pictures do the talking.

CONTENTS

Baden verboten Bathing Forbidden c1906-07
Das Sandbad The Sand Bath c1906-07
Diana im Bade Diana Bathing c1906-07
Schleiertanz The Veil Dance c1906-07
Jugendspiele Games of Youth c1906-07
Der Angler The Fisherman c1906-07
Sklavenraub The Abduction of the Slave Women c1906-07
Sklavenmarkt The Slave Market c1906-07
Der Traum der Bildhauers The Sculptor’s Dream c1906-07
Eine aufregende Jagd An Exciting Hunt c1906-07
Eine modern Ehe A Modern Marriage c1906-07
Beim Fotografen At the Photographer’s c1908-10
Eine lustige Geschichte am Fenster A Funny Story at the Window c1908-10
Lebender Marmor Living Marble c1908-10
Weibliche Assentierung Female Conscripts c1908-10
Das eitle Stubenmädchen The Vain Housemaid c1908-10
Der Hausarzt The Family Doctor c1908-10
Die Macht der Hypnose The Power of Hypnosis c1908-10
Vorbreitung auf das Rendez-vous Preparing to Meet c1908-10
Im Bade In the Bath c1908-10
Die Zaubereien des Mandarins The Magic of the Mandarins c1908-10
Aufregende Lektüre Stimulating Reading c1908-10

BONUS TITLES (Fragments)

In der Garderobe In the Wardrobe c1906-07
Wie der Herr, so der Diener Like Master Like Servant c1908-10
Im Atelier In the Studio c1908-10
Zwei Männer im Bett ist einer Zuviel Two Men in Bed is One Too Many c1908-10
Zimmer zu Vermieten Room for Rent c1908-10
Erotik des Schuhwerks The Eroticism of Footwear c1908-10
Pfänderspiele Forfeits c1908-10
Eine lustige Geschichte A Funny Story c1908-10
Ehebruch oder Nicht Adultery or Not c1908-10

Film
7 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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