A Trick Of The Light Review
Equally adept at working with both fiction and documentary features, not for the first time Wim Wenders blends both in his 1995 film Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky (The Skladanowsky Brothers), a docudrama that has the noble ambition of alerting the world to the lesser-known German entertainers, whose early pioneering work in early cinema was overshadowed by the superior methods of the Lumière Brothers in France. Known in English as A Trick Of The Light, Wenders pays tribute in the film to their efforts and innovation through documentary reminiscences of the daughter of Max Skladanowsky, Lucie, and through some silent-movie dramatic re-enactments of their lives and work.
Filmed in black-and-white, as a silent movie, with the narration from the point of view of the young 5-year old Gertrud Skladanowsky (Nadine Buettner), the film opens in 1894 in Pankow, a small town on the outskirts of Berlin. Unimpressed by the crude methods her father Max (Udo Kier) and uncles Emil and Eugen (Otto Kuhnle and Christoph Merg) use to create moving images to entertain other children, the young girl is not taken in by the zoetrope mechanisms or the flick-books her father has employed to capture moving images of her uncle Eugen. With her uncle about to leave to work in a circus, Max consequently puts all his efforts into his bioscope, an early form of light projector to display sequences of still images. The first movie projector has been built, but as it is only able to project sequences of still images that have been crudely, but painstakingly pasted together frame-by-frame, it is soon overshadowed by the superior cinematograph invented in Paris by the Lumière Brothers.
This story is dramatically re-enacted as a black-and-white silent movie. Brilliantly achieved by Wenders – although evidently inspired by Guy Maddin - with a great sense of authenticity and no small amount of charm, the film is both instructive and entertaining, capturing the undoubted thrill of seeing moving images projected onto a screen for the first time. More than that however, the film is intercut with colour interview footage of Lucie Hürtgen-Skladanowsky – 93 years old at the making of the film – who guides the assembled film crew through the old photo albums, memorabilia and artefacts that she has preserved. The two sections are linked by dramatis personae from the fictional enactment interacting with the documentary filmmaking - coming to life as it were through the reminiscences. It’s a nice poetic touch, connecting the past with the present and thereby testifying to the power of cinema to breathe life and personality into the past, but showing how those memories are part of what we are today, something perhaps alluded to in a magical carriage ride at the end of the film through the on-going reconstruction of the post-Wall Berlin.
A Trick Of The Light is a short film that doesn’t outstay its welcome, unless you are intent on watching it through to the end of the extended credits. The film itself is 60 minutes long, stretched to 71 minutes with additional footage inserted in the end credits, extended further to 76 minutes with a loop of simulated bioscope imagery. All timings include PAL speed-up.
A Trick Of The Light is released in the UK by Anchor Bay. The DVD is only available as part of their 10-disc Wim Wenders Collection boxset. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
As with Guy Maddin films, it’s almost impossible to accurately rate a film where the majority of the print has deliberately been degraded to achieve an old silent-movie effect. Nonetheless, the colour modern-day sections look close to perfect, with good detail, colour tone and stability. Some modern-day black-and-white sections are also crystal clear with perfect tones, so everything would appear to be as it should. The only issue is a little bit of aliasing, but this is rarely noticeable and only really troublesome on the Brandenburg Gate sequence at the end of the film.
There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, both are clear and accurate. The 5.1 mix sounds practically mono, pushing most of the sound through the centre channel, the 2.0 spreads the sound much better.
English subtitles are optional and in a white font. They are rather thin, without a strong border, and can consequently be occasionally difficult to make out clearly against the luminous black-and-white photography.
There are no extra features on the disc.
An apparently light and playful entertainment, Wim Wenders’ approach to the documentary in A Trick Of The Light is perhaps not as rigorous as one might hope for. The accuracy of a biopic depiction is always open to question, and even with documentary interview footage, the viewer is still likely to have a great deal of unanswered questions by the end of the film about the work of the Skladanowsky Brothers and why their pioneering efforts in cinematography are not more widely known. What is important however is that Wim Wenders raises these questions and does so in a charming and entertaining way that is at least true to the spirit of cinema, using the invention that the Skladanowsky Brothers helped develop and showing how powerful it can be, bridging years of memories and sentiments and keeping the past alive.