A TRICK OF THE LIGHT: Max Skladanowsky - A Cinematic Innovator

Max Skladanowsky was one of the true innovators of early cinema. The son of a glazier, he was born in Berlin on 30 April 1863. Employed by the Hagedorn workshops, who specialised in the manufacture of props and lighting for theatres, he trained in photography, glass painting and optics, learning how to construct the magic lanterns that were popular at the time.

In 1879, along with his older brother Emil, he accompanied his father, Carl, around Germany and neighbouring countries, presenting dissolving magic lantern shows. In 1890 Max and Emil constructed a mobile mechanical theatre which they took on tour the following year, and to Vienna, Budapest and Scandinavia in 1892.

Around this time, the brothers constructed a chronophotographic camera, designed for unperforated Kodak roll film and using a worm-gear intermittent movement. Their first footage was shot on 20 August, 1892. It featured forty-eight frames of Emil.

In 1895 Max had developed the Bioskop projector. It followed the same principle as the dissolving magic lantern, employing two loops of 54 mm wide film that ran past two lenses and electrical arc lamps. Alternate frames from each band were projected, with sixteen frames per second needed to give the illusion of actual motion. One of the earliest demonstrations of the Bioskop was at the Gasthaus Sello in Berlin, in July 1895. By November of that year, shows were being performed at Berlin’s Wintergarten Theatre, featuring an original music score by Hermann Kruger. The screenings of all nine films were a tremendous success and became the first screenings in front of a paying audience.

Additional performances took place at the Hamburg Bioskop from 21 December 1895. They were booked to play at the Folies Bergere in Paris in January 1896. However, these shows were cancelled following the screening of the Lumière brothers’ films at the Grand Café in late December 1895 (German critic Lotte Eisner was dismissive of the Skladanowsky’s achievement compared with the work of the Lumieres: ‘The dull little moving snapshots turned out by the pioneer Max Skladanowsky have nothing in common with the lively topicalities being produced by Louis Lumiere (France) at the same time.')

Ironically, Max Skladanowsky was unable to continue his public screenings in Berlin after 1987 due to his trade licence expiring. When he tried to apply for a renewal, he was informed by authorities that ‘too many licences were already in circulation’. From 1897, he specialised in flip books that recycled some of his film footage and selling cameras to amateur filmmakers.

In later years, Max Skladanowsky overstated his importance to early cinema, facing harsh criticism from historians. He died on 30 November 1939, at Berlin-Niederschonhausen. His legacy as one of the innovators of cinema is now unquestioned. Although overtaken by the expansion and momentum of a rapidly developing medium, his Bioscope machine, now residing at the Potsdam Filmmuseum, was an important evolutionary step in the development of cinema.

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT is available on DVD and VOD through AX1 Films.