Prog. 1 Nature and the Elements
DIE SEELE DER PFLANZE [The Soul of the Plant] (DE 1922)
regia/dir: ?. photog: Max Brinck. prod: Ufa (Universum-Film AG). copia/copy: 35mm, 187 m., 7′ (20 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: DFF – Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum, Frankfurt-am-Main
Die Seele der Pflanze is one of the early shorts produced by the Ufa-Kulturabteilung (Ufa Cultural Department), founded in 1918 to promote films with educational content. The production team counted several people who worked extensively with the Kulturabteilung, including the cinematographer Max Brinck and the scientific advisor Wilhelm Berndt, a zoologist from the University of Berlin who had organized the first film screenings at the Urania Institute in 1911, and worked on many of the films selected for this program.
Purporting to offer a modern scientific take on ancient Greek pantheistic views of nature, the film draws on a long tradition of literature probing the potential intelligence and sensitivity of plants. That interest stretches at least as far back as J. J. Grandville’s Les Fleurs animées (1847) and Gustav Fechner’s Nanna oder über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen (1848). It was particularly vibrant in the early 20th century due to a wave of popular science books by authors such Raoul Francé (e.g., Die Seele der Pflanze, 1924).
This topic also held a special appeal for early filmmakers, who sought to use filmic techniques — time-lapse, microscopic cinematography, animation, etc. — to provide visual evidence of the otherwise invisible life of plants. In Germany, such films stretch from Oskar Messter’s early time-lapse experiments (1898) to feature-length Kulturfilms such as Das Blumenwunder (1926), in which human dancers take their cues from plants shown in accelerated motion.
But Die Seele der Pflanze is also significant for its subsequent history. The film has long been a go-to archival source for directors of horror and experimental film, from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (who lifted footage of a Venus flytrap to juxtapose with the vampire in Nosferatu, 1922) to Gustav Deutsch and Hanna Schimek (who borrowed shots of scientists burning a sensitive Mimosa pudica plant for their 2009 experimental exploration of gender relations in Film ist. A Girl & a Gun).
DAS WOLKENPHÄNOMEN VON MALOJA [The Cloud Phenomenon of Maloja] (DE 1924)
regia/dir, photog, mont/ed: Arnold Fanck. prod: Berg- und Sportfilm GmbH. v.c./censor date: 18.06.1924. copia/copy: 35mm, 205 m., 9′ (20 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Filmarchiv Austria, Wien.
Shot by mountain-film pioneer Arnold Fanck (who would later introduce Leni Riefenstahl to the public in Der heilige Berg, 1926), Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja is a short landscape film shot around the Maloja Pass of the Dolomites. The film came out the same year Fanck released Der Berg des Schicksals (also shot in the Dolomites) and was probably made as a side project. In a glowing review of the latter film, Siegfried Kracauer praised Fanck’s “glorious images of nature,” singling out in particular the director’s ability to film clouds: “cumulus clouds, giant white massifs that disintegrate, seas of clouds that well up and ebb away, striped drifts and vast herds.” While it is unclear if Kracauer knew of Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja, the film seems to validate his argument that images of nature are at least as important as plots in the mountain-film genre.
Filming clouds was no straightforward task, and filmmakers like Fanck had to learn to use techniques familiar to scientific filmmakers such as time-lapse to bring clouds alive on the screen. The result is a motif every bit as photogenic as the contemporaneous water images being explored by Jean Epstein, and Olivier Assayas would later cite Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja in his own treatment of the Dolomites in his film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014).
POLAR-REISE 1925 MIT DEM DAMPFER “MÜNCHEN” NORDDEUTSCHER LLOYD BREMEN [Arctic Journey 1925 on the Steamer “Munich” Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen] (DE 1925)
regia/dir: Richard Fleischut? photog: Richard Fleischhut. riprese/filmed: 10.06.–15.12.1925. copia/copy: 35mm, 318 m., 17’23” (16 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.
This film was shot aboard the S.S. München, a ship run by the company Norddeutscher Lloyd. Its creator, Richard Fleischhut, had worked as on-board photographer for Norddeutscher Lloyd since 1908, where he documented journeys to Asia, North and South America, and Scandinavia. He would later become famous for his portraits of celebrity passengers such as Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as his images of the Hindenburg explosion in 1937. But he also left behind an extensive collection of ethnographic and nature photography. Indeed, some of his best-known nature photographs (of cliffs, icebergs, seascapes, etc.) were taken during the same 1925 journey as the current film.
Fleischhut’s first foray into moving images, Polar-Reise documents one of the arctic cruises (sailing to the Svalbard Archipelago) that Norddeutscher Lloyd regularly offered for those eager to experience romantic landscapes reminiscent of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Fleischhut would go on to create another, longer polar travel film for the same company in 1928. In this earlier film, he structures the images around the fascinating alternation (inviting various interpretations) between the passengers on the ship’s deck and the passing waves.
Fleischhut’s work was likely intended for amateur rather than cinematic screenings (and perhaps also for screenings on board passenger ships). But it also points to a larger link between the passenger ship industry and the vogue for travel films of the 1920s, many of which were made in collaboration with shipping companies (e.g., Walter Ruttmann’s Melodie der Welt from 1929, which was partly financed by HAPAG, the Hamburg-America Line).
ERFINDERIN NATUR [Nature as Inventor] (DE 1926-27)
regia/dir: Ulrich K. T. Schulz. scen: Wilhelm Berndt. prod: Ufa (Universum-Film AG). v.c./censor date: 25.02.1927. copia/copy: 35mm, 284 m., 13′ 48” (18 fps); did./titles: GER?. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.
Throughout the 1920s, the Ufa-Kulturabteilung churned out numerous short nature films for screening in cinemas (in the so-called Beiprogramm, or supporting program), in schools, and in various other educational settings (associations, exhibitions, etc.). This fascinating film, Erfinderin Natur, was overseen by Ulrich K. T. Schulz, who had directed the first production of the Kulturabteilung to be shown in the preliminary program of a cinema (Der Hirschkäfer, 1921), and went on to make over 200 Kulturfilms from the 1920s to the 1960s. The scenario was created by Wilhelm Berndt, who also worked on Die Seele der Pflanze.
This film exemplifies a topic that would often recur in Schulz’s work and in the Kulturfilm more generally: the analogies between human technologies and nature. Anticipating later concepts such as bionics and biomimetics, the film shows us a human technological intelligence that is grounded in nature rather than being opposed to it: rope-manufacture inspired by spider webs, parachute design mimicking dandelion seeds, a cowboy’s lasso copying the actions of a chameleon’s tongue, and so on. This was already a well-known theme from popular science books such as Raoul Francé’s Die Pflanze als Erfinder (1920) or Hermann Ernsch’s Mathematik in der Natur (1921). Erfinderin Natur has certain affinities with Die Seele der Pflanze in its efforts to demonstrate nature’s intelligence. But rather than revealing this intelligence through trick techniques such as time-lapse photography, this film relies on the techniques of parallel montage, in widespread use by the mid-1920s.
PULSIERENDE LEBENSSÄFTE [Pulsating Life Fluids] (DE 1928)
regia/dir: Nicholas Kaufmann. prod: Ufa (Universum-Film AG). v.c./censor date: 22.09.1928. copia/copy: 35mm, 291 m., 14′ (18 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.
Another in the series of science shorts from the Ufa-Kulturabteilung, Pulsierende Lebenssäfte focuses on the blood. The film was directed by Nicholas Kaufmann, who worked on dozens of Kulturfilms between the 1920s and the 1960s, including well-known long films such as Der Steinach-Film (1922), Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Health and Beauty / US: The Way to Strength and Beauty, 1925, shown at the Giornate in 2007), Falsche Scham (False Shame, 1926), and Natur und Liebe. Von der Urzelle bis zum Menschen (Nature and Love: From the Primitive Cell to Man, 1927). Kaufmann was assisted, here too, by the scientific expertise of Wilhelm Berndt.
Relying heavily on microscopic cinematography, Pulsierende Lebenssäfte takes up a frequent theme of popular science: the “unseen” world of blood circulation, cells, and pathogens (e.g., spirochetes). This theme was familiar from numerous “blood pictures” of the period, stretching back to the pioneering work of French microbiologist Jean Comandon in the 1910s. Pulsierende Lebenssäfte also touches on the theme of our second program, with its characterization of white blood cells as the body’s “police” force.
The previously invisible worlds unveiled by early microscopic film no doubt had an influence on popular science fiction (e.g., Fantastic Voyage, 1966). This motif continues to appeal to artists working in new media, as one can see in the popularity of “body” experiences in VR today (e.g., The Body VR: Journey Inside a Cell, 2016).
WASSER UND WOGEN. EIN QUERSCHNITTSFILM [Water and Waves: A Cross-Section Film] (DE 1929)
regia/dir, scen, photog, mont./ed: Albrecht Viktor Blum. prod: Willy Münzenberg/Filmkartell “Weltfilm“ GmbH. uscita/rel: 19.03.1929 (München), 24.05. 1929 (Berlin). copia/copy: 35mm, 291 m., 14’08” (18 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.
Albrecht Viktor Blum was a prominent practitioner of montage film in Germany in the 1920s. While Blum had credited Soviet montage as a major influence on his best-known film Im Schatten der Maschine (In the Shadow of the Machine, 1928), Wasser und Wogen (1929), with its playful cuts between people and animals, is perhaps more reminiscent of the work of Walter Ruttmann. As the subtitle suggests, this film was also part of a larger vogue, in the late 1920s, for so-called Querschnittsfilme (cross-section films) — compilation films on particular topics, which drew on the growing mass of footage available in film archives — such as Oskar Kalbus’s Rund um die Liebe. Ein Querschnittsfilm (All About Love. A Cross-Section Film, 1929), Blum’s own Quer durch den Sport (A Cross-Section of Sports, 1929), or Edgar Beyfuss’s Die Wunder der Welt (Wonders of the World, 1930).
Blum was also a close collaborator with left-wing groups such as the Volksverband für Filmkunst (People’s Association of Film Art) and served as editor for the Prometheus production Das Dokument von Shanghai (1928). Wasser und Wogen, along with Im Schatten der Maschine, was produced and distributed by Weltfilm, the same company that produced Zeitprobleme. Wie der Arbeiter wohnt (Contemporary Problems: How the Worker Lives) (see Program 3).