In Depth: Wunder der Schöpfung


1 September 2016

With a special screening of vintage German documentary Wunder der Schöpfung coming up, and a newly commissioned score performed live alongside it, we wanted to find out more about the film and why, nearly a century after it was made, it’s worth revisiting on the big screen. We’ve been chatting with Dr Michael Cowan, Reader in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, to find out more about the film, its new score, and to discover more about the German ‘kulturfilm’…

Can you tell us a bit about your what you do?

I’m a film and media historian at the University of St Andrews, probably best known for my work on Weimar cinema. A lot of my research tries to understand how film emerged into various networks of visual practice in the early 20th century. This includes things like painting and photography, but also visual education, scientific illustration, advertising, design, cartography, even early forms of ‘data visualisation’. So I’m asking how these visual traditions helped shape the ways people could understand film and its potentials, but also how film changed existing visual practices in its turn.

For those who've never seen Wunder der Schöpfung, what is the film about and why should we see it?

“A fascinating chapter in the history of animation and non-fiction film.”

Dr Michael Cowan

Wunder der Schöpfung is a fantastic example of the German Kulturfilm, a 1920s precursor to the documentary movement. These were high-quality productions often involving collaborations between mainstream film studios and professionals from the spheres of education, science, industry etc. The films treated topics ranging from natural sciences to architecture to sex and generally strove to present pedagogical content wrapped in an entertaining package. Wunder der Schöpfung, for its part, is about the universe, or more precisely about the state of astronomical knowledge circa 1925. It’s a quite self-consciously ‘imaginative’ film, which uses animation and trick cinematography to visualise theoretical knowledge. The director, Hans Walter Kornblum, had already made a shorter film on Einstein’s relativity theory in 1923.

Why should we see the film today? There are several reasons. For one, it offers a fascinating chapter in the history of animation and non-fiction film. It also shows us what else was being made at UFA (the major German production studio) alongside big-budget productions like Metropolis. For scientists, the film offers a fascinating insight into the state of knowledge of the universe circa 1925. And for science historians (a slightly different group), it’s a great example of the kind of ‘translational’ work that went on (and still does) to make scientific knowledge accessible and appealing to a lay public. If none of those reasons suffice, I’m sure people will still enjoy seeing the trippy images of outer space.

The film is over 90 years old and is classed as one of Germany's greatest achievements in documentary - why do you think this film has stood the test of time?

“I was blown away, and I can’t wait to see it again!”

Dr Michael Cowan

I think your question implies another one, which is why films like this are being rediscovered today. When I started studying film, phenomena like the Kulturfilm were on the periphery of what we think of as ‘Weimar cinema’, overshadowed by the works of Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau and G. W. Pabst. Today, they’re generating a lot of new interest both inside and outside of the university. One reason for this is that our own experience of ‘cinema’ is changing, as the entertainment industry increasingly has to share the stage with television and phenomena such as IMAX educational programming. So we need new genealogies for our contemporary situation, and the Kulturfilm is gaining new relevance. I think this film, in particular, will speak to anyone who has followed the spectacular images captured by NASA’s New Horizons probe in recent years.

The upcoming screening at DCA includes a newly commissioned electronica/acoustic soundscape performed live by acclaimed jazz duo Herschel 36 - are you excited to see sound put to this celebrated silent film?

Most definitely yes! I should say that I already caught a performance of this film with Herschel 36 at the Hippodrome Festival of Sient Cinema earlier this year. I was blown away, and I can’t wait to see it again! Your question also touches on a larger issue often debated among silent film enthusiasts. Should contemporary screenings try to replicate the musical styles from the time? Or should musicians be more creative, using contemporary forms to make historical images speak in new ways? I’m strongly sympathetic to the latter argument. Even in the rare cases where an original film score exists, we can never experience film with the eyes and ears of a 1920s audience. To try to do so can be a useful part of film historical research and has its place in certain screening situations (e.g. silent film festivals). But it also can marginalise the other potentials that images like this accumulate throughout their historical existence.

Personally, I find it extremely exhilarating to watch a film like Wunder der Schöpfung with a contemporary sound accompaniment. We see the images with all their markers of historicity - the outdated costumes, obsolete visions of technology, etc. But the music also actualises the images in ways the original filmmakers could never have imagined, imbuing them with new life and ‘translating’ them across a historical divide.

Can you recommend any films we should see next that are of a similar style to Wunder der Schöpfung, or which take inspiration from it?

“I find it extremely exhilarating to watch a film like Wunder der Schöpfung..."

Dr Michael Cowan

For people specifically interested in the Kulturfilm, there have been several new DVD editions in recent years. Beyond Wunder der Schöpfung, I would mention films like Die Biene Maja (Maya the Bee, 1926). This was the first film version of the story (better known from later animated cartoons) and was made as a Kulturfilm using real live bees. Another film, Blumenwunder (The Miracle of Flowers, 1925), recently restored for the German-French channel Arte, used time-lapse cinematography to visualize the life of plants, which appear to ‘interact’ with expressionist dancers on the screen. For people interested more specifically in early imaginings of outer space, one could point to lots of interesting science-fiction films, starting with Méliès’s Voyage to the Moon (1902). I’d also mention the wonderful Russian film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), the Danish film Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars, 1918) and Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1929). And of course, there is also very long tradition of popular scientific representations in astronomy. Wunder der Schöpfung itself built upon a well-established visual repertoire from popular science journals and illustrated scientific lectures, and it can certainly be seen as a precursor to later educational programming such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and its 2014 reboot with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Join us for our one-off screening of Wunder der Schöpfung with a brand new score performed live by jazz duo Herschel 36: Sat 17 September at 19:00.

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