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Messter, Oskar

MESSTER, Oskar



Producer and Director. Nationality: German. Born: Oskar Eduard Messter in Berlin, 22 November 1866. Family: Married Antonie (Messter). Career: Worked in his father's optical plant, later a director; 1896—formed film company, and produced many short films from 1897, and a weekly newsreel (Messter-Woche) from 1914; over the years developed various motion picture processes and appliances (Germans claim he invented the Maltese Cross—a mechanism to allow individual frames to be quickly projected); also credited with the close-up as early as 1897; manufactured film equipment; 1917—his company absorbed by UFA. Died: In Leitenbauernhof, 6 December 1943.

Films as Producer:

1897?

Die Sone

1897

Rapunzel; Gestärtes Rendez-vous (+ d)

1898

Gemütlich beim Kaffee (+ d)

1900

Rückkehr der Truppen von der Frühlingsparade (+ d)

1902

Salome (+ d)

1903

Auf der Radrennbahn (+ d)

1906

Apachentanz (Porten); Fra Diavolo

1907

Lohengrin; Meissner Porzellan (Porten)

1908

Desdemona; Tief in Böhmerwald ; Wiegenlied (Porten)

1909

Andreas Hofer (Biebrach); Das Liebesglück einer Blinden (The Love of the Blind Girl) (Biebrach)

1910

Verkannt (+ d); Der Kinderarzt (Stark)

1911

Mütter, verzaget nicht! (Gärtner); Adressatin verstorben (Stark); Die Blinde (Stark); Der Eindringling (Stark); Das gefährliche Alter (Stark); Die Magd (Stark); Ein Schwere Opfer (Stark); Zwei Frauen (Stark); Zu spät (Froelich)

1912

Die Rache ist mein ; Des Pfarrers Töchterlein (Biebrach); Richard Wagner (Froelich); Feenhände (Stark); Gefangene Seelen (Stark); Der Kuss des Fürsten (Stark); Die Nacht des Grauens (Stark); Schatten des Meeres (Stark)

1913

Ungarische Rhapsodie (Hungarian Rhapsody) (Biebrach); Eva (Stark); Gräfin Küchenfee (Biebrach); Die grosse Sünderin (Biebrach); Heroismus einer Französin (Biebrach); Schuldig (Oberländer); Um Haaresbreite (Biebrach); Das Tal des Lebens (Biebrach)

1914

Abseits vom Glück (Biebrach); Alexandra (Biebrach); Das Ende vom Lied (Biebrach); Nordlandrose (Biebrach); Tirol in Waffen (Biebrach and Froelich)

1915

Frau Eva (Arme Eva) (Wiene); Auf der Alm da gibt's ka Sünd (Biebrach); Claudi vom Geisterhof (Biebrach); Der Schirm mit dem Schwan (Froelich); Ein Euberfall in Feindesland (Biebrach)

1916

Die Ehe der Luise Rohrbach (Biebrach); Der Liebesbrief der Königin (Wiene); Der Mann im Spiegel (Wiene); Problematische Naturen (Oberländer); Der Sekretär der Königin (Wiene); Das Wandernde Licht (Wiene)

1917

Die Dame, der Teufel, und die Probiermamsell (Biebrach); Die Faust des Riesen (Biebrach); Die Kunst zu heiraten (Larsen)

1918

Die blaue Laterne (Biebrach); Maskenfest der Liebe (Biebrach); Odyssseus' Heimkehr (Biebrach); Der Mann mit den sieben Masken (Larsen)

1919

Die rollende Kugel (Biebrach)

1920

Anna Boleyn (Deception) (Lubitsch); Die goldene Krone (Halm); Die Tarantel (Biebrach)

1921

Der Stier von Olivera (Buchowetzki)

1923

Tatjana (Dineson)

1924

Gehetzte Menschen (Schönfelder)

Publications

By MESSTER: book—


Mein Weg mit dem Film, Berlin, 1936.

On MESSTER: book—

Narath, Albert, Oskar Messter, Berlin, 1966.

On MESSTER: article—

Narath, Albert, in Journal of the SMPTE (New York), October 1960.

Baer, Volker, "Ein Mann der ersten Stunde," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 20 December 1994.

Kintop, no. 3, 1994.

Horak, Jan-Christopher, "100 Jahre Kino-Oskar Messter: Filmpionier der Kaiserzeit KINtop Schriften 2," in Historical Journal of Radio and Television, October 1995.


* * *

Remembered today both as the inventor of the Maltese Cross (a small device still in use which allows film to move intermittently through a projector) and as the pioneering patriarch of German cinema, Oskar Messter exerted more influence on the early German film industry than any other individual before the First World War. Although the hundreds of films he produced, directed, scripted, shot, cast, and exhibited had little artistic impact on either his contemporaries or Expressionist successors, Messter's constant attempts at innovation and experimentation in film manufacture, production, and exhibition refined the medium itself and enabled Germany to develop a full-fledged film industry and studio system.

From the earliest days in his father's optical plant and throughout his career, Messter demonstrated a fascination and keen facility for the technical processes of motion pictures. His constant invention, refinement, and subsequent marketing of new projection systems, film stocks, movie cameras, and processors laid the foundation for the German film equipment industry, and made both film production and exhibition more practical.

Not content merely to design and manufacture motion picture apparatus, Messter began to produce and show his own short films almost as quickly as the technology was available to him. The earliest Messter films varied greatly in content, but a typical program consisted of a series of short actualities, sports footage, street scenes, comic sketches, cabaret acts, and an occasional squib of animation. The quality of these turn-of-the-century works was primitive, though apparently an improvement on the technically crude, often pornographic, German films being exhibited at tent shows and nickelodeons. By building his own studio (the first in Germany) and becoming the first filmmaker ever to use artificial lighting, Messter was able to produce a remarkable number and variety of films while the medium itself was still in its infancy. His actuality and documentary pictures were demanded internationally and eventually were consolidated into a newsreel program, Messter-Week, that continued in production for many years (although government interests were so closely served that often staged propaganda pieces replaced authentic footage). In the area of entertainment films, Messter tended to produce rather wooden costume dramas and static adaptations of literary, theatrical, and historical works. Many of Germany's leading stage talents appeared in these productions at some point, but under Messter none reached the artistic levels they realized in the employ of his rival company, Paul Davidson's Projection-A.G. Union. Messter's dramas, comedies, thrillers, and serials were popular in their day, but none matched the achievement of Davidson's productions with Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, and other talents who would rise to international fame in the 1920s.

But, although his films never developed a memorable style or artistic power, Messter's efforts in the film world remained noteworthy and popular because of his penchant for innovation and experimentation. Often his technical experiments yielded film techniques that benefited the scientific community, if not the movie-going public. His demonstrations of slow motion, microscopic, and time lapse photography, for example, offered the world new ways of seeing, while they also were applied to the production of diverting little "trick films." Later in his career, Messter was called upon to make much more serious use of his film skills as he developed a number of technical military applications for the motion picture in the service of the German armed services. (Messter's allegiance to the fatherland continued into the Nazi period—his ideological association no doubt accounts for his being left behind by Germany's artistic avant garde, most of whom disassociated themselves from the government during both World Wars.)

Other technical innovations by Messter led to more popular successes in his film production. Most notably, his attempts to design a reliable sound system for motion pictures created interest in his company's work and spurred on sound experimenters abroad. Using his crudely synchronized "biophon" system, Messter produced operettas, short films starring music-hall performers, and dramatic pieces. By 1904 (after his popular demonstration of English language talkies at the St. Louis World's Fair), his company offered 120 sound films, and by 1913, some 500 theaters were equipped with Biophon. The system ultimately proved inadequate, but Messter's films whetted the public's appetite for sound. His later experiments with sound-on-disc talkies proved less innovative and became obsolete with the invention of sound-on-film systems. Other Messter experiments also sought color and three-dimensional processes film. But patents were not forthcoming, and such color and dimensional films as he was able to produce remained nothing more than minor novelties.

However, not all of Messter's contributions to the film industry were purely technical. Just as he was among the earliest producers of newsreels, scientific films, and sound films, Messter also began producing longer narratives and eventually feature-length movies before such became standard fare for the film industry. Even more importantly, Messter the studio executive realized the value of the movie star as early as anyone in the industry. With the debut of his film The Love of the Blind Girl, the unknown "Messter Girl" in the title role became enormously popular among moviegoers. Messter recognized the mass appeal that the girl, Henny Porten, possessed and so presented her name and face to the public with a large publicity campaign. Because Henny Porten rose to fame at the same time as Denmark's Asta Nielsen and America's Florence Lawrence, Messter must be given credit for helping to invent the star system as we know it today.

Finally, other attempts by Messter to utilize film—such as his circa 1897 home sales catalogue of movies and equipment, and his production of "conductor films" (photographing noted maestros so that orchestras could later be led by a filmed baton)—which stand today as mere cinematic curios, added to the overall strength of the pioneering producer's work. Certainly no single film from his multitude of productions stands out for its historic or artistic achievement, and in fact most Messter films, even though they represent the best of the early German cinema, pale in comparison to the lively works of other primitive era filmmakers such as Lumière, Méliès, Edison, or Porter. But the cumulative effect of Messter's films was to create and enliven both a film audience and a filmmaking community in Germany, while the contribution of technical achievement was to help refine the medium itself.

—Dan Streible

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