The legacy of the Yugoslav film pioneer rekindled by his daughter in Prince George
A Way to the Heart executive producer Nada Newell draws inspiration from her father’s early 20th-century success in the silent movie era
While on vacation in Zagreb, Croatia several years ago, Prince George resident Nada Newell opened the pages of a newspaper and was shocked to see her father’s work at the start of the 20e Filmmaker of the Century was featured that week in an exhibit at a local art gallery.
Very little was known at the time about Franjo Ledic, the man who in 1925 brought Hollywood to the former Yugoslavia when he opened the country’s first film studio, and Newell was able to fill in the missing pieces of the film. remarkable life of his father, a life which would later inspire his own involvement in the world of cinema.
She phoned the newspaper which put her in touch with Daniel Rafaelic, a Zagreb-based film historian and Egyptologist who produced the Ledic exhibition. For Rafaelic, meeting Franjo Ledic’s daughter was like finding a Rosetta Stone to unravel the mysteries of his past.
Ledic, the first self-declared Yugoslav director, was one of the pioneers of German Expressionism, an avant-garde artistic movement that gained ground in the post-war period in the early 1920s. emotion and abstract ideas, Expressionism touched social, cultural and political themes and offered an audience still reeling from World War I an escape into mysticism and the subconscious, with elements of poverty and poverty. destitution, which motivated creative artists like Ledic.
Ledic’s second feature film Angelo, The Dragontown Mystery, proved hugely popular. The key to its success was that there was no language barrier. Because it was a silent film with only one music track, the title cards were easily transcribed into other languages on title cards and it was distributed throughout Germany, the United States, France. , the Czech Republic, Italy and Yugoslavia.
“He lived like a king in Berlin; he was doing really well and he was well known, ”said Newell. “The only reason he didn’t stay in Germany was the unfolding war.”
Last June, Nada and her husband Tom took the opportunity to get involved as executive producers in a film project set in Prince George – the Baker Street Cinema romantic comedy A Way To The Heart, produced by Norm Coyne . They both had minor onscreen roles, and Tom’s 1926 high-society Cadillac Model 314 Opera Coupe features prominently in the film. For Nada, a resident of Prince George since 1965, the film project gave her a better appreciation of the art form her father created over a century ago.
“I enjoyed it, I was so happy to be there, that was what my dad was doing and I can understand why he liked it,” Nada said. “He would be very happy, very proud, because that was his life.”
Ledic’s father wanted him to be a barber, but when he was eight he first saw a movie in a circus tent in Derventa, Yugoslavia and knew this was the career path he wanted to continue. In 1912, at age 19, he moved to Berlin to work with film and news director Oskar Messter. Originally hired as an extra, Ledic has shown his artistic side as a makeup artist, set designer, prop producer and cameraman and his ability to handle any task has earned him the respect of employers. After working with Ernst Lubitsch and silent film star Pola Negri, Ledic started making short films and this led to his first big success in 1919, the historical drama, Cornelie Aredt.
Angelo earned Ledic a fortune and brought him worldwide fame, but his exit came at a time when Germany was in economic difficulty after the war, and with the death of the German film industry, he and his partners. theaters have received offers to relocate to the United States. Lubitsch and Negri sensed the impending collapse of the German economy in 1923 and both pursued lucrative careers in Hollywood, but Ledic instead chose to move to Italy, a decision he later regretted.
Angelo has only 35 seconds left, kept as a short clip in a museum in Belgrade. That’s all that’s left of the film reels that made up the 90-minute mystery feature film seen by the general public in cinemas across the Western world. Fortunately, the novel Ledic wrote that formed the basis of the film Angelo, the last known extant copy of a 50,000-copy bestseller, has been kept in the basement vault of a Berlin library that has survived the bombardment that destroyed much of the city in WWII. The book was written in German and in 2007 Rafaelic had the opportunity to read and copy the book while doing his research on Ledic during a two week visit to the city.
“To Daniel, this book was like a gold mine and he’s still digging – he’s my angel,” Newell said. “He’s hoping we’ll find this movie somewhere. A copy is going to show up somewhere and people won’t know what they have.
Rafaelic uncovered hundreds of documents that confirmed Ledic’s previously unfounded boasting of working in Berlin and learning his craft in a large studio working with leading producers and directors of the silent movie era.
“I have to say that I was quite surprised when I realized the immense data that I got from the archives and the things that they did that are kept in Germany, and when I told Nada that she couldn’t believe it, ”Rafaelic said.
“We all knew his movie, Angelo, but we didn’t know the plot of the movie. The National Library presented me with this wonderful little book and then we did everything we needed to understand the missing content of the missing movie.
Angelo takes place in a huge castle, and its twists and turns involve knights, sleepwalking characters, hidden treasure, and mysterious psychic phenomena. It premiered in Berlin in February 1920 and received critical acclaim in newspapers which featured in crowded theaters around the world. But Ledic couldn’t replicate Angelo’s success. He moved to Italy and directed several short films there. After two years, he returned to Yugoslavia and invested all his fortune to build his ill-fated studio, Ocean Film Palace, in central Zagreb.
“He wanted to have Hollywood in Yugoslavia – he was a dreamer,” Newell said. “He brought a lot of money from Germany and he put it all into it.”
One of the features of the studio was a room with a glass ceiling to let in natural light built to film love scenes. “He knew people would feel uncomfortable because at that time you weren’t kissing in public, especially not in the movies,” Newell said. “Very few people were allowed in, so they could do these scenes.”
Unfortunately, the only movie Ledic made at Ocean Film – Gypsy Blood: The Balkan Benefactor – was a flop, and the local bank that promised to support him financially didn’t want anything to do with the studio. From 1926 to 1941, without any financial support to make more films, he made news until the start of the war.
Seeing his country taken over by Nazi Germany, Ledic fled Zagreb with his family and rented a farm near a small town, his poor eyesight being cited as the reason he was not forced to become a soldier. Ledic made documentaries on Yugoslavia before the war, but refused to use his creative talents for propaganda purposes, which ended his career as a director.
After writing a how-to guide for aspiring actors at the height of his film career, Ledic resumed his writing career while living on the farm and worked for a book publisher selling books to school libraries. He was the author of several children’s books and in 1971 he wrote a history of Slavic mythology which was translated into several Slavic languages and which is still used as a definitive source of reference.
Ledic owned the studio until 1945, when Communist leader Tito took over the Yugoslav presidency and banned private ownership. After the war Ledic returned to Zagreb and offered his services as a filmmaker to the government but was blacklisted, fired as a German sympathizer due to his past working in Berlin, and no one wanted to hire him.
“As a kid, I didn’t know enough (about his film history) because he didn’t talk about it,” Newell said. “It hurt him I’m sure, so he just buried it.”
Newell saw his father’s workshop while the building was still standing, but it was not kept as a museum, as the mayor of Zagreb had initially promised him. It has been left in ruins and only the outer foundations remain.
Only nine minutes left of the feature film Gyspy Blood. All of his Yugoslav news items were kept, but the short films he made in Italy and Germany were lost. He returned to his apartment in Zagreb after the war and was horrified to see neighborhood children playing with the highly flammable nitrate films he had left behind. Ledic worked in a leather factory for several years and continued as a writer until his health deteriorated. He died in 1981.
“I’m proud that I managed to change the perception of Franjo because when I was studying film history in college, the general ideal was that he was some kind of semi-false, self-righteous idiot. invented who lied about his great career, ”said Rafaelic, who is about to complete a book on Ledic. “Many of my predecessors had no evidence that would support the thesis that he was not only something big but very interesting and real. So when I researched Berlin and made this exhibit that Nada read about in the newspaper it really changed the perception.
Ledic was almost 50 years old when Nada was born and when she moved to Canada in 1964 he gave her some of the documents and other memorabilia from her film work. She recognized the historical significance and said he should donate the material to a museum instead, but he told her no one wanted them. He eventually sold some of his documentaries to Kinotekka Belgrade, a museum that stores films from the former Yugoslavia. The museum produced an 84-minute filmed interview with Ledic on his life. Nada was also interviewed to preserve her memories of her father and gave the museum some of the memorabilia he gave her.
“He was very strong and he had his beliefs, and no one could change him,” Newell said. “His philosophy was, on earth we are all brothers and sisters and that’s what he taught me when I was little and I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
“He said, ‘Nada, never hate anyone. We can speak different languages and come from different regions or have different colors, but we are all brothers and sisters and the world is one country.