By Susanne Gottlieb
The first woman to ever direct a movie was Alice Guy-Blaché. Then came Louise Kolm-Fleck. But there is a significant difference between the two. One has made her mark in the history books, is considered a milestone, and does ring a bell for even those not too familiar with female film history. The other one vanished into obscurity. One might argue, if she was “only” the second, maybe that’s why we don’t talk about her anymore? But then again, speaking of first and seconds, on an unrelated topic, we do not only remember Neil Armstrong. Most of us also know who Buzz Aldrin is.
So why is Kolm-Fleck so absent from modern scholarship? After all, she was not only the second woman ever to shout “Action” behind a camera, she and her husband Jakob Fleck also pioneered early social critical dramas with the examination of society from a female perspective/gaze in a male environment. The answer is broadly based and sadly rooted in the dramatic turns of early 20th-century history. As her biographer Uli Jürgens stated in her book “Louise, Licht und Schatten”, Kolm-Fleck was subject to the common ups and downs of a classic Austrian Film history between 1908 and 1945. She witnessed the rise of the silent film, participated in the golden age of the 1920s, the slow transition to sound film but then had to flee the Nazis.
Like many Austrian artists who faced expulsion or persecution due to their art, political beliefs, or religion, she and Jakob never found their footing in the industry again. Neither in exile nor once she returned to Austria after the war. What adds to the matter is that from 150 films she produced, directed and edited, most is lost. What remains are 37 fragments and even those are only from her later days. That is a shame, given what those films that are preserved offer. Louise and her husband did not only shoot movies from a female point of view. They addressed topics that even by modern standards are still controversial. Rape, abortion, impotence – while still often interwoven with the morals of their time, their take is timeless and can be understood by audiences even 100 years later.
“Kolm-Fleck was subject to the common ups and downs of a classic Austrian Film history between 1908 and 1945. She witnessed the rise of the silent film, participated in the golden age of the 1920s, the slow transition to sound film but then had to flee the Nazis.”
So who was Louise Kolm-Fleck? One could say that Louise and the world of film have been intertwined since her birth. Born in 1873 as Aloisia Veltée, she was the daughter of Louis Veltée, a showman from Lyon who had settled in Vienna to open Vienna’s “Stadtpanoptikum” at the prestigious Kohlmarkt in the inner city. The Stadtpanoptikum did not only exhibit wax figures for the curious visitors, but also an early cinematograph. Louise, who was working as a cashier at her father’s establishment, was, therefore, introduced at an early age to the magic of moving pictures.
This love would later transpire to her work with first husband Anton Kolm, whom she married in 1893, and her then colleague Jakob Fleck. In 1906, they started shooting short daily scenes on video. Due to a lack of financial support, it was mostly static urban life in and around Vienna. Horse races, swimming afternoons, and other events. It was not until 1910 that they would form their first production company “Erste Österreichische Kinofilm-Industrie”, later changed to “Österreichisch-Ungarische Filmindustrie Gesmbh”. It was the first Austrian film production company of its kind, making Louise a first of a kind yet again.
While Anton Kolm was responsible for the financial aspect, Louise took over the creative part with Jakob Fleck and her brother Claudius Veltée. While both brought their ideas into the mix, it is important to note that it was Louise who was the dominant voice in the creative process. In a way, the first Austrian film production company was a female vision. Even though Louise had co-directed many films in the years before, the movie “Die Glückspuppe” (The Lucky Doll) from 1911 was the first production in which she was explicitly mentioned as director and writer.
The following years read like a typical early moving pictures career template. Several renaming and reestablishing of the film studio, moving around the city and shooting patriotic dramas during the First World War. When Anton Kolm died in 1922, Louise married her longtime collaborator Jakob. In 1923 they left Austria and went to Berlin. There, they shot close to 40 silent films between 1923 and 1933. The studio they worked with – another feminist touch. It was run by producer Liddy Hegewald. These were their personal golden years as they continued to create feminist social dramas until the studio went bankrupt in 1931.
“She was not only the second woman ever to shout “Action” behind a camera, she and her husband Jakob Fleck also pioneered early social critical dramas with the examination of society from a female perspective/gaze in a male environment.”
Amongst them are fascinating recoveries such as “Frauenarzt Dr. Schäfer” (Gynecologist Doctor Schäfer) from 1928 and “Mädchen am Kreuz” (Girl at the Cross) and “Das Recht auf Liebe” (The Right to Love) from 1929. All spearheaded by actress Evelyn Holt, they centre around female experiences and poked at moral questions that even our present-day society is still struggling with.
In “Frauenarzt Dr. Schäfer”, we see a young doctor fighting for women’s right to an abortion while his older colleagues dismiss changing the law. While his greatest competitor and abortion opponent Dr. Hausner is trying to find a way to put an end to Schäfers mission, the gynaecologist sets out to find the botcher who mismanaged a young girl’s abortion, causing her to die. Holt plays Schäfers girlfriend, who gets raped by the botcher, a well-respected doctor himself, and becomes pregnant. Being also the daughter of Dr. Hausner, one might think the old man would reconsider his stance. But this was the early 20th century. Her situation is “resolved” by Schäfer still being willing to marry her, child-bearing or not.
Written and filmed in a time when marriage served two purposes for women, being financially taken care of and having children, the ending shouldn’t surprise. The woman is settled, the trauma and an unwanted child take second place. Even though the Kolm-Flecks addressed the issue of women’s choice, the ruling over their body by men and the danger of unprofessional abortions, the movie ultimately still had to meet a certain satisfactory tone. But it is not the only one of the three with a great analysis of a discriminating status quo and a meagre resolution.
In “Das Recht auf Liebe“ a young naive woman, played by Holt, marries an impotent man, Erwin Voß, agreeing to his terms that they can only ever be companions, not physical lovers. The young woman, also called Evelyn, soon, however, grows bored with her luxurious but passionless life. She envies her friend’s relationship and starts growing cold towards her husband, whom she has more of a father-daughter relationship with than a marriage. During a socializing event, she meets Ingenieur von Berndorf and sparks fly. Their budding relationship naturally causes controversy. When a desperate Voß confronts him, he exclaims “You ruined my marriage”. The Ingenieur responds he never had the right to marriage.
This seems harsh. What is memorable about the movie is that it includes the ideology of Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of modern sexology, who in the lost footage of the movie even gives a speech about erotic needs and that women shouldn’t enter a marriage naively. At the same time, however, the presentation of the dilemma leaves a sour taste when Voß sits on the bed at the end of the movie mumbling that he has the right to work but not the right to love. Is that the moral of the story? People incapable of erotic love deserving nothing in life? A variant on “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”? A glimpse of a time when an outcry for sexuality had to crush those not capable of it.
A still dramatic but way more poignant resolution was reached in “Mädchen am Kreuz”. Addressing the topic of rape, Evelyn Holt played a young woman named Mary who is in a happy relationship with her boyfriend Hans. When local good-for-nothing Karl spots her one day, he vows to himself “I need to have her”. Thus Mary’s fate is doomed. He first starts discreetly stalking her, then confronting her in the street, and even takes up a gardening job for her father. This is where the crime happens. He rapes Mary in the shed. Kolm-Fleck was very upfront about the scene. She didn’t show the act itself, but Mary’s face as Karl thrusts himself on top of her and the despair as she quietly sneaks out of the shed.
“A still dramatic but way more poignant resolution was reached in “Mädchen am Kreuz”. Addressing the topic of rape…Compared to modern-day, taking notice of a woman’s account of a sexual crime is still something the status quo is struggling with.”
What comes after is a soft reminder of recent “Believe Women” and #metoo demands. As Karl now claims Mary as his property he comes into conflict with Hans, who has proposed to her. Hans as so often happens with men even to this day, chooses to believe Karl and that Mary is two-timing him instead of asking for her version for the story. When Mary tries to kill herself, he quickly changes his tune. But it is too late. “You did wrong by me“, she tells him with her last breath, “If you would have listened to me I wouldn’t be suffering now”. “Mädchen am Kreuz” is not edited in a way that is obliging to historical sensitivities nor does it insert a contrived happy ending. Compared to modern-day, taking notice of a woman’s account of a sexual crime is still something the status quo is struggling with. Many things have changed over the last 100 years. Some, unfortunately, haven’t.
Being so ahead of her time would have laid the groundwork for a promising career in the years to come. But as Jakob Fleck was Jewish, he and Louise had to leave Germany after the Nazis rose to power. They returned to Austria and became part of the emigrant film industry in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, a circle of Jewish film industry members that were officially no longer funded or screened in Germany and later in Austria. They directed “Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld” (The Priest of Kirchfeld) in 1937 which turned out to be their last movie in Europe.
With the annexation of Austria, Jakob was arrested and taken first to Dachau and then Buchenwald. Louise got him out through connections and together they fled to Shanghai. There they made one last movie 1941, “Kinder der Welt” (Children of the World), together with Chinese director Mu Fei. But symbolic for their life to come, the movie was ill-fated. While it was very popular at first and ran for a few weeks, it was banned from cinemas once the Japanese occupied Shanghai in December 1941. They never made a movie again. In 1947, the Kolm-Flecks returned to Austria but never could pick up on their pre-war success.
Louise died in 1950 in her late 70s, Jakob followed three years later. Her legacy is a splintered puzzle. Fragments, documents, recounts of her children, and grandchildren. But what little remains, is the testament of an extraordinary woman who put her finger on the pulse of societal and feminist issues, long before our modern-day age made them mainstream.