Shooting trouble

The film footage that the Ross family shot during their 1938-1939 American journey was never released nor was it organized in coherent sections. It seems that the negatives were developed the way they had come out of the cameras and then indiscriminately spliced on reels. And things were largely left at that.

When Ross arrived in the United States, in October 1938, his plan was to film both there and in East Asia, to which he and his family would sail from San Francisco on March 17, 1939, after completing this American journey. However, in December 1938 Ross wrote to production company Tobis that the footage he and his wife and son had been shooting along the way was unsatisfactory. Despite assurances by the manufacturer that their cameras were in perfect order, there seemed to have been a failure in their transport mechanism, as many shots looked undercranked. After expensive repairs in the US Ross hoped the problem was solved. But subsequent material that he sent to Tobis in early 1939 showed that it was not. Of this Tobis notified Ross in March, shortly after his arrival in Japan, and once again in April. But it was only two weeks before the referenced memo that Tobis finally received a second letter from Ross, dated May 21. In it he complained about not being warned earlier about this matter.

This internal memo, by Tobis Filmkunst line producer Wilhelm Stöppler to [producer Franz] Vogel, seems first of all intended to note for the record that any unsatisfactory material that had been shot in the spring of 1939 must be blamed on Ross, as he had failed to contact the company between December 3, 1938 and May 21, 1939.  Secondly, it established to what extent Askania-Werke, the cameras’ manufacturer, might be liable for damages.

Stöppler, who probably was responsible for getting Ross’s material ready for release, will have had a hard time of it. The American footage being unusable, the new film, titled Das neue Asien (1940), focused of necessity on east Asia entirely. But its uncharacteristic amount of footage compiled from other sources indicate that there had been more problems. Whether or not Ross may have continued to work with one or more faulty cameras in Asia, after the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, he also found himself trapped: surrounded by the Allied countries’ Asian colonies he was unable to move around much, let alone board a ship. After a three-month wait in Bangkok he and his family finally managed to stealthily sail to Japan and from there to the Soviet Union. They only returned to Berlin in February 1940, half a year behind schedule and, probably, carrying less footage than they had shot. 

The 13 American reels have been preserved and digitized by its current custodian, the Österreichisches Filmmuseum, in cooperation with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Most of the scenes marred by uneven speeds have been digitally adapted to make the materials accessible in a more user-friendly way.

Nico de Klerk

Bundesarchiv, Berlin-Lichterfelde. Schriftwechsel betreffs Produktion 1937-1944. Nr R109-I-5061: 68-69. Memo from Wilhelm Stöppler to [Franz] Vogel, Betrifft: Colin Ross-Film;  1939 June 8.

Topic: Propaganda
Case: American journeys

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