Colin Ross as a filmmaker

By his own admission, Colin Ross got into filmmaking out of economic necessity. Already a well-respected travel writer and lecturer in 1922, Ross secured the financing for a reporting trip to the East of Central Asia by selling German film company Deulig the idea of a travel film covering the journey. As with all later film projects, Ross was not accompanied by a professional crew. After some instruction from Deulig, the trained engineer cranked the camera himself. On the next trip, to the USA and East Asia in 1923-24, Ross had a contract with high-profile film producer Robert Neumann, and a co-cameraperson in his wife Lisa Ross, who filmed him in faraway locations.

These shots, especially, contributed to the breakthrough success of the 1925 travelogue Mit dem Kurbelkasten um die Erde (With the film camera around the world) and the emergence of Ross–with his bald head, scout hat and suit–as a recognizable figure of popular culture in 1920s Austria and Germany. The film ran successfully in commercial distribution–a rarity for a feature-length nonfiction film at the time–, and was widely distributed in Europe both with live lectures (by Ross himself or proxy speakers) and without. It also marked the beginning of Ross’s collaboration with Germany’s foremost film company Ufa. They distributed Kurbelkasten and would go on to (co-)produce the Africa travelogues Die erwachende Sphinx (The awakening sphinx, 1927), Als Dreijähriger durch Afrika (Through Africa at age three, 1928) and Achtung Australien! Achtung Asien! Das Doppelgesicht des Ostens (Attention Australia! Attention Asia! The double face of the east, 1930). Compared to Ross’s articles, books and especially lectures, his films did not make much of a profit for him. But film deals remained an important source for getting journeys financed in the first place, and the finished films provided important advertising for Ross’s lecturing and writing: four of his travel books share their titles with corresponding films.

A proud autodidact and self-declared “dilettante” in many respects, Ross mostly proved an adept camera operator and technician while on the road. (Ross’s input in editing and post-production is unclear, but seems to have been limited.) The occasionally unvarnished look of his shots was sometimes criticized as amateurish, but also received favorably by reviewers who were tired of the sameness of picturesque views in run-of-the-mill travelogues. Serious technical problems caught up with Colin Ross on his last film journey, as malfunctioning cameras made footage shot in the USA in 1938/39 practically unusable (see: Colin Ross's American film materials). This journey was further complicated by the beginning of World War II during the Rosses’ sojourn in Siam. The resulting film, Das neue Asien (The new Asia, 1940), Ross’s last, bears witness to these events mostly via suspicious absences. Not only is the planned inclusion of the USA scrapped; more than a third of the footage in this filmic paean to Nazi Germany’s Axis partner Japan was obviously not shot by the Rosses but compiled from other sources.

Joachim Schätz

Caricature of Colin Ross, in: K. Gl. Mit dem Kurbelkasten um die Erde. Berliner Morgenpost. Nr. 4. 1925 Jan 4.

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