Earliest Czech films in digital space
So far, the history of the “first” Czech films made by Jan Kříženecký between 1898–1911 has been shaped by the struggle for their visibility, graspability, and classifiability. Not only are some of Kříženecký’s films incomplete, damaged, or even lost, but the works seen as “complete” cannot be considered as films as we know them today. The aim of these short, fragmentary images of ceremonial and everyday moments was not to provide a comprehensive picture of a phenomenon, but to grasp it and make it perceptible despite the limited technical possibilities of the time.
Used by Kříženecký in shooting, developing, and screening his films, the original nature of the Lumière brothers’ early film technology is involved in the visual figuration much more markedly than we are used to – in some cases, the films are nearly experimental. As such, the main purpose of releasing the pioneering films digitalized from the original Lumièresque nitrous materials (copies and original negatives) is to return to films as distinctive archive artefacts with inherent questioning of the form, meaning, and effect involved in their changeable material qualities and circulation through several eras and contexts.
It is not a coincidence that Kříženecký introduced his first films in the context of the exhibition bustle of the 1890s, in an era obsessed with technical inventions, industrial successes and entertainment potential of new media and apparatuses. At the Prague 1898 Architecture and Engineering Exhibition, he opened the Czech Cinematographer pavilion together with his colleague from the building authority Josef František Pokorný, screening films or “animated photographs”. Hardly anyone perceived these films as distinctive works (let alone works of art). They were screened as part of longer blocks, often without noticeable transitions, serving as one of the many exhibition attractions. Given the limited length of the film strip (only 17 m), the films could only be several tens of seconds long and their length and the patterns of movement of characters and their environment depended on how fast the projectionist was cranking. Moreover, the recognition of lived reality on the screen was hindered by several “slips” of the analogous image, such as flashing, shaking, or blurring. It was thanks to this as well that the films were seen as an attraction creating wonder while provoking with their ambiguity.
The films screened at the Architecture and Engineering Exhibition mostly documented official and everyday events in Prague, their form and topics markedly resembling their model – films by the Lumière brothers (city bustle, gymnastic exercises, festival, cannon firing, firemen’s alarm, and even train arrival). Unfolding before the spectators, the images were both moving and static, flat and three-dimensional, realistic and illusory. The indecision between the constantly fleeing action in the image and the limiting static frame can be seen for instance in Cyclists (Cyklisté, 1898). Passing the camera, the racers gradually disappear over the horizon, making it clear that what we see is only a carefully made cut-out of reality. Another ambivalence is revealed by Midsummer Pilgrimage in a Czechoslavic Village (Svatojanská pouť v českoslovanské vesnici, 1898) screened on the very day of the pavilion opening. The image of a traditional religious ceremony is divided into several plans both on the horizontal and vertical levels. Fighting for our attention, there are passing visitors, exercising gymnasts, dancing couples, and a revolving merry-go-round in the background. These elements seemingly don’t react to each other, but together, they create perfect rhythmical harmony. The third paradox is probably most obvious in Žofín Swimming Bath (Žofínská plovárna, 1898), one of the films released later and allegedly screened backwards. The shot captures an ordinary scene of swimmers jumping in the water, but the image was manipulated in a way that it looks like they are jumping out of the water.
Another popular curiosity were the “live action” scenes staged by Josef Šváb-Malostranský. But what was a live action film in the context of the cinema of the time? An Assignation in the Mill (Dostaveníčko ve mlýnici, 1898) and The Exhibition Sausage Seller and the Bill-poster (Výstavní párkař a lepič plakátů, 1898) are humorous scenes with a simple “plot”, with any arranged scheme lost in the chaotic turmoil of all present. Again, what seems much more prominent than the story and characters presented is the bustle of life delimited and shaped by the cinematograph. Similarly, Laughter and Tears (Smích a pláč, 1898), a study of the mimics of human face through a close-up of Šváb-Malostranský, presents a staged scene unknowingly revealing not just the little, otherwise hardly noticeable facial expressions, but also traces of living and nonliving matter gradually clinging to the film skin. The more obvious staged nature of the films doesn’t prevent them from capturing “reality” – quite the contrary.
In the films made in 1898, there is also a motif Kříženecký elaborated on in his later work: the patriotic and gymnastics association Sokol. Sokol exercises were good film material not just because of their popularity with the Czech public, but also for the elaborated, absolutely accurate rhythm of exercising bodies which was perfectly in line with the film obsession with mechanic movements. Already the newsreels Exercises with Indian Clubs by the Sokol of Malá Strana (Cvičení s kužely sokolů malostranských, 1898) and Vaulting of the Prague Sokol Equestrian Section (Voltýžování jízdního odboru Sokola pražského, 1898) show the unusual effects produced by the confrontation of mechanical repetition of individual and group gestures with the unstoppable movement of film frames. Kříženecký later used this motif on a larger scale in his monumental reportages from Sokol rallies – Fourth All-Sokol Rally in Prague (Čtvrtý všesokolský slet, 1901, not preserved), Fifth All-Sokol Rally in Prague (Pátý všesokolský slet v Praze, 1907) and Sokol Rally in Prostějov (Slet sokolstva v Prostějově, 1908). In both compilations preserved, we witness monumental parades of synchronized group movement, sometimes even creating majestic live pictures that astonish with their precision but can be upsetting as well, when we think about the later misuse of mass ornaments by the totalitarian regime.
Kříženecký’s later films are generally rather overshadowed by those presented at the Architecture and Engineering Exhibition, the reason probably being that they weren’t all-time firsts, were not so innovative or reflected the rather haphazard and random nature of Kříženecký’s filmmaking activities of the time. In addition to the above mentioned Sokol rallies, it’s again mainly newsreel films taking place in Prague, but rather than capturing one-time moments, they turn into more complex (albeit still relatively episodical) reportages about important social events (e.g., those related to the 1908 Anniversary Exhibition of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce, where Kříženecký made an unsuccessful attempt to pick up on the Czech Cinematographer). However, as archive and aesthetic artefacts, these later works are just as valuable as those from 1898. Even though the formal and technological changes to the canonical works can seem relatively subtle, they should not be underestimated in terms of film history. Thanks to continuous improvements of the original model of the Lumièresque cinematograph, Kříženecký could make longer shots, make better and more efficient movements with the camera, and contain much more of the reality in front of the camera. The advantages of such improvements can be seen for instance in the reportage The First Day of the Spring Races of Prague (První den jarních dostihů pražských, 1908), where the upgraded camera is not only used for panoramic shots of the racing thrill in the stands, but also for telling various micro-stories (such as the one about a little girl who wants her picture taken at all costs). At the same time, his late films bring even more possibilities for technological “defects” to influence the meaning and message of moving pictures. A prime example is Opening Ceremony of the Čech Bridge (Slavnost otevření nového Čechova mostu, 1908), in which the image of white-collar magnates walking over the bridge shakes more and more with them approaching the camera when for a brief moment, they turn into a mass of black phantoms. The threat of distance disappearing between the spectator and the film is made present not only through the composition selected, but mainly through the aptly unstable apparatus.
Jan Kříženecký’s last newsreel was František Palacký Monument Prior to Its Completion (Pomník Františka Palackého před dokončením, 1911), offering close-ups and shots from different angles of the new sculpture of the Czech historian. In a way, the culmination of Kříženecký’s creative path with this film is symbolic. Thirteen years before that, during the Architecture and Engineering Exhibition and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Palacký’s birth, he had made Foundation Ceremony of the František Palacký Monument (Slavnost zakládání pomníku Františka Palackého, 1898) at a time when neither the location nor the author of the monument were certain. When the work of art was officially unveiled in summer 1912, Kříženecký made his Ceremonial Unveiling of the František Palacký Monument on 01 July 1912 (Slavnost odhalení pomníku 1. července 1912), which – in addition to shots of the inauguration – also contains a slightly modified version of Kříženecký’s original film. Together, these fragments represent a time-lapse documentary of sorts, highlighting the remarkable ability of film to preserve history – incomplete, but perpetually repeating.
After the release of the special DVD/Blu-ray collection Jan Kříženecký’s Films at the end of 2019, the first Czech films are now officially entering the online space. Thanks to a non-intrusive digitalization approach without retouching, the films are now paradoxically so far the closest to its original material form, especially in a situation where the original nitrous materials cannot be screened as they have only one round perforation. However, it is all the more obvious that the films have never been understandable, identifiable, and coherent. Even though all the films have been scanned in 4k resolution, it is not always clear what is going on in the images. Be it through traces of ageing and wear and tear of the film material, or through the original features of the technology by the Lumière brothers – the films are changed in such a way that we can’t quite imagine them without the material deformations. Nevertheless, digital technologies can help us much more accurately locate and understand specific manifestations of physical deformations – from horizontal and vertical shaking of the camera over static discharges to yellow-orange colouration of unknown origin on nitrous copies – and how they influence what elements of the image we perceive as visible, what image components can or should be uncovered and, by contrast, what components are hidden forever.
At the same time, we must keep in mind that films change and will change in the digital world. During their “second lives”, Kříženecký’s films have rather been an echo, randomly appearing in memorial screenings, compiled documentaries, edited TV shows and, only very partially, online. Now they are finally approaching the form of independent artefacts, properly identified and provided with text and audio-visual context. However, the entry of artefacts into the digital world is indeed not neutral: we force upon them the specific material qualities of algorithmic operations and mechanisms of compression and decompression, and we inevitably extend the network of possible contexts they can be part of – from amateur compilations over interactive school education to for instance marketing. In a situation like this, a curator must do more than “just” put the films into context and organize them into different categories. He or she needs to look for ways to express the ephemeral nature of films in the online space through formats typical of this space. This is one of the reasons why the edition contains interactive web features such as a map of Kříženecký’s shooting locations, a timeline of Kříženecký’s life, but also original works, such as video-essays articulating the complexities of transferring nitrous material into the world of zeros and ones and building on them. Without looking for excuses, we can admit that even this framing is only a provisional stop in the long search for understanding what the first Czech films are or could be.
At the time it is made accessible, the online edition of Jan Kříženecký’s films contains 31 digitalized materials (15 negatives, 13 copies, 3 compilations). Some films have been preserved in two full versions (original copy and original negative) which are not always of the same length. The compilations of two Sokol rallies and the Anniversary Exhibition of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce have been newly made of film materials of several generations, and they probably weren’t presented in this form in their day. Transferred to Blu-ray from a modern copy made in the French Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, the recently discovered nitrous copy of Escorting the Cradle of František Palacký from Hodslavice to the Prague Exhibition Grounds (Přenesení kolébky Františka Palackého z Hodslavic na Výstaviště, 1898) will be released once it is digitalized.
 In filmmaking, priority is always questionable. There are films that had been made or released on the Czech territory earlier than those by Jan Kříženecký; moreover, it is to be noted that at the end of the 19th century, the Czech lands were still part of Austria-Hungary. Not to mention that we don’t know and probably won’t ever know of many films from the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Therefore, we consider the priority of Jan Kříženecký’s films a discursive construct established with the Czech Cinematographer at the Architecture and Engineering Exhibition and reproduced by Czech historiography and popular press.
 For the context of industrial exhibitions of the late 19th century, see for instance Kateřina Svatoňová, Odpoutané obrazy: Archeologie českého vizuálního prostoru. Praha: Academia 2013, pp. 100–112.
 For more information on the Czech Cinematography at the Architecture and Engineering Exhibition, see Ivan Klimeš, Český kinematograf v Královské oboře 1898. In: Týž, Kinematograf! Věnec studií o krátkém filmu. Praha: Národní filmový archiv – Casablanca 2014, pp. 24–39.
 In this edition, Jeanne Pommeau deals with the process of digitalization.
 For more information on this topic, see Jiří Anger, Found footage efekt: Digitální Kříženecký a prasklina filmového média. Iluminace 31, 2019, No. 2, pp. 89–117.