Joseph Albrecht (b. Lambeth, London, 05/01/1894 – d. Durban, 30/09/1977) was a British-born director, producer, writer , cameraman, editor, narrator and occasional actor.
If anyone has the right to be called the father of South African film it is Joseph Theofiel Albrecht. He was one of eight children of Conrick Albrecht, a potter’s labourer, and his wife, Jessie Primmett. He must have entered the film industry at a very early age, because at the time of the 1911 Census, when he was just 17 years old, his occupation was already listed as “cinematographer operator and manufacturer”. This choice is probably related to the fact that his brother-in-law, Joseph G. Skittrell, who had married his older sister Beatrice, had the same profession.
He is believed to have shot his first film as a professional cameraman in June 1911, when he filmed the coronation of King George V for the London office of Pathé Frères. This was followed by countless other items, from the investiture of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) to the signing of the Ulster Covenant by Sir Edward Carson. Soon afterwards the firm asked him to become their special correspondent in Serbia and at the age of 19 he found himself in Skopje at the time of the Second Balkan War. Upon his return to England he stayed with Pathé for another year and then moved to Cinéma Éclair as their chief cameraman.
Pathé had commercial links with the African Films Trust and when, in 1914, he received an offer from the recently formed company he decided to come out to South Africa, shooting footage of mining operations and working with Denis Santry on his “topicalities”. When African Film Productions took over the production side of the business he moved with them and, by his own account, photographed The Splendid Waster, The Gun-runner and Gloria for Lorimer Johnston and worked on De Voortrekkers for Harold M. Shaw, all in 1916. The following year he turned to co-directing, usually providing technical support for directors with a theatrical background: A Border Scourge (Ralph Kimpton), And then--- (Dick Cruikshanks), The Major’s Dilemma (Dick Cruikshanks) and The Piccanin’s Christmas (Dick Cruikshanks) – all in 1917. In 1918 he contributed to the script of The Symbol of Sacrifice (Dick Cruikshanks) and then started his career as solo director: The Voice of the Waters (1918), The Stolen Favourite (1919), Copper Mask (1919), With Edged Tools (started by Cruikshanks/1919), Isban; or, The Mystery of the Great Zimbabwe / The Buried City (1920), The Man Who Was Afraid (1920), The Madcap of the Veld (1921) and The Reef of Stars (1924).
Besides making these features, Albrecht frequently returned to his documentary roots and in 1920 he shot Big Game Hunting, featuring the legendary Major P.J. Pretorius, responsible for virtually exterminating the elephant population of what today is the Addo Elephant Park. Following a successful visit to Mauritius in order to film a number of educational shorts, in December 1921 he left South Africa to embark on a five-month tour of Madagascar, a journey he described in a number of articles for S.A. Pictorial. In 1925 he was on hand to cover the visit of the Prince of Wales to Southern Africa. Subsequently he was appointed to an administrative post and became the regional director of the various Schlesinger companies in Durban. When it became clear that the sound film was here to stay, AFP sent Albrecht to British Sound Film Productions, a Schlesinger company based in England, to study the new technology and in November 1929 he returned to South Africa to help establish a laboratory to deal with this innovation.
Once the technology was in place, it was Albrecht who embarked upon producing South Africa’s first sound film. Rather than a full-length feature, Sarie Marais (1931) was a short that dealt with a Boer prisoner-of-war in Ceylon as he thinks of his girl back home. It was AFP’s first drama in more than seven years. A few months later this was followed by Moedertjie (1931), another short that also heralded the introduction of the Afrikaans language film. Based on the one-act play In die Wagkamer by J.F.W. Grosskopf, it resulted in both Albrecht and his actors receiving medals from the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Taal, Lettere en Kuns, the first film to be so honoured. The only other feature film in which he was to be involved as director was Die Bou van ‘n Nasie / Building a Nation. Produced at the behest of the then Minister of Railways & Harbours, Oswald Pirow, it was intended to be completed for the centenary of the Great Trek in December 1938 and was another prestigious, if often controversial production. Albrecht’s co-director was the writer Andries A. Pienaar, better known under his pseudonym Sangiro.
Following the introduction of sound Albrecht devoted most of his time to AFP’s documentary output. The credits of these films are often difficult to check and it is not always certain in what capacity he was involved. Films that he seems to have directed include The Cape of Good Hope (1932), the first South African “talkie travel film”; The Smoke That Thunders (1932), the first sound film of the Victoria Falls; The Riddle of Rhodesia (1933), on the Zimbabwe ruins; On Tour in South Africa: Land of Sunshine and Romance (1934) and The World’s Greatest Wildlife Sanctuary (1934), both for South African Railways & Harbours; shorts on South Africa’s tribal people, amongst them In the Land of the Red Blanket (1934) and The Marriage Ceremony of the AmaZulu (1934); The Golden Harvest of the Witwatersrand (1935); The Story of South African Steel (1936); The Blue and Silver way: an Aerial Tour Around South Africa (1938), together with A.M. Miller. For other films he wrote the commentary or acted as editor.
Between 1939 and 1945, AFP made many short documentaries that contributed towards the war effort and Albrecht probably directed a number of them. Amongst them were The Two Brothers, a film about venereal diseases originally made for screening to black audiences, but later also shown to white troops leaving for North Africa; Noordwaarts, a propaganda film for the Union Unity Truth Service aimed specifically at Afrikaans-speaking South Africans and co-directed by Henry Cornelius; and Reported Missing / Vermis for the Red Cross. In 1946 these films were followed by After Sixty Years / Na Sestig Jaar, made for the City Council of Johannesburg to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the city. The following year he produced Pierre de Wet’s feature film Simon Beyers (1947), followed by Die Kaskenades van Dokter Kwak (1948).
In 1945 he was General Manager of African Film Productions and in 1949/1950 he joined its Board of Directors. Between 1953 and 1956 he was the Schlesinger Organisation’s resident director in East Africa. In 1958 he and cinematographer G.F. Noble worked together on The Pioneer Trails, a short about the history of Rhodesia and he is also credited as director on Out of the Blue (date unknown), a documentary about diamond mining made for De Beers Consolidated Mines. It’s an impressive range of films but extensive research is required to determine Albrecht’s true involvement in the history of African Film Productions, both as Schlesinger’s right-hand man and as producer/director. According to The Cape Argus of 9 May 1964, he retired to a farm in Swaziland, though he died in Durban in 1977. He married Juliet Delease in 1915 and the couple had two daughters. His wife predeceased him in 1972. (FO)
The Moving Picture World, 11 December 1915
Stage and Cinema, 28 April 1917
S.A. Pictorial, 21 October 1922
S.A. Pictorial, 28 October 1922
S.A. Pictorial, 11 November 1922
S.A. Pictorial, 27 December 1924
The Forum, 6 January 1940
Rand Daily Mail, 5 October 1977
Gutsche, Thelma - The history and social significance of motion pictures in South Africa 1895-1940
Le Roux, André I. & Fourie, Lilla – Filmverlede: geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse speelfilm
Parsons, Neil - Black and white bioscope: making movies in Africa 1899 to 1925
Return to ESAT Personalities A
Return to South African Personalities
Return to The ESAT Entries
Return to Main Page