Joseph Albrecht

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(b. Lambeth, London, 05/01/1894 – d. Durban, **/**/1973) 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. Born in London in 1894 (1895?), he shot his first film as a professional cameraman at the age of 16 (17?) when he filmed the coronation of King George V for the London office of Pathé Frères in June 1911. 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 18 (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 chief cameraman, subsequently becoming editor of Éclair-Journal.

When he received an offer from the recently formed African Films Trust he decided to come out to Johannesburg, shooting 'scenics' (including a tram-ride from Eloff Street to Orange Grove), mining operations and working with Denis Santry on his so-called 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 with Ralph Kimpton and And then---, The Major’s Dilemma and The Piccanin’s Christmas all with Dick Cruikshanks and 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 / 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 Addo. Following a successful visit to Mauritius in order to film a number of educational shorts, in December 1921 he again 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. He was the first person to film the interior of the Cango Caves and 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 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 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 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 (1934) and The World’s Greatest Wildlife Sanctuary (1934), both for the 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) for the Chamber of Mines and the S.A.R. & H. ; The Story of South African Steel (1936); and The blue and silver way (1938), co-directed with A.M. Miller for South African Airways. 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 though by then the company's general manager, Albrecht probably directed a number of them. Amongst them were 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; Sinews of War / Oorlogsspiere on the production of war materiel ,Reported Missing / Vermis for the Red Cross and Service to Humanity / In Diens van die Mensheid for the Department of Public Health and the South African Nurses Council. 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. That same year he produced and wrote the screenplay for Pierre de Wet's feature film Geboortegrond and the following year he also produced his Simon Beyers. Albrecht and photographer George F. Noble worked together on The Pioneer Trails (1958), about the history of Rhodesia and he is 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 contribution to the development 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. (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

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

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