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Yugoslavian film pioneer's legacy rekindled by daughter in Prince George

A Way to the Heart executive producer Nada Newell inspired by father's early 20th century success in silent film era

While on vacation in Zagreb, Croatia several years ago, Prince George resident Nada Newell opened the pages of a newspaper and was shocked to see her father’s work as an early 20th century filmmaker was being featured that week in a local art gallery exhibit.

Very little was known at that time about Franjo Ledic, the man who in 1925 brought Hollywood to the former Yugoslavia when he opened the country’s first film studio, and Newell was able to fill in the missing pieces of her dad’s remarkable life, a life that would later inspire her own involvement in the movie business.

She phoned the newspaper who put her in touch with Daniel Rafaelic, a Zagreb-based film historian and Egyptologist who produced the Ledic exhibit. For Rafaelic, meeting Franjo Ledic’s daughter was like finding a Rosetta stone to unlock the mysteries of his past.

Ledic, the self-confessed first Yugoslav film director, was one of the pioneers of German expressionism, an avant-garde art movement that gained traction in the post-war early 1920s. Inspired by emotion and abstract ideas, expressionism touched on social, cultural and political themes and provided audiences still reeling from the First World War an escape into mysticism and the subconscious, with elements poverty and destitution, which motivated creative artists like Ledic.

Ledic’s second feature film, Angelo, The Mystery of Dragontown, proved hugely popular. Key in its success was there was no language barrier. Because it was a silent movie with only a musical track, the title cards were easily transcribed into other languages on title cards and it was distributed throughout Germany, the United States, France, Czech Republic, Italy and Yugoslavia.

“He lived like a king in Berlin; he was really doing good and he was well-known,” said Newell. “The only reason he didn’t stay in Germany was the war was happening.”

This past June, Nada and her husband Tom jumped on an opportunity to get involved as executive producers in a movie project filmed in Prince George - the Barker Street Cinema/Trilight Entertainment romantic comedy A Way To The Heart, produced by Norm Coyne. They both had minor on-screen roles and Tom’s high-society 1926 Cadillac Model 314 opera coupe figures prominently in the movie. For Nada, a Prince George resident since 1965, the film project gave her a better appreciation for the artform her father first brought to life more than a century ago.

“I enjoyed it, I was so happy just being there, this was what my dad was doing and I can understand why he loved it,” said Nada. “He would be very happy, very proud, because that was his life.”

Ledic’s father wanted him to be a barber, but when he was eight he saw a moving picture for the first time in a circus tent in Derventa, Yugoslavia and knew that was the career path he wanted to pursue. In 1912, at age 19, he moved to Berlin to work with film/newsreel maker Oskar Messter. Originally hired as an extra, Ledic showed his artistic side as a make-up artist, set designer, props producer and camera operator and his ability to handle any task earned him the respect of the employers. Having worked with Ernst Lubitsch and silent film star Pola Negri, Ledic began making short films and that led to his first major success in 1919, the historical drama, Cornelie Aredt.

Angelo earned Ledic a fortune and gave him worldwide fame, but its release came at a time when Germany’s was struggling economically after the war, and with the German film industry dying, he and his film partners received offers to move to United States. Lubitsch and Negri sensed the imminent collapse of the German economy in 1923 and both went on to a lucrative careers in Hollywood, but Ledic chose instead to move to Italy, a decision he later regretted.

Just 35 seconds of Angelo is left, preserved as a short clip in a Belgrade museum. That’s all that remains of the reels of film that made up the 90-minute mystery feature seen by mass audiences in theatres around the western world. Fortunately, the novel Ledic wrote that formed the basis of the Angelo movie, the last known existing copy from a bestselling run of 50,000, was preserved in the basement vault of a Berlin library which survived the bombing that destroyed much of the city during the Second World War. The book was written in German and in 2007 Rafaelic had the opportunity to read the book and copy it while doing his research on Ledic during a two-week visit to the city.

“For Daniel, this book was like a gold mine and he’s still digging - he’s my angel,” said Newell. “He’s hoping we’re going to find this movie some place. A copy is going to show up some place and people won’t know what they have.”

Rafaelic uncovered hundreds of documents which confirmed Ledic’s previously unsubstantiated boasts about working in Berlin and learning his craft in a major studio working with the industry-leading producers and directors of the silent film era.

“I must say I was quite taken by surprise when I realized the immense data that I got from the archives and the things that he did that are preserved in Germany, and when I told Nada she couldn’t believe it,” said Rafaelic.

“We all knew about his film, Angelo, but we didn’t know about the film plot. The national library presented me this small wonderful book and then we realized everything we needed to realize about the missing content of the missing film.”

Angelo is set in a huge castle and its plot twists involve knights, sleepwalking characters, hidden treasure and mysterious psychic phenomena. It premiered in Berlin in February 1920 and received critical acclaim in newspapers which translated into packed theatres around the world. But Ledic was unable to replicate the success of Angelo. He moved to Italy and made several short films there and after two years he returned to Yugoslavia and invested all of his wealth to build his ill-fated studio, Ocean Film Palace, in central Zagreb.

“He wanted to have Hollywood in Yugoslavia – he was a dreamer,” said Newell. “He brought a lot of money from Germany and he put everything into this.”

One of the studio’s features was a room with a glass ceiling to let in natural light built to film love scenes. “He knew that people would feel uncomfortable because in those days you didn’t kiss in public, especially not in movies,” Newell said. “Very few people were allowed in, so they could do those scenes.”

Unfortunately, the only film Ledic made at Ocean Film – Gypsy Blood: The Balkan Benefactor - was a flop, and the local bank that promised to back him financially then wanted nothing to do with the studio. From 1926-41, with no financial backing to make more movies, he made newsreels until the war began.

Seeing his country taken over by Nazi Germany, Ledic fled Zagreb with his family and rented a farm near a small town, his poor eyesight cited as the reason he was not forced to become a soldier. Ledic made documentaries about Yugoslavia prior to the war but refused to use his creative talents for propaganda purposes and that ended his filmmaking career.

Having written a how-to guide for aspiring actors during the height of his film career, Ledic resumed his writing career while living at the farm and worked for a book publisher selling books to school libraries. He was the author of several children’s books and in 1971 wrote a history of Slavic mythology that’s been translated into several Slavic-based languages and is still used as a definitive reference source.

Ledic owned the studio until 1945, when the communist leader Tito took over as Yugoslavian president and imposed a ban on private ownership. After the war, Ledic moved back to Zagreb and offered his services as a filmmaker to the government but was blacklisted, dismissed as a German sympathizer because of his past working in Berlin, and nobody wanted to hire him.

“As a child I didn’t know enough (about his film background) because he didn’t talk about it,” said Newell. “It hurt him, I’m sure, so he just buried it.”

Newell saw her father’s studio when the building was still standing but it was not preserved as a museum, as was initially promised to her by Zagreb’s mayor. It was left in ruins and now only the outer foundation remains.

Just nine minutes of the feature-length film Gyspy Blood still exist. All his Yugoslavian newsreels were preserved but the short films he made in Italy and Germany have been lost. He returned to his apartment in Zagreb after the war and was horrified to see neighbourhood kids playing with the highly-flammable nitrate films he’d left behind. Ledic worked in a leather factory for several years and continued on as a writer until his health deteriorated. He died in 1981.

“I am proud that I managed to change the perception of Franjo because when I was studying film history at university the general ideal was that he some kind of semi-fake, self-invented idiot who lied about his big career,” said Rafaelic, who is nearing completion of a book about Ledic. “Lots of my predecessors didn’t have any of the evidence that would support the thesis that he was something not only great but very interesting and real. So when I did the Berlin research and did that exhibition that Nada read about in the newspaper, that really changed the perception.”

Ledic was nearly 50 at the time Nada was born and when she moved to Canada in 1964 he gave her some of the documents and other memorabilia of his film work. She recognized the historical significance and said he should instead give the material to a museum but he told her nobody wanted it. He eventually sold some of his documentaries to Kinotecka Belgrade, a museum that stores films from the former Yugoslavia. The museum produced an 84-minute filmed interview with Ledic talking about his life. Nada has also been interviewed to preserve her memories of her father and has given the museum some of the keepsakes he gave her.

“He was very strong and he had his beliefs, and nobody could change him,” said Newell. “His philosophy was, on earth we’re all brothers and sisters and that’s what he taught me when I was a little kid and I didn’t understand what he was talking about.

“He said, ‘Nada, never hate anybody. We may speak different languages and come from different areas or have different colour, but we’re all brothers and sisters and the world is one country.’”