NOTES FROM THE FILM TOWN:
September 2018: WOLVES OF KULTUR, the legendary “lost” silent serial, turns 100.
By Richard Koszarski
Wolves of Kultur was designed as one of the most virulent anti-German propaganda films of the World War I era. While other films (with titles like To Hell with the Kaiser) tackled the situation in Europe, Wolves of Kultur dealt with treason and sabotage in America—a legacy of the destruction of the munitions dump at Black Tom Island, just off Jersey City, two years earlier.
The glamorous Leah Baird, usually typecast as a vamp, starred as Alice Grayson—rich, beautiful and patriotic—who vows revenge when German agents murder her uncle and steal his remote-controlled torpedo. Can she stop them before they use it to wreak havoc in the harbor? And who is the mysterious Roger Barclay (played by Sheldon Lewis), who seems to be after the torpedo for reasons of his own.
Working out of his own studio in the Bronx (where he made many of Pearl White’s early films) director John Golden took full advantage of the geography of the Hudson, the Fort Lee Palisades, and a range of scenic wonders from Newfoundland to Ausable Chasm. He packed the film with chases, explosions and fabulous stunts, and released the first of fifteen weekly episodes on October 13, 1918. A month later, the war was over.
Audiences suddenly lost all interest in anti-German propaganda, and episodes with titles like “The Hun’s Hell Trap” began to lose their appeal. Even worse, the great influenza epidemic of 1918 forced thousands of theaters across the country to close their doors just as Wolves of Kultur was beginning its run. Some were closed for as long as four to six weeks, completely disrupting the serial’s distribution schedule. Wolves of Kultur vanished, almost without a trace.
Although bits and pieces resurfaced over the years, until recently the film was known only through a considerably shortened reissue. In 1998 classic film distributor Lobster Film, working from a tinted nitrate print discovered in Europe, began the laborious process of restoring this lost epic to its original six hour plus running time.
This being the days before online crowd funding, financing was provided by an international consortium of film archives and museums. The newly formed Fort Lee Film Commission was one of them, joining the Cinematheque francaise, the British Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, the Academy Film Archive, and ten other leading cultural institutions.
The restoration premiered at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2004, and was given its American premiere by the Fort Lee Film Commission in 2008. This summer, Wolves of Kultur was screened at the Cinema Ritrovato film restoration festival in Bologna, part of the festival’s centennial tribute to the state of international film in 1918.