You can see the evolution of the multitalented and innovative filmmaker Wolf Koenig by looking at some of his movies, such as Lonely Boy, Stravinsky, Neighbours, City of Gold, Corral, The Days Before Christmas, Ted Baryluk’s Grocery and Universe, on the National Film Board website. Although his roles varied – he began as a splicer and moved on to animation, cinematography, directing and producing – his keen eye, narrative power and generous collaboration are always evident in these films, created during a nearly 50-year career.
“He was a very good still photographer, a brilliant animator, a superb cameraman and the most creative film person in Canadian history,” said his friend, producer Graeme Ferguson. “He invented cinéma vérité in Canada.”
Mr. Koenig’s first step toward a life in film came in 1937, when his family fled Nazi Germany for Canada. That year, Walt Disney released his epoch-defining animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which became an early inspiration for the 10-year-old boy.
His parents settled on a farm near Galt (now Cambridge), Ont. Although he was a couple of years older, he became friends at high school with other creative and entrepreneurial types, including Mr. Ferguson, Robert Kerr and William Shaw, who would later found Imax, a company that used technological wizardry to create huge-format films and projection systems. Mr. Koenig was “extremely bright” and “one of the most creative people of our generation,” according to Mr. Ferguson. Although he created Imax’s first logo, Mr. Koenig never moved into the burgeoning private sector in the film industry because to him the film board was “a calling and a mission.”
Mr. Koenig and his younger brother, Joe, attended the vocational stream at Galt Collegiate because their father, influenced by his experience in Germany, thought he could keep his sons safe by literally keeping them down on the farm. By chance, Mr. Koenig, who “had the instincts of an artist, not a mechanic,” according to Mr. Ferguson, met a film crew on a neighbour’s farm in the late 1940s and parlayed a casual conversation into a lowly job as a film splicer at a pivotal moment at the NFB.
That eventually gave him the chance to work in Unit B under the legendary Tom Daly, and as an animator with the equally luminescent Norman McLaren.
In the next few years, he began collaborating with Roman Kroitor, an aspiring philosopher who had been lured from academia by the lustre of a summer job in film, and who would later become the fourth of Imax’s founders. Together they worked in the board’s Candid Eye series produced for CBC-TV between 1958 and 1961 and made several award-winning films.
The final building block in Mr. Koenig’s development came from a book. In the early 1950s, Mr. Koenig was given a copy of the great French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, a collection of his photos and an essay explaining his philosophy that “photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Mr. Koenig was dumbfounded. This was exactly what he and his colleagues were trying to do in film. He talked about the book over sandwiches at work and he kept his copy for the rest of his life. When he met Mr. Cartier-Bresson during a shoot in Montreal in 1998, the legendary photojournalist autographed the book “À Wolf Koenig … En souvenir de bien des moments au Canada qu’il a rendu decisifs sur film.”