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."
After Mr. Koenig died, at 86, on June 26, his family found a four-page typed essay inside that book in which he described the tumultuous effect of encountering Mr. Cartier-Bresson's words and pictures as a 28-year-old aspiring filmmaker desperate to embrace the possibility of moving outside the studio to film real people in their own milieux. He recalled how he and Mr. Kroitor had spent their holidays at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, roaming the grounds "with haunted looks searching for 'reality' ready to siphon it into our Bolex whenever it should appear." The problem was: "How, in God's name, could we be sure of being present when the moment of truth arrives?" That was the problem and luckily, Mr. Cartier-Bresson pointed to a solution. He "gave us direction as well as courage," Mr. Koenig wrote. "We rushed out into the real world and made a lot of Candid Eyes. Many of them were bad – a few were acceptable, a couple good. Whatever success we had, we owe in large measure to The Decisive Moment. For us it had arrived at a very decisive time." That homage stands as Mr. Koenig's own modest statement of artistic purpose.
Wolf Koenig was born in Dresden, Germany on Oct. 17, 1927, the eldest of three children of Nathan and Ethel (née Handel) Koenig. His parents owned a prosperous linen store, called Wasche Koenig (Linen King). As Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, Jews suffered increasing oppression and the Koenigs decided to emigrate while they still could. Mr. Koenig sold his store, which was subsequently billed as "Now pure Aryan," and sailed to Canada, where an older brother, who had left Germany before the First World War, had agreed to sponsor them. "The hills were beautiful, all right, but hell to plow and harvest," Mr. Koenig said, describing the family farm in an interview in Take One magazine. "So we got a tractor, one of the first in the area, a Ford-Ferguson – small but strong." That tractor changed Mr. Koenig's life and Canadian cinematic history.
After school and in the summers, the Koenig boys milked the cows, fed the chickens and plowed the fields. "When we hoed the turnips," Joe Koenig remembered, "Wolf talked about great movies we had seen in town and how he wanted to make film, too, some day." Invariably, these discussions were interrupted by barked orders from their father to "start hoeing from opposite ends of the long row and stop the chatter."
During spring planting in May, 1948, the phone rang in the Koenig house. It was a neighbour, the local representative for the federal department of agriculture, asking if "the boy" could drive over with the tractor to try out a new tree-planting machine. His father said "Go," and so he did. As "the boy" was pulling the tree planter across a field he noticed a film crew from the NFB. Afterward, he approached the director, Raymond Garceau, and said how he longed to work in film. With Mr. Garceau's encouragement, he sent in an application and was offered a job as a junior splicer at NFB headquarters in Ottawa at $100 a month. "Go!" his father said. "It's the government."
That's how Mr. Koenig left the farm with "hay seed in my hair, hauling a cardboard suitcase bulging with clothing and my mother's cookies and sandwiches." He was 20, bristling with curiosity and sponge-like in his eagerness to learn not only splicing but editing and animation. He even made his own animated film about birds by punching triangles and circles into discarded celluloid and splicing them together. That caught the attention of Mr. McLaren, the genius of pixillation (a stop-motion animation technique) and the man who had pioneered drawing on film. He wangled Mr. Koenig away from his normal duties to be the cameraman on Neighbours, the 1952 film that won an Academy Award for best documentary. Mr. Koenig also began working with Mr. Daly. "He was a master teacher as well as an artist," Mr. Koenig told Take One. "Without his guidance and infinite patience, many of us would never have worked on a film." He also challenged them intellectually, pressuring them to read the classics of philosophy and literature, in effect "giving us a university education" on the job.
Back in those days, cameras were noisy and heavy, sound was recorded on a separate and equally cumbersome machine, and everything was spliced together back in the studio. Along the way, Mr. Koenig learned another lesson in his apprenticeship as a documentary filmmaker: Editing is what makes a film live and shine. You have "to know the rules as almost second nature," but then you have to "let go and allow the material to lead you." He became adept at "shooting with a mind to the editing process," which meant collecting lots of cutaways, wide shots and close ups and using them as scene setters and bridges, the way a writer uses words to create continuity in print. And he also learned that sometimes you have "to lie to tell the truth," by cutting scenes and combining shots in the order in which they advance the story rather than chronologically. Otherwise, "the audience would die of boredom or the truth would be smothered under a mountain of chaff."
Shy, modest and unassuming, Mr. Koenig spent his last years at the film board – he retired in 1995 – mentoring a younger generation of filmmakers. "He was interested in putting his ideas forward through other people," Mr. Ferguson said. One of them was Peter Raymont, now head of White Pine Pictures, an independent film company that includes such credits as Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire and West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson.
"Wolf was one of the gods," Mr. Raymont said in a eulogy at Mr. Koenig's funeral, recalling a three-month contract he had at the NFB in the early 1970s, and describing his excitement at being asked to work as an editor on two documentaries about Moshe Safdie, under Mr. Koenig as executive producer.
"Wolf was so open and encouraging," he said. "I was invited on shoots. Wolf shot some second camera. I shot some third camera too!" Then Mr. Koenig, who had "a great love of the Inuit people and had started an animation film workshop in Cape Dorset" sent Mr. Raymont to the Arctic to make a film. "It was an extraordinary responsibility and an exhilarating experience." That was the way it was in those days, Mr. Raymont concluded. The executives would throw aspiring filmmakers "into the deep end to see if we could swim." That's not so unusual. What was different about Mr. Koenig, was how he tested you – with "kindness and caring and love."
Mr. Koenig, who never married and had no children, leaves his younger siblings Joe and Rachel, their families and a wide circle of friends.
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