Theodor Koch-Grünberg was one of the first great modern ethnographers of Amazonia, many of whom were also German. Between 1898 and 1913, he participated in three important expeditions: firstly, as the photographer on a multidisciplinary German expedition to the Upper Xingú river in Central Brazil in 1898-1900, and then on two of his own expeditions, to the Upper Rio Negro, in northwest Amazonia in 1903-1905, and then, in 1911-1913, to the Roraima region, on the frontier between Brazil, Guyana and the southeastern corner of Venezuela. It was only on this third expedition that he took a moving image camera.
Koch-Grünberg’s anthropological ideas were much more in tune with present-day thinking than those of his germanophone contemporary, Rudolf Pöch. In contrast to Pöch, and indeed to the two British ethnographic film-making pioneers, Alfred Haddon and Baldwin Spencer, Koch-Grünberg was not trained in biological sciences but came rather from a humanities background. He was a member of a turn-of-the-century cohort of German anthropologists who although practising a museum-based form of anthropology oriented strongly towards the collection of artifacts, had begun to place increasing importance on prolonged fieldwork as a means to achieve a better understanding of the social and cultural significance of the objects that they were collecting.
Gradually, over the course of his career and in a manner that anticipated in some senses the Malinowskian approach, the contextualizing field research became of greater interest to Koch-Grünberg than the collection of artifacts, to such an extent, indeed, that he came to see the latter as an unwelcome intrusion on the former.
Koch-Grünberg’s contribution to the history of ethnographic film is small but also significant in the sense that he appears to have been the first to film an indigenous Amazonian people. It is a contribution that is often overlooked in the standard histories of ethnographic film. Even Koch-Grünberg himself does not appear to have rated it very highly.
Although he was an accomplished and prolific photographer, there is no evidence that Koch-Grünberg was considering making a moving image film on his third expedition in 1911-13 until he was approached by the Freiburg-based company, Express Films. They proposed to send a cameraman to Brazil to make a series of travelogue films along the Amazon and elsewhere before accompanying Koch-Grünberg to his field site in order to shoot more ethnographic footage there. But after shooting the travelogue films, the cameraman had to return to Germany, so Koch-Grünberg was left to shoot the ethnographic sequences on his own, supported by his field assistant, Hermann Schmidt (see above).
The result was the sequences that make up Aus dem Leben der Taulipang in Guayana. Given that neither Koch-Grünberg nor Schmidt had any previous experience, the footage is creditable, but it is both cinematographically and ethnographically limited. The experience of making the film certainly did not convince Koch-Grünberg himself of the value of film as a tool of field research, and he continued to see it as no more than a means to “illustrate or embellish” a lecture.
In 1924, Koch-Grünberg was invited to join a major expedition to the headwaters of the Rio Branco, to be led by the North American geographer, Alexander Hamilton Rice. The aim of the expedition was to find a riverine route connecting the tributaries of the Upper Rio Branco to the headwaters of the Orinoco. Two years before, the release of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North had demonstrated the financial potential of ethnographic film-making and Koch-Grünberg was encouraged by his Swiss colleague, Felix Speiser, who was also planning a film project in Amazonia, to propose a similar venture to Rice as a means of generating additional funding. But by then, Rice had already contracted the Portuguese-Brazilian film-maker, Silvino Santos, whose recent film No Paiz das Amazonas, had generally been rated a major success.
In 1926, Santos would release No Rastro do Eldorado as a record of the Rice expedition, which, in fact, ended in failure. But by that time, tragically, Theodor Koch-Grünberg was already dead, aged only 52, having contracted malaria only a few weeks after the Rice expedition had begun.