Pöch, Rudolf (1870-1921)*

Rudolf Pöch in heroic fieldworker mode during his expedition to New Guinea, 1904-06.

As an ethnographic film-maker, the Austrian anthropologist Rudolf Pöch is best known for the series of short research films that he made during two separate expeditions: to New Guinea in 1904-06, and to southern Africa in 1907-09. However, in 1915, he took his camera to various First World War prison camps and made a series of short films of Russian prisoners-of-war making artefacts and performing dances.

Pöch is celebrated as a pioneer in many standard accounts of ethnographic film history. Although his films are neither very skilled, nor numerous, his work became particularly well-known after 1984, when a short film that he shot in Botswana in 1908 of a San “Bushman” telling a story into the horn of a phonograph was approximately synchronised with the audio recording made simultaneously by the phonograph  This version, which was produced by Dietrich Schüller of the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, is now widely available on the web.

However,  in recent years, Pöch’s reputation has darkened considerably. He held strongly raciological views, believing that culture was determined by physiology, and along with his substantial field collections of artefacts, photographs, sound-recordings and films, he also collected human body parts in the hope of being able to prove his theories. This reached a peak during his expedition to southern Africa in 1907-09, after which he shipped back to Vienna some 80 San skeletons, 150 skulls and even the preserved corpses of a San couple. This has led to a more general denunciation of Pöch and all his work, while the southern African human remains have been the subject of a still on-going process of repatriation.

Texts : Spindler 1974, Szilvássy et al. 1980Schüller 1987, Niles 2000, Lange 2013, Rassool 2015.