Heinz Sielmann

Impassioned conservationist and wildlife film-maker renowned for his innovative camera work


Heinz Sielmann, film-maker and conservationist: born Rheydt, Germany 2 June 1917; married 1948 Inge Witt (one son deceased); died Munich 6 October 2006.

Heinz Sielmann, the wildlife film producer, was a household name in his native Germany for his television series Expeditionen ins Tierreich ("Expeditions into the Animal Kingdom"). The series ran, at intervals, between 1965 and 1991, always enjoyed popular ratings, and taught an entire generation about the wonders of nature. Sielmann also made highly rated films of wilderness and wildlife which were produced in many languages.

His name first became familiar to British audiences after his celebrated film about black woodpeckers was shown on the BBC television series Look in 1955. In this age of hi-tech televisual spectacle, it is hard to recapture the impact of Sielmann's simple half-hour film, shot in black-and-white. He showed bird life as no ordinary bird spotter could see it - life inside the woodpecker's nest hole, close-ups of woodpecker tongues seeking ants and grubs, and even infra-red footage of bird action in complete darkness.

Sielmann left a detailed account of how it was done in his best-selling book Das Jahr Mit Den Spechten (1958, translated as My Year with the Woodpeckers in 1959). After its first broadcast on Look, edited for a British audience with narration by Peter Scott, the BBC switchboard was jammed. The film's reception, as judged by the BBC's "appreciation index", ranked with the FA Cup Final. Over 1,000 copies of the film were distributed and shown in cinemas, clubs and schools throughout Europe. In Britain, Sielmann became known as "Mr Woodpecker".

The woodpecker film was the high point of Sielmann's innovative natural-history camera work with the Munich Institute for Film and Pictures in the post-war decade. His 100 or so assignments for the institute included filming squirrels rearing their young inside a nest of twigs; following the life of a hamster in its labyrinthine burrow; filming bumblebees tending their hive inside the abandoned burrow of a mole; and obtaining close-up footage of frogs croaking in the dark.

The work called for dedication and technical imagination of a high degree. Sielmann was determined to show animals behaving naturally in the wild, though for really difficult shots like close-ups of feeding woodpeckers, he occasionally "adopted" young animals and birds. He made a point of trying to read up and master everything possible about his quarry before starting to film. He was impressively focused, seldom allowing other activities to distract his team from their task, and travelling over some of the wildest places on earth for months at a time. Sielmann was always first and foremost a zoologist and naturalist, fascinated by the mysteries of animal behaviour. In later years his experiences made him all too aware of the fragility of life on earth, and he became an impassioned and influential conservationist.

Heinz Sielmann was born in Rheydt (now Mönchengladbach), Germany, in 1917, but in 1924 his family moved to Königsberg in East Prussia. He was a keen naturalist from early boyhood, getting up early to observe birds before school - and eventually during school, whenever his tolerant teachers turned a blind eye to his wanderings. He learned to sketch animals and birds from a hide, and, after being given a reflex camera on his 17th birthday, became a proficient photographer. In due course he also acquired a long-lens cine-camera, and with its help made his first (silent) educational film, Vogel über Haff und Wiesen ("Birds of Shore and Meadow"), in 1938.

The Second World War interrupted Sielmann's university education in biology. He served as an instructor at the Luftwaffe's air intelligence school, and was posted for a time on occupied Crete where he managed to complete a nature film. While there he also became close friends with the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys; the two decided to treat the war as "a cultural experience". Somehow Sielmann managed to continue his university studies in the intervals allowed him.

After release from prisoner-of-war captivity in 1947, Sielmann worked as a cameraman in Hamburg and later at the Institute for Film and Pictures in Science and Education (FWU) in Munich. There he acquired a reputation for skilled and ingenious ways of capturing elusive animal behaviour on film. His work was described by the British naturalist James Fisher as "exciting, ingenious, accurate, philosophically honest and humane".

From the mid-1950s, Sielmann also began to produce, direct and in most cases write more extended documentaries about the natural world. His first feature-length film came as a result of a commission by the King of Belgium to make a film about the then Belgian Congo. For 18 months, and accompanied by his wife Inge, together with a small crew, he filmed the lives of everyday people, as well as native wildlife, either side of a range of volcanic mountains in the centre of that vast country. Les Seigneurs de la Forêt (Lords of the Forest) was among the first films to reveal the gentle and social nature of wild gorillas. The 90-minute colour film, released in 1959, proved a great success, being produced in 26 languages and winning first prize at the Moscow Film Festival.

From the 1960s, Sielmann collaborated with National Geographic in America to make a series of ambitious films about wilderness areas on every continent on earth. By 1980 he had travelled an estimated 150,000 miles in search of wildlife, by plane, motorboat, canoe, helicopter, raft, mule, inflatable dinghy and sled drawn by reindeer or dogs. For his film about Papua New Guinea In die Bergdschungel Neuguineas (Into the Mountain Jungles of New Guinea, 1965), he spent an uninterrupted 10 months in the twilit rain forest tracking down and filming birds of paradise.

Other films included Galapagos - Trauminsel im Pazifik ("Galapagos: dream islands in the Pacific", 1962,) featuring some much-admired underwater sequences, anticipating the later work of Jacques Cousteau. The year 1973 saw the release of Sielmann's best-known film, Vanishing Wilderness, with its ravishing seasonal landscapes and memorable performances from cavorting sea-otters, industrious beavers and migrating caribou. For some, the film was marred by heavenly choral music and heavy Disneyesque narration by the actor Rex Allen.

In the late 1960s, Sielmann met the American film director Walon Green and contributed camera work on insects for his Academy Award-winning film The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971). He was also cinematographer on the American wildlife documentary Bees do it, Birds do it (1974) featuring "creatures of every sort in the act of courtship and reproduction".

Well into his eighties, Sielmann produced a 20-part German television series simply entitled Sielmann 2000, about the problems faced by wildlife in a rapidly changing world. His last work, again in collaboration with National Geographic, was a documentary on Mount Everest, released in 2003.

Peter Marren

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