Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther
Esther and Raymond Dowidat, 14 min., 16mm, 1939
Preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society
Added to National Film Registry: 2001
Essay by Daniel Eagan
About forty miles southwest of Minneapolis, Cologne, Minnesota, is a small town of some 1500 lodged in the state’s dairy belt. Eighty years ago its population was closer to 300, mostly farmers and mill workers.
Dr. Raymond William Dowidat, a general practitioner, and his wife Esther moved to Cologne in 1937. Listed in the local paper as a physician and surgeon, he also assisted a doctor in the nearby town of Waconia. Two years later, after the birth of their second son (and third child) John, Raymond and Esther moved to Minneapolis. That summer, before they left, Dowidat took a series of 16mm films in and around Cologne. He edited them together with intertitles which he photographed as his wife’s diary entries.
Dowidat began with wide, sweeping views of Cologne, possibly taken from the town’s water tower. He showed largely flat farmland bordered by Milwaukee Railroad tracks and Route 212, once the old Yellowstone Trail. He pulls in closer, first by filming farm animals, then the farmers themselves. (His farm shots are eerily reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s 2018 documentary Monrovia, Indiana.) There’s a flour mill, a feed mill, a coop creamery. The film offers postcard views of Benton Lake and the steeple of the St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church.
Some might call Dowidat’s a privileged vision. As a prominent member of the town, he could presumably film where he wanted: inside shops and mills, even the mayor in his day job as a blacksmith. People might not feel comfortable in front of the camera, but they would also have trouble turning Dowidat down if he asked to film them.
What’s striking about Dowidat’s camerawork, about his point of view in general, is his reticence. He doesn’t say what he feels, he doesn’t judge what he sees, apart from cryptic comments from Esther’s diary: “The saloons play a very prominent part in the social life of the community.” “In Cologne everybody drinks beer.”
As a result, there’s an underlying unease to Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther, the sense that like Winesburg, Ohio, Cologne hides secrets. That makes what Dowidat decided to film more interesting. He shows St. Bernard’s in the distance, for example, but stays far away from the actual church. (He doesn’t even mention its older rival, the Zion Lutheran Church.) He films the Milwaukee Road Flyer train mostly to show that it no longer stops in Cologne.
As for the people of Cologne, Dowidat films the town’s two most important citizens: “Old Man” Guettler, owner of the SilverLeaf Mill, and Henry Mohrbacher, a descendant of one of the town’s founding fathers. Mohrbacher now runs a saloon (when he isn’t butchering turtles for soup). The mayor is seen briefly, as well as some shop owners. One stares insolently at the camera from behind his shop counter, a shot Dowidat holds long enough to note his displeasure. We see some farmhands, some millworkers, but Dowidat seems to be making the point that Cologne is largely deserted.
No matter how lonely and remote, Dowidat’s Cologne was still a beautiful place. He frames the mill complex like a Charles Sheeler painting, his shots of trains have a disarming energy, and at times his work is breathtaking. A shop clerk holding bananas is lit from below by sunlight streaking through a window. A woman in a polka-dot dress leans delightedly against a car door.
We’ll never know with certainty what Dowidat intended his film to mean. We can’t even be sure the audience he had in mind. Would he have wanted to show this to the saloon drinkers, the surly shopkeepers, the farm workers he photographed?
What may be the most remarkable aspect of Cologne is that it’s almost entirely edited in camera. Dowidat spliced in his intertitles later, but when he’s shooting a parade, or touring a mill, even when the Flyer speeds past, Dowidat has figured out his sequence of shots beforehand. Watch how he works his way into the band playing at the holiday fair, grabbing over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups of the musicians. Or how he depicts Mohrbacher’s saloon, shots of the affable host leading to overflowing beers and mock altercations. Dowidat knew Cologne, knew what he wanted to show and how to show it.
He ends Cologne with those genuinely disturbing sequences in saloons, and then has Esther write about “Some regrets, many memories — pleasant and bitter — ” What did he mean? Why didn’t he film his children? Why is there so much drinking?
Like the best art, Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther asks more questions than it answers. Local newspapers may offer some clues. Dowidat wasn’t the only doctor in the area, and it’s not clear how residents took to him. The summer before he began assembling the film, the local Weekly Valley Herald reported that he was hurt in a car accident. John was born just about when Esther’s diary filmed entries begin.
By 1940, Dowidat and his family were living in a Minneapolis suburb. He later moved to Saginaw, where he spent 14 years as a staff physician at the V.A. Hospital there. In a 1967 University of Minnesota Medical Bulletin, he thanks the late Dr. Hal Downey for “stimulating my lasting interest in hematology.”
Dowidat’s oldest daughter Adele Johnson found the film in her mother’s attic. She and her husband Richard had to have it digitized in order to view it. Unable to preserve the film themselves, they turned it over to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1989.
“It was a well-made amateur film,” sound and visual collection curator Bonnie Wilson told reporter Brooks Boliek later. “I see hundreds of these a year, and to get something that isn’t just shooting relatives coming out the door is special.”
Daniel Eagan is a film writer and author of America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry.