Early Sound Films at Leeds International Film Festival

The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel

Alongside a number of silents the Festival features two early examples of working with the ‘sound on film’ technology which arrived in the late 1920s. There were various systems in Europe and North America, but they were all fairly primitive. Cutting or overlaying sound in the manner that filmmakers used celluloid was not developed until the 1930s. Two avoid extraneous sound on the tracks film cameras were enclosed in padded booths, which limited camera movement. This was at a time when filmmakers had just developed the technology of the moving or ‘unchained’ camera. However, talented directors and their production crews quickly developed methods to use sound in an innovative and entertaining/dramatic fashion.

First we have The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1920) filmed at the great UFA studios near Berlin. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, a rather maverick filmmaker who had already established a career in Hollywood. His 1927 Underworld was a pioneer film in the gangster genre. Von Sternberg was born in Vienna but raised in the USA. He returned to Europe at the invitation of Eric Pommer, the great German producer. The film is famous partly because of its casting. It is the first sound film of Emil Jennings. Even more notable it introduced Marlene Dietrich to von Sternberg and the international public. Whilst Dietrich had already made a number of silent films in Germany, von Sternberg bought a new sensuous and dangerous side to the Dietrich persona. Later von Sternberg took Dietrich back to Hollywood where they made a series of provocative and sensuously inspired films. Sternberg’s career declined in the late 1930s but Dietrich became one of the great icons of Hollywood cinema.

Part of the film’s quality is due to the skills of the German film technicians at the UFA Studio. The Cinematography is by Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger: the Editing is by Sam Winston: the Sound Effects by Fritz Thiery: and Production Design by Otto Hunte and Emil Hasler. All of these craft people can be found on the credits of other German films of the period. The UFA studio was the centre of excellence during the 1920s and filmmakers from elsewhere in Europe were eager to work there – Alfred Hitchcock would be a prime example.

The film is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Mann, though the story is fairly truncated, removing the political critique found in the book. Instead Sternberg, who authored much of the script, produced a story of infatuation and its consequences.  Dietrich plays Lola, a night club entertainer, Jannings a professor at a local institute.

John Baxter writes of Dietrich’s Lola, “Her feline stroll on stage, her pointed mocking stares, her casual use of her own sexual allure to beguile the giggling, simpering Jannings became elements in a screen persona Dietrich was too exploit for the rest of her career.”

Sternberg, a director noted for his use of mise en scène and chiaroscuro, “plastered then [the sets] with scores of posters, hung the café with nets, dangling cardboard angels … and everywhere, low hung lamps that give the whole film an air of scented, smoky claustrophobia.”  The combination was an instant success. Sternberg and Dietrich returned in triumph to Hollywood and the film has become a classic of the period

M

M

The second feature was also made in Germany and in the UFA studio in the same period. This is Fritz Lang’s classic M, with an outstanding performance by Peter Lorre in the title role. The film has been transferred onto a DCP using a restoration made by the Deutsche Film Museum and other archives in 2003. The film was banned by the Nazi Party in 1934. It resurfaced in the 1960s but with numerous cuts amounting to over ten minutes of film. In addition the aspect ratio had been changed, leading to the cropping of character’s heads and other such anomalies. And the film’s soundtrack, famous for the effective and eerie use of silence, had been filled with rather tinny accompanying music. The restoration has recreated the film almost entirely as it was when released in 1931.

There is the memorable soundtrack that offers innovation in the new technology of sound on film. There is also impressive use of chiaroscuro, the moving or ‘unchained camera’, and studio built settings. All of these were skills that had placed German cinema in the forefront of European film in the 1920s. The production team included Fritz Arno Wagner on Cinematography, Production Designers Emil Hasler and Karl Volbrecht, Editing by Paul Falkenberg, and on the relatively new sound technology Adolf Jansen. The only music in the film is diegetic [within the story], famously using a passage from Edward Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’. Lang was noted for the use of architectural design in his films. And he places motifs, both visual and aural, that bind together the drama and point up aspects as it develops.

His previous silent films, scripted together with his wife Thea von Harbou, had been both popular and critically acclaimed. Lang also had a penchant for stories taken from real life including newspapers. This film follows the hunt for a serial killer (M), a topic that paralleled the trial of a real-life child murderer in Düsseldorf. However, Lang was also interested in moral judgements, so the film follows a hunt, not just by the police, but also by the criminal underworld, whose work has been disrupted by the search.

The film culminates in a trial scene, and one of the most memorable performances on screen as Lorre’s emotional responses question the judgement that can or should be made. The moral portrait of the film can also be seen as a critical view of the wider society. Some critics see it as a coded warning against the Nazi Party, who assumed power in 1933. This caused both Lang and Lorre to leave Germany, both ending up working in Hollywood. At another level some critics see the film as anti-death penalty, others as a justification for mob justice. The latter seems most unlikely; Lang’s earliest US film was a savage indictment of lynching, Fury (1937). In fact, like the best of Lang’s work, the film presents the characters and drama ambiguously, placing the audience in the position of evaluating and possibly judging.

Despite the travails of the film prints this drama has been enormously influential. One can see the influence in the work of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s: on much of the Hollywood film noir canon, and still in a number of the contemporary serial killer films. This is one film that is undoubtedly worthy of the cachet classic.

Note, the other good news is that Leeds Central Library have just acquired a copy of Tom Gunning’s excellent study, The Films of Fritz Lang, bfi publishing 2000.

Phoenix (Germany 2014)

phoenix-poster

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of the Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).

It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.

The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.

I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to se it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.

As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.

Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!

SPOILERS!! This trailer gives away a crucial plot development:

Silent Films at the Leeds International Film Festival

Buster Keaton in The General

Buster Keaton in The General

Early films made in the decades before the advent of sound on film are a regular feature at the Festival. Most have title cards, which are easier to read than subtitles as they occur between shots and sequences. They were not really ‘silent’, and the Festival regularly provides musicians who accompany the films: a technique that can bring out the drama, emotion and pathos.

This year there is a bumper selection. The one caveat is that all of them are screened from digital formats – either a DCP or DVD/Blu-Ray. The quality of these transfers can be very good, though I personally feel that the 2K DCP does not match the quality of a good 35mm print. The other drawback can be the running speed – in the Silent Era this gradually progressed from 16 fps to 24 fps. So far the UK has not caught up with FIAF, who have produced specifications for silent running speeds on digital. Depending on the frame rate this requires step-printing, adding additional frames copied from the existing ones. This can upset rhythm of films and can produce ‘ghosting’, when an image ‘hangs over’. At least all of these films will be shown on a large theatrical screen.

War and Cinema

J'accuse

J’accuse

There are two classic silents and two associated events focusing on World War I. J’accuse is a famous anti-military film directed by Abel Gance in 1919.  The film has been restored in recent years and now runs for just over two and half hours, [the version shown at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2009 ran for over three hours, this version may have been transferred at a faster frame rate]. This is a key film in the development of two important film techniques in the silent era – superimpositions and montage [fast editing]. The film has a traditional dramatic plot, focussing on two participants in the war. But at the end in a justly famous sequence the film develops into a moving and impressive cry against the violence and destruction of the conflict.

A rather different and typically Hollywood approach is found in Seventh Heaven (1927). The director, Frank Borsage, who won one of the first ever Oscars for this film, had a facility for intense romantic dramas. The lovers in this film are played by Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Gaynor also won in the first Oscar Ceremony, for this film along with Street Angel and Sunrise,

Both films will have a live organ accompaniment in the Town Halls spacious concert auditorium – this is always a splendid film experience.

In addition there is How I filmed the War (Canada 2010), a documentary about the making of The Battle of the Somme. That film, released in 1916, had an immense impact on the British public who flocked to see this film of actual and restaged conflict in droves. There is also a video installation at he Royal Armouries Museum, Film on the Front Line: British propaganda from WWI. This presents a selection from the Imperial War Museum archives with a musical accompaniment. There will be an introduction at the launch at the Museum on Saturday November 8th.

Silent comedy

Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) is probably his finest film and one of the great comedies of that era. Perversely the hero is a Confederate volunteer, so the Union forces fill the role of ‘villains’. The film offers Keaton’s mastery of timing and his ability to stage complex gags – the final train disaster is epic. The film is screening at the City Varieties with live musical accompaniment.

The Festival also features Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fete (12949), which is a sort of hybrid between silent and sound films. There are beautiful evocations of French rural life and superb comic sequences. I assume this will the colour version that was restored a few years ago.

And Charlie Chaplin will feature in the Night at the Cinema event below.

Hollywood Roots

Der Letze Mann

Der Letze Mann

This is a programme of films that show the European Origins of noted Hollywood filmmakers. The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann, 1924) is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House with a live Piano accompaniment. This is the key example of the contribution of 1920s German film to cinematic style. In particular the film pioneered what became known as ‘the unchained camera’, moving the camera on the ground and through the air. Hollywood was so impressed with the film that they recruited the director F. W. Murnau and the cinematographer Karl Freund to the Fox Studio. The film also makes splendid use of chiaroscuro, models and special effects. It relies almost entirely on visual plotting rather than the conventional title cards. And there is a splendid performance by Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman who falls from grace.

[Excuse the plug – but this film is featured in the newly published Studying Early and Silent Cinema - http://autuer.co.uk].

The Hyde Park is also hosting People on Sunday (Menschen am Sontag, 1930). This film employed the talents, not only of Billy Welder, but also Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann – all to become important filmmakers in Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. The film has a simple story line as a group of young Berliners enjoy their day of leisure at the nearby Wannsee Lake. The film achieves a sense of realism that was to be influential in the realist movements in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The musical accompaniment is played by Neil Brand, a noted silent accompanist who is a regular at events in the UK and at International Festivals like Le Giornate. [See a longer review on the Early & Silent Cinema Blog].

The Hyde Park Picture House Centenary

The Hyde Park Picture House - inteterior

The Hyde Park Picture House – inteterior

This will be one hundred years on from November 7th 1914. So [along with other programmes] the cinema is screening a new compilation from the British Film Institute, A Night at the Cinema in 1914. The film is a selection of films produced in the UK and the USA in 1914: there are ‘actualities’ [documentaries], newsreel, an episode from a serial and comedies. This digital transfer comes with a pre-recorded musical accompaniment played by Stephen Horne, a talented musician who performs regularly at the National Film Theatre and the prestigious Le Giornate. The programme of the film offers:

A Night at the Cinema in 1914            85 minutes

Looping the Loop at Hendon (March 1914)

Pioneering British aviators Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks perform stunts at the legendary Hendon airfield. Although not hard news, this was a topical story. 

Palace Pandemonium (May 1914)

The leading campaigner for votes for women, Emmeline Pankhurst, goes to petition the King in person at Buckingham Palace. The campaign for votes for women was very high-profile and often featured in the news. The suffragettes would stage appearances at events for maximum impact.

Austrian Tragedy (July 1914)

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, this newsreel shows footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, including the wedding of Archduke Karl who succeeded Franz Ferdinand as heir to the imperial throne.

Dogs for the Antarctic (August 1914)

Following the death of Captain Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton plans another expedition to Antarctica, taking plenty of dogs. This is typical of the ‘magazine’ style film shorts of the time.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial

American Vitagraph studio star Florence Turner ran her own film company at the Hepworth studios on the Thames. In this comedy ‘dial’ means ‘face’. The ebullient Daisy Doodad practises for a face-pulling competition and ends up getting herself arrested.

Egypt and her Defenders

This travelogue of the famous sights of Egypt shows Lord Kitchener as British Consul General before he was made Secretary of State for War. In this film with colour tinting, he is seen reviewing the troops.

Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine

Fred Evans was the most popular British comedian of the age, turning out hundreds of ‘Pimple’ films which made a virtue of their low budgets. Here Pimple foils the plans of dastardly foreign spies. If Monty Python had made comedies in 1914 they would look like this.

Scouts’ Valuable Aid (August 1914)

As the nation gears up for war even the young are mobilised to help the war effort … Here a pair of Sea Scouts are on the look-out on the cliff tops for an invading fleet.

German Occupation of Historic Louvain (September 1914)

When Germany invades neutral Belgium, the destruction of the historic town of Louvain and its ancient university library provokes worldwide outrage. This newsreel was presumably filmed by a cameraman from a neutral country.

General French’s Contemptible Little Army

General French, commander of the British army in France, gets the better of the Germans in this lightning sketch by pioneering animator Lancelot Speed. Animation was popular and commonly distributed as part of the newsreels. Cartoons allowed Speed to be splendidly irreverent.

Christmas at the Front (December 1914)

Troops celebrate Christmas at the Front. We’re not told where for reasons of national security. But it’s good to see the boys being well fed before they return to the trenches.

The Perils of Pauline

American imports were always popular and serials were the latest sensation in 1914. In this excerpt, Pearl White stars as Pauline, a feisty heroine pursued by villains eager to get their hands on her fortune and features both an accidental hot air balloon trip and a spectacularly daring rescue from a burning building.

The Rollicking Rajah

Years before the arrival of the ‘talkies’, this Vitaphone song film (which wonderfully shows the ladies fashions and dance moves of the day) would have been accompanied by a synchronised sound disc, which is now lost. The song is recreated here from the surviving sheet music. The Vitaphone was a British sound on disc system pioneered by Cecil Hepworth.

A Film Johnnie

In 1914, Hollywood is born and British comedian Charles Chaplin is its greatest star. He explodes onto British screens in summer of that year. This is one of his very first films and is, appropriately, set in a cinema.

What We Did On Our Holiday (UK 2014)

David Tennant and Rosamund Pike with Emilia Jones as Lotte.

David Tennant and Rosamund Pike with Emilia Jones as Lotte.

The generally good showing of this comedy at the UK box office (over £3 million after 3 weeks) indicates the strength of a new cycle of TV-film sitcom adaptations. The cycle was kick-started by the phenomenal success of The Inbetweeners (2011) followed by Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie (2014) and The Inbetweeners 2 (2014). In the Loop (2009) is also a link as a ‘spin-off from the TV series In the Thick of It. The last time a cycle this was evident was back in the 1970s as the old UK studio system was on its last legs.

What We Did On Our Holiday is slightly different in re-casting the central characters, but to many audiences in the UK the new film is a big-screen excursion for writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins and their creation of Outnumbered. The television show featured the relationship between a middle-class couple and their three children, each of whom in a different way were able to out-think their parents. The young actors were allowed to improvise on set, making the confusion of their scripted parents more believable. Since the characters have now grown up (the series began in 2007) they would need to be re-cast by definition but the first question the new film raises is the replacement of Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis by Rosamund Pike and David Tennant. The simple answer is possibly that the parents have to be younger as well as the children, but I did feel that Tennant, a fine actor and a star TV performer, was not well-cast in the film. Rosamund Pike copes better and she has now got genuine film presence rather than a TV profile. There has been some evidence of Tennant’s legion of fans complaining that he doesn’t feature enough in the narrative – which inevitably perhaps focuses on the three children.

The children are the central issue for many audiences and critics. On a crude level, the children are either irritating smartarses or totally believable as bright kids confronting the world with questions and logical responses. I’m in the latter camp but it isn’t difficult to find plenty of disgruntled critics who can’t stand the children. My impression is that the children in the feature film improvise less than in the TV version. Perhaps because they are less familiar they also seem to me to be slightly less ‘extreme’ in their performances, certainly I found them ‘softer’. They are younger and now there are two girls and a boy, reversing the TV casting. I thought all three gave excellent performances which is a credit to Hamilton and Jenkin who haven’t directed for the cinema before.

The film’s plot sees Tennant and Pike as Doug and Abi, a couple in London in the process of living in separate houses and divorcing each other – but not yet explaining their plans to their children or to the rest of the family. Now they must travel to the Highlands for Doug’s father’s 75th birthday. Played by Billy Connolly, Gordy McLeod has cancer and this might be his last birthday. The birthday party is being hosted by Doug’s brother Gavin (Ben Miller) who is the ‘successful’ son with a large income and a big house ‘on the company’.

The main action takes place on the day of the party – a huge affair with a marquee in the grounds and a hundred plus guests. Grandad takes the three kids to his favourite spot on the beach to escape the preparations and the tone of the film changes slightly. What happens next seems to have surprised, even shocked some audiences but seemed to be well-handled to me.

Much of the last third of the narrative depends on the setting near Gairloch on the North West coast of Scotland. The huge skies, the beauty of the landscape and the hordes of midgies plus the isolation and local mythologies all point to that aspect of Scottish film culture that is always prone to ‘tartanry’. Because of this, it is tempting to link the film to Local Hero, The Wicker Man etc. The film is part-funded by Creative Scotland and I hope it encourages tourism but I don’t think it delves into Scottish stereotypes too much. Instead there is a focus on the tabloid media, reminding us of Hamilton and Jenkin’s first big hit, the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey (sorely missed – what could that programme have done with social media culture?).

Billy Connolly is restrained and very funny and Amelia Bulmore is affective as Gavin’s depressed wife. The strong supporting cast also includes Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. There is some cod philosophising, but overall I found the film to be good entertainment. I laughed, I cried and I left the cinema satisfied. What more can you ask?