Tagged: Leeds International Film Festival

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.

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.

35mm films at the Leeds International Film Festival

ThroughAGlassDarkly1web

Through a Glass Darkly

I counted eleven films screening in their original format of 35mm at this year’s Festival. Despite the claims of commercial managers film originated on celluloid tend to look better in that format. It actually requires around 6K digital to match the quality of good 35m prints. And the characteristics of digital are somewhat different from celluloid. Nick Wrigley sets out one key factor in an article in Sight & Sound (December 2012), ‘Crimes against the grain’. Celluloid is composed of silver halide grains, whilst the Digital formats are composed of pixels. Their response to light differs. Modern DCP’s are treated to reproduce the look of grain, but frequently the ‘look’ still differs. One noticeable aspect can be the diminution of definition in long shots. Of course, quality requires good prints and good projection. This has usually been the case with Festival screenings up to now.

One of the retrospective programmes in the Festival is devoted to the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. All of the four films and one of the two documentaries are to be presented on 35m. The other documentary, Trespassing Bergman (2013), was probably produced on digital.

My cinematic youth was filled with the films of Bergman, and other European filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Andrzej Wajda. They remain powerfully present in my memory, but they have also rewarded revisiting in recent years.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961) is the earliest film on show. It is part of a cycle of films described by one critic as ‘chamber works’. It is, for me, one of the two or three finest films directed by Bergman. The film is set on a remote island and involves a small family group. It is an intense drama but with moment of lighter lyricism. Persona (1966) focuses tightly on a convalescing actress and her nurse. It includes some of the most avant-garde techniques found in Bergman’s output and ends with an ambiguous but enthralling set of lap dissolves. The Shame (Skammen, 1968) has a familiar intense relationship at its centre but also broadens out into a study of the effects of violence and war. The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) is the only one of these features in colour. In this film a series of close relationships develop, as a series of violent acts are perpetrated on helpless animals.

Bergman is generally considered an auteur, but like most really talented directors he relies on a carefully selected group of collaborators. All of these films were photographed by Sven Nykvist, one of the outstanding cinematographers in world cinema. All of the films are edited by Ulla Ryghe and three of them have Production Design by P. A. Lindgren, and the last two films have Sound by Lennart Engholm. More familiar are the Bergman ‘stock company’ of actors, some of the finest in world cinema in this period. Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman turn up three times in these films. And we will also be able to see Bibi Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand twice: with appearances by Harriet Anderson and Erland Josephson.

The other regular in Bergman’s films is the Island of Fårö. You will see it as the regular location in these films and it is also where Bergman made his home. Fårö Dokument was made for Swedish Television in 1969. This is both a portrait of the island and of the inhabitants, at a time when contemporary changes were impacting on the island communities.

Welcome Mr. Marshall

Welcome Mr. Marshall

A rather different tone from the intensity of Bergman will be found in several Spanish films directed by Luis García Berlanga.  Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, 1952) is a black and white satire from the years of the Franco Dictatorship. Because of the extreme censorship the film had to tread carefully, but it offers a sardonic look at the operation of Spanish government and bureaucrats. The Mr Marshal in question is the USA Aid programme for war-recovering Europe. This was one of the most successful Spanish films of the 1950s.

That Happy Couple (Esa pareja feliz, 1953) was jointly directed by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, both subjects of retrospectives at the Festival. This is a black and white comedy set round winning a sweepstake – a regular plot device in genre films of the period. It is found in Italian films of the 1950s and Berlanga’s films in particular show the influence of the Neo-realist movement in that country.

Plácido (1961) is a black and white black comedy. The film satirises the gulf between rich and poor and is set on the eve of the Christmas celebrations. The Executioner (El Verdugo, 1963) is another black and white satire. The film suffered cuts by the Francoist censors but still manages to generate ‘gallows’ humour when an undertaker’s assistant marries an executioner’s daughter.

The Day of the Beast (1995) is a much more recent black comedy directed by Alex de la Iglesia and made in colour. Also set in the Christmas celebrations this uses the idea of the Anti-Christ to generate ‘politically incorrect’ comedy. Inglesia also enjoys a retrospective at the Festival.

The Trouble with Money (Komedia om Geld, 1936) is a rare film from the early European period in the career of Max Ophuls. It was produced in black and white for the Cinetone Company in Amsterdam. Ophuls is regarded as a great stylist, especially in his use of editing and the moving camera. But there are also recurring themes in his films: as in La Ronde (1950) there is a narrative figure for this story of the travails of a poor bank clerk. And like the later Madame De… (1953) relationships are intertwined with commodities, in this case an amount of missing money.

Given the sometime unreliability of UK distributors it will be wise to check in advance if the 35mm print in question has arrived. And there may be more treats of this format at the Festival. The Hyde Park Picture House is screening Comfort and Joy (1984) as part of its Open Day. The film is not listed as a 35mm print in the Brochure but when it was the Xmas screening at the Hyde Park we saw a fairly good 35mm print.

 

28th Leeds International Film Festival

Celebrating 100 years during the Festival

Celebrating 100 years during the Festival

This year’s event runs from November 5th until the 20th. There is a set of WebPages (www.leedsfilm.com) and a printed brochure. I prefer the latter as it is easier to scan the programme for films that fit one’s interests. Note this year’s brochure has introductory briefs for the different sections of the Festival and then an A – Z listing of the films. I found the old format with the films divided into sections easier to browse. For the first time the Brochure also indicates films screening on 35mm – i.e. ‘reel’ film. I counted eleven of these. However, the Brochure does not distinguish between the various digital formats – DCP, Blu-Ray, DVD etc. There is usually a Catalogue available at the start of the Festival that provides this information. This year there are fourteen venues, though the core of the Festival will be the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds Town Hall, Vue Cinema in the Light and the Everyman. Its Centenary Year, the widest range of formats and the beautiful ambience of the Hyde Park should make this the star attraction.

The Hyde Park’s Centenary falls on November 7th. Its Open House will see films screening all day and an evening event that includes films produced in 1914, [though the BFI has only made these available on digital]. These screenings are part of a larger festival innovation – Free Screenings. There is a special page on the Film Website – Eventbrite – where reservations can be made.

The Festival programme is organised more or less in the established manner. So there is a range of new and contemporary films from round the world. The Festival opens with an adaptation of Vera Britain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, one of a number of films referencing World War I. Previews also include the Cannes Award Winner Winter Sleep. A friend in Italy, where the film was released last week, tells me that it is very long but very fine. There are also prize-wining films from the Venice, Karlovy and Annecy Animation Festivals. Plus popular style films from Iceland, India and Mexico (among others).

The Leeds Festival has a tradition of quality retrospectives. This year we have a series of films by or about the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. The programme includes two of his finest – Persona (1966) and Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961). Two lesser-known bur very able Spanish directors are featured – Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem. Both worked during the Franco dictatorship, when censorship was extreme. Films like Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, Berlanga 1952) and Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un Ciclista, Bardem 1955) offer intriguing possible subtexts. They are joined by Alex De La Iglesia, whose output is as little known in the UK. And there are two films by Soviet director Konstantin Lopushansky: that he worked as an assistant to Tarkovsky will give you some sense of his approach.

Unsurprisingly there is a section on War and Cinema. The key films in this programme are J’accuse (1918) directed by Abel Gance and La Grande Illusion (1937) directed by Jean Renoir. They are outstanding examples of the best in French cinema, though unfortunately the Gance seems likely to be on digital video. There is also a video installation with a range of film material from World War I at the Royal Armouries Museum – a welcome combination of a major event and a major exhibition centre.

Masters of Film Comedy offers sight of films from Buster Keaton, Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati. More intriguing is Hollywood Greats: European Origins, with directors like Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder represented by the films they made before they quit Europe for Hollywood. And there is the Hollywood bred Josef Von Sternberg working in Europe – with his muse Marlene Dietrich.

There are the regular Underground Voices, Music on Film and Cinema Versa providing opportunities to see films that experiment in subject mater and form. There is a substantial number of titles from Fantasy Cinema and an Anime Day, Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead, always popular. And there is a selection of recent short films from around the World. Finally there are three films that dramatise The American Nightmare – possibly even more relevant given very recent events.

It looks like being a full, varied and exciting sixteen days. As usual the major problem will be the choices that have to be made. A number of the films get two screenings, so check the brochure carefully. One gripe though – the Brochure offers ‘four acclaimed British regional comedy dramas, one from each of the UK home nations’: there are only three ‘home nations’, and these only narrowly missed being reduced to two. Eire, including the six counties in the north, is a separate country if not yet a united state.