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Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) screening

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening a 35mm print of the 2005 restoration of this Soviet Classic. The screening is supported by the Cinema For All – Yorkshire (Group). This is a rare chance to see the film in its original form rather than just on digital. The screening will enjoy a piano score by Darius Battiwalla, an experienced accompanist who impressed audiences in the now sadly defunct National Media Museum ‘silent with live music’.

The Picture House, recuperated after the floods of 2016, now has a new 35mm projector. The introduction will place the film in the context of the seminal Soviet Montage Movement and, importantly, of the revolutionary society ushered in by The Great October Revolution, which Centenary occurred in the last few weeks.

Check out the cinema: http://www.hebdenbridgepicturehouse.co.uk/live-events/reel-film-battleship-potemkin

Check out the BFI restored print: https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-battleship-potemkin-bronenosets-potemkin-2/

The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, USSR 1925)

USSR 1925. Black and white, silent with musical accompaniment, 1337 metres / 71 minutes.

The British Film Institute is providing a welcome release at the end of April, the recent restoration of Sergei Eisenstein’s political classic. Perhaps some enterprising exhibitor will programme the film for May Day: not the British Spring Bank but International Workers Day. Unfortunately I rather suspect that is still true that more people have seen one sequence from the film, The Odessa Steps, than have seen the entire drama. Yet even now, as well as being a moving and inspiring spectacle, the film remains immensely influential. One can discern its impact on filmmaker as diverse as Oliver Stone, Ousmane Sembène and Mani Ratnam; i.e. among many others.

The film premiered in the then Soviet Union in December 1925. Essentially the film’s plot dramatises a famous episode of the earlier 1905 Revolution. A mutiny on a Tsarist battleship leads to a ferment and upsurge of democratic sentiment in the southern city of Odessa. The autocratic regime responds with brutal suppression. The parallel to present events is clear.

However, what made the film such a seminal work was the approach to form and style by the radical team of artists. In the 1920s Soviet filmmakers pioneered an unconventional approach to films. The mainstream movie represented by Hollywood developed a story through continuity and engaged spectators emotionally in the dramas built around their stars. The Soviet model tended more to types, representing the class relations of the time. They utilised radical discontinuities in technique, especially in the editing of shot to shot. Eisenstein developed the most complex ideas around montage and Potemkin is a coherent presentation of these.

The film caused a sensation both among advanced elements in the USSR and among workers and intellectuals abroad. My favourite reminiscence of the time is Luis Buñuel who recalls building a barricade outside the cinemas after a screening: [an example followed by radical students after a screening of the Argentinean documentary La hora de los hornos / The hour of the furnaces, 1968].

However, Eisenstein’s film suffered at the hands of authorities. In Germany the censors cuts sequences from the film. In Britain it was banned completely: though the intellectually safe bourgeois London Film Society was able to screen the film. With the rise of conservative forces and ‘socialist realism’ the Soviet authorities joined the act. Among pieces excised was a title card bearing a quotation by Trotsky. And when a sound version was produced in 1949 The Odessa Steps sequence included re-editing that fitted more comfortably with continuity conventions. There was also a Hollywood World War II version, Seeds of Freedom (1943), in which the events surrounding the Potemkin are presented in a flashback by a partisan fighting the German invaders. All sorts of mishaps and elisions can happen to films over the years: I saw one 16mm version in which there were only two stone lions instead of the three following the Steps sequence. And the original Russian title cards were often poorly translated.

Part of the resurgence around silent film has involved the restoration of lost or mutilated classics. This involves careful research in film archives and through contemporary published sources: careful study of surviving film footage: and sophisticated technical processes applied to actual film stock. The film may require reconstruction and new translations. There have been several restoration works on Eisenstein’s film. The current release is the most recent. Enno Patalas with the Deutsche Kinemathek carried out the restoration, and it has been the most painstaking. The resultant print is the closest yet to that screened originally in 1925.

Of particular interest for UK film buffs is that the main constituents for this restoration are  surviving copies in prints held by the British Film Institute. One is the version shown at the London Film Society in 1929. Eisenstein and his team had bought this from Moscow to London, though fresh English title cards were inserted.

The London screening also featured an accompanying score by Edmund Meisel. He was a German composer experienced in theatrical accompaniment and commissioned to compose a score for the German release. In many ways the score is as vital and complex as the film. On one occasion the German authorities banned the music but allowed the film to be screened. The British Film Institute is circulating this version of the restoration in a High Definition digital package, which includes a recording of the score synchronised with the film. There is a drawback to this format, as the HD projector runs at 24 frames per second. When the film was screened at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in a 35mm print it ran at 18 fps. It would seem that this digital version has been processed through computer software to adjust for the different in film speed. Even so what we will have is the best approximation to Eisenstein’s masterpiece in it original form.

Enno Patalas has described the restoration in an article in the Journal of Film Preservation, 2005.

Still courtesy of the bfi and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Pandora’s Box, (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929)

This is a film classic from Weimar cinema and it is screening in its original 35mm format as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the Hebden Bridge Picture House. The film has become memorable for a number of reasons. One is the star, Louise Brooks, who worked in the burgeoning Hollywood studio system but also in Europe; and here film-makers bought out a luminous quality to her screen presence. Brooks was an attractive and vivacious and smart actress; her ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ (1974), recording her experiences in the film capital, is a great and informative read. Here she plays a ‘free spirit’ whose charisma has a fatal effect on the men that she meets.

In this film she was working with one of the fine directors of Weimar Cinema. G. W Pabst. Pabst was born in Austria but his major career was in Germany. He was good with actors, especially women; his Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925) features three divas, Asta Neilsen, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Pabst worked particularly in the ‘street’ film genre and in complex psychological dramas. He was noted for the fluid flow of the editing in his films. Following Pandora’s Box Pabst also directed Brooks in the very fine Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929).

One reason for the quality of Pabst’s silent films is the skill and expertise of the craft people working in Weimar Cinema. They led Europe in the quality of their production design and construction; and the development of ‘an unchained camera’ was extremely influential, leading to German directors and craft people being recruited to the major Hollywood studios.

The film is an adaptation of an important German play Earth Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904) by Franz Wedekind. There had already been an earlier film adaptation with Asta Neilsen in the role of Lulu (1923); and there is a famous operatic adaptation, Lulu, by Alban Berg. In the play the character of Lulu is described as “the true animal, the wild, beautiful animal” and the “primal form of woman”.

In the play she is an ambiguous character; Pabst and Brooks bring a sense of natural innocence to the character who is much less of a femme fatale than in other versions. Wedekind’s play was controversial in its time as was this film adaptation. The film was censored in many countries including Britain where there was an altered and ludicrous ending.

The film opens in Berlin with Lulu’s many male admirers: we have major German film actors, Fritz Kortner as Dr. Ludwig Schön: Francis Lederer as Alwa Schön: Carl Goetz as Schigolch: Krafft-Raschig as Rodrigo Quast: and also Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Here one gets a sense of the social whirl of the capital; often seen as decadent from outside. As the narrative develops Lulu has to leave Berlin and we see  her and her entourage on a ship based gambling venue and finally in the noirish East End of London.

Originally running for 133 minutes; this print has most of the cuts restored and runs for 131 minutes at 20 fps and in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It has German title cards with English sub-titles. It also has a live musical accompaniment sponsored by Cinema for All – Yorkshire. An earlier and successful screening that they supported had a fine accompaniment of the classic Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925) by Darius Battiwalla. Darius is a fine and experienced accompanist and here he will have a very different classic to work with. It should be a rewarding two hours of screen time: Saturday December 4th at 4.30 p.m.

Pavilion: Artists on Film

 

This series of events organised by the Pavilion visual arts project based in Leeds was screening at the Hyde Park Picture House and a small venue in the Grand Theatre complex in New Briggate. At the invitation of the Pavilion Herb Shellenberger [from Philadelphia but now resident in London] curated an ambitious programme of films by artists; some film-makers but some artists first. Will Rose introducing the opening event admitted that the programme was larger than originally envisaged. There were seven separate screenings with 33 separate films ranging in length from 4 minutes to well over an hour. In his introduction Herb explained that artists based in Yorkshire were contributing but that their art works would be placed ‘in dialogue with work from international artists.

The opening event on a Friday evening saw the Picture House screening two 35mm prints: ‘Bliss it was in that [even] to be alive’. And better still the main feature was one of the outstanding masterworks from the French film-maker, photographer, writer, traveler and eccentric, Chris Marker. Marker died in 2012 after a life full of quirky artistic work. He was a collaborator with Alain Resnais and a friend and colleague of the recently deceased Agnes Varda. These two shared a love of cats. All three were part of the ‘left bank group’ ; a key but overlooked movement within the nouvelle vague. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the  famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world  Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:

“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”

Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.

The film’s written component is a series of letters read [in parts] with comments by an unidentified female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. He remarks that he has seen the film nineteen times; I am not sure if I have ever seen a film that many times, but it could be Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925 USSR). I actually did the same homage to the Vertigo with a French guide and Marker fan.

The largest part of Sans Soleil are the sequences from Japan and from Guinea-Bissau / Cape Verde; societies that Marker suggests are

“two extreme poles of survival.”

This is illustrated in the film. Marker also notes the political context with archive footage of the African Liberation struggle and one charismatic leader, Amilcar Cabral.

The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine

“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”

(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the time).

Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There is found footage and stills/freeze frame in colour and black and white academy. And some of the film is synthesised by a colleague. He recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner,  thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The screening presented the original French language version in a 35mm print in good condition.

Sans Soleil was preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm. This was Black by Anouk De Clercq (Belgium, 2015). This was the only print of this art work which by now was showing signs of wear and tear. The sub-titles noted this suggesting the film picked up on a point early in the Marker film where the film-maker addresses the use of black leader. I did wonder if either film-maker had the Soviet artist Kazemir Valedich in mind.

The second screening I attended was titled ‘The Gentle Touch’ and presented five titles featuring:

“Stone, flesh, blood or electric circuit, feet on the ground versus data in the cloud. From automaton to avatar, artists reflect on the tension between our own individual, physical bodies and the animated, virtual body.” (Curator’s Notes)

Three of the regional film-makers attended and spoke about their work after the screening.

The first title was The Love of Statues (2019) by Peter Samson, based in Doncaster. This was a combination of film, found footage and archive stills. Shot partly in Paris at the museum of the Salpetriere Asylum containing a bevy of C19th objects. It was shot in black and white and partly in widescreen and partly in academy ratio.  Peter explained that he had worked on the material several time over the years and this was the most recent version. He had to edit together materials in different ratios. The theme at the asylum was hypnosis and hysteria but the  visual theme of this title was bodies in relation to both statues and automaton. It had an eerie feeling and much of the film was in chiaroscuro.

Self-digitalisation (2015) by James Thompson ran for nine minutes in colour and widescreen. This was in a single long shot of a picture gallery at Hospitalfield House where Thomson was on an artist residency. The film  aimed to ‘re-interpret’ the room and objects as a young man took a series of digital self-portraits, ‘selfies’. These were done at speed in an arch manner. If we were meant to look at the art through these it failed for me; and as a satirical take on the ‘selfie’ it needed more angles or positions.

Dog’s Dialogue / Colloque de chiens (France 1977) was a 22 minute ‘photo-roman’ by Raúl Ruiz, screened from a colour 35mm print. The English sub-titles were projected digitally. A ‘photo-roman’ uses a series of still shots to offer some sort of narrative. This one was unconventional as it included moving images, both of the titular dogs and, later, of a location. The various dogs, mainly tied up and barking, were some sort of metaphor. The humans in the story proper went through a cycle of events that

“consists of news items collected in magazines. A melodramatic pseudo-detective thread woven round imagery from women’s magazines.” (Institut Français).

In what seemed to be a homage to the photo-roman’s founder, Chris Marker, at one point a ‘still image’ turned into a brief moment of movement.

This film was typical of Ruiz’s work in France, where he was an exile after the coup in his native Chile. His work was literary, ironic, sardonic and experimental. It was also, as with this title, always engaging.

Another film on 35mm with digital subtitles was Au Père Lachaise (France 1986) a thirteen minute title by Jean-Daniel & Pierre-Marie Goulet. This is a Municipal cemetery in Paris, apparently the most visited in the world It is the earlier example of as ‘garden cemetery’. Many famous people lie there, notably Oscar Wilde. And the Institut Français offered a quotation from another famous inmate, Honoré de Balzac.

“It’s all of Paris but seen through the looking glass, a microscopic Paris reduced to the dimensions of shadows, larvae, death, a human race that has nothing more than vanity’”

The vanity is obvious in some of the monumental graves, similar to those found in London’s Highgate cemetery. However, the film was more interested in the space, arrangement and foliage; something that disappointed at least one viewer.

The film used a series of tracking shots, interspersed with long shots to close-ups; reminiscent of the style of Alain Resnais. To its credit the film did end with an note about 147 people associated with the cemetery; the heroes and heroine so f the Paris Commune, executed nearby and commentated by a simple plaque.

The memorial to the Communards

The Turning of the Helmet (2018) by Rhian Cooke, an artist currently involved in the Yorkshire Sculpture International. The film ran 3 minutes in colour and 16:9, [television funding]. The opening of the film used animation techniques playing with ceramics and textiles to offer a sense of the helmet. The later stage expanded into actual cinematography to present a pill box which was an inspiration for work with a helmet. This was well done but [for me as is often the way with very personal experimental film] I did not really engage with the thematics.

I had a similar problem with Soft Body Goal (Finland, 2010) a four minute title by Jaako Pallsasvuo. This combined digital animation and dubbed sound with a bevy of bodies;

“Body without bone. Sloppy and improper. Body seepage. Naked sewer rats. Hairless aristocratic cats. Slime …. the body of the future ….”

However, the techniques used were impressive.

We almost did not see the final title, Ice Cream. This was a 1970 16mm film copied onto a digital format; I suspect there were compatibility problems because we had three false starts. However, the film repaid the wait. The director, Antoni Padrós, was an underground Catalan film-maker. Born during the Spanish Civil War most of his career was spent under the Francoist dictatorship. His film work was subversive, iconic and iconoclastic. This title featured two young people, explicit sex and the titular ice cream. It clearly subverted and made fun of the repressive values and censorship of the times. One could almost imagine a Franco stooge banning ice creams for a period.

I felt that the older European titles had political as well as aesthetic stances. Whereas the more recent British titles were far more personal and did not have overt political themes: They were also apparently more preoccupied with aesthetics. The former are closer to the key film of the programme, Sans Soleil, which combined politics and aesthetic in a complexly cinematic manner.

A third programme was ‘Sail the Summer Winds’. I was unclear regarding the overall programme title: sea-scapes seen a common feature.

The opening film was A Mysterious Devotion (1973), written and directed by Alf Bowers & Andy Birtles. They were fellow students at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic. This institution funded the filming. The completion and editing was done by Bowers whilst a student at the new National Film School.

Herb Shellenberger in his written introduction commented;

“Alf Bowers A Mysterious Devotion evidences several decades of wildly creative and experimental film-making in Yorkshire. The ambitious 16mm cinemascope film [in black and white] is an oblique narrative following several members of a family as they experience and process a traumatic death. There is no dialogue but the camera stalks its actors around the house and at the seaside, at times claustrophobically close and others in wide shots at the sea.”

Alf Bowers and answered questions after the screening. He noted that the film was based on ideas that were in

“the heads of the protagonists … things that could have happened.”

He suggested the only event that was certainly actual was the death of the father at the opening of the film. And the plotting followed the proposal by Jean-Luc Godard,

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

Alf Bowers with Herb Shellenberger and Will Rose

The film was shot in a house in Sheffield and at Flamborough Head. The anamorphic lens used was a projection model, which made the camerawork extremely difficult, The film used filters for one shot and high speed cinematography for two sequence. The film stock used was Kodak Plus-X, [also used on Schindler’s List ( 1993). This produced a high-contrast image. However, whilst there is a 16mm print available the film was screened from a digital copy. There was apparently a technical reason for this. However, the digital copy did not really do justice to the high-contrast imagery: most of the film was reasonable but there were two sequences, including the end credits, where the images was not distinct enough. This was the first screening  of the film for about 20 years so it is a shame we did not see a pristine version . It remains a powerful and impressive short film, running 47 minutes.

The Eraser / Keshigomu (Japan, 1977) by Shūji Terayama. This was a 20 minute film on 16mm in colour and academy. The setting is a seashore and we see several characters posing here and in an interior. But the image is overlaid by video filter patterns. And a hand appears frequently using the technique to erase part of the image. As Herb Shellenberger commented,

“a unique conceptual work that is difficult to define.”

Alaska (Germany 1969) by film-maker Dore O who co-founded the Hamburger Filmmacher Cooperative. In black and white and colour the film shared a technique with The Eraser: in this example polka dots cover and obscure a range of subjects, animals, people, settings. The film also has a distinctive sound track using musical instruments, machine noise and recorded sound. Herb Shellenberger’s comment is similar though:

“a film that resists all interpretations.”

All three films demonstrated film-makers working with unconventional and experimental techniques.

I was able to catch three of the seven programmes so my sense of the overall was limited. However, this was an impressive collection of artistic films, many of them rare, especially in theatrical presentations. It is good that The Pavilion and the Hyde Park Picture House were prepared to be so adventurous. The largest audience was for Sans Soleil, the best known work in the weekend. Other audiences were smaller but we are dealing with avant-garde work. It is nice to know that an audience exists for this less commercial but influential area of cinema.

Weimar – Freitag

The first port of call in the morning is the Berlinale Press Centre in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in the centre of Potsdamer Platz. You can get coffee served by very helpful young film-buffs [I assume]. There is Press Information who got to know me well during the week but were still unfailingly affable and helpful. Importantly there is a kiosk where you can book screenings for the same day [usually gone] and for the next day. There is a computer room. The staff there got to know me well too, especially as they have a myriad different keyboard for different languages. They all do ‘@’ differently. And there is a large screen where you can watch the Press sessions by film-makers, actors and production personnel. The centre seems to run in waves, quiet then heaving, then quiet again. There appeared to be a large influx about 9 a.m. and again at 11 a.m. I spent quite some time on computers and less time in one of the excellent cafés nearby. They make excellent hot chocolate and served delicious pastries.

My first ticket for the day was Brothers (Brüder, 1929). This was a ‘proletarian’ film directed by Werner Hochbaum. The basis for the plot was a famous strike in Hamburg docks in 1896.

“Made on the eve of the global economic crisis, Werner Hochbaum’s look back at the failed Hamburg dock-workers strike is a reminder of the achievements in social welfare that the trade unions and social democracy brought about in the Weimar Republic. This film, Hochbaum’s feature début, received support from both the Unions and the Social Democratic Party.”

The focus of the narrative is a leading union member and his family, which includes a wife suffering [apparently] from consumption, his own mother and their daughter. He is a key mover when an individual worker is knocked down by a foreman. In fact, at times the plot reminded me of Eisenstein’s Strike (Stachka. 1925) which would have been seen in Germany by this date. The film dramatises the solidarity of the striking workers and the unholy alliance of the state authorities and police with the capitalist management. There is a mass meeting of the dock-workers where, despite the caution expressed by the official, section after section of the work force support the call for a strike. What I found odd was that two policemen appeared to be sitting in on the meeting. I asked one of the staff from Deutsche Kinemathek and she thought that this was a legal requirement during Weimar. There is a system of strike pay but it appears to be a pittance.

Late in the film our protagonist is arrested on a trumped-up charge. But a demonstration by his comrades enables him to escape. However, as in history, the workers are forced back. But, in a possible reference to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) there is a colourised red flag.

We viewed the film on a pretty good 35mm print. The film was full of location shots which, I was assured, were filmed for the production by Gustav Berger. He was an adept cameraman, using high and low angles and some notable travelling shots. We had a fine score by Stephen Horne who seemed as inspired by the film as I was.

Homecoming (Heimkehr, 1928) was the second film in the programme directed by Joe May. The story follows two German POWs held in Russia in 1917, Richard (Lars Hanson) and Karl (Gustav Fröhlich). In terms of the drama and screen time Karl is the main character but it seems that Hanson had the primary credit. Rather than imprisoned in a camp Richard and Karl have been left unguarded to operate a river ferry: however, they are in the wilds of Siberia, so escape seems daunting. In between ferrying passengers, mainly it would seem fellow prisoners sent to work in the mines, Richard incessantly talks about and describes his home and his wife Anna (Dita Pario). When they finally escape Karl must carry the exhausted Richard but eventually Richard is recaptured, and Karl continues his escape journey.

A year later Karl arrives in Hamburg and visits the flat looking for Richard. He is still absent, but Anna is entertained by Karl’s stories of the duo’s life in captivity. She offers Karl the use of one room. Inevitably a romance develops between Anna and Karl, though they try to resist this. Inevitably Richard returns and finds how relationships have changed in his absence. The climax and resolution of the film essay the conflicting demands of friendship, jealousy and desire.

The film is very well done. The film relies extensively on sets, but these work fine and there is some fine low-key lighting. The cast is good. There is a delightful sequence when Karl arrives at the Hamburg flat and, thanks to Richard’s descriptions, he both recognises the layout and notes the changes. There is some very smart editing late in the film as parallel cuts show us the responses of the different characters as the drama unfolds.

“Producer Erich Pommer had just returned from Hollywood where he had made two war films, Hotel Imperial and Barbed Wire. With this story of a love triangle, he brought American production methods to bear on Weimar cinema.”

The film avoids excessive militarism; this is a downbeat story of soldiers and war. The film starts in March 1917 and I rather expected that the Russian revolution would figure at some point. But the date is more to do with the war which, unlike in the West, ended in a treaty between Germany and the new Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. So, Richard’s release is signalled when a Red Guard tells prisoners that they can ‘go home’.

“In the tradition of earlier intimate dramas, the film focuses on the psychology of the three protagonists. In the process, it creates a model of masculinity – unusual for the way the subject was normally dealt with in Germany at the time – that is utterly devoid of military bearing.”

Whilst this is true the representation of masculinity is not that different. The resolution of the film completely focusses on the two men and after the point at which they leave the flat we do not see Anna again. This is a rather cavalier treatment especially as Dita Pario is excellent in the role. We enjoyed a good 35mm print. The piano accompaniment was provided by Ricard Seidhoff, a young musician who performs in Weimar. His score was good, and I am sure I will hear him again at silent screenings.

Der Favorit der Königin (The Queen’s Favourite, 1922) was entertaining but offered a plot that was pure hokum. The Queen of the title was clearly a stand-in for Queen Elizabeth of England. The film is set in London and among the many references are the new colonies in the North Americas, including Virginia, though we never actually travel there. The main plot device is a ‘Grey Death’ that mysteriously strikes down people. The opening in a noir-like street as the bodies are carried away is very effective. There follows a tavern frequented by body snatchers, a breed supplying doctors with cadavers since the Church and State forbid dissection of the dead, on pain of death.

However, leading doctor Pembroke believes that dissection is only way to establish the causes of the ‘Grey Death’. When he pays the full penalty of the law his assistant Arthur Leyde continues his work. Complicating the narrative is the mutual attraction between Arthur and Pembroke’s daughter Evelyne, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. But Evelyne is the object of desire of Lord Surrey who is already the Queen’s paramour.

It is the solving of the mystery of the ‘Grey Death’ which results in the resolution of the film, I would rather not spoil the fun by explaining this. But I can point out that Arthur’s treatment consists solely of his standing by the bed of a sufferer till the mystery illness passes. Presumably the limited medical knowledge of late C16th explains why no-one seems to notice that he does not actually carry out any medical procedures.

“In the suspenseful period film, [low on suspense actually], the stated goal of the doctors is to “liberate science from its shackles and the people from a scourge”. In 1922, it was no doubt a provocation – and not only in catholic Bavaria – to articulate a democratic ideal that was a resounding call to the powers that be and the clergy that “the people’s voice is the voice of God.”

However, the film is more interested in the elites than ordinary people who are represented as superstitious and gullible. The main characters are rather melodramatic. The film is from early in the 1920s, a period when acting came closer to what we regard as a naturalistic performance. The films are variable and there is a tendency to stand and declaim, a hang-over from the teens. The 35mm print was good.and Stephen Horne worked well in developing some psychology among the protagonists.

So today Hamburg became the most filmed city in the retrospective after Berlin. The docks obviously fitted well with the dramatic plots of the popular genres. And it also provided a range of interesting locations which the films were happy to exploit.

2017 in Review

I did not think that this was a great year for new releases. There were some very fine films, though often one had to seek them out.

I thought that the Palestinian film 3000 Nights / 3000 Layla (2015) was a powerful portrait of the effects of occupation.

Certain Women (2016) was another fine film from Kelly Reichardt with four excellent performances.

I am Not Your Negro (2016) was a very good documentary though I thought it was weakened by not directly addressing James Baldwin’s homosexuality.

After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku (2015) was another fine family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu.

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan patriotic epic, is here in its 70mm/IMAX version: a true cinematic experience.

Sally Potter’s The Party was one of the wittiest films of the year, standing out from some of the more heavy-handed satires.

Happy End was typical of Michael Haneke and of equal quality to his earlier films.

And Mountains May Depart (2015) was a distinctive but finely made Chinese drama.

Praise for Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and for  Sallie Hawkins in Maudie (2016).

The year was improved by quite few classics re-exhibited and/or in Festival programmes. However, some of these were transferred to digital formats and that is a lottery for viewers. So I seek out those on 35mm prints.

Odd Obsession / Kagi (Japan, 1959] was a discovery, a sardonic family drama from Ichikawa Kon.

Humanity and Paper Balloons / Ninjô kami fûsen, directed by Yamanaka Sadao in 1937, was a film I knew of but only now had the opportunity of seeing: it has one of the great endings in world cinema.

West Indies (1979) is Med Hondo’s exhilarating take on slavery, the African Diaspora and European racism.

And one film that transferred to digital with such care and attention that it retained its cinematic qualities was The Bride of Glomdal / Glomdalsbruden, directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

I was fortunate to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky / Aleksandr Nevskiy (USSR, 1938) in a nitrate print which gave a luminous edge to the famous ‘battle on the ice’ sequence’.

At the opposite end of the scale there were a number of filmic duds but the title that seemed the most interminable was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Interesting directors from national cinemas tend to lose that interest when they move into English-language International co-productions.

The wooden spoon goes to The Lost City of Z (2016). It was a rare 4K DCP distribution but the files that I saw included digital break-up and colour distortion. Friends had the same problem with different exhibitors. But the distributor Studio-Canal, declined an explanation for this.

But equally reprehensible is whoever controls the policy at the BFI of access to archive prints. I saw both Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (USSR 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (USSR 1927) in 35mm prints with excellent musical accompaniments, but the prints were copies of sound transfers rather than the proper silent prints with the correct frame rate and framing. Lenin’s adage about cinema clearly falls on death ears despite the Centenary of ‘The Great October Revolution’.

‘Waiting to see …’