Category: Silent Era

Film from 1919 at Il Cinema Ritrovato

Neil Brand at the piano in the Modernissimo

Every year this Archive Festival in Bologna has a programme of titles from the parallel year in the 20th century, A Hundred Years Ago: 1919′. The curators of the programme, Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko, made the point in the Festival Catalogue:

1919 is the first year of the A Hundred Years Ago strand for which a certain canon exists . . . the easiest option seemed not to be the most interesting one, and we decided, as in every year since 2004, to go on a pilgrimage to the archives and view as many films from 1919 as possible . . . We also decided at an  early stage to include as many short films as possible …

They also argued that the focus is on films from Germany and Scandinavia.

This was not planned but simply happened  as a result of the fact that in 1919 the most interesting films were made there.

So we enjoyed some known classics, unknown films and surprises, and a programme of varied short films from small dramas to travelogues and newsreels. One of the attractions of the selection was that the bulk of the screenings were on 35mm. Even so, given the complexity of the overall festival programme, with up to seven screens at any one time, it was not possible to see every single film.

The programme was divided into eight chapters, the first being ‘Old and New’.

Here we saw Carl Théodor Dreyer’s very fine The President (Præsedenten, 1919). Adapted from an Austrian novel the President of the title is a judge. His fallibility repeats the transgression of both his father and grandfather. The print  from the Danish Film Institute was both tinted and toned  and the visual quality was enhanced by a fine accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. This was a great film to revisit.

‘The President’

Three other titles were by Jakov Protozanov, Mauritz Stiller {Sir Arne’s Treasure / Herr Arnes Pengar} and Augusto Genina. The last was a social comedy, The Mask and the Face / La maschera e il volto, in which a husband’s macho boasts on what he will do if his wife takes a lover come back to haunt him.

Next was ‘Censorship Abolished. German ‘Vice and Enlightenment Films”.

A vice film (in German: Sittenfilm) is a film that, under the mantle  of ‘enlightenment’, deals with taboo subjects mostly from  the field of sexuality. (Karl Wratschko in the Catalogue).

There was a film directed by Richard Oswald on a gay them, Different from the Others (Anders als die andern). The Pimp (Der Mädchenhirt) directed by Karl Grune  with prostitution and venereal decease in the plot. When censorship was re-imposed it disappeared from view. Whilst Misericordia (Tötet nicht mehr!) was a committed film addressing capital punishment directed by Lupu Pick.

‘Indian Cinema’ was a screening of D. G. Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan (The Childhood of Krishna). This is one of the few surviving silent films made in India and the only film by the key pioneer Phalke to survive almost complete.

‘Three actresses from the US with Love’ featured an extract from Creaking Stairs with Mary McLaren who also starred in Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916). A woman director, Ruth Stonehouse’s Rosalind at Redgate. And the French director Albert Capellani working with the star Nazimova at the Metro Picture Corporation. This drama, The Red Lantern,  was set  during the ‘Boxer rebellion in China; with fairly awful stereotypes of Chinese people.

Nazimova

‘Independent Cinema’ offered Back to God’s Country, a Canadian wilderness adventure. Historien om en gut / The Story of a Boy, a Norwegian drama of a boy who runs away. And fragments from La Fête Espagnole / Spanish Fiesta directed by Germaine Dulac. All three showed the way that many independent productions utilized actual locations, offering natural detail often lacking from studio productions.

The sixth chapter was titled ‘Revolution’, Karl Wratschko commented;

1919 was one of the most revolutionary years in the C20th. In this year there was revolutionary activity in many different countries of Europe as well as in Egypt.

From Hungary we had a film by Mihály Kertész [later Michael Curtiz] My Brother is Coming (Jön az öcsém), adapted from a revolutionary poem,

released barely two weeks after the proclamation of the world’s second communist republic . . .

‘My Brother is Coming’

From the opposite standpoint came Die Bolschewistischen … (Germany) which depicted the killing by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine of the opposition in the Civil War. A German newsreel showed the street battles during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin. A  second included the funeral of one of the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg.

‘Nature, Humour, Science’ provided a sense of a cinema visit in the early C19th.

. . . for nearly two decades, . . . [this] meant not seeing a long story . . . , but some 10 to 15 short films from  a wide range of genres and with maximum diversity in aesthetic impact and emotional register; . . . (Mariann Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).

So we had non-fiction, newsreel, adverts and comedy. There was the famous and staged signing of the United Artists incorporation with the stars gathered round Chaplin. From the Soviet Union ‘The Funeral of Vera Kholodnaya, a major star of the Russian silent cinema, including films with Evgeni Bauer. The adverts were animated films from a French pioneer, Robert Lortac. And among the comedies was Seff Kostet 24,50 dollar groteske von seff (Austria). This followed the adventures of a tailor’s dummy and its human look-a-like.

Dummy or human?

The final part of the programme was a serial screened in parts, morning and evenings, at the Modernissimo. This is an underground cinema waiting restoration but extremely atmospheric and [seemingly] the coolest spot in Bologna. I Topi Grigi is an Italian production starring and directed by Emilio Ghione. A major star Ghione played Za la Mort, a master of disguise, who has eight episodes to outwit and bring to justice the ‘Grey Rats’ of the title. As always in serials there were cliff-hanging ends of episodes, a variety of criminal enterprises, a changing cast of villains and victims and a final denouement between hero and arch-villain. Following the whole serial was a commitment but a bonus was that one would hear nearly all of the ensemble of talented musicians who accompany the silent screenings.

Salomé (US 1922)

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Superb design

It’s not often that you get a chance to see a silent film with live accompaniment; Salomé, with Circuit des Yeux, was screened in Leeds and London in the UK. In notes given out at the screening, Haley Fohr (who is Circuit des Yeux) asks that we:

‘re-contextualise [the film] in a new kind of satire . . . When I see Salomé’s need for John the Baptist I see a woman’s need to be heard, not desired.’

The score certainly did ‘re-contextualise’ as its modernity clashed, dialectically not in opposition, with the images to both heighten the drama and offer a 21st century frame to view the nearly one hundred year old text. However, I didn’t find Fohr’s reading of Salomé convincing and, disastrously, the protagonist was literally silenced because the intertitles were omitted; Fohr explains this is “perhaps . . . a bold choice”. The effect was to break the spell of the film every time the screen went blank where the intertitles would have been! It wasn’t difficult to follow the story but the immersive effect of cinema was entirely lost. Not a ‘bold choice’ but a stupid one.

My experience of the film was therefore fragmentary but it’s certainly an interesting production; apparently the major studios wouldn’t touch it and it wasn’t released until 1924 when it flopped. As one of the first American art films that wasn’t surprising. Salomé is played by Russian émigré Alla Nazimova who was the driving force behind the film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. It uses Aubrey Beardsley’s original drawings as the basis for the costumes which were ‘brought to life’ by Natacha Rambova (an American who was married to Valentino for a time). Charles Van Enger’s cinematography looks fabulous in a pretty good print; he worked with Lubitsch at Warners and his career lasted into the 1990s. The ‘dance of the seven veils’ was more of a convulsion and has nothing of the eroticism of Debra Paget in The Indian Tomb (1959). Disconcertingly Louis Dumar, playing someone with whom Herod’s wife flirts, looks like David Cameron, complete with supercilious grin; further evidence, if it were needed, that it was difficult to concentrate on the fragmentary film.

Fohr’s score might best be described as jazz with minimalist episodes. Her terrific vocals have an eastern vibe and, as noted above, add much to the film. If only there had been intertitiles.

Weimar – Sonntag II

So the final day of the retrospective and of the Berlinale. This is ‘People’s Day’ / ‘Publikumstag’. Many of the industry and press visitors have left. The Award Winners have been lauded. Now ordinary Berliners (not just the film buffs) can check out the varied programmes and films. The auditoria were still full but the audiences had a slightly different feeling.

Alongside the Weimar retrospective the Berlinale offers Berlinale Classics. This included My 20th Century, Sidney Lumen’s Fail Safe (1964), Assi Dayan’s Life According to Agaa (Hachayin Al-Pi Ag fa, 1992), Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel Über Berlin, 1987) and Michail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letjat Schurawli, 1957). Wim Wenders actually turned up in person to introduce the other film in the programme, a title by Ozu Yasujiro.

Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku, 1957). The film is in Ozu’s standard academy ratio and black and white. This was the premiere of a restored version screened from a 4K DCP. It is in a number of ways typical of late Ozu; the regular low angle camera; the deep focus and staging; the focus on props within the frame; the insertion of what are called ‘pillow shots’, brief sequences that are not obviously part of the developing plot; and the ‘lounge music’ which sounds non-Japanese in this most Japanese of directors.

But the plot was unusual for Ozu, involving marital discord, extra-marital affairs (safely in the past) and a troubled young woman who is pregnant and has to consider abortion. Yet this plot is made partly typical with Ryu Chishu as a single-parent father and a manager in a bank and Hara Setsuko (Takako) as the dutiful daughter, though again, unusually, she is married and has a baby daughter. Akiko (Arima Imeko) is the youngest daughter. She is described as ‘wild’ by other characters. During the film she spends much time seeking out her current boyfriend, Ken; and a regular haunt is a mah-jongg parlour, where people play and gamble. It is Akiko’s plight and the reappearance of her long-lost mother that provides the dramatic focus of the narrative.

The Brochure offers:

“This largely-unknown work is considered Ozu’s darkest post-war film . . . ”

Wenders’ comments were given in German but I noticed that he used the term ‘noir’ at one point. And shadows and low-key lighting feature in many scenes.

One theme in the film is late 1950s Japanese youth, seen here as breaking with the mores of the older generation. This is a thematic that is found in the films of Oshima Nagisa but it is unusual for Ozu. The use of low-class and unseemly settings would be more typical of Naruse Mikio, but this version is replete with the resignation that typifies Ozu.

Ozu works here with regular collaborators including as joint script-writer Noda Kogo. Atsuta Yoharu provides the cinematography which is finely done. The film was as absorbing as Ozu’s other late films. However, I did think that the structure was not quite as finely tuned. There is a scene in the mah-jongg parlour where the players discuss Akiko. The scene is clearly designed to inform the audience of aspects of her situation that are hinted at rather than made explicit. However, by this stage these seemed to me fairly obvious and I found the scene redundant: an unusual feeling in a film by Ozu.

Show Life (Song, Dire Liebe eines armen Menschenkindes, 1928) is a classic melodrama jointly produced by Eichberg-Film GmbH, Berlin and British International Pictures. The German title translates as ‘dire love of a poor human child’.

“Moving between dive bar and cabaret, ocean liner and night train, the German-British co-production represented Weimar cinema’s first foray into the milieu of European ex-pats in a colonial setting, which was very attractive for western foreign markets.”

The main protagonists are John (Heinrich George) an entertainer who has a knife-throwing act and who is stranded in an unidentified Asian port. On a beach he rescues a young Chinese woman, Song, (Anna May Wong) from assault. He recruits her into his knife throwing act, which, with her physical charms, becomes a success in a cheap bar. But John’s old flame and mistress, Gloria (Mary Kid), a successful dancer, reappears. Implausibly John prefers the scheming Gloria to Song: in the late 1920s how many female stars would one prefer to Anna May Wong?

Desperation leads to criminality and a fateful accident. John is duped regarding Gloria and Song, who is devoted to John, is caught and suffers between them. There are some fine sequences including late in the film when Song herself has become a successful dancer.

The cinematography by Heinrich Gärtner and Bruno Mondi, makes excellent use of low-key lighting. The contrasting sets, low-life and high-life, dramatise the conflicts on screen.

We had a fair 35mm print from the British Film Institute and a suitably dramatic accompaniment by Günter Buchwald.

My final film was back at the Zeughauskino, Life Begins Tomorrow(Morgen Beginnnt das Leben, 1933) directed by Werner Hochbaum who also directed >Brothers. This is a film that fits in the New Objectivity and shares some qualities with the ‘proletarian films’. The film opens with Robert (Erich Haußmann) nearing the end of his sentence for manslaughter. On the day of his release he expects to find his wife Marie (Hilde von Stolz) there to meet him. But Marie has returned home late after a tryst with an admirer. She oversleeps. Both spend the day searching for their partner in Berlin. So the city, or a particular area, is itself another character.

The film has a dazzling array of techniques:

“using documentary images, expressionist lighting, subjective camera angles, and experimental sound and picture montages..”

At times there are multiple superimpositions and these also lead the audience into the flashbacks that explain Robert’s and Marie’s situation. Robert was the kapellmeister of a restaurant orchestra. Marie worked in the bar and the killing resulted when he intervened to stop Marie being molested by the owner/manager. One of the ironies is that Marie’s admirer, (possibly lover) is the new kapellmeister.

The narrative uses melodramatic tropes including, apart from missed meetings, a stopped clock, a unreceived letter and unhelpful neighbours. The brochure notes that the film was made after the end of the Weimar Republic. This sort of [mildly] left-wing film was past its time. The film was attacked on the grounds that the director,

“politicised his methods to the same extent that he resurrected the rhetoric of the old avant-garde.”

Hochbaum made films up until 1939 but died quite young in 1946.
We had a 35mm print but without subtitles. In fact I found the plot relatively straight forward to follow. And I read after the screening that the film had

“minimal, often deliberate incomprehensible dialogue’.

We did at one point see the unreceived letter which [I suspect] explained something about Marie’s admirer/lover.

The film provided a suitable finale to the retrospective. The audience offered a round of applause for the staff who had supported us all through the week. Then I walked round the corner to the stop outside Humboldt-Universidad. The 200 bus arrived punctually and within 20 minutes I was back at the Kurfürstendamm. The end of a fascinating and rewarding week.

Weimar – Samstag II

A Berlin Market, 1929

Whilst popular cinema in the 1920s was focused on fictional dramas there were a variety of non-fiction films. This was the decade in which John Grierson coined the word ‘documentary’ for films that presented the actual world about us. Germany, as elsewhere, produced films that utilised film shot in and about recognisable places, peoples and institutions. The travelogue, one of the earliest examples of feature-length non-fiction film, was popular. There were also experimental and avant-garde film-makers who offered films that emphasised cinematic techniques and explored the way that film represented reality.

Across Two Worlds by Car (Im Auto durch Zwei Welten, 1927 – 1931) is a travelogue but also an adventure.

“For this prototype road movie, race car driver Clärenore Stinnes (1901 – 1990) and Swedish cameraman Carl-Axel Söderström covered 46,758 kilometres. Travelling in an Adler sedan and sponsored by companies like Bosch, Aral, Varta and Continental, they drove through 23 countries and once round the globe – ..”

This epic journey took two years and started out east from Frankfurt, through the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran, the USSR to Siberia, across the Gobi Desert into China and Japan. The crossing the Pacific it continued up the backbone of South America along the Andes. Then by boat to the USA, ending up in New York. Another boat across the Atlantic bought them back to Europe and finally Germany. Söderström claimed that he did ‘more pushing than filming’ and in fact there are long stretches where the filming is sparse. All we see of the USA is the West Coast and then the East Coast. There was also a van or truck accompanying the sedan, presumably all the stores and equipment.

After the journey Stinnes had the film edited by Walther Stern and added a commentary and a musical score by Wolfgang Zeller. The commentary accompanies the images but these are intercut with shots of Stinnes talking direct to camera. The score is European in style even for the far-away places.

The sponsorship by German firms was an important aspect of the production. In her opening comments Stinnes stresses the German composition of the team, then noting that the cameraman is Swedish. She adds, in a comment that is mirrored by others later in the film, that Scandinavian are Germanic ‘fellows’. The filming does tend to stress the backwardness and poverty of the lands through which much of the journey travels. In fact, even discounting the boats, the round-the-world journey is only partly driven. There are frequent sequences where local people are persuaded or paid for hauling the vehicles, often through mud, sand or rocky terrain. The most gruelling, for the labourers, is when they cross the mountains and deserts of Peru. So her comment that ‘the automobile makes the big world small’ is as much rhetoric as actuality. The film is interesting but conventional: Stinnes is not Riefenstahl. However, she clearly is an independent and adventurous woman.

Short Films 2: ‘Experiments in Sound and Colour’ (‘Kurzfilme 2: Experimente mit Ton und Farbe’) offered nine film made between 1922 and 1934, the majority from the early 1930s. They consisted of actuality film, advertising film, puppet animation and conscious experimentation. All of them used varied colouring techniques for the period. Staff from the Deutsche Kinemathek introduced the programme providing illuminating detail on the various colour formats used.

The Victor (Der Sieger, 1922) and The Miracle (Das Wunder, 1922) used hand colouring and tinting processes, techniques that had appeared in the earliest days of the new medium.

Colour tests (Farmfilmversuche, Demo-Film für Sirius Farbverfahren, 1929) used a Dutch subtractive two colour system. In the earlier experimentations in colour systems relied on two rather than three primary colours. This produced acceptable results and could utilise the two sides of the film print.

The Joy of Water at the Zoo (Wasserfreuden im Tierpark, 1931) relied on Ufacolor. This was another subtractive two-colour system introduced in 1931 by Germany’s major production company.

Palm Magic (Palmenzauber, 1933/1934) was an advertisement using Ufacolor.

Two Colours (Zwei Farben, 1933) was a more experimental advertisement using Ufacolor. It made great use of the two primary colours in the system, red and blue.

Tolirag Circles (Alle Kreise Erfasst Tolirag, 1933/1934) was an experimental work by Oskar Fischinger, a major cinematic artist in this period. Gasparcolor was a subtractive three -colour system, the technical advance that made Technicolor a dominant system for several decades. It was developed by a Hungarian scientist. Fischinger used it in several of his works in the period and at least one Len Lye animation also used the system. The palette was different from Technicolor but it looked really fine.

Pitter and Patter (Pitsch und Patsch, 1932) was a drawing-based animation. In a distinctive set of techniques the sound was created by wave-like drawings that produced an equivalent of the soundtrack patterns printed on film stock.

Bacarolle (1932) used the same techniques but married with puppet animation.

This was a fascinating programme and I had great pleasure in watching the different colour palette and imagery. The different films came partly on 35mm film and partly on DCPs. Günter Buchwald provided accompaniment for the non-sound films.

The Great Unknown (Milak, Der Grönlandjäger, 1927) is a fictional drama presented in documentary mode. An opening title explains that the film is inspired by the exploits of polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Elements of both explorer’s stories figure in the plot.

Filmed largely on location in Greenland and Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago, the film combines impressive landscape footage with ethnographic observation. With their athletic way of filming in the open air, the camera staff from Arnold Fanck’s ‘Freiburg camera school’ used the natural world as a key player, even blowing up ice sheets to create high drama.“

The film follows an expedition crossing Greenland to a high point in the north. The team consists of explorers Svendsen, Eriksen and Inuit Milak, an expert dog handler [who is titular in the German title]. During the course of the expedition we also watch their families at home waiting to hear how they managed.

The film seems to have been successful: critics at the time suggested that it was ‘Germany’s answer to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The connection is obvious. Apart from being set in Polar regions the films also features Inuit. The difference is that whilst Flattery did not just record but directed Nanook and his actions, in this film the Inuit are placed in a completely fictional narrative.

I found the tropes from other polar stories, especially that of the British expedition led by Captain Scott, lacked conviction. The expedition is trekking across Greenland and there is a contest, a US team with the same objective. They struggle over ice slopes, snow slopes and crevasses. Eriksen sickens and we follow a sequence where he does a ‘Captain Lawrence Oates’ style exit from the tent in a snow storm. Then the team run low on food and face the possibility of failing to reach stores, fuel and safety. The plot avoids the tragedy of Scoot and his team, but the sequences are clearly modelled on that actual disaster.

What undermines some of the narrative is that the film combines excellent location work with rather obvious studio sets. This is the case in the sequence where Eriksen attempts ‘suicide’ during a storm and in the scenes where lack of food and exhaustion threaten the team and the expedition.

The team also use two dog teams, more like Roald Amundsen. Twice the dog teams fall into crevasses, the second time they do not survive. In each case it is down to an oversight of Eriksen. I have to confess that I hope his fellows would save the dogs rather than Eriksen. What makes it odder is that one dog does survive. But it is clearly not one of the dog team, all black or dark-haired huskies. This sole survivor is brown and more like Labrador. This is a shame, because the location work and the sequences of the Inuit are well done. The ethnographer parts of the film work better than the dramatic episodes during the expedition. The film was screened from pretty good 35mm with Günter Buchwald essaying a balancing accompaniment between actuality and fiction.

The final film of the day also combined actuality with fiction. The Light of Asia (Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925) was a joint German/Indian co-production directed by Franz Östen for Indian producer Himansu Rai. They worked on three productions in the 1920s, titles that are rare survivors of Indian cinema’s silent heritage. In this film English tourists are regaled by an old Buddhist monk with the story of a C6th monarch who has to choose the material and the spiritual; a choice that figures in several Indian mythic tales. Essentially most of the film is a flashback to this story. The film uses actual Indian locations and cast for its narration.

The film had been transferred to DC P and had an added music track by Willy Schwarz and Ricardo Castagnola, Schwarz playing traditional acoustic instruments and Castagnola contemporary electronic music. This was a problem. The soundtrack was far too loud during the opening credits: I saw other audience members winching. The staff did lower the volume but I still found it too loud, especially with the harder tones of electronic music. So I left shortly after the flashback commenced. I checked later and the level of sound had been requested by the composers. This is a tricky issue as composers and performers are entitled to have their music presented as they intend. But in the case of film the music is an accompaniment and I do think it has to be subordinated to the image. In fact, I have noticed in recent years that increasingly some accompaniments are too loud or forceful and distract from the image. I suspect this is a follow-on from the increasing use of ‘live music’ as a way of attracting audiences to silent film screenings.

Fortunately I had seen the film previously. At Le Giornate del Cinema Muto with live accompaniments on traditional Indian instruments.

The Light of Asia was the only film that I gave up on in the programme. I thought that the live musical accompaniments were well done. Models of assisting and informing the imagery whilst respecting the primacy of what is on the screen.

Quotations from Weimarer Kino neu gesehen Brochure.