Category: Silent Era

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019

Paulo Cherchi Usai in interview

Once again an international mix of committed cineastes gathered in Pordenone in north-west Italy. There were about a thousand here for a week of film from the first thirty five years of cinema, [WebPages]. Within this crowd were a select group of ‘Donors’, who support the Festival by attending and financially. Some have been returning year after year since its earliest days in the 1980s.

All guests receive a pass and a Catalogue; the donors also receive a large and impressive set of publications; the Catalogue offers details of the titles, their provenance and some indication of the content. Donors also receive a selection of new writings on the ‘silent era’. This year there were two books from Paulo Cherchi Usai, one of the founders of the Festival. He has also recently finished his work as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum. His work and research there has fed into the two books.

‘Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship’, BFI 2019.

This is a revised and much expanded version of his book and which has one of the most thorough accounts of the cinematic process in the founding and development of cinema and which also addresses the issues around the transition from photo-chemical film to digital.

‘The Art of Film Projection A Beginner’s Guide’. George Eastman Museum, 2019.

This promises to be a detailed study of projection of ‘reel’ film in all its aspects. In which case the British Film Institute should buy a stack of copies and send them to the several cinemas that still have 35mm projectors but no projectionists.

‘Silver Screen to Digital A Brief History of Film Technology’ by Carlo Montanaro, Translated by Liam Mac Gabhann. John Libbey Publishing, 2019.

The book covers from the silent era up until the new computer based systems.

The volumes are pertinent. Peter Rist, who every year does his calculations, noted that there were 27 features on DCP at this year’s Festivals but only 17 on 35mm. The short film programmes were better, about 50/50. The latter were interesting as digital versions and film versions were side by side and the characteristics of each could be both compared and contrasted. So far this has confirmed my preference for the traditional technology. The opening and closing events of the Festival were digital projections. The opening night offered Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with an accompaniment by the Orchestra San Marco conducted by Timothy Brock; an expert in music for Chaplin’s films. The digital version was fine but this was the version re-edited by Chaplin and some of us would have preferred the original version from 1921.

The closing night offered Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, A Story of London Fog (1927). On this occasion the Orchestra San Marco was conducted by Ben Palmer with a score by Neil Brand. This was a digital rendering of a tinted copy and [as is frequently the case with the format] the tinting was over-saturated, reducing the definition within the image.

Neil Brand, Ben Palmer and the Orchestra San Marco

The audience included the citizens of Pordenone, who also enjoy the Festival. One of their favoured events is ‘Striking a new Note’, titles accompanied by the Orchestra dell’Instituto Comprensivo Rorai Cappuccini e della Scuola Secondaria di Primo Grado di P. P. Pasolini. [a school celebrating the great film maker; I somehow doubt we have a school in Britain cerebrating Derek Jarman]. The students play recorders with a piano alongside. This year they accompanied ‘Our Gang’ in Dogs of War (1923) and ‘Baby Peggy’ in Carmen, Jr. (1923).

Students of Scuola di P. P. Pasolini

There were also screenings specifically dedicated to the citizens. On the final Sunday the Verdi screened Chaplin’s The Kid this time with the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Gunter Buchwald. There was also an event for the citizens of Sacile where the Festival spent many years whilst the new Verdi was constructed. The Zancanaro Theatre hosted one of the films from the Reginald Denny programme of the Festival; What Happened to Jones (1926). This is an excellent combination of slapstick and farce and enjoyed a score written and composed by Juri Dai Dan with the Zerorchestra Partitura.

Both sets of audiences are fairly well behaved, but even here at a specifically cinema event we have some ne’er-do-wells. The occasional mobile phone goes off: people actually text in the auditorium: actually light up tablets: and, whilst, one can understand using a phone as a torch in the darkness, some wave it about like a searchlight. The Festival would benefit from more frequent and more emphatic warnings; this year seen only occasionally before events.

A quiet moment at Reception

But the staff and volunteers of the Festival are very good. One worker in the reception admitted to being worn out after registering all the guests and handling their queries. And, unfortunately, this year the staff at the Verdi had to assist when one unfortunate guest who collapsed and had to be wheeled by out by medics: he has recovered. Most of the guests are in a good condition despite the demands of a fairly heavy programme of screenings. The staff received a special thank you on the last night. Jay Weissberg [the Festival Director] admits it is not possible to list all the staff and volunteers who care for the festival-goers. So I suggested perhaps we could have a ‘photo-montage’ of staff. There is already one for the recipients of the Jean Mitry Award, a prestigious honour given annually. This photo-montage of the previous award-winners also means that every year we hear Aaron Copland’s magnificent ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. So perhaps readers could consider an equally appropriate piece of music for a ‘Fanfare’ for the hard-working staff.

The Jean Mitry Award is one of the special events in the Festival. Past years have seen the honour awarded to some of the major luminaries of Silent Film study, preservation and presentation. This year the two recipients were Margaret parsons who has for a long period has organised the film programmes at the National Gallery in Washington DC; and Donald Crafton who wrote and taught key works on early animation.

Also this year one of the students from the David Selznick Film School presented her work for the Haghefilm Selznick Fellowship. This was a 1912 Russian Pathé film, the second part of 1812 (The Retreat From Moscow). This was a fine 18 minute 35mm print with excellent tinting. We watched Napoleon as he suffered the travails of the Russian winter and Russian resistance. Though the real suffering was reserved for the French soldiers, cut down by Cossacks, hacked down by serfs and savaged by wolves.

In between and alongside these events were a series of programmes which I shall return to discuss in greater detail. They included the early films of William S. Hart; the finest exponent of the western in early Hollywood. There was Hollywood star Reginald Denny, little seen until this year. We had early stars of French cinema and a range of short films from Weimar Cinema. And we had a series of ‘flip-books’ painstakingly transferred to photographs and animated for projections. All of these enjoyed musical accompaniments both from the orchestras and from a talented team of musicians, mainly on the piano, but supplemented by the violin, accordion and percussion and the human voice.

The audience takes a breather between screenings

We also met and chatted to old friends and colleagues: wrapped up well for the start and enjoyed warmer sunshine for the end of the week; and, as space and time allowed, indulged in the excellent Italian cuisine.

The Festival remains one of the high spots in the cinematic year. I still regret that I missed the first twelve years.

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.