This was one of the documentaries in the Berlinale Retrospective and one of the outstanding films.
“Six women born between 1907 and 1925 look back at “their” century. The directors use a series of sophisticated questions to draw out the experiences of their subjects. …
The montage of their many voices and memories produces a tightly-woven oral history, in which constants specific to women and individual experiences have equal prominence.”(Retrospective Brochure).
The film is organized partly chronologically and partly thematically. The most frequent sequence is a series of the women talking about a common topic. The film casually cuts from one woman to another, but at time we view a tightly packed and fast montage of clips of comments. These sequences are interspersed between shots of extremely large close-ups of the women’s skin, hair, hands and bodies. Most of the music, here a solo piano, accompanies these latter shots. The texture of the skin and hair is beautifully lit and photographed; a series of human tapestries.
The women are filmed mostly in mid-shot or close-up, either head-on or at a slight angle. Late in the film we see four of the women in a wide shot with brief biographical details. Two of the women are not identified, presumably at their request.
The voices are addressed direct to camera. Occasionally we hear part of the questions. And towards the end there is over-lapping sound which runs into the intervening shots of skin. The war years and the Nazi regime receive particular attention. Most of the film consists of shots of the women or the close-ups of them; however, the Nazi period is illustrated by a series of black and white stills. As the Brochure notes point out:
“World War II represents a decisive point in the lives of these women, one of whom was a member of the Nazi party and another of whom joined the Social Democrats after the war.””
Another worked in ceramics; one was an actress, she is the most bubbly of the characters. One lost a husband during the war.
The directors were Crescentia Dünßer, who has been acting in films since 2002, and Martina Döcker; this was their first feature. The documentary was made for television but shot on 35mm in black and white standard widescreen. The luminous cinematography was by Sophie Maintigneux and the complex editing by Jens Klūber with sound by Daniel de Oliveira. We were fortunate in viewing a fine 35mm print which showed off the effect the luminous images of the women’s bodies.
This film hovers between fiction and documentary with the director Helke Sander playing a created part but setting the action in Berlin locations and with actual practitioners as well as actors.
Edda Chiemnyjewski is 34, a divorced mother who works as a press photographer and takes care of her clingy, school-age daughter. [Dorothea – Andrea Malkowsky] – (Retrospective Brochure).
Edda is working in a collective preparing a funded project for posters of the city. We see her with other photographers and with agents of the city. As well she has her work as a press photographer. We see her pitching to a newspaper editor. And we see her in her flat where she has a makeshift lab for processing.
[This] essayistic narrative film is an ironic and clever depiction from a feminist perspective of the universal dilemma of a working woman whose fragmented life leads her to feel like anything but what in East German jargon was called “an all-round developed person”.
The latter point is emphasised as the collective have a particular project set on the wall that ‘protects’ the East from the West of the city.
Sander is excellent as the photographer-cum-mother. The other characters are not that developed but they combine to create a sense of authenticity as does the fine location filming. The minutiae of photographic work and domestic work is one of the ways that the film catches the interest and creates the sense of watching people go about their actual lives.
The narration takes us in and out of Edda’s home life and her work round the city. The latter enjoys frequent tracking shots that both offer a sense of the faces of the city and the perambulations of the photographers. The fine black and white cinematography was by Katia Forbert. Whilst the editing by Esther Dayan and Ursula Höf takes in both the physical context and layout and the important detail of action. The collective projected rendering of the East, whilst unsuccessful, reminds us of the divisions; stark in this period of the early seventies.
The episodic nature of the narration is reinforced quotations in titles. Most frequently these are from the works of Christa Wolf. Wolf was an important East German writer and activist. She was a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The use of her ‘voice’ aligns both with the feminist critique and the presence in the film of the East and ‘the wall’. Some critics have suggested a metaphoric parallel between the divided city and the divided sexes.
Sander studied film at Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie in Berlin (Berlin Film and Television Academy). This title was her first full-length film. She has continued to make films right up to the present. As well as a film-maker Sander is noted as an educator and activist. Helke Sander was present to introduce the film. We were given some of her background. And she explained the significance of the film’s title. She emphasised the import in the film of the divided city, yet ‘neither East nor West’.
We enjoyed the film in a black and white 35mm print. I was completely absorbed by the 98 minutes of the title. There was the sense of the city, of the life of a particular character and situation, and the intriguing detail of her practical work. This was, for me, one of the really impressive productions in the programme.
This year’s programme, organised by the Deutsche Kinemathek, offered,
“Self-determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers” with the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’.
There were 26 feature length titles and 21 short titles; all produced and released between 1968 and 1999. The majority of titles came from the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [West Germany before 1990] but four features and six shorts were produced in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik [East Germany – DDR]. The Retrospective Brochure commented:
“In the decades between those films [from 1968 and 1999], women film-makers left their formative stamp on German cinema, and at the same time, the idea that a female director was an ‘exception’ gradually receded.”
The point is made that prior to 1968 and the advent of a recognised women’s movement there were only ”isolated film directed by women …” in West Germany; The commentary notes though that this was not same in the DDR;
“The state film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg was founded in 1954. A handful of women were among its first graduates ..”
but one speaker claimed that they primarily worked on children’s films and animation.
I was able to see 22 of the features and sixteen of the shorts. A variety of themes did indeed emerge in the span covered by the programme. There were features and documentaries. There were film that were relatively conventional with recognisable narratives and a style familiar to viewers of mainstream films. Other titles were definitely avant-garde and provided a range of experimentation. I intend to post on the individual films but the following selection gives some sense of the programme.
1968 was represented by Go For It, Baby / Zur Sache, Schätzchen, directed in West Germany by Mary Spils. She also directed the accompanying short film Manöver (Manoeuvres). I preferred the short film but both were typical of the late 1960s independent films, with both the vices and virtues of the period. The feature did have good freewheeling camera style. However, it seem to lack any sense of a feminist perspective. But it was successful and apparently seen by six million people over two years in West Germany. I was more taken with the earliest DDR title, Do You Know Urban? (Kennen sie urban?, Ingrid Reschke, 1971). Much of the story takes place on a construction site relying on effective location shooting. The film develops a relationship between a construction worker and ex-offender with a student trainee. The characters were believable and the environment at the site and later in Berlin convincing.
A West German film of 1978, The All-round Reduced Personality – Redupers / Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers offered a stand-out feature. Falling between a fictional drama and a documentary director Helke Sander played the protagonist Edda. She is divorced, a single mother and working photographer. We watch her working as a freelance, as part of a collective and processing her films in the home made lab she has constructed. Sander and her fellow players are excellent; the use of locations offers a real sense of the city; and the working life of a photographer-cum-mother is portrayed with subtle comment.
Helke Sander was among a number of directors who were there to introduce their films. So I also saw and heard Margarethe von Trotta introducing The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), a film that retained its power for me, seeing it again after a gap of many years.
The East German films were particular interest for me. Another very effective title was The Bicycle / Das Fahrrad (1982). This offered a portrait of another single mother. This time Susanne was a factory worker. Her life style represented the alienation that was the lot of workers in a state supposedly superior to capitalism. Her independent spirit and the apparently realistic depiction of working class situation did not endear the film to either critics or film bosses.
One of the short East German films was Nude Portraits – Gundula Schilze / Aktfotografie, Z. B. Gundula Schulze (1983), directed by Helke Misselwitz. Gundula was a young photographer who researched stereotypical nude shots of women in the DDR. Her own practice aimed to present women in their own right as ‘whole women’. The contrast was highlighted by regular cuts to 16mm footage of working women. An instructive study.
From the same year in West Germany a group of women filmmakers, touring with a programme of titles, recorded their journey on hand-held Bolex camera; Umweg / Detour. The style was experimental in black and white. The changing views, of wintry landscapes, of the train and its passengers, and of their own filming was graceful and almost hypnotic.
Dorian Gray in The Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevaerdpresse) was an example of an even more radical and experimental approach. The director Ulrike Ottinger developed her [episodic] narrative by combining ideas from Lang’s Dr Mabuse and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. This was a fairly epic film running 150 minutes in Eastmancolor. The film combined a subversive mix satire, camp musical sequences, avant-garde design, video techniques and [intervening in the narration] an island-set opera that mirrored the main narrative.
The 1991 documentary Locked Up Time / Verriegelte Zeit followed the point when the wall and the division of the Germany ended. The director, Sibylie Schönemann, together with her husband, was imprisoned as a ‘political prisoner’ under the DDR. They were the only DEFA film-makers to suffer this fate. So, in the early months after the collapse of the East German state, she went back to visit the prison and other places in her incarceration. She also tracked down officials and challenged their role in the process. Like other explorations of authoritarian regimes this was a chilling story extremely well done.
The most recent film was a documentary made for television in 1999. Two film-makers, Crescentia Dünßer and Martina Döcker, interviewed six women born in the first two decades of the C20th. Their questions explored the personal lives of the women and also how the larger social and political discourse affected these. The women were fascinating. And the film-makers structured the sequences of dialogue with extremely large close-ups of the women’s bodies, skin and hair. These shots were lit with luminous skill.
This was one of the films screened on 35mm, we also had some 16mm screenings. About half the programme was on film and half on digital. The latter were mainly well transferred and looked and sounded fine. The projection teams worked skilfully and coped well with the changes in formats.
Most of the screenings had introductions; in many cases the women who had directed, and often scripted, these titles. And the Kinemathek had organised translators so that their comments and memories were available in German and English.
I could see the point of 1968 as a nodal point; less so 1999. So I wonder what interesting themes would have emerged if the programme ran from 1958 to 1990 when the reunification took place. Ingrid Reschke, one of whose films was in the programme, started directing in 1963. An earlier film might well be interesting. This was a rewarding experience but at the end I still retained a reservation about the scope of the programme. And I have reservations about the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’. This was true in some cases but also true of may was how the political sphere determined the personal: a point I made regarding the films of Margarethe von Trotta.
It was a fairly demanding week. Even with the efficient Berlin transport system I often was having to move smartly from venue to venue. The saving grace is the excellent selection of coffee shots, especially around the Potsdam Platz. The Berliner’s take their film-going seriously. So the queue for a screenings can start oven half-hour before entry; just to ad to the demands of the Festival. But worth all the effort. I doubt that there will be many opportunities to see many of these films in Britain. There are videos and collections; including of East German films. And there are increasing number of books. Unfortunately the Deutsche Kinemathek accompanying book is only available in German.
So we come to the end of 2018. A good year for new releases though there are worrying trends in distribution and exhibition. Getting to see rare films can involve extensive travel on public transport. Apart from the Netflix problem there were other films that I failed to catch this year. And there were parallel problems in production; really good titles with the longest list of supporting territories that I can remember.
Of the new releases the ones that stood out for me were;
Dogman, Italy / France
Jupitor’s Moon / Jupiter holdja, (Hungary / Germany / France, 2017)
Leave No Trace, (USA)
Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku (Japan)
Sweet Country, (Australia, 2017)
The Wild Pear Tree / Ahlat Agaci, (Turkey/ Republic of Macedonia/ France / Germany / Bosnia and Herzegovina/ Bulgaria/Sweden)
The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx (France / Belgium / Germany, 2017)
Zama, (Argentina / Brazil / Spain / Dominican Republic / France / Netherlands / Mexico / Switzerland / USA / Portugal / Lebanon, 2017)
Two fine documentaries:
The Rape of Recy Taylor, (USA, 2017)
Faces Places / Visages villages (France, 2017)
Among the classics I was fortunate to see on 35mm were;
Brüder Brothers, Germany 1929 [Berlinale with accompaniment by Stephen Horne].
Man of Aran, Britain 1934 [on nitrate as well, George Eastman Museum].
Imitation of Life, USA 1934 (John Stahl retrospective at Cinema Ritrovato].
La cousine Bette, France 1928, [A Balzac programme at Giornate del Cinema Muto with accompaniment by Günter Buchwald).
Turksib, USSR 1929. [The Kennington Bioscope 4th Silent Weekend with accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis].
Likely Corman’s final film as director, this is adapted from Brian Aldiss’s novel,
“a meditation on the wilful independence of the Frankenstein myth.”
Shot on the then standard format of 35mm it can be enjoyed [if Bradford’s Media Museum is accessible] this coming Wednesday in the quality auditorium of Pictureville.
The film’s story involves a time-travelling scientist, Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) travelling back in time to meet, not just Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) and her story-telling circle, but her creation Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) and his own creation the ‘Monster’ (Nick Brimble). The film works weird variations with the historical characters and with the fictional ones. And Corman fans will find references from Corman’s large and long cinematic output. The continuity is variable and at times the plotting requires careful attention. However there are bravura sequences filmed with elan and a sense of fun, including laboratory work, a trial and an execution. There are some fine examples of special effects from the period. And the film finally transports us to an arctic winterland that transforms the final chapter of Shelley’s novel.
The film has it share of violence, with severed limbs, mutilated bodies and much blood. It gained an 18 certificate from the BBFC in 1991. The film is in standard widescreen and DeLuxe colour, running only 85 minutes. The locations were in Italy, standing in for Switzerland, and the production crew involved a number of craftspeople from the Italian industry.
It is a rare pleasure now to see classic films in their original format and happily the Museum are using their best screening venue. The print is from the Museum archive and is apparently in good condition. And John Hurt’s voice is always worth the price of admission. The film also ties in with a new event at the Science & Media Museum;
“Introduced by Pippa Oldfield, Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery, to celebrate the launch of the exhibition ‘In Search Of Frankenstein’.”
Frankenstein is one of my favourite stories, as a novel or in the endless retelling on film. The many variations on the creation of the monster are a continuing pleasure in mise en scène.
This is one of the undoubted classics of World Cinema. So it is good news that the Hebden Bridge Picture House is screening the film from a 35mm print and in a 190 minutes version: there are nine versions of different lengths but this is the 1991 almost complete re-issue. This is the sort of film that you can never see too many times; it always stands up to another revisiting. [Saturday November 3rd at 3.15 p.m.]
The story is set in the C16th during the Momoyama Period of Japanese history [‘warring states’]. A band of rōnin (masterless samurai) are recruited to defend a village from marauding bandits. The prime focus of the film are the samurai warriors, each carefully delineated and offering a particular aspect of the code and skills of this warrior class. Just a few of the villagers are delineated in an equal fashion but the contrasts between these two usually very separate classes is presented with great skill and clarity.
“[Its] universal appeal is partly because of the humaneness of the film’s characters. Each of the seven samurai is a distinct individual but never a caricature, about whom we come to care a great deal. It is a period in which the samurai class is declining. The rōnin samurai roam the countryside looking for work, but some have also become bandits. Because working for farmers would be below them, they kick aside the villagers seeking their help. What makes these seven samurai honourable is their continued adherence to the spirit of the samurai’s code of Bushido which allows them to reach past the class consciousness that normally separates knights from peasants.” (Beverley Bare Buehrer, 1990).
The early stages of the film depict the setting and the recruitment of the band and then their preparations for the defence of the village. And then in a long and detailed and dramatic section we watch as the battle ensues. This is one of the great presentations of samurai action but equally it is one of the great representations of armed conflict.
The film contains innumerable famous sequences spread across the narrative. Early on we watch as the samurai leader Kambei (Shimura Takashi) rescues a kidnapped child and then a demonstration of Samurai swordsmanship by Kyūzō (Miyaguchi Seiji). This varied group includes characters who are not traditional samurai; notably Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro ) who later in the film give voice to the conflicting values of peasants and samurai. The final battle, which takes place in torrential rain, is a marvel of design, staging, cinematography and editing. And there is traditional musical accompaniment, not always the case in Japanese films.
The whole film is one of the finest productions directed by the master Kurosawa Akira. This is an outstanding example of his use of landscape within which are to be found fascinating and very human protagonists. The use of the telephoto lens and multi-camera techniques for much of the action gives distinct and very effective visualisation.
Seven Samurai is as famous as a model for Hollywood. The most well-known copy is The Magnificent Seven (1960, itself remade in 2016). Roy has some interesting comments on the Kurosawa film in a post on the 2016 remake. That is not up to the 1960 original: the latter is a good western but no substitute for the original. And, for me, the three hours fly by.
The city of Bologna was crowded for the 32nd edition of this archive Festival. The crowds, up to 3,000, swarmed in. So whilst there was a varied and exciting programme one had to exercise judicious judgement in selecting programmes as quite a few screenings were full, really full. As usual there was a mix of digital formats and 35mm. I think there were slightly less ‘reel’ prints than last year. But there were enough to satisfy a film buff starved of the ‘reel thing’ in Britain.
This year saw the partial inauguration of the Cinema Modernissimo, a vintage cinema under process of restoration. Every morning (repeated in the evening) the venue screened episodes from a US serial of the ‘teens, ‘Wolves of Kultur’. Produced by Pathé in fifteen episodes this was a spy drama with cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger:
our heroes, now a couple, are meeting dangers and escaping it, climbing, running, driving, on ships, motorcycles, trams, in woods, caves, lakes, on towers, peaks and rails. (Marianne Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).
In fact the episodes were rather reliant on intertitles for progressing the plot but there were some exciting sequences over the week. But it was the venue that was the star. Currently the auditorium is a dark cavern awaiting renovation. But this made it atmospheric. And the accompaniments by different musicians on different days, resonated around the impressive space. However, there is much work to be done and it seems unlikely that the Modernissimo will provide a new venue in 2019.
The star experience for 35mm film fans were the screening in the Piazzetta Pasolini from a 1930s Prevost Carbon-Arc projector. This year we had three, all devoted to the programme ‘Song of Naples, Tribute to Elvira Notari and Vittorio Martinelli’. Elvira Notari was a film director who, with her husband Nicola, produced films throughout the silent era that celebrated and dramatised the city of Naples. Vittorio Martinelli was a scholar and enthusiast for these filmmakers; he passed on ten years ago so it was also an anniversary. The atmosphere for these screenings in the Piazzetta was great. And all the films had musical accompaniments by Neapolitan singers and musicians. Worth a trip to Bologna on its own.
There were innumerable programmes covering early and silent film, classic mainstream cinema, documentary, art cinema and cinemas of liberation. The last included restorations by The Film Foundations World Cinema Project (Waquai Sanaway Al-dhamr, Algeria 1975), and a screening of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s seminal ‘Third Cinema’ film La Hora de los Hornos Neocolonialismo y violencia (Argentina 1966 – 1968). There was a fine Argentinian film from 1939, Prisoners of the Earth / Prisioneres de la Tierra. Filmed partly in the Amazonian jungle the film dramatised the experience of bonded workers on fruit plantations. The plot was fairly melodramatic but the actual locations gave the film an immediacy whilst the critical treatment of the exploitation and oppression of native workers was powerfully subversive.
The key silent offerings were in ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 1918’ (Cento Anni Fa: 1918), and the majority of these were on 35mm. We had Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms and The Bond.; an early Germaine Dulac short, Âmes de fous, and a restored film with Italian Diva Pina Menichelli, La Moglie di Claudio (Cláudio’s wife). What I found most interesting were two films that featured the Soviet poet Vladimir Majakovskij. There was short both scripted by and featuring Majakovskij, Shackled by Film (Zakovannaja film’moj, 1918) which played with cinematic techniques and illusion. And there was a three reel feature The Young Lady and the Hooligan (Baryšnja I chuligan, 1918). The young lady of the title (Aleksandra Rebikova) is a newly arrived teacher at a rural school. Majakovskij, who also scripted the film and was also involved in other aspects of the production] plays the hooligan, though this term does not really describe the character. The Italian translation had him as a ‘punk’. He seems unemployed and is an outsider among the locals. He is set upon by some of the pupils and their fathers. The film is fairly melodramatic and our protagonist is smitten with the teacher. But the film is also experimental with a dream sequence and scenes with multi-imagery, showing the influence of Futurism.
We had a programme of later films from the same territory, ‘Second Utopia: 1934 – The Golden Age of Soviet Sound Film’. As in China and Japan the new sound technology arrived in the Soviet Union later than in the Western capitalist countries. It also coincided with the change from a cinema predominately concerned with the political values of revolution and socialist construction to a more conventional approach:
‘Entertainment’ stopped being a curse word, and audiences returned to cinemas.(Festival Catalogue).
This is somewhat of an exaggeration. If you watch the films of Boris Barnet it is clear that audiences of the 1920s were offered both political dramas and documentaries but also dramas that were extremely entertaining titles. The advent of ‘Soviet Socialist realism’ tended to reduce the politics to slogans and offered a more one-dimensional view of Soviet Society. Chapaev / Čapaev was constructed around the heroic protagonist of the title. He is a military commander in the Civil War, when Britain, France, Japan, the USA and allies invaded the young socialist state. Chapaev leads regular and irregular forces against the invading Czechoslovakian Legion, mainly around the Trans-Siberian railway. In leading the battles against the invaders Chapaev has to come to terms with the Political Commissar. This resolves the drama and Chapaev emerges as a heroic figure but with little sense of the contemporary contradictions.
A different approach, less in line with ‘socialist realism’ was The Youth of Maxim (Junost’ Maksima), set in the Tsarist period around 1910 and written and directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. This film retained the vitality and some of the experimentalism of their silent work with FEKS. The sound sequences are fairly stagy but the action sequences of demonstrations, conflict and revolutionary underground work are impressive. There are some fine examples of moving camera, exteriors with a strongly expressionist look and factory settings worthy of a silent film. And whilst Maxim is heroic this is only after a tutelage by an experienced Bolshevik and involvement in class actions.
Hollywood conventions were on show in ‘William Fox Presents: Rediscoveries from the Fox Film Corporation’. There was a screening of 7th Heaven (1927) in the Piazza Maggiore with a full orchestral accompaniment. And among the other titles was delightful comedy, Bachelor’s Affairs (1932) in which Adolphe Menjou as middle-aged playboy Andrew Hoyt discovers the drawbacks of marrying a young, beautiful blonde, Eva Mills (Joan Marsh). The film subverts Menjou’s standard persona whilst providing quick and punchy dialogue.
Alongside this was ‘Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl’. Stahl started out as an actor then moved to direction in 1914 and continued until 1949. He directed 43 films, many of them are lost. His films are predominately melodramas, often adapted from best-selling novels. The programme in Bologna will be paralleled at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in October when there will be presentation of most of his surviving silent films. Stahl’s best films dramatise romantic relationships, often where a woman is forced into a ‘back street’ in a relationship with a married man. When Tomorrow Comes (1939) is taken from a story by James M. Cain. Irene Dunne plays the waitress Helen Lawrence who has a brief affair with pianist Philip Chagall (Charles Boyer). The principal leads are excellent and the melodramatic plot develops the strong emotions. The intriguing opening presents a waitress strike in New York but this soon fall away as the romance takes over.
A woman kept in the ‘shadows’ in a different sense is the central line in Imitation of Life (1934), adapted from the novel by Fannie Hurst. We have two single mothers with young daughters, Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers). Beatrice is white, educated and self-reliant; Delilah is black and dominated by years of submissiveness. The film not only dramatises the inequities of racist classification and representation but also contains an undeveloped critique of US capitalism. Beatrice acquires wealth and fortune by marketing Delilah’s home-made pancake recipe. Yet even when the pair move to a affluent mansion Delilah remains ‘downstairs’. This contradiction finds potent expression in the situation of Delilah’s daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) who can ‘pass for white’. The film lacks the trenchant criticism in the treatments of this subject by Oscar Micheaux (for the segregated ‘race cinema’); but, I think, is superior to the better known remake of 1959.
‘The Rebirth of Chinese Cinema (1941)’ offered films from the period when, following the end of the Japanese occupation, the Communist Party of China defeated the capitalist Kuomintang and embarked on its own Socialist Road. The nine titles included straightforward entertainment films, films of resistance during the occupation and films made under the new dispensation.
Along the Sugari River / Songhua Jiang Shang (1947) was produced in Manchuria. Officially in a studio under the control of Kuomintang the film drama tends more to the political line and struggle of the CPC. The film opens on a rural family prior to the Japanese invasion. When the Japanese army arrives their treatment of the indigenous people is brutal and racist. Members of the family succumb to the Japanese violence and finally a young couple flee the village on Sugari river and the husband takes work in a Japanese run mine. After a disaster the Japanese offer derisory compensation to victims. A protest is brutally put down with many deaths. The young couple flee again and are rescued by partisans; thus they join the struggle against the occupation. The film used an amount of location work and prior to the occupation sequences have lyrical feel. The maltreatment under the Japanese is well presented and there are some fine tracking sequences. Like the other titles this film had been transferred to DCP. The surviving 35mm prints were rescued by a French University Department, thus they have Chinese dialogue with French sub-titles. Apparently the prints had not been looked after for years so there survival is welcome.
Equally rare we enjoyed a retrospective of some films by Yilmaz Güney, ‘Despair of Hope’. The Catalogue notes opened with a quotation from ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, by Nikos Kazantzakis:
Hope, lasting too long, had begun to turn into despair.
which suggests a meaning for the title.
Güney was a major star of Turkish cinema in the 1950s and 1960s and went onto become a major film-maker. But his political views, expressed both in writings and in his films led to prosecutions, prison and eventually exile. He both wrote and directed films, and later, when in prison or exile, he supervised his films through collaborators. There were three titles screened plus German documentary. The Legend of the Ugly King / Die Legendae vom Hässlichen König (2017); a title that picked up on Güney’s nickname in as a star noted as a
tough-guy character [who] was often forced to violence because of certain social circumstances . . .
This could be seen in Bride of the Earth / Seyyit Han (1968), a film in black and white widescreen, clearly influenced by the ‘spaghetti westerns’. Güney plays Seyyit, a loner who has been in exile from his village. He returns just as his love Keje (Nabahat Cehre) is being married off to a local landowner. Here we see the power relations in traditional rural society. Seyyit finally has to confront Haydar and his henchman, whilst Keje becomes a victim of the conflict. Just as in a western Seyyit rides away alone a the end. This is a bleak action film, but also one that offers a critique of the traditional power structure in rural Turkey,
The three titles had been transferred to DCPs for the Festival. The quality was reasonable but not great on contrast or definition in long shots. This was presumably partly due to the quality of the surviving 35mm prints.
There was a tribute to the great Italian actor, ‘Marcello Come Here. Mastroianni Rediscovered (1954 – 1974)’. The programme included a fine comedy directed by Alessandro Blasetti, La Fortuna di Essere Donna / Lucky to be a Woman (1955) with Mastroianni as a photo-journalist playing opposite a Sophia Loren as a perspective subject/model. Both actors were delightfully witty.
And there were the programmes one could not fit in like a number of vintage colour prints and an array of documentary films. A festival jury selected the DVD Awards, including Flicker Alley’s The House of Mystery / La maison du mystère (France 1921 – 1923) for ‘The Pater Von Bagh Award’ There was also the announcement that the sadly missed Peter Von Bagh [Festival Director] has been replaced with a ‘gang of four’; Cecilia Cenciarelli, Mariann Lewinsky, Ehsan Khoshbakht and Gian Luca Farinelli. All are experienced in the Festival and wider cinematic culture. It will be interesting to see how they address the increasing popularity of the Festival whilst contemporary cinema is changing so rapidly.
This Festival was held between May 4th and May 6th at the George Eastman Museum in upper New York State. The Eastman Museum is now one of the few places where one can see 35mm film prints on the stock that was once the standard for cinema. The Museum’s Dryden Theatre was crowded for most of the weekend with archivists, critics and fans enjoying the distinctive image that the format offers.
In fact those of us there on the Thursday had a pre-festival treat with a screening of Hamlet (1948) from a Library of Congress print. Lawrence Olivier’s film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s major masterpieces is a fine piece of work. He and his supporting cast are excellent. The adaptation uses judicious cutting to present an impressive drama. And the art design and cinematography are great to watch, given the technical standards at that time. The sound is equally well done and includes in the opening of the drama Olivier voicing his father’s ghost. The print showed up well on the nitrate stock. The frequent chiaroscuro looked good and the cast and their lighting had that silvery quality found on early stock.
The Festival programme was only announced on the Friday morning, a tactic I find rather coy. So we walked into Rochester centre to wander round the excellent second-hand bookshop there. One watches one’s baggage weight on the way out in order to be able to select from an extensive film section together with a wide range of other subjects.
The afternoon included two presentations. And, as is usual, the first set of screenings were short films on nitrate. It commenced with Symphony of a City (Människor I stad, 1947). This film, directed by Arne Sucksdorff, presented a day in Stockholm and the film won the Best Short Subject (One reel) at the 1949 Academy Awards. There was the only silent film at the Festival, Our Navy (1918) for which Phil Carli’s accompaniment added élan. There was an early Cinecolor short, filmed using a sub-tractive two colour process. This presented a Roman Catholic priest, [a Jesuit I think] exploring a glacier in Alaska. Following this was a 1946 Technicolor travelogue,Along the Rainbow Trail, found on the San Juan River. But the pick of the programme was Len Lye’sTrade Tattoo(1937). Only six minutes in length this is fine example of the work of this talented animator. On nitrate stock the film was a dazzling tapestry of colours, which involved hand painting and a certain amount of surrealist imagery.
The Friday early evening screening is traditionally a foreign language print and we were treated to an early Ingmar Bergman film, Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951). Much of the film presents a youthful romance in flashback. I think it is the first Bergman film with recognisable authorial narrative and characterisations. The majority of sequences were filmed in an archipelago over water and islands, and the dappled woods, sun-lit rocks and changing water hues were a real pleasure on nitrate.
The late film, starting at 10 p.m. was the 1938 Holiday, directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. The two leads and supporting cast were good but I was not convinced by the script. The Cary Grant character, supposedly immune from desires for wealth, seems more about facilitating the plotting than presenting a convincing character. The film is handsomely produced and the print was good quality.
Saturday morning saw only one film, The Razor’s Edge (1946). This was adapted , fairly faithfully, from a novel by Somerset Maugham. It starred Tyrone Power as a man searching for meaning in life over decades. The protagonist suited Power’s persona, which whilst often swashbuckling is also frequently divided psychologically. Herbert Marshall was engaging as the writer (Maugham) though his commentary was much reduced from the book. Opposite Tyrone Power were the young Anne Baxter and Gene Tierney. Tierney enjoyed some of the best sequences in the film. This was her fourth appearance in a Nitrate Picture Show programme; who is the unpublicised fan at the Museum? The film was directed by Edmund Golding, an underrated director in Hollywood. He works well with actor and made several titles with Power. And he works well with the cinematography. There are frequent finely executed tracking shots which give the film an continuing flow as years and settings change. There was also good production design and a generally suitable score.
Then lunch. This year the Museum bar was augmented by food trucks in front of the Museum. Fortunately whilst there was quite an amount of rain over the weekend it was not in the meal breaks.
After lunch we enjoyed a print from the Narodni filmy archiv in Prague, Mlhy Na Blatech / Mist of the Moors (1943). This was a rural drama on fairly conventional lines. But there were sequences where the landscape, with trees, hillocks and ponds showed up well on nitrate.
There followed an early Anthony Mann western, Winchester ’73 (1950). This is not Mann’s finest work but James Stewart, displaying the psychotic side of his character that was bought out in Mann’s films, is excellent. There are some fine landscapes and an intense struggle between brothers at the finale on a steep cliff. The print came from the Library of Congress. It looked pretty good but did suffer from some warping which affected the focus.
The day ended with a real treat, a nitrate print of the marvellous Powell and Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948), I remember Ken Brownlow in a broadcast comparing silent film to ballet: this sound film is a tour-de-force of movement and colour. Apart from the brilliant ballet shot with great skills by Jack Cardiff, there are the pleasures of the acting/dancing with a terrific performance as a Svengali impresario by Anton Walbrook. The print was quite worn but the Technicolor looked great. In fact the projection relied on two prints, partly from a George Eastman Museum print, and for the final two reels a personal copy belonging to Martin Scorsese. I did think that the final two reels were of slightly better quality.
Sunday morning is usually the slot for a film noir, a genre which, with its chiaroscuro, suits the palette of nitrate. This year we had Cry of the City, a 1948 RKO film directed by Robert Siodmak. The film’s lead was Richard Conte as a gangster hospitalised and trying to avoid a murder rap. His nemesis is played by Victor Mature. Conte is striking whilst Mature is excellent, though he does not quite fit a character from the same Italian neighbourhood. The print was in good condition and was a pleasure to watch.
The afternoon film was a Soviet musical, a rarely seen genre. The director was Eisenstein’s assistant from the silent era Grigoriy Aleksandrov who made several film in this genre. Moscow Laughs (Vesolye Rebyata, 1934) offers a plot which centres on an a musical shepherd who is mistaken for a famous visiting conductor. The film opens in Odessa and there are some well done set-ups and a fine travelling shot on a local beach. There is a splendid sequence where the animals invade a local bourgeois reception creating chaos: the sequence offers almost surreal incidents. Later the ‘conductor’ takes his orchestra to a Moscow theatre. The latter stages are rather hammy and a little clunky. This is not socialist realism: more like a embryo effort for a new genre. The print’s distinction was that the film was restored in 1958 on surviving nitrate stock, making it the most recent film on nitrate seen at the Festival. The restored print apparently followed the original closely but much of the sound track was rerecorded.
This bought us to the ‘Blind Date’ screening. With even more coyness than over the programme the title of this film is only revealed as it runs on-screen. To tantalise the audience a single still is included in the brochure as a clue. I have consistently failed to guess correctly. Apparently at the first Nitrate Picture Show one visitor correctly identified t a footprint in a flower pot – from The Fallen Idol. This year I suggested a mining film.
There was a ripple of response when the shot/still appeared in an early scene, a hole waiting repair on an upside down curragh used by ‘The Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous docudrama from 1934. This is a n epic portrait of a small isolated community on the edge of the Atlantic. We saw the central family fighting the rough seas, fishing for giant sharks, and laying out sparse potato patches on the inhospitable terrain. This was a fine demonstration of the virtues of nitrate. The roaring seas, the glistening foam, the sun-lit cliffs and shadowed rocks all looked magnificent. It was a high quality print of a striking film.
The festival brochure includes details of the prints including the shrinkage. It is now reckoned that nitrate prints have a longer shelf life than acetate prints, whilst comparatively digital dies in childhood. But nitrate prints do shrink over time; it is reckoned that once shrinkage reaches 1% projection becomes extremely difficult or impossible. This is one of the difficulties faced by the projection team who also work with Projectors that contain safety features in case of fire. So there was frequent applause for the team during the Festival. We also had digital sub-titles for several films but I thought the Museum has not yet mastered the technology as on several occasions the English titles went out of sync with the foreign dialogue. Not a serious problem.
We had a full and rewarding weekend. Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 3rd to May 5th. This means it will fall on several important birthdays, notably Karl Marx. I suggested that a good title for next year would be Fame is the Spur (1947), a film by the Boulting Brothers which includes a rare feature, a photograph of Marx on the wall of a Manchester bookshop. Or there is May 3rd, the birthday of Mary Astor. It would be great to have a nitrate print of The Maltese Falcon (1941) or even Red Dust (1932).