Fans of ‘reel’ films gathered in Rochester New York State for the George Eastman Museum fifth Nitrate Picture Show. It is a trek, though the train journey is very scenic. And where else can you see a whole programme of the format on which film emerged, as used by Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers. The Museum is well appointed. The Dryden auditorium is well designed, comfortable and the sight lines are good. The staff and volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable. And the projection team are expert in a set of skills that, sadly, are becoming rare.
The programme has now settled into a standard order. It is revealed on Friday morning. You have to be prepared to take the films on trust. And one title, the last, is [rather coyly] hidden as a ‘Blind Date’ with a tantalising single frame to set you guessing over the intervening two days.
Friday afternoon commences with talks by experienced archivists on nitrate; ‘Keepers of the Flame’. This year enjoyed David Russell from the Imperial War Museum and Elaine Burroughs who worked at the British Film Institute and also for FIAF. This offers the opportunity to learn more about nitrate, archiving, preservation and the occasional hazards of the work.
The first set of titles are the shorts, including documentaries, newsreels or travelogues and animation.
Two of the latter offered particular pleasures, both in Technicolor, a system whose vibrant colours have an extra sheen in nitrate.
Tulips Shall Grow was war-time animation, (USA 1942), from the hand of George Pals. The print and the Technicolor were in fine condition in a Library of Congress print. The plot involves a young Dutch couple who suffer when the ‘army of Screwballs’ invade. But ‘Mother Nature’ provides a catalyst for resistance and victory over the invaders.
The Cobweb Hotel (USA 1936) was a delightful animation with a far more sardonic tone from David Fleischer provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Flies, including a honeymoon couple, battle to escape the malevolent designs of a spider.
The early evening programme was Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930). The screening was from a George Eastman print which they acquired from the legendary Henri Langlois and it was in reasonable condition. This is an undoubted classic and a fine example of surrealist film. It is longer and more complex than Un Chien Andalu (1929), partly because it has both title cards and recorded dialogue, plus recorded music and effects. Sex, violence, satire, subversion and sardonic humour engage one for just over an hour. I especially like the giraffe flying out a window, the cow on the bed, and a familiar figure with hitherto suppressed biography.
The evening ended with The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949). This was the last major title directed by Preston Sturges in Hollywood. The print from the Museum of Modern Art was in good shape and the Technicolor format offered bold and vivid colours. The ‘Blonde’ (Betty Grable) is a western ‘sure shot’ whose main problem is her unfaithful boyfriend Blackie (Caesar Romero). The action tends to slapstick but is done with real panache. The climatic sequence is a lengthy gun battle full of witty visuals.
Saturday morning opened with the 1947 Nightmare Alley. This was a print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It was a pleasure to watch. Generally seen as a film noir the film lacks the flashbacks and confessional mode of the genre. And the femme fatale in this story is an overweening ambition embodied in fake spiritualist Stanton ‘Stan’ (Tyrone Power). The film was directed by Edmund Goulding, a Hollywood talent who deserves greater recognition. This film also has fine black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes.
The afternoon started with a short film by Arne Sucksdorff from the Swedish Film Institute / Svenska Film Institute, Strandhugg (1950). The print was in excellent shape and Sucksdorff’s films offer fine black and white cinematography; here with poetic sequences of the seaside.
The feature in this session came from the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland; People of the Summer Night (Ihmiset suviyössä, 1948) was directed by Valentin Vaala. Set over one night in a small rural community we watch various relationships and actions among local people; these include birth, death, and conflicts fuelled by alcohol. There also seems to be a implicit gay character. The cinematography by Eino Heino is excellent. The film offers a ‘warm-hearted and sensitive’ evocation of the ordinary but compressed for dramatic purposes.
Late afternoon offered a Cinecolor western, The Nevadan (1950). Cinecolor was a two colour subtraction system, cheaper and quicker to process than Technicolor. Not that many features were filmed in the process which offered especially vibrant orange, red, blue and green. The film has a typical Randolph Scott hero. Upright and stalwart, he outmanoeuvres and outguns the villains led by George Macready. And there is the young Dorothy Malone, not just a romantic interest, but involved in the action. The print from the Austrian Film Museum had quite a lot of scratches and noticeable splices but the colour was excellent.
Rebecca (1940) was a George Eastman print in pretty good condition. There is some fine cinematography by George Barnes and a great score by Franz Waxman. I find that the first part of the film is really good as we encounter [through the eyes and ears of the unnamed heroine) the dead titular character. But once the past is revealed I think the film becomes less interesting and dynamic. The screening included a set of screen tests with Joan Fontaine, Nova Pilbeam and Anne Baxter. This demonstrated how apt was the casting of John Fontaine.
The Sunday opened with a classic film noir, Dead Reckoning (1947). This was a Library of Congress print with signs of wear, both on the emulsion and on the sound track. However, it still showed off the qualities of this black and white film. The movie has all the characteristics of a noir thriller; the confessional mode, flashbacks, the world of chaos into which the hero falls, night and chiaroscuro and a femme fatale. But I did not find it had a strong noir feel. This is mainly because the fatale, ‘Dusty’ (Lizabeth Scott] seems more like the scheming female of private eye films such as The Maltese Falcon. And Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Rip’ is in the mould of the same private eye.
The afternoon offered a John Barrymore film, Counsellor at Law (1933), finely directed in an adaptation from Elmer Rice’s play by William Wyler. The print was from the UCLA Film and Television Archives in very good condition. The early sound track apparently needed adjustment from time to time by the projectionists. Barrymore is excellent as a shyster Lawyer George Simon, originally from the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. The film [and play] follow his Machiavellian manoeuvres when a past case returns to haunt him. The pace and the dialogue are crisp and sharp; Isabel Jewell as telephonist Bessie is a delight. And there is one memorable scene when Simon agrees to defend the son of an old Jewish neighbour, Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman). Harry is a communist and in a terrific sequence turns on Simon who he denounces as a class traitor. Even though this is pre-code Harry later dies from injuries sustained from the New York police.
Then to Blind Date. This year the title was worth a wait, Gone to Earth (1950). The clue was a shot of the wedding cake after Hazel’s (Jennifer Jones) marriage to the Reverend Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). In the adaptation of a novel by Mary Webb Hazel, is caught between the religious but liberal Edward and the sexy but brutal Squire ‘Jack’ (David Farrar). Rather than a triangle this is a square, including Foxy, a young vixen [unfortunate not credited]. Jennifer Jones is miscast as this wild country spirit but she gives her performance real panache. Cusack is grave and convincing and Farrar probably had the female audience swooning with desire. The print was from the George Eastman Museum, a donation by the Selznick family. Fortunately it was the British print not the shorter US version titled The Wild Heart. The directors were those idiosyncratic romantics, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
So this was a rewarding weekend filled full of cinematic pleasures. The organisers and volunteers got a deserved ovation at one point. And, in a habit that is distinctive to George Eastman, the audience were also invited to applaud the projectionists who work overtime to presents these old and often delicate prints.
Punters who would like to see a whole programme of the original cinema format should note that next year the Picture Show Weekend is later, June 4th to 7th 2020. We were advised that Yuri Tsivian is on a mission for the Museum scouring European Archives for Nitrate Prints. Perhaps Dziga Vertov, Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir?
This is an unconventional story film that incudes autobiographical experiences. The writer-director was a refugee at the end of World War II. Her family were ethnic Germans who had to leave Sudetenland which became part of Czechoslovakia. In the film Marianne, five years of age in 1945 (as was the writer) arrives in the village of Straubing in Lower Bavaria; about 80 miles north-east of Munich.
In the film the father, an ex-soldier, gets a job as a teacher. One of the key characters is the village priest whose sermons and sermonising have a strong effect on Marianne and her young friends. The effect is counter-productive because it fuels an interest by the young girls in sex as well as religion. The counterpoint to this is a US G.I. who is part of the local occupation forces. ‘Nicknamed ‘Mr Freedom’, (an ironic comment on US values) the G.I. has a relationship with a local girl and the children become aware of their sexual activity.
The priest’s moralising includes holding forth on the evils of the Soviet Union and what he calls the ‘Ivans’. This feeds into Marianne’s traumas of war memories. The solace provided by the actions and friendly behaviour of ‘Mr Freedom’ ends when he receives a posting to Korea; involving both US ‘freedom’ and Soviet ‘Ivans’.
The film effectively catches the attitudes and behaviour of girls at a particular point when aspects of adult behaviour impinge on their consciousness. The film, in often bizarre combinations of imagery, counterpoints the various values encountered by the children. There is kitsch air about some of these sequences.
The film uses unconventional imagery and sound, with the scenes that are mainly realist in black and white whilst what seem dream-like sequences are in colour. The camerawork is often idiosyncratic, emphasising the constructed nature even of the realism. And the editing sometimes produces clashes of disparate images.
The Retrospective e Brochure comments:
Made in 1983, during the era of rearmament debates, Marianne Rosenbaum’s alternative take on history in this Heimatfilm, with its Bavarian and star cast, can be considered a political statement.
The last phrase seems a little odd. I found the film’s political treatment somewhat contradictory. The critique of war is clear. And the ironic treatment of tropes from more conventional Heimatfilms (‘homeland’) is plain. The Heimatfilms tended to be set in areas like Bavaria, to use extensive exterior rural settings, and had relatively simplistic moral values, typically those associated in the countryside as the antitheses of the city. Whilst the realist sequences seem similar to other Heimatfilme, the dream sequences subvert this through parody and even surreal happenings.
I was less sure about the treatment of the US/Soviet conflict. There is no equivalent to ‘Mr Freedom’ from the East and casting a minor star like Peter Fonda is obviously meant to give him a certain charisma.
There are telling actions as when the portrait of Hitler has to be removed by the parents. A trope that is repeated in the recent British The Aftermath (2019). The ambiguity of all these conflicting values and characters is there at the end as the film offers a mid-shop of the young Marianne. ‘Mr Freedom’ is gone as indeed is her childish innocence.
The film was screened from a good 35mm print and ran for 108 minutes. Marianne Rosenbaum has only made one other feature and a television drama and series. She clearly has talent and an interesting take on drama, I wonder if her unconventional approach has limited her opportunities.
The actual full title is Encounters between 1st of May and 1st July of 1990 / Begegnungen Zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990. This documentary offers a portrait of one area in that hiatus between the capitulation of the DDR and the formal reunification of Germany.
bracketed chronologically by International Workers Day and the monetary and economic unification of the two Germanys. Retrospective Brochure).
The district of Prenzlauer Berg is close to the centre of Berlin and dates from the 1920s. Its population is now about 160,000. In 1990 part of the district ran right up against the dividing wall.
We meet a rock band playing on abandoned east German border territory, Antifascist demonstrators from both sides of the Berlin Wall, and squatters trying to turn an occupied building into a cultural centre.
This is what the Brochure calls the ‘short summer of anarchy’.
In between these actions we see an hear from local residents. Seniors at a dancing session; bohemians involved in squatting along with transvestites; women workers at what was a state run textile factory; and owners/managers of a clothing store and snack bar. In the early stages of the film the sense of anarchy is powerful. Institutions appear to have stop operating. Some people carry on as before, like the dancing pensioners,; others strike a radical new note as with the squatters.
But in the latter stages as unification approaches the economic dominates. The Osmark (East German currency) is replaced by the West German mark. On July 1st suddenly people must change over their currencies, bearing in mind the exchange value. For ordinary citizens the rate was at par; but large holdings were at lower rates. The liveliness in the film is replaced by emptier streets. It is early in the day but it seems like a metaphor of the uncertainty for people.
The director Petra Tschörtner worked with cinematographer Michael Lösche and then editor Angelika Arnold to produce this tapestry of activities and people. We saw the film in its original format of of 35mm. The director commented
I wanted to document the special attitude towards life in this neighbourhood. The people of Prenzlauer Berg always tolerated greater freedom of action than others.
The local people appear to have enjoyed the licence and freedom associated with Carnival. The area itself is changing, not necessarily for the better. The final shot is of a demolished building disappearing in clouds of dust. An ambiguous symbol of the changes.
In 1990, worker’s tore down the border post between East and West Germany at Wartha [near Eisenach in Thuringia State], built not too long before. It was here in 1985 that director Sibylle Schönemann crossed to the West under a system known as “Amnesty”, by which the West bought the freedom of convicted east German criminals. (Retrospective Brochure).
‘Criminal’ has a special sense in relation to East Germany. Sibylle, and her husband, were imprisoned after applying for exit visas and thus ‘interfering with State activities. Sibylle and her husband were imprisoned separately and released under this scheme after a year in prison. Following the breakdown of the East German state and the wall Sibylle went back and made a documentary; visiting some of the sites in which she suffered and interviewing people who were in some way involved in the process.
She starts at the border and then moves onto the prison where she was incarcerated. Later she visits the court rooms where she was tried and the DEFA studio where her behaviour ‘created’ problems that led to the sentence and prison.
She talks to people at all these sites. Some are forthcoming, many are tight lipped and do not want to speak on the issues and events. One interesting person is a young women with whom she shared a cell for a time. They conversed in one of the actual cells in the prison. One got a sense of the pressures and privations which were part of the imprisonment.
One of the key people was the head of the DEFA studio at that time, Hans Dieter Mäde. He attempts to palm responsibility off onto state officials. Then Sibylle tracks down the head of State Security. He now lives in a house in a rural setting. The local people are uncomplimentary about him. This Party secretary, after a few platitudes, is unwilling to talk. It is clear that he has survived relatively well from the collapse of the DDR.
In disquieting encounters , her subjects accept no responsibility for the injustices they imposed, and the director is faced with the painful processing of the past.
A person who is more forthcoming is Wolfgang Vogel, a lawyer involved in the process of ‘amnesty’. However, in a sign of the new Germany he declines some questions because he is planning a book on the subject.
The film is shot in black and white and the construction ,marrying location film with interviews is very effective, down to the director and the editor Gudrun Steinbrück. Both the cinematography by Thomas Plenert and sound by Ronald Gohike is good. And there is judicious use of music by Tamás Kahane. We were fortunate to watch the film in an original 35mm print in good condition. Alongside the films actually produced in the DDR before 1990 this was a revealing but also questioning documentary.