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Kind Hearts and Cruel Comforts
The 32nd Pordenone Silent Film Festival
|Article Copyright © 2014 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
It is a place that ‘grows upon you’ every day. There seems to be always something to find out in it. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn. — Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy
Charles Dickens was talking about the pleasures of wandering through Genoa, but he might just as well have been talking about the experience of attending a silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy. One week each October, enthusiasts from around the world gather to watch films that do indeed ‘abound in the strangest contrasts’ — from picturesque to brutal, from delightful to tragic — ready to break upon the view at every turn.
This year’s program highlighted stories about common people who find themselves tested — sometimes subtly, other times in ways impossible to endure. As WWII admiral William Halsey once said, “There are no extraordinary men . . . just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” How people respond to adversity has long been considered a formula that makes for great drama and a supreme judge of character. This was a week for us to see what happens to ordinary people who lose their way, and then — to paraphrase Dickens — find themselves suddenly facing the most unexpected and surprising of difficulties.
The programs for this year included four remarkable films from neglected German director Gerhardt Lamprecht, a program of Swedish films focusing on the late silent era, films from Eastern Europe, and the usual collection of restorations, special performances, and rediscoveries.
Blancanieves a new silent Snow White
On the heels of the incredible success of the (mostly silent) film The Artist comes the Spanish film Blancanieves, which received a special festival premier on opening night.
The story of Snow White already has a notable place in the history of film. In 1917, a teenager named Walt Disney crowded into a Kansas City Convention Center with 16,000 children and watched a special screening of a film that would forever change his life. As he later described the event: “I once saw Marguerite Clark performing in it in Kansas City when I was a newsboy back in 1917. It was one of the first big feature pictures I’d ever seen . . . I thought it was the perfect story. It had the sympathetic dwarfs, you see? It had the heavy. It had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story.”
Walt Disney would eventually have spectacular success with his version of Snow White, adding color and synchronized sound, but this new silent film — directed by Pablo Burger — goes back to the original Grimm fairy tale for inspiration. Updating the plot for modern sensibilities, this version is set in southern Spain in the 1920s, and Snow White is not a princess but the daughter of a famous bullfighter. On the day she is born, her father has a career-ending injury, and then the tragedy is compounded as both her mother and grandmother die soon after. As Snow White grows up and becomes a young woman, she falls under the influence of Encarna, the evil nurse to her father, who after marriage becomes her stepmother. Encarna tries to kill Snow White, but she is rescued by a band of dwarfs. Living with this band of actors, who stage their own comic version of bullfighting, her natural talent becomes obvious, and soon she is a celebrity — a skilled female bullfighter. This rise to fame draws the wrath of Encarna, who tries again to kill her, this time with a poison apple. Snow White swallows a piece of this apple, and becomes paralyzed, not quite dead and not alive, an object of both reference and despair to her friends. Will she become a religious relic, or will she instead be saved by a handsome prince? Enclosed in a glass coffin, she sheds a single tear while contemplating her future.
There are many things to like about Blancanieves — I think Berger was smart to make the film in black-and-white and to use the established conventions and aesthetics of silent film for the entire film (something The Artist doesn’t do, as its characters ‘break the sound barrier’ and do a song and dance in the final scene). Blancanieves clearly demonstrates that a contemporary silent film can play just fine to a modern audience. Just as modern operas can be written and performed, so can silent movies be produced and released to a general paying audience. There’s nothing inherently ‘old’ or dated about films that don’t use synchronous dialogue, merely our perception of it.
But ironically, Blancanieves suffers from the same fate of many other movies made in the last few years: it’s too long. Fairy tales are morality stories compressed to a fine sheen by many years of telling, but this film chooses to add additional and often extraneous material. Did we really need to see not only Snow White’s mother die, but also her grandmother? And the film misses the chance to use the typical silent film conventions of symbols and images to describe character’s state of mind — without them, we see people doing things but don’t know their motivations, which gives a certain opaqueness to the events as they unfold. I also thought that there was a misogynistic, ‘Bad Mother’ tone to the film that is not always balanced by its feminist elements (such as her decision to become a bullfighter). In the Grimm version of the story, the stepmother’s consuming jealousy towards Snow White’s physical beauty was clear and direct — she’s demonstrating a very human failure (envy), and is in some ways even sympathetic. By contrast, Berger’s version of the stepmother is that of evil incarnate — she wants to dominate and control Snow White’s father, and then his estate, and then Snow White herself, but her pursuit of these goals seems more institutional than personal, and therefore less compelling. Despite these concerns, I applaud Berger for a making a striking film, and hope for even better silent films from him and other like-minded filmmakers in the future.
Tales from Calamity — The Films of Gerhardt Lamprecht
“It is easy for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.” — Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
German silent films have been a special interest of mine since I was in my early teens, when I first read (and memorized) An Illustrated History of the Horror Film by Carlos Clarens. So, I’d like to think I have a reasonable knowledge of German silent film, including the great directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and G.W. Pabst. But this week my assumptions of familiarity were dashed as I was introduced to a German director who is among the best from that era — named Gerhardt Lamprecht.
The lack of knowledge and awareness about Lamprecht speaks more to the politics of film history than to the films themselves. Not only did he write, direct, or act in more than 70 movies, Lamprecht was also one of the first people to understand the need to preserve and save film. Starting at the age of 10, he begin collecting and cataloging German film, and this interest continued through his professional career, his private collection eventually becoming the foundation of the Deutsche Kinemathek, a publicly available resource used to this day. So, Lamprecht is not only an important filmmaker but also his country’s first important archivist. Despite these accomplishments, there is not a single biography in English about this man, and outside of Germany, it’s rare to see one of his films screened.
The program started with my favorite Lamprecht film of the week, Die Unehelichen [Children of No Importance] (1926). This is a ‘slice-of-life’ story, following the lives of three children who are in foster care. Unfortunately, the couple who originally have the children are not up to the task. After one of the children contracts pneumonia, the social service organization of its day removes them from their foster parents and splits them up. The oldest, Peter, ends up in a nice home until his biological father decides the child is old enough to work for him on his barge. Seeing the chance for a cheap laborer, the father exorcises his legal privilege and takes the boy away from a caring foster mother and forces Peter to travel with him back to his boat. With the prospect of what amounts to indentured servitude (beatings included), Peter instead runs away and then tries to drown himself. This would seem to demonstrate that Peter’s father has lost all credibility as a parent, yet Lamprecht goes through some effort to show that the father himself is just a product of a system that considers illegitimate children as a commodity — he thinks he’s doing the kid a favor. But, no matter what his expectations, the father must finally decide how to respond to a child who sees him no longer as father but rather as a cruel overseer who will only cause him pain and suffering.
The acting in this film is remarkable; the performances of the children in particular are completely convincing. You feel like you know these children — if not from your family, perhaps you had lunch with them at a neighbor’s house. This attention to detail did not escape the writers of the day, journalist Heinz Michaelis noted, “Never, not even in America, the land of child stars, has a film director so immersed himself so lovingly in the psyche of the child and created so lovingly from it.”
Next on the program was a film that did see some international success, Die Verrufenen [The Slums of Berlin] (1925). The story recounts the life of an engineer, Robert Kramer (Bernhard Goetzke), who is tried for the crime of perjury (he lies to protect his fiancée, who then abandons him), is convicted and is sent to jail. After serving his time he is released, but quickly learns the painful truth that no one wants to hire a convicted felon. Faced with the inability to even pay for a roof over his head, his life takes a downward spiral — contemplating starvation or suicide, he is befriended by a prostitute, who is at least marginally able to able to earn a living. Slowly — very slowly — he starts to build his life back, and just when he is a position to return to his former life as an engineer, he is faced with the moral choice of risking all he has fought for, to help his friends (judged by society to be criminals) who kept him alive in his time of need, even at the risk of sacrificing his future happiness.
Slums of Berlin was the first of what could be called a ‘Heinrich Zille mini-genre’ of German city/street films. Zille was an illustrator who became enormously successful in newspapers and magazines as a crusader in calling attention to the plight of the poor and homeless. To make clear to the audience that Slums of Berlin was a social protest against the damaging effects of the rigid class system, many of Zille’s illustrations were reproduced as establishing shots in scenes throughout the film, beginning with Zille himself at the beginning of the film creating an illustration that dissolves into the first image in the story. Using this cinematic approach, Lamprecht tells you as much about Germany’s rigid class structure as Zille’s illustrations did in the 1920s newspapers and magazines. Zille’s art would inspire other films, most notably a late silent, Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück [Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness] (1929), a film so admired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, that he filmed his version of the story, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven in 1977.
One must once again be impressed with the high quality of the performances. Lamprecht’s actors have a naturalist style completely fitting with the documentary-like feel to the story. And Lamprecht thoroughly understands the anguish and despair of the people he is describing, as he patiently details the rigid class structure and the many roadblocks faced by Kramer in his attempt to get work, each step leading inevitably to the next. It was if the director himself understood on a gut level that the lack of opportunity — more often than not — is what draws the released prisoner to the one avenue left them, a return to a life of crime. While this film eventually follows its melodramatic conventions (Kramer is able to climb back into society and respectability), the emotional cost of his many years of hardship is enormous. As a social protest film, Slums of Berlin is a convincing statement to the need to reform our treatment of released prisoners, sadly as topical today as the year it was made.
We were next treated to Menschen untereinander [People Among Each Other] (1926), a series of stories about the families living inside a single Berlin apartment building. Using this simple, unifying structure (resembling, at least in its premise, Hitchcock’s Rear Window), Lamprecht follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the various families: rich, poor, happy, and distraught, as they deal with the runaway inflation that ravaged German households after the war. By limiting his interest to only the people in the one building, Lamprecht gives us a series of interlocking stories that makes this one building stand for the entire city of Berlin. This film would make a great double feature (by way of contrast) to the more famous Berlin: Symphony of a City — one film all about surface, the other about what lurks below that surface.
Finally, the program screened Unter der Laterne [Under the Lantern] (1928), the story of Else (Lissy Arna) a very normal teenage girl who is forced to live with her authoritarian father. Missing her curfew one night, she is locked out by her father and rather than spending the night on the street, she finds her way back to her boyfriend’s apartment and innocently stays the night. Innocent or not, this action propels her down a road that once taken, cannot be reversed. In meticulous fashion, the film follows her choices, each one by itself seemingly quite reasonable, yet each in their own small way, irrevocable, all of the choices eventually causing disaster and tragedy.
This film — more than any other of Lamprecht’s screened this week — has a protofeminist sensibility. Under the Lantern makes painfully clear how much gender played a role in opportunities for men and women in German society in the 1920s. Women were limited to only a few stereotyped roles and occupations, and transgressing these boundaries could and often did lead to painful reprisals. This film also has a wild change in tone. Under the Lantern starts as a romantic comedy, moves to drama, then back to comedy, before finally settling into what can be described as a ‘social problem’ film. The rapid shifts of the plot from one genre to the next can be jarring to those who like to label a story and settle down to see what happens, but this alternate approach can be both refreshing and liberating — since you don’t know where the story is going, what eventually happens is more of a surprise.
While my German friends remind me Lamprecht was much more than a director of ‘children’s films’ (his many other films include costume period pieces, dramas and comedies), his particular skill at directing children is the simplest and most straight forward introduction to his work. But, one must still ask why would we even need to consider formulating a campaign for his appreciation? Why is Lamprecht is so little known outside of Germany?
One obvious reason is that Lamprecht operated from a personal agenda outside of the fashion of his day. While directors like Murnau and Lang were catching the public eye (and the world stage) by producing dramatic work using the visually compelling principles of art movements such as Expressionism (where characters were more often ‘types’ than people), Lamprecht as a rule avoided cinematic effects and kept to a far simpler style of focusing on the ‘human interest’ central to the story. Lamprecht is so intent on getting the sense of ‘being there’ and accuracy of detail, it sometimes feels like you are voyeuristically looking into someone’s home, or that you are watching a scene ripped out of a Émile Zola novel.
However, a huge difference between Zola and Lamprecht is that where Zola often carries out the story to a deterministic conclusion where the characters are doomed to their fate, Lamprecht’s characters (who seem so well-rounded as to have lives of their own) have much more say in the matter — they have agency, an ability to control at least to some degree, their fate. The difference between these two approaches is decisive, and with this approach Lamprecht feels closer in spirit to the Victorian world of Charles Dickens than to the cold, brittle and sophisticated Weimar Berlin that we see in films like Pandora’s Box. In other words, one reason Lamprecht may be so little known is that critics, even in his day, may have seen his approach as a little dated — and horrors! — even sentimental, an opinion that would have only been exaggerated as Germany found itself careening toward an era that emphasized anti-humanist values. But now that time has largely obliterated the fashions of one age over another, let’s hope a new generation of audiences can accept Lamprecht for what he is, a true original and a director of great films.
Sweden, the ‘Lost Years’
This year the festival screened Swedish films from 1925-1929. While many countries produced some of their greatest silent films in the late 1920s, Sweden finds itself in the odd position of having their ‘golden age’ much earlier, starting in 1917, with Victor Sjöström’s A Man There Was. The reason for the drop in quality is simple — Sweden’s two greatest directors, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, were lured away by Hollywood just at the moment when the Swedish studios found themselves scrambling to match the popular product coming from the United States. The consensus of the Swedish studios (along with a few gifted directors that stayed, such as Gustaf Molander) was that there needed to be a rethinking of Swedish national cinema, with the stories more cosmopolitan and international, so that their product could compete with the sophistication and pace that many American films offered. By matching Hollywood’s product, these studio heads reasoned, Sweden could capture a share for earnings for Europe and America.
Ironically, for me, this shift toward urban, international stories (I call it the ‘fewer cows, more martinis’ strategy) diluted down the very essence of what made the Swedish films so unique, an ability to show a world informed by nature and the country’s spectacular landscapes. Several of the films screened this week, such as the romantic comedy Hans engelska fru [Matrimony] (1927) were successful in what they tried to do — which was to look like romantic comedies already being seen in American and Europe. But, in trying reach a larger audience, these Swedish films often lost the essence of what made them so unique and special.
Not everyone followed this plan, and there were several films screened this week that chose not hide their roots. The first of these is Den starkaste [The Strongest] (1929), co-directed by Alf Sjöberg and Axel Lindblom. The story starts with a handsome sailor Gustaf (Bengt Djurberg) hired on a farm for temporary work until he can ship out on the next hunt. The farm is owned by a sea captain Larsen, (Hjalmar Peters), who is soon to retire and give command of his ship, the Viking, to his loyal first mate who has been with him many years. The first mate is also in line to marry Larsen’s daughter, Ingeborg (Gun Holmquist). Gustaf is attracted to Ingeborg and senses her lack of enthusiasm about this all-but-arranged marriage, but before he can act on this impulse, he gets in a dock fight between two groups of sailors, in which a valuable rifle is lost and Gustaf is accused of the theft. Forced to leave the farm, he ships out to sea on the Maude, a rival ship to Larsen’s Viking, and Gustaf hunts seals in the Arctic with the rival ship Viking at sea nearby. Soon jealousy erupts between the sailors of the two ships and the rivalry escalates into dangerous and fatal results as the two crews find themselves in a deadly and harrowing competition between the hunt for seals and the unforgiving arctic weather.
The Strongest starts off slowly, but the pace picks up steadily and the story soon becomes a saga of survival and heroism — an epic tale in which ‘the strongest’ of the group are called upon to do extraordinary things to survive. The film is tremendously aided by the essentially documentary approach as we follow the sailors on the ice flows in their hunt for seals, and their struggles to survive when one party loses sight of the ship in the fog. The Strongest is just one of many films at this festival that begs to be seen on a big screen and a large audience.
Another Swedish film that bucked the trend for urban over rural themes was Rågens rike [The Kingdom of Rye] (1929), directed Ivar Johansson. Johansson, who had been in charge of editing Soviet features for the Swedish market, brought these skills to this film, and with his severe camera angles, dramatic lighting, produced a product that might be called ‘Nordic Soviet’ style. The story of Kingdom of Rye is as simple as the technique of telling it is advanced: In northern Sweden, Klara (Margit Manstad), a daughter of widow who owns farmland, is betrothed to estate owner Mattias Spangar (Mathias Taube) a wealthy, but much older man. Unfortunately, Klara loves Marcus (Eric Laurent), a poor man with little influence in the community. Disregarding her wishes, Spangar forces the marriage between Klara and himself, causing eventual disaster for all involved.
This film is best remembered not for the rather predictable story, but rather for its remarkable photography and editing sequences, such as the sleepwalking scene of an unhappy Klara, the drinking contest between Spangar and Marcus, and especially the love scene between Klara and Marcus amidst the swirl of wheat around them — an image so striking and emblematic that it represents an iconic image of Scandinavian cinema. The actor Mathias Taube, who plays wealthy landowner Spanger, is especially charismatic, and he reminds me of Burl Ives, who played a similar role in an Oscar-winning performance as rancher and patriarch in The Big Country. In fact, this entire film reminds me as a Swedish version of The Big Country, and reinforces the strong connection between the Scandinavian films and the Western.
But my favorite Swedish film this week, Flickan i frack [The Girl in Tails] (1927), delivers all the sophistication you could want and doesn’t have to go far outside of a small Swedish town to do it. Directed by an important but largely forgotten woman in Swedish film history, actress/director/producer Karin Swanström, this is the story of Katja (Magda Holm) a bright girl raised by her widowed father, who is asked to tutor Ludwig (Einar Axelsson), a son of wealthy landowners outside of town. Ludwig is a pleasant but unmotivated boy and is danger of not graduating from school, but with hard work, Katja is successful in raising his grades, and as a reward to herself, she plans to go to the annual town ball. Unfortunately, her father is short of money and decides to spend what he has on a new tuxedo for her brother, explaining to her that it is more important for the boy to look nice in such a prestigious event. Incensed at the unfairness of the situation, Katja comes up with a novel plan: She will wear her brother’s tuxedo to the ball. And she does, to the complete scandal of the town, especially the town matriarch, Mrs. Hyltenius (played by the director Swanström, who has given herself a plum role). After her father disowns her, in despair Katja retreats to the estate where she tutored Ludwig, and now romance blossoms between the two. Despite their growing affection for each other, feelings have been hurt among the families in the town, producing a stalemate — nothing more can happen until town matriarch Mrs. Hyltenius is pacified. This task falls to the school’s wise headmaster who gives her forceful advice: Forgiveness, he explains, is a gift we can give to others and ourselves only while we are alive. Faced with this painful truth, Hyltenius relents and is willing to excuse Katja’s rash act of wearing a tux and tails, as long she ‘never does it again.’ (We suspect Katja will soon do something far more subversive than wearing men’s clothing). The Girl in Tails manages the trick of being a light breezy comedy while delivering a heartfelt message about woman’s rights. Karin Swanström, would continue to direct and act in films and play an important player in the future of the Swedish film industry — late in her life she took a young actress named Ingrid Bergman under her wing, and under her guidance, helped her to achieve international fame.
Sweden continued with its confusion of self-identity (sophisticated stories of urban life, or rugged outdoor tales?) until the late 1920s, when talkies replaced silent film, basically ending any hopes Sweden had of being a major player in world film markets. But the early importance of Swedish cinema had its consequences a generation later, when directors such as Ingmar Bergman, who grew up watching these films, produced work so influential as to help create what we now call ‘the art film.’
Films from Eastern Europe: The Czech Republic, Russia and Ukraine
Between 1922 and 1930, Ukrainian cinema enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy from Russia, and produced a large number of films — at least 33 feature films, and 165 shorter ‘Kulturfilms’ — most of these films unknown to the West. Included in the screenings was a terrific and sadly obscure film, Dva Dnya [Two Days] (1927). Directed by Georgii Stabovyi, the film is set during the 1917-1921 civil war in Ukraine and recounts two days in the life of Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi), a faithful doorkeeper of a family with a rich estate. When the family flees from the advancing Bolshevik troops, he stays behind to guard the valuables that are buried in the garden. During the rapid exit a family dog wishing to go with the fleeing party is callously killed and is buried next to the jewels. Soon the young son of the master of the estate Sergey Minin is separated from his family and returns in desperation. Anton hides him from the approaching rebel troops, led by his own son Andrii, who has earlier joined the Bolshevik movement. This uneasy truce is broken when a second dog sniffs suspiciously the newly buried earth in the garden, and the family fortune is discovered. With a reversal of war, the Whites return to reclaim the territory around the estate, and Andrii is captured. The young master identifies him as a Bolshevik, and despite Anton’s protests, he is shot by a firing squad, driving his father into complete despair and forcing him to make a terrible choice between one side and the other.
Two Days is an eye-opening view into a world of Soviet silent cinema that rarely gets attention from film festival programs interested only in a short list of ‘greatest hits’ like Potemkin and Earth. Two Days forcefully makes the point that in this era, the film studios in the communist countries were not monolithic propaganda machines where capitalist villains invariably met defeat against Soviet proletarian heroes, but instead had the ability to produce nuanced stories that allowed for various points of view. In particular, Two Days examines the terrible dilemma civilians face when placed between two armies. We all know that war is dehumanizing for the participants in the battle, but this film emphasizes that a special burden falls to the civilians who essentially become untrained and unarmed combatants in a struggle they often want no part of. The actor who plays the doorman, Ivan Zamychkovskyi, is especially effective as his role of a loyal doorman who must struggle over the issue of shifting loyalties, and his performance reminds me of Emil Jannings, who essayed similar roles in his career.
When you are thinking of a film to show to kids on an afternoon matinee, a silent Soviet film isn’t on the top of your list. That’s because you haven’t seen Kosmicheskii reis [Cosmic Voyage] (1936). A film made at the very end of the silent era in Russia, Cosmic Voyage is set in the Soviet future of 1946 and chronicles the attempt by scientists to launch a manned rocket to the moon. Helping out the engineers and professors is a loyal band of children who match the adults’ enthusiasm for a successful mission, and when the project becomes in danger of being scrubbed, these young people go into action to keep dream of a lunar landing alive. As in most movies of this kind, the children prove to be smarter and more capable than the adults, a development that must have brought joy to a young audience, who for at least why they are watching this film, can fantasize they are the ones really in charge. With elaborate set construction, and using both animation and miniature models to great effect, this film is similar to the Supermarionation effects of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson-produced action-adventures, such as their feature film Thunderbirds Are Go, and as such, makes a great movie for parents to take their kids, since many adults will be familiar with the style, and children not already addled by hyperkinetic CGI effects will love the models and miniatures.
A Czech film, Příchozí z temnot [Arrival from Darkness, also known as Redivivus] (1921), deserves mention as a very early effort to bring the idea of a version of ‘time travel’ and reincarnation to the screen. Adapted from one of the first Czech science fiction novels, Zakletá země [Cursed Country] (1910), Arrival from Darkness is the story of a landowner Bohdan Dražický (Theodor Pištěk) who — after reading a journal — searches his castle-like estate and finds a secret laboratory hidden at the base of a large tower. Inside the lab is a ‘frozen’ man who may still be alive. Following instructions supplied in the lab, Bohdran revives the man, Ješek Dražický (Karel Lamač) and the two men discover they are distant relatives. Ješek explains he was a student of a 16th century alchemist who had discovered an elixir of life, and after the woman he loved died of the plague, in despair, Ješek volunteered to test the elixir. While trying to adjust to a world in which six hundred years have passed, Ješek falls in love with Bohdran’s wife, Dagmar (Anny Ondráková, later known as Anny Ondra), thinking that in her he sees the soul of his lost love. In reading the notes found in the laboratory, Bohdran discovers that Ješek needs to keep taking the elixir or he will die, and in the inevitable conflict between the two men for Dagmar, Ješek kidnaps Dagmar, and in retaliation, Bohdran blows up the tower, effectively destroying what is left of the elixir, killing Ješek. Dagmar is found, as Bohdran wakes up on his desk next to the journal he was reading; has he been dreaming this, or did it really happen?
The best elements of this film are the sets, photography and lighting. The program notes mention that the filmmakers deliberately set out to duplicate the films being produced in Germany at the time — and with this film being released in 1921, the sets and chiaroscuro lighting effects are on a par with anything Germany had to offer. Unfortunately, after an effectively eerie first twenty minutes, the film throws us into a series of dream sequences and flashbacks so confusing no one — not even the characters in the story — seem to know what is happening. Instead of pursuing the more interesting aspects of the premise, which would include the reactions of a man who has been ‘dead’ for hundreds years, the film chooses to fritter away the time telling us how much Bodhan loves his wife. Despite the disappointing resolution, there is much of interest in this film, if only for its obvious connection with the German films of its time — the journal Bodhan is reading has a clear parallel with Nosferatu’s Book of the Vampire, and with its lighting and set design producing a clash — almost a war — between light and shadow, the film compares favorably to German films of the same time period, such as Destiny (1921) or Warning Shadows (1923). If Lotte Eisner had written a chapter about films from Germany’s neighboring countries in The Haunted Screen, Arrival from Darkness, would deserve to be one of the first mentioned, and deserves inclusion in any discussion of Expressionist silent films.
Restorations and Rediscoveries
One the films screened this week was a restored print of William A. Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928), a story about Nancy (Louise Brooks) who kills her abusive stepfather and after meeting Jim (Richard Arlen), they flee the law and fall in with hobos and tramps. Nancy tries to conceal her sex by dressing as a boy, but trying to get food in a hobo town, her true identity is discovered. She is saved from violence by hobo kingpin Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), who helps the couple for his own sinister reasons (his reasons starting and ending with the beautiful Louise Brooks). But in their efforts to flee from the law, he grows to like the couple and eventually helps them escape from the police.
Beggars of Life received mixed reviews on its initial release, but is now considered a classic — an unvarnished, authentic look of beggars and hoboes we rarely see in Hollywood films. One of the most interesting parts of the film is the issue of race — this world of lost souls is also a world of forced integration; the men and women in this marginalized existence have more pressing problems than the color of one’s skin. Wallace Beery, in his role of Oklahoma Red, essentially an updated version of Long John Silver, is a classic anti-hero — he would steal your wallet if you let him, but also might risk his life for you if he felt so inclined. If there is any problem with this film, it’s that Beery’s personality is so powerful that once introduced, his character takes over the action and screen time, reducing Nancy and Jim to observers in their own story. Even with this problem — and one could argue that Beery is the best part of the picture — Beggars of Life is one of Wellman’s greatest silent films, and for those of us who have only seen it in its battered and faded 16mm print, this new restoration is a pleasure to watch. It’s also fun to see Louise Brooks in a film made just before her trip to Germany for Pandora’s Box — one can only wonder how her career would have been different if she had stayed in Hollywood.
Another special screening was the first ever showing of a ‘lost’ Orson Welles’s film, Too Much Johnson. This film, shot in the summer of 1938, was originally designed to be part of theater experience, blending live action theater and film. The concept was not completely original, but what Welles had planned was far more ambitious than what anyone had ever done. Filming took place in the summer of 1938, and giving himself only about a month for editing, Welles was beset by a number of problems, chiefly one of a deadline; the play was set to open in the fall of that year. Eventually the project was abandoned, and the film never progressed past a work print before the project was abandoned, and then forgotten. The work print was consigned to a closet and then, after a fire in Welles’s home in Spain, thought destroyed. But by a strange coincidence, a few years ago it turned up in a warehouse in (of all places), Pordenone, and was restored in time for its world premiere at this festival.
With the understanding that we were not seeing a finished film, this ‘lost’ film of Orson Welles was screened for this first time at this festival. For further details about this film, please read my blog article.
The Rin-Tin-Tin Award
Every year I give an award to my favorite animal actor in the week of screened films. Past awards have included animals in the films of Nell Shipman, and the English dog Rover (of Rescued By Rover fame). This year’s candidates for the best animal actor were mostly of the animated variety, such as Felix the Cat, who essayed the ‘plastic’ visual humor of being able to bend and shape his body into whatever task was called for. Another candidate was Fitz the Dog, from the Out of the Inkwell cartoons. A creation of Max Fleischer, the series combined animation and live action in which Koko the Clown and his friend, Fitz the Dog would be ‘pulled’ from an inkwell and then would quickly get into various forms of mischief before being corralled by their creator, Max, who would appear as a character in his own cartoons. The festival screened one of their most ambitious efforts, Koko’s Earth Control. Once Koko and Fitz are released from their inkwell, they travel around the world and discover a building (apparently located on one of the Earth’s poles), where the world’s celestial mechanics are controlled. While looking at the many amazing contraptions in front of them, Fitz spies a lever on a wall with the ominous warning: “Danger Beware – Do Not Touch Earth Control – If This Handle Is Pulled The World Will Come To An End.” Using a fatalistic, anarchic logic that one often sees in a Max Fleischer cartoon, Fitz is impelled to pull the lever, and for the next five minutes we are treated to an apocalyptic vision of both the cartoon earth and the real earth fragmenting into surrealistic pieces. There is a last little clip of Koko and Fitz being pushed back into their bottle, but one wonders if this effort is a little late — by then, the pleasure of watching the end of the world has dissipated a bit as the effects have become disturbingly realistic.
While Koko’s Earth Control is brilliant in its perverse way, Rin-Tin-Tin, the dog that made a career by always saving the day, would never allow me to give an award to an animal that tries to blow up the world. Instead, this year’s honor goes to the camel in the Ukrainian film Shkurnyk [The Self Seeker] (1929). Directed by Mykola Shpykovskyi, this is another film recounting the struggles faced by the civilians in the Russian Civil War. But instead of this being another grim war film, The Self Seeker is a comedy about an opportunist, Apollon Shmyhuev (Ivan Sadovskyi), who uses a camel as a ‘decoy’ in order to barter and survive between the opposing factions of Reds and Whites, changing sides depending on which way the wind blows. As the camel and Apollon barely escape one disaster after another, I couldn’t help thinking I was seeing the formation of a comedy team — it is in its way, a Soviet-styled Bing Crosby and Bob Hope road movie! As such, the camel becomes the perfect straight man and delivers some great reaction shots to the progressively ludicrous situations going on around him. To the nameless camel, starring in a hilarious and unfortunately obscure film, this Rin-Tin-Tin award is for you.
Harold Lloyd Scores Big
For the closing night performance, we were treated to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), about Harold Lamb, a naïve but plucky young man who arrives at a college with an almost fanatical desire to succeed at everything he does. The program notes describe this film as not as much of a comedy of manners, but more of a ‘supreme comedy of embarrassment,’ and that’s an excellent way to describe what happens in this film. As Harold’s character tries to impress others by boasting of skills he doesn’t have, Harold becomes the laughing-stock of first his rooming house, then the football team, and then the entire school. If Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last is the most perfectly constructed silent film ever made, The Freshman is close behind. The outcome is never in doubt, as Harold does eventually get the girl, win the football game, and become the Big Man on Campus, but what makes this film so much fun is not the plot, but rather the succession of gags, that like a Swiss watch, all come with perfect timing. Hugely entertaining, The Freshman is very definition of a crowd pleaser and the perfect end to another great week of silent film.
This festival has a longstanding reputation of finding obscure films that for various reasons have been neglected, and are not found in ‘the canon,’ a collection of films regularly shown around the world and regarded as the best of what silent film has to offer. Films screened this week that I think deserve to be elevated to ‘canon’ status are Two Days, Children of No Importance, and The Girl With Tails.
While enjoying my week at Pordenone, it was obvious that the festival was dealing with two forces largely out of its control — the first is the increased use of digital technology for ‘content streaming’ on the Internet for personal use. While in a broad sense, digital technology in many ways is a positive force in silent film — digital technology can save and restore films in ways not possible by photochemical means. But with access to the Internet becoming commonplace, and downloading becoming the norm, the inherent need to go to a theater to see a movie disappears if one can watch it at home. This disrupts the economic models of normal business and changes the public perception of the ‘scarcity value’ that had, in the past, been given to older films, which had for decades been given a status position by only being available by attending repertory movie theaters. The result is (at a first glance) paradoxical effect that the easier it is to watch these films, the less general public interest there is in watching these films at all.
And the increased use of digital technology also inexorably pulls us away from the technology of film itself — this was the first year that digital projection played a large role in screening films. And if in the past we chuckled (or sympathized) when an old 16 mm films jumped out of its sprockets, it’s harder to find an emotional connection to a digital file overloading the projector and the images freezing on the screen — and that happened more than once this week.
As the festival struggles to find the right use of digital technology, plotting a course between preservation and progress, the other dog that nips at the heels of the festival — and in a more general sense, preservation projects around the world — are persistent budget cuts. Films have enriched all of our lives for more than a century, but the business of film is very different from film as an art. The business of film is like most businesses and will almost always sacrifice long-term goals for short-term profits. It’s a painful lesson that archivists know too well but the general public has little interest in, and makes it all the more important we support local efforts for the continual performances of silent film. To again paraphrase Charles Dickens, the Pordenone Silent Film festival, and all the celebrations of silent film around the world, will only continue and prosper if they can be staged ‘with affection beaming in one eye, and calculation shining out of the other.’
The festival took place on 5-12 October 2013 in Pordenone, Italy.