There are plenty of changes afoot at the BFI London film festival, with a new artistic director, more venues being used around the capital and a rejigged set of thematic categories across the programme. The Treasures strand has been beefed up, and that can only mean good news for silent film enthusiasts. So, without further preamble, here’s what you can look forward to this year:
This is the big one, the archive gala presentation. Hitchcock’s tragic coastal romance is one of his most beautiful films, and an accomplished, fascinating silent. Anny Ondra, Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen take their places at the corners of an Isle of Man love triangle, and Hitchcock milks their doom-laden situation for every drop of suspense. This will of course be a presentation of the BFI’s new restoration of the film, and as he did last year with The First Born, Stephen Horne will be writing and performing a brand new score.
Rather dishearteningly described as ‘Tim Burton meets The Artist’, Pablo Berger’s modern silent plays three times during the festival, in the Cult strand. It’s a Gothic adaptation of Snow White, set in the world of bullfighting in 1920s Spain and it looks very intriguing. You can read more here and we’ll have a better idea what to expect when the reviews come in from its screenings at the San Sebastian and Toronto festivals later this month.
The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)
Presented by the Imperial War Museum, this promises to be a highlight of the festival. The film, which records not just trench warfare during the first world war, but also offers the first footage of tanks in battle, will be screened by a recorded score by Laura Rossi, but this is the premiers of a new digital restoration.
The Battle of the Ancre is the official record of the British Army’s winter campaign on the Somme in 1916, and is the sequel to the celebrated Battle of the Somme (1916). Although Ancre is less well-known than Somme, which did record business at the box-office, Ancre is the better film cinematically and contains evocative and haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.
Gypsy Anne (1920)
A popular screening at this year’s British silent film festival, Gypsy Anne is a Norwegian romance starring a young and almost unrecognisable Asta Nielsen in the title role. Norway’s first homegrown feature makes the most of its pastoral locations, and is presented here with a recording of Haldor Krogh’s folk-tinged score.
The Loves of Pharoah (1922)
Ernst Lubitsch directs Emil Janning in a vast and lurid Egyptian epic. Lost and found and beautifully restored, it screens here reunited with a recording of the original orchestral score by Eduard Künneke. A must-see:
With a fashionable quasi-Biblical theme, monumental sets, thousands of extras and an imposing central performance by the great German screen actor Emil Jannings, the film was Lubitsch’s last major production in Germany and his ticket to Hollywood. Jannings plays the eponymous King of Egypt, Amenes, beset by Ethiopian invaders, but smitten by beautiful Greek slave girl Theonis, herself in love with a young egyptian, Ramphis. Happiness breaks out when Ramphis saves Egypt from the Ethiopians and Amenes dies in battle. Or does he…? With missing scenes seamlessly conveyed by stills and captions, this revival of a Lubitsch film unseen in over 80 years represents a triumph of archival dedication.
The Spanish Dancer (1923)
One of Pola Negri’s finest Hollywood films, she slinks here into a role originally written for Rudolph Valentino. This is one of the films that I am most looking forward to in the archive strand, having heard wonderful things about the new restoration by EYE in Amsterdam.
A lively romantic comedy, beautifully photographed by James (Wong) Howe with visual references to Velasquez, it tells of the adventures of Maritana, a Spanish gypsy singer, who is in love with the penniless nobleman and bon vivant Don César de Bazan. they become involved in a chaotic court intrigue involving the Spanish king, which only Maritana can resolve.
The Spanish Dancer will screen with a piano accompaniment from Stephen Horne.
No longer the only silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar, Wings is a classic Hollywood confection of romance, comedy and spectacle. Clara Bow is the girl who distracts WWI flying aces Richard Arlen and ‘Buddy’ Rogers from their aviation exploits, and more to the point, their tender ‘bromance’. I don’t know yet whether the festival screening will feature the sound effects that accompanied the roadshow screenings of the film in the 1920s, but this is the new, pin-sharp and shiny restored print, so look out for the licks of orange flame as those German bombers spiral to the ground.
You’ll find full booking information on the London film festival website. Look out for reviews of all these films on Silent London as they happen, just like last year. And if you’re going to Pordenone this year, note that you’ll be able to see all these films on your return, apart from Wings and Gypsy Anne.