If it’s Tuesday then it must be Dovzhenko. My fourth day at the Giorante began a little later than the others, with a screening of Zvenyhora (1927), a bewildering film of great splendour, which the Ukrainian director described as his “most interesting picture”. This symbolic hymn to national pride, myth and destiny gave him the chance, he believed: “to expand the screen’s frame, get away from clichéd narrativity, and speak in the language of vast generalisations”. That either sounds like heaven or hell to you I am sure, and while I find the film impossible to summarise, I thought it was magnificently photographed, never dull and mostly incomprehensible. Like the other Dovzhenkos I have seen, I am sure it will linger in the mind. Mention must also go to John Sweeney’s thunderous, passionate accompaniment on what the festival programme so enticingly calls the “pianoforte”.
“Nelly and Adolf hurry to tell all to the insurer” – does that intertitle give you a suggestion of the, erm, lack of similar grandeur and high drama in De Bertha (1913)? This was a half-hour caper about insurance fraud, shipping and the new-fangled telegraph starring sweet-faced Annie Bos, known as the “Dutch Anna Nielsen”. It was a happy recent discovery for the EYE Film Institute and while it is a smartly told tale, with pretty tinting and a likeable leading lady, it was far too soapy and unexciting for me after the previous film. Pity.
A longish lunch called, before returning to the Teatro Verdi for a trio of star voyages from 1906: the French original, Voyage Autour d’une Etoile, an abridged reshoot of the same with different actors and sets, and an Italian remake, Un Viaggio in una Stella, all by the same director, with subtle differences. There was great inventiveness on display, plus masses of good humour and dancing, and I could have happily watched variations on this theme for hours – before splicing together a supercut of the best moments from each.
We were back on the hard stuff with Friedrich Zelnik’s 1926 Die Weber, AKA “the German Potemkin” – though this magnificent story of textile workers kicking back against their brutish boss (Paul Wegener) was more like a German Strike, and my, was it soul-stirring. Dynamic hand-drawn intertitles, a vigorous ensemble, and wonderful direction (a poignant sequence with a hungry boy and a rocking horse, frenetic mob scenes), made this an exhilarating hour and a half. Spectacular accompaniment from Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, including some rousing revolutionary singing, fair took our breath away.
Having calmed our radical fervour with a quick drink over the road, we took our places for a double-bill that promised pure joy – and delivered. First, a rerun of Saturday night’s world premiere of the restored Méliès film Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé (1902) with Paul McGann once again delivering the commentary (more on this anon). Then, a screening I was particularly looking forward to: Herbert Brenon’s 1923 romance The Spanish Dancer, starring Pola Negri, Adolphe Menjou, Wallace Beery, Kathlyn Williams and chums. What I didn’t know was that silent film musician Donald Sosin had spent many months planning an accompaniment for the movie, which would involve a group of musicians including Günter Buchwald on guitar. Sadly, Sosin is currently unwell and unable to attend the festival, so Buchwald, Stephen Horne and a few others, put together their own music, at late notice, but based on some of the plans that Sosin had made. It was fabulous. The film is classic Hollywood at its ludicrous best, with giant, gorgeous sets, sequined costumes and massive crowd scenes. Negri is wonderful, especially as this is a role that allows her to dance, and fall desperately in love – her two specialities – as a gypsy fortune teller whose beauty and kindness plunges the Spanish court into disarray. And the richness of the accompaniment, with gypsy guitar, percussion, and romantic strings, did it true justice – I hope Sosin would have been pleased. A memorable screening for sure, and do, “I beseech you”, catch The Spanish Dancer when it screens at the London film festival next weekend.
Favourite intertitles of the day: It’s a tie, between “I’ve accidentally killed myself” in Saved by the Pony Express (1911), starring Tom Mix, and “Damn that bunch of knitters” from Die Weber.
Best argument for vegetarianism of the day: Jäger in Die Weber opines something along the lines of: “What need have we to eat meat, when we could devour the manufacturers instead? They swim in grease up to their necks already.” Quite. And who could fail to agree when they had just seen Grandpa choking as he chewed on a stew made of the family dog?
For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.