An exceptionally strong and varied day at the Giornate: Soviet montage, German arthouse, a British drama, Dickens in Danish, early sound films and a big, fat two-strip Technicolor feature in the evening.
Anna Sten took centre-stage on Thursday morning in two very different films set in pre-revolutionary Russia. In The White Eagle (Yakov Protazanov, 1928) she plays a governess, working for a governor who orders soldiers to fire on a crowd of protesting workers. Sten is horrified, and while her boss has largely ineffectual pangs of remorse, she decides to take matters, and a pearl-handled revolver, into her own hands. Protazanov called the film a “low tide” but it’s actually very stirring and although it’s not Sten’s finest performance, by all accounts she had a strong working relationship with the director. It’s an engrossing film, which compares chains of command to chains of oppression and explores guilt and revenge in interesting ways. For example, the way the governor’s peers avoid him as soon as they learn he may be the target of a terrorist attack, while the Bolsheviks refuse to single out one victim for their vengeance.
The White Eagle is largely extant, but exists only in an incomplete print. We have even less of Merchants of Glory (Leonid Obolenskii, 1929), which is a shame, because it’s a strange, invigorating number, loosely based on a play by Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Nivoix. Henri Bachelet is a military hero, who died a noble death and is lionised by his family and community, so much so that his father is urged to transform his popular sympathy into political clout by running for office – and his wife marries a rich factory owner and sidesteps into a life of luxury. Only his quiet cousin (Sten) remains unchanged by Bachelet’s posthumous fame, and through her eyes we see injustices such as the way that wounded soldiers are treated by the regime they fought for. Wouldn’t the political bigwigs be surprised to learn that Bachelet was a communist sympathiser?
In the telling of this tale, Obolenskii gives us a sumptuous ball, battle scenes and even dance numbers. The finale, in which Bachelet, who has unexpectedly been found alive and well, defaces his own portrait and is attacked by his father’s friends, must have been magnificent, but is sadly almost all missing and relayed by still frames for the most part in this print.
The two Stens made for a strong morning, but my highlight was a lyrical German film that came between them, called Jenseits der Strasse or Harbor Drift (Leo Mittler, 1929). A beggar nabs a pearl necklace from a puddle, and promises to share the profits on its sale with a new-found drifter pal, all the while a prostitute plans to take it, and sell it herself … Impressionistic, oddly noirish, tragic and ultimately dark-hearted, this is a real find. The film has been championed for a few years now by Stephen Horne, who accompanied it beautifully on piano, flute, accordion and zither. The recent discovery of the film’s previously missing reel makes this gem ripe for restoration, and a wider audience.
After lunch there was a chance to see The Unwanted (1924), a new find from the hand of Walter Summers. I had seen it in London, so skipped it, but was pleased that the film’s strengths (the Venetian opening, mountain scenes and burst of battle towards the end), played well on the big screen at the Teatro Verdi.
Lille Dorrit (1924), was a sumptuous Danish adaption though necessarily a simplification of Dickens’ weighty classic. A winsome Amy Dorrit (Karina Bell), a sprightly Maggy (Karen Caspersen) and an eccentric, avuncular “father of Marshalsea” (Frederik Jensen) combined with gorgeous sets – and benefited here too from a crisp, bright print. Dickens fatigue has not yet set in here and with beauties such as this one, it will be kept at bay a fair while longer.
The evening’s fare was a story of the sublime and the ridiculous. The Phono-Cinéma–Théatre programme of aearly sound films from the 1900 Paris Exposition, recently discovered in a French archive and beautifully restored, was a hotly anticipated treat. Hand-coloured short films of famous performers from Cléo de Mérode to Little Tich to Sarah Bernhardt delighted the auditorium. In fact, Bernhardt performing the duel scene from Hamlet may well be the highlight of the festival for me – a film I have heard about for years, but never expected to see. You can read more about the night on the excellent Illuminations blog here. Special mention must go to John Sweeney for the accompaniment, taken from the original scores and working both in tandem with the wax cylinder soundtracks or instead of them. The dance shorts were a standout in this regard, including splendid Mérode’s Javanese and Slavic routines.
What to say about The Viking (1928)? Kitsch, unintentionally hilarious, and resplendent in the reds and greens of two-strip Technicolor, this was the very definition of a guilty pleasure. I’d like to say I was laughing with it, rather than at it, but it would be a fib.