An outstanding day at the Giornate: a varied programme of astonishing films, and excellent musical accompaniment. So while it was drizzly and grey outside, inside the Teatro Verdi all looked bright, even if most of the films tended towards bleakness. After the delightfully sugary surrealism of Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925) for breakfast, the Giornate hit us with some heavy emotional dramas today – and I relished them.
The slow but seductive tearjerker Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927) is the title track of the Swedish strand and it was a real beauty, directed by Gustaf Molander. Karin Swanström, director-star of Flickan i Frack pops up again (all too briefly as a jealous wife) in this Italian-set romance between a convent schoolgirl and a married English painter. Misunderstandings, emotional repression and heartbreak reverberated against a backdrop of stunning scenery, and with a nuanced, textured score by Stephen Horne too. All I spoke to agreed that the show was stolen by Stina Berg (also seen in Polis Paulus Paskasmäll) as the snuff-snorting nun Sister Scolastica – at her best when engaged in a comedy double-cat with a recalcitrant donkey. The opening sequence, in which Scolastica attempts to take her young charge to the train station was a beautifully simple idea, warmly and expertly played out.
The second Swedish title of the day came with a warning attached: it starts slow, cautioned the Giornate programme, but soon warms up. Did it ever. In Den Starkaste (The Strongest, 1929) two sailors compete for the hand of the skipper’s daughter, and despite her clear preference for one, and via many complications, they take their macho competitive streaks out into the Arctic Ocean where they are hunting on rival vessels. Blood is spilt on the glaciers, most of it belonging to seals – and in the staggering last reel, polar bears. Polar bears! The Arctic photography is crisp and gorgeous (especially when soundtracked by John Sweeney on the piano), and comes courtesy of expert Swedish cinematographer Axel Lindblom – who is also said to have photographed A Cottage on Dartmoor, more of which tomorrow.
The first in the highly anticipated Gerhard Lamprecht screenings should also have come with a warning: Die Unhelichen (Children of No Importance, 1926) is a three-handkerchief film if ever I met one. This tale of child neglect and exploitation (let alone what happens to the poor rabbit) was extremely distressing stuff, mostly due to its child stars, who offered heartrendingly desperate performances as the mistreated youngsters. Donald Sosin’s score gave the poignancy extra delicacy and depth. The misery has a purpose: Lamprecht was recreating life as he saw it on the streets of Berlin, but this particular story was based on the findings of an official report into child abuse. A glance through the week’s papers will reaffirm the fact that while it might be accused of manipulation, Die Unhelichen usefully directs the audience’s gaze towards the kind of terrible social problems we still all-too-often ignore.
An invigorating palate cleanser after all that angst, Dovzhenko’s breakout spy drama Sumka Dypkuryera (The Diplomatic Bag, 1927) out-Expressionisted the Expressionists. Breathlessly fast-paced, ultra-stylised and utterly ludicrous, the film was a joy to watch on the big screen, especially with suitably wild and wonderful accompaniment from Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius. I wish the Bond franchise looked like this. No wonder Dovzhenko went on to be somebody – and the Ukrainian strand at the Giornate is already proving to be a winner.
The evening show commenced with a prizegiving (see below) and another modern silent short from Renée George, who last year presented the Paris-set romance Le Paris Nuage – I much preferred this year’s Lago Di Seta, set in Lake Como, and am intrigued to see where her globetrotting, and her adventures in silent cinema, take her next.
The main feature of the evening was a highlight of the Anny Ondra retrospective: gothicky claptrap it might be, but Czech production Prichozi z Temnot (Arrival from the Darkness, 1921) was wickedly entertaining, even if, yet again, Ondra had little to do, despite a dual role. Rather overburdened by voluminous costumes, crimped hair and overacting co-stars, Ondra pouted and swooned obligingly. And for this, she became the first Czechoslovakian movie star. The plot of the movie was all to do with the elixir of life, a hidden dungeon beneath a mysterious Black Tower, doppelgängers and suchlike popular horror tropes. You would have to have a very hard heart not to smile. And it was a pleasure to hear a Czech group accompany the movie: the Neuveritelno Trio provided enjoyably spooky and strange sounds, though they were nowhere near as camp as the business on screen. Will we see the beauteous Ondra in a role worthy of her talents yet? Fingers crossed.
Intertitle of the day
It just has to be “I like strong men. Wind drives me to them” from The Diplomatic Bag. Joint runners up are “Sir, you sound as if you have a revolver in your pocket” from the same film, and “Shame on you, farmhand!” from The Strongest. The latter looks far better in the original Swedish, something like: “Hüt dräng!”
Local-boy-done-good of the day
Londoner Tom Cleary won the prestigious Pordenone Collegium prize this year. The judges, who voted for his paper unanimously, said that he demonstrated a “rare and precious” writing style and a “fresh mind”. Tom, who is a regular volunteer at the Cinema Museum, is just 16 years old. Impressive, huh?
Silent hunk of the day
Bengt Djurberg, star of The Strongest. I warned you I was shallow.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here
- Update: My Guardian report from the Giornate is here
- My report from day two of the Giornate is here
- My report from day one of the Giornate is here