Another disappointing Anny Ondra performance – but in an unforgettable movie – two Mothers, a part-talkie that wants to be a silent, a Lamprecht with a happy ending, and Buster Keaton with a Benshi. Day six at Pordenone, coming right up.
Let us begin with Anny Ondra. It has been extremely stressful. On paper, a programme of early films made by the bewitching star of The Manxman and Blackmail, Czechoslovakia’s first true silent movie star, promised to be my festival highlight. The reality has been brutal. In these early roles Ondra has had terribly little to do and been physically encumbered by towers of curls on her head and tentlike, unflattering dresses too. She has also, I would venture, been horribly underdirected. Hitchcock may have been a brute, but he would not have stood for her gazing into the near distance, twiddling her hair, when the camera was turning. Maybe she just needed a decent part to get her teeth stuck into; maybe the Czech film industry just didn’t know what they had in her. Maybe …
Anyway, we’ve seen some enjoyable if occasionally hamfisted movies in this strand, and while there has been not as much as we hoped to see from Ondra, I am calling her sometime husband Karel Lamac as the hardest-working man in the Prague movie industry at the time. We have seen drama, action and slapstick from this chap. And he even directed some of these flicks, including today’s absurdity, which was admittedly early in his career. Otrávené Svetlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921) was a bizarre concoction almost like an adventure serial, with a meandering plot, ever-present danger and nonsensical movie-science of the highest order. Lamac stars as well as directs, in a story that contains much codswallop, but principally codswallop concerning a series of assassinations carried out via toxic lightbulbs. When the filament gets too hot, the glass shatters, releasing … poison gas! Thus, late in the movie, we have the threat of murder courtesy of a desk lamp. An anglepoisoning. Ondra appears to be tranquilised, Lamac is heaving the whole messy endeavour on his broad shoulders and, yes, the quarry sequences are quite nice. I bust a gut laughing: definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good-OK-maybe-it’s-just-bad-no-stuff-it-I’ve-not-had-this-much-fun-in-years camp. Camp being the operative word.
The day had begun with slightly more dignity: an American-style Swedish comedy, Konstgjorda Svensson (Artificial Svensson, 1928) followed the daily Felix cartoon. This was a delightful frippery from the dawn of the sound era. They had the technology, but according to a spoken prologue from the film’s star Fridolf Rhudin, not all of them had the inclination. Thus, the speech tells us we are about to watch a silent, and so we do, apart from a couple of instances where recorded music is used for a gag. Rhudin plays Fridolf, a hapless daftie who nevertheless has a knack for Heath Robinson-esque inventions. The plot hinges on his chutzpah and inventiveness and a series of coincidences, including the fact that two different women, plus his pet rat, are called Mary. The military setting allows for some great aviation sequences, though, and the extended banjo scene is adorable.
Either side of lunch we found ourselves in bleaker, yet still edifying, territory: two different adaptations of Gorky’s Mother, one by Aleksandr Razumnyi from 1920, one the version we know best by Vsevolod Pudovkin from 1926. The former is closer to the source novel apparently, although I found it tricky to follow until the English translations of the intertitles had been switched on. Still, it was a very smartly shot film, with fixed-camera compositions opening up a neat depth of field, and revealing stark, black Lowryesque figures against driven white snow. The action sequences don’t compare though, and the thrill of seeing the Pudovkin film on 35mm, with accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, was hard to top.
After such heavy material, the thought of another Gerhard Lamprecht movie was a bracing one: those shown so far have been distressing stuff. A wiser mind than mine was today positing Lamprecht as a Weimar Ken Loach: the social conscience, the elegant realism … It makes sense, and if so, this was Lamprecht showing his Loachian knack for humour. Menschen Untereinander (People Among Each Other, 1926) is an ensemble drama based in a bustling apartment house in Berlin, thereby introducing several different social types and their stories. Lamprecht wants us to think about the consequences of economic inflation, the scant employment opportunities for older people, and the ethical posers related to the treatment of pregnant prisoners and their babies. He does all this expertly, and yes, the scenes between mother and child were sentiment at its best. But there is comedy, and it is very funny indeed. It helps that it is the grasping landlady who is left high-and-dry rather then the more sympathetic characters, but this film was witty and sharp as much as it was earnest and moralistic. My only gripe was that the character of the prisoner-mother, Gertrud, was comically underwritten. Aud Egede-Nissen does her very best with a character who appears to only activate her mind sporadically, and whose “baby” is obviously a doll for two-thirds of the film.
A rousing finish to the day was provided by Benshi narrator Ichiro Kataoka taking to the stage to narrate a varied programme: some Japanese film shorts and fragments featuring epic fight scenes, Buster Keaton’s slapstick short The Blacksmith and Otome Shirizu Sono Ichi Hanamonogatari Fukujuso (The Scent of Peasant’s Eye, 1935), a heart-in-mouth melodrama about a young girl’s passionate crush on her sister-in-law featuring some beautiful pastoral imagery and sprightly camera movement. Between the film frames, the intertitle designs, the translations, the music and the Benshi’s voiceover there was a lot to take in here. Sometimes, I felt the incessant commentary could be distracting, but there is no mistaking the theatre of the occasion and and Kataoka’s spoken vocal range was just incredible. So many voices in one man. As David Robinson said in introducing the the show, “enjoy the music”: whether that was John Sweeney’s piano accompaniment or the inflections and shifting tones of Kataoka’s voice.
Scuttlebutt of the day
I hear Too Much Johnson is a hoax/out-takes from a feature film/uses a stunt double in place of Joseph Cotten/meant to be a melodrama. What about you ?
21st-century fashion statement of the day
Did anyone else notice the # monogram on Mary-the-Colonel’s-Daughter’s dress in Konstgjorda Svensson? Is she on Twitter? #socialmediatimetravel
- 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 five of the Giornate is here
- My report from day four of the Giornate is here
- My report from day three of the Giornate is here
- My report from day two of the Giornate is here
- My report from day one of the Giornate is here
- My review of Too Much Johnson is here