Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.

Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)
The Glorious Adventure (1922)

It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?


The tour of Europe continued with a programme labelled Tonbilder, which turned out to mean short staged songs, which were either individual comic numbers or music from operas and operettas, accompanied by a soundtrack on disc. This is revue material, taken from Berlin’s Metropol Theater in the late 1900s. Evidently the actors hired to mouth the words were not always the same people who had sung the songs on record, and the efforts made to synch these shorts in the restoration could been seen in the stretching or squeezing of frame rates (a highly complex procedure only possible in these days of DCPs). But I was told that the intention was to lead a singalong in the cinema audience, so perhaps perfect synchronisation was beside the point. Very jolly all told, especially the rambunctious duets performed by Anna Müller-Lincke and Leonhard Haskel, and written by Victor Hollaender and Julius Freund.

The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji (1929-1938)
The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji (1929-1938)

Not such light entertainment in the post-lunch sitting. First, beauty in the name of science with a dreamy five minutes of The Movement of Clouds Around Mount Fuji (1929-38). Those clouds form, drift, rise and caress the tip of the mountain in the most picturesque way. We have Masanao Abe, a Japanese physicist, to thank for this exquisite gift. He filmed cloud formations from his observatory for years to study the skies, and left us with these wonderful snippets of footage.

For Abe, of course, those clouds were more than pleasing abstracts, they told their own meteorological story. What happens when the pictures don’t tell a story? Is it still silent cinema then? Or location-filmed theatre? Or just “photographs of people talking”? I ask because even the Giornate catalogue admits of one of the films in the afternoon programme that: “Without the narration of a Benshi, the story of the film cannot be unserstood by anyone.” Ukiyo (This Transient World, 1916) was undoubtedly an interesting movie: a Shinpa drama starring Teijiro Tachibana, acclaimed as the leading Oyama of his day, that is a male actor who plays female roles. But I didn’t know what was happening for long swaths of its running time and the descriptive subtitles below the screen were helpful, but disengaging. So I watched it, but not as a film. I think I got more drama from the clouds …

But if it’s drama I was after, the evening double-feature provided it by the metric tonne, carved from a mountain-face, gilded and dipped in dragon’s blood. Not to mention our second mighty conflagration in 24 hours.

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

You can’t deny that Die Nibelungen (1924) was meant to be seen this way, on the biggest of screens, in front of a packed and breathless house. What I enjoyed most about the score tonight (so different from the orchestral score on the recent Blu-ray), courtesy of Maid Nelissen, Roman Todesco, Frank Bockius and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, was that it could be delicate as well as damned loud, letting the nuances and the small moments speak for themselves, and compete against the battles and declarations and myth-making. Because even in a film so epic, the tiny things can make the biggest difference: that fluttering linden leaf, the gore sliding out of the dragon’s eye, a parcel full of soil. And despite the essential grandiosity of the whole project, the audience were in the palm of Fritz Lang’s hand tonight. Hence the thunder of hollow laughter when Hagen asked Kriemhild if she could keep a secret …

A wise tip for watching this sort of epic. The running time will just zoom by if you recalibrate to “Nibelungen time”. Once you have adjusted to the stately pace at which the characters conduct themselves, the film’s abundant violence and angst seems to come thick and fast. Before you know it, it’s midnight and time to toast a magnificent spectacle, and another wonder-packed day at the Giornate.

“A handful of red gold for a draught of white wine!”

Take-down of the day: Having finally tracked him down, quoth Mistress Bulfinch to her errant hubby: “You ever were a worthless runagate” (The Glorious Adventure). A runagate is a “deserter, renegade or apostate”, which is exactly as it sounds. She’s got your number, McLaglen.

Fashion plate of the day: The Giornate look

Brand consultation of the day: I got chatting to the lovely Raymond Scholer from the Swiss film archive in the Nibelungen queue. “Silent London,” he said. “But that’s an oxymoron!”

  • The excellent Silents Please blog recapped the festival-up-to-yesterday lunchtime here.
  • My blog from the first day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the second day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the third day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the fourth day of the Giornate is here.
  • For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here

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