Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien
Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien

The town was like a loaded gun, needing only a spark to set it off – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“It’s the last time I shall say it, so I shall say it,” began David Robinson, introducing what is surely not his final Giornate, but the last over which he will preside as artistic director. The Robinson era will close with the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, which looks on paper at least as if it will be a very special festival, with a jewel-studded programme. And he hands the baton to the surest of hands: the marvellous Jay Weissberg of Variety, who joined him on stage tonight by way of introduction, and performed as Robinson’s personal interpreter too. We said another goodbye on Saturday evening  – this festival will be dedicated to the memory of one of its staunchest supporters, Jean Darling, who passed away in early September. A snippet of her singing Always at a previous festival began our gala evening, as Robinson took to the stage to say… what was it? Ah yes. “Welcome home!”

But before we get to the gala, and the speeches and the changing of the guard, we have a full afternoon of films to catch up on. Fasten your seatbelts, fellow Pordenauts*, we’re going on a journey.

Our world tour began with trip to Berlin – this was not classic Symphony of a City territory mind, but a visit to Gypsy Berlin – from the camp to the racetrack to the streets. Terrifying to think what lay in store for the people featured in this film, Grossstadt-Zigeuner (1932), but it was a true gem, directed by the Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with great verve and edited with playful intricacy. Despite its many stylistic flourishes, it’s a warm, humane portrait, and served as an excellent introduction to the main feature in this afternoon’s bill from the Other City Symphonies strand. The longer film was a document of Chicago, made by a German film-maker Heinrich Hauser in 1931. Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht uber Chicago (A World City in its Teens. A Report of Chicago) carried itself at an unexpectedly relaxed pace, puttering up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer for the longest time before reaching the metropolis, and even then, we moved slowly, until the film suddenly discovered the residents of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the poverty caused by the Great Depression, etched in the faces of men being turned away from labour exchanges. When workers unloading banana boats at the dock empty the rotten fruit into the river, another group of men in row boats appear to scoop them out of the water. Elsewhere in the city, too, on the south side in the streets largely populated by African Americans, on the lake beach bursting with sun worshippers, Chicago was defined by its people, not its towering skyscrapers. Hats off too to Philip Carli, for fantastic piano accompaniment for both films.

Nelzia li Bez Menia? Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
Nelzia li Bez Menia? Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

Next to Norway, for a flying visit, where we caught a luridly hand-painted tiger-taming short, in which the tamer’s hot pink shirt outshone the ferocious furries in the cage with him. And this morsel was to amuse our bouches for the first entry in the Russian Laughter strand, Nelzia li Bez Menia? (Vkusnoty) or Can’t You Just Leave Me out of This? (Delicious Meals) (1932). Opinion was divided on this one, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This laugh-heavy Soviet propaganda comedy was, bizarrely, intended to promote the use of public canteens. Our hero is a discontented hubby, who hates cooking and tries out the canteen as an easy option. It’s completely disgusting, though he daren’t admit that to his wife. Thanks to some public-spirited activists and a newspaper campaign, however, the canteens are much improved – and when wifey fancies a change from her fella’s cooking they return to the scene of the food crime. It’s a weak joke in the finale: “Doesn’t hubby feel a fool that the food is so good, and the canteen so hygienic!” But the lead performance from Sergei Poliakov carries the show and the whole piece is a real delight. A delicious broth you might say, to tickle our tastebuds for the Italian beefcake to follow.

Pordenone silent film festival 2015

Forgive me for being crude, but how else to describe a strand called Italian muscle in Germany? Of the two famous strong men Carlo Aldini and Luciano Albertini it was Albertini’s turn to star today, in a confection called Mister Radio (1924). This German film was hugely watchable but skated perilously close to being utter tripe. What saved it from its ridiculous, threadbare plot and wooden acting were the imagination-defying stunts performed by our leading man. He leaped, he bounded, he dangled upside-down and carried four people at once on a single rope. The audience quite forgot itself and made an obscene amount of noise – gasping, laughing, gasping again. Impossible to resist doing so. It was exactly what, as John Sweeney pointed out afterwards, people who don’t watch silent films expect from a silent film. And although the plot was barely there, still Albertini ended up with the brunette with a past who really loved him, not the blonde ingenue with the terrible father, so … All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare would say.

Which brings me to the gala evening. Two films tonight: one I simply adored and another that impressed rather than charmed me. Also, my eyelids were beginning to flutter. I had an early flight! And not enough coffee, certainly. First things first, Ernst Lubitsch and William Shakespeare seem to me a marriage made in heaven, and the director’s cheeky twist on Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers, Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) was a real tonic. This adaptation has only the scantest resemblance to the play and is in fact a mischievous rustic love story all of its own devising. I loved the fact that a legal dispute between the warring families came down to the weight of the sausages they sent to bribe the judge, and who could resist an apothecary who sells a young couple sugar water instead of poison and says they can pay the bill another time? All this, and Antonio Coppola’s deft original score, performed beautifully by a small orchestra.


The main feature of the evening, Maciste Alpino (1916) took us to the heart of the first world war, and the fighting in the Alps between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces. But this is an adventure comedy, not a real war flick, and while the scenery was monumental (a nod to the hand of Giovanni Pastrone), the tone was mostly light. Maciste is a handsome, heroic ogre, all superhuman strength and faultless patriotism, who could probably see off an entire army single-handedly. In one scene, he finds himself unarmed in a swordfight, so uses smoking firetongs instead. Why not? And he breaks his opponent’s sword, so … His almighty abilities did slacken the tension somewhat, I must admit. There were times also when I felt that the comedy was rather too gentle for the subject matter. But these are quibbles really – we saw a stunningly crisp restored print of a gorgeous film, with fantastic accompaniment from Philip Carli, Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius. Not the type of film one is likely to come across too often, and presented in the most immaculate way – that’s what we come to Pordenone for, after all.
Intertitle in-joke of the day

In the Chicago film, a shot of cattle ready for market was followed by the intertitle “The way of all flesh” – but that’s not on until next Saturday!

Hot topic of the day
Beyond the big news about Jay Weissberg taking over the reins next year, a delegate’s mind is liable to turn to material matters. The tote bag. Is it really, as it looks, made of paper? We hope not. Will it survive a rain shower? There is only one way to find out … the forecast for Sunday is not good.

Casual animal cruelty of the day

It has to be the little boy in the Russian film attempting to saw the tail off the family cat. Yikes.

* Hat-tip to Nicky Smith for “Pordenauts”

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