The Mysterious Lady (1928)

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 1

You don’t have to be a Giornate regular to know that everything old is new again … but it helps. So, as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival celebrates its 35th birthday, we welcome a new era, with Jay Weissberg taking over as director. A change of course or more of the same? There is only one way to find out …

À Propos de Nice (1929)
À Propos de Nice (1930)

Greta Garbo is immortal, and an opening night gala featuring a lush Carl Davis score for a classic Hollywood silent feels like a timeless choice also. Tonight’s screening of the shamelessly romantic The Mysterious Lady (1928) ticked all the boxes for a wandering Cinemutophile yearning for a home from home in northern Italy. It is a beautiful film, just the right side of presposterous, with Greta Garbo as a Russian super-spy seducing Austrian officer Conrad Nagel and falling in love in the process. How inconvenient, especially for her lecherous boss, Boris, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. The score, conducted by the maestro himself, was a Hollywood number through and through – thrilling to the too-perfect romance between the leads and unabashedly ramping up the intrigue. Touching too, that one of my all-time favourite silent films, A Propos de Nice (1930), played before the main feature in a gesture of sympathy and solidarity with the the people of the French Riviera, who suffered a terrible attack earlier in the year. It looked sublime on the Verdi screen, needless to say, and especially so with John Sweeney’s sparkling accompaniment

To begin at the beginning – that is always the aim. And this year I managed to connect my derrière with a seat in time for the first screening of the whole festival. There will be a “Who’s Guilty?” episode screening at the beginning of each day of the Giornate and judging by today’s instalment I will be setting my alarm clock. This one was slightly truncated, but Puppets of Fate (1916) was a wicked treat, with a philandering surgeon suffering an attack of the nerves when operating on his poor wife’s skull. Campy? Yes a little, but thoroughly enjoyable. There was another scheduled for 11pm (which I was assured by the highest authority is the best of the bunch) but that was definitely past my bedtime. Blogging time? Same difference.

People With No Tomorrow (1919). Filmoteka Narodowa / National Film Archive, Warszawa
People With No Tomorrow (1919). Filmoteka Narodowa / National Film Archive, Warszawa

The Polish silent cinema strand looks very promising too, based on the three shorts (one smartly shot actuality about a battle commemoration, one hearty newsreel about a kayaking holiday, one snippet of firemen playing “fire-hose-ball”) and one feature we saw today. The feature-length film, People With No Tomorrow (1919), was a feast for the eyes – sumptuous Warsaw architecture and beautifully dressed rich folk getting into romantic pickles, although the story itself was a little lacking in passion and far too drawn out. When a new star rides into town, the theatrical set of Warsaw fall in love, and out of sorts. She takes all the best roles, and all the best men. All that I spoke to agreed that Halina Bruczowna as man-eating diva Lola was a real stunner. All the leading actors were very good, in fact, and there were some nifty compositions here. It’s just a pity that the film dragged its pretty feet.

Today, we saw the first of what will be a recurring theme at this week’s festival also: German chromolithographic loops. Forgive the chewy name, because these are hand-drawn primary-coloured animation loops of great charm. They offer a burst of graphic colour between the films that is hugely welcome. I am keen to see more.

Secrets of a Soul (1926)

The highlight of my day, was a film that was in many ways baffling, and in others terribly literal: Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926). You will all be familiar with the experience of poring over film stills wondering when or if you will ever see them move. That was me with this film. But in this case, the dream imagery (a surreal twist on Expressionism) captured in those striking still images was indeed the very essence of the movie. This story of a man troubled by a violent incident who seeks a Freudian talking cure for his troubled dreams and his debilitating knife phobia, bowled along at a ferocious pace. And the dream sequences themselves put Spellbound to shame. I would need to see it again, and possibly with the intertitles that were missing from this print, to judge more fully. But full marks to Günter Buchwald’s creative and enthusiastic score for a film that takes plenty of unexpected turns.

Was it just me or were the speeches shorter than in previous years? I am fairly sure we breezed into the gala tonight. A welcome development for those of us who had caught early flights, indeed!  “It’s all about bringing a shine and sparkle to the city,” said the Mayor’s deputy, which I felt was a beautiful way to fanfare the cinematic delights in store. Or perhaps a cheeky reference to the stunning posters, featuring a mostly naked Douglas Fairbanks, that adorn the Pordenone streets. Festival president Livio Jacob paid tribute to David Robinson’s 19 years of service before welcoming Jay Weissberg to the stage who echoed his predecessor by greeting us with those immortal words: “Welcome home!”

In a charming speech, and with a mock modesty that fooled no one, Weissberg begged forgiveness for a “thicker” programme than usual. We will have less time for lunch than in previous years, but as he pointed out, we have 51 other weeks of the year in which to eat lunch! A feast for the eyes instead? I have a hearty appetite. See you tomorrow for more.

Toxic temptress of the day: Lola gave her a run for her money, but Tania wins. Because she’s Garbo. Because she can thrill a concert hall just by lighting a chandelier, and because that stunt with her boss’s corpse is stone-cold magic.

Intertitle of the day: It must be the Polish line about how firemen amuse themselves with their hoses and their balls, but I can’t quite remember it correctly. In any language.


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