FLICKORNA GYURKOVICS © 1926 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

The best of everything at the 19th British Silent Film Festival

How to relate five days of silent and early sound cinema in a pithy blogpost form? I have honestly no idea, but here goes …

The best film on Wednesday

A small choice here, cos I am selecting only from the evening screening of Edgar Allan Poe shorts at St Mary de Castro church. The rest of the day was devoted to papers. This was a wonderfully atmospheric night event though, with the candlelit church forming an eerie backdrop to the (non-German) Expressionism on the big screen. I am going to plump for a British effort – Castleton Knight’s Prelude. This is more or less Eraserhead in seven short minutes, with disquieting images proceeding across the screen motivated by a spooky kind of dream logic. And the accompaniment was sublime – John Sweeney playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude (of course) behind the screen.

The best film on Thursday

Just one silent film was shown on Thursday, and I have made my feelings about Pat and Patachon clear elsewhere, but today would have almost certainly been carried by a talkie anyway. I had heard a lot about Walter Summers’s Suspense (1930) but I wasn’t prepared for just how devastating it could be. We’re in the thick of the First World War, but happily in a “posh trench, with a clean dugout and a cushy job” when the soldiers begin to hear Germans laying mines beneath their feet. Something about the mood of the piece tells you early on that there will be no happy ending here. Eerily photographed and vibrantly acted by its ensemble cast, this a claustrophobic war epic confined into 81 minutes. There’s much enjoyment also in the dialogue, which, cleaned of actual swearing, becomes positively Shakespearean in its baroque ribaldry: “You do a mucky lot, you windsucker.”

The best film on Friday

Lots of options here, but I have to tip my hat to Bill Morrison’s archeological documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time. Interweaving several stories, this haunting film uses found footage and photographs with short captions to tell the history of a Gold Rush town and the movies that made their way there and never came home again, trapped under ice for decades. This was a celebration of the resilience of film as much as a meditation on its fragility and I savoured every frame.

The best film on Saturday

I should say Vampyr, the Saturday night gala. And while Carl Th Dreyer’s occult classic is a one-of-a-kind horror and was here gorgeously supported by Minima and Stephen Horne’s devastatingly restrained score, I am going to vote for a rom-com. Soz. My second viewing of A Sister of Six (Flickorna Gyurkovics, 1926) confirmed that it is a comedy classic, twisting its plot this way and that, as fast as its impish leading couple, Betty Balfour and Willy Fritsch could lead us. Eccentric touches (the family’s bonkers Latin motto, the padded cell in the castle, Balfour’s prolonged detour in drag) only sharpened our enjoyment of the sugary whole. And don’t forget the monkey running riot in a schoolroom, trailed by Carl Hoffmann’s esteemed unchained camera.

L’Hirondelle et la mésange (André Antoine, 1920)

The best film on Sunday

Can I pick two? My favourite film of the day was André Antoine’s slowly insinuating realist drama L’Hirondelle et la Mésange (1920) about a family living on two barges, and by their wits in post-war France, lost for decades, freshly restored by the Cinématheque Française and accompanied here by a beautiful semi-improvised score from Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry. I can’t neglect to mention that this film was also supported by my favourite compilation screening of the festival: Bryony Dixon’s ‘Slow Silents’ package of canal films including Barging Through London (1924) and a chunky extract from André Sauvage’s Etudes sur Paris (1928). But second place goes to Jenny Gilbertson’s 1933 The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric, the silent version of a film slightly better known in a voiceover version. When did you last watch a British silent film directed by a woman? Exactly. And this was a real triumph, actually, a homespun tale of croft life, with danger and a cruel dilemma at its heart. And even better, Neil Brand on piano too.

Betty Balfour as Tiny Toes in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)
Betty Balfour as Tip Toes in Love, Life and Laughter (1923). Photograph: British Film Institute

The star of the festival

Betty Balfour, queen of our hearts, light of our British silent lives, delighted in A Sister of Six (1926), Paradise (1928), and musical Raise the Roof (1930). Unparalleled charm, a minxy smile and more than enough bare-faced cheek to prompts hoots of delight from her fan-club on the front row of the cinema. BB 4 Evah.

Audience participation highlight of the festival

During Tony Fletcher’s programme of female variety acts on Phono Film, the audience was carried away during Fay Marbe’s number There’s More to a Kiss Than … Never thought you’d hear a cinema full of silent film aficionados mwah-mwah-ing along to a talkie? You’ve never lived.

Bonus of the festival

You may be able to track down some of these films online or on Steenbecks, but the benefit of seeing this stuff at the BSFF is that the experts are on hand. My enjoyment and understanding of many of these films was transformed by the erudite introductions we were treated to beforehand. There wasn’t a duffer among them. The model for this sort of thing must be Geoff Brown’s dry humour, and Lucie Dutton’s engaging storytelling – both techniques backed up by new, thorough, relevant research. I feel several percentage points cleverer just for listening to these people speak.

Unorthodox venue of the festival

St Mary de Castro Church, where we sat spellbound for a night in Edgar Allan Poe’s fevered imagination. In the dark you could just make out the vaulted ceilings and stained glass thanks to hundred of (electric) candles. I didn’t want to walk home alone …

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