Cinema muto ritrovato: silent films at Bologna 2018

Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.

It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.

Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1971)
Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1971)

I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.

Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford on the set of Rosita (1923)
Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford on the set of Rosita (1923)

My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.

There was more Lubitsch and Clair to be found elsewhere though. One of my favourite screenings was a triple-bill of silent German comedies, including a few reels of the preposterously funny Der Fall Rosentopf (1918), starring Ernst himself as a wandering detective. This was accompanied by a fabulous double-performance from Henny Porten in Countess KitchenMaid (1918) – just the kind of silly lookalike plot you’ve seen a hundred times, but sustained by Porten’s comic skill and charisma. The weakest film of the three was still very interesting, and funny too. Die Puppchen (1918) starred the wonderful Hedda Vernon as a shopgirl who poses as a mannequin and the chaos that ensues when the dummy’s broken remains are mistaken for her own dismembered corpse. And yes, apparently this was the direct inspiration for Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, made a year later.

lights-of-old-broadway-1925-i-movie-poster

Another star actress gave a double-performance in The Lights of Old Broadway (Monta Bell, 1925), a tale of turn-of-the-century New York featuring Marion Davies as twins separated at birth. One twin grows up rich, and the other poor and Irish (cue excruciating intertitles), but the twin plot is largely forgotten in favour of the working-class sister’s romance with a posh lad, several feisty brawls and a sub-plot about the coming of electric light to the Manhattan streets. Fantastic fun all round really, and boosted by Neil Brand’s accompaniment at my screening. The feathers in its cap are a smattering of two-strip Technicolor sequences, a little faded now but deployed to great effect.

Another silent to be shown twice at the festival was the gorgeous new restoration of René Clair’s Les Deux Timides. I saw this in Paris at Toute la Memoire du Monde a couple of years back and it really is a gorgeous new version of a film both beautiful and hilarious, so I hope it comes to London soon. I didn’t catch either screening in Bologna, I’m afraid, nor Clair’s tribute to the early era, Le Silence est ‘d’or (1947), which was full to capacity by the time I had legged it over from the Sala Mastroianni (the key silents venue for most of the festival) with several fellow travellers.

Le Deux Timides (1928)
Le Deux Timides (1928)

One French silent I was pleased I did see was Rue de La Paix (Hervé Diamant-Berger, 1927), a chic, cheeky comedy set in the glamorous world of haute-couture. Lots to recommend this, including the jazz-age design and sumptuous fashion, a jaw-dropping sequence at the Singerie nightclub, and glimpses of Paris in the années folles, but the rather sedate and stilted piano accompaniment killed the vibe to say the least.

For the authentic Weimar effect we were treated to both parts of Christian Wahnschaffe (Urban Gad, 1920 & 1921) starring Conrad Veidt, Fritz Kortner and dollops and dollops of (to me) impenetrable plot. I confess I didn’t really get along with part one, so missed part two, which everyone assured me was far superior. Everything I saw was good, (and accompanied sharply, as ever, by Stephen Horne) but it just didn’t flow for me – too much expressionist acting for me, perhaps? Fingers crossed I will have the chance to give it another go, when the Bologna sunshine hasn’t addled my attention span.

Christian Wahnschaffe (1920)
Christian Wahnschaffe (1920)

Clearly it’s impossible to summarise everything silent I saw, especially the micro-movies on show in the 1898 strand, including some astonishing Czech Lumière actualities and skits and the BFI’s awesome WKL Dickson large-gauge delights. The 1918 strand bursted with beauties as you’d expect – in just a few years of Bologna-going I have seen the Hundred Years Ago programming grow from shorts and scraps to sophisticated features, filling me with many mixed emotions. My highlights included a moody and avant-garde soviet drama called The Young Lady and the Hooligan, and the delightfully inconsistent Norwegian film Revolutionens Datter, which stars world-champion boxer Waldemar Holberg as a strike leader who wins the heart of the shipyard director’s daughter, of course. And to win her hand, he has to fight a bout against a capitalist rival. Very satisfying stuff.

Rosè Angione as Nanninella in A Santanotte (Elvira Notari, 1922)

I thoroughly enjoyed two fiery fragments of diva films, as the coruscating Francesca Bertini shone in Mariute and Tosca (both 1918) and I was especially delighted by a diva film that isn’t technically a diva film. Several works by Neapolitan director Elvira Notari played at the festival, both in the Mastroianni and outdoors in the Piazzetta Pasolini thanks to the carbon arc projector. I was very taken by E Piccerella (1922) – a film of almost hallucinatory intensity, featuring a star turn by amateur actress Rose Angione, very much in the vein of say, Assunta Spina. Before the screening Lewinsky advised us: “Don’t use your normal cinema eyes. Watch with your … other eyes instead.” It speaks volumes about the film to say that this advice made perfect sense at the time. Documentary scenes of Naples festivities give way to a tempestuous melodrama of love and violence as beautiful young Margaretella (Angione) lives a life of passion while resisting the confines of marriage. Notari shoots her home streets with real vibrancy and intimacy, and she has a way with faces – unforgettable faces. Every frame bursts with life and passion, and it was a joy to encounter.

Proof that age ain’t nothing but a number, even when it comes to film history came from the Soviet strand – and a silent comedy from 1934. Perhaps I have been spoiled by such progressive Soviet comedies as Bed and Sofa and Katka’s Reinette Apples, but I was slightly let down by The Crown Prince of the Republic (1934, Eduard Ioganson), which raised exciting new ideas about communal living and child-raising only to dash them. Still, this lively tale of a baby lost and found, and a gaggle of bachelor-architects dreaming of a new Soviet dream was engaging and full of larks. From the same year, I much preferred sound film Song of Happiness (Mark Donskoj, 1934), an emotionally vibrant and unpredictable caper, but definitely a sound film.

The Woman Under Oath (1919)
The Woman Under Oath (1919)

All this and I saw a heck of a lot of talkies too. The one strand I followed slavishly was that devoted to John M Stahl. Yes, if you read this website regularly you’ll have heard that name recently. With good reason. If you’re at Pordenone this year (and if not, why not?) you’ll be present for the launch of a new book devoted to this undersung director: The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, edited by Charles Barr and Bruce Babington. Duly, the Giornate will feature a substantial retrospective of Stahl’s silent work. Although Stahl directed many movies in the teens and twenties, very few of them survive – just nine features and various fragments that we know of – but you’ll be able to see most of them in October. Ritrovato and the Giornate have joined forces too, and Bologna hosted a companion strand curated by Ehsan Khoshbakht, featuring several of Stahl’s sound films. As one of the contributors to The Call of the Heart, I had the pleasure of introducing the one silent film shown – The Woman Under Oath (1919), which you may have seen at the BFI Southbank back in March. I’m thrilled to report that it was a packed screening, with excellent live accompaniment by Donald Sosin, and I subsequently heard reports from many audience members who enjoyed, or at least appreciated its theatrical twists and turns.

The sound Stahls in Bologna ranged from the well-known (Imitation of Life, Leave Her to Heaven, in another glowing Technicolor print) to the more obscure (Seed, Immortal Sergeant). A real joy to delve deeper into his work, and already I can see several themes running right from the beginning of his career to its end, and I am hugely excited to see more of his silents in Pordenone – the ones I have seen have much to recommend them.

Ilse Werner in GW Pabst's Mysterious Shadows (1949)
Ilse Werner in GW Pabst’s Mysterious Shadows (1949)

On a related note, one of my most pleasurable sound screenings this year was the new restoration of GW Pabst’s Mysterious Shadows (1949). Much to enjoy in this perplexing but hugely entertaining and idiosyncratic film – not least the way that Pabst seems to be working through the ideas and imagery in several of his silents, two decades on – from The Treasure and Secrets of a Soul, to The White Hell of Pitz-Palu and even a nod to Countess Geschwitz. The It’s a tale of a sour marriage and a love triangle at heart though, so appropriately enough Munich FilmMuseum plans to put this out on DVD soon, alongside its restoration of Pabst’s little-seen, and brilliant Abwege, starring Brigitte Helm.

That’s one of the joys of Bologna, of course: not building barriers between sound and silent cinema, but finding connections instead.

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11 thoughts on “Cinema muto ritrovato: silent films at Bologna 2018”

  1. Cabaret was one of my highlights too – great to see it on vintage stock – amost halfway between here and then… what a blast Bologna was and first thing I did was lie down once I got home! Great – energetic! – summary and thanks for the mention! PJ

  2. I’d really recommend watching Les deux timides, for me one of the best films of the programme. Pierre Batcheff is just great as comedian (I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him than the usual Chien andalou), but also De Feraudy is good.

  3. Not directly relevant here, but a heads up to anyone who can tune in to Franch-German channel Arte, which ought to be most silent fans, since they’re pretty much the only broadcaster that regularly shows slients (I believe that Serge Bromberg curated them for years, but I’m not sure if he’s still doing it). Anyway, this coming Monday, following on from Edward Scissorhands, they’ve got a Lotte Reiniger night, with showings of Prince Ahmed, Harlequin, Carmen and Papageno, finishing up with a 2012 German documentry on the woman herself. OK the last might be a bit of a struggle since it will be in French and German only, but record it, switch on the subtitles and work your way through with the help of the pause button and subtitles if necessary.

    And if you check out the Arte guide for that day (arte.tv) you’ll see just how random but fun their scheduling is. The day starts with two old New Avengers episodes, then continues with a Suzy Delair comedy from 1947, then a Jean Rochefort one from 1979.

  4. Wonderful recap, Pam! We watched quite a few of the programmes, and I loved reading your thoughts on the films I didn’t manage to see. My “to watch” list grows and grows …
    It was lovely to catch up with you in Bologna, and of course in London!

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