You can’t watch everything. Well maybe you can. I can’t. So it is with regret that I have to make some difficult choices – today of all days. Weimar cinema or William S Hart westerns, for example. I followed my heart, and my research interests. What else can you do?
So I spent my morning immersed in 1920s Germany (and my 2019 inbox). To begin with, a diverting selection from the Weimar Shorts strand, which including some utter wonders. Watching Otto Dix at work with ink, watercolour and oil paint was a real thrill. Although I felt a little “seen” by his first portrait: a lady with dark, heavy circles around her eyes. That was Schaffende Hände. Otto Dix (1924). There were more artists at work too: the uncanny elegance of Lotte Pritzel’s wax figurines came to life in Die Pritzelpuppe (1923), and when they were shot in silhouette it was hard to forget that other great female film artist of the Weimar years, Lotte Reiniger. I was especially intrigued by the tableaux at the end in which actors (including Niddy Impekoven) posed in costumes designed by Pritzel, in unheimlich imitation of the puppets’ posture, as part of a pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland, written by Frank Wedekind.
Wenn Die Filmkleberin Gebummelt Hat (When a Film Cutter Blunders, 1925) offered less assured cinematic artistry, at least within this witty Dada-influenced film’s fictional world. Alice Kempen plays a film editor who turns up to work hungover one day, and with two boxes of reels on her table. One is a revue film urgently needing to be cut for its premiere that evening, the other a collection of newsreel clips. Inevitably she mixes them up, and inevitably the results are hilarious. Well, maybe hilarious is a little strong. But you could use this film to teach Soviet montage synthesis to be honest, and also the more avant-garde corners of the City Symphony movement.
The feature presentation, of my morning at least, was from the Mario Bonnard strand, one of the few German films he directed at the end of the 1920s. Das Letzte Souper (The Last Performance, 1928), was made just a few weeks before Pandora’s Box, at the same studio, by some of the same people, so my interest was certainly piqued. This was a backstage melodrama, beautifully shot by Günther Krampf, which slowly set its dramatic machinery in motion for 45 minutes or so, only to get motoring, and how, in the final 20 minutes. The preambling backstage shenanigans set up an opera company as a hotbed of insecurity, infidelity and jealousy, all centring around the malevolent “Maestro”, a moustachioed cad named Boris Stroganoff (Heinrich George). Sooner or later you knew that one lovelorn wretch or other was going to send a bullet into his cold, unfeeling heart. The only question was: which one?
And this film made the most of that confusion, by staging the violent climax at the premiere of the new opera, which was all cossacks and damsels, and showing us the very lo-fi CSI technique by which they finally nailed the murderer. I am saying nothing except that I very much liked the charming romantic coda to this classy potboiler, and if you do ever get the chance to see this look out for Ita Rina and Siegfried Arno in the cast.
Let’s take advantage of the Russian tint in the opera, and talk about the amazing evening movie tonight. I am evangelical about Fragment of an Empire (Fridrikh Ermler, 1929), as restored by San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Eye Filmmuseum and Gosfilmofond of Russia, and available on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley. It’s gruelling but great, an astonishing story o f a man who suffers amnesia so almost “wakes up” in the Soviet era: finding Leningrad when he travels to St Petersburg, collectivisation when he expects competition, solidarity instead of companionship … it’s tricky road. It was presented tonight in the Verdi with Günther Buchwald conducting a restoration of the original orchestral score. We had a long debate tonight about whether this was a great film, or too propagandist to be considered as such, and whether the cowboy westerns of William S Hart are just as much propaganda in their own Hollywood way. I was struggling to find a clear definition of deliberate-propaganda as opposed to films-that-unthinkingly-relay-a-certain-message, but I will tell you this: Fragment of an Empire is a stunning film that always tells you exactly what it’s doing. I’d rather that than a western or rom-com trying to indoctrinate me with capitalist values, while pretending it was completely innocent of any ideological intent.
But the film I really, really want to talk to you about is a French film from 1912, Léonce Perret’s The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, starring Suzanne Grandais. This, in my opinion, is an almost perfect 45-minute melodrama. It has it all: madness, murder, misbegotten monies, a masked ball and modern medicine – anyone for a cinematograph cure? I saw it first about two decades ago, at a screening of French shorts and features at some rarefied cultural institution, back when I knew next to nothing about silent cinema. I loved it. Now I know barely anything more, I still do.
The English title is In the Grip of a Vampire, where Vampire refers to the evil grasping cousin trying to steal Suzanne’s inheritance by way of skulduggery. I had never heard the word “vampire” used in this context and I was intrigued; I also loved the prefect pacing of this tight thriller, its focus on a female lead and its gorgeous cinematography. Unfortunately, back at that first screening, one of my fellow patrons was hellbent on distracting me, and asking personal and intrusive questions while the film was playing and I left that screening thinking that going to archive films was not for me. It meant being patronised and harassed when all one wanted was to watch the film and try to crack the code of silent cinema. It was a blow. I hate that feeling. I want to set it on fire and stamp it out.
So how sweet to see this stunning film today, in great company, with wonderful music provided by John Sweeney and no unpleasant interruptions. It’s even better than I remembered, and a gem of early cinema. Long live silent film, for everyone!
- Blog fail of the day: I saw the short film starring Mario Bonnard from 1912 that preceded Das Letzte Souper. It was called La Nave dei Leoni and it contained lions. On a boat. That’s about all I can tell you.
- Intertitle of the day: “She’s weeping … she’s safe” The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador knows the lot of a silent film heroine is not an easy one.
- Plea of the day: Turn off your mobile phone, or at least pop it on silent. I know you all want to read the Silent London blogposts in the Verdi each day, but there’s no need to let your ringtone interrupt the music.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
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