Two just-teenage runaways arrive in New York City, one in monochrome 1927 and the other in the notorious, sultry summer of 1977. That’s the simple premise of Todd Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, a film that is as rich as it is gentle. The film is based, as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was, on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick, but this is more impressionistic and less didactic than that affectionate tribute to Georges Meliès. There is a silent cinema connection again, though. Both children are deaf, and the 1920s scenes are filmed entirely silent, but this is no fussy exercise in cinematic nostalgia; it’s a film about deaf culture, but also the silence of loneliness, of being friendless in a big city, or unloved at home.
In fact, and let’s get this out of the way at the very beginning, the brief silent-film-within-the-film here is a thuddingly offkey pastiche, witlessly mashing up The Wind and Way Down East with bone-headed intertitles. That aside, there are some nice mockups of silent-era movie magazines, and a couple of nods to Nosferatu and The Crowd, but Haynes is doing something more interesting than reconstruction. His film, carried along by Carter Burwell’s brilliantly alive score, creates an almost silent movie – a wordless communion between two periods of time, interrupted by snatches of dialogue. Continue reading Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence→
A few years back, when the world may not have been young but this blog certainly was, and I had begun to hit the silent film festival trail, I received some alarming advice from Neil Brand. “What you really want to do as well,” he said, “is to go to Bologna. The weather’s great, the food’s amazing – and there are even talkies, too.”
Well two out of three ain’t bad. By Bologna, Neil meant Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of archive cinema that takes place every summer. Ritrovato means something like rediscovered. So, fittingly this festival shows rediscovered films, but also rarely seen films, films on rare formats and vintage prints, and newly restored films too. Largely, anything more than thirty years old qualifies for the festival, which gives it a giant scope.
I knew lots of people who went to this festival, but as always with anything new, I was a little wary to dipping my toe in the water. Worst-case scenario – I might really enjoy it and develop an expensive habit. So, the first year I went for just three days, then I skipped the next year and was filled with regret. For the past three years running I have turned up for about five or six days, almost the whole thing. And every time I have had a ball. Great films, in vast quantities, and a celebratory atmosphere that is almost as warm as the Italian sunshine.
Are we in the midst of a City Symphony revival? As well as recent essayistic examples from Terence Davies and Mark Cousins we have had last year’s London Symphony, and in 2016, Brighton Festival commissioned another, which has been screened a handful of times around the country and is now out on DVD, and about to screen again in London and Brighton soon.
I’ve been keen to set my eyes on Brighton: Symphony of a City for a while, especially once I started hearing such good things about it. The DVD it is available on is called Symphonic Visions, and it is a showcase for the work of composer Ed Hughes. Alongside Brighton: Symphony of a City, directed by Lizzie Thynne, which is a whisker over 47 minutes long, there are four silent shorts featuring new scores by Hughes and Sky Giant (1942), a British Movietone film from the Imperial War Museum archive about the Arvo Lancaster Bomber.
Welcome to your latest Lulu alert, courtesy of a website in danger of needing to rename itself “Pabst London”. I assure you that I am working on some non Pabst-related content, which will be with you soon.
Anyway, the Big News is … that the BFI is giving Pandora’s Boxa theatrical re-release in June this year. The version that will be shown is a 2K DCP of the 1997 Munich Film Museum restoration, not the more recent one, which is slightly disappointing, but that said, I saw this version on a big screen recently and it really is grand. The print really does well by Gunther Krampf’s complex patterns of light and shade in his cinematography, and there is enough detail to highlight all the nuances and symbols lurking in the background. Louise Brooks sparkles as she ought to, of course.
Austrian director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made great films in the early 20th century. However, by the time that he died in 1967, his reputation was all but demolished – his decision to work in the German film industry during the second world war having overshadowed his earlier achievements. Underrated for decades, Pabst’s work is ripe for a reappraisal and his sophisticated and progressive silent films in particular deserve to be more widely seen.
His first film, Der Schatz (The Treasure, 1923), is a Gothic fable in the German Expressionist mode. As such, it initially seems to be out of step with Pabst’s better-known silents, including the gritty drama The Joyless Street (1925), or the iconic Pandora’s Box (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which belong to a different movement altogether: the harsh realism of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. In this early work there are nevertheless glimmers of Pabst’s later style, his political values and his psychological insights as well as his sympathy for his female characters and their right to assert their independence.
Pabst was born to Austrian parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic in 1885, and moved to Vienna when he was a child. He studied engineering but by the time he was 20, he realised that the theatre was his passion and he enrolled in drama school. He worked as an actor across Europe and in New York, where the poverty he witnessed, and his contact with the trade union movement, forged his socialist beliefs. Deciding to concentrate on directing, he returned to Europe in 1914 to recruit actors, but on landing in France he was arrested as an enemy alien and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp for the next four years. After the war he directed many plays, especially Expressionist dramas, before, in 1920, going to work with Carl Froelich in the German film industry. In 1922, aged 37, Pabst directed Der Schatz, his first film.
Der Schatz had been adapted by Pabst and his co-writer Willy Henning from a short story by Nobel-prize-nominated author Rudolph Hans Bartsch, published in collection called Bittersweet Love Stories in 1910. A bell-founder called Balthasar (Golem star Albert Steinrück), his wife (the brilliant Ilka Grüning, with salt-and-pepper streak and a bell-shaped dirndl skirt) and daughter Beate (Lucie Mannheim, who later made several films in Britain during the war) and an apprentice called Svetelenz (Expressionist film and stage star Werner Krauss) live in a strange house in a sinister landscape.
There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?
Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!
I’m a Europhile, so imagine my shock to see ‘Frexit’ posters on the streets of Paris. In one respect at least, I hope France can learn from our own messy example. Our own deed has not yet been done, and even when it has been, and we have well and truly Brexited, I suspect there will still be yellow stars looped around my heart. So in the spirit of European togetherness, I am always happy to pop over to Paris at the drop of un chapeau to watch old movies and connect with my silent-film-loving friends.
This weekend was just such an occasion – I am posting this on the train home to London. Toute La Mémoire du Monde AKA the International Festival of Restored Cinema, takes place in the drizzly days before spring has truly sprung, at the Cinématheque Francaise and a handful of other cinemas in Paris. This is the sixth edition, and it’s a slightly odd festival, very serious in atmosphere for one so young, despite the fact that it features such populist events such as Russ Meyer all-nighters, and celebrity guests including, this year, Wim Wenders. It’s as diverse in scope as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but not as welcoming or as easy to navigate. Still, I think of it as a rather shy friend, who always has something fascinating to say if you can coax it out of her. With that in mind I spent two and a bit days in Paris this year, seeing as many silents as possible, and some talkies just for luck. I do it all for you, mes amis!
Competition time! Answer one easy question and you could win a pair of tickets for a very special evening in the company of Greta Garbo and Carl Davis at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
As reported on this site a few weeks back, on Sunday 4 March the Philharmonia Orchestra will accompany a screening of two Garbo films – a feature and a fragment – and they will be playing scores by none other than Carl Davis.
The feature film is The Mysterious Lady, in which Garbo stars as a Russian spy who falls in love with the man she is supposed to be stealing secrets from, a soldier played by Conrad Nagel. It’s one of my favourite Hollywood romances, filled with glamour, lavish sets and smouldering passion from the two sultry leads. This will be shown alongside the single recovered reel from The Divine Woman, a drama based loosely on the life of Sarah Bernhardt and directed by Victor Sjöstrom. Garbo’s co-star in this is Lars Hanson – you may remember their chemistry from Flesh and the Devil.
Carl Davis spoke to Silent London about scoring these films. “Musically, Garbo always gets special treatment,” he says.
“It’s something to do with her lighting and her charisma, which calls for music with a special glow. The world around her changes when she is there.”
Will your world change when Garbo appears on screen at the RFH? I wouldn’t be surprised. If you want to win one of three pairs of tickets for this Garbo-Davis double-bill simply email your answer to the following question to email@example.com by Thursday 1 March 2018 at noon:
Greta Garbo’s first line of on-screen dialogue took place in a bar in Anna Christie (1930) – but what did she order?
a) “Two large gins, two pints of cider. Ice in the cider.”
b) “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”
c) “A medium dry martini, lemon peel. Shaken, not stirred.”
Good luck! The winners will be chosen at random from the correct answers and will be notified by email.
The BFI’s sumptuous restoration of Indian romance Shiraz is out on dual format DVD/Blu-ray now. Assuming that you took this website’s advice and already saw this lush film at the London Film Festival Archive Gala or on its recent theatrical run (actually, there are probably some more screenings coming up – check here) why should you buy it on disc?
1) Because this is a film to wallow in. Hat-tip to the illustrious Anglo-German cinematography team of Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann. It takes repeat viewings of Shiraz to satisfy your hunger for those gorgeous landscapes and grand palaces. All that beauty looks great in high-definition on the Blu-ray – and you can watch a short demo of the restoration to see just the BFI put into making it look so stable and blemish-free. I am shameless, as you know by now, so I recommend using the scene selection function to skip straight to the kiss, or to the reveal of Taj Mahal. Not forgetting the fact that you can pause that elephant’s foot moment to see just how close a call it was.
2) Vintage extras. I really like the BFI’s habit of putting extra archive films on movie discs. In this case it the Temples of India, a short travelogue from 1938 that features the Taj Mahal, which was shot in blistering colour by none other than genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff. There’s also Musical Instruments of India – a government film designed to promote Indian culture, which might be of special interest if you’re drawn to reason Number Three …
While we’re on, I want to say that lots of people have been kind enough to write thoughtful and positive reviews of the book on Amazon UK and on Goodreads so far – thank you to everyone who did that! And if you want to join them, please be my guest.
Sight & Sound also ran a very nice review of the book in its February 2018 issue: check it out! David Thompson wrote the piece and here are some of the things he said about the book:
highly sympathetic and well researched book … a welcome and long overdue addition to the BFI Film Classics series … particularly valuable in detailing the origins of the film, how it came to be made at all and the striking personalities involved …
Hutchinson takes us through this narrative in unerring detail, underlining Pabst’s significant departures from the original and demonstrating how Wedekind’s palindromic structure is compressed but also heightened through the film’s imagery …
As Hutchinson adroitly points out, it pictures “female sexuality not as moral weakness but as an eruption of pleasure”. She notes that everything turns constantly on how much men’s desire for Lulu is transformed into hate, and how far money potentially poisons all the relationships throughout …
As this book makes very clear, rarely has the blurring of a screen role and real life been so fruitful for a creator and so tantalising for the audience.
“Unerring detail”, eh? Don’t let that put you off. Stick out the “unerring detail” and soon enough you’ll get to that “eruption of pleasure”, I promise.
UPDATE/EVENT RESCHEDULED: the below event was scheduled to take place during the 2018 Glasgow Film Festival, but due to the bad weather, it has now been rescheduled for 9 May, at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Please see this message from Glasgow Film Festival:
The event has been rescheduled for Wednesday 9th May in GFT with a start time of 8pm. All tickets will remain valid. We apologise for any disappointment and thank you for your understanding and patience. If you are unable to attend on 9 May, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Assunta Spina’.
Every good film event deserves a diva, and the Glasgow Film Festival has one of the best. This is just a short note to bring your attention to a special screening in Glasgow next month of the wonderful early Italian film Assunta Spina, starring the incandescent Francesca Bertini.
Assunta Spina (1915) is the tale of a young and beautiful laundress (Bertini, naturally) living in Naples. Assunta is engaged to possessive, aggressive butcher, but courted by another man. When her fiancé’s jealousy erupts in violence, Assunta is forced to make a terrible sacrifice to save the man she loves. It’s a passionate, highly dramatic story, and Bertini’s high-voltage acting style suits it perfectly. One of the other pleasures of the new restoration of this film is the depth of the original colour tinting, which resonates perfectly with the film’s emotional vibrancy.
The festival has collaborated with Shona Thomson, AKA A Kind of Seeing, to commission a new score for the film by Scottish-based Italian folk band The Badwills, who will also play some more after the film. And the screening takes place in the gorgeous St Andrew’s in the Square, a former 18th-century church. It’s bound to be a very atmospheric evening.
Passion. Jealousy. Revenge. Join us for a rare screening of this silent Italian drama with a new live score by seven-piece band The Badwills, followed by Italian folk dancing in the grand setting of St Andrews in the Square. Assunta Spina stars Francesca Bertini, one of Italian cinema’s greatest ‘silent diva’ actresses, smouldering on-screen as she’s caught up in a violent love triangle. Complementing the film’s striking Neapolitan backdrop, this new score is co-commissioned by Glasgow Film Festival and A Kind of Seeing. After the film, enjoy The Badwills’ furious live music and try your hand at some traditional Italian dancing. Tambourines at the ready!
One of the strands running through Carl Th Dreyer’s beautiful drama Michael (1924) is the idea that art can only be truly great when it is animated by love. The artist protagonist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) struggles to finish a commissioned portrait of a rich countess – his passion project takes his young protégée Michael (a youthful, handsome Walter Slezak) as its model instead. When Michael finishes the portrait for his master, the quality of his work betrays the fact that his own affection has been transferred to the model.
The film’s famous line, “Now I may die content, for I have seen great love” carries this lesson over to the art of living itself. Better to have loved and lost, as the saying goes. It’s a conclusion that recalls the moving speech that caps off last year’s Call Me by Your Name. Far less explicitly than that film, Michael also takes gay love as its subject – a topic dealt with more openly in certain German films of the era (Sex in Chains, Different from the Others). It’s unmistakably a gay story, seen in the 21st century. Perhaps in 1924, some members of the audience might have missed it – although not in the US, where the film was released as The Invert, and not if they were familiar with the author of the film’s source novel Herman Bang, a gay writer who wrote heartfelt stories, largely, it seems, about lonely and unfulfilled women.
Fire up your tablets – a new film streaming service for cinephiles launches in the UK today. Filmstruck has been available for a while in the US, but now it has hopped the pond. While the platform is the same, the content is not.
You probably associate the Filmstruck name with the much-loved Criterion Collection. I know I did. The UK version is also known as Filmstruck Curzon and will offer titles from the Criterion and Warner Bros libraries as well as Curzon Artificial Eye, Park Circus and Kew Media Group. You can browse the films by genre or themes, or via edited collections such as Rock Stars on Film. You can create your own watchlist too. There are also Criterion mini-documentaries alongside the films – the equivalent of watching DVD extras.
“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.
Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.
Good news for dyed-in-the-wool fans of colour film in all its multiple chemical, electronic, stencilled and washed forms. The Third International Conference, Colour in Film, will take place 19-21 March 2018. The first two days will be at BFI Southbank, and the third will be at Birkbeck College, University of London.
All films will be shown in NFT3, and included The Ruins of Palmyra and Baalbek (1938), This is Colour (1942) and Münchhausen (1943). Sessions devoted to early film include a presentation by Bryony Dixon on Applied Colour, one by Olivia Kristina Stutz on The Transparency of Early Film Colours and Eirik Frivold Hanssen on Polar Colours in Roald Amundsen’s Films, Photographs, and Writings.
To read the full programme, find out who else is attending, and book your place, visit the Colour in Film website.
It’s that time of year again, when we get to delve into the Hippfest programme. The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, Scotland, is the most welcoming event in the early cinema calendar, with one of the most glamorous venues. The lineup is always an enjoyable mix of the classic and obscure too, so I await this announcement with more interest than most.
You can read the full lineup and schedule on the Hippfest website, but here are some selected highlights – and yes, I am terribly, terribly biased.
Pabst! So much Pabst around these days, which is great. The Hippfest is showing GW Pabst’s first film, the most traditionally expressionist of his career, Der Schätz, with live accompaniment written and performed by acclaimed German composer and musician Alois Kott.
More Pabst! On 22nd March, yours truly will be giving an illustrated “Cuppa Talk” lecture entitled Lost Girls and Goddesses, all about women in Pabst’s silent films. Brooks, Garbo, Nielsen, Helm … all will be in (virtual) attendance.
Galas! The opening night screening has already been announced as The Last of the Mohicans with live accompaniment from David Allison.
On the Friday night, get yourself glammed up for a date with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, with live music from the maestro Neil Brand. This silent comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is perfect in practically every way. And Brand, yeah he’s a bit of a legend too.
Lon Chaney swings by on Saturday night. You can watch him play “the master of the underworld” in The Penalty with a new score, commissioned by the festival, from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello.
Stick around after The Penalty for an ideal late-night movie: Benjamin Christensen’s loopy Seven Footprints to Satan, with a live score from the always excellent Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. This film has to be seen to be believed!
Sunday night closes with two screening of recent BFI silent restorations. First, the sumptuous Indian romance Shiraz, accompanied by the wonderful John Sweeney, and then Anthony Asquith’s Underground, accompanied live by the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
When I research the careers of women in early and silent film history, I often come to a dead end. Or rather their careers do. On top of any internal industry biases or lack of confidence, back in the day marriage and motherhood was a very efficient way to cut short the career of a talented actress or film-maker.
Things should be very different now, but those days don’t seem so remote. The legacy of an industry that has been male-dominated for too many decades is that film-makers are not expected to have parenting or caring duties to juggle with production work. The cost of childcare combined with inflexible work practices prohibits many parents and carers from continuing to make films.
So, if you’d like to prove that we have made some progress in the past century, I’d like you to consider supporting an initiative called Raising Films. This organisation supports and campaigns for parents and carers working in the film industry to access the childcare, representation, training and advice they need. This isn’t just about the work, but the films. Making room for parents and carers in the industry is important because caring about other people, and forming relationships with them, is a prerequisite to making great, humane art. It also means more women working in the industry, and seeing more women’s stories told on film.
Yes, this post is fairly “off-topic”, but this stuff is important. Please don’t make a future version of me have to research and write stories about careers cut short by family responsibilities in the early 21st century, too.
I am very excited to share this screening with you – The Woman Under Oath (John M Stahl, 1919) is a really special film that I was lucky enough to research last year, and it is showing on 35mm with live music in NFT1.
Most of you will be familiar with the work of John M Stahl – even though he is best known for a few films that were remade by more famous directors. Douglas Sirk remade both his The Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, while Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is based on the novella by Stefan Zwieg that seems also to have inspired Stahl’s 1933 Only Yesterday. Perhaps Stahl’s most famous film is 1944’s Leave Her to Heaven. If you have seen any of those titles, it won’t surprise you to learn that Stahl is celebrated as master of melodrama who directed films with strong, passionate heroines. If you’ve seen the last one, you’ll be excited to learn that The Woman Under Oath pivots on a trial.
Until last year, I had never seen any of Stahl’s silent films, which is partly because so few of them have survived (just nine features and various fragments) and even more so because they are very rarely screened. Stahl was born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, but moved to New York as a youngster. Taking the name John Malcolm Stahl, he made a series of movies in the teens and early twenties in New York, before signing with Louis B Mayer Pictures (which later became MGM) in Hollywood in 1924. He was a founding member of the Academy and briefly an executive at the Tiffany studio. He went on to make 20 sound films, however (all of which survive), including the ones mentioned above. His final picture, made in 1949, was the musical Oh, You Beautiful Doll.
Deadlines done? Laundry basket empty? Dinner in the oven? Sure? Then prepare to fritter away some time. The British Film Institute haslaunched a new collection on the BFI Player. Animated Britain presents more than 300 animated films from the UK. There are some nostalgic favourites from my own childhood here, and also a fine set of films from the infancy of cinema.
Browse the “Early Animation” set on the BFI Player (or the BFI YouTube channel) and you can watch, for free, gems such as WR Booth’s 1909 trick film Animated Cotton, or the Shakespeare spoof Oh’phelia: a Cartoon Burlesque, from 1909. You’ll build up a mental picture of Britain in the early 20th century while you you titter. There is plenty of Great War Propaganda here, lots of cricket-comedy and a couple of shorts produced on behalf of the Conservative Party.
I was especially taken with an episode featuring Giro the Germ, made for the Health and Cleanliness Council, a rather haunting warning about hygiene hazards. In this sinister short, germs hop on fly-taxis right out of dustbins and into the mucky homes of hapless Brits. It’s rather repulsive, but may well encourage you pass the duster around after you’ve had your cartoon break.
Best of all, though, is Running a Cinema (1921), which offers a few quirky insights into what a trip to the pictures was like nearly a century ago.
A century after the 1918 Spring Offensive, one of the best-loved First World War stories returns to the cinema. Director Saul Dibb has made a new film of RC Sherriff’s intense, claustrophobic play Journey’s End, and it’s a terrific movie, capped by a blistering performance by Sam Claflin as the disintegrating Captain Stanhope.
The story takes place during a week in which one battalion is posted at the frontline, just 60 yards from the enemy trenches. The story unfolds among the officers – especially paternal Osborne (Paul Bettany), green Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) and volatile Stanhope. While the soldiers must sit and wait for an expected, and horribly imminent, German attack, the higher-ups insists on a daylight raid into enemy territory.
Neccesarily, the play is almost all talk, and although it was written in 1928 it was not adapted for the screen in the silent era. James Whale’s 1930 epic talkie adaptation is was a big success, though, and the play remains popular, performed regularly in professional and amateur productions. There was even a German film, starring Conrad Veidt and directed by Heinz Paul in 1932, which was banned by the Nazis.
The new Journey’s End doesn’t immediately seem to have any connections to the silent era, but when I saw it at a preview screening recently I thought otherwise. This powerful film is well worth watching for its own sake, but it also has some interesting resonances with silent cinema that I found fascinating.
Dibb pointed out at a Q&A after the screening that Simon Reade’s wasn’t solely based on the play, but mostly on the later novelisation by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett. This goes a long way to explain why the film is so effectively opened-out from the dugout contains the action in the stage version. Dibb further said that, although many of the cast were very familiar with the original, he hadn’t watched Whale’s film or read the play. In fact during his research, he chose not to watch any fictionalised accounts of the First World War at all. No Paths of Glory or Shoulder Arms. What he watched instead, and it shows, was archive footage of the war itself.