How are you doing? You can be honest here, you’re among pals. It’s a bit difficult out there these days isn’t it? Whether you’re out on the front line (thank you, THANK YOU), out-of-work, homeworking or home-schooling, life is stressful at the moment. Apparently we’re all either filling our time or switching off at night by streaming more than ever. Why not? There are some great resources out there for watching silents online (and more from me on this anon), but streaming is not the only fruit.
If you still have some pennies to spare in the age of lockdown, don’t forget that physical media is your best friend. Silents on Blu-ray (or DVD) won’t disappear at the whim of the rights-holder, or glitch or go lo-res every time your bandwidth gets overloaded by your flatmate’s Zoom cocktails or your kids’ homework chats. Not only that, but the best discs coming out these days are packed with commentaries and extras that celebrate the film and will expand your knowledge in the most entertaining way. Continue reading Buster Keaton: 3 Films review: discs the doctors would order→
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.
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 …
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.
Were you at the Barbican for the London Film Festival Archive Gala last year? It was a really special evening: the premiere of the BFI’s immaculate new restoration of Indian-Anglo-German romance Shiraz: A Romance of India with a stunning new score composed by Anoushka Shankar. I was there, and you can read my review here.
However, whether you missed out, or you just want to relive the magic, there is good news. Shiraz gets a theatrical release very soon – it lands in cinemas from 2 February 2018. If you want to take Shiraz home, you’ll be able to buy it on DVD/Blu-ray on 26 February too. You’ll also be able to watch Shiraz on the BFI Player, and BBC4 will broadcast a behind-the-scenes documentary on the recording of Shankar’s ambitious score at some point during the year.
Last night I had a sneak preview of the DCP of Shiraz – the digital version that will be shown in cinemas and appear on disc, with the recorded score. A repeat viewing confirmed that this is an especially gorgeous film, with beautifully composed frames full of detail. The first time round I was distracted by the leading players, but on second viewing the landscapes in the background caught my eye, not to mention a donkey scratching his neck on a tentpole, a potter spinning his wheel. And sorry, Hollywood, but all your grandest designs can’t compete with the stunning architecture in this film. Shankar’s score, too, is full of surprises, bold decisions and graceful melodies. The range of instruments and styles in this piece of music is really breathtaking, and yet it’s always sensitive to the film – a really accomplished silent movie score.
There may be more good news too – although you’ll have to cross your fingers. The BFI hopes to stage some more screenings of the film with the music played live, but we will just have to wait and see …
The Informer truly put the “international” into British International Pictures. This film, shot entirely in the Elstree studios in 1929, was adapted from an Irish novel, directed by a German, and starred a Swedish man and a Hungarian woman. As far as in-front-of-the-camera talent goes, this is exactly the kind of international collaboration that would perish with the coming of sound. Behind the scenes, British studios would only welcome in more European personnel through the 1930s, though sadly for the worst of reasons.
So The Informer is a movie on the cusp – geographically and historically. It’s fitting then that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions. The BFI restored the talkie Informer a while back, but in 2016, the silent version got the full makeover treatment, and was presented as the London Film Festival Archive Gala with a new score by Garth Knox.
And thank goodness it did, because, whether you have seen the stilted and shaky sound version or not, the silent Informer is a breath of fresh air. This is a truly accomplished late silent drama, with a graceful moving camera and fine performances, and all that emotion is heightened by slinky black shadows and high-angled shots that recall director Arthur Robison’s achievements in German Expressionism (you may have seen Warning Shadows, 1923). The story may be set in early 1920s Dublin, but this vampiric treatment suits it perfectly. Liam O’Flaherty pictured his moody thriller being made into a German film when it was still words on a page.
In this taut, cat-and-mouse thriller, Lars Hanson plays Gypo Nolan, one of a disintegrating band of Irish revolutionaries, who tips off the police to the whereabouts of his exiled comrade, Francis, played by Carl Harbord. Famed vamp star Lya de Putti plays the woman they both love. The story plays out in the mean streets of Dublin – there’s a claustrophobic sense of place as we feel that the characters are trapped in the city streets by their ideals as much as by their betrayals. But this city could also be any city where the people and the police are at odds. It could be Weimar Berlin, for example. And it’s uncannily like the crime-infested LA of 1940s film noir. Those shadows get everywhere.
Ruan Lingyu appeared in her first film in 1927, aged 16. In 1935, she took her own life, just over a month before her 25th birthday. In that short time, she had appeared in many Chinese silent films and become one of the country’s best known actresses. Today she is celebrated for her delicately nuanced performances in those films that survive – she has been called the “Chinese Garbo”. However, if you’ve seen Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage say, you will also know about the troubles Lingyu encountered, and the events leading up to her shocking suicide.
Lingyu’s private life shouldn’t concern us now, any more than in 1935, but when you watch The Goddess, a stunning Chinese silent film and one of the last she made, it is difficult not to make a link between the actress and the character she plays. Lingyu’s suicide note (which may have been forged) famously read “gossip is a fearful thing”, and her early death came after she had been monstered by the press over her love life. In The Goddess, Lingyu plays another woman devastated by malicious gossip. But it’s important not to take this comparison too far – the chatter of small-minded women is not the worst of her character’s problems.
The first thing to know about this film, which is every bit as beautiful and tragic as its star, is that “goddess” was a Chinese slang term for a prostitute, perhaps a slightly ironic one. Lingyu’s character embodies the perceived contradictions in that name: she is a loving mother who supports her son by nightly sex work. The crib is in the centre of her home, and her garish cheong sams are hanging on the wall. The nameless heroine has the misfortune of running into the house of a sleazy gambler, “The Boss”, when fleeing the police one night. From that moment one, her decides to exploit her, taking her earnings on the threat of harming her son. When the “goddess” attempts to send her son to school, the other mothers soon catch on to the way she earns her money, and complain to the principal, which is when our heroine faces the worst crisis of all.
Prostitution was rife in China in the 1930s and The Goddess’s story would not have been unusual. Many women were forced by poverty or trafficking into a career that was both illegal and made them vulnerable to pimps and clients – some of whom might be beasts like the Boss. If they aspired to a better, safer, more respectable life, the taint of sex work could hamper their efforts – which this film illustrates. The Goddess doesn’t feel like a campaigning film, despite a rousing speech made by the school principal, and you may feel let down by the ending. But this is a humane and very moving film – who knows whether it may have changed a few attitudes in its time?
Well, this was clearly meant to be. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking allegorical fantasy Der Müde Tod (1921) is getting a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland along with a DVD/Blu-ray edition:
Eureka Entertainment have announced the theatrical release of DER MÜDE TOD (aka Destiny), Fritz Lang’s visually ambitious, cinematic allegory starring Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke, in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) and Digital HD from 9 June 2017.
Talking to Françcois Truffaut many years later, Alfred Hitchcock recalled that when he saw Der Müde Tod it made a “special impression” on him. He will have seen it un 1924 under its British release name Destiny, at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. I wonder if we will have a chance to see it in the same venue?
In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.
Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.
So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.
Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.
Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.
The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.
For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.
This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.
Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.
Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.
The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.
There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.
Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.
So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …
The concept of “Early Murnau” is a little bittersweet. The German director had such a short career that the films in this new collection from Masters of Cinema take us up to just six years before he died. And while his most famous film was made during the period (1921-25) covered by this box set, that work, Nosferatu, is not included. The set ends just one year before his hypnotic Faust was made, and two before his Hollywood masterpiece Sunrise.
This is technically middle Murnau, then, or “the Murnau you may have missed if you only knew Nosferatu and the surviving Hollywood work”. All the same, this is a gorgeous collection of distinctive, spectacular films, well worth adding to your shelf. All of the films in the set have been made available on DVD from Masters of Cinema previously, but here together, on Blu-ray, they represent a far better bargain.
The journey through Murnau’s lesser-sung German work begins in 1921 with Schloss Vogelöd, a country-house mystery rendered mysterious and dreamlike at the director’s touch, and climaxes with the bracing and inventive Molière adaptation Tartuffe (1925), which introduces an especially noxious virtue-signalling hypocrite and hangs him out to dry. In between we delve into the romantic and financial misery of a poetically minded clerk in Phantom (1922), and the related entanglements of an aristocrat in Die Finanzen de Grossherzogs (1924). Indisputably, the highlight of the collection is the low-key masterpiece Die Letzte Mann (1924) starring Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman whose life hits a downward spiral when he is demoted to a toilet attendant.
As the many extra features and essays included with the set attest, Murnau’s oeuvre is hugely varied, swinging from genre to genre and rarely settling in one place for long. Stylistically, though, he is mistakably himself at all times. You can see the walls of the city bend down to oppress the heroes of both Phantom and Die Letzte Mann, for example. And you may already have noticed that the films above share a set of preoccupations with money and social position, with impossible aspirations and with toxic pride.
William Holden is drawn into the dysfunctional, secluded household of a fading Hollywood star, seduced and horrified by what he finds. In his familar crisp voice-over, he tells a sad story of Hollywood brutality. This beautiful screen siren, her heyday far behind her, has a terrible secret, but despite her advanced age, she remains fascinating, almost irresistible…
No, it’s not Sunset Boulevard, but Billy Wilder’s penultimate movie Fedora, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Masters of Cinema on Monday 26 September. Made in 1978, Fedora belongs to a different era than 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “The kids with beards have taken over,” as Holden’s character laments, referring to those cinematic titans who were once movie brats: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. And Fedora is not a silent movie star either. She belongs especially to the 1930s and 1940s, when she made woman’s pictures, a genre that has gone out of date in 1978. But still, her career was suspiciously long.
It’s said that Wilder may have modelled Fedora on Pola Negri – she is Polish, aristocratic and melodramatic, and she was one of the women approached to play Norma Desmond way back then, too. Negri also retired to live quietly with a lady companion, after a couple of brief comebacks in the 1940s and 1960s. But Negri’s latter years were spent in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to Catholicism. Fedora skulks in an island villa in Corfu, and her end is much less pleasant.Wilder refused to pin this character down though. “I have known Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich, Lombard, and Monroe,” he said. “Fedora is a fictitious combination of them all.”In the opening sequence, in fact, Fedora looks like a much earlier screen goddess, Musidora, as she sprints in a fluttering black cloak towards her fate.
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.
Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.
A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.
If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.
You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.
First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence.
The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast.
Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.
So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.
I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.
We’re an excitable bunch here at Silent London, which you have probably noticed by now. But a quiet announcement by Masters of Cinema recently caused even more whooping and merriment than usual. The classic movie imprint is releasing its gorgeous Lubitsch in Berlin box set, which had inexplicably fallen out of print. We’re big fans, big, big fans of this set, and so in a collective declaration of box set love, a group of us gathered together to review every movie in the box, one by one …
There are six films in the set, all made by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch in the earliest stages of his movie career, after he had been lured out of Max Reinhardt’s theatre company to the UFA studio. If these films are deemed less sophisticated than his later Hollywood work, then that is mostly because his subject matter is often more fanciful, his characters border on feral, and his sense of humour, at this time, in uninhibitedly mischievous. Or perhaps, because people are fools. The elusive “Lubitsch touch”, and his mastery of character, space and comedy is very much in evidence here – The Oyster Princess and Die Puppe in particular are perfectly pitched comic pantomimes. Three films in this box star the irrepressible German comic actress Ossi Oswalda – perpare to fall head over heels – a further two feature the wonderful Pola Negri and Emil Jannings makes an appearance too.
One of the films in this set, Anna Boleyn, was partially responsible for Lubitsch’s move west: it and Madame Du Barry (not in this set) found US distribution, and became unsettlingly successful on those shores. Lubitsch would bc the first established Hollywood talent to be snapped up by a Hollywood studio. Pola Negri would follow shortly after – they called it, sardonically, the “German Invasion”.
As well as the following six films, the set contains a feature-length documentary (Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood) and some very sharply written essays. Don’t miss out.
The exclamatory title of this 40-minute adventure is a lesson hard won for its heroine. One might add, she hardly wants to be a woman either – at least not her fretful elders’ idea of how a young lady in her teens, and the century’s, should be. Delightfully, other people’s ideas hardly get a look in. I Don’t Want to be a Man is a taboo-thumping caper that plots its own course through conventional ideas about gender and romance. It was early days for Weimar Berlin when this film was made, but even in this short comedy, there is lechery, bisexuality, drunkenness and decadence in abundance. And when it comes to rebellious on-screen teens, Ossi Oswalda’s flirtatious, gender-bending minx feels decidedly modern.
Ossi is a smirking teenage nightmare, a spoilt brat who smokes and plays poker with men much older than her. Banished to her room, the flirting continues through her window as her suitors contort themselves on the pavement below. When he is called away overseas, her uncle hires a new, supposedly strict, young guardian to take her firmly in hand. That the appointed dragon is a handsome young man may seem to spell trouble, but Ossi’s next move takes the story to a whole new level of larkiness.
Outraged at being grounded, Ossi decides the only possible way to enjoy a night on the tiles is in drag, so she has herself fitted for top-hat-and-tails and sneaks out of the house. I won’t give away what happens in the nightclub, and the morning after, but suffice to say that lust and confusion bloom in equal measure.
A running gag here is that as a woman, Ossi can handle herself and manipulate the men who throng her, expertly. As a man she is clueless and not a little afraid. At the tailor’s, in feminine dress, she parcels her body out to the adoring assistants who clamour to measure her up: a left arm for one, the waist for another. In the club, she is near toppled over by the women who want to dance with her. Whether Lubitsch is saying that when it comes to sex women have the upper hand, or just poking fun at the whole business of romantic chivalry matters little. That Ossi finds herself a partner who likes her both in drag, and out of it, is the happy ending that even the most “retrosexual” audience could crave.
If it’s well-known that silent cinema is littered with heavily stylised classics, it’s perhaps also true that Die Puppe remains one of its most overlooked gems – a pre-Caligari classicof German artifice. Used here for comedic (rather than psychological) ends, the stylisation is no doubt employed in part to help make believable the film’s central premise: when a wealthy baron decides his nephew must marry, the local monks talk the nephew into marrying a lifelike doll so he can donate his dowry to their abbey. But what the nephew fails to realise is that the dollmaker’s puckish apprentice has broken the doll, and that his bride-to-be is in fact the dollmaker’s daughter herself, and not her mechanical counterpart …
If that all sounds rather silly … well, it is. But the nephew’s response to his uncle questioning the doll’s (literal) stiffness (“She’s from an old patrician family. They’re all very formal”) reminds us that this is as much social commentary as social comedy. The film is at its most pointed when representing the hypocrisy and greed of the monks, who gorge themselves on food and wine while claiming poverty (their response to the news of the 300,000 francs dowry: “Do you know how many pork knuckles you could eat for that!”).
The film was a vehicle for then-popular German actress Ossi Oswalda, who excels here in the dual role of the doll and the dollmaker’s daughter. But the film itself undoubtedly belongs to Lubitsch; he appears first onscreen, unpacking what is to become the scenery of the film’s opening scene. The film is subtitled “Four amusing acts from a toy chest”, and if the four acts never quite emerge in the print presented here, the rest of that description seems particularly accurate. Moving beyond stylisation-for-the-sake-of-it, Lubitsch seems to be delighting in the very medium of cinema and the possibilities inherent in the art form (lest the film’s exuberance make us forget, Die Puppe was made in 1919). Lubitsch is director as conjurer, and the film’s reflexive and playful edge exhibits all the purest joys of the silent era – a time in which cinematic conventions were yet to come along and ruin the experimental, stylised fun.
Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic. He is currently in development with his new film, London Symphony, a silent city symphony. You can follow the project’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.
Die Austernprinzessin (1919)
Reviewed by Ewan Munro
One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Yet for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch touch”. Whatever that may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his “mature” works.
At the heart of The Oyster Princess is a pretty full-blooded critique of capitalism; there’s certainly no pulling punches here. The “oyster king”, Mr Quaker (Victor Janson), lives in a vast mansion attended by numerous servants and has a spoilt daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Until the very end, all that either seems to care about is this privileged life they live. Quaker’s catchphrase, delivered at the end of each of the movie’s four acts, is “that doesn’t impress me”. Ossi, meanwhile, who kicks off the plot with her demand to marry a prince, susbequently pays only scant attention to either the man or the relationship. Hers is an entitled world of passing whims, and she soon decides that this prince she’s been given isn’t one she likes very much after all.
But this is a comedy of manners, and part of the joke is that Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) has fallen on hard times, and so has sent his valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check out Mr Quaker’s offer. This somewhat inevitably leads to him being confused with the prince, and given the frivolous way the Quakers live, perhaps that’s little surprise. The opening shot shows Mr Quaker smoking an unreasonably large cigar, attended by a phalanx of obsequious black servants, while his every word is hung upon by an array of secretaries. This obscene overkill – Quaker doesn’t need so many women to transcribe his dictation, nor so many handservants, as most of them have nothing to do – quickly becomes a running joke. There are serried ranks of servants to help Ossi into and out of her bath, and serving a meal is like a military drill. This is obscenely gluttonous excess for its own sake – and for our amusement.
Although the technical limitations of the period mean the camera is still largely fixed, it’s hardly noticeable thanks to a lightness of touch in orchestrating the action. Characters move around incessantly. So vast is Quaker’s mansion that he, attended by his many servants, jogs from room to room. His daughter meanwhile is a whirligig of emotion, throwing everything around petulantly. At one point there’s even a dance sequence – “a foxtrot epidemic breaks out!” – allowing for various groupings around the mansion until eventually everyone, right down to the kitchen servants, is seen dancing.
It may not be surprising to devotees of Lubitsch’s work, but for one new to his cinema, what’s astonishing is that almost every moment in the film’s concise hour-long running time is filled with inventiveness and comic inspiration. Shots that just prosaically bridge a gap between two scenes are not for Lubitsch, and (as mentioned above) even moving between rooms is done with a humorous touch. The performances are also uniformly delightful, particularly Oswalda’s cheeky impishness and Janson’s amusingly affected stoicism.
Once again, this is another excellent Masters of Cinema release, with an exemplary transfer to DVD and a rather jaunty score perfectly matched to the action on screen. This isn’t just an excellent primer to Lubitsch’s cinema, or to silent screen comedy. It’s a marvel of a film and a joy to watch.
Of the silent genres which seem to have dissipated when sound came, the Sheikh & Sex desert romances can seem the most alien to us now. Not just for their broadly orientalist strokes, any silent film aficionado has to swallow to some degree the racial and jingoistic views of the time, but there is often a degree of exotic ethnography going on, from Valentino’s tea-towel headgear to the huge harems on display. In depicting a non-Christian world view, film companies could have their cake and eat it, tell highly sexualised stories without condoning them.
Sumurun, with all of its high melodrama, probably sits closer to Lubitsch’s sex comedies such as The Oyster Princess, but its source material and setting means that narratively at least there is a sense that the story is the most important thing. Whilst the film is invested in the capricious evil of its sheikh, and definitely leaning on the fetishisation of the harem and exotic dancing, Lubitsch does not seem to be moralising here. Instead he is using his setting as an alien world, building a blockbuster that throws all the spectacle it can muster on to the screen whilst trying to display humanity in all its characters.
This means that tonally, Sumurun is a bit of a mess. It lurches from slapstick to scenes of murder and ends with some high tragedy. This doesn’t really matter though, as the narrative thread is strong and like any blockbuster there is barely a moment where Lubitsch doesn’t put something funny, novel or just plain beautiful at the screen. Pola Negri is appropriately captivating as the travelling dancer who instigates the ruckus, but Jenny Hasselqvist’s Sumurun is suitably empathic in the title role as the seemingly doomed courtesan. The film, however, belongs to Lubitsch the actor, whose Hunchback both observes and drives the story but also holds the most significant emotional beats (and some of the broadest comedy). He does a lot of eyebrow acting, and is extremely watchable in the role. That said, by the time people are locked in trunks, and are being chased around the elaborate set like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the hand of Lubitsch the director is clearly more prominent.
Much like its source material, Sumurun is invested in entertaining a wide audience in the broadest way. It has a Shakespearean sweep in its tragedy, but is at its heart a comedy – and quite a silly one in places. That it works is due to Lubitsch taking rather broad archetypes, particularly his own, and breathing life into them, transforming them from comedy to tragedy. It feels apt that the last shot of the film is Lubitsch himself, in his final acting role, mournfully strumming a lute; he will go on to entertain behind the camera, but he gives himself a pretty meaty final role.
For the star of a story about a sexy tempter lady, Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) doesn’t get to do a lot of tempting. The queens on either side of her have much more fun: her predecessor Catherine of Aragon (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein) gets some spectacular eye rolls and glares in, and successor Jane Seymour (Aud Egede-Nissen) interestingly takes up the traditional “Anne Boleyn” role of the ambitious, flirtatious younger woman who lures away Henry VIII (Emil Jannings). Porten’s Anne is very Good and Virtuous and Tragic. Far from scheming to get Henry and the crown, she is pressured into the marriage by the king and her uncle Norfolk (Ludwig Hartau). The best shot of the film is of the two men exchanging glances over her head, then talking rapidly at her from both sides as she slips into a half-swoon between them.
The three leads are introduced with very successful contrasts: Anne’s energy as she runs across a courtyard to greet her fiancé Henry Norris (Paul Hartmann); Henry’s joie de vivre as he licks his fingers and drinks from a tankard bigger than his head; and Catherine’s ritual, stultified staging of monarchy in the court.
Lubitsch frames Anne in playful boxes throughout the film. The opening scene sees her in a rocking cabin on the sea from France, she kisses Norris over a half-door and meets Henry VIII when the train of her dress is caught in a door. The set traps her but the camera dangles the possibility of escape. After she is sentenced to death, she begins to stride toward the camera, nearly faces us head-on, but chickens out and ducks away down a side corridor.
As a little bonus, the new score has a few jokes for early modern music fans, as “Pastimes with good company” – a tune Henry VIII wrote himself – is heard at key moments: at the king’s introduction, sitting at a Round Table (do you see) with his knights, at a May fair and later in a minor key as things start to go wrong for Anne.
I suspect it’s a bit long and worthy for those who know Lubitsch for his comedies, but as a historical costume drama Anna Boleyn is a lot quicker and wittier than most contemporaneous films of that genre, and frankly most modern ones too.
Ernst Lubitsch has referred to Die Bergkatze as his own personal favourite, and it’s easy to see why. This picture – which proudly proclaims itself as “A grotesque in four acts” – marks the peak of his silent era creativity. The film’s production design recalls The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with its spiral staircases and unusual angles, but filtered through the fantastic storybook style of Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, which he pushes to extremes here. We see the story unfold through a series of bizarre irises, from conventional circles to oblongs and squiggly outlines. Sometimes scenes are framed by an iris that suggests we’re viewing the action through a hole torn hastily in a sheet. It’s a suitably wild approach for the raucous tale Lubitsch wants to tell.
Die Bergkatze is the story of a soldier (Paul Heidemann) who finds himself caught between two women, one a captain’s eligible daughter (Edith Meller) and the other a gypsy girl – the “wildcat” of the title – who lives in the mountains with a gang of bandits. Her name is Rischka and she is played by Pola Negri, whose performance here almost matches the unrestrained exuberance of Ossi Oswalda in her collaborations with Lubitsch. Negri is lively and tough, manhandling and whipping the men around her into submission and stealing the leading man’s trousers within minutes of meeting him. While she takes steps towards a more feminine demeanour throughout the film, memorably trying on dresses and dousing herself in perfume, her more abrasive edges are never smoothed away – I loved the way she slapped away a proffered champagne glass before swigging straight from the bottle.
Lubitsch keeps undercutting convention in this manner. When we first see a crowd form to see off Heidemann’s Lieutenant Alexis, we might assume that it consists of people awed by his heroism in battle, but then we see that the throng is populated entirely by tearful women who want to thank “Alexis the Seducer” for the good times. Die Bergkatze is a gleefully entertaining romantic farce, with all of the wit and sauciness that characterises Lubitsch’s most distinctive comedies, but he also finds room for some unexpectedly touching interludes. A dream sequence that sees Rischka’s ghostly presence cavorting with Alexis is one of the loveliest scenes the director ever filmed.
Fresh from a theatrical release and a flurry of Halloween shows, Nosferatu springs into life on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. This new release is an update of the label’s previous DVD, but features the Symphony of Horror in gleaming 1080p glory, with a handful of new features as a bonus prize.
This is a precious object then, a totemic silent film in beautiful packaging and supported by more supporting material in the form of articles, audio commentaries, interviews and documentary footage than you could possibly expect. Apparently, there has been more work done to improve on the 2007 restoration – if you’ve seen this in the cinema already you know how pristine the prince of darkness looks here. And that is so important. Nosferatu is far more than shadows. Arguably, rewatching Nosferatu on Blu-Ray at home, rather than at an amped-up and spooky live show, you enjoy its gorgeousness rather than the horror thrills: those painterly landscapes in their pastel tints. There’s nothing like the black-white-red-purple palette of modern gothic horror here – which keeps the film fresh but always uncanny. The music helps, too. The score from Nosferatu’s first run plays up the prettiness and romance – until it can’t hold out any longer.
Do we need to recap? I’ll do this at high speed, like Orlok’s spectral carriage dashing through an ethereal white forest. Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in all but name, with the action transferred to Germany. Max Shreck is the snuggle-toothed vampire Orlok, the young and preternaturally talented FW Murnau sits in the director’s chair. The movie was produced and designed by Albin Grau, an artist with a keen interest in the occult. And it’s brilliant: both beautiful and terrifying. A horrific spooky story, with eerie contemporary import. Remember that Europe has just come out the other side of a world war and a brutal flu epidemic, then look again at the devastation wreaked by Orlok here.
In fact, even if you’ve never seen a second of Nosferatu, you’ll know its most famous shot: Orlok’s hunched shadow stretching up the wall as he climbs the stairs. That shot has became a visual shorthand for horror, for imminent danger. It’s remarkable, by contrast with all the films that have appropriated the stair shot, that Murnau’s Nosferatu avoids any such shortcuts: turning leafy landscapes into places of horror, playing violence as romance, and romance as violence. Nonagenarian special effects such as Orlok packing himself into his coffin, and later lurching out of it, still feel vibrant. Perhaps that’s partly because this is a relatively decorous scary movie, with just a few drops of blood standing in for Orlok’s grotesque appetite. Murnau drenches Orlok’s victims in creeping shadows, rather than cascading gore. You’ll jump like a child at the sight of a rat, believe me.
But even if you remember those shocks from a long-ago screening, I would urge you to acquaint yourself much more closely with this poetic, audacious film. There’s far more here than a textbook paragraph on Expressionism can brief you on. Each repeat viewing brings something new to the fore, and that’s where the MoC treatment excels. Let me see, this disc contains two audio commentaries (one by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens from 2007, and another by David Kalat, who is so charming and impressively knowledgable that we’ll let him off for describing Stoker as an Englishman), two interviews (an previously seen chat with Abel Ferrara, and a new one with BFI Film Classic author Kevin Jackson). There’s a German language doc, which includes lots of location footage, and a booklet of articles and gorgeous images. The new commentary and interview are particularly sharp on unpacking myths around Nosferatu, from the etymological origin of the name to Grau’s spiritualist beliefs.
Take it from me, you need more Nosferatu in your life.
A “monumental film” as epic as the most far-fetched fantasy saga, but firmly grounded in the streets of Weimar Berlin, this first instalment of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy is, simply put, a whole lot of movie for your money. A supernatural tale intertwined with social commentary, a crime film on a majestic scale, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler represents four and a half hours of contradiction and excess. It’s brilliant.
First, acquaint yourself with the structure: this is the first film in the trilogy, but it’s two films, released a month apart. The first film is called The Great Gambler: an Image of the Age, the second, Inferno: a Game for the People of Our Age. Each has six acts and runs for around two hours. It’s a tale of rise and fall, at heart, but a messy business at best. Together the two films form a complete story, but the second part of the trilogy, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, would appear in 1933 and the third, Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, in 1967. The source for the first two films at least was the serialised Mabuse novels of author Norbert Jacques. This is pulp mystery fiction with a touch of class; Lang takes a few steps in the direction of his Hollywood film noir future with these slick stories of criminal twists, unexpected turns and moral compromises in a bleak urban setting.
Those subtitles for the two individual films should give you an inkling that this was intended to be, and was received as, a film that documented its own bewildering era. The cracks in the fractured, dysfunctional Berlin society where Mabuse and his seedy accomplices dwell are the symptoms of the national postwar crisis. That Mabuse is a charismatic, malevolent leader who leads his victims to commit terrible acts, even to destroy themselves, bodes ill for the future. The pace of the plot, the melting certainties and doubtful identities, speak to the fears of those baffled by the mechanisation of the age. This is a film driven by speeding trains, racing cars, guns and screaming mobs: modern phenomena as frightening to many as Mabuse’s mass hallucinations.
Like the film itself, Dr Mabuse is a man of many disguises. Publicly a psychoanalyst, he is privately a gambler at the card table, a hypnotist who transforms people into pawns, a bingeing alcoholic and an arch-criminal with a network of underling felons reaching across the continent. That “Spieler” subtitle translates variously as actor, player and puppeteer. Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Mabuse enthrals the audience. His deeds are evil, but there is endless fascination in watching him at work: the casual arrogance of a conman who sends memoranda to his criminal colleagues on banknotes, of a villain who fails to collect a towering gambling debt, because his eyes are on a grander, bloodier prize, of a boozer who condemns his assistant’s drug use.
Mabuse’s nemesis is a dogged man of the law, the state prosecutor on the trail of a gang of card cheats who stumbles upon by chance on a more sinister criminal organisation. Bernhard Goetzke plays Inspector Von Wenk as a slightly desperate individual, a Weimar gumshoe who throws himself recklessly into the hunt for Mabuse – in one stunning setpiece, he faces the villain down over the card table, and manages to resists the full force of the doctor’s hypnotic power. Von Wenk goes solely by his surname in the source novel, but Fritz Lang honours him with the same first name as the novel’s author, Norbert Jacques. It’s a hint, perhaps that the law will eventually reign supreme in the anarchic, shifting world of Dr Mabuse. Hold on tight for an all-guns-blazing finale.
There are women, of course. Norwegian star Aud Egede-Nissen is the nightclub dancer Cara whose love for Mabuse rules her every move, from her seduction of his latest mark (played by the man who would become her husband, Paul Richter – Siegried in Die Nibelungen) to her ultimate downfall. Her performance, especially at the climax of the first movie, is particularly moving. And the little-known Gertrude Welcker dazzles as a bored countess seduced by the thrills of the Berlin nightclubs, and the underworld that controls them.
Dr Mabuse is a film to savour – if you know your silent Fritz Lang, you won’t be surprised that it’s a rare frame you don’t want to freeze, to relish the grandeur of the upper-class interiors, the moodily lit street scenes or the disconcerting multiple exposures in the mad scenes. On this new Blu-Ray presentation, as you ponder the beauty of it all, you’ll want to take a listen to the excellent audio commentary by David Kalat. Among many interesting insights into the movie, Kalat argues staunchly that Lang was no Expressionist. You may waver in your agreement with this thesis, but what’s for sure is that on the evidence of Mabuse Lang knew when to drape his sets in Caligari-esque chiaroscuro lighting, and when to leave well alone. The abstract Expressionist artworks that transform the Count’s mansion into a palace are refigured as a gothic nightmare when he loses his sense. The contrast between the two cinematographic treatments of the jail cell setting here is heartbreaking: the crisscrossing, swerving bars of darkness almost seem a comfort when we return to the same scene in crisp, unforgiving sunlight.
It’s a rich text for sure, and Kalat drops more than a few clues in his commentary as to how you may want to view Mabuse from a 21st-century perspective. It’s a game of chase-the-parallel. Does Herr Doktor equate to a gangster, a terrorist, a capitalist or a banker? The devil perhaps, is not in the detail, but in Lang’s expertly drawn grand scheme. This is a story of the very rich and the very poor, and a man who found a way to exploit both groups. From his blind counterfeiters toiling in a slum workshops, to the society chumps he cheats at cards, Mabuse is bleeding everyone dry. The really terrifying idea is not that villains exist, after all, but that the circumstances exist in which they can thrive.
Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is released by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 28 October 2013. The two-disc set features a sparkling modern score by Aljoscha Zimmermann played by a small ensemble, three featurettes, audio commentary and a booklet of images and text from the archive. This is a Blu-Ray transfer of an existing 2K restoration. Order the Blu-Ray from Movie Mail.