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.
There are a handful of silent films that most cinephiles see first. Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, Sunrise, The General and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari perhaps, give or take Nosferatu, a Hitchcock and a couple more Hollywood favourites. There is nothing dismaying about the establishment of these films as classics of the silent era, widely available on DVD and at festival screenings. However, this very select canon can offer a distorted picture of the period. At the very least, there is a risk that these isolated examples are heralded as rare triumphs from a primitive age.
This is where Lawrence Napper’s engaging guide to late silent film comes in. Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small offers a broader picture of film style and the film industry between the First World War and the coming of sound. The opening chapter begins with the audience, tracing the history of filmgoing in this period, using the depiction of cinemas in silent movies. Subsequent sections provide context for those film-club favourites, outlining the industry and aesthetics of the cinema in Germany, Russia and America.
In these chapters, Napper revisits and challenges some fondly held views. Particularly, he stresses that there is far more to the national silent cinemas of Germany and Russia than Expressionism or Soviet montage respectively. He follows a detailed discussion of Caligari with the suggestion that the reader looks at Ernst Lubitsch comedies such as The Oyster Princess and The Doll to discover similar stylisation in both performance and design but applied in the name of pleasure and humour rather than the evocation of psychological trauma.
I first heard Robert Land’s name earlier this year. The context was: “Robert Land … ever heard of him?” I hadn’t, of course. But suddenly Land was in sight everywhere: films of his played at Bologna and there was a very informative piece on this Austrian-Czech director in Sight & Sound. At Ritrovato, I saw the rather plodding comedy I Kiss your Hand, Madame (1927), starring Marlene Dietrich, but I missed the screening of the rather better regarded Little Veronika (1929) and worried that I had made an error.
Hurrah for the Archives strand at London Film Festival, which brought the new restoration of Little Veronika to my doorstep today, on 35mm with live accompaniment of the highest quality from John Sweeney. Made around the same time, and for the same production company, as Pandora’s Box, and more to the point, Diary of a Lost Girl, Little Veronika is a short, sharp tale of rustic innocence in peril.
Little Veronika (played by Käthe von Nagy, an experienced, if young, actress) lives with her family in the Tyorl, caring for furred creatures, being polite to the neighbours and doing her chores like the good girl she promises to be. She goes to Vienna to visit her glamorous Aunt Rosie (Maly Delshaft, the wife in Varieté), who has grown impressively wealthy and well-dressed in her decade in the capital. Aunt Rosie has slinky lingerie and lives in a big house with several other women. You’d have to be as innocent as Veronika not to know what’s going on, how Aunt Rosie earns her money, or what plans her new friends have for her future.
Can you believe it? It seems like only a week ago I’d never seen a French western or become intimately acquainted with The Island Girl. Our “week of miracles” is over, but the last programme delivered a fitting send-off.
When it’s the final day of the festival, the Teatro Verdi is required for orchestra rehearsals, so the Pordenauts have a change of scenery – we troop a scant 10 minutes up the road to the local arthouse cinema, Cinemazero. Little did I know, this morning, that it would be a journey to the dark side, and also from (not quite) sublime to the ridiculous.
The Finnish film in the Scandinavian strand today was Anna-Liisa (1922), a rather harrowing adaptation of a stage play. The subject was infanticide, and by implication, rape. “Quiet and timid” Anna-Liisa is engaged to sweet Johannes and about to make it official – she’s spinning the thread for her wedding dress, he wants to publish the banns – but the mother of local boy Mikko is having none of that. She remembers helping Anna-Liisa to dispose of the evidence of the “bond” that exists between the girl and her son. Very, very not pleasant, and somehow not quite as dramatic as one might expect from the material, but nicely done, if occasionally awkwardly staged, and gorgeously accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
Daan ven den Hurk was at the keys for the next film, which was an entirely different kettle of flying fish: Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) was a surreal hoot from start to finish, populated by dwarves, monkey men, heavily browed housekeepers and an escaped gorilla. All of them simply having a James Whale of a time. It is best summed up here by the estimable Mark Fuller:
A Universal Horror as directed by Charley Bowers…..
Think Thelma Todd and Creighton Hale in a house of horrors, beset on all sides by the henchmen and handmaidens of Satan and the fruit of the feverish imaginations of all concerned. This was a grab-bag of characters and tropes from several different horror movies, most of which had not been made yet.
“Why are your thoughts in America when you tell me your heart is in Italy?” Well, Theda Bara, since you ask, it’s because the Giornate showed a mid-period silent American classic on Friday night. A Fool There Was (1915), or as I prefer to call it, The Cabinet of Dr Libido, is a bizarre film, by turns prosaic and ethereal. The plot is slight, but the imagery is immense, with Bara as an especially vampirish vamp, her long dark hair framing a milk-white face in the most demonic way. She can bat away a revolver with a rose and drive a man to distraction with a glimpse of ankle or shoulder – these are superpowers, not seduction techniques. No wonder the image of Fox’s foxy lady endures even when so many of her films are lost, burned up in the heat of her own fiery screen presence. And as silents go, A Fool There Was has great words, not least in the recurring appearance of Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’, but in a few killer lines of dialogue, one of you which you already know is going to appear below. And speaking to the film as well as for it, tonight, we had a brilliant new score written by Philip Carli and played by a quintet, which kept pace with the film’s many twists and dramatic moments and also added some much-needed nuance, as in the heartbreaking scene in New York traffic when Schuyler ignores his own daughter’s pleas, so engrossed is he in his new paramour’s charms.
After Theda Bara, Hollywood turned to Pola Negri for a more authentically exotic vamp, although a more romantic one too. So it was fitting that one of her early German films, Mania (1918) closed the evening’s viewing. I’ve written about that one before, a couple of times, so I skipped it tonight.
But it was a great day for strong leading women, from a selection of cheeky Nasty Women shorts (I loved Lea causing havoc in an office full of besotted men) and beyond. We had the rich, psychological drama Thora Van Dekan (John W Brunius, 1920), for example – a story of a woman trying to protect her daughter’s inheritance from her wayward ex-husband, in the face of opposition and judgment in her village. Pauline Brunius is hypnotic in the lead role as a spiky, often unlikeable, singleminded and clearly emotionally brutalised woman trying to do her best by her child. This was a sombre piece, all the more so with Maud Nelissen’s downbeat improvisation, and just the sort of thing that nestles into your brain cavities and makes itself at home for days.
It was auteur day at Pordenone, with works by three silent master-directors scattered nonchalantly through the programme: Ozu, Murnau and Dreyer. But auteurism is anachronistic to silent cinema and anathema to many early film aficionados, so fittingly some of my favourite screenings today fell far from the canon.
One of the best things I saw all week was Valentine Robert’s presentation of Tableaux Vivants in the early cinema strand. This was something very special indeed – like a video essay, but more expansive. The idea was simple: popular paintings were projected on screen before early films that mimicked their compositions. The effect was spectacular though, and very illuminating about narrative and visual culture in the early film period. As this presentation made clear, many narrative films at this time were also adaptations of images associated with historical, literary and biblical narratives, rather than the story themselves. Or both, at least. Erotic films too, as you might imagine, took their cues from paintings and sculptures. The care and detail in this presentation was very impressive and all served the argument beautifully. All this as well as Stephen Horne’s gorgeous accompaniment for a long, and very varied presentation, comprising 30-plus films and many more art works.
The double-bill of German films this afternoon featured some very familiar names. First there was Der Golem. No, not the 1920 one, but the 1915 original, long thought almost entirely lost. The bad news is that it is still lost, but some more fragments have been discovered and spliced together with titles to form something that is not really a film, but rather a suggestion of one. In this kinda prequel Paul Wegener’s clay man comes to life brilliantly and with just the most tender and slender of movements. Other scenes reinforce the sense that James Whale’s Frankenstein would be nothing without this silent-era antecedent. Utterly fascinating.
To reverse the usual order of proceedings, let’s start with the music, not the movies. This morning, in a Pordenone first for me, I attended one of the masterclasses AKA a crash course in silent film accompaniment, from the professionals, for the benefit of the Giornate audience and two very talented students. This was a fun session, led by Neil Brand and Gabriel Thibaudeau (with a little light heckling from Philip Carli and John Sweeney), who put Richard Siedhoff and Bryson Kemp through their paces with the help of some carefully chosen film clips.
Their instructions were wise, inspired, and stricter than I expected. Also quite bizarre. At one point a student was required to play to The General in the style of Wagner, and then with an added Bossanova rhythm. Another was asked to score the same film just on one bass note, and then to perform a “one-fingered love song”. Don’t google that last one, I fear you might end up somewhere untoward. From the secrets of playing ice, say, or heroism, but with fear, or without patriotism, to the use and abuse of musical cliché and the “toolbox” with which an accompanist can suddenly summons bells, trains, or even China, this was invaluable advice. Brand’s exercise in reading a film, guessing where the narrative and the characters will go next (Beggars of Life was the chosen example), was useful for us critics and punters too.
If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.
From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.
Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.
Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.
It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.
However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.
Any day that closes with a Pola Negri film is a good day, and Sunday was a very good day. La Negri, my personal favourite silent movie star and the owner of the best peepers in the pictures, bar none, features in three films in the official Giornate programme this year (plus a schools matinee of The Wildcat). I knew artistic director Jay Weissberg was a fan, but well, consider me chuffed.
Tonight’s Negri film was Der Gelbe Schein (1918), often known as The Yellow Ticket. Negri plays a young medical student with a melodramatically plotted backstory that slowly unfurls as the film progresses. Suffice it to say that aside from some nice location shooting in Warsaw and the very striking image of a champagne glass full of coins in a brothel scene, this film lives and dies by Negri’s mesmeric performance. She radiates emotion, from those incredible eyes to her fluid posture, and even this early in her career she has the “star quality” that divides actors from icons. We saw the film tonight with a klezmer-tinged folky score from Alicia Svigals that worked very well, giving he melodrama enough room to breathe and softening the edges of a film in which structure runs the risk of overwhelming character.
Back to the beginning, though, and there is nothing like breathing fresh mountain air first thing in the morning. While Pordenone may not be as rural as all that, we were in the hills today, with A Norway Lass (1919), part of the Swedish Challenge strand. No one I spoke to denied that this film proceeded at a sedate, almost glacial pace, but all agreed also that it was astonishingly beautiful, romantic, inventive, charming and felt far more advanced than many 1919 movies. Two youngsters on neighbouring farms fall in love, but he, Thorgbjorn (Lars Hanson) is a hothead and so she, Synnöve (Karin Molander) must wait for him to grow and earn her love. Although, he’s clearly a good guy from the start, and sometimes it seemed as if the more passionate relationship was that between Synnöve and Thorgbjorn’s sister Ingrid (see below), especially when they danced in the high pasture. An excellent portrayal here of a slow-burning romance set in a place torn between puritanism and paganism, with contrasting Midsummer rituals. Also, a rather mischievous, gargoyle-faced young farmhand was busy persuading Thorgbjorn of the existence of a troll family in the valley (cue excellent inserted troll feasts) when he was the only goblin in sight and all too human at that.
Before Hollywood became the heart of the American film industry, New Jersey was studio city. About 20 miles from West Orange, where Thomas Edison’s famous Black Maria swiveled to catch the light in the 1890s, the town of Fort Lee became the site of DW Griffith’s acting debut in 1908, and the birth of movie mammoths now known as Universal, MGM and 20Th Century Fox.
Now, to best understand the history of Fort Lee, and its importance to the US film business, you should read Richard Koszarski’s 2005 book Fort Lee: The Film Town. This DVD set from Milestone, The Champion: A story of American’s first film town, could work either as a companion to that volume, or as the best kind of introduction to the subject. Whatever you have or haven’t read, this set represents an exceptionally entertaining way to potter around movie history for three hours.
How to relate five days of silent and early sound cinema in a pithy blogpost form? I have honestly no idea, but here goes …
The best film on Wednesday
A small choice here, cos I am selecting only from the evening screening of Edgar Allan Poe shorts at St Mary de Castro church. The rest of the day was devoted to papers. This was a wonderfully atmospheric night event though, with the candlelit church forming an eerie backdrop to the (non-German) Expressionism on the big screen. I am going to plump for a British effort – Castleton Knight’s Prelude. This is more or less Eraserhead in seven short minutes, with disquieting images proceeding across the screen motivated by a spooky kind of dream logic. And the accompaniment was sublime – John Sweeney playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude (of course) behind the screen.
Just one silent film was shown on Thursday, and I have made my feelings about Pat and Patachon clear elsewhere, but today would have almost certainly been carried by a talkie anyway. I had heard a lot about Walter Summers’s Suspense (1930) but I wasn’t prepared for just how devastating it could be. We’re in the thick of the First World War, but happily in a “posh trench, with a clean dugout and a cushy job” when the soldiers begin to hear Germans laying mines beneath their feet. Something about the mood of the piece tells you early on that there will be no happy ending here. Eerily photographed and vibrantly acted by its ensemble cast, this a claustrophobic war epic confined into 81 minutes. There’s much enjoyment also in the dialogue, which, cleaned of actual swearing, becomes positively Shakespearean in its baroque ribaldry: “You do a mucky lot, you windsucker.”
Nobody knows more about Louise Brooks than Thomas Gladysz. Having founded the Louise Brooks Society in 1995, he has spent more than two decades researching her life and work, curating memorabilia and writing about this most fascinating of silent era actresses. A few years back he published a sumptuous illustrated edition of the novel that Brooks’s second German film, Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst, 1929) was based on, and he has contributed audio commentaries to American DVDs of that film, and her finest Hollywood movie, Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928).
Which brings us up to date with Gladysz’s latest publication – a short book about the Wellman film, packed with anecdotes and information. Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film is a quick, satisfying read, illustrated with promotional material, posters and stills as well as press clippings. In these pages, Gladysz takes us through the making and the reception of the film and clears up a few mysteries too.
The film, which you may have been lucky enough to see accompanied by a live score from the fabulous Dodge Brothers, features Brooks as an orphan fugitive, dressed as a boy and riding the rails with a handsome tramp played by Richard Arlen and a gang of his peers, including the the menacing Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery. It’s adapted from a famous book by “hobo author” Jim Tully, and although it was a little sanitised by Hollywood, it’s still a remarkably raw, realist film. Not least of its strengths is that Brooks here gives an excellent performance as a survivor of sexual abuse, as she would in her two Pabst films, drawing perhaps on her own experiences as a child.
Mark Cousins’ new film is a City Symphony, he says, citing many of the classic early examples of this particularly silent genre, including Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Rien que les heures, but also later, more complicated urban hymns such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I’ve added the director’s credits in the later works because those films move away from the collective City Symphony format, offering a distinctive filmmaker’s own view of a place, adding in a story those focuses on individuals instead of the modern, urban mass. So does this one.
Cousins’ Stockholm My Love, like those films, breaks some of the ‘rules’ of the City Symphony: there’s a single subjective perspective, and a fictional narrative. Our guide to the Swedish capital is Alwa, an architect and academic, pacing around her home city while she comes to terms with a traumatic event that took place on these streets a year before. Alwa is played by Neneh Cherry, a starry figure, who nevertheless offers a restrained, often quite still performance. It doesn’t distract us from our view of the city that a famous singer is standing in front of it. This is not her film, so much as it is Cousins’.
There is sound too, although this film was largely shot silent, with Cousins coaching Cherry live through her performance like Griffith and Pickford, sometimes, he says, even holding her hand during the close-ups. At the Q&A after the screening I saw at BFI Southbank, he quoted Fellini, saying that he made a visual film, and then added a radio play on top of it.
In the soundtrack there is music, three sets of it. New, gorgeous, tracks from Cherry, with lyrics by Cousins; folk songs written by Benny Andersson (from Abba); and Swedish classical music by Franz Berwald. Most notably, though, there is a voice-over. Alwa describes the city around her, talking directly to her father (who may have passed away), to a man called Gunnar who is linked to the traumatic event a year ago, and to the city itself. Cherry speaks naturally, sympathetically, and quietly but full of compassion. However, this narration belongs almost wholly to Cousins. He has such a distinct written and spoken style (you’ll remember his epic cinema documentary The Story of Film) that it is impossible not to recognise him in the rhythm of these words. Writing about Stockholm My Love, I almost feel that I am echoing his rises and falls. Cousins-speak has seeped into my brain.
“I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night.” Buster Keaton’s first impression of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into the cinema, Film, is entirely understandable. Although no one would wish its nightmarish scenario to appear in their own cheese dreams. This short, dialogue-free existential chase movie was made in 1966 starring a near-septuagenarian Keaton – and it remains one of the most intriguing corners of film history. The Nobel Laureate’s film might promise slapstick, but as Ross Lipman the director of a documentary on the work, NotFilm says: “It was at once an investigation of the cinematic medium, and of the human experience of consciousness.” Popcorn, anyone?
Keaton plays O, a man pursued by a camera, E. Object and Eye. O runs away from E, and when cornered in a room, goes to desperate lengths to avoid its piercing gaze. The reveal at the end of the movie is chillingly sinister, even if you see it coming. The film is shot in black and white, and although Keaton has aged, he is still recognisably the acrobatic star of the 20s – his pork-pie hat is worn at an angle, an eye-patch caps those famous cheekbones. The mood is bleak, paranoid, the camera is unsteady, Keaton shifty.
Beckett was displeased with Film, despite conceding that it contained “the strangeness and beauty of pure image”. The critics were unimpressed at the time, but as is so often the way with these things, the reputation of Film has risen with time. This art film has become, in its own way, a cult movie: very hard to see, and referred to or homaged almost as often as it is screened. The theatrical release of Lipman’s brilliant “kino-essay” documentary was very welcome – offering historical background, cinematic context, and critical interpretation for Beckett’s movie. (I wrote about that last year for the Guardian.)
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television
Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.
This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.
My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.
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?
Who among us can honestly say they haven’t got their history from the movies? Sometimes, at least. And while Hollywood epics are known to take liberties with the facts, some movies seem to be more immediate sources. Take Soviet history. If you are a silent film aficionado you will have seen how Soviet cinema is constantly re-presenting events from its own recent past. And even if you don’t mistake reconstruction for documentary fact, these films provide their own window on history. The government involvement is often painfully clear, but that in its turn provides its own commentary on the events as presented on screen. A new documentary about Soviet art history, Revolution: New Art or a New World, recounts a familiar anecdote about Eisenstein’s October (1928), a stirring re-enactment of the 1917 revolution. On the day of the premiere, Stalin himself entered Eisenstein’s editing room, and ordered that all scenes involving Trotsky be excised.
So the film, intended to create a certain impression of the workers’ struggle, and of Lenin’s leadership, loses a fragment of what truth remains inside the propaganda. But, of course, this story is almost well known enough to be a companion-text to the film. October becomes known as the story of the 1917 uprising, but without Trotsky, on Stalin’s orders. That said, I hadn’t realised quite how much exaggeration went into October’s depiction of the assault on the Winter Palace. Revolution put me right on that too.
What I’m saying is that context is always important, and this documentary, released on DVD next week is especially welcome as a survey not of all Soviet history, but the art scene, and its relationship with the changing political regimes. For Lenin, art was the best form of propaganda, and he channeled plenty of funds into hiring artists to make monuments and sculptures of socialist heroes. Never mind that many of those artists had absorbed the revolutionary spirit of the times themselves and felt passionately that their work should not be beholden to religion or state. There is a great line here about the anarchism of Malevich’s work coinciding with Bolshevism, rather than there being an cause-and-effect at work between the two.
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.