Category Archives: Screening

Tromsø Stumfilmdager 2022: An Arctic adventure in film and music

All silent film festivals are not the same. Tromsø Stumfilmdager in northern Norway is full of surprises. For one thing, it was the first time I have ever been offered, and gratefully accepted, earplugs before a silent movie screening.

But first of all, as we’re (mostly) Brits here, you’ll want to know about the weather. And boy was there are a lot of it. Tromsø is 69 degrees north, comfortably inside the Arctic Circle and yet in late April they often expect balmy temperatures of 5 Celsius or so, and clear skies. Not this year. As our pilot informed us en route, “winter has returned”, and we spent four days in the Arctic snow. A delightful Christmas-card novelty for us, but something of a drag for the locals who were looking forward to spring.

There was no escaping the weather on-screen either. The movies included the stories of a seasonal thaw, a woman driven insane by the desert winds, a serial killer operating under the cloak of city fog and a demon destroyed by sunlight. Ten points if you guess all of those titles correctly (although you could just check out the programme here).

The Verdensteatret in Tromsø – what a venue!

Tromsø Stumfilmdager (silent film days) has been running since 2006, organised by the same people who run the Tromsø International Film Festival in January and hosted at the absolutely stunning Verdensteatret, a “kinematograf” that opened in this town in 1916. There are two or three screenings a night over four days, although you might more properly call these events ciné-concerts, as the music and the musicians are just as important as the movies.

The film programme is pretty nimble too. My absolute highlight of the festival was a late addition to the programme, Mikhail Kaufman’s Kyiv city symphony In Spring (1929). This is the seasonal thaw film, as it tracks winter giving way to spring, the snow melting, the rivers bursting, the city stretching and opening out to the sun. It could hardly be more bittersweet to see Ukrainian people enjoying their city, strolling in the sunshine, several decades ago. Are some of the plump-cheeked babies in this film alive to bear witness to the horrors of today? It’s just about possible, but chilling to think about.

In Spring was scored at the festival by two incredibly talented Ukrainian musicians, Roksana Smirnova and Misha Kalinin, who claim they are just getting started in silent film accompaniment, but you’d hardly guess. Smirnova’s piano followed the film closely, while Kalinin’s electric guitar provided an eccentric collection of melodies and noises that expanded the soundscape. I really didn’t want this one to end, and I hope we get a chance to see Smirnova and Kalinin play for this film or another in the UK soon. This is a film as much about the Ukrainian people fighting to reclaim their city from the travails of winter as the natural transition of the seasons – a breathtaking experience in 2022 or any other year.

Terrible picture of the cinema’s beautiful interior.

The other films were not new to me, I admit, but I soon realised that the musical choices are what makes this festival distinctive. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) was accompanied on the festival’s opening night by modern Nordic jazz outfit Wako – a loose, melodic score that at first I felt could never quite fit, but then I realised that this is a film of awkward encounters and misapprehensions, and the sharp corners of this music rubbed against the film in interesting ways. Definitely a score compiled to fit the mood rather, or the “vibes of each scene” as the band put it, than the narrative. An experiment that mostly worked.

We were in sure hands for Erotikon (Gustav Machaty, 1929), with John Sweeney at the keys, wringing the romance out of this compelling tale of lust, loss, and sexual entanglement. It’s a dark and sensual film, and seems to be operating on a logic that is more instinctive and musical than verbal anyway, so Sweeney’s tender melodies swept the audience right through the melodrama to the wonderfully ambiguous conclusion. It left me in a daze. Sweeney is something of a regular at this festival, which shows impeccable taste on behalf of the festival curation team, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I was more or less jolted right out of that swoon with Buster Sledge and Kjetil Schjander Luhr’s country-tinged, rattling and rolling accompaniment for The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), starring those two Silent London favourites Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson (AKA Large Handsome). The western flavour of the tunes lulled us into the scene-setting as our Virginian heroine finds herself isolated on the Texas prairie, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity of the music for her mad scenes. It was every bit as wild as the star’s performance, which is to say 120%, at least. Gish may be trotting out some familiar tricks and mannerisms from her earlier films here but in the thick of it, there’s no one to match her for dragging the audience into the depths of her unhinged psyche. Such a beautiful, strange and disconcerting film.

Festival poster thawing!

There were a couple of films I missed in the programme due to touristing and to one being rescheduled due to illness, so we can cut now to the closing night already, and a packed hall of keyed-up stumfilm spectators passing round bowls of earplugs in preparation for the arrival of the deathbird himself, Count Orlok. Closing night film Nosferatu (FW Murnau, 1922) was accompanied by a drone metal/doom rock super group of sorts who called themselves The Nosfera 4. Whoa. Driving metal drums, eerie drone electric guitar, and a pulsing, relentless melody sent this screening into a kind of gothic overdrive. Friend, I thought I knew this film backwards and I have seen it with many different scores, but this was the scariest Nosferatu I have ever encountered. I jumped! Twice.

Tromsø Stumfilmdager may not already be on your radar, but this is a silent movie festival that really knows how to rock. And to prove it, the afterparty was shared with the Sami arts and culture festival that had been going on all week in Tromsø. A female Sami DJ collective spinning indigenous music, a sweaty dancefloor and giddy visuals – what a way to end a week of meteorological magic at the top edge of Europe.

10pm in Tromsø. Goodnight!

Q&A: AKA I just got back from a silent movie festival, AMA.

Is the festival all in Norwegian?

Short answer, no. The films are all presented in English, with English subtitles and introductions/musician Q&As. One event showcasing Norwegian archive films was in Norwegian and so was the short intro to Nosferatu, but this is a very accessible festival for anglophones.

So is it an international festival?

Yes, although surprisingly few Brits. We need to change that. It’s a very welcoming event and a trip to this part of the world is totally mind-blowing. This is a small festival, so it’s really friendly and the cinema bar is a great place to hang out and meet your fellow stumfilm fans.

How do you get to Tromsø?

Personally, we flew from Heathrow, changing planes in Oslo, with SAS. Very smooth journey, even landing in the snow. And I can recommend our hotel, the Scandic Grand, especially if you get a room on the top floor – what a view!

Snow you say… It’s in the Arctic! Is it really cold?

Not as cold as you might think. We arrived in a “trick spring” where it had been sunny, but the snow had suddenly returned for a couple of weeks. So it wasn’t as warm as it usually would be, around freezing point every day. However, with such bright sun and a nice warm cinema and lots of cafes to hang out in, I was never really chilly. Just be careful on the ice, though the pavements are mostly clear.

I took this picture while standing on a frozen lake. And lived to share it on my blog.

Does the sun ever set?

Sure, but not for long. And the five or so hours in which it is down at this time of year are mostly a combination of twilight and dusk, so yeah, make sure your hotel room has good blackout curtains if you want to kip.

Is Norway very expensive?

Yep. But there are lots of supermarkets in town where you can pick up cheaper snacks and you can’t beat the 50Kr hotdogs (reindeer, pork or soya) from the kiosk in town for a quick hot lunch. Airbnbs are available and you can hang out/use the Wi-Fi in the library (a very cool building) for free, too.

Do I need to dress up like Roald Amundsen to get around?

OK, I’m not your mum, but thermals and sunscreen are a good idea. Even though we had snow every day, I got by with walking shoes, jumpers’n’jeans, and a big coat. Not to mention my snazzy pink festival beanie. Even out in the fjords.

What is there to do when the films aren’t on?

Tromsø has lots of museums and if you’re into winter sports you will be in heaven with the opportunities to ski and sled etc. Our highlights were a trip round the local fjords, a ride on the cable car, the Perspectivet Museum (devoted to local author Cora Sandel), and the essential tour of Mack, the world’s most northerly brewery. A more low-key suggestion? Grab a coffee in the gorgeously retro Kaffebønna and take a window seat to watch the snow fall and the world go by.

C’mon, did you REALLY need earplugs for the Nosferatu soundtrack?

Yes my friend, I really did. The festival slogan isn’t Not So Silent for nothing.

Making new friends in Norway.

Alim (1926): a taste of ‘Ukrainian Hollywood’

There are so many great silent film screenings in London right now, and I trust you are keeping up with the nationwide listings run by our friends the Silent Film Calendar. But I had to pause a moment and let you know about this event – a real one-off.

The Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image is showing a newly restored, but rarely shown Ukrainian silent film on 29 April, with a live score by Crimean Tatar folk and jazz guitarist Enver Izmaylov and an introduction by scholar Dr Olena Palko.

Continue reading Alim (1926): a taste of ‘Ukrainian Hollywood’

Reginald Denny and What Happened to Jones? (1926): mischief and merriment

The appeal of What Happened to Jones? is not hard to place – as long as you are in possession of a funny bone. It’s a cheeky, crowd-pleasing gag-fest, adapted from a Broadway farce of the same name that packed houses on Broadway and the West End in the late 1890s, even as it left the critics largely cold. What Happened to Jones? thrived in silent cinema, being adapted in 1915, 1920 and finally in 1926 – starring the fabulous Reginald Denny. It’s a breezy tale of a chap called Tom Jones who goes out gambling with his friend Ebenezer Goodly the night before his wedding. Comic complications ensue, as you would fervently hope!

Reginald Denny, the dapper star of this farce, may now be best remembered as a character actor in talkies, but in the silent era he was a leading man, a comic star. Though in truth his heart belonged to aviation and athleticism as much as it did to acting. He was born into a theatrical family in Richmond, Surrey, and although he had some success as a child actor, he was sent to boarding school aged 11 after his mother died. He ran away from school to London as a teenager – that’s where he took up boxing and eventually became a heavyweight champion.

Continue reading Reginald Denny and What Happened to Jones? (1926): mischief and merriment

Nasty Women at Hippfest: The Night Rider and Rowdy Ann

This blogpost is a version of the introduction I was honoured to give at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival on Friday for the Nasty Women: Gender Rebels double-bill. The films were brilliantly accompanied by Meg Morley, and the festival continues all weekend.

Welcome to the world of Nasty Women. Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a curatorial project from two American academics, Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak. The name is taken from Donald Trump’s notorious remark about Hillary Clinton, and for the past five years, Hennefeld and Horak have been screening films that reveal women being transgressive, riotous and unbiddable on the silent screen at festivals around the world.

This May you will be able to take the nasty women home with you on a four-disc DVD and Blu-ray box set, containing 99 films, dating back to the very beginnings of cinema, sourced from a dozen international archives. It will be crammed with “feminist protest, anarchic, destructive slapstick, and suggestive gender play”.

Continue reading Nasty Women at Hippfest: The Night Rider and Rowdy Ann

Hamlet (1921) at BFI Southbank: Shakespeare’s sister

Hamlet (1921) screens at the BFI Southbank twice this week as part of the season, In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen. It’s a must-see, although I would say that. You can see the film on Wednesday at 6.15pm with musical accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch and on Saturday at 5pm with music by Meg Morley and an introduction by Professor Judith Buchanan.

Hamlet is a woman! At least she is in this German feature film, Hamlet: A Drama of Vengeance (1921). And not just any woman, but the inimitable Danish diva Asta Nielsen.

From Sarah Siddons to Maxine Peake, many actresses have played the Prince of Denmark, and a fragment of Sarah Bernhardt’s stage interpretation of the role was even captured in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. However, the distaff twist in this film was prompted, or at least justified, by Edward P Vining’s scholarly 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which makes the case for Prince Hamlet being so feminine a character that his contradictory nature is best explained by imagining that underneath the black tunic he’s really a woman. The film also draws on Danish history and a German play from 1704 called Fratricide Punished. The gender-swap allows for an intriguing new take on Shakespeare’s text, recasting his hero/heroine’s relationships with Ophelia, Horatio and Gertrude in fresh moulds.

Continue reading Hamlet (1921) at BFI Southbank: Shakespeare’s sister

Hippfest is back in Bo’Ness for 2022

Hippfest returns! You don’t know how happy it makes me to think about watching silent films with live music at the stunning Hippodrome in Bo’Ness.

The festival is held from Wednesday 16 to Sunday 20 March and the full toothsome lineup just dropped, as they say. Here are a few highlights, some of which have been postponed from the sadly cancelled 2020 edition. I am so ready.

  • The Dodge Brothers accompany FW Murnau’s City Girl on Saturday night – this is the Scottish premiere of their brilliant score for this incredible, jaw-dropping Hollywood silent.
Continue reading Hippfest is back in Bo’Ness for 2022

Asta Nielsen: coming soon

Hello, Silent Londoners. Soon I will have the results of the 2021 Poll to share with you, but a bout of January sickness has set me back a little. However, I did want to pop on here to tell you that the BFI Southbank season In The Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen starts NEXT WEEK.

The season opens with a lecture and panel event on Thursday 3 February, The ABC of Asta Nielsen. At this event, I’ll be giving an illustrated lecture all about ‘Die Asta’, and then I will be joined by Erica Carter, So Mayer and Bryony Dixon to delve further into the stardom and significance of the woman known as the greatest actress of the silent era. Later that evening I will also be introducing The Abyss and The ABC of Love. Please explore the programme further and remember February represents just the first half of the season – there is more to come in March, including more guest speakers!

To whet your whistles, some links:

Asta Nielsen in The Black Dream (1911)
Asta Nielsen in The Black Dream (1911)

In the Eyes of a Silent Star: Asta Nielsen at BFI Southbank in February and March 2022

Finally, the time has come for me to stop sitting on my hands. Those of you who are on Twitter may have seen a sneak preview of this, but I am delighted to say that I can finally announce … Astafest!

Continue reading In the Eyes of a Silent Star: Asta Nielsen at BFI Southbank in February and March 2022

Neil Brand scores South – plus ticket offer for BFI Southbank

Wonderful news from a true friend of Silent London. Musician, broadcaster, writer and man of many talents Neil Brand has composed a new orchestral score for a truly staggering British silent film, South (1919) – the gripping document of Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the Antarctic, with stunning photography by Frank Hurley. It is the highlight of a BFI Southbank celebration of British explorers and the films that captured their endeavours. Here’s more about the season.

On 5 January 1922, the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration drew to a symbolic close with the death of Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Marking both this centenary, and that of Britain’s first attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the BFI presents TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM, a season at BFI Southbank throughout January, with associated film releases in cinemas and for home entertainment. There will be themed collections on BFI Player (available from 5 January) and in the BFI Mediatheque.

The Epic of Everest (1924)
The Epic of Everest (1924)

And yes, there will be plenty of silent film in the season:

Continue reading Neil Brand scores South – plus ticket offer for BFI Southbank

London Film Festival review: The Afterlight

The Afterlight is the last-chance saloon for the lost souls of film history. It’s a conceptual experiment, one that stalks the shadows of world cinema, gathering the spectres of movie stardom as it stumbles all the way to obsolescence. This new film from Charlie Shackleton, which played the Experimenta strand of the London Film Festival, is cast entirely from the grave and destined to self-destruct. Composed of snippets of archive cinema, The Afterlight stars only actors whose obituaries have already been published and exists only in one 35mm print, which will deteriorate, just a little, with each screening, until even these echoes diminish.

Continue reading London Film Festival review: The Afterlight

London Film Festival review: The Real Charlie Chaplin

It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?

Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.

Continue reading London Film Festival review: The Real Charlie Chaplin

London Film Festival review: Around Japan With a Movie Camera

The eye wants to travel, and never more so than in these pandemic times. Which means that this presentation from the BFI’s blockbuster Japan season is actually more welcome on its delayed arrival.

In Around Japan With a Movie Camera, across an hour and a quarter, we are transported through space and time to Japan in the very early 20th century – the films span the period from 1901 to 1913. But you’ll want to devote a full ninety minutes to this one and click the “Watch introduction” button on the BFI Player. The films are more than ably introduced by the BFI’s own Bryony Dixon and Japanese film historian Mika Tomita, and the programme is hosted by Michelle ‘Bioscope Girl’ Facey. They also take time to introduce the band, as it were. The films are accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch, Costas Fotopolous, Stephen Horne and Lillian Henley – their hands are sometimes visible thanks to the ingenuity of Gabrysch’s pandemic-era innovation, the “piano-cam”.

Continue reading London Film Festival review: Around Japan With a Movie Camera

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 8

At the start of this festival I missed a date with An Old Fashioned Boy, but you can bet your last Euro I wasn’t going to pass up a rendez-vous with Casanova. Tonight, the final night of this very precious Giornate, belonged to Ivan Mosjoukine, his magnicifent eyebrows and the show-stopping music of Günter Buchwald.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 7

This is my tenth Giornate, which means I have graduated from newbie, all the way to novice, but also that I have been present for a quarter of the festival’s history. This is the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – an annual celebration of silent cinema that began with a short retrospective of Max Linder films at Cinemazero in 1982, viewed by around eight people. Tonight in the Verdi, it seemed like every other seat was taken for a rendez-vous with Linder.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 6

Pordenone 6

Unprecedented scenes in the Teatro Verdi tonight, as the audience of customarily meek silent film enthusiasts stamped their feet, booed and exclaimed “outrageous!” “Close the curtains!” and “Down with this sort of thing!” But more reports on the incident the papers are calling the 2021 Giornate riot later.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 5

Anna Q Nilsson! Tom Moore! Dark deeds with gold mines, wedding regrets and stock certificates! A mysterious, abrupt finale! It can only be the welcome return this afternoon of the 1916 serial Who’s Guilty?, which we loved so much in 2016. This was a classic example, with Nilsson and Moore marrying in haste and repenting at leisure but Nilsson’s ex proving to be no better option. And that was before the mine gave up its gold. What a nostalgic treat.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 4

“I don’t think I’ll be falling in love with Ellen Richter any time soon,” said a gentleman to me in the hotel lift this lunchtime. Everyone else, please form an orderly queue. We sampled riches of Richter today, in three hour(ish)-long installments of Die Frau Mit Millionen (The Woman Worth Millions, Willi Wolff, 1923) – a fine example of her work in the “Reise- und Abenteuerfilme” or travel-and-adventure films genre.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 3

The lure of distant shores drew us into the Verdi this Monday morning, though initially it looked a little like false advertising. Ilka Schütze’s In Den Dschungeln Afrikas/In the Jungles of Africa (1921-24) was a stop-animation story of two dolls travelling via “balloon” not to another continent but only as far as their garden, or their dreams. If dolls can dream. I hope so, don’t you?

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 2

Here in Pordenone, life is an endless round of parties, each more glamorous than the last. Sorry, that’s not my lifestyle but that of Ellen Richter and co in  Leben Um Leben (Richard Eichberg, 1916). This film is a sequel so abandon all hope of following the plot all ye who enter in. What I can tell you is that Weimar star Ellen Richter, subject of a retrospective here at the Giornate, plays a scheming Princess in this glitzy romp. There was a costume ball, a “jolly hunt”, some stolen pearls, a run on the “Volksbank” and non-stop shenanigans and all of it was entertaining but it didn’t quite add up to a whole film. Still there was a marvellous multi-tinted dance sequence, as if the star of the floor show was grooving under coloured electric lights, which was far more than set-dressing – it was an attraction all of its own, a very modern throwback.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 1

“Now more than ever, welcome home!” If Jay Weissberg’s address to the Verdi at tonight’s opening gala didn’t lodge a lump in your throat, you may be an irredeemable cynic. Or perhaps you were just marvelling at the man’s mastery of the Lubitsch Touch – the exquisite pain of terribly mixed emotions. But more on the importance of being Ernst later. Let us begin at Act One, Scene One. Enter your humble scribe, stage left.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 1