Category Archives: Festival

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.

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.
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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Hippfest 2021’s star-studded online lineup: Valentino, Pickford, Robeson, Brooks & Dietrich

Hip-hip hooray, it’s Hippfest programme announcement day. News that arrives like a sweet, sweet vaccination into the veins of a drizzly February.

While personally I am sorry not to be watching these films in the warm embrace of the Hippodrome this year, the lineup is immense, and I delighted to tell you that the films will be available to stream not only in the UK, but also in Europe and North America. So if you have never had the pleasure of a trip to Bo’Ness, the silent cinema capital of Scotland, well now is your chance to experience the award-winning Hippfest magic.

The Eagle (1925)

The full lineup is online … NOW. So you can peruse at your leisure. But may I please bring your attention to:

Brooksie! I am honoured that Hippfest has asked me to introduce a very special screening of Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté starring Louise Brooks on the Saturday afternoon, which will be accompanied by Stephen Horne, who really has a way with this film.

Rudolph Valentino! Without even consulting me, the Hippfest hipsters programmers chose my favourite Valentino film for the Friday night gala. It’s The Eagle, everyone! And with Neil Brand at the keys, this will be well worth dimming the lights in your lounge for. I insisted on writing the programme notes for this one …

Body and Soul (1925)

Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson! Delve into the history of Black silent film history with a rare screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul starring Paul Robeson, with music by Wycliffe Gordon.

Sunday with Mary Pickford! Not only is Hippfest showing the silent Hollywood masterpiece that is Sparrows, with an introduction from Cari Beauchamp, but earlier that day, we are invited to a cookalong with Jenny Hammerton of Silver Screen Suppers to make one of Pickford’s favourite recipes, and to mix a special Hippfest cocktail.

Die Frau, Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)

Marlene Dietrich! So happy that this is in the programme: on Saturday night, the Frame Ensemble will accompany the gorgeous German silent The Woman Men Yearn For/Die Frau, Nach der Man Sich Sehnt, starriung the divine Dietrich.

There’s more! So much more, including Bryony Dixon introducing Asquith’s Underground with Brand’s orchestral score, Pudovkin’s Chess Fever, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, talks, a quiz, a tour of the Hippodrome … Book your pass as early as you can to support this wonderful festival.

““I am delighted to present our tenth HippFest… a year later than we originally planned but no less of a milestone!,” says festival director Alison Strauss. “We are looking forward to welcoming back all the many fans of HippFest and to throwing open the virtual cinema doors for audiences joining us for the first time. It’s exciting to think that more people might take the plunge because attendance this year is as easy as turning up in your own front room. This is definitely one of the upsides of a virtual festival. Whilst we will miss all being together under the star-studded ceiling of the Hippodrome we have tried to create a comparable cocktail of screenings with music, workshops, events and activities to sweep you up in the marvellous magic of early cinema. If dressing up is your thing, go for it! If you like mingling with other festival-goers, dive in to our virtual festival hub! However you do HippFest we’re sure you’ll have a great time.”

• The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival takes place online Wednesday 17 – Sunday 21 March 2021. Passes cost £20 or £5 for concessions. To read more about Hippfest and to book, click here.

• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

The Slapstick Festival goes online for March 2021, with Clara Bow and Harold Lloyd

Some news from our good friends at the Slapstick Festival this morning. As you know, this annual showcase of physical comedy is a guaranteed good time, and it usually takes place in January, in venues across the city of Bristol.

Well, nothing is going to plan right now and Bristol is currently in the highest tier of Covid-19 restrictions. That means that there will be no IRL event this year, but there is good news, not unrelated to the £11,000 raised by the festival’s crowdfunding campaign during lockdown. Slapstick is shifting to March, and pivoting to online.

Continue reading The Slapstick Festival goes online for March 2021, with Clara Bow and Harold Lloyd

LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by writer/director Alex Barrett. You can watch The Cheaters as part of the London Film Festival until 1pm on Wednesday 14 October.

Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.

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Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.

The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.

The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.

Day Eight

Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …

The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.

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Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

By Friday night of Pordenone the cracks are usually beginning to show: sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction and FilmFair splurge-shopping. Are we holding up better or worse in this Limited Edition year? Hydrating, taking regular screen breaks and a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day? No, me neither. In fact I am just warming up, and I could handle a silent movie show every night please, for at least a month.

Day Seven

A showstopper of a masterclass today, as the multi-instrumentalists assembled: Gunther Buchwald, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Another double book presentation too, and the announcement of the Jean Mitry prize, but all roads lead to Mary Pickford here on Silent London. And A Romance of the Redwoods, courtesy Cecil B DeMille and Jeanie MacPherson in 1917.

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Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …

Day Six

GW Pabst’s Abwege (1928) is, as Jay mentioned in his intro, a certain thread of what we think of when we imagine Weimar cinema. Not the exoticism of Expressionism of high-concept fiction, nor the relentless realism of Street Films, but a sampler of the era’s endless fetisished culture. This is a tale of infidelity, intrigue, independence and the famous temptations of the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s.

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Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

Now remind me, did I mention already that I was in Athens recently? Yes, Athens, the cradle of western civilisation. Well I was. And today I returned there via the magic of silent cinema …

Day Five

But first, an audience with the maestro. I was lucky enough to catch the masterclass today and so I spent a happy hour listening to Mr Neil Brand discussing his career and approach to silent cinema accompaniment. His explanation of how to read a scene backs up my theory that the musicians have all the best critical insights when it comes to silent cinema. It’s all about close reading, and rolling with the narrative punches. Still, catch up with this for yourself if you can – Neil has far more interesting things to say than I do.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4