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.
And yes, there will be plenty of silent film in the season:
I couldn’t let 2020 go by without talking to you about Away, a truly remarkable animated feature, and a modern silent too. This deceptively simple quest film has zero dialogue, and was all, every frame, the work of one man, Latvian filmmaker animator Gints Zilbalodis. He wrote, directed, scored and yes animated this award-winning film over the course of three and a half years.
He admits that that he concocted the screenplay on the fly, but that it soon came to feel that that film’s story was a metaphor for his struggles to complete the film. That’s why I say deceptively simple: beneath Away’s bright, almost cute surface there’s something deeper at work.
“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.
Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.
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 …
Do you remember London Symphony? It’s a project this site has long been excited about. You may even have backed it on Kickstarter, or like me, even appeared in it. The film is directed by Alex Barratt and it’s a sumptuous new city symphony for the capital – an entirely silent movie that swoops around more than 300 locations in London to the tune of a newly composed musical score by James McWilliam. And finally, you’re going to get the chance to see it.
London Symphony will have a ’boutique’ theatrical release, with a screening at the Barbican on 3 September 2017, accompanied by the Orchestra of St Paul’s playing McWilliam’s score live. You can book tickets here.
There will be further UK screenings after the Barbican event, which will be announced shortly, and the film will be distributed internationally by Flicker Alley.
LONDON SYMPHONYis a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of creative non-fiction that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life. As well as serving as a form of virtual tourism, city symphonies raise important and universal questions about the nature of community life – questions that have become vital within the current political climate.LONDON SYMPHONY’S September release will coincide with the 90th anniversary of Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, one of the most important examples of the original city symphonies. Ruttmann was one of the great pioneers of experimental film, and Barrett and McWilliam have worked hard to bring a similar sense of poetic playfulness to LONDON SYMPHONY, while also updating the form for the 21st Century.
The project’s September release will be launched with a special screening at the Barbican Centre, the home of silent cinema in London, where it will be presented with the live premiere of McWilliam’s musical composition, as performed by OSP (the Orchestra of St Paul’s) and their conductor Ben Palmer. Says Palmer: “It’s always a thrill to bring a new piece to life, but this promises to be an unusually interesting collaboration for OSP. We’re very excited to be premiering James McWilliam’s fantastic music forLONDON SYMPHONY, especially at the iconic Barbican Centre”.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Barrett, McWilliam, Palmer and London history specialist Mark Rowland, chairman of Footprints of London. It will also mark the opening of the Barbican’s autumn ‘Silent Film and Live Music’ series. Tickets can now be purchased here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/film/event-detail.asp?id=21462.
After this special launch event, LONDON SYMPHONY willtour around a number of carefully selected venues throughout the UK, including conventional cinema spaces and alternative spaces such as a Parish Church and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. “In many ways,” says Barrett, “LONDON SYMPHONY is a community project, and we hope to bring it directly into those communities during our release”.
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?
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 …
When was the last time you enjoyed a moment of silence? Not a pause in conversation, a burst of concentration at your desk, or a moment of peace when your guests have gone, but a real, deep, out-in the-wilderness hour or two of pure aural emptiness?
You’ll rarely experience silence at the cinema – even the films this blog celebrates are mostly shown with music either live or recorded washing over them. But if you are very lucky, a trip to the cinema means a good hour and a half when you and your companions will hold your tongue, and instead of making noise, will enter a new sonic world, constructed on the screen.
That’s what makes the reflective new documentary In Pursuit of Silence so powerful. In between experts discussing the value of escaping the distractions and hums of modern living, there are scenes of dialogue-free calm, from a rippling green field in Iowa to a Remembrance Day silence in the offices of Lloyd’s of London. These scenes are shot with fixed cameras, meaning there is no “visual noise” of pans or zooms to disturb the serenity, perfectly illustrating the meaning of quiet stillness. The peace is both beguiling and refreshing, offering space for the film’s argument to seep in: the idea that by seeking out silence, we will find greater intellectual capacity, better health, philosophical wisdom, a fuller awareness of our surroundings, even equality and an end to conflict.
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.
Name:The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).
Age: 87 years old. The clue’s in the number in brackets.
Appearance: Shiny and new.
Sorry, that doesn’t make sense – I thought you said it was 87 years old.The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands may be knocking on a bit, but it has been lovingly restored by the BFI and from what we gather, it’s looking pretty damn sharp. Just take a look at these stills.
Great, where can I see this beautiful old thing? At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 October 2014 – it’s being shown at the London Film Festival as the Archive Gala. It will then be released in cinemas nationwide, and simultaneously on the BFIPlayer …
Blimey. And then it will be coming out on a BFI DVD.
Wonderful news, I’ll tell all my friends. Really?
No. I’ve never heard of it. Fair enough. You could have said that in the first place.
I was shy. Don’t worry, the BFI calls it a “virtually unknown film” on its website.
Phew. But you should have heard of the director, Walter Summers.
Rings a bell … He’s a Brit. Or he was, rather. And he was quite prolific, working in both the silent and sound eras. “I didn’t wait for inspiration,” he once said. “I was a workman, I worked on the story until it was finished. I had a time limit you see. We made picture after picture after picture.”
This is a really fascinating idea, and a hugely entertaining hour and a half of anyone’s time. The BFI has compiled a typical “mixed” cinema programme from a century ago, and is releasing it theatrically this summer. It’s called, of course, A Night at the Cinema in 1914, and it comes out in August. Yes, you may be seated in an air-conditioned room with comfy seats and Dolby 5.1 sound, but you’ll be able to watch a variety bill of drama, actuality, comedy, serials and travelogues – just like your own great-grandparents in the Hippodromes of yore.
Some of the titles in the bill will be familiar to you, but there are a few surprises too – and the cumulative experience of watching 15 films in one sitting is wholly refreshing. There’s Chaplin, Florence Turner and Pimple larking about, but also newsreel footage from the front, and from suffragette demonstrations in London, and Ernest Shackleton’s preparations for his Antarctic voyage. Of course, there’s a segment from The Perils of Pauline, and an opportunity for a singalong too. Music is provided by an expert – Stephen Horne has recorded an improvised score for the whole shebang.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. You can read more of her reviews at silverembers.com
The name “Dr Caligari” may cause a shudder to those of a weaker disposition. The eponymous character of the 1920 classic Das Cabinets des Dr Caligari has long been a figure of terror – and with good reason. The film has been described not just as one of the first “horror” films, but one of the first examples of a movie generating a real psychological uneasiness in its audience. Caligari has been labelled in many different ways – German expressionism, horror story, psychological thriller and a classic of the silent era – but it was also Germany’s first postwar cinematic success, and it reflects the anguish of the people who had been through four terrible years.
Thanks to those classic expressionist touches, the sharp and angled sets, gothic imagery and expressionist undertones, Caligari was as visually frightening as its narrative. More recent audiences may have also been unsettle by the poor physical condition of prints of the film. Despite numerous attempts to finesse the quality of the film – first by the Filmmuseum München in 1980 and followed by the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the Lumière European MEDIA project in 1995 – imperfections were still evident: visible scratches, jumps and blank screens, blurred title cards, unstable images and bleached-out, near-featureless faces.
Caligari’s story is told in partial flashback as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells the tale of the horrors that he and fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) have endured at the hands of the Doctor. One day Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend a local carnival where they watch the act of Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) “who has slept for 23 years but will tonight wake from his dream-like trance”. The only time Cesare speaks is to tell carnivalgoers their fortune. Cesare “knows the past and sees the future” and when Felix asks “how long will I live?” his serious, haunting response is: “To the break of dawn”. Yet the fear is not restricted to the carnival. At night Cesare is woken by Caligari to do his deathly bidding, and so begins a series of murders, abductions and mental unravelling.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand
In 1925, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, won a plagiarism case against film producer Albin Grau over the latter’s 1922 chiller, Nosferatu. To be frank, Grau didn’t have a leg to stand on – he had applied for a licence to film Dracula, been refused by Florence and gone ahead with filming anyway, changing a few character names. This hardly distanced his film from Stoker’s Dracula, whose plot he had lifted lock, stock and barrel for Nosferatu and Florence successfully sued to get his company closed down and every copy of the film destroyed. Thanks to one vital copy, lodged at the time in the US where Stoker’s novel was already out of copyright, we still have the movie and every print now available descends from that one saved positive.
But I’m beginning to think that a skilful lawyer could actually have argued Florence down. Over a lifetime of playing this masterpiece I have noticed that in two vital areas scriptwriter Henrik Galeen and director FW Murnau actually created a new monster that Stoker would barely have recognised – firstly Van Helsing is a small-part character who is in no way responsible for Dracula’s destruction; secondly Nosferatu, minus Dracula’s brides, only has eyes for only one woman – Mina Harker. And it’s beauty that kills the beast.
I’ll go further – Nosferatu/Orlok is not Dracula, but director FW Murnau himself – with the result that today’s vampires flitting through Twilight and The Diaries are the children, not of Stoker’s night, but of Galeen and Murnau’s. And the music they make is very different.
The magnificent central section of the film depicts the vampire heading towards Whitby/Wisborg on board ship, disposing of the crew one by one like some hideous onboard buffet while Harker/Hutter plods back home across the mountains. Waiting on the beach is Hutter’s wife, the strange, other-worldly Mina, staring out to sea and during her sleepwalking catatonia delivering the devastating line: ‘My lover is coming!’
But which lover, the Count or the Husband? Let’s look at what has brought them all to this point – Orlok has seen Mina’s picture and is about to gorge himself on Hutter for the second night running. Mina, staying with friends who have rescued her from a perilous walltop sleepwalk, suddenly sits up in bed with a cry – across a single shot-cut (but miles of the Carpathian Mountains) Orlok freezes in mid-bite and turns to face the direction of her ‘voice’ – off camera right. In Witold, she slumps. In Transylvania, he moves away, his meal untouched. The next time we see him moving he is heading away from the castle and towards Mina, bearing his coffins. From then on it is as if she is already under his power – and, I would argue, he is under hers.
It is impossible to play Orlok’s arrival in Whitby/Wisborg as anything but heroic – the beautiful shot of the ship sailing itself to the dock; the scuttling figure with the coffin stopping outside Mina’s house for a brief smile and his first head-and-shoulder close-up in the movie; then the final river trip, standing proudly in a supernaturally powered rowboat, which deposits him at his new property where he enters by melting through the locked doors. No wonder Herzog chose Wagner for that sequence in his Nosferatu 70 years later. Orlok is a conqueror claiming his kingdom, from which he will stare balefully at Mina’s window while his rats destroy the city. And we are now, however unwillingly, rooting for him.
Murnau, by all accounts promiscuously gay and self-conscious about his appearance, obviously loved his vampire with the outsider’s love of a soulmate gifted with powers he can only dream of. Every flesh-and-blood male character in the film is weak or deluded; Hutter himself can only sit feebly by while Mina takes the strong course in dealing with both infection and infector. But as she makes up her mind we see Orlok imprisoned in his palace imploring her attention with a look that can only be described as heart-breaking. When she acquiesces, he comes to the feast like Don Juan triumphant, the shadow of his bony fingers enclosing, not her neck but her heart, which he squeezes as she writhes beneath him. Herzog would provide the perfect closure for their nuptials, Orlok looking up from her throat at the dawning light, only to have her draw his head gently back to her neck with the gentlest of arm-movements.
Audiences new to the film always laugh at the opening and the speeded-up actions, but it is a wonderful tonic to hear the silence descend as Murnau and his vampire exert their power. I have never been able to play triumph at the Nosferatu’s demise because we have been taught by Murnau to admire and pity him as well as fear him, and in the last thirty years Herzog, Coppola and Joss Whedon have all followed Murnau’s lead. Genius that he was, Murnau made the connection half a century before the rest of us did – we know Orlok because he is us.
Every silent film is an invitation to the musician to tell their version of the story and, yes, “Nosferatu, the Love Story” is a spin, one of many that could be applied to this great film. But here’s my point: treating it musically as a horrific love story opens vistas of new insight on this masterpiece that are vastly greater and more rewarding than the simple terrors of the night. And when the tension between horror, lust and desire is working, one can almost hear the new blood coursing through the vampire’s veins …
We’ve been waiting for this news as patiently as Snow White awaited her kiss of life – and here, in the shape of StudioCanal, is our Prince Charming. Pablo Berger’s utterly gorgeous, slightly twisted, Gothic fairytale Blancanieves gets a UK release on 12 July 2013. I have been intrigued by this film since we first heard about it in March 2012, and in October last year when I saw it at the London Film Festival, I became smitten. If you saw it then, or at the recent Ciné Lumière screening, you’ll know what I mean.
Blancanieves is a silent, black-and-white film – a loose adaptation of Snow White set in 1920s Spain. There is a poisoned apple, a wicked stepmother (brilliantly played by Maribel Verdú) and a coterie of dwarves, but also bull-fighting, flamenco and a pet cockerel called Pépé. It’s a beautifully accomplished homage to European silent cinema (at the screening I attended, the director paid tribute to everyone from Abel Gance to our own Anthony Asquith) and at the same time satisfyingly rich and quirky – this is a very hard film to categorise. The cinematography is at times exquisite, and the score, by Alfonso de Vilallonga, is fantastic. As yet, I don’t know whether we can expect a full or limited release – but if you love silent cinema, and Blancanieves is playing near you, you really should go to see it.
Excellent news for fans of British silent cinema (that’s you). Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) will be released in cinemas next year. It’s a romantic and thrilling film about a love triangle that sparks jealousy, madness and terrible violence. Asquith’s direction is confident – and richly expressive.
Underground is also a fascinating portrait of 1920s London, including a public transport system that has only subtly changed in the intervening 80-odd years. Indeed this theatrical release is intended to celebrate 150 years of the Tube. The film stars Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen, and Norah Baring in the roles the opening intertitle describes as “ordinary workaday people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert”. It’s no ordinary film though, Asquith uses subjective techniques inspired by European cinema to convey his character’s emotional turmoils and to make Underground both atmospheric and suspenseful. If you’ve seen his final silent film A Cottage on Dartmoor, you’ll know just what to expect.
You may have read somewhere or other that 2012 is the year of silent cinema. Well, wouldn’t that be nice? Far more certain to be an influence on your multiplex visits this year are a beautiful princess, a wicked stepmother and a poisoned apple. But silent cinema should still get a look-in.
The first of 2012’s adaptations of Snow White, with Julia Roberts as the vain queen and Lily Collins as her red-lipped, fair-skinned stepdaughter will be released in time for the Easter holidays on 2 April. Mirror Mirror is a family film, but it’s a modern twist on the fairytale, which gives Miss White a few more exciting tasks than whistling while she works. Judging by the trailer, she spends most of her time swordfighting with her bandit-dwarf chums and giving Prince Charming a spot of sass.
Released later in the summer, on 1 June, Snow White and the Huntsman is a darker, more violent version of the fairy tale, with Kristen Stewart as the heroine and Charlize Theron as the queen. There are buckets of CG effects in this one and the whole thing has a gritty Twilight-meets-Lord of the Rings vibe, although some of Theron’s scenes look uncannily like a certain perfume ad. This film tweaks the plot even further than Mirror Mirror, with Snow White as a chainmail-clad warrior on a mission to kill the queen. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth plays the hunky huntsman.
There’s even a TV Snow White in the States. Once Upon a Time is made by American broadcaster ABC and stars Ginnifer Goodwin as the long-lost daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White, trying to rescue a town of fairy-tale characters from a curse.
But enough of the talkies. The Snow White movie I’m really excited about this year hasn’t had a fraction of the publicity of those other flicks. In fact, it hasn’t got a UK release date yet, but it will debut on 28 September 2012 in its home country. Blancanieves is a Spanish film, directed by Pablo Berger, and it’s a Gothic horror-cum-melodrama, which retells the Snow White story in 1930s Madrid. From what I can gather, young Carmen has been tormented from childhood by her vile stepmother, so she escapes to the woods where she joins a troupe of dwarf bullfighters. Maribel Verdú plays the older woman, and Macarena García the younger. Did I forget to mention that it is a silent film? And black-and-white to boot. Splendid.
Berger’s previous feature film, which appeared nine years ago, Torremolinos 73, was a very different beast: a comedy about a man who wants to make arty films but gets into pornography instead. That at least proves he’s no stranger to taking a commercial risk. I really like the suitably Gothic approach he is taking to one of the Brothers Grimm’s nastiest tales, and this gallery of production stills on Facebook suggests that Blancanieves will be a truly gorgeous film. If you need another reason to get your hopes up, back in 2009 the Blancanieves script won a special award at Sundance to help fund the finished film.
There’s something else a little special about Blancanieves, though. The score for the movie is by Oscar-winning composer Alberto Iglesias, who has written for films including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener, as well as several of Almodóvar’s works. The wonderful news is that, according to the stories I have read, Blancanieves will complete a tour of cinemas with live orchestral accompaniment before its theatrical release. We’re still waiting for The Artist to do the same, though such a jaunt is in the works, we hear.
It’s facetious to draw comparisons at this stage with that other European monochrome silent, but I’m tickled pink to see this outsider muscling into what has been pitched as a battle between two blockbusters. There is always room for a silent film or two to cleanse our palates of all that too-familiar fare.
So which is the fairest of them all? Only time will tell, but I clearly already have a favourite – and a fairytale ending in mind. The other question is, how will Blancanieves compare to the whimsical 1916 Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark:
The American trailer for The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s love letter to silent cinema, is here. It’s beautiful, and almost note for note the same as the French trailer we saw in the spring. The only differences are that the US version doesn’t name any of the actors until the final card, and I swear they have beefed up the sound of tap shoes clicking across the floor in the dancing sequences. It’s not synched sound, and there’s definitely some of it in the French version, but there’s more now. It’s still utterly gorgeous though – I’m not sure what delights me more, Jean Dujardin’s Hollywood smile, Uggy the performing dog or Bérénice Bejo’s wardrobe.
The Artist is released in France on 12 October 2011 and in the US on 23 November 2011. No word on a UK release date yet.
First it was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a charming children’s book by Brian Selznick. Then Martin Scorsese got hold of it and now it’s Hugo (2011), a 3D movie starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, and Asa Butterfield in the title role. Now the trailer has arrived, we can really see what it’s going to look like – and how it pays tribute to a hero of early cinema.
It looks very much like the film is going to stick very closely to the book’s story, which is simple, but rather sweet. Hugo is a Parisian urchin who lives in a railway station, and befriends a grumpy toymaker – who just happens to be George Méliès. Hugo starts to learn more about silent cinema and the magical films made by his new friend, and tries to persuade him out of retirement. There’s a blossoming friendship between the boy and Méliès’s grand-daughter and a magical element in the form of an exquisite clockwork automaton that appears to be passing messages to Hugo from his dead father. Perhaps, judging by the trailer, Scorsese has built up Baron Cohen’s role as the station policeman a little – adding some broad slapstick that will probably appeal more to the kiddies than to the silent film buffs who will make up a minority of the audience.
As far as I know, The Artist (2011) is the first silent film ever to be placed in competition for the Palme d’Or. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s fair to say that silent film fans will take a keener interest than usual in the Cannes judging this year. There has been a lot of early buzz about The Artist, not least because it was swiftly snapped up and flaunted around town by the Weinstein Company. But then again, some of the other films in the competition have earned rave reviews already: notably Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Winner or not, The Artist is the most high-profile modern silent in a long, long time and we’re all keen to see it, to find out whether it lives up to the hype, and whether it’s a sensitive tribute to an era of exquisite film-making, or a heavy-handed pastiche.
To this end, I’ve pulled together as many reviews from Cannes as I can find so in the long wait for The Artist to hit UK cinemas we can amuse ourselves by forming our own opinions. We can base this a little on what the critics say, and mostly, of course, on our own preconceptions springing from the extraordinarily beautiful trailer: