If you haven’t seen Pandora’s Box (1929) before, I’m actually a little jealous of you. This film and its notorious leading lady are so irrepressibly gorgeous that your first viewing really should be a big-screen experience – and this is the perfect opportunity.
By the end of the 1920s Louise Brooks had had her fill of Hollywood, and Hollywood had pretty much had its fill of her. Lucky, then, that she caught the eye of German director GW Pabst and moved to swinging Weimar Berlin to take the lead role in Pandora’s Box. Brooks plays Lulu, a hedonistic dancer who pursues her own pleasure at the expense of bourgeois morality, or pretty much anyone’s morality, come to mention it. The role has come to define Brooks and rightly so. Who hasn’t, when watching Brooks shake her iconic bob, thought: “That girl could get away with murder”? Pandora’s Box puts that theory to the test like no other movie, and Brooks’s sensual performance radiates here – even as events take a series of sinister turns and the film transforms from a backstage comedy, to a thriller, to something approaching horror.
Keep an eye out for your chance to win a pair of free tickets to Pandora’s Box next week, here on Silent London
Pandora’s Box screens at the Prince Charles Cinema on Thursday 26 May at 8.30pm. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by the marvellous John Sweeney. Tickets cost £10 or £6 for members and they’re available here.
Did you know that 30 April is Walpurgisnacht? It’s pagan festival celebrated in lots of countries across Europe. There are several different interpretations of the feast, but it’s always on the same date each year and it is usually associated with dancing, bonfires – and sorcery.
In one corner of Hackney, Walpurgisnacht will be celebrated this year not with a witch-burning, but a spooky magic lantern show. It’s always a joy to see a little bit of pre-cinema technology being used, shared and enjoyed in the capital, so I’m glad that Professor Heard, who treks up and down the country with his glass slides, is coming to the Last Tuesday Society to terrify the good people of east London.
Professor Mervyn Heard will conjure up the black art of Phantasmagoria with his 19th Century Magic Lantern. Watch and behold as skeletons waltz across the wall and nuns bleed to their death despite a life of virtue.
The Last Tuesday Society is based at a curiosity shop in Mare Street, Hackney, and hosts an eclectic series of lectures and workshops on everything from tantric sex to Iranian literature. The magic lantern show will be returning to the venue for Halloween, but that’s far too long to wait for your vintage thrills.
There will be two seatings for the Walpurgisnacht Gothic Magic Lantern Show. Tickets cost £10, and are available at the website here.
The Charlie Chaplin Google doodle is more ambitious than most. It links to this cute Chaplin-esque video. It hasn’t appeared here in the UK quite yet, but look out for it tomorrow, 16 April, which is the 122nd anniversary of the actor/director’s birth. Very nice of Google to mark the occasion, but this video does make you miss the real thing. Those of you who are Chaplin fans all year round and not just on his birthday might enjoy this article from the Spectator. It’s a preview of the forthcoming Chaplin museum in Switzerland and an interview with the film-maker’s son, Michael. Definitely worth a read.
The 14th British Silent Film Festival was held at the weekend, in the Barbican, the Cinema Museum and the BFI Southbank. A full report of the films, the lectures, the music and the gossip* will be forthcoming on this blog shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian Film Blog. It’s not quite a roundup of the festival, but it brings together some of the things we learned about silent film and music over the weekend – and I hope you enjoy it. If you were at the festival, let me know what you made of it, too.
Who says silent film screenings can’t be cutting-edge? Excuse the bad joke, please. The Sci-Fi London film festival is putting on a screening of Der Golem (1920) and the music will be provided by Sawchestra, who play saws (obviously) as well as toy instruments and other found objects. What’s more, they’ll be handing out some more instruments to the crowd, as they’re very big on audience participation. I can only imagine how rowdy this is going to get – but it sounds like a whole heap of fun.
Der Golem: How He Came Into the World is an early Expressionist horror, full of black magic, high drama and outright weirdness. The plot concerns a rabbi in 16th-century Prague who creates a man out of clay, and then brings him to life to terrorise those who are persecuting the Jews. It’s a little ridiculous, of course, but Karl Freund’s Expressionist cinematography is a treat, and playing along with Sawchestra should be a great opportunity to camp it up and enjoy this strange film.
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG
As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.
So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.
Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?
Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.
In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.
The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.
Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.
Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.
The Russians are coming to the BFI Southbank. In the year that sees the release of the restored Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin, the BFI is exploring Russian cinema with a seven-month programme: two months will be spent travelling through Russian cinema history, followed by a season of science-fiction and space documentaries, and a final season devoted to the director Alexander Sokurov.
Some of these films are very rarely seen, or at least very rarely seen on the big screen. That’s a polite way of saying that a couple of them are the kind of favourites that do come round fairly regularly. Which is not to say that you should give them a miss, but this is a good opportunity to see some Russian rarities, so pick your screenings wisely. Unless, of course, you plan to see everything, in which case I tip my (fur) hat to you.
It’s not all about Russia at the BFI in May. This L’Histoire du “Look” strand is dedicated to the development of visual style in the cinema, as part of the educational Passport to Cinema programme. Quite frankly, all six titles in this first part are worth a gawp, but we’ll restrict ourselves to the silents here – three gems, each shown three times, which should keep the BFI pianists busy.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is here representing the angular, dreamlike world of German Expressionism. The shifting perspectives of the scenery mirror the shifting narrative, where nothing is ever quite what it seems for long.
1 May 3.50pm/2 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/4 May 8.30pm
The Last Laugh (1924), directed by FW Murnau, is remarkable for being (almost) intertitle-free, allowing Karl Freund’s mobile camera and Emil Jannings’s powerful lead performance to to tell the story of a doorman who loses first his job and then his social standing.
4 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/5 May 8.40pm/13 May 6pm
Queen Kelly (1929) is known as a lost film, as star/producer Gloria Swanson walked off set one day, disappointed by director Erich von Stroheim’s less than wholesome interpretation of the Hays-approved script. Von Stroheim was sacked and sections of the film removed; it was later re-edited and completed as Swanson wished. However, the luxurious sets and glamorous costumes we expect from Von Stroheim are all present and correct – as is the melodramatic plot.
Update: The restored 1985 version of Queen Kelly will be screened, which has an orchestral score already, so there will be no live accompaniment.
2 May 3.50pm/9 May 6.10pm (with introduction and short animated film from NFTS)/21 May 8.45pm
All screenings except Queen Kelly have live piano accompaniment. Tickets cost £9.50 or £6.75 for concessions, and less for BFI members. They will be available on 4 April for BFI members and from 11 April for everyone else. More details on the website here.
At last year’s East End Film Festival, Minima rocked up at Spitalfields Market for an outdoor screening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger. To say that you enjoyed that evening would be an understatement – it was a great night and the film was an inspired choice, with a plot coloured by the East End’s most notorious villain, Jack the Ripper.
This year, the East End Film Festival has booked Minima for another silent screening, and it’s one that reflects a happier aspect of the local area. The East End of London has long been home to a strong Jewish community, and the festival is celebrating this with a Romanian film, Manasse (1925).
This is not just a fresh addition to Minima’s repertoire, but a UK premiere! I was completely unfamiliar with it before today, but I can tell you that it is directed by Jean Mihail, and based on a play from the turn of the century, which was written by Roman Ronetti on the theme of religious intolerance. It’s a story about a romance between a Christian man and a Jewish woman, the niece of the title character Manasse Cohen, a Bucharest banker (played by the famous Romanian actor Romald Bulfinschi). The play was hugely controversial and was not performed in Romania for many years. So one would imagine that this film, made a quarter of a century later when the Yiddish cinema scene was flourishing, would have been highly anticipated. I’m definitely intrigued.
The festival programme has this to say:
Manasse is a highly dramatic take on the problems inherent in Romanian society at that time. Mihail was one of Romania’s most important early directors, and he explores and debates the most sensitive of issues with sincerity, visual panache and unflinching dramatic power.
As with previous years, the film will be screened in Spitalfields market, and it’s scheduled for Saturday 30 April 2011 at 8pm. Tickets for the East End Film Festival are available as of this morning, but this screening is free. Free. So fill your boots, people.
This May, the BFI is offering a fantastic programme of silent film screenings. There’s the theatrical release of The Great White Silence and Battleship Potemkin, three German gems in a short season devoted to cinematic style and the first tranche in a monumental celebration of Russian cinema entitled Kino: Russian Film Pioneers. And this last strand announces itself with not one but two special screenings of Soviet classics with live scores.
First up on 5 May is Sergei Eisenstein’s The Old and the New, also known as The General Line (1929). This was Eisenstein’s attempt to celebrate the Soviet system of collective farming, but he broke off halfway through to make October, and the final film is more like an essay on the mechanisation of agriculture. Eisenstein’s montage editing, and somewhat suggestive imagery, elevate the film to something more exciting though. The film’s most celebrated sequence involves a cream separator – you can watch it at the top of this post. Really, there are no words. But you can see from that clip that the editing is rhythmic, almost musical.
No score was ever written for the film, but Eisenstein did write some notes, which have been lingering in the BFI archives all these years. Musicians Max De Wardener, Ed Finnis and the Elysian Quartet have constructed a score from these notes especially for this screening. This world premiere promises to be something very special – both of historical interest, and a thrilling combination of film and music too.
The second special event is on 20 May and has been curated by “live cinema” specialist Marek Pytel. It’s a screening of Vsevelod Pudovkin’s epic Storm Over Asia (1929) accompanied by Yat-Kha, a throatsinging rock band from Tuva, which is in the south of Siberia and borders Mongolia. The film, sometimes known as The Heir to Genghis Khan, tells the story of a Mongolian herdsman, Bair, who fights with the Soviets against the occupying British army. Bair is captured by the imperialists, who come to believe that is descended from Khan and try to use him for their foolish ends.
Storm Over Asia has been restored to its full length from the original negatives, and Yat-Kha’s music, described as “brooding, growling and earthy” should provide a contemporary but wholly sympathetic soundtrack.
The Old and the New accompanied by Max De Wardener, Ed Finnis and the Elysian Quartet screens at NFT1 on Thursday 5 May at 7.15pm.
Storm Over Asia accompanied by Yat-Kha screens at NFT1 on Friday 20 May at 7.15pm.
Twilight, this is not. We could argue for hours about which is the greatest vampire film ever made, but Nosferatu is probably the most visually distinctive of the lot, definitely one of the scariest and a fairly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to boot.
If you haven’t seen Nosferatu before, no doubt you will have seen many a homage to its expressionist style and the stiff, hollow-eyed lead performance by Max Schreck. The shadow of Nosferatu gliding up the stairs must be one of the creepiest, and most often copied, moments in cinema.
This screening at the 100-year-old Ritzy Cinema in Brixton benefits from an acclaimed live score by the band Minima, who will have performed at the Prince Charles Cinema the previous night accompanying The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and will play the following night at the East End Film Festival. Believe me, these guys know how to create an atmosphere. And you can insert your own joke about how scary it is to go south of the river here.
Nosferatu accompanied by Minima screens at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton on 29 April 2011 at 8.45pm. Tickets cost £11.60 or less for concessions and they’re available here.
The Prince Charles Cinema is offering a night not to be missed: the expressionist madness of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, accompanied in spine-tingling style by a group who excel at accompanying silent horror films. Who better than Minima to soundtrack this combination of mad monks, mind-bending set design and people that get bumped off in the night?
If you’re wondering what the titular Dr Caligari keeps in his cabinet, I’m afraid it’s not a china dinner service, but a psychic sleepwalker, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt. Cesare’s psychic predictions are fairly reliable. If he says you’re about to die, he’s right – because he’ll see to it himself…
But it’s the look of the film, as much as the plot, that will give you nightmares. Cesare’s eye makeup is grotesque, and the angular, distorted scenery was as influential as it is unforgettable. If you enjoy Caligari’s expressionist style, you’ll want to look out for Nosferatu at the Ritzy the following day.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, accompanied by Minima, screens at the Prince Charles Cinema on 28 April 2011 at 8.45pm. Tickets cost £10 or £6 for members and they’re available here.
When is a silent film screening not a silent film screening? When it’s a cine-concert perhaps…
Clarinettist Arun Ghosh‘s event at the Southbank Centre in April is all about fusion. Playing as part of the Alchemy Festival, which celebrates the convergence of UK and Indian South Asian culture, the Cine-Concert also merges film and music in an unusual way. Ghosh and his musicians will perform his score to Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) – and as they play, their silhouettes will be projected on to the screen, mingling with Reiniger’s animated cut-outs. What’s more, the soundtrack itself takes inspiration from a diverse range of musical and cinematic references:
Ghosh’s revitalised score – written for clarinet, bass clarinet, double bass, vibraphone, cello and percussion – draws upon the cinematic orchestration styles of retro 70s blaxploitation, Bollywood melodrama, classic westerns, and the infamous Hammer horror films, with elements of hip-hop, jazz and traditional Middle Eastern sounds.
It might not be a traditional silent film screening, but it promises to be a fascinating night out. After the film-performance, there will be further live performances in the Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – these too will have been curated by Ghosh.
Arun Ghosh Cine-Concert: The Adventures of Prince Achmed plays at the Purcell Room on Saturday 23 April 2011. Ticket prices £13 or less for concessions and they are available here.
Battleship Potemkin is coming to a cinema near you. Not just any old Battleship Potemkin, but a crisp restored print of this astounding film, with the original orchestral score, which will boom out of the walls of the cinema – in synch with the film. Wild, I know. As I have said elsewhere, Potemkin is released on 29 April. There will be several chances to see it at the BFI Southbank on the bank holiday weekend and all through May, and no doubt it will pop up in a few of London’s coolest, artiest, independent cinemas too. Much like The Complete Metropolis has done, and continues to do (it’s on at the Riverside Studios tonight).
Now, it’s in the interests of everyone’s sanity that I don’t write a blogpost every time either one of these films is showing – I’ll update the listings calendar as soon as I hear about any shows, but you don’t need me to keep telling you that both of these films are amazing, essential viewing for film fans (not just silent film fans) and ruddy exciting as well. This blog will concentrate on reporting and celebrating the one-off screenings with live music that are becomingly increasingly common in London.
That said, I can’t sign off without telling you a little about two very groovy screenings of Metropolis that are coming up soon. First, the Ritzy in Brixton continues to mark its 100th anniversary in fine style with an Alphabet of Cinema strand. It starts on 10 April with A is for Androids and they’re showing Alphaville, Westworld and … Metropolis. They’re carrying on through to Z is for Zombies over the course of the year. I’m crossing my fingers for an F is for Flappers triple-bill. But maybe that’s just me.
And on 15 May, the Prince Charles Cinema in the West End is showing Metropolis as part of its vintage films strand. Again, it’s great to see cinemas continuing to support Metropolis – and audiences enjoying it. The Prince Charles Cinema seems to be increasingly enthusiastic about putting on silent films, which is definitely a Good Thing All Round.
There’s something a little perverse in blogging and tweeting about silent film, using modern technology to write about something that started 116 years ago. After all, these days I can shoot minutes and minutes of colour footage with synchronised sound using a phone that’s small enough to fit in my pocket. That’s something that would probably blow the Lumère brothers’ minds.
What is even stranger is that you can now download an app to your iPhone or iPad that turns your high-tech videos into mockups, some might say pastiches, of old silent films. This isn’t necessarily going to be used for the best of the interesting modern silent films that some people are making. After all I made one myself out of some snapshots, and I edited it together on the tube. Yes, that was me you saw on the Victoria Line, rendering.
A quick search of YouTube, and to a lesser extent Vimeo, reveals that lots of people out there are using the app to turn footage of their cats and babies and basketball matches into silent-style films, with intertitles, scratchy film and tinkling piano soundtracks. But some people are using the app to make something a little more sophisticated. In Capo vs Daddy Episode 2, a couple fight over the affections of their dog, with fatal consequences:
There’s another warring couple, and another dog, in Guitar Affair:
I found a few more sweet shorts, including this record of a plum blossom festival in Japan, a man eating breakfast, and a bad joke about a dog. Obviously. But my favourite by far is called Happy Birthday To Me, and you can watch it at the top of this post. It incorporates slapstick, trick photography and perhaps a little bit of iMovie help. It’s also very charming.
And here’s my video, which can’t hold a candle to any of the others here, but you might recognise some of the locations:
I’d love to know if you’ve found anything better out there, or if you’ve had a go at making one of your own.
I reviewed the latest City Symphonies programme at the Barbican for the Cine-Vue blog. They showed À Propos de Nice, Rien Que Les Heures and Paris Qui Dort, which was new to me and has become a favourite already. Neil Brand accompanied on the piano. You can read all about it here.
“Horse operas” are almost as old as cinema itself. Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery is regularly claimed to be the first western – and that was made in 1903. So this special event at the Cinema Museum mines a rich seam. You’ll spend the evening in the company of BFI archivist John Oliver and pianist Cyrus Gabrysch, touring the history of westerns in the silent era, incorporating screenings of several rarely seen films:
The first part of the evening will be devoted to Western star Tom Mix, with the premiere of the MoMA’s 35mm restoration of some of his early films from the Selig Studio: The Foreman of Bar Z, comprising four 1915 shorts, and Ranch Life in the Great South West (1910), featuring Mix’s first screen appearance. The evening’s second half features the work of controversial Hollywood star J. Warren Kerrigan, with screenings of James Cruze’s celebrated epic Western The Covered Wagon (1923) and the short The Poisoned Flume (1911), directed by Allan Dwan.
Tom Mix was a hugely popular star, known as the “King of the Cowboys” who really defined our idea of a western hero. J Warren Kerrigan was another successful actor in the silent years – the controversy that surrounded him was less to do with his homosexuality than his outspoken refusal to enlist during the Great War.
This has been a surprise from start to finish. At the beginning of last month, I learned that Silent London had been nominated for a Dorset Cereals Little Blog Award. I still don’t know who nominated me – if it was you, then thank you very much.
You might have noticed me asking for votes on Twitter and Facebook, and happily lots of you didn’t think I was being too cheeky, because the votes kept coming in all month. Last week, I received a very nice email telling me that I had won the Little Blog Award for February 2011! And yesterday, the prizes arrived: a certificate, a box of granola and cereal bars – and this dinky egg cup, complete with egg cosy.
So in this post I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who voted for me. Silent London hasn’t been going very long, and this is a big confidence boost. Hopefully it’s another small sign of the growing popularity of silent film in this city, too. I’ve got big plans for this blog, believe me – and from now on I will be going to work on an egg.
Piccadilly (1929) is a fantastic film, directed by German director E A Dupont and set in a glamorous, jazzy West End nightclub. Anna May Wong plays Shosho, a dishwasher who is “discovered” while dancing on the kitchen sink, and whose sensual routines propel her to fame as the club’s lead dancer. She wins the heart of the nightclub’s owner too, which provokes his ex (Gilda Gray) to become dangerously jealous. Anna May Wong is absolutely stunning in the film, which has been recently restored by the BFI, preserving the original’s striking blue and amber tinting and making the most of its proto-noir photography. This is a film you’ll really love, I’m sure. You can get a taste for it in this extract:
Piccadilly screens at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s glittering West End on 13 April 2011 at 8.45pm. Tickets are £10 or £6 for members – and they’re available here. Piano accompaniment will be provided by Costas Fotopoulos.
That glamorous robot lady gets about, doesn’t she? Frtiz Lang’s awe-inspiring sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927) is still popping up all over the city – even chic West London. On Wednesday 23 March, you’ll be able to see Metropolis at the Riverside Studios, an arts centre in Hammersith. It’s a great place, with lovely views from the balconies next to the cafe-bar. So why not make a date with the new, restored, extended Metropolis this month?
Metropolis screens at 8.15pm on Wednesday 23 March 2011. Tickets are £8.50 (£7.50 for concessions) and they are available here.