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.
This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).
Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?
Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché→
I have been talking to you about London Symphony, the modern City Symphony film, for a while now, but finally it’s time for you to see it. Or at least book a ticket to see it. yes, London Symphony is coming to a cinema near you, even if you don’t live in the capital. Details of the tour as it stands now are copied below, but I recommend you keep an eye on this page for up-to-date information from the horse’s mouth.
You’ll see that some of the screenings have live music, are followed by a Q&A or take place in a venue that appears in the film – or all three! The screening at Southwark Cathedral, I’m told, will take place by candlelight. You don’t get that kind of atmosphere with Dunkirk …
Meanwhile, don’t miss Kim Newman’s review of the film in this month’s Sight & Sound, which although it completely neglects to mention my own appearance in the film (yes, really) rightly praises its “seductive parade of striking images and juxtapositions”.
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”.
Back to the studio for a full-length edition of the Silent London Podcast. I’m joined by Pete Baran to talk about the festival scene, discuss the first silents we ever watched and catch up on the news. We’re joined by London Symphony director Alex Barrett, who tells us about his favourite silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and we preview the British Silent Film Festival as well as reviewing the great Hollywood silent Flesh and the Devil.
We also make inappropriate comments about Greta Garbo, and I get a little bit over-excited about Pordenone. Just another day in the office really.
Trust me, I have never been ready for my close-up. But when I backed the new silent film project London Symphony, I recklessly ticked the box to say that yes, I’d be in the movie. I envisaged the back of my head in a crowd, perhaps. Something nice and anonymous.
But cometh the hour, cometh the poseur, and today I spent an hour or so shooting a snippet of a scene for London Symphony. Or sitting mostly still and doing what I was told while trying not to get the giggles. Here’s what I learned from my experiences on a silent movie “set”:
There’s a reason those silent-era directors had megaphones. We were filming on the Victoria line (yes, we had permission) and while no doubt director Alex Barrett was talking me through my big scene, I could barely hear a word he said.
There are a lot of angles to cover – two cameras, shooting front-on, overhead, from a distance, crammed next to my cheek … The London Symphony crew were using handheld digital cameras, of course, I can’t imagine how this would play out with a wooden-boxed hand-cranked job.
I didn’t realise how much structure dialogue gives to a scene. I’m not an actor, so of course I was going to feel a little self-conscious being photographed by those moving picture contraptions. But without anything to say, I really felt a little untethered. Anything could happen! Luckily Adam Hickey, the actor I was working with, was actually an actor and very professional.
Londoners are not in the least bit fazed by seeing people filming and playacting on the tube. We caused not a ruffle. Though Alex did tell me that amateur photographers often approach him in the street to chat about the gear. Mmmm, lenses.
“In the early days of the cinema, there were several great City Symphonies – for Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, but never for London. Alex Barrett is going to put that right, and his plans suggest a remarkable picture.” – Kevin Brownlow
A few months back, I promised you the chance to support the making of a new London City Symphony. Now the day has arrived, as the London Symphony team have launched their crowdfunding campaign. They need the help of Silent Londoners to turn their vision into a reality. They’re asking for your financial support, and offering you some chances to be involved in the making of the film too. If you can’t afford to help out yourself, they’d love you to spread the word about the project.
Alex Barrett, the film’s director (and Silent London contributor) explains why he wants to revive the City Symphony style for his new film: “We believe that by looking at the present through recourse to the past, we can learn something new about life today,” he says. “We won’t be parodying the style. We will be true to the spirit of the filmmakers that came before us, and we hope to capture the rhythm, the motion and the experimentation that made their films so wonderful, while simultaneously reimagining the City Symphony for the 21st Century”.
LONDON SYMPHONY is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture, religion and design via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
Alongside making the film, the team will also be creating a new score – an original symphony – written by composer James McWilliam. Says James: “Music plays an important role in silent cinema, and our score will help take viewers on a journey through modern-day London”. The filmmakers plan to record the music with a live orchestra, but also have it performed live at special event screenings of the finished film. LONDON SYMPHONY reunites the team behind the short film HUNGERFORD: SYMPHONY OF A LONDON BRIDGE. A three-minute city symphony in its own right, the short film now serves as a pilot for the team’s intentions with the feature-length LONDON SYMPHONY.
This beautiful short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, is a mini city symphony directed by Alex Barrett in 2010. It has won several awards, appeared at many festivals, and here at Silent London we have long admired it. Barrett, a writer, film-maker and regular Silent London contributor, has a more ambitious project in the works, though: London Symphony, a feature-length silent film about our fair capital. Barrett is a huge admirer of European silent cinema, and the city symphonies of the 1920s avant-garde. He plans to start shooting London Symphony later this year. Here’s how he describes the project:
London Symphony is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture and religion via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
He’ll be asking for your help though – Barrett and his team want to crowdfund their movie, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the summer on these very pages.
We’re an excitable bunch here at Silent London, which you have probably noticed by now. But a quiet announcement by Masters of Cinema recently caused even more whooping and merriment than usual. The classic movie imprint is releasing its gorgeous Lubitsch in Berlin box set, which had inexplicably fallen out of print. We’re big fans, big, big fans of this set, and so in a collective declaration of box set love, a group of us gathered together to review every movie in the box, one by one …
There are six films in the set, all made by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch in the earliest stages of his movie career, after he had been lured out of Max Reinhardt’s theatre company to the UFA studio. If these films are deemed less sophisticated than his later Hollywood work, then that is mostly because his subject matter is often more fanciful, his characters border on feral, and his sense of humour, at this time, in uninhibitedly mischievous. Or perhaps, because people are fools. The elusive “Lubitsch touch”, and his mastery of character, space and comedy is very much in evidence here – The Oyster Princess and Die Puppe in particular are perfectly pitched comic pantomimes. Three films in this box star the irrepressible German comic actress Ossi Oswalda – perpare to fall head over heels – a further two feature the wonderful Pola Negri and Emil Jannings makes an appearance too.
One of the films in this set, Anna Boleyn, was partially responsible for Lubitsch’s move west: it and Madame Du Barry (not in this set) found US distribution, and became unsettlingly successful on those shores. Lubitsch would bc the first established Hollywood talent to be snapped up by a Hollywood studio. Pola Negri would follow shortly after – they called it, sardonically, the “German Invasion”.
As well as the following six films, the set contains a feature-length documentary (Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood) and some very sharply written essays. Don’t miss out.
The exclamatory title of this 40-minute adventure is a lesson hard won for its heroine. One might add, she hardly wants to be a woman either – at least not her fretful elders’ idea of how a young lady in her teens, and the century’s, should be. Delightfully, other people’s ideas hardly get a look in. I Don’t Want to be a Man is a taboo-thumping caper that plots its own course through conventional ideas about gender and romance. It was early days for Weimar Berlin when this film was made, but even in this short comedy, there is lechery, bisexuality, drunkenness and decadence in abundance. And when it comes to rebellious on-screen teens, Ossi Oswalda’s flirtatious, gender-bending minx feels decidedly modern.
Ossi is a smirking teenage nightmare, a spoilt brat who smokes and plays poker with men much older than her. Banished to her room, the flirting continues through her window as her suitors contort themselves on the pavement below. When he is called away overseas, her uncle hires a new, supposedly strict, young guardian to take her firmly in hand. That the appointed dragon is a handsome young man may seem to spell trouble, but Ossi’s next move takes the story to a whole new level of larkiness.
Outraged at being grounded, Ossi decides the only possible way to enjoy a night on the tiles is in drag, so she has herself fitted for top-hat-and-tails and sneaks out of the house. I won’t give away what happens in the nightclub, and the morning after, but suffice to say that lust and confusion bloom in equal measure.
A running gag here is that as a woman, Ossi can handle herself and manipulate the men who throng her, expertly. As a man she is clueless and not a little afraid. At the tailor’s, in feminine dress, she parcels her body out to the adoring assistants who clamour to measure her up: a left arm for one, the waist for another. In the club, she is near toppled over by the women who want to dance with her. Whether Lubitsch is saying that when it comes to sex women have the upper hand, or just poking fun at the whole business of romantic chivalry matters little. That Ossi finds herself a partner who likes her both in drag, and out of it, is the happy ending that even the most “retrosexual” audience could crave.
If it’s well-known that silent cinema is littered with heavily stylised classics, it’s perhaps also true that Die Puppe remains one of its most overlooked gems – a pre-Caligari classicof German artifice. Used here for comedic (rather than psychological) ends, the stylisation is no doubt employed in part to help make believable the film’s central premise: when a wealthy baron decides his nephew must marry, the local monks talk the nephew into marrying a lifelike doll so he can donate his dowry to their abbey. But what the nephew fails to realise is that the dollmaker’s puckish apprentice has broken the doll, and that his bride-to-be is in fact the dollmaker’s daughter herself, and not her mechanical counterpart …
If that all sounds rather silly … well, it is. But the nephew’s response to his uncle questioning the doll’s (literal) stiffness (“She’s from an old patrician family. They’re all very formal”) reminds us that this is as much social commentary as social comedy. The film is at its most pointed when representing the hypocrisy and greed of the monks, who gorge themselves on food and wine while claiming poverty (their response to the news of the 300,000 francs dowry: “Do you know how many pork knuckles you could eat for that!”).
The film was a vehicle for then-popular German actress Ossi Oswalda, who excels here in the dual role of the doll and the dollmaker’s daughter. But the film itself undoubtedly belongs to Lubitsch; he appears first onscreen, unpacking what is to become the scenery of the film’s opening scene. The film is subtitled “Four amusing acts from a toy chest”, and if the four acts never quite emerge in the print presented here, the rest of that description seems particularly accurate. Moving beyond stylisation-for-the-sake-of-it, Lubitsch seems to be delighting in the very medium of cinema and the possibilities inherent in the art form (lest the film’s exuberance make us forget, Die Puppe was made in 1919). Lubitsch is director as conjurer, and the film’s reflexive and playful edge exhibits all the purest joys of the silent era – a time in which cinematic conventions were yet to come along and ruin the experimental, stylised fun.
Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic. He is currently in development with his new film, London Symphony, a silent city symphony. You can follow the project’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.
Die Austernprinzessin (1919)
Reviewed by Ewan Munro
One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Yet for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch touch”. Whatever that may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his “mature” works.
At the heart of The Oyster Princess is a pretty full-blooded critique of capitalism; there’s certainly no pulling punches here. The “oyster king”, Mr Quaker (Victor Janson), lives in a vast mansion attended by numerous servants and has a spoilt daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Until the very end, all that either seems to care about is this privileged life they live. Quaker’s catchphrase, delivered at the end of each of the movie’s four acts, is “that doesn’t impress me”. Ossi, meanwhile, who kicks off the plot with her demand to marry a prince, susbequently pays only scant attention to either the man or the relationship. Hers is an entitled world of passing whims, and she soon decides that this prince she’s been given isn’t one she likes very much after all.
But this is a comedy of manners, and part of the joke is that Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) has fallen on hard times, and so has sent his valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check out Mr Quaker’s offer. This somewhat inevitably leads to him being confused with the prince, and given the frivolous way the Quakers live, perhaps that’s little surprise. The opening shot shows Mr Quaker smoking an unreasonably large cigar, attended by a phalanx of obsequious black servants, while his every word is hung upon by an array of secretaries. This obscene overkill – Quaker doesn’t need so many women to transcribe his dictation, nor so many handservants, as most of them have nothing to do – quickly becomes a running joke. There are serried ranks of servants to help Ossi into and out of her bath, and serving a meal is like a military drill. This is obscenely gluttonous excess for its own sake – and for our amusement.
Although the technical limitations of the period mean the camera is still largely fixed, it’s hardly noticeable thanks to a lightness of touch in orchestrating the action. Characters move around incessantly. So vast is Quaker’s mansion that he, attended by his many servants, jogs from room to room. His daughter meanwhile is a whirligig of emotion, throwing everything around petulantly. At one point there’s even a dance sequence – “a foxtrot epidemic breaks out!” – allowing for various groupings around the mansion until eventually everyone, right down to the kitchen servants, is seen dancing.
It may not be surprising to devotees of Lubitsch’s work, but for one new to his cinema, what’s astonishing is that almost every moment in the film’s concise hour-long running time is filled with inventiveness and comic inspiration. Shots that just prosaically bridge a gap between two scenes are not for Lubitsch, and (as mentioned above) even moving between rooms is done with a humorous touch. The performances are also uniformly delightful, particularly Oswalda’s cheeky impishness and Janson’s amusingly affected stoicism.
Once again, this is another excellent Masters of Cinema release, with an exemplary transfer to DVD and a rather jaunty score perfectly matched to the action on screen. This isn’t just an excellent primer to Lubitsch’s cinema, or to silent screen comedy. It’s a marvel of a film and a joy to watch.
Of the silent genres which seem to have dissipated when sound came, the Sheikh & Sex desert romances can seem the most alien to us now. Not just for their broadly orientalist strokes, any silent film aficionado has to swallow to some degree the racial and jingoistic views of the time, but there is often a degree of exotic ethnography going on, from Valentino’s tea-towel headgear to the huge harems on display. In depicting a non-Christian world view, film companies could have their cake and eat it, tell highly sexualised stories without condoning them.
Sumurun, with all of its high melodrama, probably sits closer to Lubitsch’s sex comedies such as The Oyster Princess, but its source material and setting means that narratively at least there is a sense that the story is the most important thing. Whilst the film is invested in the capricious evil of its sheikh, and definitely leaning on the fetishisation of the harem and exotic dancing, Lubitsch does not seem to be moralising here. Instead he is using his setting as an alien world, building a blockbuster that throws all the spectacle it can muster on to the screen whilst trying to display humanity in all its characters.
This means that tonally, Sumurun is a bit of a mess. It lurches from slapstick to scenes of murder and ends with some high tragedy. This doesn’t really matter though, as the narrative thread is strong and like any blockbuster there is barely a moment where Lubitsch doesn’t put something funny, novel or just plain beautiful at the screen. Pola Negri is appropriately captivating as the travelling dancer who instigates the ruckus, but Jenny Hasselqvist’s Sumurun is suitably empathic in the title role as the seemingly doomed courtesan. The film, however, belongs to Lubitsch the actor, whose Hunchback both observes and drives the story but also holds the most significant emotional beats (and some of the broadest comedy). He does a lot of eyebrow acting, and is extremely watchable in the role. That said, by the time people are locked in trunks, and are being chased around the elaborate set like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the hand of Lubitsch the director is clearly more prominent.
Much like its source material, Sumurun is invested in entertaining a wide audience in the broadest way. It has a Shakespearean sweep in its tragedy, but is at its heart a comedy – and quite a silly one in places. That it works is due to Lubitsch taking rather broad archetypes, particularly his own, and breathing life into them, transforming them from comedy to tragedy. It feels apt that the last shot of the film is Lubitsch himself, in his final acting role, mournfully strumming a lute; he will go on to entertain behind the camera, but he gives himself a pretty meaty final role.
For the star of a story about a sexy tempter lady, Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) doesn’t get to do a lot of tempting. The queens on either side of her have much more fun: her predecessor Catherine of Aragon (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein) gets some spectacular eye rolls and glares in, and successor Jane Seymour (Aud Egede-Nissen) interestingly takes up the traditional “Anne Boleyn” role of the ambitious, flirtatious younger woman who lures away Henry VIII (Emil Jannings). Porten’s Anne is very Good and Virtuous and Tragic. Far from scheming to get Henry and the crown, she is pressured into the marriage by the king and her uncle Norfolk (Ludwig Hartau). The best shot of the film is of the two men exchanging glances over her head, then talking rapidly at her from both sides as she slips into a half-swoon between them.
The three leads are introduced with very successful contrasts: Anne’s energy as she runs across a courtyard to greet her fiancé Henry Norris (Paul Hartmann); Henry’s joie de vivre as he licks his fingers and drinks from a tankard bigger than his head; and Catherine’s ritual, stultified staging of monarchy in the court.
Lubitsch frames Anne in playful boxes throughout the film. The opening scene sees her in a rocking cabin on the sea from France, she kisses Norris over a half-door and meets Henry VIII when the train of her dress is caught in a door. The set traps her but the camera dangles the possibility of escape. After she is sentenced to death, she begins to stride toward the camera, nearly faces us head-on, but chickens out and ducks away down a side corridor.
As a little bonus, the new score has a few jokes for early modern music fans, as “Pastimes with good company” – a tune Henry VIII wrote himself – is heard at key moments: at the king’s introduction, sitting at a Round Table (do you see) with his knights, at a May fair and later in a minor key as things start to go wrong for Anne.
I suspect it’s a bit long and worthy for those who know Lubitsch for his comedies, but as a historical costume drama Anna Boleyn is a lot quicker and wittier than most contemporaneous films of that genre, and frankly most modern ones too.
Ernst Lubitsch has referred to Die Bergkatze as his own personal favourite, and it’s easy to see why. This picture – which proudly proclaims itself as “A grotesque in four acts” – marks the peak of his silent era creativity. The film’s production design recalls The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with its spiral staircases and unusual angles, but filtered through the fantastic storybook style of Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, which he pushes to extremes here. We see the story unfold through a series of bizarre irises, from conventional circles to oblongs and squiggly outlines. Sometimes scenes are framed by an iris that suggests we’re viewing the action through a hole torn hastily in a sheet. It’s a suitably wild approach for the raucous tale Lubitsch wants to tell.
Die Bergkatze is the story of a soldier (Paul Heidemann) who finds himself caught between two women, one a captain’s eligible daughter (Edith Meller) and the other a gypsy girl – the “wildcat” of the title – who lives in the mountains with a gang of bandits. Her name is Rischka and she is played by Pola Negri, whose performance here almost matches the unrestrained exuberance of Ossi Oswalda in her collaborations with Lubitsch. Negri is lively and tough, manhandling and whipping the men around her into submission and stealing the leading man’s trousers within minutes of meeting him. While she takes steps towards a more feminine demeanour throughout the film, memorably trying on dresses and dousing herself in perfume, her more abrasive edges are never smoothed away – I loved the way she slapped away a proffered champagne glass before swigging straight from the bottle.
Lubitsch keeps undercutting convention in this manner. When we first see a crowd form to see off Heidemann’s Lieutenant Alexis, we might assume that it consists of people awed by his heroism in battle, but then we see that the throng is populated entirely by tearful women who want to thank “Alexis the Seducer” for the good times. Die Bergkatze is a gleefully entertaining romantic farce, with all of the wit and sauciness that characterises Lubitsch’s most distinctive comedies, but he also finds room for some unexpectedly touching interludes. A dream sequence that sees Rischka’s ghostly presence cavorting with Alexis is one of the loveliest scenes the director ever filmed.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
Long legendary as the first – and only – silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (at the very first ceremony, back in 1927), Wings now comes to us in a stunning new restoration, courtesy of Eureka’s ever-dependable Masters of Cinema label. The film tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who compete for the affections of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), before becoming comrades in the airfields of World War I. Star power was added by the original “It girl”, Clara Bow, in the role of Jack’s neighbour, Mary – the pure-eyed girl next door with an undying love for our hero.
If this setup – minus the Mary strand – sounds familiar to silent film fans, it’s perhaps due to a striking similarity to the setup of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), in which two rivals in love become comrades on the battlefields of World War I. However, if the overall plot of Wings at times resembles that of J’accuse, it does so without that film’s stringent anti-war message – and without its power.
In Wings, we are often told of the “horrors” of war in the title cards, but rarely do we see them. Even towards the end, when the body count begins to rise, it never feels as if we’re given a true sense of the barbarity of war. Compare, for instance, the lightness of the scenes detailing the cancellation of the soldier’s leave with the devastating impact of the equivalent scenes in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses, released just five years later. The closest Wings gets to touching upon this darkness is its final tragedy, but even there the film doesn’t quite hit home, despite the characters explicitly saying that the “war” is to blame. Wings was made with the assistance of a military in need of good PR, and perhaps it’s this that led to the film becoming a paean to the “young warriors of the sky” (as with J’accuse, real soldiers acted in the film, many of whom had seen service in the Great War). It’s a fine tribute to those who fought but, in being so, there remains a whiff of propaganda around the film’s portrayal of the chivalric life of these “knights of the air”.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
When Sight & Sound unveiled the results of their once-a-decade poll of The Greatest Films of All Time earlier this year, I was both relieved and disappointed to see Carl Th Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc riding high at number nine: relieved that the film was there at all (it has been literally in and out of the top 10 every decade since the poll was first conducted in 1952), but disappointed that it wasn’t higher. Why? Because, quite simply, it is more deserving of the top spot than any other film.
Rightly famous for its unbridled use of close-ups, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the nearest cinema has ever come to capturing and rendering the human soul on-screen. But lest you worry that that makes it little more than a relic of pious Christianity, the emphasis here is very much on human. As the opening titles state, the film is concerned with a “simple and human” Joan, one who should be seen not as a warrior, but as “a young woman who died for her country”. Dreyer’s choice of religious subjects has led to great misunderstanding of his oeuvre and, in no uncertain terms, his interest throughout his career remained grounded in a thorough examination of human (and often female) suffering.
Here, the suffering woman is Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans, a young peasant girl who led an army into battle in the hope of driving the English out of 15th-century France. Believing herself to be working under the auspices of three different Saints, Joan was eventually captured, tried and burnt at the stake at the age of 19. It is her trial and execution – her Passion – that Dreyer retells, basing his film upon the transcripts of the actual trial.
Avoiding the spectacle of many historically set films, Dreyer opted instead to keep his camera focused on the faces of Joan and her assailants. Condensing, as he does, the events of Joan’s lengthy trial and execution into a single day, Dreyer approaches a unity of time, place and action – and yet, for all his painstaking historical research, the film’s fractured use of cinematic grammar elevates the action beyond the physical world and into a metaphysical realm. The sparseness of the film’s sets eliminate depth, while the constant close-ups and broken eye-lines render the space unimportant (and, to an extent, unintelligible). Joan and her suffering are all that matter, all we must understand. The historical context and politics are secondary; first and foremost is a scared, tormented young girl. Dreyer may have denied that his film belonged to the avant-garde, but this is not conventional film-making: every aspect, from the architecture to the camera movements, from the rhythm to the compositions, conspires to contribute to Joan’s assault. Even now, after more than 80 years, Dreyer’s film is as fresh and as powerful as the year it was made: this is form and content synthesising at the highest level. And, while it would be a crime not to comment on the uniformly superb performances, to do so would be to undermine the purity of the film’s perfection. Falconetti does not play Joan. She is Joan. And Joan, for now and for evermore, is Falconetti.
Thankfully, Mie Yanashita’s piano score turns out to be something of a marvel. Echoing the rich simplicity of the film itself, Yanashita focuses on the film’s tenderness, allowing moments such as the shedding of Joan’s first tear a new beauty. Listening to this music with the breathtaking 20fps restoration was like seeing the film again for the very first time (a feeling no doubt cultivated by the insertion of the original Danish intertitles and their new English translation). There is a startling splendour to the restoration, and while the 24fps version may feel more familiar, moments there slipped over take on new resonances here, while the slower pacing allows a fuller savouring of the images in all their glorious detail. As the film progresses and the tension mounts, Yanashita isn’t afraid to pick up the drama, yet still manages to avoid the occasional heavy-handedness that marred Utley and Gregory’s recent score. While it’s perhaps true that Yanashita’s score never reaches the dizzying heights of Einhorn’s, it’s a moving and graceful accompaniment nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Loren Connors’ tedious and barbaric soundtrack to the 24fps version, which somehow manages to do the impossible and actually take the life out of the film. Perhaps it will appeal to some, but I found it insensitive and intrusive, and for me it detracted from the viewing experience far more than it added to it. I would certainly urge first-time viewers of the film to steer well clear.
It should be noted, of course, that Dreyer expressed a preference for the film to be viewed silent, and Masters of Cinema has loyally made this the default option for playback, so in some respects the choice of soundtracks is irrelevant. However, being given the choice of two scores (or three if you count the silence) and two playback speeds makes this a very special package indeed.
Completing the package is another, alternative version of the film: the complete ‘Lo Duca’ cut. When the original camera negative was thought lost to a lab fire, Dreyer reassembled the film using alternative takes … only for this new version to be lost to a second fire. However, in the 1950s the French film historian Joseph-Marie Lo Duca stumbled across a print of Dreyer’s second version. After recutting the film, Lo Duca put his version into circulation, despite Dreyer’s disapproval. Generally considered a bastardisation of Dreyer’s original vision, the Lo Duca version of the film has been relegated to the status of curiosity ever since the miraculous discovery of Dreyer’s first version in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the 1980s. Yet, for those with a passion for Joan, it’s a fascinating alternative version – an imperfect version of a perfect film. The first thing that struck me about it was the fact that the actual experience of watching it is nowhere near as horrendous as one would expect, given the interference. Additions such as an opening voiceover detailing the historical background may go against the very fabric of Dreyer’s intentions, but his genius still shines through. What’s more, a comparison of the Lo Duca and original versions teaches us much about Dreyer’s film-making choices.
Such a comparison is made easier by the excellent essay Two Passions – One Film? by the preeminent Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg, found in the accompanying 100-page booklet. Alongside Tybjerg’s essay are pieces by Chris Marker, André Bazin, Antonin Artaud, Luis Buñuel, HD, and Dreyer himself. But the bulk of the booklet is formed by a chapter from Jean and Dale D Drum’s Dreyer biography My Only Great Passion, which, in detailing the film’s production, puts lie to the idea of Dreyer as a cruel despotic director who tortured Falconetti’s performance out of her (written with approval and assistance from Dreyer, My Only Great Passion remains the definitive Dreyer biography).
Although the excellent booklet goes a long way towards making up for it, it’s a shame that no audio commentary was included in the package (especially given Tybjerg’s excellent commentary on the Criterion DVD). However, while Tybjerg’s commentary and Einhorn’s Voices of Light mean you shouldn’t throw away your Criterion disc just yet, it’s undeniable that the new restoration and the choice of versions take the Masters of Cinema release to the next level. This is an essential purchase in every conceivable way.