Tag Archives: Amy Sargeant

Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at GRAD Gallery: review

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amy Sargeant, author of British Cinema: a Critical History (BFI, 2005).

As with recent exhibitions of the photography, typography and graphic design work of Aleksandr Rodchenko (at the Hayward in 2008 and at Tate Modern in 2009), it is gratifying to see the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London, introducing a new generation to the stunning power and exuberance of Soviet film posters. This show reinforces an impression that disorientation and montage were methodically deployed across a number of design practices to arresting and persuasive effect. The respect for this work accorded by contemporary critics is acknowledged by the GRAD show’s inclusion of an advertisement for the 1926 Second Exhibition of Film Posters: people came to recognise the monograms of “named” designers; the dedication of artists to public art was officially celebrated and promoted.

The largest collection of Soviet film posters, to my knowledge, is held by the Russian State Library in Moscow, deposited as a consequence of copyright requirements. Unfortunately, in many instances, little is known about the commissioning process, nor the circumstances and extent of information supplied to designers at the time the posters were produced concerning the films advertised. To those of us familiar with the Moscow archive, the range of formats will come as no surprise – nor will the anonymity of some designers. For visitors acquainted with glossy, flat, reproductions of posters in such coffee-table compilations as Susan Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde (Taschen, 1995), the raw texture of the lithographs on display will serve as a reminder of the technical constraints under which the work was produced. Photogravure and modern offset printing came to Russia only late in the 1920s. Offprints of the posters are here available as postcards or at A3 (£25) and a1 (£60). Posters, I recall, were a great hit at the British Council’s Yuri Gagarin installation.

The GRAD show, drawn from two private collections mostly of the monogrammed variety – the Stenberg Brothers feature prominently), alongside readily identifiable excerpts from films: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Victor Turin’s Turksib (1929) sit alongside Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever (1924) and Storm over Asia (1928); an excerpt from Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927) is accompanied by posters by Izrail Bograd and Semyon Semyonov-Menes for the same film (both featuring the monumental equestrian statue of Alexander III – as it appears in the film). An “Avrora” sailor’s hat-band, in a section of a Stenbergs’ hoarding, is sufficient to evoke Eisenstein’s October (1927).

The show confirms an appetite on the part of Soviet audiences for cinematic entertainments tragic, dramatic and comedic. The Stenbergs’ poster for Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s The Decembrists (1926) demonstrates the Soviet regime’s concern to establish precedents in Russian history for the October Revolution. There is also ample evidence of the export of American and European films to Russia in the post-Revolutionary period, likely to receive a welcome reception: for instance, Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), significantly known in Russia as A Man and a Livery, is represented by Emil Jannings proudly standing foreground in his preposterously braided hotel commissionaire’s uniform, with, in the background, the shadowy, hunched figure he is destined  to become once retired to the hotel’s basement washroom.

The show’s thin catalogue (overpriced at £25) includes short essays by co-curator Lutz Becker and co-editor Alexandra Chiriac. The former covers key aspects of art school training, film production and distribution; the latter pays obeisance to Walter Benjamin (the 1926-27) Moscow Diary and 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility) while, sadly, failing to counter Benjamin’s uninformed estimation of the talents of Igor Ilinskii, undeservedly reported as “an inscrupulous and inept imitator of Chaplin”. Russian audiences appreciated Ilinskii as one of their finest actors, on stage and screen. An appendix outlines the education, careers and varied output of the designers recognised.

I look forward to GRAD’s coming exhibitions, notably its 2014 summer show of Soviet textiles.

By Amy Sargeant

The Kino/Film exhibition continues at the GRAD gallery until 29 March 2014

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A history of silent films at the Royal Albert Hall: from Faust to The Artist

The Blackguard at the Royal Albert Hall
The Blackguard at the Royal Albert Hall

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amy Sargeant, author of British Cinema: a Critical History (BFI, 2005). 

Followers of Silent London intending to attend the London Symphony Orchestra’s live accompaniment to Michel Hazanavicius’ 2012 The Artist, in December this year, might care to know about Royal Albert Hall screenings of “the genuine article” in the 1920s.

The end of the first world war was marked with a variety event, including films, at the hall. Subsequent presentations, running from October to December 1919, celebrated Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. Antarctic and Everest expeditions were commemorated in benefit screenings. In 1926, the RAF band contributed to a programme including a lecture by the aviator Alan Cobham, the film recording his arrival back in London after his flight to Australia, and an address from the prime minister of Australia: of course, the Imperial Institute was a close neighbour, perhaps influencing the selection of items recorded in the archive. European films screened included Murnau’s 1926 Faust and Turzhansky’s 1926 adaptation of Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff. A lavish souvenir pamphlet (above) was published to accompany the trade show of Graham Cutts’ 1925 The Blackguard, an adaptation of Raymond Paton’s novel, featuring a romance between a Russian princess and a violinist. A special attraction at the event was a dance performed by Serge Morosov “of the Imperial Russian School of Ballet”.

Faust (1926)
Faust (1926)

The novelist Naomi Mitchison, sister of JBS Haldane (a founding member of the Film Society) recalled in her memoirs the long run of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen in the summer of 1924. The London Symphony Orchestra performed a Wagnerian prelude and a sub-Wagnerian score for the film (commented upon by Picturegoer critics as derivative), composed by G Huppertz.

The Sea Hawk (1924)
The Sea Hawk (1924)

In addition to orchestral accompaniments, programmes give details of songs and soloists. Furthermore, for Frank Lloyd’s swashbuckler The Sea Hawk (1924), the prow of a ship was installed in front of the screen, while for Southern Love (Herbert Wilcox, 1924), balcony decorations and special effects were provided.

Indeed, a brief survey of Royal Albert Hall programmes confirms a more general observation to be drawn from the trade and general press: in the 1920s, performance and staging manifestly contributed much to the cinematic experience in London and to British audiences’ enjoyment of films, even outside regular cinema venues.

Amy Sergeant

The Artist screens at the Royal Albert Hall on 30 & 31 December 2013, with the London Symphony Orchestra and composer-pianist Ludovic Bource, conducted by Ernst Van Tiel. There is no official dress code for this event but anyone who wishes is encouraged to celebrate the elegance and style of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Glamour, and not just for the New Year’s Eve performances. 

A Woman Redeemed at the Cinema Museum, 14 June 2012

A Woman Redeemed (1927)
A Woman Redeemed (1927)

On 14 June, the Cinema Museum is showing a programme of little-seen British silent films, including a new print of the racy spy thriller A Woman Redeemed (Sinclair Hill, 1927), starring Brian Aherne and Joan Lockton, with musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne.  I’ve seen A Woman Redeemed, and it’s a stylish, well-paced film from the latter end of the silent era that deserves a far more exciting title – and a wider audience. Here, to introduce the film more fully, is a guest post from Amy Sargeant, author of British Cinema: a Critical History (BFI, 2005).

'Hollywood taste' – A Woman Redeemed (1927)
'Hollywood taste' – A Woman Redeemed (1927)

Stoll’s 1927 release, A Woman Redeemed, was adapted by Mary Murillo from Frederick Britten Austin’s Strand magazine short story, ‘The Fining Pot is for Silver’. Both scenarios exploit a contemporary appetite for spy fiction – possibly best exemplified by John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Huntingtower and Greenmantle – and the audience for wartime memoirs published by former Secret Service personnel. Basil Thomson, appointed head of the Criminal Investigation Department in 1913, was twice charged with interviewing the alleged spy, Mata Hari. Self-servingly, he concluded:

No drama, no film story yet written has been so enthralling as our daily repertory on the dimly lighted stage set in a corner of the granite building in Westminster. In a century after we … are dead and gone, the Great War will be a quarry for tales of adventure, of high endeavour, and of splendid achievement: when that time comes even some of the humbler actors who play their part in these pages may be seen through a haze of romance.

Both Britten Austin’s story and Sinclair Hill’s film feature an organisation of foreign agents, intent upon power and destruction. Geoffrey Wayneflete (Brian Aherne), an irreproachable young pilot distinguished for his service in the Great War, has designed a wireless controlled, pilotless aeroplane ‘that shall make Britain strong enough to keep peace in the world’. The agents conspire to steal his plans, pressing into service Felice Annaway (Joan Lockton), ordering her to use her ‘charm and beauty’ to seduce Geoffrey. Stella Arbenina, meanwhile, plays the darkly enigmatic and heartless Marta, threatening to expose Felice should she fail to comply with the instructions of a dastardly ‘Twisted Genius’. The Criminal Investigation Department is not to be outwitted and pursues the agents to France; a chase ensues, from Paris to London, the centre of a ‘Proud Empire’.

A foreign agent, 'intent upon power and destruction' – A Woman Redeemed (1927)
A foreign agent, 'intent upon power and destruction' – A Woman Redeemed (1927)

A masked ball afforded Walter Murton, Hill’s designer, the opportunity to produce the most spectacular set witnessed to date in British Cinema: spangled bathing belles dive into a pool from tiered platforms. A 1927 Bioscope reviewer commented wryly on the decors provided for Felice’s Paris hotel suite:

The bedrooms with gold and silver draperies seem rather to suggest Hollywood taste, but for anything we know that may be the taste that appeals to ladies in the pay of alien governments.

One guest at the ball has drawn inspiration from Douglas Fairbanks; Geoffrey comes dressed as Harlequin.

'Spangled bathing belles' – A Woman Redeemed (1927)
'Spangled bathing belles' – A Woman Redeemed (1927)

As an author, Britten Austin was something of a pasticheur, with a range spanning from popular farce to a modish fascination with the occult: Buried Treasure, combining parapsychology, adventure and costume drama, was filmed by Cosmopolitan in 1921 from a Britten Austin short story, as a vehicle for Marion Davies. However, as a prediction of future aerial warfare, A Woman Redeemed bears comparison with Maurice Elvey’s 1929 High Treason, likewise featuring a gang of alien, deracinated mercenaries and idealists.

A Woman Redeemed uses multinational aliases to designate suspect characters. It gestures towards a return to nationalism in Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a guarantor of inner security and the potential incubator of external conflict.

A Woman Redeemed screens at the Cinema Museum in south London on 14 June 2012 at 6.30pm, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Tickets cost £8.50 or £6.50 for concessions and are available online here.

Images courtesy of the National Film and Television Archive.