“I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night.” Buster Keaton’s first impression of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into the cinema, Film, is entirely understandable. Although no one would wish its nightmarish scenario to appear in their own cheese dreams. This short, dialogue-free existential chase movie was made in 1966 starring a near-septuagenarian Keaton – and it remains one of the most intriguing corners of film history. The Nobel Laureate’s film might promise slapstick, but as Ross Lipman the director of a documentary on the work, NotFilm says: “It was at once an investigation of the cinematic medium, and of the human experience of consciousness.” Popcorn, anyone?
Keaton plays O, a man pursued by a camera, E. Object and Eye. O runs away from E, and when cornered in a room, goes to desperate lengths to avoid its piercing gaze. The reveal at the end of the movie is chillingly sinister, even if you see it coming. The film is shot in black and white, and although Keaton has aged, he is still recognisably the acrobatic star of the 20s – his pork-pie hat is worn at an angle, an eye-patch caps those famous cheekbones. The mood is bleak, paranoid, the camera is unsteady, Keaton shifty.
Beckett was displeased with Film, despite conceding that it contained “the strangeness and beauty of pure image”. The critics were unimpressed at the time, but as is so often the way with these things, the reputation of Film has risen with time. This art film has become, in its own way, a cult movie: very hard to see, and referred to or homaged almost as often as it is screened. The theatrical release of Lipman’s brilliant “kino-essay” documentary was very welcome – offering historical background, cinematic context, and critical interpretation for Beckett’s movie. (I wrote about that last year for the Guardian.)
The Informer truly put the “international” into British International Pictures. This film, shot entirely in the Elstree studios in 1929, was adapted from an Irish novel, directed by a German, and starred a Swedish man and a Hungarian woman. As far as in-front-of-the-camera talent goes, this is exactly the kind of international collaboration that would perish with the coming of sound. Behind the scenes, British studios would only welcome in more European personnel through the 1930s, though sadly for the worst of reasons.
So The Informer is a movie on the cusp – geographically and historically. It’s fitting then that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions. The BFI restored the talkie Informer a while back, but in 2016, the silent version got the full makeover treatment, and was presented as the London Film Festival Archive Gala with a new score by Garth Knox.
And thank goodness it did, because, whether you have seen the stilted and shaky sound version or not, the silent Informer is a breath of fresh air. This is a truly accomplished late silent drama, with a graceful moving camera and fine performances, and all that emotion is heightened by slinky black shadows and high-angled shots that recall director Arthur Robison’s achievements in German Expressionism (you may have seen Warning Shadows, 1923). The story may be set in early 1920s Dublin, but this vampiric treatment suits it perfectly. Liam O’Flaherty pictured his moody thriller being made into a German film when it was still words on a page.
In this taut, cat-and-mouse thriller, Lars Hanson plays Gypo Nolan, one of a disintegrating band of Irish revolutionaries, who tips off the police to the whereabouts of his exiled comrade, Francis, played by Carl Harbord. Famed vamp star Lya de Putti plays the woman they both love. The story plays out in the mean streets of Dublin – there’s a claustrophobic sense of place as we feel that the characters are trapped in the city streets by their ideals as much as by their betrayals. But this city could also be any city where the people and the police are at odds. It could be Weimar Berlin, for example. And it’s uncannily like the crime-infested LA of 1940s film noir. Those shadows get everywhere.
In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.
Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.
So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.
Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.
Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.
The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.
For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.
This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.
Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”
In the silent era, films were far more ephemeral than they are today. The fragile nitrate was unspooled for a few shows in each cinema that rented them, and then sent away, re-used, melted, left to crumble and decay or burst, suddenly, into flames. It was a time before retrospectives and archives and museums of the moving image. Now we see films in very different way. In the digital world, although the films seem to have lost their physical presence, becoming data streamed or downloaded on to screens of all sizes, they have the illusion of permanence. Central to this is the arthouse home video market, which packages films like books, as objects to be cherished, or maybe hoarded. A shelf full of gleaming Criterion Blu-rays is as imposing as a line of leather-bound novels – talismans of high culture and prized possessions. We don’t just watch films now, we expect to own them: explore them rewind and freeze and read around them.
Marcel L’Herbier’s Art Deco science-fiction drama L’Inhumaine is as much an art object as a film, and as such, it is the perfect Blu-ray movie. This glittering feature was designed to be admired from all angeles, its intricate and self-consciously beautiful design is the 1920s equivalent of 4K high-definition. I dare you to watch it without your finger itching for the pause button.
The inhuman woman of the title is a lady who knows a thing or two about being admired from all angles. Claire (played by soprano Georgette Leblanc) is an opera singer who lives in a stunning modernist home, which she opens to a select group of guests, a fawning salon of important men who jostle for her attentions. Everything about Claire’s world is both chilly and extravagant. The dinners she hosts are served at a dining table surrounded by an indoor moat. A drift of swans putter around the guest, more of Claire’s captives, but the only ones present who are indifferent to her beauty. When Claire hears that one of her admirers, Einar (Jaque Catelain) has killed himself after she rejected him, she experiences a slow awakening of her passions, and a more literal resurrection of her body, via a poisonous snake and an electric re-animation machine.
Remind me which one that is? Oh come on. Nosferatu is a classic – FW Murnau’s free-floating Dracula adaptation is one of scariest films of all time, and one of the most beautiful too.
Is that the one with hunchbacked shadow lurching up the stairs? Bingo.
Surely it’s not still hanging around?Nosferatu is back baby, and now it’s on Blu-ray too, courtesy of a new release from the BFI.
Oh, Nosferatu on Blu-ray? I got that already. Really?
Well, no. I saw that Masters of Cinema brought it out two years ago but I hadn’t got around to buying it yet. Ah I thought so. Well you could buy this version instead.
I might. Both releases are Blu-ray updates of each label’s previous DVD release of the film.
I’m all about Blu-ray. What’s the difference between the two packages though? The extras are different, and the score. MoC used the original theatrical score, and the BFI has used a more modern, but also orchestral, score by James Bernard. And yes, both are available in stereo and 5.1.
As of next week, Man With a Movie Camera could be coming to a big screen, or a Blu-ray machine, near you. And there’s always a good reason to watch Man With a Movie Camera again. First, because it’s such a stunning film: exhilarating, avant-garde and witty. And second, because each time you do, you’ll grapple with the questions it throws at you again – and just possibly come up with different conclusions. This magnificent movie may be a film studies set text, but it defies attempts at explanation, and in fact, it has a unique way of wriggling out of any category you might try to impose on it. Recently crowned top documentary of all time, it is also an experimental art film. It appears to be a City Symphony but it is a fraudulent one – filmed in three cities and naming none of them. Its absurdities of composition and action make the audience think of comedy, even cartoons and its trick cuts and frame manipulation are closer to animation than conventional film-making.
If I could rechristen this film as its director did himself when he went from plain David Kaufman to the far more evocative Dziga Vertov, I would call it Woman with a Moviola. The new name would be in honour of Yelizaveta Svilova, who edited the film with Vertov, and whom we see stitching together frames midway through the film. The man of the title clambers, and tilts and gets where the action is, that’s for sure, as any camera operator should do. But the magic of this film is in its elaborate construction, its celebration of those arts that are purely cinematic – not offcuts from other media. As Roger Ebert said when he reviewed the film in 2009: “It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it cinema.”
Svilova is also arguably the least well-known of the “council of three” comprising herself, her husband Vertov and his brother-cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. And it seems appropriate to the film’s perversities to proclaim her the heroine: at this point, perhaps, the only way to look at Vertov’s film is sideways.
This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.
Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Louise Brooks and GW Pabst, an irresistible combination? Certainly Pandora’s Box (1929) caught lightning in a bottle, creating one of the most iconic female roles in all of silent cinema. In Pandora’s Box, Pabst and Brooks tease eroticism out of a certain ingenue naivety, whereas in her previous US films (A Girl In Every Port and Beggars of Life in particular) Brooks had offerede a slightly more world-weary sensuality. So it is no surprise that Pabst saw Brooks as the perfect person to play Thymian, the sheltered girl who will drop through the cracks of life via a workhouse for fallen women and prostitution.
This new Blu-Ray transfer of Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer verlorenen, 1929) by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is a crisp and beautiful version of what is clearly an exploitation movie. As in Pandora’s Box, Pabst’s walks the tightrope of commenting on eroticism and sensuality; too often he falls off the tightrope into titillation. The film is set up for us to rue the difficult circumstances that lead to Thymian’s journey from a fine middle-class household down into poverty and eventually to selling her body. Except everything is still a bit clean. The reformatory is horrid, but only in comparison to her comfortable home – and its horridness is more due to a Miss Hanniganesque management rather than something inherent in the system. And there isn’t really too much criticism of Thymian’s shaming (AKA rape), and pregnancy. You get the sense that the original author (the film is based on a popular Margarete Böhme novel) and the film-makers are just following through the logical conclusion of these incidents. Instead, we end up with a somewhat warped fairytale, a slow-burn Snow White where the dwarves run a brothel full of happy hookers, or Cinderella with calisthenics.
There is a sensuality and rawness in Pandora’s Box, coming from Lulu’s naivity, which Thymian doesn’t share at all. At least by the time the film has put her through her paces as part of the reformatory’s physical education routine, she has no sense of wild abandon. It is a wholly more sinister erotic thrill, underlined (perhaps a bit too heavily) by the matron whipping her gong and clearly getting far too much pleasure out of the whole affair. This part of the film could be subtitled Reform School Girls do gym:
Spies are cool. Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.
“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi, is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.
Just in time for Christmas, Masters of Cinema is rereleasing some more of its silent back catalogue, in gorgeous new dual-format DVD/Blu-ray editions. This is a Good Thing no doubt, and if there is one title especially suited for the pantomime season it’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – a middle eastern romp starring Douglas Fairbanks as Ahmed, a light-fingered adventurer, beautifully photographed and bulging with the last word in 1920s special effects.
Forget the effects for a minute though, forget Raoul Walsh behind the camera, Anna May Wong slinking around the corners, and William Cameron Menzies’s towering sets, and settle in for the Douglas Fairbanks show. This is Fairbanks at his very best: fortysomething, athletic, beaming, stripped to the waist and bouncing in and out of giant pots, swashbuckling and soaring through the air and under the sea. If you want to understand why Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood, this is a key text. He burns up the screen here, forcing you to smile, to chuckle, to gasp in awe at his latest trickery or feat of physical prowess, daring you to remain unmoved. It would take a heart of stone not to relent – it’s his ambition as producer that lends this film its grand scale, and his radiant personality that wins the audience’s affection as well as its awe.
But you will have to possess a mind as gymnastic as Fairbanks’ buff body not to be troubled by the fact that this movie is pure orientalist claptrap. It can be done – Fairbanks on a magic carpet with his princess Julanne Johnston by his side is a sight beauteous enough to tempt you into a little light doublethinking duty. Just like Ahmed, you’ll have to earn your happiness here. It’s not a nasty film, but it is an ignorant one. If it weren’t for the gloss of that stunning production design and the stardust sprinkled by its leading man, that would be all we had to write about. As it is, we can take heart from the fact that the guff that underpins this movie is mostly well-intentioned but misguided romanticism. Rather this, you could argue, than yet another flick where the only middle eastern characters are bloodthirsty terrorists.
Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
Pola Negri’s Madame Dubarry has it. You know exactly what I am talking about. Dubarry is living and loving in the heat of pre-revolutionary Paris, but she’s more than enough trouble for the aristos all by herself. “The woman who will ruin France” is first introduced as a breath of fresh air, whispering saucy jokes to the other girls in the seamstresses’ workroom – a ripple of fun in the stuffy atmosphere of the atelier. When she leaves the shop, Dubarry collects admirers with every step, like Clara Bow in a crinoline. Before long, of course, she’s the mistress of Louis XV, creating disarray in the court, just as she did in the shop.
Ernst Lubitsch is brilliant at capturing this, the sizzle of sex appeal so hot that it can turn a king’s head, transform a society ball into an orgy, or raise an angry mob at the palace gates. Madame Dubarry has the angst of a drama, but the vigour of a comedy, and Negri has exactly the attitude that the part demands. Dubarry isn’t a calculating seductress, just a natural-born pleasure-seeker: a minx who decides which lover to visit by pouting as she pulls at the bows on her bodice. And Negri commits fully to the role of a beautiful woman in ugly circumstances – those enormous eyes are flirting one moment and filled with anguish the next. Some people are allergic to Negri’s grand emoting, the head flung back, the flailing arms. But there’s plenty there’s naturalistic and light here: watch her face as Jannings trims her fingernails, revelling in pleasure and pain. And yes, there’s also an opportunity for Negri to rehearse her most notorious scene – hysterically throwing herself across her lover’s coffin.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Frau Im Mond is one of the first silent movies I saw as an adult. And despite its audacious special effects I can honestly say Fritz Lang’s rocket opera was not my gateway drug to silent film. Instead I saw it to justify the décor of my recently redecorated flat. I wanted to hang an attractive film poster above my stairs; for quite some time it was going to be Metropolis, until I saw the poster for Frau Im Mond, and its iconic rocket. As a science-fiction fan, and a film buff, how could I resist this picture? However, it seemed like cheating to have a poster of a film I hadn’t seen hanging above my stairs. So that is why I saw Frau Im Mond six years ago, having bought the previous Masters Of Cinema DVD release.
Now it is back, re-released in dual format Blu-ray and DVD, and seven minutes of additional footage have been added to the film, which brings the running time up to a handsome two hours and 49 minutes. As with the recently reconstituted Metropolis, Lang takes his time but doesn’t waste a minute. It is just that for much of the film each minute could have been thirty seconds shorter, and the plotting gets in the way of what the film promises. While Frau Im Mond is a notable film in both Lang’s filmography and in the history of science-fiction cinema, it is also way too long and ponderous – considering its wonderful potential.
Written by Fritz Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou, and based on her novel of the same name, Frau Im Mond is one part conspiracy thriller and one part science-fiction tale. And that almost equally splits the running time, with the first hour and 20 minutes being a convoluted runaround between a professor, venture capitalists, enemy agents, a fiancée and a sparky kid. The rocket from the poster – and the justification for this being the first “scientific” science-fiction film – finally appears at one hour 18 minutes and the film does pick up considerably at that point, if only to give us some effects and even better Aran jumpers.
The news certainly caught my attention. Masters of Cinema has upgraded its DVD release of Murnau’s Faust: a German Folktale (1926) to a shiny new dual-format edition. All the beauty of Faust, but in high-definition Blu-ray glory: temptation itself. The even better news is that this is a very beautiful disc indeed.
Faust has always been a feast for the eyes, from the cutting-edge 1920s special effects to the gorgeously, painterly compositions, and the Blu-ray transfer here more than does the film justice. Compared to the DVD, this is just far, far more filmic. There are rich blacks and sumptuous detail, making the most of crowd scenes and shadowy landscapes. On a biggish screen, you’ll notice a texture of soft grain, not sharp pixels. As was familiar practice in the 1920s, Murnau shot Faust with two cameras – one each for the domestic and export versions of the film. His favourite takes remained in the German print, and that is what has been restored here (the grandly gothic German intertitles remain, so you’ll have to turn the subtitles on). This is the best Faust you can get – screening this at home is a seriously impressive movie experience.
There has been plenty of chat on this blog, and elsewhere, about this fascinating, haunting documentary. Captain John Noel’s chilling film of the Mallory and Irvine’s doomed attempt to conquer the summit of Everest is a work of art, a testament to wild ambition, and a record of the prejudices and misconceptions of its era. For cinema audiences, the spectacle of the film – magnificent mountainscapes, drenched in red or blue tints – came first. Seen on the big screen, The Epic of Everest is utterly mesmerising.
So this home video release has to satisfy two camps. There will be those with deluxe home cinema setups who want to recreate the thrills of the cinema experience – and they will be happy with the high-definition transfer on the Blu-Ray disc here. The images are crisp and stable, with those beautifully rich tints adding real splendour to the scenery. But I suspect a more substantial group, knowing that The Epic will lose a little of its visual power on their TV screen, will want to go deeper into the film, will be looking for history rather than spectacle.
Luckily the secound group is especially well-served by the presentation here. There are featurettes on the making and restoring of the film, as well as a thick booklet of essays, archive images and background information. You’ll remember that Simon Fisher Turner turned in another glacial score for The Epic – sleek, experimental themes comprising electronica and found sounds. There’s a documentary on his work here too, but just in case you’re about to slip out of the door in disgust – hold on.
With this package, the BFI invites you to step back in time to 1924 and experience The Epic of Everest as its first audience did – well within reason. Those who buy the DVD version can download a PDF of the original programme from its premiere at the Scala, and – which may come as a surprise to a few people – you can watch the film with its original orchestral score here too. The score was recorded by the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra and appears as an option alongside the new music, mixed in stereo. It’s less nuanced to 21st-century ears, perhaps, than the new music by Fisher Turner, but its lushness (it sounds almost like a ballet score) is totally immersive. There are some added musical snippets here too – all pieces that would have accompanied the first 1924 screening. If I had a pound coin for everyone who lamented to me that a new release of a silent had a modern score without a more “traditional” version as an audio option, I’d be able to buy a round of drinks for a full house at NFT2, so this is a welcome piece of news. Hats off to the BFI, and to Julie Brown who oversaw the reconstruction of the original music.
For more information, and to buy The Epic of Everest on DVD and Blu-Ray, please click here
Fresh from a theatrical release and a flurry of Halloween shows, Nosferatu springs into life on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. This new release is an update of the label’s previous DVD, but features the Symphony of Horror in gleaming 1080p glory, with a handful of new features as a bonus prize.
This is a precious object then, a totemic silent film in beautiful packaging and supported by more supporting material in the form of articles, audio commentaries, interviews and documentary footage than you could possibly expect. Apparently, there has been more work done to improve on the 2007 restoration – if you’ve seen this in the cinema already you know how pristine the prince of darkness looks here. And that is so important. Nosferatu is far more than shadows. Arguably, rewatching Nosferatu on Blu-Ray at home, rather than at an amped-up and spooky live show, you enjoy its gorgeousness rather than the horror thrills: those painterly landscapes in their pastel tints. There’s nothing like the black-white-red-purple palette of modern gothic horror here – which keeps the film fresh but always uncanny. The music helps, too. The score from Nosferatu’s first run plays up the prettiness and romance – until it can’t hold out any longer.
Do we need to recap? I’ll do this at high speed, like Orlok’s spectral carriage dashing through an ethereal white forest. Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in all but name, with the action transferred to Germany. Max Shreck is the snuggle-toothed vampire Orlok, the young and preternaturally talented FW Murnau sits in the director’s chair. The movie was produced and designed by Albin Grau, an artist with a keen interest in the occult. And it’s brilliant: both beautiful and terrifying. A horrific spooky story, with eerie contemporary import. Remember that Europe has just come out the other side of a world war and a brutal flu epidemic, then look again at the devastation wreaked by Orlok here.
In fact, even if you’ve never seen a second of Nosferatu, you’ll know its most famous shot: Orlok’s hunched shadow stretching up the wall as he climbs the stairs. That shot has became a visual shorthand for horror, for imminent danger. It’s remarkable, by contrast with all the films that have appropriated the stair shot, that Murnau’s Nosferatu avoids any such shortcuts: turning leafy landscapes into places of horror, playing violence as romance, and romance as violence. Nonagenarian special effects such as Orlok packing himself into his coffin, and later lurching out of it, still feel vibrant. Perhaps that’s partly because this is a relatively decorous scary movie, with just a few drops of blood standing in for Orlok’s grotesque appetite. Murnau drenches Orlok’s victims in creeping shadows, rather than cascading gore. You’ll jump like a child at the sight of a rat, believe me.
But even if you remember those shocks from a long-ago screening, I would urge you to acquaint yourself much more closely with this poetic, audacious film. There’s far more here than a textbook paragraph on Expressionism can brief you on. Each repeat viewing brings something new to the fore, and that’s where the MoC treatment excels. Let me see, this disc contains two audio commentaries (one by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens from 2007, and another by David Kalat, who is so charming and impressively knowledgable that we’ll let him off for describing Stoker as an Englishman), two interviews (an previously seen chat with Abel Ferrara, and a new one with BFI Film Classic author Kevin Jackson). There’s a German language doc, which includes lots of location footage, and a booklet of articles and gorgeous images. The new commentary and interview are particularly sharp on unpacking myths around Nosferatu, from the etymological origin of the name to Grau’s spiritualist beliefs.
Take it from me, you need more Nosferatu in your life.
A “monumental film” as epic as the most far-fetched fantasy saga, but firmly grounded in the streets of Weimar Berlin, this first instalment of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy is, simply put, a whole lot of movie for your money. A supernatural tale intertwined with social commentary, a crime film on a majestic scale, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler represents four and a half hours of contradiction and excess. It’s brilliant.
First, acquaint yourself with the structure: this is the first film in the trilogy, but it’s two films, released a month apart. The first film is called The Great Gambler: an Image of the Age, the second, Inferno: a Game for the People of Our Age. Each has six acts and runs for around two hours. It’s a tale of rise and fall, at heart, but a messy business at best. Together the two films form a complete story, but the second part of the trilogy, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, would appear in 1933 and the third, Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, in 1967. The source for the first two films at least was the serialised Mabuse novels of author Norbert Jacques. This is pulp mystery fiction with a touch of class; Lang takes a few steps in the direction of his Hollywood film noir future with these slick stories of criminal twists, unexpected turns and moral compromises in a bleak urban setting.
Those subtitles for the two individual films should give you an inkling that this was intended to be, and was received as, a film that documented its own bewildering era. The cracks in the fractured, dysfunctional Berlin society where Mabuse and his seedy accomplices dwell are the symptoms of the national postwar crisis. That Mabuse is a charismatic, malevolent leader who leads his victims to commit terrible acts, even to destroy themselves, bodes ill for the future. The pace of the plot, the melting certainties and doubtful identities, speak to the fears of those baffled by the mechanisation of the age. This is a film driven by speeding trains, racing cars, guns and screaming mobs: modern phenomena as frightening to many as Mabuse’s mass hallucinations.
Like the film itself, Dr Mabuse is a man of many disguises. Publicly a psychoanalyst, he is privately a gambler at the card table, a hypnotist who transforms people into pawns, a bingeing alcoholic and an arch-criminal with a network of underling felons reaching across the continent. That “Spieler” subtitle translates variously as actor, player and puppeteer. Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Mabuse enthrals the audience. His deeds are evil, but there is endless fascination in watching him at work: the casual arrogance of a conman who sends memoranda to his criminal colleagues on banknotes, of a villain who fails to collect a towering gambling debt, because his eyes are on a grander, bloodier prize, of a boozer who condemns his assistant’s drug use.
Mabuse’s nemesis is a dogged man of the law, the state prosecutor on the trail of a gang of card cheats who stumbles upon by chance on a more sinister criminal organisation. Bernhard Goetzke plays Inspector Von Wenk as a slightly desperate individual, a Weimar gumshoe who throws himself recklessly into the hunt for Mabuse – in one stunning setpiece, he faces the villain down over the card table, and manages to resists the full force of the doctor’s hypnotic power. Von Wenk goes solely by his surname in the source novel, but Fritz Lang honours him with the same first name as the novel’s author, Norbert Jacques. It’s a hint, perhaps that the law will eventually reign supreme in the anarchic, shifting world of Dr Mabuse. Hold on tight for an all-guns-blazing finale.
There are women, of course. Norwegian star Aud Egede-Nissen is the nightclub dancer Cara whose love for Mabuse rules her every move, from her seduction of his latest mark (played by the man who would become her husband, Paul Richter – Siegried in Die Nibelungen) to her ultimate downfall. Her performance, especially at the climax of the first movie, is particularly moving. And the little-known Gertrude Welcker dazzles as a bored countess seduced by the thrills of the Berlin nightclubs, and the underworld that controls them.
Dr Mabuse is a film to savour – if you know your silent Fritz Lang, you won’t be surprised that it’s a rare frame you don’t want to freeze, to relish the grandeur of the upper-class interiors, the moodily lit street scenes or the disconcerting multiple exposures in the mad scenes. On this new Blu-Ray presentation, as you ponder the beauty of it all, you’ll want to take a listen to the excellent audio commentary by David Kalat. Among many interesting insights into the movie, Kalat argues staunchly that Lang was no Expressionist. You may waver in your agreement with this thesis, but what’s for sure is that on the evidence of Mabuse Lang knew when to drape his sets in Caligari-esque chiaroscuro lighting, and when to leave well alone. The abstract Expressionist artworks that transform the Count’s mansion into a palace are refigured as a gothic nightmare when he loses his sense. The contrast between the two cinematographic treatments of the jail cell setting here is heartbreaking: the crisscrossing, swerving bars of darkness almost seem a comfort when we return to the same scene in crisp, unforgiving sunlight.
It’s a rich text for sure, and Kalat drops more than a few clues in his commentary as to how you may want to view Mabuse from a 21st-century perspective. It’s a game of chase-the-parallel. Does Herr Doktor equate to a gangster, a terrorist, a capitalist or a banker? The devil perhaps, is not in the detail, but in Lang’s expertly drawn grand scheme. This is a story of the very rich and the very poor, and a man who found a way to exploit both groups. From his blind counterfeiters toiling in a slum workshops, to the society chumps he cheats at cards, Mabuse is bleeding everyone dry. The really terrifying idea is not that villains exist, after all, but that the circumstances exist in which they can thrive.
Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is released by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 28 October 2013. The two-disc set features a sparkling modern score by Aljoscha Zimmermann played by a small ensemble, three featurettes, audio commentary and a booklet of images and text from the archive. This is a Blu-Ray transfer of an existing 2K restoration. Order the Blu-Ray from Movie Mail.
Whichever way you look at cinema history, you can’t avoid The Birth of a Nation (1915), a landmark, but one that casts a murky shadow. It is absolutely fitting and proper that the film regarded as the first American feature, which kickstarted Hollywood’s rise to global domination, and that was made by a true cinematic genius should be given the Masters of Cinema treatment – Blu-Ray transfer, archival extras, fancy booklet and all. Just don’t call The Birth of a Nation a masterpiece – while this is an important film, it is a terribly flawed one.
Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is an abolitionist congressman, based on Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones in Spielberg’s Lincoln), and his children are friends with the Cameron family in the South. Four of the children will fall in love with each other, but the Civil War will tear them apart. The second and most controversial part of the film details the consequences of the war and of freeing and enfranchising the slaves. Legislature is overrun by loutish black men; Cameron’s youngest daughter commits suicide when pursued by a “renegade negro”. The Ku Klux Klan exert a rough justice for this and other crimes and bully the black citizens back into their place. All ends, apparently, happily ever after, “Aryan birthright” defended, wedding bells pealing, with a vision of Christ.
The Birth of a Nation is an epic film, running for three hours and more, with a big subject, but a small mind. Beginning just before the American Civil War does, and hanging around to see the South recover from its heavy defeat, the movie encompasses battle, politics, romance and a family saga of sorts. Its text-heavy intertitles reveal a worthy ambition: to convey “the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence”. Other intertitles protest against censorship, asking that the film be given the same liberty to speak as the Bible, or Shakespeare. We are frequently told that this or that scene is a “historical facsimile” drawn from library sources. But these arguments feel hollow. The Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Clansman, is guilty of a sin of omission, and the far more serious crime of racism. This is a paean to the South, but specifically a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan, who in this narrative save the “white South” from “the heel of the black South”. It concerns itself not one jot with the “abhorrences” of slavery or slave-trading. Its black and mixed-race characters are cartoonish (“Dem free-niggers f’um d N’of am sho’ crazy”) and mostly venal – cowardly, yet sexually predatory, weak-minded, easily led. Of course, many of them are played by white actors, and needless to say, blackface is never a good look. In one horrific sequence a group of black men lynch another for supporting their rivals; in another equally nauseating scene lines of black voters cower in front of Klan members – this vote-rigging by intimidation is presented a as triumph. A cotton-field is used as a romantic setting for the white upper-class characters to coo at each other in.
I mention this because you may have heard that The Birth of a Nation is a great film, but a racist one. That is part of the way to the truth, which is that the film’s racism prevents it from becoming truly great. DW Griffith made many other films with old-fashioned, sentimental storylines – but his best work moves the audience, because it is based on an emotional truth. That emotional truth is missing in this film. Here, in a typically Griffithian sentimental moment, impoverished Carolina belle Mae Marsh trims her dress with “Southern ermine” that is, raw cotton daubed with fingerprints of soot. We’re expected to feel sorry for her character in her shabby frock, but not for the slave who picked that cotton for her family in the first place. That’s quite the feat of mental acrobatics. It’s hard to believe that this film was made by the same director who created A Corner in Wheat six years earlier. Even the wonderful Lillian Gish is disappointing here – her role as Stoneman’s thoughtless daughter (she never visits the library) who is disgusted by her boyfriend joining the Klan until a mixed-race men attempts to assault her, gives her little to work with. Although Miriam Cooper in a quieter role as the elder Cameron sister, is constantly compelling.
Without making excuses for the film’s failings, we should also note its monumental achievements: the deft storytelling here cuts across years and state lines from the home front to the battlefield and never feels forced or confused. It’s long, but never boring. Those war scenes are epic in scale and brutal in the vividness of their hand-on-hand combat – vistas of the battlefield spread out before the audience smothered in gunsmoke; or are sometimes vignetted to catch a vicious or poignant moment. Almost every scene looks sumptuous – this crisp, though occasionally grainy, transfer captures every detail of those “historical facsimiles” as well as the more poetic moments when Griffith indulges himself with a composition of romantic, painterly beauty: as in the love scenes, or the moment when Henry Walthall’s Colonel Cameron is inspired to form the Klan.
If you have seen, and loved, Griffith’s shorts and more rewarding films such as Broken Blossoms, then you’ll rightly want to see this film. Be warned though, you may not like it as much as you admire it, and you may admire it less than you expect to. But once you have seen it you will want to place the film in context, both historically and in terms of the debate around its content. The booklet of material provided with this release includes a tribute by Michael Powell and defences by Griffith and the author of The Clansman as well as a contemporary attack from the New York Times (“It is insulting to every man of Southern birth to assume that he is pleased by misrepresentation so colossal”) and another by Francis Hackett, which calls the film “spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”
The Birth of a Nation is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray from Masters of Cinema, RRP £17.99 (DVD) or £19.99 (Blu-Ray).
Do not adjust your set. The Naked Island is not from the silent era; in fact, it was made in 1960. However, this soul-wrenching Japanese film exemplifies the art of visual story-telling. With well-placed music, a choice smattering of ambient sound, next-to-no speech and the barest of captions, director Kaneto Shindô relies on his imagery to craft an engrossing realist drama. This is one of the most sophisticated, and powerful, of modern silent films. I found it completely engrossing – and the moment it finished, I pressed play and watched it all over again.
Shindô, best known for Onibaba and Children of Hiroshima, started out in the studio lab, before getting work as an art director and screenwriter and assisting Mizoguchi in the late 1930s. His common-law wife died of TB in 1943; the following year he was drafted into the army to do menial work as a cleaner. More than with many other cineastes, you could say that by the time he found success as a film director, Shindô had an appreciation for the struggles of working people. Many of his early films portray the degradations of poverty, and emphasise female suffering in particular. The Naked Island is no exception, described by Shindô as “a cinematic poem to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature”.
A family of four live alone on a remote, hilly island in Japan’s inland sea. The mother and father raise their crops by hand, carry fresh water from the mainland in pails slung across their shoulders on painful yokes, and live at the mercy of the elements. It’s the definition of a hand-to-mouth existence, thrown into relief when the boys catch a fish and the family take it to town to sell. There, all four experience the baffling luxuries of televisions, restaurants and leisure time before they return to their relentless routine. A third of the way through the film, a shocking act of violence reinforces the fragility of their livelihood. The tragic final act is an object lesson in how poverty crushes the human spirit.
Nobuko Otowa, Shindô’s favourite actress and his lover, plays the mother; and it’s an expert performance, for all its apparent naturalism. As she repeatedly makes her way up the hillside with her buckets of water, the tension is every bit as high as when Lila Crane creeps into the cellar of Bates family home, say, but drawn out over an agonising half-hour. With no lines other than sobs, and little opportunity to emote, Otawa portrays suffering without recourse to melodrama. Taiji Tonoyama, another Shindô regular, plays her stoical husband as a bruised soul. The two young boys, particularly Shinji Tanaka as the eldest son, are excellent too: conveying the effervescence of youth frustrated by a life of difficulty and disappointment.
The film is elegantly, cleverly photographed too – in lush monochrome CinemaScope by Kiyoshi Kuroda. The long takes of the family’s manual labour create not a documentary effect, but in their reworking and repetition, bring foreboding, life-or-death fear and sorrow. As the central couple, picked out against the overbearing hillside or the lowering sky, bear their yokes like crosses or dredge for seaweed in the pouring rain, their story speaks for itself. It is abundantly clear that the strength of this film would be diluted by conversation or narration. Shindô himself (in conversation with composer Hikaru Hayashi on the commentary track) explains during The Naked Island‘s heartbreaking climax: “We decided at the beginning to have no dialogue and that enabled us to express this scene so boldly.” The finale is all the more horrifying for its wordlessness – a twist of fate that is inexplicably cruel.
The Naked Island is accompanied by the aforementioned audio commentary, the option to watch without English subtitles, a video intro by Alex Cox and a booklet of supporting material including an interview with Shindô.