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.
The director of Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh and Sunrise has an immaculate CV – but this, the final entry in his filmography, initially appears to be an oddity. In truth, it’s a masterpiece. FW Murnau’s cinema had been shaped in the creative hothouse of 1920s Berlin, and survived the transition to the commercially driven colossus of Hollywood beautifully, although his ego did not. Bruised by poor notices for the three films he had made in LA for Fox, Murnau took a leap into the unknown, embarking on a project unlike any other he had attempted. He sailed for Bora Bora with the documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty to shoot a colour movie, a part-talkie called Turia.
Following a script rewrite, money trouble and endless technical difficulties, Turia would become Tabu, a silent, black-and-white love story; Flaherty’s role would be downgraded to lab-bound assistant; and Murnau would plough his own money into the project until he had something he could sell to Paramount for distribution. The most shocking, and tragic, twist of all was that Murnau would not live to see its premiere. The director died in a car accident in March 1931, a week before Tabu’s first public screening.
Had Murnau lived, he would have seen his film, trimmed in often baffling ways by Paramount, fail to make back its costs at the box office, although the cinematographer Floyd Crosby would win the Oscar for this, his debut. In 1940, his mother sold the rights to Rowland and Samuel Brown, who rereleased it with further cuts and yet again failed to turn Tabu into a commercial success. It was not until the early 70s that a full nitrate print of the original film was discovered – and the process of restoration and appreciation began in earnest. Now we can watch Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, the full Tabu, and thanks to 21st-century technology, we can watch it at its sumptuous best.
Masters of Cinema has released Tabu previously on DVD – this is a beautiful Blu-Ray revamp of that pristine transfer. The sea spray sparkles and the chiaroscuro effects of those ominous shadows that are cast across paradise are given their full weight. It’s a seductively beautiful film; almost gratuitously, exotically gorgeous. In fact, I’d say the stills you see here don’t do it justice. Solidly expressionist lighting techniques transform a sun-drenched paradise into a locus of intangible terror, at the same time as the play of light on the luminous seas, on the young lovers’ beautiful bodies, entrances the eye. The film itself is a tempter, a Mephistopheles, and you’ll find it impossible to resist. The Hugo Reisenfeld score that Murnau spent his last pennies on is here too. It’s luscious, but on another occasion I’d be intrigued to see how a modern magician would accompany this film.
The plot concerns the stranglehold of fate, set cruelly against the joy of young love. We are far from the realm of documentary here – Tabu is every bit as artful as any of Murnau’s other films. Reri and Matahi live on a remote and unspoiled south sea island, and they fall suddenly, but utterly in love. The idyll is shattered when a messenger from another island, the sinister, hollow-faced Hitu, announces that Reri is “tabu”: she has been chosen to be a vestal virgin of sorts, a totem of chastity and purity – a symbolic tithe demanded from one island by the other. Reri must be wrenched from Matahi and their budding love affair is also “tabu”. The lovers escape, and wash up at a different kind of island, one that has been colonised, but Hitu, as eerie and relentless as Count Orlok, is on their trail …
That story, which folds folklore into tragedy, is told with the minimum of intertitles and the maximum of grace. Murnau’s unchained camera roams across ocean and sand but falls upon a painterly, elegant composition with each frame. Those title cards, as the invaluable commentary by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens makes plain, provide narration, and documentation, but not dialogue. Many silent films invite the hoary adjective “balletic”, but it is apt here: the vigour of the crowd scenes, the erotic, tragic interplay of the forlorn principals and that haunting villain. This voiceless melodrama, as exotic and strange as it may seem, will slide right under your skin.
Far from an oddity, this is a Murnau film to the core – there is enough joy, tragedy and self-sacrifice here to make you believe we’re back in Berlin. There’s even a dance scene that screams Sunrise; and those themes of paradise found and lost can’t help but recall Faust. Apparently Murnau, thoroughly disillusioned with Hollywood, planned to return to the South Sea Islands to make more films after Tabu – his 1930s career could have been truly fascinating.
So it’s worth buying Tabu for the film alone, but this is a typically generous Masters of CInema package. As well as the aforementioned commentary there is a short German-language documentary Tabu: the Cinematic Legacy, a short travelogue from 1940 that uses footage from Tabu, a handful of out-takes, and a weighty booklet featuring archive material and essays.
Tabu is released on Blu-Ray (£19.99) and DVD (£17.99) by Masters of Cinema on 24 June 2013. Available to pre-order now
Underground, surely one of the greatest “Silent London” films, has been turning our heads for some time now: at festivals, at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and this year selling out screenings on its theatrical outing. This home video release is Underground’s latest, glossiest incarnation, and by rights should bring the film to the widest possible audience.
If you don’t know it (why?), the first thing you need to know about Anthony Asquith’s film is that it is an exercise in contrasts. Underground spins high drama out of a love story in a humble setting, pivoting from flirtation to daggers-drawn aggression. A hybrid romcom-thriller sounds like commercial gold, the elusive “perfect date movie”. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that assessment, but Underground is no popcorn flick: it’s passionate, arty, and unafraid to trip up the audience with a sudden, disconcerting shift in tone.
Getting down to brass tacks, this is a tale of love, jealousy, madness and missed connections. Pals Bill (Brian Aherne) and Bert (Cyril McLaglen) meet sweet Nell (Elissa Landi) on the tube one morning. Nell only has eyes for Bill, but nevertheless incurs the wrath of Kate (Norah Baring), a dangerously unhinged woman who carries a lonely torch for Bert. The narrative, and the tension, escalate as a chance meeting on the tube results in a violent confrontation at the now disused Lots Road power station. Asquith’s second film as director, the first he received a full credit for, is an astonishingly distinctive and inventive work. Everywhere there are bravura touches that mark him out as a great of British silent cinema: the shadows of tentative lovers embrace even while they pull awkwardly apart; a pub brawl is edited montage-style, a kaleidoscope of splintered violence.
So, the story of Underground may be simple, but its treatment is unexpectedly dark, stylised and violent – the good news is that this Blu-Ray does Asquith’s expressionist experiments proud. The slanting shadows of the tube tunnels and the boarding house are deep and black; the white-knuckle action of the final chase remains sharply defined.
You’ll want to turn this disc up loud too. If you haven’t heard Neil Brand’s orchestral score for Underground yet, you’ve been missing out. This full-bodied, stirring music is a masterclass in silent film music. It’s lush and classic, certainly, but unafraid to cling to the twists and jolts on the track: alert to the film’s many mood swings. Try watching any sequence in Underground with and without Brand’s score (I recommend that furtive shadow-kiss, or Kate’s mad scene) and you’ll notice how the music inhabits every corner of the film, animating it without smothering it. Should you tire of the music, there is an alternative option, one I found fascinating but initially, at least, harder to warm to. Recordist Chris Watson has created a soundtrack for Underground that uses noises rather than music. That fantasy kiss is here accompanied by the sound of trains rushing through tunnels; the birds sing when Bill and Nell picnic in the park, although the young boy’s harmonica is eerily silent. It’s finely crafted, and as artful as any musical score could hope to be. However, shoot me, but I miss the romance of the symphony orchestra in full flow.
This is a dual-format release, with plenty of room for extras (though some of them you will only find on the DVD disc). There is a brief but illuminating featurette on the restoration of the film (the short answer is that it wasn’t easy and that a French print in a Belgian archive filled in many of the gaps in the decomposing British reels) and a generous booklet featuring essays from Brand, Bryony Dixon, Christian Wolmar, Simon Murphy and Michael Brooke as well as snippets from the archive. The archive film extras are the real treat though: including glimpses of Asquith as a young boy with his notable father in tow. I was particularly taken by Under Night Streets, a 1958 documentary about the Underground network’s night workers, with its jaunty cockney narration explaining the whys and wherefores of the work done by men “hard at it, down in the hole” while the city sleeps above them.
As a souvenir of 1920s London, this is hard to beat. And it’s a damn fine treatment for a great British film. But I am greedy. This release will sit neatly on my shelf next to the BFI’s DVD of Asquith’s final silent A Cottage on Dartmoor with Stephen Horne’s brilliant score. Two out of three ain’t bad, but how about Shooting Stars to complete the set?
Underground is released on a Dual-Format DVD/Blu-Ray set by the BFI, RRP £19.99 on 17 June 2013. To pre-order, click here.
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.
Who needs to wait for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit? Fritz Lang’s five-hour, two-part Die Nibelungen (1924) is the king of all fantasy epics. Burning palaces, bloody fight scenes, dragons, cloaks of invisibility – this beast has it all, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful as well.
Available for the first time ever on home video, Die Nibelungen still has the power to take your breath away, so we can only imagine how imposing this magnificent saga was for audiences in the 1920s. The first part is called Siegfried and follows our eponymous hero’s outlandish adventures. Early on, he slays a dragon, then bathes in its blood, rendering himself impervious to harm (about from a small patch on his back that was covered by a falling leaf and failed to absorb the blood). Thus super-charged, Siegfried sets about becoming a king of kings, rich beyond compare having won the Nibelungen’s wealth, but doomed, equally, because the treasure is cursed, you see … The second part, called Kriemhild’s Revenge, features his (spoiler) widow seeking vengeance for her husband’s death.
Visually, Die Nibelungen is consistently mind-blowing. The camera is largely static, but the vast, intricately decorated sets, shot from extreme perspectives and filled with massive crowds in extravagant costumes will throw you into a trance. These films are never dull to look at, and sometimes, as when the light falls in elegant slivers through the forest on to Siegried and his horse, or the northern lights dance above Queen Brunhild’s castle, they are simply exquisite. If you’ve seen Metropolis, that will give you some idea of the boldness, and magnitude of Lang’s vision here. This is a strangely modernised, stylised update of the story’s Wagnerian sources, and because it is all shot on sets rather than location (even the forests), Die Nibelungen looks like a fantastical stage play magicked into three-dimensions. And the special effects are meticulously realised, from the mechanical dragon to a “wipe” superimposition that turns the treasure-bearing dwarfs to silently screaming stone. The only time you’ll lose concentration is when you’ll start wondering: “How did they do they that?”
What you see on these discs is the end result of a restoration process bringing together several different camera negatives, fixing damage and replacing missing title cards. This release also replicates the golden tinting thought to have characterised the films’ original release, which soaks lushly into Carl Hoffmann’s high-contrast Expressionist photography (there’s a detailed note on the tinting in the booklet that accompanies the discs). The Blu-Ray HD transfer is excellent, so you’ll want to watch this on the best, biggest screen you can get your hands in and let yourself be swept away by all its glory. Turn up the sound too: frequent Lang-collaborator Gottfried Huppertz’s original orchestral score is available here in stereo or 5.1 mixes and nothing less bombastic or densely textured would do.
That said, it’s an awful lot to swallow in one sitting, and the acting here is of the chest-clutching, hair-pulling grand style. Paul Richter as Siegfried is a notable offender. And the scene in the first film in which Siegfried uses his magic to help his ally “subdue” his wife in the bedroom is unpleasant to modern eyes for an entirely different reason. The illuminated Gothic intertitles are very grand, but the English subtitles are sometimes hard to read because they have been translated so literally: “Invincible be he who is the dragon-slayer!” The second feature also suffers from having a less well-structured, eventful plot than the first, too, relying on endless fight scenes between the noble Burgundians and feral Huns rather than Siegfried‘s gorgeous flights of fancy. Don’t despair though: its flaming finale, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s grotesque Attila, are well worth putting in the hours for.
These are two big, big films, with lots to impart to us about Lang’s film-making style, about German nationalism and myth-making in the 1920s (they are dedicated “to the German people”), and more besides. So it’s valuable that this release comes with one of Masters of Cinema’s characteristically thorough booklets, containing essays from Lotte Eisner and Tom Gunning, some words from the director and a note from British film legend Michael Powell, as well a Geoffrey O’Brien poem, all of which will help you to explore and appreciate Die Nibelungen‘s strengths. There’s also a German-language (with subtitles) documentary, The Heritage of Die Nibelungen, which will bring home to you just how ambitious these films are, and also, what a gruelling experience it was for the actors.
Die Nibelungen will demand your time and attention both – but it is terrifically enjoyable, exciting stuff. This is a hugely welcome and well-considered release of an important epic.
An eerie filmed record of Captain Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole, The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924) was rightly acclaimed as a highlight of last year’s London Film Festival. The print had been restored to great effect: allowing us to see the vivid tints of the original film, and the Archive Gala screening featured a performance of Simon Fisher Turner’s intriguing minimalist score, which incorporated the Elysian Quartet, “found sounds”, and a haunting vocal from Alexander L’Estrange.
His part-improvised score includes some pre-recorded elements and Simon Fisher Turner has gone to great lengths to include relevant ‘found sounds’. The first was a gift from a friend, Chris Watson, who made a recording of the ambient silence in Scott’s cabin in the Antarctic. Fisher Turner has also recorded the striking of the Terra Nova ship’s bell at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. He has even managed to track down the expedition’s original gramophone to play some of the records which were played by members of the expedition.
If you have satellite TV, you may have recently caught the documentary on the small screen, but if you missed it, never fear, you have plenty of chances to catch it on the big screen in May and June.
First off, there will a special screening of The Great White Silence, with a recorded version of the score, at BFI Southbank on 18 May 2011, followed by a panel discussion led by Francine Stock, which will take the scoring of silent films as its subject – participants include Fisher Turner, sound recordist Chris Watson, plus Bryony Dixon and Kieron Webb from the BFI. The following weekend, there will be screenings nationwide of the film.
You want more? The Great White Silence will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 20 June.
The Great White Silence screens at NFT1 on 18 May at 6.20pm. The panel discussion will follow at 8.30pm. Tickets cost £13, or £9.75 for concessions and £1.50 less for members. They will be available from the BFI website.
The Great White Silence screens in the Studio at BFI Southbank several times throughout May and June 2011. The film will also screen at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Richmond and HMV Curzon Wimbledon, and at cinemas across the country including Broadway Nottingham, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Phoenix Oxford and Chapter Cardiff.
On Friday 20 May at 11am Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, will give a talk entitled Films of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration – The Restoration of The Great White Silence in NFT3. Tickets are free for over-60s, and usual matinee prices for everyone else.
At the Curzon Mayfair on Saturday 21 May at 4pm, and Curzon Richmond on Sunday 22 May at 3.30pm, Ian Haydn Smith will host an illustrated talk called The Great White Silence and Cinema’s Exploration of the World. Tickets are £12.50 or £9.50 for members at the Mayfair cinema and £11.50 or £9.50 for members at the Richmond branch. You can buy tickets here, on the Curzon website.