We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.
Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.
It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?
Midweek #GCM33. What with a late night Chinese 'spirit' film and early morning Prizmacolor feature I have now upgraded to 'doppio' espresso.
Have you booked your fights yet? The 33rd edition of the world’s most prestigious silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy is looming – it will take place from 4-11 October, and tantalisingly, a few details have already been released. There are a few screenings already listed on the official website, and a shiny new press release (written in Italian) too. With the help of Google translate, let me tell you what I learned on the internet.
I can tell you that there will be a gala screening on the last night of Chaplin‘s City Lights, with an orchestra playing the director’s original score, as reconstructed byTimothy Brock. Günter Buchwald will conduct. Elsewhere in the festival, four Chaplin shorts will screen with Benshi narration by Kenka Yasubei, who will also voice a classic Japanese film.
Did you know that this year marks the centenary of Technicolor? A dedicated strand at the Giornate will screen 30 full-length films and clips that showcase the pioneering colour technology. Watch out for The Black Pirate (1926) and Ben-Hur (1925).
Hollywood royalty will be celebrated at Pordenone with a showcase for the silent films made by the Barrymore acting dynasty, including Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920), The Copperhead (1919), The Beloved Rogue (1927) and Beau Brummel (1924) – plus the two surviving reels of The Eternal City (1922). Films starring John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore will be shown across the week, with When a Man Loves (The Loves of Manon Lescaut), 1927, starring “the Great Profile” himself and Delores Costello opening the Giornate on 4 October. When a Man Loves will be presented with its original Vitaphone soundtrack, composed by Henry Kimball Hadley, and will be supported by a programme of Vitaphone shorts.
A section entitled Russian Laughter will present comedies directed by Yakov Protazanov, selected by Peter Bagrov of Gosfilmofond in Moscow.
The Canon Revisited, curated by Paolo Cherch Usai, is always popular and this year will feature Raoul Walsh’s gangster drama Regeneration (1915), both parts of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Pudovkin’s epic Storm over Asia (1928). Also: GW Pabst’s Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1927) and Mauritz Stiller’s Herr Arnes Pengar (1919)
Hand-coloured films by George Méliès will be shown by AIRSC .
New discoveries and restorations at the festival this year will include Conrad Wiene’s adaptaion of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness (1924).
And finally … the sound version, yes sound version of Battleship Potemkin – a 1930 German release with a soundtrack recorded on disc.
Want more? This Nitrateville post from a few weeks ago contains a few extra titles – some of which are very exciting indeed. Premature? Out of date? Who knows? More fuel for the rumour mill, anyway.
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.