Tag Archives: FW Murnau

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

It was auteur day at Pordenone, with works by three silent master-directors scattered nonchalantly through the programme: Ozu, Murnau and Dreyer. But auteurism is anachronistic to silent cinema and anathema to many early film aficionados, so fittingly some of my favourite screenings today fell far from the canon.

UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow 
UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

One of the best things I saw all week was Valentine Robert’s presentation of Tableaux Vivants in the early cinema strand. This was something very special indeed – like a video essay, but more expansive. The idea was simple: popular paintings were projected on screen before early films that mimicked their compositions. The effect was spectacular though, and very illuminating about narrative and visual culture in the early film period. As this presentation made clear, many narrative films at this time were also adaptations of images associated with historical, literary and biblical narratives, rather than the story themselves. Or both, at least. Erotic films too, as you might imagine, took their cues from paintings and sculptures. The care and detail in this presentation was very impressive and all served the argument beautifully. All this as well as Stephen Horne’s gorgeous accompaniment for a long, and very varied presentation, comprising 30-plus films and many more art works.

The double-bill of German films this afternoon featured some very familiar names. First there was Der Golem. No, not the 1920 one, but the 1915 original, long thought almost entirely lost. The bad news is that it is still lost, but some more fragments have been discovered and spliced together with titles to form something that is not really a film, but rather a suggestion of one. In this kinda prequel Paul Wegener’s clay man comes to life brilliantly and with just the most tender and slender of movements. Other scenes reinforce the sense that James Whale’s Frankenstein would be nothing without this silent-era antecedent. Utterly fascinating.

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Early Murnau review: a set for the silent cinephile to linger over

The concept of “Early Murnau” is a little bittersweet. The German director had such a short career that the films in this new collection from Masters of Cinema take us up to just six years before he died. And while his most famous film was made during the period (1921-25) covered by this box set, that work, Nosferatu, is not included. The set ends just one year before his hypnotic Faust was made, and two before his Hollywood masterpiece Sunrise.

This is technically middle Murnau, then, or “the Murnau you may have missed if you only knew Nosferatu and the surviving Hollywood work”. All the same, this is a gorgeous collection of distinctive, spectacular films, well worth adding to your shelf. All of the films in the set have been made available on DVD from Masters of Cinema previously, but here together, on Blu-ray, they represent a far better bargain.

Schloss Vogelöd (1921)
Schloss Vogelöd (1921)

The journey through Murnau’s lesser-sung German work begins in 1921 with Schloss Vogelöd, a country-house mystery rendered mysterious and dreamlike at the director’s touch, and climaxes with the bracing and inventive Molière adaptation Tartuffe (1925), which introduces an especially noxious virtue-signalling hypocrite and hangs him out to dry. In between we delve into the romantic and financial misery of a poetically minded clerk in Phantom (1922), and the related entanglements of an aristocrat in Die Finanzen de Grossherzogs (1924). Indisputably, the highlight of the collection is the low-key masterpiece Die Letzte Mann (1924) starring Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman whose life hits a downward spiral when he is demoted to a toilet attendant.

As the many extra features and essays included with the set attest, Murnau’s oeuvre is hugely varied, swinging from genre to genre and rarely settling in one place for long. Stylistically, though, he is mistakably himself at all times. You can see the walls of the city bend down to oppress the heroes of both Phantom and Die Letzte Mann, for example. And you may already have noticed that the films above share a set of preoccupations with money and social position, with impossible aspirations and with toxic pride.

Continue reading Early Murnau review: a set for the silent cinephile to linger over

Nosferatu: back on Blu-ray

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Name: Nosferatu.

Age: 93 years young.

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.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

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.

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Faust: DVD and Blu-ray review

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.

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Ten lost silent films

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blogThe Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
The Drag Net (1928)
The Drag Net (1928)
1) The Drag Net (1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
FW Murnau
FW Murnau
2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Dracula survived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf (The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
The Patriot (1928)
The Patriot (1928)
3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot (1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman (1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle
5) The Mountain Eagle (1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2014: reporting back

Bo'ness #hippfest

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Silent London podcast: Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2014

I’ve just returned from the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk. It’s a fantastic event – I really enjoyed myself and only wish I could stay longer. To give you a flavour of the weekend, if you missed out this time, here’s a mini-podcast and a selection of social media updates too. Surely there is no cooler hashtag for a #silentfilm event than #hippfest?

Hats off to Alison Strauss and her team and Falkirk Community Trust to – Hippfest is a triumph.

UPDATE: Here’s my Hippfest report for the Guardian film blog
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The top 10 silent film dream sequences

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at Ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.

The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)

A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.

Atlantis (1913)
Atlantis (1913)

Atlantis (1913)

In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep …  As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard.
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Nosferatu (1922): Blu-Ray & DVD review

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

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.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

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.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

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.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

NosferatuTake it from me, you need more Nosferatu in your life.

Nosferatu is released by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 18 November 2013. Order the Blu-Ray from Movie Mail.

Nosferatu: the love story

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand

In 1925, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, won a plagiarism case against film producer Albin Grau over the latter’s 1922 chiller, Nosferatu. To be frank, Grau didn’t have a leg to stand on – he had applied for a licence to film Dracula, been refused by Florence and gone ahead with filming anyway, changing a few character names. This hardly distanced his film from Stoker’s Dracula, whose plot he had lifted lock, stock and barrel for Nosferatu and Florence successfully sued to get his company closed down and every copy of the film destroyed. Thanks to one vital copy, lodged at the time in the US where Stoker’s novel was already out of copyright, we still have the movie and every print now available descends from that one saved positive.

But I’m beginning to think that a skilful lawyer could actually have argued Florence down. Over a lifetime of playing this masterpiece I have noticed that in two vital areas scriptwriter Henrik Galeen and director FW Murnau actually created a new monster that Stoker would barely have recognised – firstly Van Helsing is a small-part character who is in no way responsible for Dracula’s destruction; secondly Nosferatu, minus Dracula’s brides, only has eyes for only one woman – Mina Harker. And it’s beauty that kills the beast.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

I’ll go further – Nosferatu/Orlok is not Dracula, but director FW Murnau himself – with the result that today’s vampires flitting through Twilight and The Diaries are the children, not of Stoker’s night, but of Galeen and Murnau’s. And the music they make is very different.

The magnificent central section of the film depicts the vampire heading towards Whitby/Wisborg on board ship, disposing of the crew one by one like some hideous onboard buffet while Harker/Hutter plods back home across the mountains. Waiting on the beach is Hutter’s wife, the strange, other-worldly Mina, staring out to sea and during her sleepwalking catatonia delivering the devastating line: ‘My lover is coming!’

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

But which lover, the Count or the Husband? Let’s look at what has brought them all to this point – Orlok has seen Mina’s picture and is about to gorge himself on Hutter for the second night running. Mina, staying with friends who have rescued her from a perilous walltop sleepwalk, suddenly sits up in bed with a cry – across a single shot-cut (but miles of the Carpathian Mountains) Orlok freezes in mid-bite and turns to face the direction of her ‘voice’ – off camera right. In Witold, she slumps. In Transylvania, he moves away, his meal untouched. The next time we see him moving he is heading away from the castle and towards Mina, bearing his coffins. From then on it is as if she is already under his power – and, I would argue, he is under hers.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

It is impossible to play Orlok’s arrival in Whitby/Wisborg as anything but heroic – the beautiful shot of the ship sailing itself to the dock; the scuttling figure with the coffin stopping outside Mina’s house for a brief smile and his first head-and-shoulder close-up in the movie; then the final river trip, standing proudly in a supernaturally powered rowboat, which deposits him at his new property where he enters by melting through the locked doors. No wonder Herzog chose Wagner for that sequence in his Nosferatu 70 years later. Orlok is a conqueror claiming his kingdom, from which he will stare balefully at Mina’s window while his rats destroy the city. And we are now, however unwillingly, rooting for him.

Murnau, by all accounts promiscuously gay and self-conscious about his appearance, obviously loved his vampire with the outsider’s love of a soulmate gifted with powers he can only dream of. Every flesh-and-blood male character in the film is weak or deluded; Hutter himself can only sit feebly by while Mina takes the strong course in dealing with both infection and infector. But as she makes up her mind we see Orlok imprisoned in his palace imploring her attention with a look that can only be described as heart-breaking. When she acquiesces, he comes to the feast like Don Juan triumphant, the shadow of his bony fingers enclosing, not her neck but her heart, which he squeezes as she writhes beneath him. Herzog would provide the perfect closure for their nuptials, Orlok looking up from her throat at the dawning light, only to have her draw his head gently back to her neck with the gentlest of arm-movements.

FW Murnau
FW Murnau

Audiences new to the film always laugh at the opening and the speeded-up actions, but it is a wonderful tonic to hear the silence descend as Murnau and his vampire exert their power. I have never been able to play triumph at the Nosferatu’s demise because we have been taught by Murnau to admire and pity him as well as fear him, and in the last thirty years Herzog, Coppola and Joss Whedon have all followed Murnau’s lead. Genius that he was, Murnau made the connection half a century before the rest of us did – we know Orlok because he is us.

Every silent film is an invitation to the musician to tell their version of the story and, yes, “Nosferatu, the Love Story” is a spin, one of many that could be applied to this great film. But here’s my point: treating it musically as a horrific love story opens vistas of new insight on this masterpiece that are vastly greater and more rewarding than the simple terrors of the night. And when the tension between horror, lust and desire is working, one can almost hear the new blood coursing through the vampire’s veins …

Neil Brand

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu is now on theatrical release, from Eureka Entertainment, screening at the BFI Southbank and many other venues around the country. Eureka will release Nosferatu on DVD/Blu-Ray on 18 November 2013. Pre-order here

The Last Laugh at the Mimetic Festival, 16 July 2013

The Last Laugh (1924)
The Last Laugh (1924)

A short note to let you know that I am introducing a screening of Murnau’s heartbreakingly brilliant The Last Laugh (1924) as part of the Mimetic Festival on 16 July 2013. More to the point, the extremely talented Costas Fotopoulos will be accompanying the film live on piano – so don’t miss it.

The Mimetic Festival is a celebration of the power of mime across film, theatre, cabaret, comedy and film. This particular screening is presented by the lovely people at Around the Corner Cinema, who recently showed Sunrise in Winchmore Hill, north London. We chose this film for the festival because it doesn’t rely on intertitles to tell its story. Instead, the audience is swept along by Murnau’s floating camera movements and Emil Jannings’ fluid, physical performance in the lead role.

The Last Laugh is a mesmerising film, a work of expressionist genius, which applies the visual genius of Ufa’s greatest talents to the seemingly dour and mundane tale of a hotel doorman who loses his position, and his self-respect, when he is demoted to a toilet attendant. The result is unexpectedly breathtaking – and without giving anything away, you won’t have seen an ending like this before.

CA Lejeune, the legendary film critic of the Observer newspaper, had this to say about it:

Probably the least sensational and certainly the most important of Murnau’s films. It gave the camera a new dominion, a new freedom…It influenced the future of motion picture photography…all over the world, and without suggesting any revolution in method, without storming critical opinion as Caligari had done, it turned technical attention towards experiment, and stimulated…a new kind of camera-thinking with a definite narrative end.

The Last Laugh will also screen with The Projectionist, Jamie Thraves’s short film about the mystery of The Mountain Eagle, which Fotopoulos wrote the score for.

The Last Laugh and The Projectionist screen at Enfield Grammar School Hall, EN2 on Tuesday 16 July, 2013. Doors open at 6.45pm and the film will begin at 7.30pm. There will be a licensed bar. Snacks, including Sardinian artisan antipasti boxes, will be on sale too. Tickets cost £6.50 or £5.50 for concessions. To read more, and to book tickets, click here.

Tabu: Blu-Ray review

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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.

Tabu (1931)
Tabu (1931)

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 …

Anne Chevalier in Tabu (1931)
Anne Chevalier in Tabu (1931)

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.

Tabu (1931)

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

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror at the East End film festival, 7 July 2012

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

The outdoor silent film screenings at the East End film festival are always a highlight of the year. Held in the centre of Spitalfields market, the screenings are accompanied by live music from Minima – guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine. But this year Minima, and the festival, have come up with something that promises to be extra-special.

This summer’s screening is of Nosferatu, the landmark vampire horror by FW Murnau, which is 90 years old this year. It’s a movie Minima have accompanied many times before, but not like this:

East End Film Festival presents the World Premiere of A Symphony of Horror, a unique collaboration between soundscapers Minima, Paul Ayres’ Queldryk Choral Ensemble and Hackney-based spatial artist Lucy Jones to create a re-imagined film score and performance on the 90th anniversary of the classic 1922 film.

Enter the fully immersive eerie and unsettling world of Nosferatu where the very walls of Spitalfields Market will be alive with creeping shadows and silhouettes, and reverberating with the soaring tones of the Queldryk Choral Ensemble, featuring 60 choristers, accompanied by the festival’s favourite soundtrackers, Minima.

Silent film screenings with live music have always spearheaded the immersive, live cinema trend, but this event goes a step further, combining an atmospheric location with projections and a spooky soundtrack turned up to eleven.

Admission is free, and the film won’t start until the sun goes down, but you’ll want turn up early to get a good seat and bring your own cushions/blankets/cagoules. For more information, visit the East End film festival website.

For more on Nosferatu, check out Sight & Sound contributing editor Mark Sinker discussing the film on the first Silent London podcast.

Win tickets to watch Faust at the Royal Festival Hall

It’s already one of the most exciting silent film events of the year – and could be the perfect way to celebrate (fingers and toes crossed) a silent film winning the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night. FW Murnau’s classic Faust (1926), screens at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 27 February, with a new score by Aphrodite Raickopoulou, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and accompanied by improvisation from acclaimed pianist Gabriela Montero. Hugh Grant will introduce the film and the orchestra will be conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch. Read more here.

If you want to win one of ten pairs of tickets to watch this wonderful film with its fantastic new score, just answer this simple question:

  • We all know that FW Murnau directed Faust. But what do his initials FW stand for?

Email your answer to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with FAUST in the subject line, by noon on Friday, 24 February 2012. The winners will be picked at random from the correct entries and emailed with the good news. Best of luck!

Faust at the Royal Festival Hall, 27 February 2012

Faust (1926)
Faust (1926)

This is wonderful news. Next year, at the Royal Festival Hall, the Philharmonia Orchestra will accompany a screening of FW Murnau’s masterpiece Faust (1926). The orchestra will be playing a brand new orchestral score, written by composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou, and unusually, there will also be live improvisation from the renowned classical pianist Gabriela Montero. The film will be introduced by the world-famous actor and scourge of the tabloids Hugh Grant.

If you’re not familiar with Faust, then allow me to introduce it to you. Murnau’s film is an adaptation of the Faust legend, in which a doctor sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for a cure for the plague epidemic that has struck his town. The doctor is played by Gösta Ekman, and Mephistopheles by the always wonderful Emil Jannings, in an outstanding performance that is by turns charming and grotesque. As in so many of Murnau’s films, the real story is an epic struggle between love and hate, and the visuals are as epic as the themes. Faust may be shot in monochrome, but it is kaleidoscopically beautiful. Special effects sequences such as the summoning of Mephistopheles and the cloak ride are still impressive – and the clouds of black smoke that represent the plague visiting the town are as haunting as they were technically difficult to pull off. Ekman’s transformation from an old man to his younger self is fantastic as well.

But Faust is more than the sum of its technical achievements. It’s a hugely moving film, with a melodramatic finale, and as unforgettably brilliant as Murnau’s other much-loved classics, Nosferatu and Sunrise. This new score has been a real labour of love for Raickopoulou, who was moved to tears after watching the film for the first time. She told me: “Being a dreamer has its great risks but true passion and true love will always prevail.” A sentiment very much in tune with the spirit of the movie, I’m sure you’ll agree.

This project has benefited from the advice of Patrick Stanbury from Photoplay Productions – and you’ll be pleased to know that the Royal Festival Hall will be showing a 35mm print of the domestic version of the film.

Faust screens at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, 27 February 2012 at 7.30pm. Tickets begin at £10 and you can book them here, on the Southbank Centre website.

Nosferatu with Minima and organ, Halloween 2011

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Murnau’s acclaimed Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu (1922) is still one of the most chilling horror movies ever made – and probably the most influential. So if you’re looking for a cool halloween night out, you can’t beat watching Max Schreck’s shadow creeping up those stairs with Minima’s heavy rock soundtrack. Luckily, then, there will be a few chances for you to catch the Nosferatu-Minima show this witching season. They’re playing two gigs in London, at Stoke Newington International Airport on 29 October 2011 and at the Prince Charles Cinema on 24 November. Check out the venues’ website for times and ticket prices, and if you live outside London, have a look at Minima’s website for performances of Nosferatu in Devon, Hertfordshire and Somerset.

And if you prefer a more traditional silent film accompaniment, Nosferatu is also playing at the Brentford Musical Museum, with a live organ score by Donald Mackenzie on 19 November 2011. Tickets cost £10. For more information and to book, visit the museum website.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans at Screen 17, 20 October 2011

Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise (1927)

Walthamstow wants a cinema. In fact, Walthamstow has a cinema, but it is in a terrible state of disrepair at the moment, and its owners want to use it as a church. So the campaign fights on, but meanwhile the cinephiles of E17 are starved for local entertainment. Which is where Screen 17, a local ‘microplex’ cinema comes in.

Based in a Regency villa in the heart of Walthamstow Village, Screen 17 is a new, but very welcome, addition to the local arts scene. They’ve been showing children’s films on Saturday mornings and movies for grownups on Thursday evenings for a few weeks now, but they wanted to offer something a little different – to give people a chance to try another flavour of cinema. So Screen 17 is showing a silent movie with live music in October, and the film they have chosen is the beautiful Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Sunrise, directed by FW Murnau, is one of the greatest films of all time, and a masterpiece of late silent cinema. The story concerns a pair of newlyweds from the country, and a vamp from the city who tries to come between them. It’s beautifully photographed, with stunning fluid camerawork, and touching lead performances from Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien. It’s by turns comic, romantic and as in this scene, thrillingly melodramatic:

I’m really excited about this. If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a proud Walthamstow resident, and it’s wonderful to see a silent film shown in my local area. The guys who run Screen 17 are also behind the popular Vintage Cabaraoke evening, so they know how to put on a great night’s entertainment too. There will be a live improvised piano accompaniment for the film, just like in the good old days, and DJ Roxy ‘Moonshine’ Robinson will be spinning some 78s as well. If you want to dress up in your best 20s gear for the occasion – go ahead!

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans screens at Screen 17 on 20 October 2011. Doors open at 7.30pm and the film begins at 8.30pm. There will be a licensed bar, hotdogs and popcorn. Over 18s only. Tickets cost £8 and are available on the door or on We Got Tickets. For more details, visit the Screen 17 website.

Silent films at the Silent Cinema, Deptford Project, August 2011

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

• Update: Sorry, guys, I’ve just been told that these events have been cancelled. Don’t know why as yet, but hope to find out more soon – including whether they will be rescheduled for later in the year.

Have you ever been to a Silent Disco? It’s great fun. You dance around in a huge group of people but the music isn’t played out loud, it’s piped into your headphones. Hilarious for onlookers, but there’s a great sense of community on the dancefloor – like you’re sharing a secret with everyone in the crowd. The Silent Cinema in Deptford, south London, works on the same principle, but with films. The wireless headphones deliver the film’s soundtrack, but filter out the popcorn munching and chatter from your fellow audience members.

Although the name has obviously caught my attention before, I never thought they would show silent films there. But I was wrong. Silent Cinema is devoting a weekend in August to … silent cinema. They’re calling the programme the  “Black & White Classics Weekend”, and why not? Here’s the lineup:

L’Histoire du ‘Look’: German silents at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Queen Kelly (1929)
Queen Kelly (1929)

It’s not all about Russia at the BFI in May. This L’Histoire du “Look” strand is dedicated to the development of visual style in the cinema, as part of the educational Passport to Cinema programme. Quite frankly, all six titles in this first part are worth a gawp, but we’ll restrict ourselves to the silents here – three gems, each shown three times, which should keep the BFI pianists busy.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is here representing the angular, dreamlike world of German Expressionism. The shifting perspectives of the scenery mirror the shifting narrative, where nothing is ever quite what it seems for long.

1 May 3.50pm/2 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/4 May 8.30pm

The Last Laugh (1924), directed by FW Murnau, is remarkable for being (almost) intertitle-free, allowing Karl Freund’s mobile camera and Emil Jannings’s powerful lead performance to to tell the story of a doorman who loses first his job and then his social standing.

4 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/5 May 8.40pm/13 May 6pm

Queen Kelly (1929) is known as a lost film, as star/producer Gloria Swanson walked off set one day, disappointed by director Erich von Stroheim’s less than wholesome interpretation of the Hays-approved script. Von Stroheim was sacked and sections of the film removed; it was later re-edited and completed as Swanson wished. However, the luxurious sets and glamorous costumes we expect from Von Stroheim are all present and correct – as is the melodramatic plot.

  • Update: The restored 1985 version of Queen Kelly will be screened, which has an orchestral score already, so there will be no live accompaniment.

2 May 3.50pm/9 May 6.10pm (with introduction and short animated film from NFTS)/21 May 8.45pm

All screenings except Queen Kelly have live piano accompaniment. Tickets cost £9.50 or £6.75 for concessions, and less for BFI members. They will be available on 4 April for BFI members and from 11 April for everyone else. More details on the website here.

Un Chien Andalou and Sunrise at the Ritzy, 24 March 2011

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Well, this is a heck of a good way to say happy birthday. The Ritzy Cinema in Brixton is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a series of vintage screenings throughout the year. Kicking things off is this double-bill of one of the silent era’s most sophisticated and elegant films, coupled with one of its most violent, strange and difficult. Yes, Un Chien Andalou (1929) is the eye-slashing surreal short film made by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. It’s seriously odd and surely features on all right-thinking people’s must-see films lists. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), on the other hand, is a romance: a story of a young man from the country (George O’Brien) succumbing to the dangerous temptations of the big city, and a bona fide vamp. Which puts his lovely wife (Janet Gaynor) in a very precarious position. This is one of my favourite scenes from the film:

There will be live musical accompaniment for the double-bill, which begins at 8pm on Thursday 24 March. Tickets cost £16.60 or less for concessions and they are available here.

Sunrise at the Loop Festival, the Forge, 18 March 2011

Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise (1927)

The Loop Collective is a group of jazz musicians and the Loop Festival is their annual four-day event, which this year will take place in the Forge music venue in Camden. On the Friday night a trio comprising Alcyona Mick (piano), Geoff Hannan (violin) and Jon Wygens (guitar) will perform their score for FW Murnau’s sublime film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). The film tells the story of The Man (George O’Brien) who is tempted, by a seductress from the big city no less, to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor). It is one of the most beautifully photographed Hollywood silents you could hope to watch, with stunning mobile camerawork – I often recommend to people who haven’t seen a silent film before.

The group’s score was commissioned last year and has previously been performed at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham. It combines improvisation with pre-written music. You might be interested to know that when the score was performed at the Flatpack Festival they used a print of Sunrise that had recently been found in Czech Republic, which is a little shorter than the better known Movietone print, the one that is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

That is just the start of the evening’s entertainment: the Risser/Duboc/Perraud trio will play later, and the headline act is Andrew Plummer’s World Sanguine Report, described as:

Part demonic vaudeville, part psychotic big band, vocalist Andrew Plummer revels and writhes in the macabre as he heads his jazz noir project World Sanguine Report through visceral tales from the dark side of life, love and death. Propelled by demented carny rhythms, Plummer’s bruised, gruff vocals and darkly-enthralling lyrics are enveloped in a tide of swirling tones and textures, with the constant threat of breaking into waves of cacophony.

Sounds too good to miss!

Sunrise screens at The Forge, Camden on 18 March 2011 at 8pm. Tickets are £15 for the whole night of music or more for a festival pass. More information is available from the Loop Festival website here. And you can buy tickets at the Forge website here.