Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …
GW Pabst’s Abwege (1928) is, as Jay mentioned in his intro, a certain thread of what we think of when we imagine Weimar cinema. Not the exoticism of Expressionism of high-concept fiction, nor the relentless realism of Street Films, but a sampler of the era’s endless fetisished culture. This is a tale of infidelity, intrigue, independence and the famous temptations of the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s.
Abwege, GW Pabst’s 1928 film about the descent of one respectable married woman into the depth of the notorious Weimar nightlife is one of the unmissable titles in the programme, and it will be available for 24 hours from Thursday 8 October, with musical accompaniment by Mauro Colombis. You can explore the rest of the programme online.
Pabst was born in Austria in 1885. He started out in the theatre, an actor turned director who only began making films in 1923 at the age of 37. He soon became known as an actor’s director, and especially an actress’s director. His 1925 film The Joyless Street, for example, starred both the Danish diva Asta Nielsen and a then little-known Greta Garbo. He also made two films with the iconic Louise Brooks. But Brigitte Helm, the star of Abwege, was the special one for him.
In an influential 1998 essay, the theorist and critic Vivian Sobchack invited us to understand film noir through the spaces that the characters in these movies inhabit. Not the psychological or metaphorical spaces, but the real bricks-and-mortar locations in which the tough guys and femmes fatales pass their time – a kind of time that Sobchack called “lounge time”. The places “to which we should pay heed,” she wrote, “are the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel. These are the recurrent and determinate premises of film noir and they emerge from common places in wartime and postwar American culture that, transported to the screen, gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning.”
Sobchack identifies the fact that film noirs are hardly ever set inside traditional family homes, but in transient places instead – hotels, stations and bars, even prison cells. When we spend any length of time in a character’s home, as in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, it looks more like an upmarket cocktail lounge than a dwelling. Sobchack talks about “cold glitter of the houses of the rich, where money buys interior decoration and fine art but no warmth, no nurturance”. Or, in the same film, we see a traditional family home, with a nuclear family living within it, only to see that ideal destroyed in an instant.
Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.
It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.
I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.
My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.
Yes, I’m talking about the Pandora’s Box rerelease this summer again – but I’ll be brief. I have three things to share with you.
First, here is the very chic poster for the rerelease. The BFI marketing team is clearly adopting a Brooks-first strategy, and who can blame them?
Second, here is the trailer!
Third, which you may have guessed by now – contrary to previous reports, this theatrical release will actually be a 2K digital print of the newest restoration of the film, complBoxhereeted in 2009 by Martin Koerber and the Deutsche Kinemathek. As Koerber said to me, in this version “you can see every flutter of Louise Brooks’s eyelashes”. How can you resist?
You can buy my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box here.
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
UPDATE: This release will actually be the most recent restoration of the film. Hurrah! Read more here.
Welcome to your latest Lulu alert, courtesy of a website in danger of needing to rename itself “Pabst London”. I assure you that I am working on some non Pabst-related content, which will be with you soon.
Anyway, the Big News is … that the BFI is giving Pandora’s Boxa theatrical re-release in June this year. The version that will be shown is a 2K DCP of the 1997 Munich Film Museum restoration, not the more recent one, which is slightly disappointing, but that said, I saw this version on a big screen recently and it really is grand. The print really does well by Gunther Krampf’s complex patterns of light and shade in his cinematography, and there is enough detail to highlight all the nuances and symbols lurking in the background. Louise Brooks sparkles as she ought to, of course.
Austrian director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made great films in the early 20th century. However, by the time that he died in 1967, his reputation was all but demolished – his decision to work in the German film industry during the second world war having overshadowed his earlier achievements. Underrated for decades, Pabst’s work is ripe for a reappraisal and his sophisticated and progressive silent films in particular deserve to be more widely seen.
His first film, Der Schatz (The Treasure, 1923), is a Gothic fable in the German Expressionist mode. As such, it initially seems to be out of step with Pabst’s better-known silents, including the gritty drama The Joyless Street (1925), or the iconic Pandora’s Box (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which belong to a different movement altogether: the harsh realism of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. In this early work there are nevertheless glimmers of Pabst’s later style, his political values and his psychological insights as well as his sympathy for his female characters and their right to assert their independence.
Pabst was born to Austrian parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic in 1885, and moved to Vienna when he was a child. He studied engineering but by the time he was 20, he realised that the theatre was his passion and he enrolled in drama school. He worked as an actor across Europe and in New York, where the poverty he witnessed, and his contact with the trade union movement, forged his socialist beliefs. Deciding to concentrate on directing, he returned to Europe in 1914 to recruit actors, but on landing in France he was arrested as an enemy alien and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp for the next four years. After the war he directed many plays, especially Expressionist dramas, before, in 1920, going to work with Carl Froelich in the German film industry. In 1922, aged 37, Pabst directed Der Schatz, his first film.
Der Schatz had been adapted by Pabst and his co-writer Willy Henning from a short story by Nobel-prize-nominated author Rudolph Hans Bartsch, published in collection called Bittersweet Love Stories in 1910. A bell-founder called Balthasar (Golem star Albert Steinrück), his wife (the brilliant Ilka Grüning, with salt-and-pepper streak and a bell-shaped dirndl skirt) and daughter Beate (Lucie Mannheim, who later made several films in Britain during the war) and an apprentice called Svetelenz (Expressionist film and stage star Werner Krauss) live in a strange house in a sinister landscape.
There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?
Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!
It’s that time of year again, when we get to delve into the Hippfest programme. The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, Scotland, is the most welcoming event in the early cinema calendar, with one of the most glamorous venues. The lineup is always an enjoyable mix of the classic and obscure too, so I await this announcement with more interest than most.
You can read the full lineup and schedule on the Hippfest website, but here are some selected highlights – and yes, I am terribly, terribly biased.
Pabst! So much Pabst around these days, which is great. The Hippfest is showing GW Pabst’s first film, the most traditionally expressionist of his career, Der Schätz, with live accompaniment written and performed by acclaimed German composer and musician Alois Kott.
More Pabst! On 22nd March, yours truly will be giving an illustrated “Cuppa Talk” lecture entitled Lost Girls and Goddesses, all about women in Pabst’s silent films. Brooks, Garbo, Nielsen, Helm … all will be in (virtual) attendance.
Galas! The opening night screening has already been announced as The Last of the Mohicans with live accompaniment from David Allison.
On the Friday night, get yourself glammed up for a date with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, with live music from the maestro Neil Brand. This silent comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is perfect in practically every way. And Brand, yeah he’s a bit of a legend too.
Lon Chaney swings by on Saturday night. You can watch him play “the master of the underworld” in The Penalty with a new score, commissioned by the festival, from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello.
Stick around after The Penalty for an ideal late-night movie: Benjamin Christensen’s loopy Seven Footprints to Satan, with a live score from the always excellent Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. This film has to be seen to be believed!
Sunday night closes with two screening of recent BFI silent restorations. First, the sumptuous Indian romance Shiraz, accompanied by the wonderful John Sweeney, and then Anthony Asquith’s Underground, accompanied live by the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
Hello! To celebrate the fact that my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box is on sale in the US as of today (LINK) I have rounded up some links relating to the book. I’ve been out and about talking about the film IRL but also online, as you’ll see. I’ve included some of the nice things that people have said about the book, too. *blush*
The fantastic Paul Joyce gave the book a great writeup on his site Ithankyou. “Pamela writes with an expert eye, easy wit and steadfast concision; there is much attention to detail in the book but it is all explained with fluid precision. The research is thorough, with revelations both scandalous and surprising and this is one of the best of the BFI’s Film Classics series I’ve read, achieving its key objectives with ease. Pandora’s Box is engrossing, informative and entertaining … it made me experience the film in a completely different way”
Rick Burin was kind enough to write this about the book: “Pamela Hutchinson’s brilliant new study of Pandora’s Box (2017), in the BFI Film Classics series, is an extremely astute, readable reading of a fascinating film, explaining the enduring appeal and allure of both the picture and its heroine, the shimmering, sensual, black-helmeted Lulu: chauvinist avatar turned feminist icon.”
In case you are wondering, this is the correct order of business, in my humble opinion: watch the film, then read the book, then watch the film again. Repeat as required and enjoy!
So I have a few dates and venues confirmed, where you can come along, watch the film, with an introduction or Q&A from moi, and if you feel so inclined, buy a copy of the book (very reasonably priced, lots of pictures). It would be great to see some Silent Londoners in the audience. As more dates are arranged, I’ll add them to this post, but as ever, pay attention to the Silent London social media channels to get the breaking news.
So far, ALL these screenings are 35mm projections with live musical accompaniment. Because if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. And seeing Pandora’s Box on the big screen is definitely a thing worth doing.
Just a short note, to give you a little bit of news. The book I’ve been writing, well actually wrote last summer, has a release date! It’s a short book in the BFI Film Classics series, about one of the most beautiful and fascinating of all silent movies, GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), starring the unique Louise Brooks. #pandorasbook
Bad news for now – the book isn’t out until 21 November.
Good news for now – you can pre-order the book already, on Amazon, on the Palgrave site, or in a selection of other bookshops.
Good news to come – I’m talking to several people at venues up and down the UK, about screenings of the film to tie in with the launch. The deal is: I’ll come along, chat about the film, sell you a book and it will be midwinter magic all round. Details of those events to come, so watch this space …
Thanks for all your support. It’s also exactly a year today since I quit my full-time job and I have had a fabulous, busy 12 months of freelance film-related work. It’s enough to make a girl want to dance …
This is an extended version of a paper that I gave at the British Silent Film Festival Symposium at King’s College London on 7 April 2017. My book on Pandora’s Box (1929) is forthcoming from BFI Palgrave.
G. W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, but in many places a very loose one. Those German plays are about thirty years older than the film, a Weimar-era classic that marries traces of Expressionism with the late-1920s sobriety of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Pandora’s Box was filmed in Berlin, or at least in a former zeppelin hangar in Staaken, and its American star Louise Brooks identitfied its depiction of divergent sexualities and the sex trade with the city’s glamorous, permissive nightlife. Her evocative description of the city during the shoot, when she was staying at the famous Eden Hotel, begins: “Sex was the business of the town …”
“At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub, Eldorado, displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre.”[i]
There is only one named location in the film, however, and it is in this place that the fictional narrative bumps into historical circumstance – so in this case, geography carries crucial meaning. The final act of Pandora’s Box the film, just like the final act of Wedekind’s play of the same name, takes place in London – in a slum district most likely in the east of the city. Jack the Ripper walks these streets, and our heroine Lulu, reduced to prostitution, encounters him with fatal consequences. This murder is her dramatic destiny, and to understand the film more fully, which was possibly the first cinema adaptation of the plays to feature London and the Ripper, we need to think about the British capital rather than the German one. To explore this topic I am going to examine three disappointing “misadventures” in London: the visits made by Frank Wedekind, Louise Brooks and the film itself.
You don’t have to be a Giornate regular to know that everything old is new again … but it helps. So, as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival celebrates its 35th birthday, we welcome a new era, with Jay Weissberg taking over as director. A change of course or more of the same? There is only one way to find out …
Greta Garbo is immortal, and an opening night gala featuring a lush Carl Davis score for a classic Hollywood silent feels like a timeless choice also. Tonight’s screening of the shamelessly romantic The Mysterious Lady (1928) ticked all the boxes for a wandering Cinemutophile yearning for a home from home in northern Italy. It is a beautiful film, just the right side of presposterous, with Greta Garbo as a Russian super-spy seducing Austrian officer Conrad Nagel and falling in love in the process. How inconvenient, especially for her lecherous boss, Boris, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. The score, conducted by the maestro himself, was a Hollywood number through and through – thrilling to the too-perfect romance between the leads and unabashedly ramping up the intrigue. Touching too, that one of my all-time favourite silent films, A Propos de Nice (1930), played before the main feature in a gesture of sympathy and solidarity with the the people of the French Riviera, who suffered a terrible attack earlier in the year. It looked sublime on the Verdi screen, needless to say, and especially so with John Sweeney’s sparkling accompaniment
Silent London may be a little neglected over the summer, because I am writing a book. Yay! Just a little one. The site won’t entirely close though: I hope to pop back here occasionally to update you on the progress of the book, and my research, and maybe to find a little company during my summer hibernation.
The book will be a BFI Film Classic, on a very special and beautiful movie. I’ll be writing about … Pandora’s Box (1929), GW Pabst’s dazzling take on Wedekind’s Lulu plays, starring the endlessly fascinating Louise Brooks. I know that many of you love this film – and quite right too. So I am very pleased to be spending the summer with Georg and Louise and Frank, sweating happily over a hot keyboard.
Film Classics are short and sweet as you may know, but I will still be working full-time so it may take me a little while to get there. And I will probably still be writing elsewhere. As always, the best way to keep up with the other things I write is here on my portfolio site, or by clicking on the “More by me” tab at the top of the site.
Obviously, in what feels like the dim, distant future when the book is published, I’d love it if you could buy it, or put it on your Christmas lists, or borrow it from your library, or just tell some interested friends about it.
But that’s not the request I want to make today. It’s simply this: don’t be a stranger! Bear with with Silent London while it is on a go-slow – I’ll still post here, and on Facebook and Twitter sometimes. And please be patient if all I seem to talk about is Neue Sachlichkeit and Brooks’s razor-sharp fringe for a while.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Louise Brooks and GW Pabst, an irresistible combination? Certainly Pandora’s Box (1929) caught lightning in a bottle, creating one of the most iconic female roles in all of silent cinema. In Pandora’s Box, Pabst and Brooks tease eroticism out of a certain ingenue naivety, whereas in her previous US films (A Girl In Every Port and Beggars of Life in particular) Brooks had offerede a slightly more world-weary sensuality. So it is no surprise that Pabst saw Brooks as the perfect person to play Thymian, the sheltered girl who will drop through the cracks of life via a workhouse for fallen women and prostitution.
This new Blu-Ray transfer of Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer verlorenen, 1929) by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is a crisp and beautiful version of what is clearly an exploitation movie. As in Pandora’s Box, Pabst’s walks the tightrope of commenting on eroticism and sensuality; too often he falls off the tightrope into titillation. The film is set up for us to rue the difficult circumstances that lead to Thymian’s journey from a fine middle-class household down into poverty and eventually to selling her body. Except everything is still a bit clean. The reformatory is horrid, but only in comparison to her comfortable home – and its horridness is more due to a Miss Hanniganesque management rather than something inherent in the system. And there isn’t really too much criticism of Thymian’s shaming (AKA rape), and pregnancy. You get the sense that the original author (the film is based on a popular Margarete Böhme novel) and the film-makers are just following through the logical conclusion of these incidents. Instead, we end up with a somewhat warped fairytale, a slow-burn Snow White where the dwarves run a brothel full of happy hookers, or Cinderella with calisthenics.
There is a sensuality and rawness in Pandora’s Box, coming from Lulu’s naivity, which Thymian doesn’t share at all. At least by the time the film has put her through her paces as part of the reformatory’s physical education routine, she has no sense of wild abandon. It is a wholly more sinister erotic thrill, underlined (perhaps a bit too heavily) by the matron whipping her gong and clearly getting far too much pleasure out of the whole affair. This part of the film could be subtitled Reform School Girls do gym:
By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …
Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.
I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)
The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.
Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)
The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend. The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.
(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)
That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)
Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle. In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!
The choices we make in life define us, and this morning I got up bright and early for Viktor Turin’s Provokator (1927), but gave early Selig feature The Ne’er-do-Well (1916) a miss. Did I do right to choose Anna Sten’s anguished student and her revolutionary chums over Kathlyn Williams and the adventures of the rich and beautiful? I don’t know. Provokator, which marks Sten’s cinema debut, was occasionally stirring, but mostly on the pedestrian side, though a raid on the revolutionaries’ den was rather fine, boosted by terrific accompaniment from Gabriel Thibaudeau and Frank Bockius.
Where I may have erred is in choosing such a downbeat opener on a day that was to close with GW Pabst’s heartbreaking social critique Die Freudlose Gasse (1925). However, I am getting ahead of myself. My afternoon was perked up considerably by the patriotic hubbub around Walter Summers’ lovely postwar tearjerker A Couple of Down-and-Outs (1923), introduced by the producer’s grandson Sidney Samuelson, who was seeing the film for the first time. What could be a very harrowing tale is handled with care, as Rex Davis’s Danny finds unlikely allies when he rescues his war horse from a foreign abattoir: manipulative, but charming with it.
The audience groaned in unison at the start of the next screening, as another tranche of German animated shorts kicked off with a toothpaste advert featuring the “tooth devil” cracking open a poor vulnerable gnasher with his drill. It was, as before, a diverting and diverse hour. In the name of commerce, all kinds of unlikely objects have been animated: detergent, rolling pins, matchboxes, kettles and even, in a sweet but fussy stop-motion ad for aspirin, a silent-film star and director (Im Filmatelier, 1927). Günter Buchwald at the piano followed with apparent ease the rapid changes of subject-matter, media and mood – as when a promo film for a department store dwelt proffered a new suit as a suicide-prevention measure (Der Hartnäckige Selbstmörder, 1925).
I have a date with Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928) on Saturday, but I spent Friday night with both Garbo and Asta Nielsen in the elegant but emotionally gruelling Die Freudlose Gasse (1925), giving a beautiful face to the seedy economic exploitation of women in 1920s Vienna. Both the lead stars are fantastic, and supported by a cast of wonderful character actors including Valeska Gert as a pixie-faced madam. Pabst’s direction veers between sober restraint and wild bouts of inventive, unchained camera excitement. This new print is not quite complete, but mostly crisp, with deep tinting, most especially effective in a fire scene towards the end.
Accidentally profound statement of the day: “The joyless street is long,” exclaimed I, when I read in the catalogue that Die Freudlose Gasse clocks in at 151 minutes long in its present state. It ran for closer to three hours at the Berlin film festival, apparently, but that was based on a projection speed of 16fps, as opposed to the Giornate’s 19fps. Phew.
For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
The Passport to Cinema strand returns to BFI Southbank in September and October, under the banner of Making the Modern. And the strand begins with a timeless silent cinema favourite, Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks.
So, Pandora’s Box is the oldest film in the season, but its nonchalant treatment of sexuality, violent plot and chic Berlin architecture make it about as modern as modern can get. Perhaps that is why the film’s popularity has grown over the decades, from a disappointing start at the box office, to universal acclaim as a cool classic.
Judging by the running time given in the BFI programme, this might not be the new restoration of the film shown at the London Film Festival, but sex appeal like this really deserves to be seen on the big screen, nonetheless. So get your dancing shoes on, folks.
Pandora’s Box screens in NFT1 on Sunday 4 September at 3.20pm and in NFT2 on Monday 5 September at 6.10pm, with an introduction by Dr Nathalie Morris of the BFI and the Women and Silent British Cinema project. There will be live piano accompaniment at both screenings (by John Sweeney on the Sunday and Stephen Horne on the Monday), and tickets will be on sale in August.