There are a handful of silent films that most cinephiles see first. Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, Sunrise, The General and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari perhaps, give or take Nosferatu, a Hitchcock and a couple more Hollywood favourites. There is nothing dismaying about the establishment of these films as classics of the silent era, widely available on DVD and at festival screenings. However, this very select canon can offer a distorted picture of the period. At the very least, there is a risk that these isolated examples are heralded as rare triumphs from a primitive age.
This is where Lawrence Napper’s engaging guide to late silent film comes in. Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small offers a broader picture of film style and the film industry between the First World War and the coming of sound. The opening chapter begins with the audience, tracing the history of filmgoing in this period, using the depiction of cinemas in silent movies. Subsequent sections provide context for those film-club favourites, outlining the industry and aesthetics of the cinema in Germany, Russia and America.
In these chapters, Napper revisits and challenges some fondly held views. Particularly, he stresses that there is far more to the national silent cinemas of Germany and Russia than Expressionism or Soviet montage respectively. He follows a detailed discussion of Caligari with the suggestion that the reader looks at Ernst Lubitsch comedies such as The Oyster Princess and The Doll to discover similar stylisation in both performance and design but applied in the name of pleasure and humour rather than the evocation of psychological trauma.
Sometimes you can fight it. You can keep those thoughts at bay, and resist your deeper impulses, urging you to indulge that secret side of yourself that you usually keep hidden. On other days, what the heck, you just need to geek out.
Thank nerd heaven, then, for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, now in its fourth year – and more specifically, thanks to Lawrence Napper of King’s College London who organises this impressive event.
For the first time, we had two days in which to sympose. First, a long afternoon (2pm-9pm) of screenings with a couple of presentations thrown in, then a full day of papers. I like this new arrangement, which gives you a bit of choice as to how deep your geekery will run. In case you really need to ask, I was there for both days …
The three features on the Thursday all had much to recommend them. It’s a little unfair to single out my least favourite, because it was an ambitious ensemble drama, a literary adaptation made in Ireland at a time when that country barely had a film industry at all – and it had scenes missing. But do look out for a forthcoming restoration of Knocknagow (1918), which has a fascinating history and sumptuous landscapes. And we were lucky enough to have Neil Brand at the keys, so those landscapes became even more lush.
The most awe-inspiring film of the day was The Somme – not the very well-known documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916), but a 1927 feature, which nevertheless borrows some documentary tricks, and archive footage, to tell the story of the famous offensive of 1916, with painstaking detail and high drama. It is impossible not to be moved by the bravery and stoicism of the men involved, and the scene in which our lads first see a tank wreaking destruction on the trenches is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Slow tracking shots along the mighty beast’s riveted hide create an impression of looming, sinister dominance that Stanley Kubrick would salivate over. And Stephen Horne’s accompaniment was astonishingly good – and often unexpected. Do seek this out if you ever get a chance to see it, especially if you have a particular interest in world war one. And you can read a little more about the film in Lawrence Napper’s excellent book, excerpted here.
Is there a more pleasant sounding word than “symposium”? I think not, even if like me you are just old enough to remember the mid-90s punk pop band of the same name.
So it is with a satisfied, cat-like smile, that I share the news of a symposium, coming to these parts in April. it’s the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, if you hadn’t guessed, and it will take place at King’s College London, on 28 and 29 April. Two days? Yes, one day (the 29th, a Friday) will be given over to papers, the afternoon and evening of the previous day will be devoted to screenings of British silent films. Like, ooh I don’t know, The Somme (1927), perhaps? Surely not. Well, you didn’t hear it from me …
But of course, the BSFF Symposium is a partner to the BSFF itself, so whatever is shown, and discussed, at the event will relate to “the opportunity to re-assess film-making in Britain between 1895 and 1930”, and offer a chance to “consider the achievements and the key debates brought to light by the festival, and to discuss the new directions that future research may take”.
If you are a little highbrow you’ll be especially pleased to know that the likelihood of biscuits is: good to high. If you are really clever, you’ll want to also know how to propose a paper for this delightful symposium. Hold on for the details of the call for papers, courtesy of Dr Lawrence Napper, the supremo of this symposium:
200-word proposals for 15 minute papers are invited on any aspect of film-making and film-going in Britain from 1895-1930. We encourage submissions from early career researchers and independent scholars, and this year especially welcome papers which respond to the themes of the most recent festival, and the current AHRB project on ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound’.
Proposals should be sent to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk by 29 March 2016. See you there!
This article contains spoilers, though as the films discussed deal with historical events, we hope no one will be too disappointed.
In 1927, as the flood of war-themed films identified by critic Caroline Lejeune the previous year developed into a torrent, two British companies were drawing on the legacy of British Instructional Films’ (BIF) war reconstruction series. Both The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and The Somme (MA Wetherell) could claim to be legitimate heirs to the series. The former was directed by Walter Summers and produced by Harry Bruce Woolfe, while the latter shared a number of personnel with BIF’s other productions including its producer, E Gordon Craig.
In their release strategies, too, the two films followed the model of their predecessors – The Somme opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion on 5 September for an exclusive run, while The Battles of Coronel and Falklands Islands was screened privately for the royal family at Balmoral before opening at the New Gallery on 15 September. These openings were announced together in the press coverage, implying a parallel between the two films. Both films went on general release during Armistice week, where they competed with a number of other British films with war themes, including Remembrance (Bert Wynne, 1927) and Roses of Picardy (Maurice Elvey, 1927). In the premier London houses, they were succeeded by further exclusive runs of new war dramas, Blighty (Adrian Brunel, 1927) replacing The Somme at Marble Arch, and Land of Hope and Glory (Harley Knoles, 1927) in the Plaza, Regent Street.
Despite these similarities, it is nevertheless possible to identify divergent strategies in the two films. The self-conscious use of formal moments of remembrance evident in the 1925 Ypres (Walter Summers) was incorporated into a number of the fictional war dramas, including Remembrance, Blighty and Land of Hope and Glory. The balance of drama and documentary elements continued to shift, and both The Somme and Coronel and Falklands develop the more dramatic shooting structure evident in Mons (Walter Summers, 1926), although in different directions. Mindful of the criticisms of Mons, director MA Wetherell re-instated the diagram elements of earlier films in his explanation of the overall strategy of The Somme (a decision which earned him praise from a number of reviewers), while Summers took advantage of the relatively contained story of Coronel and Falklands to offer a film much more clearly driven by the narrative conventions of fiction film-making. As part of this, the exploits of Victoria Cross (VC) winners – so consistent an element in all of the previous films – were dropped entirely from Coronel and Falklands, which offers instead a much clearer identification with motives and inner emotions of the captains of both the British and German ships, conveyed through classical editing.