One of the strands running through Carl Th Dreyer’s beautiful drama Michael (1924) is the idea that art can only be truly great when it is animated by love. The artist protagonist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) struggles to finish a commissioned portrait of a rich countess – his passion project takes his young protégée Michael (a youthful, handsome Walter Slezak) as its model instead. When Michael finishes the portrait for his master, the quality of his work betrays the fact that his own affection has been transferred to the model.
The film’s famous line, “Now I may die content, for I have seen great love” carries this lesson over to the art of living itself. Better to have loved and lost, as the saying goes. It’s a conclusion that recalls the moving speech that caps off last year’s Call Me by Your Name. Far less explicitly than that film, Michael also takes gay love as its subject – a topic dealt with more openly in certain German films of the era (Sex in Chains, Different from the Others). It’s unmistakably a gay story, seen in the 21st century. Perhaps in 1924, some members of the audience might have missed it – although not in the US, where the film was released as The Invert, and not if they were familiar with the author of the film’s source novel Herman Bang, a gay writer who wrote heartfelt stories, largely, it seems, about lonely and unfulfilled women.
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.
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.
So is this like Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman? Well yes a little, but mostly, very much no.
Not a comedy then? Not American either, it’s a Soviet documentary, a City Symphony in fact.
I know about those – which city does it portray? Erm. Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. And Odessa. But you’re not always sure which is which.
A fake then? No, it’s art.
Which means it’s not a factual film at all? Well that is a tricky question. A group of Sight & Sound critics recently voted it the greatest documentary of all time. So that’s that, but I’d argue it isn’t really a documentary at all. As is often the case, I agree with David Cairns, who calls it a “Non-fiction Film Thing” in a new video essay.
That is not so catchy. How about just “Film” then? The stated intent of Man With a Movie Camera was to make a film that owed nothing to the other arts, literature, theatre, painting. Check out the opening intertitle. “This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY.”
That sounds amazing. It is, full of astonishing cinematic tricks and playful philosophizing and passion. It is the most filmic of films and you should watch it, which is kinda the point of this conversation.
You always have an ulterior motive. Yes, I am sneaky that way. Man With A Movie Camera, my forgetful friend, was released last year in the cinema and on Blu-ray – my review is here.
I’ll read that later, I’m really busy. Asking silly questions must take up a good deal of your time. The TL;DR version of that review is that the cinema release of the movie was great, a gleaming restoration with a dazzling score by the Alloy Orchestra, but the Blu-ray release was not quite up to the same standard (although fans of the Michael Nyman score might overlook that).
I’ve missed my chance then. No. There is a new Blu-ray of Man With a Movie Camera in the shops – and it is the theatrical version that knocked my socks off last year. Put simply I recommend that you buy this version, from Masters of Cinema, forthwith, without delay.
Anything else to sweeten the deal before payday? LOTS. The aforementioned video essay by Davis Cairns and Timo Langer, and the not insubstantial matter of four of Vertov’s other important works (Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm, Three Songs about Lenin). Plus an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Ian Christie, a booklet crammed with treats from the archives. And a very nice box.
You can read more about the Masters of Cinema release here and buy it from lots of places including here.
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:
Spies are cool. Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.
“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi, is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.
Just in time for Christmas, Masters of Cinema is rereleasing some more of its silent back catalogue, in gorgeous new dual-format DVD/Blu-ray editions. This is a Good Thing no doubt, and if there is one title especially suited for the pantomime season it’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – a middle eastern romp starring Douglas Fairbanks as Ahmed, a light-fingered adventurer, beautifully photographed and bulging with the last word in 1920s special effects.
Forget the effects for a minute though, forget Raoul Walsh behind the camera, Anna May Wong slinking around the corners, and William Cameron Menzies’s towering sets, and settle in for the Douglas Fairbanks show. This is Fairbanks at his very best: fortysomething, athletic, beaming, stripped to the waist and bouncing in and out of giant pots, swashbuckling and soaring through the air and under the sea. If you want to understand why Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood, this is a key text. He burns up the screen here, forcing you to smile, to chuckle, to gasp in awe at his latest trickery or feat of physical prowess, daring you to remain unmoved. It would take a heart of stone not to relent – it’s his ambition as producer that lends this film its grand scale, and his radiant personality that wins the audience’s affection as well as its awe.
But you will have to possess a mind as gymnastic as Fairbanks’ buff body not to be troubled by the fact that this movie is pure orientalist claptrap. It can be done – Fairbanks on a magic carpet with his princess Julanne Johnston by his side is a sight beauteous enough to tempt you into a little light doublethinking duty. Just like Ahmed, you’ll have to earn your happiness here. It’s not a nasty film, but it is an ignorant one. If it weren’t for the gloss of that stunning production design and the stardust sprinkled by its leading man, that would be all we had to write about. As it is, we can take heart from the fact that the guff that underpins this movie is mostly well-intentioned but misguided romanticism. Rather this, you could argue, than yet another flick where the only middle eastern characters are bloodthirsty terrorists.
Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
Pola Negri’s Madame Dubarry has it. You know exactly what I am talking about. Dubarry is living and loving in the heat of pre-revolutionary Paris, but she’s more than enough trouble for the aristos all by herself. “The woman who will ruin France” is first introduced as a breath of fresh air, whispering saucy jokes to the other girls in the seamstresses’ workroom – a ripple of fun in the stuffy atmosphere of the atelier. When she leaves the shop, Dubarry collects admirers with every step, like Clara Bow in a crinoline. Before long, of course, she’s the mistress of Louis XV, creating disarray in the court, just as she did in the shop.
Ernst Lubitsch is brilliant at capturing this, the sizzle of sex appeal so hot that it can turn a king’s head, transform a society ball into an orgy, or raise an angry mob at the palace gates. Madame Dubarry has the angst of a drama, but the vigour of a comedy, and Negri has exactly the attitude that the part demands. Dubarry isn’t a calculating seductress, just a natural-born pleasure-seeker: a minx who decides which lover to visit by pouting as she pulls at the bows on her bodice. And Negri commits fully to the role of a beautiful woman in ugly circumstances – those enormous eyes are flirting one moment and filled with anguish the next. Some people are allergic to Negri’s grand emoting, the head flung back, the flailing arms. But there’s plenty there’s naturalistic and light here: watch her face as Jannings trims her fingernails, revelling in pleasure and pain. And yes, there’s also an opportunity for Negri to rehearse her most notorious scene – hysterically throwing herself across her lover’s coffin.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Frau Im Mond is one of the first silent movies I saw as an adult. And despite its audacious special effects I can honestly say Fritz Lang’s rocket opera was not my gateway drug to silent film. Instead I saw it to justify the décor of my recently redecorated flat. I wanted to hang an attractive film poster above my stairs; for quite some time it was going to be Metropolis, until I saw the poster for Frau Im Mond, and its iconic rocket. As a science-fiction fan, and a film buff, how could I resist this picture? However, it seemed like cheating to have a poster of a film I hadn’t seen hanging above my stairs. So that is why I saw Frau Im Mond six years ago, having bought the previous Masters Of Cinema DVD release.
Now it is back, re-released in dual format Blu-ray and DVD, and seven minutes of additional footage have been added to the film, which brings the running time up to a handsome two hours and 49 minutes. As with the recently reconstituted Metropolis, Lang takes his time but doesn’t waste a minute. It is just that for much of the film each minute could have been thirty seconds shorter, and the plotting gets in the way of what the film promises. While Frau Im Mond is a notable film in both Lang’s filmography and in the history of science-fiction cinema, it is also way too long and ponderous – considering its wonderful potential.
Written by Fritz Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou, and based on her novel of the same name, Frau Im Mond is one part conspiracy thriller and one part science-fiction tale. And that almost equally splits the running time, with the first hour and 20 minutes being a convoluted runaround between a professor, venture capitalists, enemy agents, a fiancée and a sparky kid. The rocket from the poster – and the justification for this being the first “scientific” science-fiction film – finally appears at one hour 18 minutes and the film does pick up considerably at that point, if only to give us some effects and even better Aran jumpers.
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.
We’re an excitable bunch here at Silent London, which you have probably noticed by now. But a quiet announcement by Masters of Cinema recently caused even more whooping and merriment than usual. The classic movie imprint is releasing its gorgeous Lubitsch in Berlin box set, which had inexplicably fallen out of print. We’re big fans, big, big fans of this set, and so in a collective declaration of box set love, a group of us gathered together to review every movie in the box, one by one …
There are six films in the set, all made by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch in the earliest stages of his movie career, after he had been lured out of Max Reinhardt’s theatre company to the UFA studio. If these films are deemed less sophisticated than his later Hollywood work, then that is mostly because his subject matter is often more fanciful, his characters border on feral, and his sense of humour, at this time, in uninhibitedly mischievous. Or perhaps, because people are fools. The elusive “Lubitsch touch”, and his mastery of character, space and comedy is very much in evidence here – The Oyster Princess and Die Puppe in particular are perfectly pitched comic pantomimes. Three films in this box star the irrepressible German comic actress Ossi Oswalda – perpare to fall head over heels – a further two feature the wonderful Pola Negri and Emil Jannings makes an appearance too.
One of the films in this set, Anna Boleyn, was partially responsible for Lubitsch’s move west: it and Madame Du Barry (not in this set) found US distribution, and became unsettlingly successful on those shores. Lubitsch would bc the first established Hollywood talent to be snapped up by a Hollywood studio. Pola Negri would follow shortly after – they called it, sardonically, the “German Invasion”.
As well as the following six films, the set contains a feature-length documentary (Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood) and some very sharply written essays. Don’t miss out.
The exclamatory title of this 40-minute adventure is a lesson hard won for its heroine. One might add, she hardly wants to be a woman either – at least not her fretful elders’ idea of how a young lady in her teens, and the century’s, should be. Delightfully, other people’s ideas hardly get a look in. I Don’t Want to be a Man is a taboo-thumping caper that plots its own course through conventional ideas about gender and romance. It was early days for Weimar Berlin when this film was made, but even in this short comedy, there is lechery, bisexuality, drunkenness and decadence in abundance. And when it comes to rebellious on-screen teens, Ossi Oswalda’s flirtatious, gender-bending minx feels decidedly modern.
Ossi is a smirking teenage nightmare, a spoilt brat who smokes and plays poker with men much older than her. Banished to her room, the flirting continues through her window as her suitors contort themselves on the pavement below. When he is called away overseas, her uncle hires a new, supposedly strict, young guardian to take her firmly in hand. That the appointed dragon is a handsome young man may seem to spell trouble, but Ossi’s next move takes the story to a whole new level of larkiness.
Outraged at being grounded, Ossi decides the only possible way to enjoy a night on the tiles is in drag, so she has herself fitted for top-hat-and-tails and sneaks out of the house. I won’t give away what happens in the nightclub, and the morning after, but suffice to say that lust and confusion bloom in equal measure.
A running gag here is that as a woman, Ossi can handle herself and manipulate the men who throng her, expertly. As a man she is clueless and not a little afraid. At the tailor’s, in feminine dress, she parcels her body out to the adoring assistants who clamour to measure her up: a left arm for one, the waist for another. In the club, she is near toppled over by the women who want to dance with her. Whether Lubitsch is saying that when it comes to sex women have the upper hand, or just poking fun at the whole business of romantic chivalry matters little. That Ossi finds herself a partner who likes her both in drag, and out of it, is the happy ending that even the most “retrosexual” audience could crave.
If it’s well-known that silent cinema is littered with heavily stylised classics, it’s perhaps also true that Die Puppe remains one of its most overlooked gems – a pre-Caligari classicof German artifice. Used here for comedic (rather than psychological) ends, the stylisation is no doubt employed in part to help make believable the film’s central premise: when a wealthy baron decides his nephew must marry, the local monks talk the nephew into marrying a lifelike doll so he can donate his dowry to their abbey. But what the nephew fails to realise is that the dollmaker’s puckish apprentice has broken the doll, and that his bride-to-be is in fact the dollmaker’s daughter herself, and not her mechanical counterpart …
If that all sounds rather silly … well, it is. But the nephew’s response to his uncle questioning the doll’s (literal) stiffness (“She’s from an old patrician family. They’re all very formal”) reminds us that this is as much social commentary as social comedy. The film is at its most pointed when representing the hypocrisy and greed of the monks, who gorge themselves on food and wine while claiming poverty (their response to the news of the 300,000 francs dowry: “Do you know how many pork knuckles you could eat for that!”).
The film was a vehicle for then-popular German actress Ossi Oswalda, who excels here in the dual role of the doll and the dollmaker’s daughter. But the film itself undoubtedly belongs to Lubitsch; he appears first onscreen, unpacking what is to become the scenery of the film’s opening scene. The film is subtitled “Four amusing acts from a toy chest”, and if the four acts never quite emerge in the print presented here, the rest of that description seems particularly accurate. Moving beyond stylisation-for-the-sake-of-it, Lubitsch seems to be delighting in the very medium of cinema and the possibilities inherent in the art form (lest the film’s exuberance make us forget, Die Puppe was made in 1919). Lubitsch is director as conjurer, and the film’s reflexive and playful edge exhibits all the purest joys of the silent era – a time in which cinematic conventions were yet to come along and ruin the experimental, stylised fun.
Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic. He is currently in development with his new film, London Symphony, a silent city symphony. You can follow the project’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.
Die Austernprinzessin (1919)
Reviewed by Ewan Munro
One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Yet for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch touch”. Whatever that may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his “mature” works.
At the heart of The Oyster Princess is a pretty full-blooded critique of capitalism; there’s certainly no pulling punches here. The “oyster king”, Mr Quaker (Victor Janson), lives in a vast mansion attended by numerous servants and has a spoilt daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Until the very end, all that either seems to care about is this privileged life they live. Quaker’s catchphrase, delivered at the end of each of the movie’s four acts, is “that doesn’t impress me”. Ossi, meanwhile, who kicks off the plot with her demand to marry a prince, susbequently pays only scant attention to either the man or the relationship. Hers is an entitled world of passing whims, and she soon decides that this prince she’s been given isn’t one she likes very much after all.
But this is a comedy of manners, and part of the joke is that Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) has fallen on hard times, and so has sent his valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check out Mr Quaker’s offer. This somewhat inevitably leads to him being confused with the prince, and given the frivolous way the Quakers live, perhaps that’s little surprise. The opening shot shows Mr Quaker smoking an unreasonably large cigar, attended by a phalanx of obsequious black servants, while his every word is hung upon by an array of secretaries. This obscene overkill – Quaker doesn’t need so many women to transcribe his dictation, nor so many handservants, as most of them have nothing to do – quickly becomes a running joke. There are serried ranks of servants to help Ossi into and out of her bath, and serving a meal is like a military drill. This is obscenely gluttonous excess for its own sake – and for our amusement.
Although the technical limitations of the period mean the camera is still largely fixed, it’s hardly noticeable thanks to a lightness of touch in orchestrating the action. Characters move around incessantly. So vast is Quaker’s mansion that he, attended by his many servants, jogs from room to room. His daughter meanwhile is a whirligig of emotion, throwing everything around petulantly. At one point there’s even a dance sequence – “a foxtrot epidemic breaks out!” – allowing for various groupings around the mansion until eventually everyone, right down to the kitchen servants, is seen dancing.
It may not be surprising to devotees of Lubitsch’s work, but for one new to his cinema, what’s astonishing is that almost every moment in the film’s concise hour-long running time is filled with inventiveness and comic inspiration. Shots that just prosaically bridge a gap between two scenes are not for Lubitsch, and (as mentioned above) even moving between rooms is done with a humorous touch. The performances are also uniformly delightful, particularly Oswalda’s cheeky impishness and Janson’s amusingly affected stoicism.
Once again, this is another excellent Masters of Cinema release, with an exemplary transfer to DVD and a rather jaunty score perfectly matched to the action on screen. This isn’t just an excellent primer to Lubitsch’s cinema, or to silent screen comedy. It’s a marvel of a film and a joy to watch.
Of the silent genres which seem to have dissipated when sound came, the Sheikh & Sex desert romances can seem the most alien to us now. Not just for their broadly orientalist strokes, any silent film aficionado has to swallow to some degree the racial and jingoistic views of the time, but there is often a degree of exotic ethnography going on, from Valentino’s tea-towel headgear to the huge harems on display. In depicting a non-Christian world view, film companies could have their cake and eat it, tell highly sexualised stories without condoning them.
Sumurun, with all of its high melodrama, probably sits closer to Lubitsch’s sex comedies such as The Oyster Princess, but its source material and setting means that narratively at least there is a sense that the story is the most important thing. Whilst the film is invested in the capricious evil of its sheikh, and definitely leaning on the fetishisation of the harem and exotic dancing, Lubitsch does not seem to be moralising here. Instead he is using his setting as an alien world, building a blockbuster that throws all the spectacle it can muster on to the screen whilst trying to display humanity in all its characters.
This means that tonally, Sumurun is a bit of a mess. It lurches from slapstick to scenes of murder and ends with some high tragedy. This doesn’t really matter though, as the narrative thread is strong and like any blockbuster there is barely a moment where Lubitsch doesn’t put something funny, novel or just plain beautiful at the screen. Pola Negri is appropriately captivating as the travelling dancer who instigates the ruckus, but Jenny Hasselqvist’s Sumurun is suitably empathic in the title role as the seemingly doomed courtesan. The film, however, belongs to Lubitsch the actor, whose Hunchback both observes and drives the story but also holds the most significant emotional beats (and some of the broadest comedy). He does a lot of eyebrow acting, and is extremely watchable in the role. That said, by the time people are locked in trunks, and are being chased around the elaborate set like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the hand of Lubitsch the director is clearly more prominent.
Much like its source material, Sumurun is invested in entertaining a wide audience in the broadest way. It has a Shakespearean sweep in its tragedy, but is at its heart a comedy – and quite a silly one in places. That it works is due to Lubitsch taking rather broad archetypes, particularly his own, and breathing life into them, transforming them from comedy to tragedy. It feels apt that the last shot of the film is Lubitsch himself, in his final acting role, mournfully strumming a lute; he will go on to entertain behind the camera, but he gives himself a pretty meaty final role.
For the star of a story about a sexy tempter lady, Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) doesn’t get to do a lot of tempting. The queens on either side of her have much more fun: her predecessor Catherine of Aragon (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein) gets some spectacular eye rolls and glares in, and successor Jane Seymour (Aud Egede-Nissen) interestingly takes up the traditional “Anne Boleyn” role of the ambitious, flirtatious younger woman who lures away Henry VIII (Emil Jannings). Porten’s Anne is very Good and Virtuous and Tragic. Far from scheming to get Henry and the crown, she is pressured into the marriage by the king and her uncle Norfolk (Ludwig Hartau). The best shot of the film is of the two men exchanging glances over her head, then talking rapidly at her from both sides as she slips into a half-swoon between them.
The three leads are introduced with very successful contrasts: Anne’s energy as she runs across a courtyard to greet her fiancé Henry Norris (Paul Hartmann); Henry’s joie de vivre as he licks his fingers and drinks from a tankard bigger than his head; and Catherine’s ritual, stultified staging of monarchy in the court.
Lubitsch frames Anne in playful boxes throughout the film. The opening scene sees her in a rocking cabin on the sea from France, she kisses Norris over a half-door and meets Henry VIII when the train of her dress is caught in a door. The set traps her but the camera dangles the possibility of escape. After she is sentenced to death, she begins to stride toward the camera, nearly faces us head-on, but chickens out and ducks away down a side corridor.
As a little bonus, the new score has a few jokes for early modern music fans, as “Pastimes with good company” – a tune Henry VIII wrote himself – is heard at key moments: at the king’s introduction, sitting at a Round Table (do you see) with his knights, at a May fair and later in a minor key as things start to go wrong for Anne.
I suspect it’s a bit long and worthy for those who know Lubitsch for his comedies, but as a historical costume drama Anna Boleyn is a lot quicker and wittier than most contemporaneous films of that genre, and frankly most modern ones too.
Ernst Lubitsch has referred to Die Bergkatze as his own personal favourite, and it’s easy to see why. This picture – which proudly proclaims itself as “A grotesque in four acts” – marks the peak of his silent era creativity. The film’s production design recalls The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with its spiral staircases and unusual angles, but filtered through the fantastic storybook style of Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, which he pushes to extremes here. We see the story unfold through a series of bizarre irises, from conventional circles to oblongs and squiggly outlines. Sometimes scenes are framed by an iris that suggests we’re viewing the action through a hole torn hastily in a sheet. It’s a suitably wild approach for the raucous tale Lubitsch wants to tell.
Die Bergkatze is the story of a soldier (Paul Heidemann) who finds himself caught between two women, one a captain’s eligible daughter (Edith Meller) and the other a gypsy girl – the “wildcat” of the title – who lives in the mountains with a gang of bandits. Her name is Rischka and she is played by Pola Negri, whose performance here almost matches the unrestrained exuberance of Ossi Oswalda in her collaborations with Lubitsch. Negri is lively and tough, manhandling and whipping the men around her into submission and stealing the leading man’s trousers within minutes of meeting him. While she takes steps towards a more feminine demeanour throughout the film, memorably trying on dresses and dousing herself in perfume, her more abrasive edges are never smoothed away – I loved the way she slapped away a proffered champagne glass before swigging straight from the bottle.
Lubitsch keeps undercutting convention in this manner. When we first see a crowd form to see off Heidemann’s Lieutenant Alexis, we might assume that it consists of people awed by his heroism in battle, but then we see that the throng is populated entirely by tearful women who want to thank “Alexis the Seducer” for the good times. Die Bergkatze is a gleefully entertaining romantic farce, with all of the wit and sauciness that characterises Lubitsch’s most distinctive comedies, but he also finds room for some unexpectedly touching interludes. A dream sequence that sees Rischka’s ghostly presence cavorting with Alexis is one of the loveliest scenes the director ever filmed.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
Long legendary as the first – and only – silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (at the very first ceremony, back in 1927), Wings now comes to us in a stunning new restoration, courtesy of Eureka’s ever-dependable Masters of Cinema label. The film tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who compete for the affections of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), before becoming comrades in the airfields of World War I. Star power was added by the original “It girl”, Clara Bow, in the role of Jack’s neighbour, Mary – the pure-eyed girl next door with an undying love for our hero.
If this setup – minus the Mary strand – sounds familiar to silent film fans, it’s perhaps due to a striking similarity to the setup of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), in which two rivals in love become comrades on the battlefields of World War I. However, if the overall plot of Wings at times resembles that of J’accuse, it does so without that film’s stringent anti-war message – and without its power.
In Wings, we are often told of the “horrors” of war in the title cards, but rarely do we see them. Even towards the end, when the body count begins to rise, it never feels as if we’re given a true sense of the barbarity of war. Compare, for instance, the lightness of the scenes detailing the cancellation of the soldier’s leave with the devastating impact of the equivalent scenes in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses, released just five years later. The closest Wings gets to touching upon this darkness is its final tragedy, but even there the film doesn’t quite hit home, despite the characters explicitly saying that the “war” is to blame. Wings was made with the assistance of a military in need of good PR, and perhaps it’s this that led to the film becoming a paean to the “young warriors of the sky” (as with J’accuse, real soldiers acted in the film, many of whom had seen service in the Great War). It’s a fine tribute to those who fought but, in being so, there remains a whiff of propaganda around the film’s portrayal of the chivalric life of these “knights of the air”.
Fresh from a theatrical release and a flurry of Halloween shows, Nosferatu springs into life on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. This new release is an update of the label’s previous DVD, but features the Symphony of Horror in gleaming 1080p glory, with a handful of new features as a bonus prize.
This is a precious object then, a totemic silent film in beautiful packaging and supported by more supporting material in the form of articles, audio commentaries, interviews and documentary footage than you could possibly expect. Apparently, there has been more work done to improve on the 2007 restoration – if you’ve seen this in the cinema already you know how pristine the prince of darkness looks here. And that is so important. Nosferatu is far more than shadows. Arguably, rewatching Nosferatu on Blu-Ray at home, rather than at an amped-up and spooky live show, you enjoy its gorgeousness rather than the horror thrills: those painterly landscapes in their pastel tints. There’s nothing like the black-white-red-purple palette of modern gothic horror here – which keeps the film fresh but always uncanny. The music helps, too. The score from Nosferatu’s first run plays up the prettiness and romance – until it can’t hold out any longer.
Do we need to recap? I’ll do this at high speed, like Orlok’s spectral carriage dashing through an ethereal white forest. Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in all but name, with the action transferred to Germany. Max Shreck is the snuggle-toothed vampire Orlok, the young and preternaturally talented FW Murnau sits in the director’s chair. The movie was produced and designed by Albin Grau, an artist with a keen interest in the occult. And it’s brilliant: both beautiful and terrifying. A horrific spooky story, with eerie contemporary import. Remember that Europe has just come out the other side of a world war and a brutal flu epidemic, then look again at the devastation wreaked by Orlok here.
In fact, even if you’ve never seen a second of Nosferatu, you’ll know its most famous shot: Orlok’s hunched shadow stretching up the wall as he climbs the stairs. That shot has became a visual shorthand for horror, for imminent danger. It’s remarkable, by contrast with all the films that have appropriated the stair shot, that Murnau’s Nosferatu avoids any such shortcuts: turning leafy landscapes into places of horror, playing violence as romance, and romance as violence. Nonagenarian special effects such as Orlok packing himself into his coffin, and later lurching out of it, still feel vibrant. Perhaps that’s partly because this is a relatively decorous scary movie, with just a few drops of blood standing in for Orlok’s grotesque appetite. Murnau drenches Orlok’s victims in creeping shadows, rather than cascading gore. You’ll jump like a child at the sight of a rat, believe me.
But even if you remember those shocks from a long-ago screening, I would urge you to acquaint yourself much more closely with this poetic, audacious film. There’s far more here than a textbook paragraph on Expressionism can brief you on. Each repeat viewing brings something new to the fore, and that’s where the MoC treatment excels. Let me see, this disc contains two audio commentaries (one by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens from 2007, and another by David Kalat, who is so charming and impressively knowledgable that we’ll let him off for describing Stoker as an Englishman), two interviews (an previously seen chat with Abel Ferrara, and a new one with BFI Film Classic author Kevin Jackson). There’s a German language doc, which includes lots of location footage, and a booklet of articles and gorgeous images. The new commentary and interview are particularly sharp on unpacking myths around Nosferatu, from the etymological origin of the name to Grau’s spiritualist beliefs.
Take it from me, you need more Nosferatu in your life.
A “monumental film” as epic as the most far-fetched fantasy saga, but firmly grounded in the streets of Weimar Berlin, this first instalment of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy is, simply put, a whole lot of movie for your money. A supernatural tale intertwined with social commentary, a crime film on a majestic scale, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler represents four and a half hours of contradiction and excess. It’s brilliant.
First, acquaint yourself with the structure: this is the first film in the trilogy, but it’s two films, released a month apart. The first film is called The Great Gambler: an Image of the Age, the second, Inferno: a Game for the People of Our Age. Each has six acts and runs for around two hours. It’s a tale of rise and fall, at heart, but a messy business at best. Together the two films form a complete story, but the second part of the trilogy, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, would appear in 1933 and the third, Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, in 1967. The source for the first two films at least was the serialised Mabuse novels of author Norbert Jacques. This is pulp mystery fiction with a touch of class; Lang takes a few steps in the direction of his Hollywood film noir future with these slick stories of criminal twists, unexpected turns and moral compromises in a bleak urban setting.
Those subtitles for the two individual films should give you an inkling that this was intended to be, and was received as, a film that documented its own bewildering era. The cracks in the fractured, dysfunctional Berlin society where Mabuse and his seedy accomplices dwell are the symptoms of the national postwar crisis. That Mabuse is a charismatic, malevolent leader who leads his victims to commit terrible acts, even to destroy themselves, bodes ill for the future. The pace of the plot, the melting certainties and doubtful identities, speak to the fears of those baffled by the mechanisation of the age. This is a film driven by speeding trains, racing cars, guns and screaming mobs: modern phenomena as frightening to many as Mabuse’s mass hallucinations.
Like the film itself, Dr Mabuse is a man of many disguises. Publicly a psychoanalyst, he is privately a gambler at the card table, a hypnotist who transforms people into pawns, a bingeing alcoholic and an arch-criminal with a network of underling felons reaching across the continent. That “Spieler” subtitle translates variously as actor, player and puppeteer. Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Mabuse enthrals the audience. His deeds are evil, but there is endless fascination in watching him at work: the casual arrogance of a conman who sends memoranda to his criminal colleagues on banknotes, of a villain who fails to collect a towering gambling debt, because his eyes are on a grander, bloodier prize, of a boozer who condemns his assistant’s drug use.
Mabuse’s nemesis is a dogged man of the law, the state prosecutor on the trail of a gang of card cheats who stumbles upon by chance on a more sinister criminal organisation. Bernhard Goetzke plays Inspector Von Wenk as a slightly desperate individual, a Weimar gumshoe who throws himself recklessly into the hunt for Mabuse – in one stunning setpiece, he faces the villain down over the card table, and manages to resists the full force of the doctor’s hypnotic power. Von Wenk goes solely by his surname in the source novel, but Fritz Lang honours him with the same first name as the novel’s author, Norbert Jacques. It’s a hint, perhaps that the law will eventually reign supreme in the anarchic, shifting world of Dr Mabuse. Hold on tight for an all-guns-blazing finale.
There are women, of course. Norwegian star Aud Egede-Nissen is the nightclub dancer Cara whose love for Mabuse rules her every move, from her seduction of his latest mark (played by the man who would become her husband, Paul Richter – Siegried in Die Nibelungen) to her ultimate downfall. Her performance, especially at the climax of the first movie, is particularly moving. And the little-known Gertrude Welcker dazzles as a bored countess seduced by the thrills of the Berlin nightclubs, and the underworld that controls them.
Dr Mabuse is a film to savour – if you know your silent Fritz Lang, you won’t be surprised that it’s a rare frame you don’t want to freeze, to relish the grandeur of the upper-class interiors, the moodily lit street scenes or the disconcerting multiple exposures in the mad scenes. On this new Blu-Ray presentation, as you ponder the beauty of it all, you’ll want to take a listen to the excellent audio commentary by David Kalat. Among many interesting insights into the movie, Kalat argues staunchly that Lang was no Expressionist. You may waver in your agreement with this thesis, but what’s for sure is that on the evidence of Mabuse Lang knew when to drape his sets in Caligari-esque chiaroscuro lighting, and when to leave well alone. The abstract Expressionist artworks that transform the Count’s mansion into a palace are refigured as a gothic nightmare when he loses his sense. The contrast between the two cinematographic treatments of the jail cell setting here is heartbreaking: the crisscrossing, swerving bars of darkness almost seem a comfort when we return to the same scene in crisp, unforgiving sunlight.
It’s a rich text for sure, and Kalat drops more than a few clues in his commentary as to how you may want to view Mabuse from a 21st-century perspective. It’s a game of chase-the-parallel. Does Herr Doktor equate to a gangster, a terrorist, a capitalist or a banker? The devil perhaps, is not in the detail, but in Lang’s expertly drawn grand scheme. This is a story of the very rich and the very poor, and a man who found a way to exploit both groups. From his blind counterfeiters toiling in a slum workshops, to the society chumps he cheats at cards, Mabuse is bleeding everyone dry. The really terrifying idea is not that villains exist, after all, but that the circumstances exist in which they can thrive.
Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is released by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 28 October 2013. The two-disc set features a sparkling modern score by Aljoscha Zimmermann played by a small ensemble, three featurettes, audio commentary and a booklet of images and text from the archive. This is a Blu-Ray transfer of an existing 2K restoration. Order the Blu-Ray from Movie Mail.
Whichever way you look at cinema history, you can’t avoid The Birth of a Nation (1915), a landmark, but one that casts a murky shadow. It is absolutely fitting and proper that the film regarded as the first American feature, which kickstarted Hollywood’s rise to global domination, and that was made by a true cinematic genius should be given the Masters of Cinema treatment – Blu-Ray transfer, archival extras, fancy booklet and all. Just don’t call The Birth of a Nation a masterpiece – while this is an important film, it is a terribly flawed one.
Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is an abolitionist congressman, based on Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones in Spielberg’s Lincoln), and his children are friends with the Cameron family in the South. Four of the children will fall in love with each other, but the Civil War will tear them apart. The second and most controversial part of the film details the consequences of the war and of freeing and enfranchising the slaves. Legislature is overrun by loutish black men; Cameron’s youngest daughter commits suicide when pursued by a “renegade negro”. The Ku Klux Klan exert a rough justice for this and other crimes and bully the black citizens back into their place. All ends, apparently, happily ever after, “Aryan birthright” defended, wedding bells pealing, with a vision of Christ.
The Birth of a Nation is an epic film, running for three hours and more, with a big subject, but a small mind. Beginning just before the American Civil War does, and hanging around to see the South recover from its heavy defeat, the movie encompasses battle, politics, romance and a family saga of sorts. Its text-heavy intertitles reveal a worthy ambition: to convey “the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence”. Other intertitles protest against censorship, asking that the film be given the same liberty to speak as the Bible, or Shakespeare. We are frequently told that this or that scene is a “historical facsimile” drawn from library sources. But these arguments feel hollow. The Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Clansman, is guilty of a sin of omission, and the far more serious crime of racism. This is a paean to the South, but specifically a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan, who in this narrative save the “white South” from “the heel of the black South”. It concerns itself not one jot with the “abhorrences” of slavery or slave-trading. Its black and mixed-race characters are cartoonish (“Dem free-niggers f’um d N’of am sho’ crazy”) and mostly venal – cowardly, yet sexually predatory, weak-minded, easily led. Of course, many of them are played by white actors, and needless to say, blackface is never a good look. In one horrific sequence a group of black men lynch another for supporting their rivals; in another equally nauseating scene lines of black voters cower in front of Klan members – this vote-rigging by intimidation is presented a as triumph. A cotton-field is used as a romantic setting for the white upper-class characters to coo at each other in.
I mention this because you may have heard that The Birth of a Nation is a great film, but a racist one. That is part of the way to the truth, which is that the film’s racism prevents it from becoming truly great. DW Griffith made many other films with old-fashioned, sentimental storylines – but his best work moves the audience, because it is based on an emotional truth. That emotional truth is missing in this film. Here, in a typically Griffithian sentimental moment, impoverished Carolina belle Mae Marsh trims her dress with “Southern ermine” that is, raw cotton daubed with fingerprints of soot. We’re expected to feel sorry for her character in her shabby frock, but not for the slave who picked that cotton for her family in the first place. That’s quite the feat of mental acrobatics. It’s hard to believe that this film was made by the same director who created A Corner in Wheat six years earlier. Even the wonderful Lillian Gish is disappointing here – her role as Stoneman’s thoughtless daughter (she never visits the library) who is disgusted by her boyfriend joining the Klan until a mixed-race men attempts to assault her, gives her little to work with. Although Miriam Cooper in a quieter role as the elder Cameron sister, is constantly compelling.
Without making excuses for the film’s failings, we should also note its monumental achievements: the deft storytelling here cuts across years and state lines from the home front to the battlefield and never feels forced or confused. It’s long, but never boring. Those war scenes are epic in scale and brutal in the vividness of their hand-on-hand combat – vistas of the battlefield spread out before the audience smothered in gunsmoke; or are sometimes vignetted to catch a vicious or poignant moment. Almost every scene looks sumptuous – this crisp, though occasionally grainy, transfer captures every detail of those “historical facsimiles” as well as the more poetic moments when Griffith indulges himself with a composition of romantic, painterly beauty: as in the love scenes, or the moment when Henry Walthall’s Colonel Cameron is inspired to form the Klan.
If you have seen, and loved, Griffith’s shorts and more rewarding films such as Broken Blossoms, then you’ll rightly want to see this film. Be warned though, you may not like it as much as you admire it, and you may admire it less than you expect to. But once you have seen it you will want to place the film in context, both historically and in terms of the debate around its content. The booklet of material provided with this release includes a tribute by Michael Powell and defences by Griffith and the author of The Clansman as well as a contemporary attack from the New York Times (“It is insulting to every man of Southern birth to assume that he is pleased by misrepresentation so colossal”) and another by Francis Hackett, which calls the film “spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”
The Birth of a Nation is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray from Masters of Cinema, RRP £17.99 (DVD) or £19.99 (Blu-Ray).
Do not adjust your set. The Naked Island is not from the silent era; in fact, it was made in 1960. However, this soul-wrenching Japanese film exemplifies the art of visual story-telling. With well-placed music, a choice smattering of ambient sound, next-to-no speech and the barest of captions, director Kaneto Shindô relies on his imagery to craft an engrossing realist drama. This is one of the most sophisticated, and powerful, of modern silent films. I found it completely engrossing – and the moment it finished, I pressed play and watched it all over again.
Shindô, best known for Onibaba and Children of Hiroshima, started out in the studio lab, before getting work as an art director and screenwriter and assisting Mizoguchi in the late 1930s. His common-law wife died of TB in 1943; the following year he was drafted into the army to do menial work as a cleaner. More than with many other cineastes, you could say that by the time he found success as a film director, Shindô had an appreciation for the struggles of working people. Many of his early films portray the degradations of poverty, and emphasise female suffering in particular. The Naked Island is no exception, described by Shindô as “a cinematic poem to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature”.
A family of four live alone on a remote, hilly island in Japan’s inland sea. The mother and father raise their crops by hand, carry fresh water from the mainland in pails slung across their shoulders on painful yokes, and live at the mercy of the elements. It’s the definition of a hand-to-mouth existence, thrown into relief when the boys catch a fish and the family take it to town to sell. There, all four experience the baffling luxuries of televisions, restaurants and leisure time before they return to their relentless routine. A third of the way through the film, a shocking act of violence reinforces the fragility of their livelihood. The tragic final act is an object lesson in how poverty crushes the human spirit.
Nobuko Otowa, Shindô’s favourite actress and his lover, plays the mother; and it’s an expert performance, for all its apparent naturalism. As she repeatedly makes her way up the hillside with her buckets of water, the tension is every bit as high as when Lila Crane creeps into the cellar of Bates family home, say, but drawn out over an agonising half-hour. With no lines other than sobs, and little opportunity to emote, Otawa portrays suffering without recourse to melodrama. Taiji Tonoyama, another Shindô regular, plays her stoical husband as a bruised soul. The two young boys, particularly Shinji Tanaka as the eldest son, are excellent too: conveying the effervescence of youth frustrated by a life of difficulty and disappointment.
The film is elegantly, cleverly photographed too – in lush monochrome CinemaScope by Kiyoshi Kuroda. The long takes of the family’s manual labour create not a documentary effect, but in their reworking and repetition, bring foreboding, life-or-death fear and sorrow. As the central couple, picked out against the overbearing hillside or the lowering sky, bear their yokes like crosses or dredge for seaweed in the pouring rain, their story speaks for itself. It is abundantly clear that the strength of this film would be diluted by conversation or narration. Shindô himself (in conversation with composer Hikaru Hayashi on the commentary track) explains during The Naked Island‘s heartbreaking climax: “We decided at the beginning to have no dialogue and that enabled us to express this scene so boldly.” The finale is all the more horrifying for its wordlessness – a twist of fate that is inexplicably cruel.
The Naked Island is accompanied by the aforementioned audio commentary, the option to watch without English subtitles, a video intro by Alex Cox and a booklet of supporting material including an interview with Shindô.
The director of Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh and Sunrise has an immaculate CV – but this, the final entry in his filmography, initially appears to be an oddity. In truth, it’s a masterpiece. FW Murnau’s cinema had been shaped in the creative hothouse of 1920s Berlin, and survived the transition to the commercially driven colossus of Hollywood beautifully, although his ego did not. Bruised by poor notices for the three films he had made in LA for Fox, Murnau took a leap into the unknown, embarking on a project unlike any other he had attempted. He sailed for Bora Bora with the documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty to shoot a colour movie, a part-talkie called Turia.
Following a script rewrite, money trouble and endless technical difficulties, Turia would become Tabu, a silent, black-and-white love story; Flaherty’s role would be downgraded to lab-bound assistant; and Murnau would plough his own money into the project until he had something he could sell to Paramount for distribution. The most shocking, and tragic, twist of all was that Murnau would not live to see its premiere. The director died in a car accident in March 1931, a week before Tabu’s first public screening.
Had Murnau lived, he would have seen his film, trimmed in often baffling ways by Paramount, fail to make back its costs at the box office, although the cinematographer Floyd Crosby would win the Oscar for this, his debut. In 1940, his mother sold the rights to Rowland and Samuel Brown, who rereleased it with further cuts and yet again failed to turn Tabu into a commercial success. It was not until the early 70s that a full nitrate print of the original film was discovered – and the process of restoration and appreciation began in earnest. Now we can watch Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, the full Tabu, and thanks to 21st-century technology, we can watch it at its sumptuous best.
Masters of Cinema has released Tabu previously on DVD – this is a beautiful Blu-Ray revamp of that pristine transfer. The sea spray sparkles and the chiaroscuro effects of those ominous shadows that are cast across paradise are given their full weight. It’s a seductively beautiful film; almost gratuitously, exotically gorgeous. In fact, I’d say the stills you see here don’t do it justice. Solidly expressionist lighting techniques transform a sun-drenched paradise into a locus of intangible terror, at the same time as the play of light on the luminous seas, on the young lovers’ beautiful bodies, entrances the eye. The film itself is a tempter, a Mephistopheles, and you’ll find it impossible to resist. The Hugo Reisenfeld score that Murnau spent his last pennies on is here too. It’s luscious, but on another occasion I’d be intrigued to see how a modern magician would accompany this film.
The plot concerns the stranglehold of fate, set cruelly against the joy of young love. We are far from the realm of documentary here – Tabu is every bit as artful as any of Murnau’s other films. Reri and Matahi live on a remote and unspoiled south sea island, and they fall suddenly, but utterly in love. The idyll is shattered when a messenger from another island, the sinister, hollow-faced Hitu, announces that Reri is “tabu”: she has been chosen to be a vestal virgin of sorts, a totem of chastity and purity – a symbolic tithe demanded from one island by the other. Reri must be wrenched from Matahi and their budding love affair is also “tabu”. The lovers escape, and wash up at a different kind of island, one that has been colonised, but Hitu, as eerie and relentless as Count Orlok, is on their trail …
That story, which folds folklore into tragedy, is told with the minimum of intertitles and the maximum of grace. Murnau’s unchained camera roams across ocean and sand but falls upon a painterly, elegant composition with each frame. Those title cards, as the invaluable commentary by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens makes plain, provide narration, and documentation, but not dialogue. Many silent films invite the hoary adjective “balletic”, but it is apt here: the vigour of the crowd scenes, the erotic, tragic interplay of the forlorn principals and that haunting villain. This voiceless melodrama, as exotic and strange as it may seem, will slide right under your skin.
Far from an oddity, this is a Murnau film to the core – there is enough joy, tragedy and self-sacrifice here to make you believe we’re back in Berlin. There’s even a dance scene that screams Sunrise; and those themes of paradise found and lost can’t help but recall Faust. Apparently Murnau, thoroughly disillusioned with Hollywood, planned to return to the South Sea Islands to make more films after Tabu – his 1930s career could have been truly fascinating.
So it’s worth buying Tabu for the film alone, but this is a typically generous Masters of CInema package. As well as the aforementioned commentary there is a short German-language documentary Tabu: the Cinematic Legacy, a short travelogue from 1940 that uses footage from Tabu, a handful of out-takes, and a weighty booklet featuring archive material and essays.
Tabu is released on Blu-Ray (£19.99) and DVD (£17.99) by Masters of Cinema on 24 June 2013. Available to pre-order now
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
When Sight & Sound unveiled the results of their once-a-decade poll of The Greatest Films of All Time earlier this year, I was both relieved and disappointed to see Carl Th Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc riding high at number nine: relieved that the film was there at all (it has been literally in and out of the top 10 every decade since the poll was first conducted in 1952), but disappointed that it wasn’t higher. Why? Because, quite simply, it is more deserving of the top spot than any other film.
Rightly famous for its unbridled use of close-ups, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the nearest cinema has ever come to capturing and rendering the human soul on-screen. But lest you worry that that makes it little more than a relic of pious Christianity, the emphasis here is very much on human. As the opening titles state, the film is concerned with a “simple and human” Joan, one who should be seen not as a warrior, but as “a young woman who died for her country”. Dreyer’s choice of religious subjects has led to great misunderstanding of his oeuvre and, in no uncertain terms, his interest throughout his career remained grounded in a thorough examination of human (and often female) suffering.
Here, the suffering woman is Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans, a young peasant girl who led an army into battle in the hope of driving the English out of 15th-century France. Believing herself to be working under the auspices of three different Saints, Joan was eventually captured, tried and burnt at the stake at the age of 19. It is her trial and execution – her Passion – that Dreyer retells, basing his film upon the transcripts of the actual trial.
Avoiding the spectacle of many historically set films, Dreyer opted instead to keep his camera focused on the faces of Joan and her assailants. Condensing, as he does, the events of Joan’s lengthy trial and execution into a single day, Dreyer approaches a unity of time, place and action – and yet, for all his painstaking historical research, the film’s fractured use of cinematic grammar elevates the action beyond the physical world and into a metaphysical realm. The sparseness of the film’s sets eliminate depth, while the constant close-ups and broken eye-lines render the space unimportant (and, to an extent, unintelligible). Joan and her suffering are all that matter, all we must understand. The historical context and politics are secondary; first and foremost is a scared, tormented young girl. Dreyer may have denied that his film belonged to the avant-garde, but this is not conventional film-making: every aspect, from the architecture to the camera movements, from the rhythm to the compositions, conspires to contribute to Joan’s assault. Even now, after more than 80 years, Dreyer’s film is as fresh and as powerful as the year it was made: this is form and content synthesising at the highest level. And, while it would be a crime not to comment on the uniformly superb performances, to do so would be to undermine the purity of the film’s perfection. Falconetti does not play Joan. She is Joan. And Joan, for now and for evermore, is Falconetti.
Thankfully, Mie Yanashita’s piano score turns out to be something of a marvel. Echoing the rich simplicity of the film itself, Yanashita focuses on the film’s tenderness, allowing moments such as the shedding of Joan’s first tear a new beauty. Listening to this music with the breathtaking 20fps restoration was like seeing the film again for the very first time (a feeling no doubt cultivated by the insertion of the original Danish intertitles and their new English translation). There is a startling splendour to the restoration, and while the 24fps version may feel more familiar, moments there slipped over take on new resonances here, while the slower pacing allows a fuller savouring of the images in all their glorious detail. As the film progresses and the tension mounts, Yanashita isn’t afraid to pick up the drama, yet still manages to avoid the occasional heavy-handedness that marred Utley and Gregory’s recent score. While it’s perhaps true that Yanashita’s score never reaches the dizzying heights of Einhorn’s, it’s a moving and graceful accompaniment nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Loren Connors’ tedious and barbaric soundtrack to the 24fps version, which somehow manages to do the impossible and actually take the life out of the film. Perhaps it will appeal to some, but I found it insensitive and intrusive, and for me it detracted from the viewing experience far more than it added to it. I would certainly urge first-time viewers of the film to steer well clear.
It should be noted, of course, that Dreyer expressed a preference for the film to be viewed silent, and Masters of Cinema has loyally made this the default option for playback, so in some respects the choice of soundtracks is irrelevant. However, being given the choice of two scores (or three if you count the silence) and two playback speeds makes this a very special package indeed.
Completing the package is another, alternative version of the film: the complete ‘Lo Duca’ cut. When the original camera negative was thought lost to a lab fire, Dreyer reassembled the film using alternative takes … only for this new version to be lost to a second fire. However, in the 1950s the French film historian Joseph-Marie Lo Duca stumbled across a print of Dreyer’s second version. After recutting the film, Lo Duca put his version into circulation, despite Dreyer’s disapproval. Generally considered a bastardisation of Dreyer’s original vision, the Lo Duca version of the film has been relegated to the status of curiosity ever since the miraculous discovery of Dreyer’s first version in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the 1980s. Yet, for those with a passion for Joan, it’s a fascinating alternative version – an imperfect version of a perfect film. The first thing that struck me about it was the fact that the actual experience of watching it is nowhere near as horrendous as one would expect, given the interference. Additions such as an opening voiceover detailing the historical background may go against the very fabric of Dreyer’s intentions, but his genius still shines through. What’s more, a comparison of the Lo Duca and original versions teaches us much about Dreyer’s film-making choices.
Such a comparison is made easier by the excellent essay Two Passions – One Film? by the preeminent Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg, found in the accompanying 100-page booklet. Alongside Tybjerg’s essay are pieces by Chris Marker, André Bazin, Antonin Artaud, Luis Buñuel, HD, and Dreyer himself. But the bulk of the booklet is formed by a chapter from Jean and Dale D Drum’s Dreyer biography My Only Great Passion, which, in detailing the film’s production, puts lie to the idea of Dreyer as a cruel despotic director who tortured Falconetti’s performance out of her (written with approval and assistance from Dreyer, My Only Great Passion remains the definitive Dreyer biography).
Although the excellent booklet goes a long way towards making up for it, it’s a shame that no audio commentary was included in the package (especially given Tybjerg’s excellent commentary on the Criterion DVD). However, while Tybjerg’s commentary and Einhorn’s Voices of Light mean you shouldn’t throw away your Criterion disc just yet, it’s undeniable that the new restoration and the choice of versions take the Masters of Cinema release to the next level. This is an essential purchase in every conceivable way.
Who needs to wait for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit? Fritz Lang’s five-hour, two-part Die Nibelungen (1924) is the king of all fantasy epics. Burning palaces, bloody fight scenes, dragons, cloaks of invisibility – this beast has it all, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful as well.
Available for the first time ever on home video, Die Nibelungen still has the power to take your breath away, so we can only imagine how imposing this magnificent saga was for audiences in the 1920s. The first part is called Siegfried and follows our eponymous hero’s outlandish adventures. Early on, he slays a dragon, then bathes in its blood, rendering himself impervious to harm (about from a small patch on his back that was covered by a falling leaf and failed to absorb the blood). Thus super-charged, Siegfried sets about becoming a king of kings, rich beyond compare having won the Nibelungen’s wealth, but doomed, equally, because the treasure is cursed, you see … The second part, called Kriemhild’s Revenge, features his (spoiler) widow seeking vengeance for her husband’s death.
Visually, Die Nibelungen is consistently mind-blowing. The camera is largely static, but the vast, intricately decorated sets, shot from extreme perspectives and filled with massive crowds in extravagant costumes will throw you into a trance. These films are never dull to look at, and sometimes, as when the light falls in elegant slivers through the forest on to Siegried and his horse, or the northern lights dance above Queen Brunhild’s castle, they are simply exquisite. If you’ve seen Metropolis, that will give you some idea of the boldness, and magnitude of Lang’s vision here. This is a strangely modernised, stylised update of the story’s Wagnerian sources, and because it is all shot on sets rather than location (even the forests), Die Nibelungen looks like a fantastical stage play magicked into three-dimensions. And the special effects are meticulously realised, from the mechanical dragon to a “wipe” superimposition that turns the treasure-bearing dwarfs to silently screaming stone. The only time you’ll lose concentration is when you’ll start wondering: “How did they do they that?”
What you see on these discs is the end result of a restoration process bringing together several different camera negatives, fixing damage and replacing missing title cards. This release also replicates the golden tinting thought to have characterised the films’ original release, which soaks lushly into Carl Hoffmann’s high-contrast Expressionist photography (there’s a detailed note on the tinting in the booklet that accompanies the discs). The Blu-Ray HD transfer is excellent, so you’ll want to watch this on the best, biggest screen you can get your hands in and let yourself be swept away by all its glory. Turn up the sound too: frequent Lang-collaborator Gottfried Huppertz’s original orchestral score is available here in stereo or 5.1 mixes and nothing less bombastic or densely textured would do.
That said, it’s an awful lot to swallow in one sitting, and the acting here is of the chest-clutching, hair-pulling grand style. Paul Richter as Siegfried is a notable offender. And the scene in the first film in which Siegfried uses his magic to help his ally “subdue” his wife in the bedroom is unpleasant to modern eyes for an entirely different reason. The illuminated Gothic intertitles are very grand, but the English subtitles are sometimes hard to read because they have been translated so literally: “Invincible be he who is the dragon-slayer!” The second feature also suffers from having a less well-structured, eventful plot than the first, too, relying on endless fight scenes between the noble Burgundians and feral Huns rather than Siegfried‘s gorgeous flights of fancy. Don’t despair though: its flaming finale, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s grotesque Attila, are well worth putting in the hours for.
These are two big, big films, with lots to impart to us about Lang’s film-making style, about German nationalism and myth-making in the 1920s (they are dedicated “to the German people”), and more besides. So it’s valuable that this release comes with one of Masters of Cinema’s characteristically thorough booklets, containing essays from Lotte Eisner and Tom Gunning, some words from the director and a note from British film legend Michael Powell, as well a Geoffrey O’Brien poem, all of which will help you to explore and appreciate Die Nibelungen‘s strengths. There’s also a German-language (with subtitles) documentary, The Heritage of Die Nibelungen, which will bring home to you just how ambitious these films are, and also, what a gruelling experience it was for the actors.
Die Nibelungen will demand your time and attention both – but it is terrifically enjoyable, exciting stuff. This is a hugely welcome and well-considered release of an important epic.