Where the telescope ends the microscope begins, and which has the wider vision? – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You might be forgiven for thinking there was only one show in town today – the epic screening of Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables. But not only were there several films on offer beforehand, there were schedule clashes – yes, clashes – meaning that I had to make some painful decisions. I can’t bear to tell you what I missed (“Here’s what you could have won,” as Jim Bowen would say), but this is what I saw before my voyage to Paris, when I took a detour to Cinemazero.
The morning began a little coldly with a sedate documentary about Gaston Méliès, brother of the more famous Georges, and his travels around the globe with a movie crew. Undoubtedly this is a fascinating topic – Gaston was an adventurous soul who travelled far and wide, making both fiction and documentary films, and occasionally hybrid affairs too. Wherever he went – Tahiti, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand – he sought out the real locals, and cast these non-professional actors in dramatic roles. Back when so many people in the States were relying on blackface, as we have seen, Gaston sought a greater diversity and authenticity. A very interesting subject, but this film, Gaston Méliès and the Wandering Star Company (2015), was not full of the same enthusiasm as its protagonist. I wanted to know more – how he developed such wanderlust, how the films were received, how the communities he entered related to cinema after he left and whether all this jaunting about contributed to his brother’s financial ruin.
If anyone can raise the tempo it’s our British sweetheart Betty Balfour, and she starred in a new rediscovery, a German-UK-Sweden co-production that gives euro-puddings a good name. Would they were all as sweet. The plot was as intricate as the lovely lace gowns Betty was so fond of, but to be brief Flickorna Gyurkovics (A Sister of Six, 1926) is a comedy of repeated mistaken identities all coming between Balfour and her handsome archduke and a happy-ever-after. It’s mischievously funny, and wickedly shot too, being photographed by none other than Carl Hoffman. Balfour is brilliant, my own dear favourite Karin Swanström has a small role and there’s even a little monkey, followed around by Hoffman with a handheld camera. Such delightful touches abounded – for example, a POV shot of photograph of Balfour and her sisters, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke animated itself, as the girls wriggled and giggled. A real treat, even if it is nigh-on unsummarisable.
On Saturday, outside events threatened to intrude the sanctity of the festival – and we weren’t complaining. First, the morning’s historical presentations were timed around a break for an update on the Labour leadership decision. Is victor Jeremy Corbyn a silent movie fan? Here in “red” Leicester (that joke TM Peter Walsh) we assume he would be an Eisenstein man. And in the afternoon, we segued neatly from checking the football scores to taking our seats for The Great Game (1930), a rollicking good film, albeit a talkie, set in the world of soccer and strangely apt for the modern game. At night, we watched a film set during the Wars of the Roses, just a few feet from Richard III’s tomb. Perhaps it was all just meant to be …
Believing in fate is a double-edged sword, though. We started the day with a thoroughly intriguing film that danced with the dangers of destiny. The tale of a doomed ship, Windjammer (1930) was a haunting film that was shot as a silent documentary record of the final journey of sailing ship the Grace Harwar, but then had dramatic “talkie” scenes of life below-deck added to make it more palatable to the general public. Those fictional scenes added a plot, one that echoed the real-life tragedies that had taken place on board the Harwar on that long and difficult last voyage. The very handsome Tony Bruce plays a posh boy, Jack, who was travelling home after having his heart broken in Melbourne – and sad to say he meets a watery end. The scenes of the boat battling the waves are both beautiful and terrifying – the chat among the crew crude but naturalistic. More than a curio, but a curious beast all the same. And we were grateful to Laraine Porter’s exquisite introduction setting a complex film in its proper context.
More terror at sea in a very poignant presentation from Bryony Dixon on the films that tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. From newsreels of the aftermath of anti-German riots, to Winsor McCay’s stunning propaganda animation, this was an engrossing selection of films, rendered all the more powerful by the witness testimony Dixon read as the films played, and Stephen Horne’s sensitive accompaniment.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. Brand will accompany a screening of Alfred hitchcock’s The Ring at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 October 2015
The Ring is the only Hitchcock movie scenario that Hitch wrote himself. His highly regarded screenwriter Elliott Stannard, Hitch and Alma, his wife plotted it out together, inventing wonderful visual set-pieces such as a sideshow boxer’s rise through the ranks shown as changing fight posters over the months and the leading character’s Othello-like jealousy growing throughout a drink-fuelled dinner party.
Lillian Hall-Davis arguably precedes Anny Ondra as Hitch’s first sexy femme fatale, particularly in this film, in which she loses her head to boxing beefcake Ian Hunter despite marrying genuine athlete Carl Brisson, who is forced to fight for his wife’s affections.
I first scored this film over 10 years ago for a small jazz ensemble and have always loved its daring, its cheeky vivacity and the physicality of its fight scenes. But where did Hitch’s love of the fight game come from, and what does this eccentric film tell us about its creator?
Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?
The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.
There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.
If you attend the occasional silent movie screening, like I do, you’ll have experienced a particular bittersweet feeling. As much as you enjoyed the show, you fear you could never quite recreate the magic. You know the film is out there waiting for you to watch again (somehow), but nine times out of 10, the improvised music that accompanied it lives only in the corner of your memory.
The genius of improvisation is that the melodies, or that special combination of them, are conjured out of thin air, and disappear just as fast. Unless … someone, say Neil Brand, were to sit down at the piano and record some of those tunes for posterity.
So that is exactly what Brand has done – he has released an album of some of his favourite tunes to accompany classic silent films (from Pandora’s Box to Safety Last!). It’s a pleasure to listen to, and an enjoyably infuriating silent movie quiz too: the sleeve notes will tell you which film each track belongs to: can you guess without looking, and for an extra 10 points, can you pinpoint the scenes that inspired each excerpt?
Over to Brand’s notes to explain further:
In this album I have tried, for the first time, to give my improvised silent movie accompaniments a little life of their own away from the films, as piano pieces. They carry the essence of my musical thoughts on what these films are about, but you can listen to them without knowing the films, and let the pieces create your own pictures in your head.
Those sleeve notes also include a short intro by Brand to each film. So if you like what you hear, and you haven’t yet encountered the movie in question … well you couldn’t really ask for a better introduction.
I’ve had a listen to the album, and it really is wonderful. What I didn’t expect, was to feel the same shivers down my spine that I would experience when watching Louise Brooks dance, or Murnau’s camera swooping through the morning mist. This is the most evocative of music – I felt that I was in the film as much as viewing it, whirling through the streets of Berlin (People on Sunday), Charlestoning with Clara Bow (It), marching in step with John Gilbert (The Big Parade) and dangling precariously with Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!).
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter.
Deep beneath the mountains of the Trentino range of Italy and Austria’s Dolomites lies one of the most extraordinary exhibits, in one of the most extraordinary galleries, in the world. One walks into a gigantic road tunnel, through a curtain and into one of the most potent and gripping representations of WWI cinema anywhere on the planet. From the very first image (from the Imperial War Museum) as a real shell strikes a galloping troop of British field artillery, leaving dead horses and soldiers on the field as the smoke clears, we are in the binary world of WWI “reality” as seen by the cameras of the time and the imaginations of those who came after.
That this exhibition, by the Trentino History Museum, should be a chilling reminder of the inhumanity of Italy’s White War on the Austrian border is no surprise – what is utterly unexpected is that it should also be a clear meditation on the very notion of cinema as “point of view”, with our attention continually drawn to the voyeurs and showmen, the “victors” and “victims”, the selective nature of documentary and the over-exaggeration of the “real”.
The exhibition’s existence is the result of a fruitful collaboration between Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino and Cineteca del Friuli (with the assistance of archives around the world) in which the Museum, which owns and programmes the tunnels, has turned to experts at the Cineteca (particularly Pordenone mentor Luca Giuliani), to trace the history of WWI on film all the way from the outbreak in 1915 to the most recent films on the subject.
All the classics are contextualised on the way: J’Accuse, All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion, Paths of Glory. The result is 46 full-size academy screens, through which we walk, looking to left and right, for half-a-mile, taking in a century of imagery and cinematic treasures beautifully configured into intriguing sub-genres; wounds, adventure, heroism (Italian strong-man star Maciste fighting the Austrians), fiction, imperialism, and more. Three-quarters of the way up the tunnel we emerge into sound, via a soundproof screen and the “Control Room” which is almost the most fascinating part of the exhibition. There we are introduced to the magic behind the screens: the film-makers, their equipment, and ourselves as their intended audience.
The fifth instalment of Scotland’s only silent movie festival announces its programme today – and judging by previous years, you should start snapping up tickets straight away (tickets go on sale today, 10 February 2015, at noon). The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema takes place in Bo’ness, a small town tucked away on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Falkirk, Scotland. Bo’ness has a stunning vintage cinema, the Hippodrome, which has been restored to its 1920s glory, and each year hosts of a celebration of the silent era that is as welcoming as it is wide-ranging.
HippFest celebrates its fifth birthday in style with three major World Premiere Festival Commissions, a pop-up cinema at Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, the chance to discover forgotten stars Colleen Moore and Eric Campbell and get hands-on with a series of workshops and interactive events covering everything from beatboxing to Joan Crawford’s favourite dinner party recipes.
You can find all the information about the festival, and how to book tickets for the events, on the festival website here. You can also follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter. This year’s event runs from 18-22 March 2015 and below I have picked out some highlights from the programme. I have to say I am pretty excited.
The Friday night gala screening will be the hilarious Synthetic Sin, starring Colleen Moore. There’s a dress code ladies and gents – flapper glamour! Neil Brand will accompany on piano and some silent movie blogger or other will be introducing the film …
“The Film Explainer” Andy Cannon will perform alongside extracts from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with musicians Wendy Weatherby and Frank McLaughlin.
London is the best city in the world for silent cinema. OK, so maybe I should admit to a little bias, but really, between the BFI Southbank, the Barbican, the London Film Festival, the Phoenix cinema in Finchley, and the capital’s many film societies, rep cinemas, arthouse cinemas, orchestras, concert halls and festivals (including the many visits of the British Silent Film Festival, the Fashion in Film Festival and the recently departed Birds Eye View Film Festival) we are sitting pretty for silents. Whether it’s a symptom or a cause I don’t know, but we also have many of the world’s best silent film accompanists based right here in the Big Smoke.
It’s in this context that in the summer of 2013, two of London’s fabulous silent film musicians, John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrysch, set up a “silent speakeasy” called the Kennington Bioscope: “a silent cinematic event dedicated to the rediscovery of forgotten masterpieces”. Since then, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out, and I am about to make you jealous. I can’t let another Bioscope go by without telling you all how amazing it is.
The KB (as I have never yet heard one person call it) is held once every three weeks at the Cinema Museum – a volunteer-staffed Aladdin’s Cave of cinematic memorabilia and ephemera. There are more than a few reasons why you voted this place as your favourite silent film venue of 2014. It’s a wee bit like a time machine, whisking you back to a more sedate era of cinemagoing. There’s always an interval, ushers may well be wearing natty uniforms, someone will undoubtedly strike a gong to prompt patrons to take their seats, and the adverts before the screening will remind those assembled of the proper etiquette required. Tickets, which cost just £3, are made of cardboard and ripped off a reel. Most important of all, the projection booth is staffed by an expert projectionist, showing films of all shapes and sizes as often as possible.
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.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Tony Fletcher, film historian at the Cinema Museum, about director-actor Alf Collins. Some of Collins’ Gaumont films will be shown on 30 August at a special open-air screening on the site of the original studio in Camberwell, with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.
Alfred Bromhead started the English agency for Gaumont in Britain in 1898. He distributed the films produced by the French arm of the company, which was run by Leon Gaumont, and he also attempted to produce a few films in Britain in 1899. He opened a small outdoor studio on a four-acre cricket field in Loughborough Junction in south-east London. The open-air stage measured 30ft x 15ft However, this venture was short-lived and lasted for only one summer.
In 1902, Bromhead decided to make another attempt at producing films. Alfred Collins came on board as stage manager, and Gaumont continued producing short films over the next seven to eight years. These were often shot in the streets of south-east London – pioneering chase comedies and dramas. Alf Collins had already had some film experience working with Robert Paul, as well as at the British Biograph Company. He had started performing at the Surrey Theatre under George Conquest, later joining the William Terris Company at the Lyceum Theatre. He also performed in Drury Lane Pantos playing The Copper in the Harlequinade. His full-time job between 1902 and 1932 was as the stage manager for the Kate Carney Company, which gave him opportunities to make films when they were appearing in London and the provinces.
During 1904, Bromhead moved studios from Loughborough Junction to a 14-acre site at Freeman’s cricket field, Champion Hill. Thomas Freeman was a local builder and decorator living at 127 Grove Lane. In 1891, he had acquired a site at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House (roughly where Sainsbury’s superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC are now situated). Freeman built three wood and iron cricket pavilions which were hired out during the summer to the Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and during the winter to Dulwich Hamlet FC. These appear in some of the films. Bromhead constructed an open-air stage to film interior shots as no artificial lights were available.
Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17. Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.
Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.
On Saturday night at Glastonbury 2014, the mud, the terrible noodles and the hangovers will all be worth it. For the first time ever, a silent film will play the country’s leading rock festival. Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers will perform their rousing score for William’s Wellman’s rail-riding rollercoaster Beggars of Life in the Pilton Palais cinema tent, at 6pm on 28 June. We’ll be there – will you?
I’ve just returned from the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk. It’s a fantastic event – I really enjoyed myself and only wish I could stay longer. To give you a flavour of the weekend, if you missed out this time, here’s a mini-podcast and a selection of social media updates too. Surely there is no cooler hashtag for a #silentfilm event than #hippfest?
Hats off to Alison Strauss and her team and Falkirk Community Trust to – Hippfest is a triumph.
Scotland’s only silent film festival returns to the glorious Hippodrome cinema in Bo’ness with another impressively wide-ranging programme. There are some real treasures to be unearthed here: rare screenings of little-seen but highly valued films, and innovative ways to share the magic of silent cinema with younger audiences. Gala screenings include the Dodge Brothers‘ Scottish debut, accompanying the Hollywood classic Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks; Jacques Feyder’s heartstopping Visages d’Enfants closes the festival, with music from Stephen Horne; Frank Borzage’s wartime weepy Lucky Star plays on the Friday night, with Neil Brand on the piano; and Jane Gardner will perform a specially commissioned new score for Ozu’s gangster drama Dragnet Girl. German group The Aljoscha Zimmermann Ensemble will provide a score for Murnau’s timeless The Last Laugh; Jason Singh will create his magical vocal soundscapes for Grierson’s landmark documentary Drifters, live at the Hippodrome.
This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.
The Unknown (1927)
Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.
Captain Salvation (1927)
An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)
A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.
Behind the Door (1919)
With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”
DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.
The Cheat (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”
Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.
An Interesting Story (1904)
A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand
In 1925, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, won a plagiarism case against film producer Albin Grau over the latter’s 1922 chiller, Nosferatu. To be frank, Grau didn’t have a leg to stand on – he had applied for a licence to film Dracula, been refused by Florence and gone ahead with filming anyway, changing a few character names. This hardly distanced his film from Stoker’s Dracula, whose plot he had lifted lock, stock and barrel for Nosferatu and Florence successfully sued to get his company closed down and every copy of the film destroyed. Thanks to one vital copy, lodged at the time in the US where Stoker’s novel was already out of copyright, we still have the movie and every print now available descends from that one saved positive.
But I’m beginning to think that a skilful lawyer could actually have argued Florence down. Over a lifetime of playing this masterpiece I have noticed that in two vital areas scriptwriter Henrik Galeen and director FW Murnau actually created a new monster that Stoker would barely have recognised – firstly Van Helsing is a small-part character who is in no way responsible for Dracula’s destruction; secondly Nosferatu, minus Dracula’s brides, only has eyes for only one woman – Mina Harker. And it’s beauty that kills the beast.
I’ll go further – Nosferatu/Orlok is not Dracula, but director FW Murnau himself – with the result that today’s vampires flitting through Twilight and The Diaries are the children, not of Stoker’s night, but of Galeen and Murnau’s. And the music they make is very different.
The magnificent central section of the film depicts the vampire heading towards Whitby/Wisborg on board ship, disposing of the crew one by one like some hideous onboard buffet while Harker/Hutter plods back home across the mountains. Waiting on the beach is Hutter’s wife, the strange, other-worldly Mina, staring out to sea and during her sleepwalking catatonia delivering the devastating line: ‘My lover is coming!’
But which lover, the Count or the Husband? Let’s look at what has brought them all to this point – Orlok has seen Mina’s picture and is about to gorge himself on Hutter for the second night running. Mina, staying with friends who have rescued her from a perilous walltop sleepwalk, suddenly sits up in bed with a cry – across a single shot-cut (but miles of the Carpathian Mountains) Orlok freezes in mid-bite and turns to face the direction of her ‘voice’ – off camera right. In Witold, she slumps. In Transylvania, he moves away, his meal untouched. The next time we see him moving he is heading away from the castle and towards Mina, bearing his coffins. From then on it is as if she is already under his power – and, I would argue, he is under hers.
It is impossible to play Orlok’s arrival in Whitby/Wisborg as anything but heroic – the beautiful shot of the ship sailing itself to the dock; the scuttling figure with the coffin stopping outside Mina’s house for a brief smile and his first head-and-shoulder close-up in the movie; then the final river trip, standing proudly in a supernaturally powered rowboat, which deposits him at his new property where he enters by melting through the locked doors. No wonder Herzog chose Wagner for that sequence in his Nosferatu 70 years later. Orlok is a conqueror claiming his kingdom, from which he will stare balefully at Mina’s window while his rats destroy the city. And we are now, however unwillingly, rooting for him.
Murnau, by all accounts promiscuously gay and self-conscious about his appearance, obviously loved his vampire with the outsider’s love of a soulmate gifted with powers he can only dream of. Every flesh-and-blood male character in the film is weak or deluded; Hutter himself can only sit feebly by while Mina takes the strong course in dealing with both infection and infector. But as she makes up her mind we see Orlok imprisoned in his palace imploring her attention with a look that can only be described as heart-breaking. When she acquiesces, he comes to the feast like Don Juan triumphant, the shadow of his bony fingers enclosing, not her neck but her heart, which he squeezes as she writhes beneath him. Herzog would provide the perfect closure for their nuptials, Orlok looking up from her throat at the dawning light, only to have her draw his head gently back to her neck with the gentlest of arm-movements.
Audiences new to the film always laugh at the opening and the speeded-up actions, but it is a wonderful tonic to hear the silence descend as Murnau and his vampire exert their power. I have never been able to play triumph at the Nosferatu’s demise because we have been taught by Murnau to admire and pity him as well as fear him, and in the last thirty years Herzog, Coppola and Joss Whedon have all followed Murnau’s lead. Genius that he was, Murnau made the connection half a century before the rest of us did – we know Orlok because he is us.
Every silent film is an invitation to the musician to tell their version of the story and, yes, “Nosferatu, the Love Story” is a spin, one of many that could be applied to this great film. But here’s my point: treating it musically as a horrific love story opens vistas of new insight on this masterpiece that are vastly greater and more rewarding than the simple terrors of the night. And when the tension between horror, lust and desire is working, one can almost hear the new blood coursing through the vampire’s veins …
That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.
The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.
Lucky number seven. Today was a red-letter-day in Pordenone for many reasons. I rewatched one of my all-time favourite films, Anny Ondra finally came good, and I managed my first Felix-to-Ko-Ko shift (with a few breaks in between). No wonder I’ve got that Friday feeling.
Excluding the charming cartoons (although strictly we shouldn’t) the day opened, and closed, with rippling cornfields. First up was Zemlya (Earth, 1930): Dovzhenko’s classic hymn to nature. It played in the Ukrainian strand, with an impressive recorded score by DakhaBrakha. Just sublime and well worth the early start.
The day’s final cornfields came courtesy of the Swedish programme, and Rågens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929): a sumptous rural romantic drama with extra mysticism, sex and violence. Very Thomas Hardy. Gorgeously photographed, with flashes of Expressionism, it was directed by Ivan Johansson and adapted from a Finnish poem. Like so many of these Swedish films, it concerns a couple happily in love and the complications keeping them apart. The ending is beautiful, but as we’ve come to expect, slooooooow. It couldn’t be much more different from Earth, but there was a pleasing unity to the day, really.
Another disappointing Anny Ondra performance – but in an unforgettable movie – two Mothers, a part-talkie that wants to be a silent, a Lamprecht with a happy ending, and Buster Keaton with a Benshi. Day six at Pordenone, coming right up.
Let us begin with Anny Ondra. It has been extremely stressful. On paper, a programme of early films made by the bewitching star of The Manxman and Blackmail, Czechoslovakia’s first true silent movie star, promised to be my festival highlight. The reality has been brutal. In these early roles Ondra has had terribly little to do and been physically encumbered by towers of curls on her head and tentlike, unflattering dresses too. She has also, I would venture, been horribly underdirected. Hitchcock may have been a brute, but he would not have stood for her gazing into the near distance, twiddling her hair, when the camera was turning. Maybe she just needed a decent part to get her teeth stuck into; maybe the Czech film industry just didn’t know what they had in her. Maybe …
Anyway, we’ve seen some enjoyable if occasionally hamfisted movies in this strand, and while there has been not as much as we hoped to see from Ondra, I am calling her sometime husband Karel Lamac as the hardest-working man in the Prague movie industry at the time. We have seen drama, action and slapstick from this chap. And he even directed some of these flicks, including today’s absurdity, which was admittedly early in his career. Otrávené Svetlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921) was a bizarre concoction almost like an adventure serial, with a meandering plot, ever-present danger and nonsensical movie-science of the highest order. Lamac stars as well as directs, in a story that contains much codswallop, but principally codswallop concerning a series of assassinations carried out via toxic lightbulbs. When the filament gets too hot, the glass shatters, releasing … poison gas! Thus, late in the movie, we have the threat of murder courtesy of a desk lamp. An anglepoisoning. Ondra appears to be tranquilised, Lamac is heaving the whole messy endeavour on his broad shoulders and, yes, the quarry sequences are quite nice. I bust a gut laughing: definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good-OK-maybe-it’s-just-bad-no-stuff-it-I’ve-not-had-this-much-fun-in-years camp. Camp being the operative word.