I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl. Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.
The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.
To reverse the usual order of proceedings, let’s start with the music, not the movies. This morning, in a Pordenone first for me, I attended one of the masterclasses AKA a crash course in silent film accompaniment, from the professionals, for the benefit of the Giornate audience and two very talented students. This was a fun session, led by Neil Brand and Gabriel Thibaudeau (with a little light heckling from Philip Carli and John Sweeney), who put Richard Siedhoff and Bryson Kemp through their paces with the help of some carefully chosen film clips.
Their instructions were wise, inspired, and stricter than I expected. Also quite bizarre. At one point a student was required to play to The General in the style of Wagner, and then with an added Bossanova rhythm. Another was asked to score the same film just on one bass note, and then to perform a “one-fingered love song”. Don’t google that last one, I fear you might end up somewhere untoward. From the secrets of playing ice, say, or heroism, but with fear, or without patriotism, to the use and abuse of musical cliché and the “toolbox” with which an accompanist can suddenly summons bells, trains, or even China, this was invaluable advice. Brand’s exercise in reading a film, guessing where the narrative and the characters will go next (Beggars of Life was the chosen example), was useful for us critics and punters too.
Any day that closes with a Pola Negri film is a good day, and Sunday was a very good day. La Negri, my personal favourite silent movie star and the owner of the best peepers in the pictures, bar none, features in three films in the official Giornate programme this year (plus a schools matinee of The Wildcat). I knew artistic director Jay Weissberg was a fan, but well, consider me chuffed.
Tonight’s Negri film was Der Gelbe Schein (1918), often known as The Yellow Ticket. Negri plays a young medical student with a melodramatically plotted backstory that slowly unfurls as the film progresses. Suffice it to say that aside from some nice location shooting in Warsaw and the very striking image of a champagne glass full of coins in a brothel scene, this film lives and dies by Negri’s mesmeric performance. She radiates emotion, from those incredible eyes to her fluid posture, and even this early in her career she has the “star quality” that divides actors from icons. We saw the film tonight with a klezmer-tinged folky score from Alicia Svigals that worked very well, giving he melodrama enough room to breathe and softening the edges of a film in which structure runs the risk of overwhelming character.
Back to the beginning, though, and there is nothing like breathing fresh mountain air first thing in the morning. While Pordenone may not be as rural as all that, we were in the hills today, with A Norway Lass (1919), part of the Swedish Challenge strand. No one I spoke to denied that this film proceeded at a sedate, almost glacial pace, but all agreed also that it was astonishingly beautiful, romantic, inventive, charming and felt far more advanced than many 1919 movies. Two youngsters on neighbouring farms fall in love, but he, Thorgbjorn (Lars Hanson) is a hothead and so she, Synnöve (Karin Molander) must wait for him to grow and earn her love. Although, he’s clearly a good guy from the start, and sometimes it seemed as if the more passionate relationship was that between Synnöve and Thorgbjorn’s sister Ingrid (see below), especially when they danced in the high pasture. An excellent portrayal here of a slow-burning romance set in a place torn between puritanism and paganism, with contrasting Midsummer rituals. Also, a rather mischievous, gargoyle-faced young farmhand was busy persuading Thorgbjorn of the existence of a troll family in the valley (cue excellent inserted troll feasts) when he was the only goblin in sight and all too human at that.
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.
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 Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at Ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.
The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)
A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)
A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.
In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep … As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard. Continue reading The top 10 silent film dream sequences→
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson.
Sumurun screens with a live score by Amira Kheir at BFI Southbank as part of Birds Eye View Film Festival on Thursday 4 April at 6.10pm. Read more here.
Sumurun is the product of an intensely creative time in the German film industry when an extraordinary range of artistic and entrepreneurial talent emerged: creating ambitious films that challenged American productions for the international market.
Paul Davidson, the director of the German production firm Projektions-AG Union(PAGU), was a film producer unafraid of financial risk-taking and he invested large amounts of capital early on in the industry. In 1918 the company was merged with several other firms under the umbrella of Ufa, with Davidson becoming an executive on its board. Much of Ufa’s success was the result of the absorption of PAGU’s talent, which included directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Wegener and stars such as Pola Negri and Ossi Oswalda. Indeed because of its established reputation it still produced under the PAGU brand and retained a considerable degree of independence.
With financial support from the German bank, Ufa began a policy of big-budget films aimed at the international market. In 1918, Davidson suggested Lubitsch try making one of these Großfilmes, epic productions indebted to the Italian spectacle films, such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) – films which in their budgets and enormous sets were an attempt to compete with Hollywood. Lubitsch assembled a regular production team around him for a series of these ambitious films, including his co-writer Hanns Kräly, the set designer Kurt Richter, and cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl. Famous actors such as Pola Negri added star allure to these films and became a big draw for audiences’ world-wide. Sumurun is one of several extraordinary films that resulted from these collaborations during the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Pola Negri was born Barbara Appollonia Chalupiec in Yanowa, near Lipno in Poland. She took as her professional name the last name of Ada Negri, an Italian poet she admired and the diminutive form of Apollonia as a first name. She had danced at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg and had acted on stage and screen in Poland before being invited by Max Reinhardt to Germany to star in Sumurun (a story derived from The Arabian Nights) after she had appeared in a Polish theatrical version. It was here that Negri met Lubitsch, who was a Reinhardt player and comedy short director at the time, and who was playing the role of the hunchback opposite her in the German theatrical version (a role he would recreate in the film). They became good friends and he made her the star of several of the large-scale costume pictures for Ufa. Lubitsch told her: “We’re going to make a picture of Sumurun. Reinhardt’s letting us have the sets and costumes. We’ll use most of the actors from the stage productions. We’ll hardly even have to rehearse. It’ll cost practically nothing.” (Pola Negri, Memoirs of a Star). Production started in September 1920. It was substantially cut and released by First International in the US in October 1921 with the new title One Arabian Night. Negri remembered its production as: “a very easy and happy chore. Except for a few Lubitsch innovations, it was essentially a photographed stage play.” (Memoirs of a Star)
This kind of dismissive assessment has plagued One Arabian Night, with even relatively recent biographies of Lubitsch granting the film scant attention. However it is an important film, both as an example of Germany’s aesthetic advancements and also in the context of Negri’s and Lubitsch’s career. For instance it was this film that impressed Mary Pickford so much that she brought Lubitsch to the US for Rosita (1923). The film’s critical neglect is most likely a result of viewing the bowdlerised US print, which is missing thirty minutes. Thankfully now we can see the fully restored version.
Many historians agree that German films improved when Hollywood films began to be seen in Germany from 1921, and yet, interesting approaches to cinematography preceding the American influence are evident in films such Sumurun. For instance, in the opening of the film where the light streaming through blinds in the caravan causes chiaroscuro patterns. Cameraman Sparkuhl also has a tendency to hold closeups from a high angle, which adds variety to some of the scenes. Indeed, most of the closeups of Pola Negri, particularly the scenes of her dancing in Sumurun, are shot in this manner. This may have been a way of singling Negri out from the rest of the characters; similar to the technique of filming stars that was developing in Hollywood.
German film’s reputation for elaborate set design is evident in Sumurun. There is a rhythm both in the set design and also in the movement of figures within that design. Lotte Eisner has noted how the American musical would pattern itself on the “delicate arabesques” in this film (The Haunted Screen). Contemporary reviews often observed how Lubitsch’s films were on a par with the best American productions. Variety reviewing the film in 1921 commented: “The production is colorful throughout, the atmosphere of the East being perfect in detail.” These films were incredibly successful in Germany and abroad. Their settings, such as Sumurun’s Persia, and subject matter, offered audiences an escape from everyday reality. Negri observed that “one of the reasons [for the success of Sumurun] was certainly because its intensely romantic oriental fatalism was precisely the kind of escapism a war-weary people craved for” (Memoirs of a Star).
Negri and Lubitsch were among the first international celebrities to be brought to the US – later director-star duos included Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo. Negri arrived under contract with Paramount in 1922 to a storm of publicity. The press went wild over an affair with Charles Chaplin and supposed spats between her and Gloria Swanson, whose top star status at Paramount she challenged. Her vampish screen persona was conflated with anecdotes about her private life. The press spread rumours about her many lovers and delighted in reporting quirky acts such as her walking a tiger on a leash down Hollywood Boulevard.
Negri had became known abroad for playing roles where women exploited their sexuality for economic and political gain (see also Carmen and Madame Dubarry). Her swaggering sexuality is parodied sublimely by Marion Davies in The Patsy (1926). Diane Negra has observed the transformation that her persona undertook in the move from Germany to Hollywood. In the Hollywood films her femme fatale image was tempered and the films frequently ended happily. The American films also deemphasised the ethnic and class dimensions found in earlier films. Her US films were not as successful as the European ones and Negra argues that this was the result of her ethnic sexuality. Her Italian surname, Polish ethnicity and connections to German film industry meant she could not (or would not) be fully assimilated. In public and private she appeared to resist being Americanised. “As the unassimilatable woman, both in ethnic and sexual terms, she stood for a type that was in fact far more transgressive than the thoroughly American, upper-middle-class flapper who, for all her supposed flouting of social conventions, was nearly always safely married off in the end.” (‘Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology’, Diane Negra).
Birds Eye View is one of Silent London’s favourite film festivals – a celebration of female film-makers with an exceptionally strong and musically adventurous silent cinema strand. Last year, even though the festival was on haitus, the Sound & Silents programme brought us a selection of newly scored Mary Pickford films. This year, in keeping with the overall theme of the festival, the screenings have an Arabian flavour.
The two films in the Sound & Silents segment are, to be frank, German – but the first, Lotte Reiniger’s trailblazing cutwork animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is based on a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights, as also, perhaps more loosely, is the second, Ernst Lubitsch’s boisterous harem farce Sumurun (1920). Achmed, widely acknowledged as the first animated feature film, and still as elegantly beautiful today as in the 1920s, probably needs no introduction from me.
The latter film is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine – a rather well-made romp, enlivened by the sinuous presence of the young Pola Negri, and the more demure charms of Swedish ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist. Lubitsch himself appears as a leery clown with hunchback, but his real star turn is behind the camera, crafting a fast-paced and vivacious comedy out of unpromising material. Sumurun had been a stage hit for Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin, and Negri had starred in both that production as well as one back in her hometown of Warsaw – perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that this film is so slick, with such larger-than-life performances, including Paul Wegener as a bully-boy sheik. I will concede, of course, that it is rarely, if ever, politically correct.
Sound & Silents is as much admired for its musical commissions as its programming, and it’s intriguing that these German Arabian pastiches will be accompanied by scored from musicians whose roots lie in both Western Europe and the Middle East – British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and Sudanese-Italian Amira Kheir.
Multi-award-winning contemporary classical composer Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemblecombining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.
Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Kheir has recently won acclaim for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts.
Pola Negri was the first European star to be brought over to Hollywood, and her native Poland is understandably very proud of her. So much so that, to celebrate Poland’s presidency of the EU, the Polish Film Archive will be screening a new restoration of one of her “lost” films, with a specially commissioned orchestral score, at venues across Europe this year.
Mania: the History of a Cigarette Factory Worker is a “movie-poem” about a young woman caught between two suitors and with a terrible decision to make. The film was shot at Ufa in Berlin in 1918, and directed by Eugene Illés with sets designed by the master of Expressionism, Paul Leni. It comes to London on 13 October 2011, with a performance at the Barbican Arts Centre at 7pm. You can buy tickets here. And you can find out more about the film and its restoration here.
Meanwhile, I’ll be attending the “re-premiere” of Mania in Warsaw on Sunday – and reporting back with all the details soon. Watch this space.
For this post, we will mostly let the pictures do the talking. This swooning embrace is from The Strong Man, a Polish film from 1929 about an unscrupulous journalist so hungry for literary fame that he steals his dying friend’s manuscript. It’s playing at the Barbican on 13 April.
These guys are Pink Freud. Together they are a monster of jazz, and they will be providing the live score. I think this looks like a huge amount of fun.
The Strong Man screens at the Barbican on 13 April 2011 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10.50, or £8.50 online, but £2 cheaper for Barbican members. More details here.
On a related note, this is Pola Negri, Polish silent film actress extraordinaire. One of her Polish films, Mania: A History of Workers in a Cigarette Factory (1918) has been recently restored and is to be screened in 10 European capitals, including London, to promote Poland’s presidency of the EU, which begins in July. This decision has not been without controversy, but you can judge for yourself when the film comes to town with a new score by Jerzy Maksymiuk, performed by the Wroclaw Chamber Music Orchestra Leopoldinum.