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The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016

mysterious_lady_04

This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.

mysterious_lady_05

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William Shakespeare by Film d’Arte Italiana

Posted by keith1942 on December 1, 2016

Lear and his fool.

Lear and his fool.

This was a programme of three early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays by the Italian studio. The company was founded by Pathé and was a parallel to the French Film d’Art. These were the years when film entrepreneurs were aiming to extend audiences to the bourgeois classes. Classic works such as Shakespeare offered a cachet for this potential audience: there was the added advantage that the works were out of copyright. The Festival Catalogue notes that as the Italian company did not yet have a silent stage for film work and so the productions were filmed in the open air and

“open-air sequences filmed in real places became a distinctive hall mark of their productions.” (Luciano Di Giusti).

The films are short by modern standards and do not all survive in full-length versions. What was offered was a series of key scenes with title cards describing the plot: presumably this relied on a certain audience acquaintance with the original. At this stage of the industry the cinematography relied on a static camera filming entire scenes in one long take. So there is a tableaux feel to the staging, though there are occasional mid-shots and at time the depth of field offers more dynamic action.

The films also used the Pathé stencil colour techniques. This was applied manually by women workers. Different colours were applied as tints to different areas of the frame. The work relied to a degree on pastel shades, so the colours are not as saturated as with hand-painting. But they add to distinctiveness to the frames and offer a more vibrant image.

The key filmmaker, who directed two and most likely supervised the third film, is Gerolamo Lo Savio. At this stage in the industry credits for the various craft people are minimal. The third film is credited to Ugo Faleno, a playwright recruited to Film s’Arte Italiana. Perhaps he was responsible for the scripts for the films.

The productions were constructed around notable stage performers, another attraction for the more affluent audience. Thus in two of the films screened the lead was Ermete Novelli. He was a major theatrical star in the late C19th and early 1900s. By the time of these films he was in his 60s. And he mainly recreates his theatrical performance rather than trying a different techniques for film.  For me the more interesting actor in the films is Francesca Bertini.  Only 18 at this stage Bertini had started in theatre. She went on to become one of the major stars and ‘divas’ of Italian cinema. Her performances, even here, show her developing a specific cinematic technique.

Re Lear / King Lear, 1910. 293 metres, original 325 metres.

The film uses eight settings that present the key sequences from the play: including Lear’s original disastrous judgement against Cordelia: his misuse and abuse by his heirs: and the tragedy of first the death of Cordelia and then his own. The final scenes offer a greater depth of field with the location adding to the drama. Novelli is rather stilted and not all of Bertini’s playing survives.

Shylock

Shylock

Il Mercante di Venezia / The Merchant of Venice, 1910. 169 metres, original 270 metres.

This film is also set out in eight sequences, the key scenes from the play. However, even less of the original survives in this version, so important points like the way that Portia’s plans that develop the drama are unclear. The Venice settings, interspersed between studio sets, enhance the treatment. Novelli is a stereotypical Shylock but particularly effective in the courtroom sequence. However, Portia is played Olga Giannini Novelli, apparently Ermete’s wife. She was also in Re Lear, but this is a substantial role and she seems miscast.

Romeo e Giulietta / Romeo and Juliet, 1912. 680 metres.

This is the longest of the adaptations and is complete. The film uses a number of close-ups which increases the dramatic effect. As with the other films we are presented with a series of key scenes that trace the tragedy of the young lovers. Bertini plays Juliet opposite Gustavo Serena as Romeo, an actor who played alongside her in number of films. They are mature lovers rather than teenagers but very effective in their passion and in their final traumas.

The two earlier films were 35mm prints from the BFI National Film Archive with English title cards. Both ran at 16 fps. I was rather puzzled that neither of these appeared to have been screened in the celebrations of Shakespeare in the UK. The third print was from the EYE Filmmuseum with Dutch title cards. It ran slightly faster at 16 fps. Mauro Columbis provided piano accompaniment for all three, suiting the music to the different tones of the films.

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Geheimnisse einer seele. / Secrets of a soul, Germany 1926

Posted by keith1942 on November 26, 2016

geheimnisse

This film was screened at the 2016 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in ‘The Canon Revisited’ programme. We viewed a reasonable print from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin. It had a notable flaw in one reel and it was only 1430 metres in length though the original is recorded as 2214 metres. This meant some of the plot and characterisation was missing. I think this probably included quite a few title cards which explained some of the points in the film. The title were in German with the now standard English and Italian translation in digital projection. The print was projected at 20 fps which seemed just right.

The question of plot is fairly important because the film presents an exercise in psychoanalysis, clearly presenting some of the then new ideas by Sigmund Freud. The focus of the film is married couple. The husband  Professor Martin Fellman (Werner Krause) is a chemist. His wife (Ruth Weyher) leads a domesticated and social life. At the start of the film a murder by razor occurs opposite where they live. Meanwhile a cousin (Jack Trevor) and childhood friend is to visit them: sending on in advance a statue of a goddess and a ceremonial sword from India [?]. A fierce night-time thunderstorm leads to a vivid nightmare for the Professor and following this he develops a morbid fear of knives. A chance encounter with a psychotherapist leads to a course of psycho-analytical treatment and the Professor’s eventual cure.

The film was directed by G. W. Pabst working with some of his regular craft colleagues, including Guido Seeber as lead cinematographer and Ernö Metzner providing the art design. The film demonstrates the skills that Pabst and his colleagues bought to their other work in the decade. The cinematography is very well done, and the imagery in the dream sequences, including superimpositions, is dramatic and suggestive. The designs, especially again in the dream sequence, are impressive. There is also excellent editing [not specifically credited], another skill of Pabst and his team,. Whilst the normal daytime life and work of the Professor and his wife follows the conventions of continuity, the alternative sequences are disruptive and create imaginative imagery. This commences with the introduction of the murder across the street, is notable in the Freudian style dream sequences, and also appears in some of the flashbacks when the professor is receiving treatment.

Several noted practitioners of psychoanalysis are credited on the film. And it is full of motifs that regularly occur in psychological films. There are knives and razors, a key and a memory lapse, a barber sequence, a son returning to his mothers’ home; and images of figures in trees, bells, stairwells, locked doors and entrances that become barriers, plus railings and window frames that bar characters. This makes for a dramatic contrast between ‘normality’ and the world that is called the ‘subconscious’ The distinction seemed more notable in this version as the missing sequences and titles added to the elliptical movement of the film.

The film certainly fits the category of canonical. The opening sequence with a razor, and also some of the imagery in the dream sequence, suggest that either Luis Bunuel and/or Salvador Dali had watched the film. And the much later Hitchcock Spellbound (1945) certainly seems indebted to this earlier work.

The film was accompanied at the piano by Günter Buchwald who also added some playing on the violin and drums. This really suited the changing drama of the film and the tendency to hysteria as the protagonist’s ailment deepened.

Yuri Tsivian, in the Festival Catalogue, adds an interesting comment:

“But each time Ufa’s Kulturfilm Abteiling people asked Freud’s disciple Karl Abraham to ask Dr. Freud about his thought on the whole idea of making this film, Freud acted like a veritable diva. …Freud’s fear was of cinema as such: whether the “plastic” medium of film would be able to faithfully espouse his teaching’s precious “abstractions.”

The film’s success in treating the Professor does seem rather neat.

 

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Ludzie bez jutra / People with No Tomorrow, Poland 1919.

Posted by keith1942 on November 12, 2016

poland_10_ludzie

This film was part of the programme of ‘Polish Silents’ at the 2016 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. It was interesting for a number of reasons. It was the only feature example from the late teens. It was also, as the title suggests, an extremely downbeat story. This was based on an affair that involved a Russian officer, and it may well be the that the film was partly aimed at the Russian market, where doom and gloom [before the revolution] was the order of the day.

The actual affair, between a Polish actress and a Russian Officer, was notorious at the time. It occurred in the 1890s but the ripples continued after the events, It was the source for both a short story and novella, as well as featuring in the press and in legal histories. This film version had to wait until 1921 for a release. This was partly due to the complaints by the family of the actual actress involved. This also led to several changes of titles till the present one. This title give a rather misleading sense of the film, which is very much in traditional melodramatic mode.

Lola (Halina Bruczówna) is the new star actress recruited by theatre director Pawel Lenin (Pawel Owerŧŧo). She arrives and is imperious and demanding. She also displaces the existing star Helena (Helena Sulima). However, Pawel is smitten with Lola and indulges her whims and she is a crowd puller for the theatre. She also exerts her magnetism on two young officers. There is Captain Alfred Runicz (Jósef Wegrzyn), a Calvary officer and Jerzy Kierski (Stanislaw Czapelski), a fellow officer. Lola plays the competing men against each other. However, Alfred is already engaged to Pawel’s daughter Maria (Maria Hryniewiczówna). This provokes problems with her family and the complications are stirred by the jealous Helena.

Matters come to a head when Alfred and Jerzy fight a duel. Alfred is wounded and to add insult to injury he is prosecuted for breaking duelling laws. He is sentenced and cashiered from the regiment. Finally Helena shows Alfred an incriminating letter from Lola and he shoots Lola. Fairly downbeat and no future for the central protagonists.

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The style of the film is rather typical of early film.

“characteristically theatrical: slow paced and psychological, with virtuoso acting, complex stenography, a static camera, little depth in staging, and simple, flat lighting.” (Festival Catalogue).

There is not the depth of field that finds in some of the Russian films of the teens. The characters actually seem more melodramatic than psychologically rounded. However, the film also uses frequent exteriors in the streets and parks of the city. These show a pre-World War II Warsaw. And there is a strong sense of place and the feel of the city life going on alongside these dramatic scenes.

The film was directed by Aleksander Hertz for the Sfinks film company. This studio was an important part of the Polish film industry of the period. The company also distributed films, including major foreign imports. These included the very successful films starring Asta Nielsen. Lukasz Biskupski, in his Catalogue notes, writes that the firm produced Polish equivalents with a central character modelled on those played by Nielsen. It appears that Pola Negri played in some of the early examples before becoming a major star in her own right. Certainly Halina Bruczówna in this film displays characteristics familiar from the Nielsen persona.

The film survived incomplete, but the restoration included reconstructions as far as the archive, Filmoteca Narodowa, was able. Certainly the ;plotting was coherent, though there did seem to be slight ‘jumps’ in places. John Sweeney provided an intense piano score that help bind the film. There was some confusion this year in the notes about film speeds on the digital transfer. Not all Archives are yet following the specifications from FIAF for frame rates on digital. This film was billed as transferred  at 17 fps: however, the onscreen titles at the beginning referred to step-printing, which I assume was how the film was transferred. In this case, with the static camera and the cuts following continuity it did not seem to make that much difference.

 

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 35

Posted by keith1942 on October 17, 2016

gcm_2016_poster

This Festival of silent film took place this year from October 1st to October 8th in the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular title, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. I intend to write in detail about the most interesting screenings but this is a general overview of the week. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.

The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints accompanied with music by their long-time collaborator Carl Davis. The film was the first feature of Garbo filmed with panchromatic film stock. This stock had a more varied colour palette than the standard of that time, orthochromatic, which had been cheaper before this. This was especially responsive to facial features and Garbo’s use of lips and eyes. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s  expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.

Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris, missing the opportunities opened up by the great Bolshevik-led Revolution. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of  a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor Edmund Kean. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film was long and clearly constructed around the star who also contributed to the screenplay. Likely he was responsible for the long death scene, a tour de force in acting and filming. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.

Mosjoukine plays Kean plays Hamlet

Mosjoukine plays Kean plays Hamlet

The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.

One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The leading Bolshevik agitator (Boris de Fast) was suitably wild-eyed and malevolent. However the film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).

One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John  Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. Collins died during the world-wide  influenza pandemic, aged only 29. His surviving films show a real cinematic talent. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine drams set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.

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We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The films opened with a shot of a lake and a title,

“Throw a stone ….”

In every film this metaphor of spreading ripples explored responsibility. The cast consisted of the same regulars, with Tom Moore and Anna Q. Nillson in the main parts. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. These were convincing and violent fights, and in fact, such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.

The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. If the fight offered fairly brutal fisticuffs the latter parts of the film were even more brutal: and Krug’s taxidermy skills were put to unusual use. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander. The film retains a degree of shock 97 years on.

Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. There was a partly sympathetic contrast between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in the English mansion and in the British trenches. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork. It was less sure when dealing with the politics of wartime Britain.

After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. Part 2 of this 218 minute epic also had a splendid and dramatic court room sequence. The film tried to soften the character of the Count/Dantès at the film’s end. It also suffered from what Edward Said defined as orientalism in the eastern sequences. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.

montecristo_03

The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). This early romantic comedy was beautifully filmed and had a really engaging performance by Tora Teje as Irene, married to Professor Charpentier (Anders de Wahl) and ably supported by Lars Hansen as Preben Wells and Karin Molander  as Marthe. The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).

‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination  of drama, science fiction and fantasy. Emil Jannings played Robert Heron, who thanks to a mysterious visitor acquired control of an endless power supply and went on to dominate the industrial world. The plot appeared to reflect contemporary concerns about energy and power politics: it actually seemed fairly appropriate to the present. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.

A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. Poland became an independent state after the Versailles Conference in 1919. The programme was mainly of films produced in the newly developing industry in the 1920s. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. But one sensed the cultural factors that made it a national epic. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel. We studied the film closely as, because the film cans were mislabelled, we saw the fourth reel twice. But the film stood up to this mishap.

Editing Moncy CzŁowiek

Editing Moncy CzŁowiek

The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third  film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912). In a separate programme we had very early films shot in Venice by a Lumière cameraman.

There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. Some of these. like The Cheese Mites; or, Lilliputians in a London restaurant (190211) are well known. But there were also some new discoveries. The Fatal Hand (1907) was an early serial killer drama. And A Collier’s Life (1904) was an example of what became in the 1920s known as ‘documentary’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt [several times], an unsuccessful Democrat Alton B. Parker, Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge plus film of a Democratic Party Convention and The Old Way and the New (Film Classic Exchange 1912) a ‘paid-for’ film on behalf of Woodrow Wilson.

There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, including a really oddball two-reeler, The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species (Lubin Film Co, 1913) with a bizarre human/animal relationship. The second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ was from the same years and included the one-reel Sallie’s Sure Shot (Selig 1913) where the climatic shot produced audience applause. The third programme was ‘Indian Pictures’. I felt that Native-Americans were not so well served in this selection. Two films had ‘self-sacrificing Indians’. Is there a word of Native-Americans equivalent to ‘Uncle Tom’  for Afro-Caribbean? But The Flaming Arrow (Bison Films 1913) had the protagonist White Eagle apparently winning the Colonel’s daughter: and there was a the one-reel The Arrow of Defiance (Pathé 1912), directed by James Young Deerlove, whose work I admire.

Sallie of the 'sure shot'.

Sallie of the ‘sure shot’.

We also had some animation. There was Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with only animals, so minus any out-of-date stereotypes. There were several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant. I should note here that it was a not a great week for canine characters. We had a fluffy one perched on a piano singing: a benighted German Shepherd forced to climb  ladder on a high construction site: a Springer killed by some sort of Staffs: and a poor mutt blackened by its over eager owner.

As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. These mainly added to the pleasure and to what the film suggested regarding character and narrative. But Pordenone is not immune to the recent over-emphasis on musical accompaniments: there were a couple of titles where I thought the music tended to over-power rather than support the film.

We had a high number of films on 35mm, and the print quality was generally good. The DCPs were somewhat variable. Not all the archives have the resources to transfer film to digital at the highest quality. I hope that film will continue to provide the main source for screenings at the Festivals.

The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. The programming was good and there only a few hiccups. He did, though, have to apologise for the brevity of some of the meal breaks. Another good year and a special pleasure as it becomes more difficult to see early film on film.

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Shkurnyk / The Self-Seeker / The Story of a Philistine Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic/USSR 1929

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2016

self-seeker-3

The film was part of a programme at the 32nd Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, ‘Ukraine: The Great Experiment’. Under the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate  the Ukraine enjoyed a productive film industry in the 1920s. Moreover, because the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic enjoyed a degree of autonomy from  the central authorities in Moscow it had a distinctive features. In the last years of the decade there was a burst of experimental film making, often avant-garde. It also continued the radical political approach that was gradually losing ground in the Soviet Union as ‘socialist realism’ became a norm. Among the key films from this period are Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928) and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom 1929). After 1929 central control was asserted and the experimentation died away.

It is worth noting that whilst there was a distinctive Ukrainian approach to film and film content, it was still part of the Soviet Socialist Construction. The presentation at Il Giornate tended to stress Ukrainian differences and downplay the political. The best example of this is a comment in the Catalogue describing Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera as ‘apolitical’!

This is important in discussing The Self-Seeker. The film is a satire set during the Civil War (1918 – 1921]. It satirises both the opponents attempting to restore the old regime [aided by the USA, UK and France] but also the Reds, i.e. the forces of the new Soviet Union. This led to the film being banned by the central authorities:

“The Civil War is presented in the film only in terms of its dark ugly side. It shows only robbery, dirt, the stupidity of the Red Army and the local Soviet Authorities, etc. As result, a nasty lampoon on the reality of that time was produced.”

This seems to be a singular misreading of the film. Clearly it did not fit the heroic representation of the Reds in the Civil War which increasingly became the norm. But the film ends with victory by the Reds and with collectivised peasants reaping the harvest.

The film certainly makes fun of aspects of Soviet practices in the period, one of chaos, famine and dislocation. But it equally makes fun of those of the Whites, and it is the latter that actually commit atrocities in the film. Part of the film’s complexity is a critique of NEP-men, petty bourgeois entrepreneur’s (labelled philistines) who took advantage of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s. This introduced limited market activity, a contradiction to socialist construction and a political line that was hotly debated in the Soviet Union.

The title character is one Apollon, a ‘philistine’. Because he is always looking for a quick profit he is caught up in the conflict of the Civil War. At various times he is captured by the Reds and by the Whites. On each occasion he finds a way of making money even as he is dragooned into socialist or bourgeois activities. But on every occasion some Civil War action interrupts his profiteering. And at the end of the film he only survives through the good grace of a companion.

The companion is the brilliant stroke in the film, a two-humped [Bactrian) camel.

[Bactrian Camels are much less common than dromedary (one-hump). Bactrian camels are native to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.]

ucraina_07

 

 

The camel is commandeered at the same time as Apollon by retreating Reds: both are tied to a cart containing sugar, a rare commodity. Like Apollon the camel is tossed to and fro between the opposing forces. But, whilst Apollon is constantly having to dream up excuses or flee to safety, the camel adapts and survives. At one point he spits at a White NCO. On another occasion he surreptitiously drinks the forbidden hooch confiscated by a Soviet Committee. He several times saves Apollon at a crucial moment. And at the film’s end he is hailed by the celebrating peasants, liberated by the Reds and now returning to their harvest. They also involve him in this socialist work:

‘Although you are a hero, help us work.’

And this hero, at this point, once again saves Apollon from his just deserts. Many of the funniest sequences involve the Camel, who develops a persona equal to that of Apollon.

The satire on the Reds and on Soviet Commissars and Committees involves what can be seen as rather heavy-handed and ineffective restrictions. So at one point profiteers are bargaining for the sugar that is carried in the cart pulled by the camel. Meanwhile, a Soviet Committee debates halting ‘speculators and profiteers’, but the sugar is appropriated. Later we have a ‘struggle against hooch [illegal liquor]’. There is a more serious treatment of such campaigns in Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1930). But the Committee efforts are misdirected and vain.

The Whites are equally satirised. They veer from shooting Apollon as a Red to involving him in work in a military office. At one point the Whites HQ is sited in a monastery where the monks are salting away valuables. Apollon manages to acquire some of these but very soon loses them, with assistance from the camel.

There is one particular shot at the Whites HQ which probably did not meet with central Soviet approval. On the wall we see an anti-Red poster, dominated by a caricature which is obviously Leon Trotsky. His significant role in the Civil War was later erased when the opposition groups, including Trotsky, were subverted by Stalin and his supporters.

ucraina_08

 

The film also makes extensive use of the avant-garde techniques found in Soviet montage of the period. So, at times, we see fast and discontinuous editing. Much of the humour is achieved by unexpected cuts. The film uses iris shots, superimpositions and at one point a split screen. Moments of humour are also achieved by under-cranking and speeding up the film’s motion. So the film is inventively entertaining. The co-writer and director, Mykola Shpykovskyi, had worked in Moscow, including on the brilliant comedy Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka 1925). At least two of his other films are also satirical comedies.

Il Giornate screened the film from a 2K DCP transferred from the 35mm original. The film had Ukrainian titles [with English translations]. As it was not released at the time no other titles were made. It seems it was only discovered in the archives of Gosfilmofond in the 1990s. The screening had a live accompaniment by Marcin Pukaluk. The fact that it is on DCP means that it is more likely to travel and be seen again.

My feeling is that it is a film supporting Socialist Construction. It would seem that the enmities and conflicts of the period meant the censors failed to grasp its full implications. However, there is now a risk that it will be seen as an anti-Soviet film, not I believe the case. It is certainly a brilliant satire and very, very funny. It is also an outstanding camel movie, an animal whose screen presence I always enjoy.

Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto and Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev

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Laughter in Hell USA 1933

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2016

obrien-muse-laughter-hell1

This film was part of the programme of Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. The film and its director, Edward L. Cahn, were new to me. The film is from the period before the Hollywood Production Code came into full effect. It does not seem to have had a UK release. It is a film that followed on from the release and success of I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and features the same notorious penal system. However, this is a far more brutal depiction and, I suspect, a more realistic one.

The basic plot line is structured around Barney Slaney played by Pat O’Brien, in one of his best performances. We first meet Barney as a young boy and the victim of bullying by the older and bigger Perkin brothers. Through hard study and graft Barney becomes an engineer on the railroad. He also wins the hand of Marybelle (Merna Kennedy) over the competition of Ed Perkins (Douglas Dumbrille]. Marybelle’s wayward behaviour leads to murder and Barney’s condemnation to the chain gang. The prison camp to which he is sentenced is run by Ed’s surviving brother Grover Perkins. So Barney becomes a victim of Grover’s persecution.

But what stands out in the film is the racist treatment of the predominately black prisoners. This is depicted in the film with both skill and quite shocking images. The prisoners are housed in wagons with metal bars, and this seems to be where they eat and sleep. The work routines are savage as is the enforcement of discipline. There is a powerful sequence where a black prisoner is hanged/lynched by Grover and the guards.

A cholera epidemic sees the prisoners forced to act as undertakers, collecting and burying the bodies of the victims. It is here that their pent-up resistance explodes in a powerful and fast cut sequence. This enables Barney to escape, though it appears that most of the black prisoners die in the episode. The later sequences of the films are quieter as Barney attempts to flee the state [and therefore the State jurisdiction] and make a new life. The ending here is ambiguous.

The film, especially in the prison camp sequences, offers striking black and white imagery, carefully controlled camera work and [for certain sequences] some very fast and effective editing. The Festival Catalogue notes:

“There is hardly a sequence in the film that is not marked by Cahn’s visual invention, which includes such innovations as a startlingly advanced us of slam zooms to portray Barney’s murderous rage.” (David Kehr).

Scenes involving violence and the chain gang also often use acute camera angles for emphasis. And there are also expressionist touches, as in the sequence of rebellion, and in some of the later scenes of Barney’s odyssey.

The film was adapted from a 1932 novel by Jim Tully, also known as the ‘hobo novelist’. It seems that the film softened the ending found in the novel. Tully’s autobiographical  ‘Beggars of Life’ was filmed in 1928 at Paramount and offered another subversive treatment of  crime and law and order in the period.

Edward Cahn had started in the industry in 1917 and worked as an editor before progressing to direction. This presumably accounts for the very effective editing in the film. The quality, and possibly the too close to real-life narrative,  of this film did not help his career. The Catalogue motes that,

“Cahn immediately vanished from Universal’s roster, resurfacing two years later at the Poverty Row studio Mascot – the beginning of a wildly prolific career as a B-director that extended into the early 60s.” (David Kehr).

Posted in Early sound film, Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

A House Divided USA 1931

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2016

house-divided-583x606

This was an early sound film from Universal Pictures. The original story was penned by Olive Edens and then scripted by John B. Clymer and Dale Van Every. The film was directed by William Wyler, working on only his second sound film. The finished film is dominated by Walter Huston as Seth Law. Seth is a boat owner in a small seaside village on the Pacific coast where they fish for salmon. Seth is a larger and life character who dominates the village. In an early bar scene we see Seth easily polish off  liquor, pick up the leading bar-room gal and then beat a rival in a brutal fist fight. Seth is a widower with a son Matt [Kent Douglass, later to become Douglass  Montgomery]. Matt is a far more sensitive character than his father, who despises him. The bar-room scene opens with Seth trying to teach his son to drink and pick up women. Matt resents his father, partly because of Seth’s treatment of his dead wife and mother.

The film opens with the funeral of the dead wife and mother. Boats land on a beach and then the funeral group, with the coffin, climb a steep path to a cliff-top cemetery. Following the funeral Matt wishes to leave to become a farmer but his father insists on him staying. Then Seth gets a response from a ‘ mail-order bride’ and promises to let Matt leave when he is married.

When the potential bride arrives it turns out to be a friend of the respondent, Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler). She is much younger than Seth and he offers to pay her return fare. She, coming from poor farming stock, opts to stay. Thus Seth marries her. On his wedding night the village celebration takes place alongside the docks, with a great bonfire and fireworks. Seth performs for the village with an energetic and bravura dance round the fire.

Whilst the marriage starts out as an necessary formality for conventions sake, Ruth gradually awakens desires long dormant in Seth. Meanwhile, Matt who has not left, has struck up a close friendship with Ruth. One night when Seth attempts to assert his conjugal rights Matt fights with him outside Ruth’s room. Seth is toppled down the stairs, injures his spine and becomes  a paraplegic. From then on Seth, an active and vigorous man, is struck down, having to drag himself round house and environs. These sequences are reminiscent of some of the films that featured Lon Chaney.

The relationship between Ruth and Matt develops but remains chaste. The pressures of her situation finally compel Ruth to attempt to leave in the Law boat. Caught in a storm, her boat is wrecked on rocks near the harbour. Seth, tied to a long rope, goes to her rescue. He perishes but Ruth survives and is rescued by Matt. The final shot shows them together at the regular trysting spot, a promontory below the Law house.

It is Huston’s performances that impresses in the film, both as the active but oppressive father: then as the frustrated invalid. But the supporting cast are also very good. And the melodramatic tale carries great conviction. The direction and production match this. Wyler exercises great control and the presentation is dynamic and condenses the story, only 70 minutes in running time. The cinematography is by Charles Stumar and makes fine use of chiaroscuro with some impressive night-time sequences. The father and son fight sequence, and the subsequent scenes with a cripple protagonist make good use of high and low camera angles. At times we are down on the floor with Huston. There are a number of special effects by that regular with the studios John C. Fulton. And the still early and rather primitive Western Electric sound systems is well judged in the hands of C. Roy Hunter.

One of the writing credits, for dialogue, goes to the young John Huston, son of Walter. He had already provided dialogue for the preceding Wyler film The Storm, (1930). His role in the film is intriguing. There are a number of sequences of conflict between the father Seth and the son Matt. How much did actual life feed into these? The basic plot is a familiar one and there is a variant in the later They Knew What They Wanted (1940).

I thought the film missed out on a possible trope. It could have ended, as it began, with the funeral of Seth, in the cliff top cemetery. This would have bought the story full circle and provided a visually impressive close to match the opening. We watched a good 35mm print at Il Cinema Ritrovato, though it was overly dark at times, possibly a dupe. The ratio was 1.20:1 with the early sound strip tightening the framing. The Festival Catalogue opined this is

‘arguably William Wyler’s first mature film’.

In fact, of those that I have seen, the silent Hell’s Heroes (1929) would equally deserve that accolade. In both films Wyler, with his production colleagues, demonstrates a mastery over the conventions of Hollywood studio drama.

Posted in Early sound film, Festivals, Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Westfront 1918: Vier Von Der Infanterie, Germany 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on July 13, 2016

Westfront 1918

Like the famous Hollywood feature, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this is a powerful and critical representation of the trench warfare in World War I. It is grimmer and more realistic than the US film, but both make use of the new sound technology. Westfront 1918 [as it is generally known] has been available in a 35mm print for years but now the Deutsche Kinemathek have revisited their negative copy and a positive copy held by the BFI. The result is a fuller film version with improved sound which was screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in a DCP format. The dialogue is in German and French and has English subtitles. It runs 96 minutes and is in the soon to be standard 1.33:1 ratio.

The film was directed by G. W Pabst and includes fine cinematography by Charles Métain and Fritz Arno Wagner. As with Pabst’s silent films the editing is fluid and follows a basic continuity and there are impressive tracking shots at the front. The sound is impressive for this early foray in the new technology and adds to the fierce brutality of the images. The noise of battle or of scenes away from the front is unrelieved by any accompanying music.

The film is adapted from a novel by Ernst Johannsen, and scripted by the author with  Ladislaus Vajda. The film has four protagonists serving on the Western Front in 1918. Their intertwined experiences are presented in an episodic fashion. Their experiences here are awful. At various stages they have to confront enemy attacks, bombardments [including at one stage by their own artillery], gas attacks and being buried alive when trenches collapse. There are several harrowing sequences in no-man’s land and memorable images of the wounded and the dead. Pabst and his team pull no punches in depiction the grim reality of modern warfare.

We also see the soldiers away from the front. One has an affair with a young French woman, which one imagines did not go down well in territories which had been part of the western alliance. Another returns home to find his wife is surviving through effective prostitution. These latter scenes hark back to the ‘street films’ of the 1920s.

Westfront1918_Foto

In some ways the grimmest moments are at the film’s ends. Here a wounded officer is taken past the grotesque corpses of battle and then to a field hospital where medical attention is basic and inadequate. What saves the sequence is a moment of compassion across the lines of conflict.

The film was successful on release though the Festival Catalogue includes a report by Siegfried Kracauer that

“Many people fled the cinema complaining that they could not endure the film.”

The Nazi response in 1933 was even more drastic, they banned the film as it

“endangered crucial interests of state.”

That and cutting the prints down [as with the UK release] meant that the surviving film for years was an incomplete picture. This restoration reveals what is one of the important films about the first World War. The fact that it is in DCP presumably means that it will circulate more widely. Perhaps someone will give us a double bill of the Pabst masterwork and All Quiet on the Western Front?

Posted in Early sound film, Festivals, German film, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass / Entuziazm: Simfoniya Dombassa USSR 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on June 21, 2016

Enthusiasm poster

This is a documentary film directed by Dziga Vertov with Elizaveta Svilova and produced by the All-Ukrainian Photo and Film Administration. This was a pioneering experiment by Vertov and his comrades in the new sound technology. It is important to set out the production and the aims of this film classic as there has been a recent tendency to overlook or downplay the central aspects of the film’s original origin and purpose. When the film was made it was in the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Since 1991, what was known as the Donbass area became part of an independent Ukraine. And in the last few years it has been the site of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In 1930s the Ukraine was a constituent part of the Soviet Union. The film has been billed in some performances as ‘a Ukrainian Documentary’. Yet its production and rationale was part of the Soviet project of Socialist Construction. Indeed, Vertov and his comrades had done their earlier work in Moscow for Sovkino. And their filming in the Ukraine was part of the political movement across the Soviet Union.

I saw the film in a 35mm print at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2005. The preceding year had seen a major retrospective at the Festival of the work of Vertov and his comrades in the Factory of Facts. The 2005 screening was unusual as we had a sound film at a Festival of silent film. But Enthusiasm was a transitional film. We were fortunate that the print was the version restored by Peter Kubelka in 1972 and which came from the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum. Kubelka’s restoration was primarily concerned with restoring the sound track and its relationship with moving images. However, we are now also getting screenings with live musical accompaniment to a version of this film. As will be apparent in the extracts from Vertov’s own writings below the main rationale of the film was to develop the use of sound, especially actual sound in documentary film. The production used newly developed system for sound recording by Alexander F. Shorin.  So screening the film without its soundtrack is somewhat odd. Indeed, when the film was screened at the London Film Society in 1931 Vertov, who accompanied the film, “Insisted on controlling the sound projection.”

Enthusiasm is a paean to the five-year plan which was seen as the main weapon in the ongoing Socialist Construction in the Soviet Union. The Giornate Catalogue sets out the overall shape of the film:

“As a whole, the film has a tripartite or ‘three-movement” form, as Vertov himself indicated in various talks and articles from the period. Beginning with n overture (Reels 1 and 2) on the elimination of all the old detritus impeding full socialist construction (specifically religion, alcoholism, and various tsarist residues) the film moves into a long middle section (Reels 3 through 5) that passes through many of the stages of heavy industrial production, from the initial call to industrialize, through mining, smelting, and the emergence of iron itself, culminating (in  Reel 6) in  a final ,movement, where the products of industrialization flow back to the USSR (most notably to the countryside) and are celebrated.” (Michael Loebenstein, 2005),

The style and techniques of the film are familiar from the earlier works of the Kinocs: montage, noticeable camera angles, superimpositions, split screens, changing focal lengths….. The sound includes actual sound recorded with the images, and commentative sound, sometimes asynchronous in a form of sound montage. In Kino-Eye The writings of Dziga Vertov, edited by Annette Michelson and translated by Kevin O’Brien (Pluto press, 1984), there is a descriptive outline of the film by Vertov, Symphony of the Donbass (Enthusiasm),

” I       A church with crosses, chimes, double-headed eagles, the tsar’s monogram and crown, with anathema pronounced against the Revolution, the pope, a religious crusade, drunkenness, brawling, women weeping, idlers, unconsciousness, broken heads and the moaning of the wounded with ‘God Save the Tsar,’ old women in a state of addiction, religious icons kissed, ladies in coats of Persian lamb, crawling on their knees, and other such shades of the past.

Transformed (not gradually, but in a revolutionary leap, with an explosion of crowns, crosses, icons, etc., with the shades of the past executed by the hurricane blaze of socialist factories),

into a club for factory youth with red stars, a revolutionary banner, with pioneers, Komsomols, a radio fan listening to the march,…”

Vertov’s writing also include a description of the Sound March (FROM THE FILM SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS) which he constructed with  composer Timofeev,

“I         A clock is ticking.

Quietly at first. Gradually louder. Louder still. Unbearably loud (almost like the blows of  a hammer). Gradually softer, to a neutral  clearly audible level. Like a heart beating, only considerably stronger.

Footsteps approaching, climbing a staircase. They pass. The sound dies away. A clock is ticking. Again approaching footsteps. They come close. Stop. The clock ticks, like the beating of a heart.

The first sound of a tolling church bells. The reverberation dies out, giving way to the ticking of a clock. The thirds stroke of a church bell, gradually expanding into a feast-day carillon.

Fragmenting of the church service (the better known motifs) are commingled with the sound of the bells. The chimes, mingled with the motifs from the service, cannot maintain a solemnity for long. A note of irony appears. The solemnity is continually undercut. The religious motifs seem to dance about.

For a moment or two the sound disappear, replaced by the ticking of a clock, then once again waves of sound quickly begin to rise. A long, powerful factory whistle bursts in to meet and intercept them. After the first whistle, a second, then a third, sunder the music and the tolling. As if frightened, the sound slow down and come to a halt. Freeze. The church bell tinkles a last two times. All is quiet.”

Enthusiasm still

The ” radio fan listening to the march.” is an important image. In fact, almost immediately in the finished film, we are presented with a young women [from the Komsomol] wearing earphones and listening to a radio receiver. We return to her several times in the opening of the film. This brings a note of reflexivity into the film, a strand that is so important in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929). Another sequence, even closer to usage in Man With a Movie Camera, is when we see the conductor, standing before the microphone, raising his baton to conduct the performance of the music that we hear on the soundtrack. Both point up another important strand in that film and across the work of Vertov and his comrades, the emphasis on radio. Alongside cinema this was the great new technology that provided a medium for the revolutionary contact with the mass of working people. it was especially important in working the peasants, where even as the Soviet Union developed its transport and electric power networks, was still often in less accessible places.

But the central message of the film is the first of the Soviet Union’s five year plans. Among the many sequences we see a number of groups of workers commit themselves to achieving and even overachieving the plan. Importantly many of these are ‘shock workers’, bought in to tackle, develop and increase production. These are the ‘enthusiasts’ which gives the film one of its titles. Unlike the earlier Man With the Movie Camera this film addresses the political line fairly uncritically. In fact the whole implementation of this plan was problematic, especially in the Ukraine, where there were unforeseen consequences, resistance and often silent opposition. The film features  a number of sequences of mass rallies, both by advanced workers and by masses of workers and the general populace. One can discern [read in?] a less committed participation in the latter scenes.

Looking back it is apparent that the emphasis in the plan and its successors was on technology and especially heavy industry. One criticism of the Bolshevik political line, especially in this period, is what is known as the ‘theory of productive forces’. This line varies from the main thrust in  Marx’s writings where the forces of productions can be seen to include not just technology but the social relations between the people using that technology. In Enthusiasm the emphasis is on workers’ and people’s behaviour but not on the underlying social relations. The film opens with the condemnation of religion, alcoholism and ‘other capitalist detritus’. But the organisation of labour power under capital is not addressed. In the sequences where the ‘shock workers’ address or are addressed the emphasis is on ‘working harder’, including Saturday working.

Marx proposed that there were three key divisions in society: that between town and country, that between the manual and intellectual labour and between men and women. The film certainly addresses the first and to a degree the last. But there is little on the second. In fact in several sequences there is a clear division between the ordinary workers performing or preparing for manual labour and the leading elite, who seem involved in intellectual or bureaucratic labour. But these divisions are addressed in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera.

enthusiasm-ORIGINAL

Whilst Enthusiasm enjoyed positive responses abroad it came in for much criticism at the time, both within and beyond the Soviet Union. Some Soviet criticism was political, some addressed the film’s ‘unconventional’ form and technique: at least unconventional in comparison with the developing line for ‘Socialist realism’. The film also suffered from production problems, possibly due in part to political opposition. And it seems that the surviving film was reduced to 1800 metres. Apparently Vertov had enough material for a film over 3,000 metres. Some of this was to have dealt with cultural and leisure aspects: an omission of issues which are extremely important in the political presentation in Man With a Movie Camera. Vertov’s career suffered as ‘Socialist realism’ became the main conventional film form. By 1939 he would write,

“I run my legs off, proposing one thing, then another.

And the audience watches and listens. And remains silent.

And I feel as if I’m way at the bottom.”

And Enthusiasm was forgotten, only to enjoy renewed interest in the 1960s. In 1972 the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum received a copy of the film from Gosfilmond. However, the soundtrack on the print appeared to be ‘out of sync’ with the image. It is thanks to Peter Kubelka that we can now enjoy a print in which the sound ‘actual and commentative’ is placed in correct relationship to the image.

Finally I feel impelled to comment on one line in some publicity for a screening, “Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde black and white film glorifies the Communist illusion…” In a decade in which we suffer the latest crises of capitalism this seems a bit rich. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the context for the film and its subject. Vertov’s, and his comrades’, film work demonstrates an understanding and commitment to the liberation of the working classes. That is as relevant now as it was in 1931. The politics of the film are as important just as the soundtrack is important. One hopes that screenings of the film will allow audiences to enjoy and engage with the film in that way.

Posted in Documentary, Early sound film, Soviet Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »