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Asta Nielsen

Posted by keith1942 on March 31, 2015


Nielsen was a successful and popular actress in European cinema from 1910 to the mid-1920s. She was also possibly the first cinematic diva. Her career was launched with great panache in Denmark in 1910. She later moved to Germany, where Danish cinema was already popular. Though she is remembered mainly as a combination of femme fatale and tragic heroine she appeared in a wide range of genres, including comedies. Her films have appeared at both Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and Il Cinema Ritrovato. However it was the latter festival that provided an overview of her career in a retrospective in 2007, with a particular focus on the teens.

The programme was curated by two German scholars, Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann. As well as programming a wide range of films bought together from a number of archives they provided the notes for the Catalogue and some very interesting introductions to the films.  One point that they emphasised was the task of trying to achieve some sense of Nielsen’s persona and impact back in the teens and 1920s.

For example, we scarcely have any sense anymore of the drama of passion, the pathos of the sexual, the significance of the gender conflict. Yet these were very much part of everyday life around 1900 – something to which not only Sigmund Freud, but also the sexual reform movement and the woman’s movement, testify

Ritrovato Catalogue, 2007.

Nielsen could certainly generate both passion and pathos. But whilst in a number of films she portrayed the victim of male exploitation she was also frequently a strong and forceful female character. And this aspect of her persona was apparent both in dramas and in comedies.

Nielsen was already an established stage actress when she was recruited into the Danish cinema in 1910. Whilst she was discovered by August Blom most of her films were directed by Urban Gad, whom she married. They were both recruited to Germany in 1911 and most of her film career was spent in that Industry. She was already a popular star before World War I and she continued a successful film career after the war.

The 'gaucho'dance in Abyss

The ‘gaucho’dance in Abyss

Her earliest film screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato was Afgrunden (The Abyss, 1910): the film ran for 44 minutes at 18 fps and the Danish intertitles had an English translation. In the film she plays Magda who starts a romance with Knud (Robert Dinesen) after a chance meeting on a tram. Knud is a conventional professional; his mores illustrated by his father being a minister. But Magda is taken by Rudolph, a performer in a travelling circus. Thus she is caught between the domesticated male and the lover figure, a staple of film melodrama. What made the film stand out was the vitality and forcefulness of Magda’s character. There is an erotic sequence where Magda vamps Rudolph on stage: and later she wields a knife when she is caught between the competing desire of Knud and Rudolph. The Catalogue included a contemporary review, which gives some sense of the impact of this new film actress.

All these may have contributed to the sensational success of the film drama The Abyss, which is currently showing to full houses twice every evening at the Palasttheater in Dusseldorf…. [re the gaucho dance in the film] Asta Nielsen, in the role of Magda, dances out her ill-fated and ruinous passion for the artist Rudolph.

“Die Kinematograph”, Düsseldorf, December 1910.

As was conventional in this period the film was presented mainly in long shot with just a few mid-shots. Even so Nielsen generated obvious emotion in her stance and movements: posture and gesture was as important as facial expression.

Francesco Bertini, an Italian Diva who followed on Nielsen in 1914, recalled being shown The Abyss in preparation for one of her early dramas and even then, four years later, it was still regarded as shocking.

An example of her later work was found Mod Lyset (Towards the Light, Denmark 1918) written and directed by Holger-Madsen, [screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1999). It ran for 68 minutes at 16 fps and had Danish intertitles with a translation into English. It was a single Danish production for Nielsen in this period.

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The film had a far more complex style than Afgrunden. There were innumerable close-ups of the characters intercut to the mid-shots and long shots. For a number of shots an iris effect was used. The film also used chiaroscuro, and there was an impressive night-time sequence with a boat crossing and then a fire. The film also used a mirror as a plot device: a trope that appeared in Afgrunden and was common in this period.

The basic story was depicted at the start in a series of dissolving shots of the main character Countess Ysabel (Nielsen). Unlike many of her earlier melodramas, rather than a ‘fall from grace’ this film depicted a character’s ascent from ‘frivolity’ to religious and social commitment.

The film also had a complex plot with a number of intersecting strands. There was Sandro (Anton de Verbier), ‘the ruler of her [Ysabel] heart: who was not all he seems. There was professor with a nephew Felix (Harry Komdrup); the latter was smitten with Ysabel. And there were a separate set of characters around Elias (Alf Blütocher), a preacher involved in community work, including an island settlement for the homeless. These different characters were carefully integrated in the story to provide the motivation for the final and deliberately uplifting resolution. Nielsen was, as ever, excellent and charismatic; but the part did not offer the panache one felt with her less reputable characterisations.

In 1920 she starred as the protagonist in film a version of Hamlet based on a stage version by Erwin Gepard. The Catalogue quoted Lotte Eisner who opined:

The soulful eyes, the slim figure, the strange, cultivated pallor make Asta Nielsen the perfect Shakespearean Danish prince – exactly as we ant to see the prince.

In 1923 she starred in a film version of Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) from the play by Franz Wedekind: more famously filmed in 1929 by G. W Pabst. The director Leopold Jessner gave the film a rather expressionist look. But the character of Lulu, igniting uncontrollable desires in men, suited Nielsen perfectly.

Then in 1925 she was a leading player in a film by G. W. Pabst, Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street). Here, in a different role, she played a victim of the harsh economic conditions of the time and of an exploitative member of the petit bourgeoisie. The film is relentlessly grim, but beautifully filmed and edited: moreover for the price of one ticket you can see Nielsen, Great Garbo and Marlene Dietrich all in the same film.

Nielsen did essay some films in the early sound period but her great roles were from the teens through to the mid-1920s. She was in many ways the defining actress for the European diva of the silent era. She could play both victim and femme fatale but also handle the lighter touch of comedy. The films of the teens have a different focus and different style from the 1920s. But Nielsen was able to work effectively in both areas.

As the experience of Bertini demonstrates, she was an important influence across European cinema. And without a voice she communicated with her body, her gestures and her face.  The Catalogue notes:

Asta Neilsen discerned the potential of a style of acting that was not just unfettered by words but uninhibited in every respect. She took leave of the rigid linguistic forms by means of gestures and facial expressions, behaviour patterns which she clearly displayed. (Heide Schlüpman, Karola Gramann).

Note May 9th sees a screening of the Asta Nielsen Hamlet at the University of York Campus.

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Drifters, UK 1929

Posted by keith1942 on March 18, 2015


John Grierson directed this film in the silent mode. It is a seminal film in terms of the British documentary movement of the 1930s. The film was strongly influenced by the new Soviet film montage movement, especially the work of Sergei Eisenstein. In fact Drifters was screened at the London Film Society in 1929 along with Battleship Potemkin. It is recorded that the film society audience preferred Drifters to Eisenstein’s Potemkin. This was presumably because, whilst Drifters is a finely made film, it is also more conventional than Potemkin: for example the montage has less discontinuities and much of the film is close to the form that became the dominant mode of British documentary in the 1930s. That aspect shows the other important influence, the work of Robert Flaherty, especially Nanook of the North (1922). The narrative of the earlier film, and the emphasis on the struggle against ‘nature’ or the ‘elements’, is replicated in Grierson’s approach, as it is in much of British documentary film work. This approach appears again in Flaherty’s later Man of Aran (1934).

The film runs for just on 50 minutes. Grierson was responsible for the scripting, direction and editing and some of the filming, whilst Basil Emmott undertook most of the cinematography. The film was shot on location in a northern fishing village and at sea onboard a herring fishing boat. In addition there are a number of insert shots, many taken at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film was made under the auspices of the Empire Marketing Board, the first in a number of state institutions that funded the documentary movement. Apparently the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury was an expert on the herring industry: an example of the shrewd approach that Grierson bought to his documentary work. The Production Company for the film was New Era Productions Ltd, a commercial company. They provided technical assistance, studio facilities and distribution. It would seem that studio work was mainly based here as also post-production.

Much of the film constructs a recognisable narrative with the fishing village, the voyage, the catches, the return to harbour and the final auction on the dockside. The sequences of fast cutting or montage are placed within this at strategic points. The use of such ‘montage’ distances the film from the sort of realist feel that is usually associated with the British documentary movement. Whilst sequences in the film present and explain the techniques of the fishermen, in other sequences there is a strong, poetic feel. Both approaches can be seen in other work from the movement: Harry Watt’s films probably represent the realist approach, whilst Cavalcanti’s films tend more to the poetic. Humphrey Jennings combines both in a seamless flow, which is his particular talent.


I have seen the film on 35mm but now the BFI has re-released the film in a digital format. Filmed in 1929 the film was silent, so the usual practice is to provide some live accompaniment. It was screened at the Bradford Film Summit in the Cinemobile, a travelling cinema from Eire. This impressive vehicle unfolds to present a 100-seat auditorium, with a proper screen and sound provision. The format, likely Blu-Ray, had the flat digital patina and rather lacked definition. Moreover, whilst the film did not seem noticeably speeded-up it certainly seemed to move fast and was shorter in terms of running times. This screening had an accompaniment by Jason Singh: a sound and ‘boxbeat’ artist. i.e. the sounds/music are entirely produced by the human voice. In this case Jason Singh had a pre-recorded track with layers of his vocal sounds and he then accompanied this with live responses. This was an impressive show: one would not have known that much of the sound was the human voice without being told. The accompaniment worked well for much of the film, but at times it rather over-powered the image. For some sequences the sound was too loud, though this may have been exacerbated by the limited size of the auditorium. However, for much of the film we also had the pre-recorded track, which was essentially rhythmic. I felt that the rhythm did not always match the changes in tempo in the film, especially when we moved from location sequences to the insert shots, a number of which tend to the non-realist.

After the screening there was Q&A with the performer. He explained the techniques he used, including in producing the pre-recorded track. This was interesting.  He remarked that the live element is affected by the factors in a particular screening and that ‘no two shows are the same’. He also stressed how he wanted to avoid literal sound accompaniments, for example bells. And he commented that he aimed to make ‘an emotional connection to the visuals’. I think this is only a partially successful approach to take. It is true that much of the film lends itself to this approach, for example the storm sequence. However, the use of montage also brings intellectual aspects to the film, and I think these needs a less emotional and more cerebral approach. Even so this was a worthwhile experience and Grierson’s film stands up to any number of showings.

Then with good fortune the film was screened again: at the Hyde Park Picture House and in 35mm. This was part of a programme ‘From Drifters to Night Mail: the British Documentary Movement’ introduced by Andy Murray. The other two films screened were Housing Problems (1936) and Night Mail (1936), both sound films. Andy filled in some useful background on the films before they were screened and he talked about Grierson’s role in the movement, quoting his line

“I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist”.

Andy was also right to stress the elitist elements in this viewpoint: however, Drifters offers this in a low key, though it is clearly ‘propaganda’.

In 35mm the visual qualities of Drifters were much more apparent. The superimpositions and dissolves in particular looked very good. And the tinting for the night scenes showed up well. The title cards also showed up well. They use stills from the film, with low definition, as a backing for the words. I think some titles have been replaced, as not all the cards used this superimposition.

The screening was accompanied with the soundtrack from the bfi Blu-Ray. This was also by Jason Singh, and he is right, each performance does seem different. The volume level in the larger auditorium of the Picture House was better. As with the earlier screenings at times the accompaniment is very effective, but I still found it repetitious and there is a certain aural monotony by the end of the film.

I was able to speak to Andy after the screening. He pointed out that the sequences below deck were ‘filmed ashore’. He was not certain where, but the New Era Studio would seem likely. The title cards will presumably have been added then as well.

I also spoke to the projectionist. He ran the film at 20 fps, which gave us 48 minutes running time. He pointed out that curiously the Blu-Ray only runs for 40 minutes, seemingly the film was transferred at 24 fps. He had to loop part of the accompaniment back to match the film’s running time.

I checked some old catalogues and found only references to silent prints. One bfi listing did offer both silent and sound speeds, but the print was given as silent. On this occasion the catalogue suggested 18 fps as the silent rate – I am sure that would be too slow.

The moral of this story is hang-on till another enlightened exhibitor gets hold of the 35mm silent print. It will be worth a wait. Not only is this a seminal movie for British cinema and the wider field of documentary: it is a finely made and fascinating study.


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Silent Film Festival in Scotland

Posted by keith1942 on March 5, 2015


It is good to see that this Festival, now in its fifth year, is still running. Its main venue, The Hippodrome, celebrated a centenary in 2012: one of the oldest film venues still in use. Over the five days there are a variety of early films being screened, a number of them offering rare opportunities to see early classics.

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2015

Wednesday 18th March until Sunday 22nd March

It seems that most of the films will be screened from digital formats, but I am advised by the organisers that these will be projected at the correct frame rates. It is good to see this facility developed by FIAF actually appearing in the UK. . Moreover there is also live music for the screenings. And there are two events screening from 35mm prints:


During WW1 the British government made over 1,000 films to record fighting, train troops and for propaganda. After 1918 the authorities had the foresight to deposit these films at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), leaving us with a remarkably powerful record of the life of the nation during one of the most traumatic and influential periods in modern history. This programme of highlights from the IWM’s collection, specially curated for HippFest by Senior Curator Dr Toby Haggith, presents rarely screened clips ranging from recruitment and the role of women to coverage of campaign fighting including the Air War and the Western Front, as well as moving scenes of post-War memorials.

1h 45m incl. Q&A

With: Dr Toby Haggith

Performing live: Mike Nolan


We close the Festival in fine style with the world premiere of a newly commissioned score by award-winning Scottish fiddle player Shona Mooney (2006 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year) for this stirring epic starring Lillian Gish as the plucky Annie Laurie for whom forbidden romance fuels the flames of hatred between the warring Macdonald and Campbell clans. Critics of the day praised the film’s “substantial” plot, “colourful action, settings and costumes” and the “rugged scenes suggesting all the bluntness of Scotch character” and audiences today will no doubt be equally charmed by the timeless performance of one of silent cinema’s most enduring icons. ‘Annie Laurie’ and Shona Mooney’s new score will be performed at The Barbican Centre, London in spring 2015. Come dressed with a dash of tartan to finish the Festival in style!


Performing Live: Shona Mooney, Alasdair Paul, Amy Thatcher

Dir. John S. Robertson | US | 1927 | 1h 53m + SSA short

M-G-M, story and scenario Josephine Lovett, nine reels.

With: Lillian Gish, Norman Kerry, Creighton Hale, Joseph Striker



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Love is All, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on February 27, 2015


This is essentially a compilation film that

‘aims to be a brief affirmation that love and courtship … more complex and inclusive than … [discourses] might have led us to believe’. (S&S)

I went to see it last week and I have to confess that I gave up 20 minutes into the film. The last time I did something similar was two years ago when a 1920s Swedish drama was projected in the [seriously] incorrect aspect ratio. One problem was the music that accompanied the film by Richard Hawley; though some of the extracts retained their own soundtracks. He is, apparently, a popular contemporary singer. I found the music inappropriate and also too loud. A friend who likes Hawley’s music conceded he found it inappropriate for some of the film. Then there were the clips and their arrangement, including in some instances cropping some sound film to 1.33:1. The clips date from over a century of British film and include features, documentaries, amateur film and home movies. I did start to discern themes in the selection but the arrangement of clips was odd, to say the least. What finished me was a series of clips from Hindle Wakes (1927) which seemed to aim at re-producing the plot of the film, but without all the nuances that make it so interesting.

I had noticed in the opening credits that the film was from the BBC Storyville stable so I reckoned I would be able to check it out on television later: with the sound turned down. In fact, I was able to do this the following Sunday via BBC4. Viewing the film, whilst I did find that it had merits, I still found the music obtrusive and frequently inappropriate. And the treatment of the film material often seemed ill-judged.

Much of the ‘found footage’ was from amateur/and home movie films. There were also documentaries, including some that seemed likely to be from television. This was in both black and white and colour, though some of the latter material seemed to have been colourised. The oddity of all this was the aspect ratios. The film title was in 1.85:1 and some of the footage was in its original widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 [approximately]. But the rest was in something like 1.33:1. Sight & Sound gives the ratio as 1.34.5:1; another of those ‘new ‘ratios. It seems that that the images were cropped to a ratio half-way between 1.33:1 (silent|) and 1.37:1 (sound). It also looked as if some of the silent material was masked at the side to fit this ratio.

The soundtrack was similarly problematic. Most of the film was accompanied by Richard Hawley’s music, which I disliked. It was at times repetitive and obtrusive. Four or five films actually had their own soundtrack playing, but at times this was mixed with musical accompaniment. For me the worse example was Karel Reitz’s fine Momma Don’t Allow (1955), where the musical accompaniment seemed anachronistic.  Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) had a mixture of original dialogue and musical accompaniment. I do think that there is rarely a good case for replacing a film’s sound track with musical accompaniment.

But the most problematic was the attempt to present feature films with a series of clips that created a mini-narrative. This seemed to happen to some of the documentaries, but the films that I recognised were Fox Farm (1922), Hindle Wakes (1927), Piccadilly (1929) from the silent era and Brick Lane (2007) from more recent times. The 1975 ‘black consciousness film Pressure along with My Beautiful Laundrette did not seem to be examples of these ‘mini-narratives’, though both films had several extracts featured which suggested partial plots. Since I know all these films fairly well I was concerned about how this briefly constructed plot line was a long way removed from the experience of the original film.

The film has several themes which emerged rather haphazardly: women’s equality, gay and lesbian relationships, cross-ethnic relationships, and alternative courtships and marriage: hence the films noted above. The best sequences for me were where the illustrations of the themes, as opposed to attempts at narrative and often through discontinuous editing, were presented. In particular I thought the final sequence of the film worked well, as a monologue from the heroine of Brick Lane plays over a series of contrasting extracts. It has to be noted thought that the film does not really present the ‘100 years’ of the title.

The final problem was the end credits of the film. There was a note of the contributions of the BFI and the Yorkshire and North East Film Archives. But the only material which received  specific mention were We of the West Riding (1946), My Beautiful Laundrette, Brick Lane, a short film from the National Film School and two sets of actual wedding material. The other titles mentioned above, plus two versions of The Kiss in the Tunnel, 1898 and 1899), all went unattributed. The excerpts were titled but that is not quite the same thing. So whatever its merits I do feel that this film should not be seen as an exemplar for further work with archive material.




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Sangue Bleu (Literally Blue Blood) / The Princess of Monte Cabello, Italy 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2015

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

This film was screened at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a carbon arc projection in the cortile of the Cineteca. This was a splendid event and the light and shadow of the courtyard was reflected at times in the light and shadow of the film.

The three reel feature was produced by Celio films and featured their star Francesca Bertini. This was the penultimate film in a run of 25 that she made at the studio. Bertini, along with her rival Lyda Borelli [‘a [polite rivalry’] was the leading diva in Italian cinema.

The diva character ranged from a sort of femme fatale to the fallen and exploited woman. In this film Bertini is closest to the latter: a countess and mother who loses her secure social position, has to perform in the lowly and exploitative music hall and is used as a device for money by a wastrel and gambler. Unlike some of the other melodramas in this genre, the Countess is spared a final, tragic fate. The film, as is so often the case in this genre, is set in the worlds of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie. It is also set in France rather than Italy: possibly for reasons of possible moral censorship – the film features a divorce and a tango, the latter at this time was seen as an immoral and suggestive dance.

At the start of the film the Countess Elena [given as a Princess in the Italian] is married with a young daughter, Lianne. The count’s ‘friendship; with another aristocratic woman arouses the jealousy of Elena. This leads to a legal separation with Elena awarded custody of her child. However, whilst innocent [not always the case in such films] Elena is accused on impropriety and loses the custody of her daughter. She now has to rely on the actor Jacques Wilson, who sees her not only as amour but also a source of income. It is in the third reel of the film that Elena is reduced to theatrical performances and the climatic sequence is set in a theatre.

The film was directed by Nino Oxilia, who previously worked as a scriptwriter for Celio. The staging and mise en scène is notable. As with Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses long tableaux-like takes with deep focus. Whilst many of the scenes rely on the setting shown in a depth of field there is less deep staging than in the Borelli film. Sangue Bleu also makes use of more crowded scenes, as in the grand party at the villa of Count Cabello; and later in the impressive street scenes in Monte Carlo. The central focus is less on the main female protagonist, so that Bertini has fewer sequences where she dominates the frame than is the case with Borelli. There is a difference in their performance style as well. Bertini fills out her emotional scenes with gesture and movement, whereas Borelli is often in stasis or with little movement.

Like Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses the grandiose sets of the bourgeois world. And it shares with that film a dramatic climax in a Theatre. Earlier we had seen an amateur charity performance with Elena in a variation on Madame Butterfly [the opera was still in the early days of it popularity]. The Theatre sequence also plays with the contrast between backstage and the auditorium: with a very similar shot to that in the Borelli film which reveals the expectant audience as the curtains are pulled open.

However Sangue Blue has distinctive use of light and shadow. There is one notable sequence where the Countess, already suffering from the travails in her marriage, walks along a twilight-lit great hall:

Elena appears/disappears, emerges/vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light (from the side windows). (Michael Canosa in Il Ritrovato Catalogue).

The cinematography was by Giorgino Ricci, clearly a skilled craftsman in the use of camera and lighting.

Bertini was another theatrical actress who moved into film. She became a star first with Film d’Arte Italiana, then at the major studio of Cines. She moved to Celio in 1912. This was the period when the Italian Industry was building sumptuous purpose built cinemas and attracting more upmarket and affluent audiences. The films, like the diva cycle, reflected this with their common setting in affluent worlds and a style that was parallel to that of the bourgeois theatre and opera.

The director Nino Oxilia had also started out in theatre. He worked first as a scriptwriter than as a director. His films were noted for their sumptuous settings and the use of chiaroscuro. His career was cut short when died whilst serving in the Italian army on the Austrian front.

As well as offering an alternative to Borelli’s diva in Ma L’amor mio non muore Bertini’s feature was also influenced by the Danish film Afgrunden (1910) directed by Urban Gad. Bertini recalled that during the production of Sangue Blue.

They had me watch The Abyss with Asta Nielsen. The film shocked me. (Michele Canosa quoting from Bertini su Bertini, 2003).

Afgrunden was the most notable of the early films starring Asta Nielsen. She soon moved to the German film industry where she became a major European star. She was probably the first major diva persona in European film.

The print screened in Bologna was from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands. Restored to its full glory, the print enjoyed the original tinting used in 1914, and there was a fine musical accompaniment by Daniele Furlati. The Cineteca Bologna, together with Eye, has now produced a DVD version of this film.

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The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, UK 1927

Posted by keith1942 on February 14, 2015


These days the BFI journal Sight & Sound has a regular column on The World of Silent Cinema – ‘Primal Screen’. The new issue (March 2015) has a report by Bryony Dixon on a screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands organised by ‘The Falkland Island 1914 Centenary Committee’. The title of the latter illuminates the values of the article, which describes this as ‘a glorious odd opportunity of a lifetime’. The BFI staff member and film were flown down to the Malvinas in a RAF airbus. Obviously another British propaganda exercise [in the bourgeois sense].

As far as I know this is the only silent film that features the islands. However, Bryony Dixon goes on to note sound films that also feature the area. She seems to have only seen two British films. Certainly there is no mention of a film like Resurrected: a far more critical treatment than the two that she lists. Like wise there is no mention of Argentinean films that treat the conflict: for example, Verónico Cruz (1987) and Illuminados por el fuego. That is as one-sided as British war films from earlier conflicts, including World War I. So, re the Malvinas, colonialism is alive and kicking in this so-called ‘post-colonial’ world.

Bryony Dixon ends the article by listing some of the other recent BFI restorations that have been screened in far away places. Some of these, I know for a fact, used 35mm prints transported from the UK. Presumably this applies to the screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, which would explain why a RAF airbus was needed. However, whilst the BFI is happy to transport these valued prints over thousands of miles they are not as forthcoming nearer home. I know of cases where an exhibitor has specifically requested a 35mm print for a screening and they have been fobbed off with a DCP. The political reaction probably matters more, but having to suffer inferior copies is equally galling.


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“I’m writing in darkness …”

Posted by keith1942 on January 28, 2015

The technique works in full darkness.

The technique works in full darkness.

These words were read by Juliette Binoche from notes written by Kristin Scott Thomas in the film melodrama The English Patient (1996). The combination of two of my favourite actresses with a well-written and dramatic sequence gave the words great power. But they also had an evocative quality, because with less panache and less drama I too often write in darkness. I was taught these skills so that I could sit in a darkened cinema auditorium, whilst watching a film and take notes.

I do this most frequently at Festivals, especially for screenings of film from the silent era, where the use of title cards lends itself more to note taking. Unfortunately not all the members of such select audiences observe the same sensitivity for their fellow viewers. In recent years, though to a lesser degree, such festivals have suffered from the ravages of mobile phones and tablet users. I find it bizarre that the latter cannot apparently check the time without lighting up their screens. But in addition to those we often also have people in the auditorium using a torch shone on notes or even laptops with the screens brightly lit.

This reliance on unnecessary technology is to be deplored. As a good will gesture to his fellow film scholars Michael Walker [my mentor in these skills] has kindly agreed to provide explanatory notes  for any serious film buff or scholar who wants to also acquire these skills. Please feel free to copy these notes and pass them out to offenders sighted in auditoriums.

Taking notes on films in the dark

  1. Use a Reporter’s Note Book/Shorthand Notebook 8″ long by 5″ wide with a spiral wire at the top holding the pages together. (a) It’s easier for turning pages in the dark and (b) if the notes get into a muddle, the wire can be taken out, pages moved around, then the wire replaced again.
  2. Leave the first page and the last page blank for indexing the contents of the notebook. An index enables you to see at a glance which films are in that book.
  3. Before the film starts, leaf through the notebook to ensure the pages are separated. If they are not, you will make a noise separating them as you turn in the dark and this could distract neighbours.
  4. As you take notes, keep track of where you are on the page with the thumb of the non-writing hand. You do not need to look down. Move the thumb down a certain distance after each line is completed. This may require practice to find the best spacing. But overwriting is the biggest problem, so don’t squeeze the lines together too much (see also 7). The technique does mean you will end up with an inky thumb. This is not a big deal.
  5. The notes are to remind you of the film. Character names and relationships are crucial; plot is usually more important than dialogue.
  6. I find it easier to shift the book sideways to turn pages in the dark.
  7. Afterwards, if you go through the notes whilst the film is still reasonably fresh, you will find that they bring it back to you. Because the notes will be spaced out on the page, there is room to add clarifying details.
  8. Go through the notebook one way, then turn and go through the other. To avoid getting the book the wrong way up, feel whether it is cardboard (you’re writing from the front of the book) or cover paper (you’re writing from the back) at the end.
  9. Accidents such as overwriting on a page can happen. These should be sorted out promptly, by deciphering and transferring one set of notes to a fresh page. A magnifying glass helps in deciphering overwritten words. It is here that the ability to move pages around in the notebook can be invaluable.
  10. Always have a spare pen handy; the ink can run out whilst you’re writing.
  11. With practice, it is possible to tell by feel when a biro dries up: the pen starts to drag on the paper as you write. This is an occasion when you do need to look at the notebook to check, but the light from the screen should be sufficient to see whether or not you’re still writing anything.
  12. It’s up to you whether you have either (a) one index for both sides of the notebook at the front, or (b) one for each direction at the relevant end. Option (b) is easier to index, but it will take longer to check what’s in the notebook.

Michael Walker




Posted in Archival issues | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

My Love is Immortal! / Ma L’amor mio non muore!, Italy 1913.

Posted by keith1942 on January 5, 2015

My Love

This is a classic film from early Italian cinema. I saw the film for the first time at the 1993 Giornate del Cinema Muto: my first visit to this great festival. The film was screened in a programme that effectively featured suffering heroines. Already we had watched Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm and D. W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart, both also from 1913. The excess of emotion this occasioned led to me having a long late evening walk round the town for catharsis. I have since seen the film at Il Cinema Ritrovato and in 2013 the Bologna Archive produced a DVD of a restored version of the film.

The film is generally reckoned to have been the start of a long line of ‘diva’ films. Angela Dalle Vacche writes in The Diva Film (In The Italian Cinema Book, edited by Peter Bondanella, 20144).

In the early Italian film industry, ‘diva’ meant female star in the ‘long’ feature film. The latter was approximately sixty minutes long, four reels, with some close-ups for the film star or diva, artificial lighting, a fairly static camera and many-layered compositions in depth. A mixture of the Catholic mater dolorosa, of the Northern European femme fatale in literature and in painting and of the new woman of modernity, the Italian diva would move from the roles of prostitute to socialite, or from rags to riches in the very same melodrama, so combining stereotypes of femininity from both the upper and lower classes.

The film only offers some of the many characteristics of the diva. It appears to start off as a spy story, a popular genre of the period. Moise Stahr steals secret plans in the keeping of Elsa’s father, a colonel in the Wallenstein military. Her father commits suicide and Elsa is forced into exile. She achieves economic independence by becoming a successful theatrical diva: however, she is lonely and unhappy because of her loss. She meets Prince Maximilian who has to sojourn in the coastal resort for his health. Their romance leads to tragic results. So Elsa’s character suffers changing roles and, finally, the melodramatic ending that is common in diva films.

The film also adheres to the style described an Angela Dalle Vache. What struck me at the first viewing was the way that the film was dominated by long takes on a static camera whilst the characters moved in different layers of depth across the sumptuous settings. My friend Kim, who was at this screening, explained that the filmmakers of the period imported aspects of the grand style in Italian theatre and opera, hoping this to attract more affluent middle class members into their audiences.

Thus an early setting is the drawing room in the house of Elsa and her father. However there is a dining area at the back of the set and a study equally deep in the set. For much of the sequence we follow the characters, with often a pair in the foreground and a couple in the background, all involved in action. There are occasional mid-shots but predominately we sit and watch rather as if positioned before a theatrical proscenium. The film is composed predominately of long shots, in long takes. In scenes set in the theatre later in the film Elsa is seen onstage prior to a new act in what is effectively a mid-shot: the curtains part and we now have a long shot of star, audience and auditorium.

These are broken up by the title cards. I did wonder if the action in question was filmed in a complete take with the title card inserted later: some of these shots last several minutes. There are occasional mid-shots for closer into dramatic action and close-ups proper are reserved almost entirely for the star. There is very little camera movement, only an occasional pan across a set.

The film uses chiaroscuro lighting at certain points for dramatic effect, but mainly there is high key lighting, both for interiors and exteriors. One notable shot is of Elsa onstage, with the camera set at the back of the Prince’s box, with chiaroscuro in the foreground and high key lighting in the background. The sets and props fulfil important functions in the drama. I was particularly struck by the use of a three-part mirror in Elsa’s dressing room at the Theatre. This is cleverly used to fill out the action, at one point we see the farewell between Elsa and Maximilian only in the mirror.

The acting by Lyda Borelli as Elsa is what stands out in the film. The film displays the tendency to very emphatic acting common to this period: this works fairly well due to the composition in long shot. Even so, I found Borelli the most convincing member of the cast. She has a number of very fine scenes which rely on her actions and mime to convey the subtleties of the story. The title cards tend to give a general over-view of the action, occasionally they supply dialogue: thus early on at the point of the theft:

My love title

One memorable scene has Elsa [in mid-shot] at a station writing a letter to Maximilian, the emotion and content all communicated through Borelli’s expression and movements.

This was Borelli’s first foray into film. The Ritrovato catalogue offered some background on this.

In 1913, Lyda Borelli had reached the apex of her theatrical career. Performing in Italy’s most famous theatres, she ap­peared in plays by Victorien Sardou, Henry Bataille, Georges Ohnet, the very repertory that would soon become the backbone of diva cinema. Borelli’s most acclaimed per­formance was in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which had its Italian premiere at the Teatro Valle on 10 March 1909. In her Salome costume, Borelli was portrayed by painter Cesare Tallone and in a photographic se­ries by Emilio Sommariva: popularised by postcards, these representations of Borelli’s theatrical career fuelled the public imagination and showed decisive for the construction of her iconic image in her first feature, Ma I’amor mio non muore!. Pro­duced by the Turin-based company Gloria Film and directed by Mario Caserini, the film was specifically written for her. While the plot deals with espionage and love, the second part is set in a world very close to Borelli – the stage. Her two successful performances, Zaza and Salome, reappear here. … Ma L’amor mio non muore! was an international success and turned Borelli into a film star. It also started a new phenomenon: the Italian diva-film. But this phenomenon didn’t come out of the blue; it incorporates the legacy of the pictorial, photographic and theatrical cul­ture of the Italian early twentieth century.  Ivo Blom.

Ironically it seems that one of Borelli’s finest attributes was her speaking voice, an aspect of her performance denied to the audiences for her films, without dialogue. Even so, she and the film are extremely expressive. And the opulent sets offer a rich scenic world for popular consumption.

The Giornate screening used a 35mm print from the Cineteca Italiana. It ran for 78 minutes at 16 fps. And one of the talented regulars at the Festival, Gabriel Thibaudeau, provided accompaniment on the piano.  The recent Ritrovato screening used a DCP transfer with recorded music track: the transfer was at silent fps rate and the version seems to have been a couple of minutes longer at 80 minutes. The DVD has a choice of musical accompaniments plus a gallery of photographs, including those referred to by Ivo Blom.

MA L’AMOR MIO NON MUORE! [Alternative title Everlasting Love], Italia, 1913. Director: Mario Caserini. Story: Emiliano Bonetti, Cinematography: Angelo Scalenghe.

Cast: Lyda Borelll (Elsa Holbein), Mario Bonnard (Prince Maximilian di Wallenstein), Camillo de Riso (Impresario Schaudard), Maria Caserinl (Gran Duchess di Wallenstein), Gianpaolo Rosmino (Moise Stahr). Prod: Film Artistica “Gloria”

DCP.  Black and white. Italian intertitles. Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, Museo Nazlonale del Cinema e Fondazione Cineteca Italiana • Restored m 2013 at L’lmmagine Ritrovata laboratory


Posted in Early cinemas, Italian film | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Girl with the Hatbox / Devushka S Korobkoi, USSR 1927.

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2014

Grandfather and Natasha.

Grandfather and Natasha.

This film was screened at the 2011 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a programme devoted to the work of Boris Barnet: this was an early feature. It re-appeared at the 2012 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of a tribute to the star, Anna Sten. Both Festivals used a print from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. The screenings ran at 20 fps giving a running time of 80 minutes. However, the available DVD version from KinoAcademia looks like it has been transferred at a faster frame rate [24 fps for a sound print] and only runs for 65 minutes, but it is also about 300 metres shorter.

Boris Barnet was for long time rather overlooked among the early Soviet film directors. However, he is a director of real talent and had a particular flair for comedy and dramas of the everyday. He used montage rather less than many colleagues in the 1920s, but his mise en scène is often richly expressive. It is worth remembering that Eisenstein included aspects of mise en scène in his conceptions of montage. Barnet worked well with actors and his films usually offer fairly rounded protagonists.

Anna Sten was a popular and talented star in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s. She had a photogenic face and a character that came across from the screen. In the late 1920s he married the director Fyodor Otsep and accompanied him to Germany. She was later recruited to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. [The Girl with the Hatbox was distributed in the USA as When Moscow Laughs]. He commented:

`This is some star`. She had everything. She had looks and style and sex and class. She had tremendous life and could act like a son of a bitch. [Quoted in the Ritrovato Catalogue].

But the movie capital made much less effective us of her than the Soviet filmmakers with whom she started her career.

Anna plays Natasha, the girl with the hatbox. She lives with her grandfather outside Moscow and they support themselves by hat making. In this small hamlet her admirer is Fogeleth (Vladimir Fogel], who is the telegraph operator and runs the ticket office at the railway station. Every day Natasha travels by train into Moscow to the hat shop of Madame Irene and her husband Nikolai. As well as employing her Madame Irene has Natasha listed as a tenant, but for a room which is actually used by her husband. There were strict rules about accommodation in the 1920s, supervised by local Housing Committees. A comedy around accommodation is also the plot mechanism of the later Bed and Sofa (Tretya Meschanaskaia, 1927). And conflicts and arrangements over rooming in big cities are a common story across cinemas.

One morning, travelling into Moscow, Natasha meets Ilia (Ivan Kobal-Samborskii), coming to Moscow to study. Whilst their initial meeting is hardly propitious, when Natasha meets Ilia again and finds that he is homeless she takes pity on him. She arranges a marriage of convenience so he can take up residence in ‘her room’ at Madame Irene’s. The film then follows the development of the conflict this arrangement produces with Madame Irene and Nikolai and also the developing relationship between Natasha and Ilia.

The plot is complicated further when Nikolai gives Natasha a Golden Premium Bond ticket instead of wages. The Premium Bonds were part of the State loan raising system, not that different from such lotteries in capitalist societies. The prizes could run into thousands of roubles. In fact, the film was a commission to the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio for a film to publicise the State Loan system. Apparently the script by Valentin Turkin and Vadim Shershenevich was a slim affair. And Barnet developed the project considerably in production. This enabled him to develop the central characters, who are both psychologically believable and attractive subjects. This also downplayed the function of the State Loan System to a degree, though the prize draw is important in the resolution of the film.

As in the better known The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928) the film features an innocent arriving in the big city, though here it is a man rather than a young girl. So Natasha is the experienced and worldly-wise citizen. Also as in Trubnaya Square the point of conflict resolves round the petty bourgeoisie. As in that film Madame Irene and Nikolai seem to be NEP-people – entrepreneurs who took advantage of the New Economic Policy introduced following the ravages of the Civil War. Madame Irene and her husband indulge themselves in a similar fashion to the NEP-people in Trubnaya Square: both films feature indulgent and extravagant dinner parties. And both sets of employers exploit ordinary working people – the gold standard of Soviet citizenry.

Barnet already shows himself adept at comedy, including visual humour and gags. In Natasha’s village there is a narrow bridge over a frozen stream on the way to the station: several mishaps occur here. There are some delightful scenes revolving round the furniture or lack of it in the disputed room. And the shy courtship of Natasha and Ilia has delightful moments and presents a strong and autonomous heroine. The mise en scène is sued to great effect. One set is the kitchen in the shop cum household, usually filed with drying laundry. There are several scenes where the white sheets are used to great comic effect: these same props also feature in The House in Trubnaya Square.

But Barnet is also adept at montage, in the sense of fast editing. The sequence where we view the announcements of Premium Bond winners has excellent fast cutting and also very effective use of superimpositions. Barnet and his cinematographer, Boris Frantsisson, also have notable shots, long takes and sequence shots. Both Ana and Fogel are seen early on in mirrors or through frozen windows. There is a fine chase through the streets, which recalls the momentum found in the much-admired Hollywood films of the period.

This is a delightful comedy and offers a rather different representation of Soviet urban life from some of the other film classics of the period. It does, however, lack the effective political comment that adds so much to The House on Trubnaya Square. The use of the Premium Bond system seems little different from the function of such systems in bourgeois cinema. Apparently the script had a resolution that at least partially addressed this issue, but it did not make it into the finished film. Even so this is an impressive film from a rich career.


Posted in Festivals, Silent Comedy, Soviet Film | Leave a Comment »

The Whispering Chorus, USA 1918.

Posted by keith1942 on December 11, 2014

Voices Chorus

This film, released in March 1918, was Cecil B. De Mille’s 29th feature. He had started his film career in 1914 with The Squaw Man. This was filmed for the J. L. Lasky Feature Play Company. In 1916 a merger with Adolph Zukor produced the Famous Players – Lasky Corporation. In 1935 the company became Paramount Pictures Inc. De Mille was a founder member and the Director-General in the early years. He worked with the company in two periods right up to the end of his career.  Nowadays he is best remembered for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), but in the silent era he was an important and innovative director. The Whispering Chorus makes exceptional use of chiaroscuro and of superimposition. Its story, adapted from a novel, seems to prefigure aspects of the later film noir genre. Apart from the contrast between light and shadow, the protagonist, John Tremble, is drawn into a world of criminality by siren voices and finally succumbs as a victim hero.

De Mille described aspects of the film in his 1959 Autobiography (Edited by Donald Hayne).

The same critic who called The Devil Stone “piffling” said that my next picture, The Whispering Chorus, was “the quintessence of morbid­ness”. I hope that he has lived to see some of the screen’s more recent offerings. The Whispering Chorus, written by Jeanie Macpherson from a story by Perley Poore Sheehan, was in fact one of the first, if not the first, of the films that have come to be called “psychological”. The conflict in it is in the souls of the characters rather than in forces external to them. It is the story of a man condemned to death for his own murder. …

The Whispering Chorus was “supposed to be a non-star production”, Randolph Bartlett wrote in Photoplay Magazine, “but Raymond Hatton is the unmistakable star [as John Tremble], in as brilliant a character study as the films have ever produced”. Kathlyn Williams played his wife, and Elliott Dexter [is George Coggeswell] ….

In addition to Raymond Hatton’s remarkable performance, this film was noteworthy because of the “chorus of faces” which gave the film its name. To show the thoughts struggling in the troubled mind of John Tremble, we faded in and out, around his figure on the screen, various faces, kindly, sullen, tempting, laughing, accusing, encouraging as if they were speaking to him what he himself was thinking. This was for its time an outstanding feat of photography. It was done by double or multiple exposure of the film. For the final appearance of all the faces together in the condemned man’s cell, there had to be as many exposures as there were faces, accomplished with all the carefulness and precision which such treatment of film demanded.

In the making of most motion pictures, there is some incident which seems funny in retrospect but does not at all seem so when it happens. To portray John Tremble’s degradation during his years as a fugitive, Jeanie Macpherson had written a scene of his being lured into a low dive in Shanghai in the course of a rather wild celebration of the Chinese New Year. A Chinese New Year meant crowds and fireworks, of course. We transformed one side of Selma Avenue into an approximation of a Shanghai thoroughfare, with elaborate fire­works strung all along the block, and we assembled a suitable number of Chinese extras to throng the street.

His description includes a number of tropes familiar in the world of noir. Rather than a femme fatale we have the siren voices that tempt John to criminal action.  This is the `Whispering Chorus` of the film:

text Chorus

he hears voices that both tempt him to illegality [misappropriating monies from the firm in whose accounts office he works] and voices that caution proper conduct. The visual superimposition of these voices presents those of temptation as male and that of virtue as female. This ties into the plot of the film where virtue is connected to gender. John`s wife, Jane, and his elderly mother who lives with them, are happy to live within the limited means provided by his salary.

There is also a class dimension to the plot. John is a lowly paid clerk and one whispering voice argues

You work to hard – just to make a rich man richer.

Contrasting John is another character, George Coggeswell, a ‘fighting young senator’ – fighting corruption. He is clearly more affluent than John and later becomes Governor and acquires a fine mansion. His investigations lead to John’s fraud coming to light and his flight from justice. Coggeswell also comes to the aid of the grieving Jane, who believes John is dead. And their romance becomes important in the film’s resolution.

Whilst De Mille was fairly innovatory at this time and also often pushed at the boundaries of the censorship parameters of the time, he tended to fairly conservative moral values: there are several titles bearing biblical quotations. The critic noted the ‘sentimentality’ of the film. This is especially apparent in the representation of the women in the film. We first see John’s mother, an elderly grey-haired woman, in a chair, sewing petals, and with a birdcage just above her head. Jane copes with the limited income as a model of domesticity, mending worn clothes and cooking from a limited budget.

As De Mille notes the cameraman, Alvin Wyckoff, makes an important contribution to the film. The superimpositions are excellent and the use of shadows is especially atmospheric. This can also be seen with Wyckoff`s camerawork in the earlier feature, The Cheat (1915), a notably stylish film. The Art Director, a post developed as Hollywood developed the studio system, was Wilfred Buckland. He was also an important influence in the teens and 1920s in the studio system. The use of settings and props add a dimension to the characters and their actions. In an early sequence Jane, at the behest of her mother, hangs mistletoe in preparation for John’s return on the eve of Christmas: when he arrives without her promised present she sadly removes the mistletoe. In a parallel manner flowers frequently recur. After the petals we see flowers by the sick bed of the mother. They are prominent in Coggeswell’s office when Jane visits him. Later in the film a wedding ceremony has centrally placed flowers. Another important sequence involving the mother Jane and Coggeswell is placed in the garden. And towards the end a prostitute plays with flowers around John: he crushes them and then they are carelessly tossed to the floor. The editing emphasises such moments and also draws parallels across story and the experiences that happen to John on his wanderings and to Jane as she waits at home. At one point the film cuts from a prostitute with John in an opium den to the wedding ceremony back home. Other cuts between the increasingly decrepit John and the increasingly successful Coggeswell reinforce the division.

So this is a fine example of a feature film from the late teens as the Hollywood Studio system developed. In fact it seems that the film was not successful at the box office, it was probably a little too challenging in terms of the cinema conventions of the time. However, it is clearly an important influence in terms of the studio technical and stylistic developments.

The film was screened in a retrospective of De Mille’s silent work at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The print was from the George Eastman House and preserves the notable use of tinting in the film. The film is seven reels in length and the recommended projection speed is 20 fps, giving a running time of just over 80 minutes. Like all of the de Mille’s early films this is well worth viewing. There are several video versions to be found on the Web and it was available from the BFI.


Posted in Hollywood, US pioneers | Leave a Comment »


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