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Algol, Germany 1920 (USA aka Power)

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2017

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 in the programme ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’. I had seen the film once before, long ago, at the 1994 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then it was shown in a 35mm print from the Münchner Filmmuseum. That was a black and white print of 2050 metre. The screening at Le Giornate was on a DCP transferred at ’18 fps’. The latter print had used several Archive copies in a restoration that provided the original length of 2144 metres with the original tinting. The gap between screenings was too long to make much of a comparison, though the added tinting – notably some scenes in green and red – added to the film’s impact. However, Il Ritrovato screening ran 110 minutes whilst the longer Giornate digital version only ran 99 minutes. So I do wonder if the transfer actually did achieve `18 fps’, though the 35mm projection was probably closer to 16 fps.

Either way both presentations impressed me. Il Ritrovato Catalogue introduced the film thus:

“…Algol is one of the films of which almost every traces were lost in film histories (though not in the film libraries). It was one of the protagonists of the German screen of the early twenties and of the expressionist “season” …” (Leonardo Quaresima in ‘Cinegrafie’ n. 7).

The expressionist sets and style in a number of sequences certainly impressed me then. But I was also fascinated by the larger than life fantasy, which at the same time appeared to address issues of power, technology and the economic and social order of the time. Whilst the film was partly fantasy it also was clearly science fiction, looking forward in a number of ways to the 1926 Metropolis.

Le Giornate Catalogue also presented the film as ‘largely forgotten’. But Stefan Drössler in the Festival Catalogue also wrote about the myth that provided the film’s title:

“The Bright star Algol in the constellation Perseus is actually a three-star system. The mysterious variability of the brightness (due to mutual eclipses) led to its colloquial name, the Demon Star, and gave rise to legends and mystical stories, including the fantasy that informs the film Algol.

This story concerns a magical source of power that leads to the film’s protagonist Robert Herne becoming the most powerful man in the world through the control of energy supplies. Drössler comments on how the storey reflected conditions in Germany in 1920.

“The film was obviously conceived under the shadow of the shortages of energy and resources in World war I, when harsh winters claimed many lives among the civilian population. Further contemporary references abound. The place of the magnate [Herne] is clearly meant to be Sanssouci near Potsdam, residence of the King of Prussia and the German Kaiser until his abdication at the end of the Great war. The crippling tribute payable by the film’s “free state” are reminiscent of the reparations levied on Germany by the Triple Entente after the end of the War. The underground sequences evidently refer to the coalmines of the Ruhr, and the scenes of workers in revolt to the post-war uprising.”

The film opened with an explanation of the myth around ‘Algol’. We then met Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) who worked as a coal miner. The mine has been inherited by young heiress Leonore Nissen (Gertrud Welcker). Robert was visited by the character Algol; a cross between a demon and Mephistopheles. He offered Robert a secret, embodied in a science fiction style contraption, that would capture the rays from the star Algol and transform them into an endless supply of energy. As the story developed Robert built a factory where the rays were harnessed and proceeded to displace all other energy sources. He became the most powerful businessman in the world with governments captive to his monopoly.

In his personal life Robert forsook his existing relationship with Maria (Hanna Ralph) and wedded the heiress Leonore. This desertion was accentuated when Robert’s old friend Peter (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow) partnered Maria. These relationships set up a conflict between rural settings – virtuous; and urban industrial settings – exploitative. Their son, also Peter (also von Schlettow), continued the opposition to Robert’s dominance, becoming involved in resistance by ordinary workers to Herne’s monopoly and exploitation.

In Act II there was a 20 year ellipsis. Robert now had a son and daughter. The former, Reginald (Ernst Hofmann) was father’s heir. He went on a world trip and became embroiled with a ‘vamp, Yella Ward. She manipulated Reginald in an attempt to take control of Herne’s empire. Meanwhile Herne’s monopoly caused poverty and destitution among the ex-miners and in rural areas.

In Act III resistance increased. Peter Junior was a leading figure and he also influenced Herne’s daughter Magda (Käte Haack). She pleaded with Herne to

“free your machines.”

Leonore also joined the chorus, However, she was killed in an accident in the factory,

In Act 1V these different strands came to a climax. Herne was now old and sickening. however, his empire was still active, now with a massive drainage project at a river which would disrupt rural life further. Reginald, prompted by Yella, attempted unavailingly to prise away his father’s secret. Angry workers rioted and stormed the offices of the government. At the climax Herne, accompanied now by Maria, went to the factory where sabotage was planned. There was a vast explosion and the factory fell: the empire was ended.

There are clearly aspects of that plot that would seem to comment on the contemporary problems in Germany. Siegfried Kracauer in ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ does not to comment on the film at all. This is surprising because the writer does comment on the protagonist of another contemporary film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari also 1920).

“he [Caligari] stands for unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy the lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values.”

This applies equally to Herne in Algol. He does not display the psychotic characteristics seen in Caligari, but once in command of the magical secret he become increasingly obsessed with power and pursues this with a ruthlessness akin to that of the mad Doctor.

Both these characters a paralleled the  Master of the future city, Joh Fredersen, in Metropolis (1926). And Algol shares many features with this later science fiction masterwork.  Fredersen has a son Freder who is led astray by a vamp [though not  a human one]. He is saved by a heroine Maria. And just as Herne has his diabolical aid so Fredersen has his diabolical scientist Rotwang. And both narratives end in apocalyptic disaster as the empires of these tyrants collapse.

Metropolis offers an upbeat ending: perhaps because five years on society and economy looked rosier; certainly the German film industry was in far better shape. But the two films also differ in their treatment of the worlds they portray. Algol seems less strict science fiction than fantasy. In words reminiscent of Tolkien Herne gloats at one point:

‘the last ring in the chain I have forged.’

Metropolis is much more carefully designed in terms of technology and cityscape. And it deals centrally with major themes of the genre – technology, social order, the future.

Most notable is the sense of political economy in the films. Algol treats of economic matters in terms of the issues set out Stefan Drössler; so there is the economic impact on workers and on rural areas; and at one point a Government Cabinet Meeting, despite workers demonstrating outside, believes that

“we have to honour the contracts’.

Metropolis addresses not just the contradictions of the German economy but that of the global capitalist crisis; seen briefly at the end of the war and returning with full force three years later. So the destruction of the ‘heart machine’ mirrors the destruction of capital in a crisis. This setting the stage for the new round of investment signalled by the upbeat ending.

I would comment that Algol does not have the masterful script and stylish techniques of Metropolis; and it is not as expensive a production. I found the film uneven among other weaknesses. But there are frequent and impressive sequences. The cinematography by Axel Graatkjær [with Hermann Kircheldorff ] is well done when the opportunity arises. There are some fine superimpositions paralleling characters and plot events, especially recurring images of the character Algol and much chiaroscuro. And the production design by Walter Reimann is outstanding: he was also responsible for much of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He was only credited with set design on this film but as Drössler writes|:

“whose responsibilities extended from “the entire artistic and decorative aspects of the film” through “the supervision and finalising of the décor”, all the way to “the setting up of the studio sets” and “the creation of the titles”.”

There were some heavily expressionist sequences and the large scale buildings, machines, and later destruction, were impressive.

The film is constructed round the character of Robert Herne, played by Emil Jannings. This is a part that plays to Jannings particular skills in characterisation. As the film progresses the display of obsession increases. And the dark side of the protagonist is forcibly dramatised as he manipulates people and then seeks to dominate them thoroughly.

The tinting of the digital version worked well and the definition of the image was good. The film was accompanied by Stephen  Horne at the piano, adding in an accordion at one point: and Frank Bockius added percussion. All in all it was memorable screening.

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Kindred of the Dust, USA 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 9, 2017

This film was directed by Raoul Walsh and produced by the short lived R.A.Walsh Company. This was one of the businesses in which Walsh attempted independent productions before returning to Fox in the mid-twenties: he had left in 1920. The film was part of the programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 celebrating the Production Design of William Cameron Menzies. Walsh had recruited him from Famous Players. They were to work together again on The Thief of Bagdad (1924) with a far more lavish production budget.

The film was screened from a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum. The print was 7,205 feet; 200 feet shorter than the original release. It was projected at 20 fps.

The scenario was an adaptation of a popular novel by Peter B. Kyne,. Kyne was a successful novelist with a number of film adaptations. The most famous was ‘Three Godfathers’ (1913) of which there to have been ten film adaptations. The famous version is that directed in 1948 by John Ford and starring John Wayne. But the most memorable version is Hells’ Heroes (1930, William Wyler) screened at the 1994 Pordenone. That occasion was memorable for the addition of a [surprise] rendition of ‘Silent Night’ for the final tear jerking moments.

Kindred of the Dust is set on the Pacific Northwest coast in logging terrain. It stars Walsh’s wife Miriam Cooper as Nan [of the Sawdust Pile]. She and Donald Mckaye (Ralph Graves) are childhood friends and remain so as adults. Donald’s father Laird of Tyee (Lionel Belmore) owns the logging company. Thus Nan and Donald’s budding relationship is inhibited by the class divide. The differences are symbolised in the film by the Mckaye mansion and Nan’s family home outside of which sits the metaphoric ‘sawdust pile’.

Donald goes east to college and Nan leaves town and works as a singer. When she returns she has an illegitimate child: sparking off the town gossips. When Donald returns these factors inhibit a new relationship. Donald’s conflict with his father leads to him working at a rival logging company. He suffers an accident and is nursed by Nan. They marry but the Laird continues his opposition: it is only when a second child, a grandchild arrives, that he, Donald and Nan are reconciled and become the ‘kindred of the dust’.

The film is full of stock melodramatic situations and actions. The romance between Nan and Donald suffers one problem after another. One notable scene concerns Donald’s return. He is embroiled in a fight with a rough neighbour of Nan’s, a black man. An unusual situation for this period.

The Catalogue review by James Curtis includes the following:

Kindred of the Dust was a real old-fashioned melodramatic story, ” wrote Miriam Cooper, “full of tough, straightforward heroines, mean, vicious villains and long-suffering heroines. My costumes in the picture tell the story, all grubby homespun and calico. After reels and reels of hardship and fighting you are convinced that nobody can ever be happy. Then, gee whiz, the heroine – me, of course – has a baby and everything turns out all right.”

It is only towards the end of the film that the narrative make use of timber industry and landscape. After his accident Donald returns as a foreman. There is an engine failure at the log slide. Donald rescues the Laird from the river, including some spectacular underwater shots. And this leads to the final reconciliation .

The film was accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on the piano.

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Janko the Musician / Janko Muzykant, Poland 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2017

This was one of the titles in the ‘Polish Silents’ programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This was the first sound film made in Poland but the Vitaphone discs are lost, so only this silent version survives. The sound version  still relied on intertitles for dialogue and the track contained music, songs and some animal noises. The film was presented from a 35mm print 2561 meters in length; the catalogue proposed 18 fps. However the film was timed at 93 minutes and I do not think it overran by much. Moreover 18 fps for a sound/silent film seems rather slow and at that frame rate it would have run over two hours. There were a couple of discrepancies regarding frame rates for the Polish titles: I assume that on closer inspection they settled for 23 or 24 fps. The print was worn but the image quality was pretty good. There seemed to be some unintended ellipsis in the plot so I assume there were missing scenes or sequences.

The film was adapted by Ferdynand Goetel from a novella by Henryk Sienkiewicz [of ‘Quo Vadis’ fame]. In fact the script extended the original story considerably; the second part of the film was a complete addition. The director, Ryszard Ordyński, was a regular in the industry and this was his fifth title.

Janko (Stefan Rogulski) is a young village boy with a passion for music. When we first see him in the film he is making his own homemade violin. He lives with his mother (Tekla Trapszo) and he also has a pet blackbird. However, he is tempted by the sight of a professionally made violin in the mansion of the local landowner. Caught he is sent to a Correctional Institution where the boys are disciplined and made to work at making wicker chairs. This opening section is finely filmed by cinematographer Zbigniew Gniazdowski. The film has a lyrical feel, the landscapes  lovingly photographed and with some very effective pans, tracks and superimpositions. Gniazdowski uses well-placed  dissolves to take the narrative forward. Apparently the original novella was a grimmer and more realist depiction of rural life. We do see an overbearing overseer ordering women workers, including Janko’s mother. And Janko’s treatment by the landowner and magistrate is heavy handed. But we are closer to melodrama than literary realism in this film version. In the novella a whipping leads to Janko’s death, so the rest of the film is the addition.

Whilst Janko is in the Correction Centre his mother leaves the village, releasing Janko’s pet blackbird. A young man now, Janko (Witold Conti) escapes from the Correction Institution but finds his mother gone though his blackbird returns. Janko sets off to the city where the blackbird leads to his striking up a friendship with two ne’er-do well’s (Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz Krukowski). They form a musical trio which prove a success in a local bar-cum-restaurant. Janko’s increasing popularity brings him to the attention of a Professor of music (Wieslaw Gawlikowski) and his pupil, singing star Ewa (Maria Malicka). A rival for her affections, Zaruba (Aleksander Źabczyński), attempts to eliminate Janko by accusing him of the escape from the Correction Centre. Zaruba turns out to be the landowner who was responsible for Janko’s incarceration. But Janko’s friends rally round and he is acquitted, able to end the film in partnership with Ewa.

“The second part of the film introduces the sort of characters beloved by Polish musical comedies of the 1930s: noble rogues, driven by an honourable code despite living on the edge of the law.” (Adam Uryniak in the Festival Catalogue).

He adds that these actors for these characters were part of the popular Warsaw cabaret scene.

Filming ‘Janko’

I found the second part of the film less compelling than the first. The urban setting and the studio interiors lacked the visual charm of the countryside. And whilst the whole film is melodrama, the latter stages seemed to have more stock characters and situations. However the cinematography continued to make effective use of camera movement and dissolves, though there was little superimposition.

The screening was accompanied by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius with piano, violin and some percussion. And they included at least one song featured in the sound version of the film.

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Bioscope Westerns

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2017

The Kennington Bioscope is a film club well known to discerning Metropolitan film buffs; one of the programmes to be found at London’s Cinema Museum. And it is an attraction that justified a trip from Yorkshire down to London. March 11th saw a day devoted to the Early Westerns. Programmed by John Oliver, with a substantial input from Kevin Brownlow, this was a real treat. There was a fascinating selection of titles from the early days of the genre: and nearly all the titles were on 16mm or 35mm with live piano accompaniments. There were also detailed programme notes and brief introductions to the separate programmes.

The day started with a Monogram five reel title from 1924, Thundering Hoofs [16 mm]. This featured ‘The World’s Greatest Western Star’ Fred Thomson. In his day he rivalled Tom Mix. A particular aspect of his onscreen persona was his horse Silver King. This equestrian performer could rival human characters with his intelligence and bag of tricks. Dave (Fred Thomson) loves Carmelita (Ann May) but is rivalled by Luke (William Lowey), dastardly, manipulative and a crook to boot. Dave and Silver King win through, though the climax in a bullring was slightly hard viewing for horse lovers. The film was directed by Al Rogell, a long time filmmaker in Hollywood. Of equal interest the film was written by Frances Marion under an alternative name. It also offered an early example of splendid stunt work by Yakima Canutt.

The second programme was four ‘Early Westerns’. These included films shot in or near New York, on the East Coast, and films shot in and around Hollywood, the West Coast. The representation of the Indian/Native American was rather different. East Coast western’s being sympathetic, even empathetic, whilst West Coast/Hollywood was in line with the stereotypes that were to dominate representations in the Studio era.

The first was a 1911 Biograph title directed by D. W. Griffith, The Squaw’s Love (The Twilight Song – 35 mm). The film was set entirely in Indian society, in and around their camp.  Gray Fox (Alfred Paget) loves Wild Flower (Mabel Normand), but as she is the daughter of the Chief she is forbidden and he is banished from the tribe. With the help of his friends White Eagle (Dark Cloud) and Silver Fawn (Claire McDowell) he is re-united with his love. The film follows their adventures as they are hunted by tribe members and the heroine shows both courage and imitative.

The India Vestal (1911 – 35 mm) from Selig Polyscope had a more convertional plot. The Vestal (Viola Barry) was a baby taken by the Sioux in an attack on a emigrant wagon train. She was raised in the Sioux tribe but only found romance when she encountered a white trapper. The film was well written and directed by Hobart Bosworth who also played the trapper. Part of the film was shot in the spectacular Yosemite Valley. The towering rock faces, water fall and rapids added immeasurably to the visual appeal.

Custer’s Last Fight (16 mm) was produced by 101-Bison in 1912. 101-Bison combined a film studio with a Western Circus, and the company was able to mount large-scale scenes of characters, props and settings. The director was Francis Ford, who also starred, and the production was under the auspices of Thomas Ince, then introducing a systematic approach to production. So the film’s recreation of the events leading up to Little Big Horn were impressively mounted. The plot appeared to follow the historical events fairly closely. Custer was seen as a flamboyant hero rather than an officer suffering from hubris. Sitting Bull (William Eagle Shirt) was treated somewhat respectfully, but generally the Indians were the ‘other’ to the US Calvary. Oddly there was hardly any mention of Crazy Horse. The version we saw was a re-issue from 1926 with many of the title cards changed, which seemed to lessen the dynamism of the film.

Broncho Billy’s Adventures (1911 – 35 mm) was one in a popular series of Essanay ‘cowboy’ films. Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson was the writer, director and star. In this film he was slightly less central, being the enabler for a romance between a young cowboy and his sweetheart. However Broncho Billy did get to display his prowess with six-guns, ‘writing’ with bullet holes in a fence.

Programme 3 was titled ‘A Copyboy’s Best Friend’: his horse, of course.

We first enjoyed a one reel from 1911 and Selig Polyscope, Saved by the Pony Express (35 mm). This credited Tom Mix as writer, director and star, the Pony Express Rider. Mix, like Broncho, was the saviour rather than the centre of the plot. There were romantic rivalries over Belle (Edna Fisher). When one of the lovelorn cowhands was found dead his rival Jim (Fred Church) was the suspect. Mix had to ride  with the evidence that would save him from the judge and a hanging. The film allowed Mix to show off his riding skills and those of his faithful companion Old Blue. Old Blue became a star in his own right: one of the first equestrian celebrities. He appeared in 87 films alongside Tom Mix. Years later he was laid to rest at the Mixville ranch, where most of the films were shot.

The accompanying film was a four reel from the Hal Roach Studio, The Devil Horse (1926 – 35 mm). This starred Rex the Wonder Horse – King of Horses and Yakima Canutt. Watching the film was slightly problematic after hearing of some of the ‘training’ methods that Canutt used on the horse. Apparently Rex was a fairly forceful character. A parallel problem was that in the film ‘the Devil Horse’ ‘hated’  Indians who captured him after na attack on the a wagon train. At that point Rex was  colt and David (Canutt) a young boy. They were reunited later in the film when we saw Rex taking out his ire on Indians. And there were also some problematic lines of dialogue.

Programme 4 gave us ‘Women out West’. The opening title was an extract, The Sawdust Trail (1924, Universal Pictures] with Josie Sedgwick as calamity Jane: one of her many roles in early westerns.

This was followed by a 1911 Vitagraph, A Girl of the West (35 mm). In this Lillian Christy played Polly Dixon, younger sister of Dolly (E. Helen Case), on whom John Winthrop (Tom Fortune) was sweet. He sold his horse for the princely sum of $500. However, Scarfaced Bill (Ralph Thornby), planned to abduct the horse and pocket the money. He was assisted by Dance Hall Nell (Helen Galvin). Polly was an excellent horsewoman. And she needed her skills to ride and warn the buyer of the plot. She also had to outmanoeuvre the Dance Hall Nell. Apart from the great character names and some excellent horse riding the film moved along at a great pace.

The Substitute (1911 – 35 mm) from the Lubin Manufacturing Company had familiar plot tropes. The un-credited cast included Jennie Rock, a telegraph operator. Her brother was an engine driver, but also an alcoholic. So Jennie had to masquerade as him and to drive the express. Worse or better followed: the train was held up and robbed. Jennie was able to signal a warning about this with a present from her Calvary amour, also a telegraph operator.

Two Little Rangers came from Solax in 1912 (35 mm). This was the company with the key pioneer Alice Guy Baché, who both wrote and directed the film. The key player and the older of the ‘rangers’ was Vinnie Burns, a protégé of Alice Guy and a stunt woman as well as an actor. The ‘two little rangers’ were the daughters of the village postmaster. When he was robbed they ride for help and then save an innocent man by exposing the real villain.

South of Santa Fe Frohman Amusement Corp. was a two reel film from 1919 (35 mm). The film starred Texas Guinan, who had a long career in films and ran her own production company for a time. Her tough persona was offered

‘ as a rowdy cowgirl who tames men as easily as horses’.

In this film she was hired as a foreman to control a group of rowdy cowhands who had defeated her male predecessors. They soon found that she was as handy with a fist as with a gun.

The Narrow Trail (35 mm)was a William S Hart production filmed at the Biograph Studio in 1917 with producer Thomas Ince. Hart was the most famous and popular of the screen cowboys of his era. Almost equally popular was his regular horse Fritz, a distinctive pinto horse. Hart regularly played ‘road agents’ or outlaws: in this film Ice Harding. His earliest films portrayed the partnership of man and horse. As his career developed the presence and influence of a ‘good woman’ took increasingly centre screen. In this film she was Betty (Sylvia Bremmer] and she shared a less than reputable past with Ice. The film included a visit by Ice to the great metropolis of San Francisco. But the bulk of the film found us in familiar western landscapes. As nearly always the couple resolved their difficulties and Ice evaded the law and ‘goes straight’.

The final film was The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), directed by Henry King for Samuel Goldwyn with a screenplay by Frances Marion. Unfortunately this was the only film on digital. The screening did rather lack good definition and the digital format did not cope well with the film’s tinting. I had seen the film in a 16 mm at the 1999 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is a fine production. The film dramatises the reclamation of an area of California with a vast irrigation project [the Salton Sink in 1905]. There were some fine large screen sequences and the dramatic climax when the Colorado river bursts through the barrier and flooded the sink was extremely well done. Ronald Colman was fine as the engineer Willard Holmes. Gary Cooper as his rival Abe Lee seemed rather underused. And Velma Banky was a stand out as the titular object of their wooing. A good end to a full and really enjoyable day.

 

So a worthwhile trip. A fine selection of early westerns well presented. And a word of praise to the musicians who provided accompaniments at the piano: Lillian Henley, Meg Morley, John Sweeney, Neil Brand and Cyrus Gabrysch.

Credits, quotation and stills courtesy of the Kennington Bioscope.

Posted in Archival compilations, Early cinemas, Hollywood, Westerns | Leave a Comment »

Four early films by John H. Collins

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2017

John Collins with Viola Dana

John Collins with Viola Dana

 

The programme of film by John Collins was a revelation and a pleasure. I had enjoyed brief encounters before but here we had a programme of eight films [of varying length] and a display of impressive direction and a distinctive style. Collins started out with the Edison Company about 1910, working in a variety of roles. He progressed to direction in 1914. He immediately established himself as a talented and distinctive director. But his career was cut short by the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919. He died only aged 29 years. He had 41 credits as a director, frequently writing the screenplays.

The opening programme, ‘The Early Edison Years’. offered four films, three one -reelers and a three reeler.

The Man in the Dark 1914. 18 minutes at 16 fps.

This was his third film as director and he also wrote the script.. The main character is Silver Joe, originally Joe Raymond (Frank McGlynn). He is now a destitute old man but a letter he finds on a rubbish heap takes him [and the audience] in a flashback to his youth. He was engaged to Flora Van Dyke. In the film we see him celebrating his forthcoming wedding with a bachelor dinner. However his best friend Jack sees Flora with an unknown man to whom she gives money. When Joe hears the story from Jack he breaks off the engagement. Flora writes an explanation in a letter which Joe refuses to read and which he returns. This is the letter that the older Joe has now found. He reads that the man with Flora  was her brother, in trouble with the law. The money was to enable him to escape retribution. Enlightened too late Silver Joe goes to Flora’s old house. He finds that she has died and that her funeral is taking place. All that he is left with is a rose that he picks up. He burns the letter and expires.

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The film is noticeable for the stylistic touches that Collins provides. The reference to the engagement is presented in a heart-shaped iris shot. When Flora receives the letter we see her reflected in a three panel mirror, emphasising not her duplicity but the different pictures held of her. And the lighting in the film adds to the dramatic feel of the story,.

The Everlasting Triangle 1914. 17 minutes at 16 fps.

The film was directed by Collins but scripted by Charles M. Seay, a

‘stock player and vaudeville performer … taking on the roles of actor, writer and director.’

The film is not as well produced as The Man in the Dark, some of the sets are ‘shoddy’. Jay Weissberg in the Catalogue ascribes this to Edison economising.

But the stock melodrama is rendered powerful by a plot resolution that seems to prequel Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Kate (Mabel Trunnelle) is an ‘Eastern girl in the West’. Santley of the West (Frank McGlynn) meets her and proposes marriage. Her other suitor, Philbin, of the East (Robert Kegerreis) leaves. But  a year on, Kate , now living in rural cabin, pines for the busy life of the East. A letter brings Philbin back and they run off. Santley follows them and catches them up in the desert. He shoots two of the three horses and then forces Kate and Philbin to draw cards with himself for the remaining horse. Kate is able to ride off. But Santley forces Philbin on into the desert where he expires. Finally Santley commits suicide. A grim but potent drama.

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The Mission of Mr Foo 2015. 18 minutes at 26 fps. Missing about 75 feet.

Directed by John H Collins from a story by Helen Chandler. This is essentially a film with a stereotypical Asian villain. However Jay Weissberg makes the point:

“The film deftly blends stereotypical “Yellow Peril” deviousness – Sax Rohmer’s ‘The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu’ was published just three years earlier , and the name “Foo” can’t be accidental – with a more positive depiction of the noble champions of the new Republic.” (Catalogue)

The cast includes a genuine Chinese actor, a Japanese actor performing as a Chinese character and [more predictably] Caucasian actors playing Chinese characters, including the villain.

Mr Foo (Carlton S. King) is an ant-republican plotting to restore the Chinese monarchy and also trying to undermine US power. The latter is done literally as he and his minions plot in secret underground passages below Washington DC. [A plot device that returned in the sound era].

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Tradition is emphasised in Foo’s commitment to the Buddha, seen in a opening sequence. Later there is a flashback to the now-departed Dowager Empress. Foo’s Buddhism does not prevent him threatening Florence (Gladys Hulette) , the daughter of an important diplomat (Bigelow Cooper) , with miscegenation. Bu the modern Republican Chinese are allowed to be active. The Chinese Ambassador Tu Sing (T. Tamamoto) and his secretary (Otto Kobe) are instrumental in the defeat of Mr Foo. Though the film ends with a slight reversion to tradition when Foo is forced to drink poison.

On the Stroke of Twelve 1915. 41 minutes at 20 fps, with some tinting

Director John H Collins. Script by Gertrude Lyon.

This is an early example of a three reel film, something Edison introduced in 1915. I was interested by the projection speed which seems quite fast for the period. The script writer, Gertrude Lyon, is also interesting. She appears in the lead role in the film, Irene Bromley, as Gertrude McCoy.  She both acted and wrote at Edison and later worked in England in Europe.

The film’s plot revolves around an amateur female detective, Irene. At the start of the film, on the death of her father, she inherits a fortune. In the first reel she acts as a spoilt and extravagant young woman. An aspect emphasised when her lawyers turn down an application by a penniless inventor but then happily allow her to spend $10,000 on a new car.

Irene is the object of attention by Sidney Villon (Bigelow Cooper again as villain) the lawyer who administers her trust. But she is also admired by young Arthur Colby (Richard Tucker), more attractive but also penniless. Reel one ends with a midnight event which will be important later.

“most remarkable is the way he [Collins] signals the striking of the midnight clock with a dozen flashes of light, rendering sound as visual form.” (Jay Weisberg in the Catalogue).

In reel two we see the conflict between Villon and Arthur, ending in a fight in Villon’s flat. Next morning two bodies are found, with a gun and a watch indicating the time of the fight. However, Arthur is alive and is immediately arrested for murder. here we have a familiar trope where an innocent man is found with a body and presumed guilty.

collins_08

Arthur is brought to trial and at this point Irene emerges not as a spoilt young woman, but an intelligent and resourceful person. In the course of the trial Collins uses several flashbacks to fill out the plot for the audience. It become clear that the scene with the penniless inventor was not merely background drama. And in following up the clues Irene is able to prove Arthur is innocent and their union is assured.

The sense of two characters described as ‘penniless’ adds emphasis to the film’s presentation of a distinction between wealth and moral emotion. Collin’s films are not radical inc content but they, as in many early US films, emphasise the merits of ordinary working people whilst privileging the benefits of wealth.

The film also displays Collins’ talent with production and lighting.

“It is in the film’s second half [mainly the event sin and alongside the court room drama] that Collins displays his directorial acumen, through dynamic angles and close-ups as well s very fine editing.” (Catalogue).

The last is apparent both in the use of the flashbacks and in the cutting between the court room and Irene’s detective work.

The four films all demonstrated Collins abilities in terms of direction, including in the pacing and rhythm of storytelling. Jay Weisberg suggests that,

“Clearly it’s time to reassess the standard dismissal of Edison films of the period. Contemporary critics were certainly more appreciative, and the studios roster of actors often receive high praise…” [Catalogue].

Whilst the plots were in many ways conventional the dramas were effective and, particularly in the longer film, one had a sense of some character development. All four films were screened from 35mm prints. The programme ensured that one would take care to catch all of the subsequent screenings of Collins’ films. And there were suitably dramatic accompaniments by Donald Sosin.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, US pioneers, Westerns | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Screening formats

Posted by keith1942 on February 13, 2017

Vertov's masterwork with black bars added!

Vertov’s masterwork with black bars added!

 

One of the links on this blog is for Silent Film Calendar. This is a very helpful service that offers a fairly comprehensive list of the screenings of Silent Films up and down Britain. It includes Festivals, Film Clubs/Societies and cinemas. After the title the pages offer information on the format in use, though almost all of these contain the legend ‘format not known’.

Almost without exception when I see an interesting screening coming up I have to contact the venue and try and establish whether they are using 35mm, 16mm, DCP, or some digital video format. The latter is far more common than is healthy for Silent Film programming.

Even prestige Festivals are increasingly using digital formats, though thankfully the Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto use very little digital video. The Golden Fleece of the Silent Film Festival circuit is now the George Eastman Nitrate weekend where the films are not just all on 35mm but in the actual format in which they were originally shot and exhibited.

In Britain the digital theatrical format is almost always 2K DCPs. 4K DCPs are pretty rare and this seems to be the case even when it is a title that I have seen in 4K at a Festival. It is fairly clear that 2K digital does not offer the resolution of 35mm and 4K would seem not to either when we are referring to good quality 35mm.

video-resolution-chart

Moreover when the specifications for theatrical digital formats was laid down the equivalent projection speeds were set at 24 and 48 fps, forgetting about any provision for the slower speeds of silent films. FIAF has now provided specifications for silent film speeds, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 fps. However, it is rare to find screenings in the UK that offer this; the norm appears to be 24fps with the consequent step printing of title to provide a suitable rate and running time.

Technically it seems quit easy to adjust digital projectors to alternative speeds to 24 or 48 fps. However, DCPs come ‘baked in’ [the phrase used] both in terms of projection speeds and aspect ratios.

The latter also means that unless cinemas have screen masking the framing offers  an image in 1.33:1 [or a variation] with black bars either side of the image. The bars on digital projection lack the density of masking, so they are quite noticeable and, in addition, they absorb less light so high key images reflect on them.

Elvey's masterwork in what appears to be TV's 16:9.

Elvey’s masterwork in what appears to be TV’s 16:9.

The situation is far worse when exhibitors use some digital video format. The quality is lower than for DCP plus DVDs and Blu-ray run at 25 or 24 fps. So invariably, [except for a few late silent titles] the  print has been  step-printed for transfer. It also seems that the norm these days is to use computer software and these [or at least some of them] use composite frames at edit points, hence the ‘ghosting’ that is a problem on many of these.

Step-printing varies in its effect on any film. But clearly films with fast editing, such as the Soviet masterworks, are likely to suffer from this. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Patyomkin, USSR 1925) has as few as two or three frames in some shots, and an additional frame for every two existing ones is likely when the films run below  20 fps.

Aspect ratios are also a problem in other ways. A friend went to see the screening of a rare New York Yiddish title which was screened in 16:9! Recently the BFI produced a digital version of Abel Gance’s masterwork Napoleon (France 1927). The most famous sequence in this film is the use of a three-screen triptych for the final sequence as the revolutionary army crosses the alps into Italy. At 35mm screenings with three projectors and screens [or equivalents] this image expands to the colossal and impressive finale. For the digital version the BFI used the following technique:

“The whole film is mastered in a scope DCP wrapper and can be projected in one format, the triptych will work on any scope screen (it won’t work on a flat screen).” (BFI Information).

A friend who attended a screening of this version complained than rather than expanding for an impressive finale, the image shrunk, thus reducing the impact.

I can understand film fans wanting to have copies of favourite films to watch at home: but that is domestic viewing and is in a different category from theatrical presentations, [or at least it should be]. And digital versions obviously allow screenings for groups who may not be able to access the infrequent 35mm presentations and venues that do not possess 35mm projection. But, unfortunately, digital also seems to encourage archive and distributors to use these formats instead of offering the films in their original and proper form. Exhibitors compound the problem by the paucity of information on formats. Few cinemas actually distinguish between film [35mm] and digital versions in their publicity and brochures. Even fewer actually indicate when the screenings rely on digital video: and this dereliction also applies to a number of Film Festivals.

A few years back the BFI produced restorations of the nine silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Britain in the 1920s. I was involved in screenings of these in West Yorkshire. Some of our screenings offered 35mm but on a couple of occasions the BFI replied to a request by sending a DCP. Yet later on I saw the same titles on 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. So the BFI could send the prints over a thousand miles to Italy but not north by only 200 miles. More recently The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Islands (Britain 1927) was released round the countries. It seems that the only screenings were from DCPs. Yet there was a 35mm print. In fact the BFI sent the 35mm print [courtesy of a RAF transport plane] all the way down for a screening to the British settler colony on the Malvinas.

We actually have the odd situation now where a screening from a digital video has live musical accompaniment: seemingly the musicians cost more than the expense of renting and transporting a 35mm print. Torkell Sætervadet, in his Introduction to the ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide’, writes as follows:

“[he argues for] the aim of presenting films exactly the way they were i8ntended to be presented – without any compromises with regard to picture, sound and appearance. Cinémathèques, film archives and film institutes have a particular responsibility to respect the integrity of the work of art that they are exhibiting and the inevitable consequence is that the technical requirements will be pretty rigid.”

I wonder how many people in the British Film Industry have read this fine volume or even have a copy. It would seem that the Cinémathèques Française have: as I was advised that in 2016 they declined to license a title for public screening when the source was digital video. Bravo!

 

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David Shepherd 1940 to 2017

Posted by keith1942 on February 3, 2017

David Shepherd with Kevin Brownlow

David Shepherd with Kevin Brownlow

David was a key member of the brigade of film enthusiasts who preserved the flower of early cinema.

He worked as a collector, restorer and provider of prints. I have had the pleasure of seeing many classics that survive and are available thanks to his efforts. He worked for a time at the American Film Institute and with The Library of Congress. He was associated with Blackhawk Films, who at one time provided prints of difficult-to-see films. Later he founded and ran Film Preservation Associates.

His legacy will survive in the countless films whose continued existence and access is thanks to him.

A favourite of mine which I owe to David is Henry King’s Tol’able David USA 1921). This apparently was also a favourite of his. It is a fine rural melodrama and with an excellent canine performance from a collie named Lassie: note though there is also a scene of trauma.

There are numerous tributes to him on WebPages and Blogs devoted to film history and there is an obituary in the new Sight & Sound.

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The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh, USSR 1927

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2017

canone_04_romanov

This seminal Soviet film was screened at the Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016. With 2017 approaching this seemed like a harbinger for commemorations of the Great October Revolution and the revolutionary cinema that it produced. The film is a compilation of ‘found footage’ and is credited in direction and scripting to Esfir Shub. She was the key editor in the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s. Daria Khitrova writes in the Festival Catalogue of the ‘universal praise’ for her work in the Soviet film community.

“Shub learned the craft of film editing in a hard but creative way. For years, her job at the Soviet film factories was to doctor foreign (and later domestic) movies ideologically unacceptable for Soviet audiences. In many cases, it involved a full turn-around of the plot, characters, and situations, without, of course, any additional filming being an option.”

This experience developed Shub’s editing skills but her standpoint on artistic creation followed on from her involvement with the Soviet avant-garde and the Constructivist Movement. Importantly she collaborated with both the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. This project was initially her suggestion and it offered merit to the Soviet Production arm Sovkino as there was no existing cinematic record of the Revolution. Initially the working title was ‘February Revolution’. The plan was to produce a compilation film, at this time a rare and undeveloped form, running from 1913 [the anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty] until February 1917, That month saw a revolutionary uprising in Petrograd, appropriately on Woman’s Day. This led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When soldiers broke away and supported the revolution the ruling class were unable to suppress the uprising. They did form a bourgeois government and this and the Soviet continued side by side, a period of ‘dual power’.

Note, Shub followed up this film with one on the October Revolution, The \Great Road (1927). Shub’s main source of ‘found footage’ was the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow but she also collected material from Petrograd where the earliest Soviet museum had been based. The film also credits M. Z. Tseitlin as ‘consultant’. He appears to been part of the Museum and presumably helped Shub identify material.

A subtitle for the film reads,

“montage of historical documents”

The footage includes newsreel and actualities filmed in Russia, film of the Romanov Dynasty including their own home films, and material from the period from elsewhere. Some of the war footage includes material filmed at Verdun and the French uniforms can be recognised. One piece of films appears to be from the USA and show soldiers setting off to war. As might be expected the film does not have a series of credits for source material. And the main function of the film is as illustration, so in the case of generalised events such as war different footage can serve a similar purpose.

The film is approximately six reels in length: these are not used as chapters or segments as is the case for some films of the period. However, the film, whilst the overall chronology runs from 1913 to 1917, is presented in sections which both chronicle events but also present thematic aspects of the narrative.

The opening reel introduces the audience to the ruling class, both in the form of the Romanov’s but also in the bulwarks of state power: the church, the military and the police including the secret force or Ohkrana. An opening title reads,

“Black Reaction”

The first sequence show us the military and then a religious procession. We move on to the State Duma,

“obedient to the Tsar”.

This is a collection of landowners, members of the bourgeoisie and clergy, supported by a network of Deputy Governors in the provinces. Footage also shows us the fortresses of religion, the monasteries, and the vast estates of the landowners and aristocracy. The film frequently uses footage of well known characters involved in events, many of whose names we would no longer recognised. But some remain familiar,

“Rasputin’s rival Illidor”

This is followed by film of the peasants, presented as obedient to the dominant classes.

In the second reel the audience are shown the extensive celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. At the end of the second reel, carrying on into the third, are presented the exploitation of the Russian peasants and workers. It introduces the notion of capitalism:

“Capital plunders, fighting for markets”

This leads into the competition across Europe and the increasing preparations for war.

“The hands of the workers were preparing death for their brothers”.

And there are shots both of factories and the production of munitions and armaments like the new form of warship, Dreadnoughts. We see film of the mobilisations early in 1914. Titles point out the resulting contradiction, as workers are drawn,

‘away from machines’ and ‘peasants from fields.”

The fourth reel opens with a series of explosions that lead into the eruption of war and the conflict across Europe. This section shows frequent explosions, large scale artillery but also the experience of the ordinary soldier involved in trench warfare.

A title card informs us that

‘ 35 million people, killed, wounded or maimed.’

There are shots of the dead, often frozen corpses lying in the remains of trenches. There follows film of the wounded and of refugees, dead animal carcases and the firing of ‘wheat fields’. There is film of the efforts of the ruling class to recruit more soldiers to die on battlefields, assisted by the church. Women replace the mobilised workers in factories, producing more ammunitions for the front.

“The country was being ruined”

and we see queues and the results of shortages. This lead into 1917, and a particularly severe winter. There are shots of wind, snow and huddled figures in the streets.

Around the start of the fifth reel there is film of soldiers walking away from the front line. Title cards present the call of the Bolsheviks to workers and peasants:

“Everyone under the Red Banner of Revolution.”

There follow footage of mass demonstrations; of soldiers demonstrating in the streets and of delegates of workers soldiers and peasants gathering sat the Tauride Palace. The bourgeoisie form the Provisional Government: there are shots of the ministers, including Kerensky. The crisis increases:

“Moscow sides with Petrograd.”

And soldiers come over

“to the side of revolution.”

canone_05_romanov

Reel six offers film of the opposing forces, the new government of the ruling class and the increasing crowds of workers, soldiers and peasants. Footage of the police and military imply the attempts at suppression. Soldiers form people’s militias and patrol the streets. The abdication of

“Nicholas the Bloody’

is greeted by cheering crowds.

On March 23rd there is a massive demonstration at the funerals of workers killed by the government forces. At the Petrograd Soviet Lenin calls for

“All power to the Councils of Workers.”

Endorsed by the deputies of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies the February Revolution is accomplished. Final shots of crowds, banners and deputies shaking Lenin’s’ hand.

As can be seen the tempo of the film increases as it approaches the key events of 1917. The found footage serves purposes that would have [in most cases] not been in the mind of the producers. So Shub appears to select the footage, partly on the basis of what it shows and how, but in addition, on what the context of the film provides in added meaning. This is a dimension that marks out Shub’s work from earlier example of compilation or found footage use. At the same time her selection relies on the literal information in the footage, marking her techniques off from those of the other Soviet Documentarists in the Factory of Facts. This also means that the pace of her editing is overall slower, as she relies on viewers extracting the information in the footage before relating this to preceding or following shots. The editing uses continuity rather than discontinuity. And the chronicle proceeds in a linear fashion.

The analytical aspect of the film relies on the title cards, some showing contemporary reports, statements or slogans: some providing information/comment. Cuts from one piece of footage to another illustrates and supports these. Shub’s experiences in editing imported films appears to have also relied on the addition of title cards of dialogue or plot information alongside the re-editing of the film footage.

The screening used a 35mm print from Gosfilmofond with Russian titles, translated into English in a digital projection. The print was reasonably good. As would be expected the found footage in the print varied greatly in terms of quality: one assume this was the case at the time of the original selection and editing. There were also some racking problems with the print. And we enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Mauro Colombis, including I think some familiar tunes and themes appropriate to the subject.

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People die for metal/ liudi gibnut za metal, Russia 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2016

The Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen.

The Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen.

This film was produced by the Russian Yermoliev company in Yalta as they made their way into exile in Paris. The Bolshevik Revolution had already taken place and a Civil War raged across the new Soviet territories, with Britain, France and the United States invading the young Soviet Republics and aiding the forces of reaction. This production follows the style and conventions of the pre-revolutionary Russian cinema. This applies both to the story, typically downbeat, and to the style, shot in a tableaux-like form.

The film was screened from a 35mm print and was part of a programme celebrating the 75th year of Det Danske Filminstitut. This was a print with German language title cards[with projected English translation] and was titled ‘The Bartered Soul’, presumably an alternative to the Russian original for distribution abroad. The print was 1579 metres in length and projected at 20 fps. It had tinted sequences. There was some doubt regarding who directed the film for the company.

“There are only two contemporary Russian reviews for this film; one credits [Alexander] Volkov as director, the other, Yakov Protozanov. Protozanov definitely had some connection to the film: ten years later he wrote a screenplay which repeats this plot (but with a Soviet happy ending), and five years after hat he -rewrote it as a sound film. Neither project was filmed.” Festival Catalogue, Casper Tybjerg.

Protozanov went into exile, working in France and Germany, but then returned to the Soviet Union in 1923 and worked as a film maker in the Soviet industry.

The basic plot involved a wealthy bourgeois, Gornostaiev (I. Talanov), also known as ‘Mr Millionaire’. The romantic interest was a ballerina Llona (Mara Krogh) and there was an acquaintance Belinski (Yuri Yurievski). The millionaire made a bet that gold will win out over love: hence the title. In a reworking of the Mephistopheles legend he picked on a young worker, Alexei (Nikolai Rimski), as the subject of the bet. The offer made to Alexei was,

“sell me two years of your life”.

When he accepted he was gifted all the luxuries enjoyed by the millionaire. However, this meant parting with his old way of life, including a young woman friend, Manja. The millionaire inducted Alexei into the conventions and manners of the wealthy. This included a taste for pornography. After a trip abroad the pair returned and then Alexei became involved in an affair with Llona. Gornostaiev retaliated by ending the contract, and symbolically returning Alexei’s old working clothes. Llona realised that whilst she loved Alexei she could not live without the luxuries to which she was accustomed. The millionaire had won his bet. In a suitably downbeat twist Alexia now met his old flame Manja who was working as a prostitute. But Gornostaiev was to discover that gold, like love, exacted a price.

Much of the film favoured long shots and mid-shots, though there were cuts to close-ups for moments of strong emotion. The tinting was used to similar effect, the dinner party where matters came to a climatic head had a red tint. The film offered a certain distance as we watched the developing story. However, the plot line was strongly melodramatic, in particular at moments of crisis and in the final resolution. One intriguing technique was in the use of mirrors. There were several of these and they were shot or edited to emphasise a reflective stance. The most distinctive was in the theatre as a group of men watched the ballerina from an opera box whilst a mirror behinds them showed the audience the spectacle that they were enjoying. This fitted in with a tendency to symbolism in the film: the most notable example being a picture of Lucifer or Satan on the wall of Gornostaiev’s study when he made his offer to Alexei. later in the film, when Llona conceded that the millionaire had won his bet she retorted,

“You are diabolically clever. I love him all the same.”

But not enough to surrender the metal of the film’s title.

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Das Cabinet/Kabinett des Dr, Caligari, Germany 1920

Posted by keith1942 on December 14, 2016

caligari-poster

In the 1920s German cinema was the most accomplished in Europe and possibly the most influential until Soviet montage arrived. The giant UFA studio at Neubabelsberg was the largest and best equipped in Europe though it lacked behind Hollywood in its capital and resources. As the decade progressed the industry led the way in its production design, in the use of models and special effects, in its command of chiaroscuro [light and shadow] and then in the development of the moving camera.

Along with these skills and utilising them were a series of genres that offered unconventional stories and a distinctive style. The first of these was ‘expressionist cinema’. It embraced the style and content of a German art movement of the late C19th which itself had an unconventional look and a concern with dark, brooding topics. The approach seemed to fit well with a post World War I Germany. Not only had the state lost the war but it had only narrowly escaped a Soviet-style revolution: a political conflict which returned as the decade advanced.

This film was the first clear example of this new cinematic approach. However, some of the techniques and the look can be seen in other films of the time. And the use of light and shadow and a strong Gothic feel had been seen before the war in a film like The Golem (1915), remade as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam in 1920)..

Caligari‘s was produced by Erich Pommer. Pommer was to be a key figure as a film producer throughout the decade. The story and screenplay were written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Whilst the initial story was a dark, the design of the film was what made it so unconventional. This was produced by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig: Reimann also designed the costumes. They imported a style that was both expressionist and theatrical. And the director Robert Wiene managed to preserve their vision and imbibed the cast with this as well.

The action takes place in a small German town when a fair opens. Among the shows is one run by Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) in which he displays a somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The presentation is seen by two friends Franzis (Friedrich Feyer) and Alan (Hans Heinz von Twardowski). Both friends are enamoured with a local young woman Jane (Lil Dagover). The fair provides a warning of death and then a series of murders are committed though the murderer is unknown. The plot develops into a hunt and an unexpected exposure in an Asylum.

This was the original plot but it was added to; apparently by Fritz Lang who was considered as a director. The addition is an opening scene where an older man recounts the story in flashback. At the end of the film the opening pair, and the other key characters, are seen again suggesting that what we have seen may be a dream or fantasy.

The film is certainly dream-like and miles away from the naturalism that was the norm in contemporary cinema. The film made extensive use of chiaroscuro which gives an extreme contrast: this is produced both by low key lighting and by shadows painted on the sets. The sets are flat and theatrical and are full of angles which give a powerfully unsettling effect. A sense of perspective is also distorted. The acting, which is very skilled, mirrors this, with exaggerated gesture and a stiff non-naturalistic poise. This is a world of artificiality.

The settings in the film suggest a world outside the norm. The town is host to a fair, frequently a site of rule breaking and unconventional behaviour. Dark deeds occur at night, when the social order is less adequately policed. And the Asylum is the opposite of a world of order and convention.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari

The film has given rise to much discussion and to disagreements. One of the keenest is over the added opening and closing scenes. To a degree do they alter the substance and [crucially] the values embedded in the story. Added to this are questions of how far the film reflects or even anticipates events in Germany of the late 1920s and 1930s. Siegfried Karacauer argued that

“Janowitz and Mayer knew why they raged agaisnt the framing story: it perverted, if not reversed, their intrinsic intentions. While the original story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene’s CALIGARI glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness.” (From Caligari to Hitler (1947).

However, M. B. White, in a review in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers (1987), suggests that the film remains ambiguous for audiences. He makes a key point that the expressionist style is continuous throughout the film.

“In other words, the film is structured in such a way that it represents contradictory ways of understanding the central sequence of events. This is supported by the consistency of the films mise en scène.”

But on a reviewing of the film it seemed clear that in the final sequence offers fairly conventional staging and performance, without the exaggerated style of the flashback. This is most notable in the character of Dr. Caligari where Krauss’s performance is radically altered. However White’s comments on the film’s structure seem valid. In particular, if the film acts as a metaphor for Germany in the period, then the site of an Asylum raises pertinent questions about the culture. Certainly by the time that the audience is apprised of the source of the disruption to ‘normal life’ several readings are possible.

An interesting comment on this aspect is provided by Ian Roberts in German Expressionist Cinema (2008).

“…his directorial input (Wiene), ensuring that the revised story-frame should be echoed in repeated circular imagery … point towards a very deliberate attempt to reflect the pattern of events unfolding in Germany’s streets…”

and he points to the cycle of defeat in WWI, the failed Soviet-style revolution and the re-imposition of bourgeois rule. This is an intelligent and illuminating reading of the film. And the debate itself adds to the interest of the film.

My own recent viewing made me realise the importance of the music that accompanies a screening. This had a fine piano score by Darius Battiwalla. For the flashback he provided music full of dissonance and sombre chords. But for the final sequence we heard lighter waltz-like music, which emphasised a return to normalcy from the world of chaos: with possibly a touch of irony.

Caligari set in train a series of expressionist films though critics do not agree exactly which films fit into the form. Of equal interest is that the film is both partly horror and also an early example of a serial killer film. The former is picked up in the slightly later Nosferatu (1922) [definitely expressionist]. The latter recurs in a number of examples in Germany in this period. The later notable example being Fritz Lang’s M (1931). And these films are a key influence on the later Hollywood noir cycle.

As with film noir we have a world of chaos into which the hero descends. Given the fate of Franzis at the end he seems to be a victim hero. There is not a femme fatale but there is Caligari’s ‘obsession’ and political noirs often rely on this rather than the sexual threat. And we have the triangular relationships: in this case three younger men obsessed with the woman and the addition of the older man. Serial killer films pick up a number of aspects of film noir. In addition we have the insane killer who is at the same time apparently rational, Caligari himself. The other recurring motif is the labyrinth. Strictly speaking this film does not have  a labyrinth but the sets on many occasions form corridors and passageways hemmed in by walls and buildings. At one point Franzis and two policemen descend a steep narrow staircase to a lower floor and a tightly constricted cell housing a suspect. And the ‘open air’ sequences at times resemble a maze, that parallel structure to the labyrinth. And serial killer films cross over with horror, as does Caligari. One powerful horror motif is the cabinet/coffin that house Cesare. Opening this lets  loose the horror that engulfs the town and the trio of friends.

 Decla Filmgellschaft. 4682 feet, black and white with green, brown and steely-blue tinting. 77 minutes at 16 fps.

Posted in German film, Gothic film | Tagged: | 3 Comments »