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Westfront 1918: Vier Von Der Infanterie, Germany 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on July 13, 2016

Westfront 1918

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

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

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

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

Westfront1918_Foto

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

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

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

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

“endangered crucial interests of state.”

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

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Tell England, UK 1931

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2015

TELLENGLANDHERALD2

This film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Ernest Raymond, subtitled A Study in a Generation. The novel follows two young men who join up in World War I and become involved in the Gallipoli campaign. This was the attack on the Dardanelles in Turkey by the Alliance of Britain and France, in 1915 and involving troops from both European powers’ colonial territories – Australasia, India and North and West Africa. There were also civilian workers from Egypt and Malta supporting the troops. Gallipoli looms large in the British memory. I suspect partly that this is because it was generally regarded as a failure or a disaster. In that sense it parallels other infamous military campaigns such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916 or earlier the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. There are also strong memories in Australasia. Anzac Day is April 25th, the date of the landing in which Australasian troops were heavily involved. There the campaign was felt to epitomise the superior and careless attitudes of the British High Command to troops from down under. Intriguingly Raymond’s novel was also the inspiration for an Australian film, Gallipoli. In this version two young Australians join up and become involved in the campaign. This year has seen the release of The Water Diviner, directed by and starring Russell Crowe. Most of the film is set after the war. What I found striking about the film is the amount of attention given to Turks. This seems to follow on from the setting as Crowe searches for the graves of his sons. The villains, if there are any in the film, are the Greeks who invade Turkey. At the same time the British military are portrayed as officious and much less helpful than a Turkish officer. Tell England was screened at the British Silent Film Festival 2015. It was preceded by a presentation looking at some of the other films that dealt with the campaign. These included newsreel coverage and what were effectively information films. One of these, Fight for the Dardanelles (1915), included animated sequences. There were also films that showed the Australian troops involved, and even Indian troops, I am not aware of any feature films that deal with ‘colonial’ Indian or the African troops. Nor I have ever seen a Turkish treatment of the campaign. The British films tended to report and valorise the campaign, rather than dwell on its failure. A slightly critical note was struck in Heroes of Gallipoli (1915) from Australia in which there were critical comments about the training and treatment of Australasian troops. The presentation also included an extended sequence from Tell England, the initial landings, which is possibly the most impressive sequence in the film. map1 The feature itself was produced by British Instructional Films. The project started in 1928 but was not completed until two yeas later. It was shot as a silent with the sound dubbed on later and it still retains some intertitles. This was, of course, the period of transition to sound and the film was screened at Leicester as part of a programme of early British sound films. Rachel Low (Filmmaking in 1930s Britain) has written about the problems of the transition. She quotes a passage by Peter Birt, who worked on Tell England, in the magazine Close-Up;

“Two [recorded sound] tracks, taken separately, may be dissolved one into the other: fades may be made; sounds can be distorted by running them through the projector faster or slower than the speed at which they were taken. (This was how we obtained the background for the trench raid and the low-frequencies for the blowing up on ‘Clara’, in Tell England).” [‘Clara’ was a Turkish trench mortar that occupied a long sequence later in the film].

Low adds the following:

“He also said that Tell England had a track for the explosions made from a collection of suitable recordings plus ‘background from another projector and voices from the floor’.

The film used the Tobis-Klangfeld sound-on-film system: the major European brand at the time. Like other early sound films the technicians were having in experiment and innovate. This and the somewhat primitive state of the technology mean the soundtrack on the film is variable, both in tone and volume. Given the limitations of the time it works very effectively. The script is credited to Anthony Asquith with the additional dialogue for sound by A. P. Herbert. Geoffrey Barks is credited as co-director. It seems that he was responsible for much of the location film which was actually based in Malta. Low explains,

“It was directed by Asquith with much of the location work on Malta being handled by Geoffrey Barkas, who had also made silent films for BOF and had a flair for big crowd scenes on location.”

There was a personal dynamic at work on the film and the novel. Raymond lost friends in the Gallipoli campaign, as did Asquith. And Barkas had actually fought in battles on the Dardanelles. Both the novel and the film tend more to valorisation than to critical treatment of the campaign. Though both also dramatise the sense of loss that the ‘Great War’ occasioned. The cinematography is credited to three cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell, James E. Rogers, but it is not clear who shot which parts of the film. Parker and Rodwell had both worked on The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Island (1927); And Rodwell worked on Asquith’s earlier films Underground and Shooting Stars (both 1928). Whoever filmed which sequences it is very well done. There is though a clear difference between sequences shot in the BIF studios at Welwyn Garden City and the location work. The film was edited by Mary Field. One assumes that Asquith was closely involved as there are, especially in the landing sequence, passages of montage, which one also sees in his other films. Once again there is a sense of the influence of the Soviet filmmakers. Indeed one striking shot as the forces land on the beach presents a low angle shot of a ship’s prow, reminiscent of the closing shot of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The Art Direction was by Arthur Woods; He progressed to direction and turned out quite number of features in the 1930s. Peter Birch is jointly credited with sound alongside Victor Peers. The film would seem to follow the novel relatively closely, though a major change is the downplaying of a religious figure, a parson who advises the two protagonists. These are Rupert Ray (Carl Harbord) and Edgar Doe (Dennis Hoey). The film introduces them in the same way as the book, as teenagers at home and at their public school. This is fairly conventional: with boating, a diving competition and a relay race. The latter has notable tracks along the swimming pool. Another important character is Doe’s mother (Fay Compton) who appears several times and who will come to represent the sense of loss in the film. This is a privileged and untypical [except in the movies] existence. A tolling bell ushers in the war and we see the anxious mother losing her son. However, as is conventional for the period, these volunteers are gung-ho about the conflict. The induction into the army is also conventional and here the war is presented as an opportunity rather than the coming disaster. It is here that we get the first reference to ‘Tell England’ s a quotation is made to the famous message at Thermopylae, ‘go tell Sparta’. In fact, Rupert has studied modern courses at school whilst Edgar studied the classics, and he translates the Greek for his friend. The sequences make effective use of tracks and dollies. The duo then finds they are destined for the Gallipoli campaign. We also hear about the use of Australian and New Zealand troops at a staff-planning meeting. As we arrive at the landing sequence we see Australian troops who sing ‘Australia will be there’. 1931-film-tell-england-screening-at-mcc-20121101   The landings on the Dardanelles by the troops of the Alliance are really impressive and runs for about fifteen minutes. There are extensive shots of the troops approaching the beaches in their crafts, of the actual landing and them the first fighting with the Turks. Some of the footage looked liked it was taken from contemporary newsreels. The editing adds to the feel of dynamic conflict. The variety of shots includes the fleet barrages, ship bridges, [one is clearly a studio set], seamen and stokers on the ships, the waiting troops, disembarking and then struggling through the water and onto the beach. Once ashore there is the barbed wire, the machine guns and some hand-to-hand fighting. It was justly commented that, –

“the beach landings sequence is one of the finest action sequences of early British cinema.”

There is an effective interplay of large-scale operations, specific detail and the actual responses of the men involved. At one point a waiting soldiers comments;

“We’re off – thank god!”

There is also an effective inter-cutting of synchronised and non-synchronised sound. Whilst the film’s viewpoint is predominately from that of the invaders, there are also point-of-view shots from the Turkish lines. In another Soviet influence, there are some dramatic low angle shots of fighting on the skylines. The film covers the several simultaneous landings made by the alliance. It also depicts the initial Turkish surprise and then the fierce counter-attack. The end result is trench warfare, which in many ways mirrors that on the Western front of the war. This part of the film is pretty similar to other treatments of this type of warfare of the period. Comparison has been made to Journey’s End (1930). The film now changes from the large-scale presentation to the smaller and more personal side. So we basically follow Rupert and Edgar as they cope, or try to cope, with the situation. There is the increasing tension and increasing desperation as the conditions in dugouts are accentuated by frequent bombardments. The focus for much of this is the Turkish trench mortar ‘Clara’. It is the attempts to take this gun out of action, which dominate the latter stages of the film. Inevitably one of the friends dies and there is the final parting. Followed by the sad receipt of the news back home. These sequences also make effective use of camera and sound. Clearly the scenes use both studio sets and location film. But there are still the range of camera shots, including tracks, dollies, low and high angles and dramatic positions, with more skyline shots. There are also intense close-ups at moments of drama and stress. And the sound continues to intercut both synchronised and non-synchronised dialogue and noise. At one point the assembled officers sing ‘Annie Laurie’, which provides a moment of pathos. There are at least two more references to the motif of ‘Tell England’. The film ends with the evacuation of 1916 and one of the graves stones of those who remained:

“Tell England, you who pass, we died for her and we have no regret’.

So the film ends with the validation of the war if not this campaign. But it also emphasises the sense of loss that was so strong in many of the films of this period. The film is a very fine war drama. It does have certain limitations, which are common in the period. Low comments: “Photography and editing oaf the battle sequence was magnificent, but the strangled patrician characterisation and dialogue and the true-blue patriotism seemed out of date.” British film did not achieve the production values of the Hollywood studios. And the reliance on stage actors meant that they often failed to give a recognisable depiction of class issues. However, the film is a demonstration of excellent ensemble work. BIF produced some very well done film dramas in the late 1920 and early 1930s. And Asquith, whose silent films were visually impressive, also bought flair to the new technique of sound. But this also shows how, like other directors, his work relied on the craft skills of his production team. His film work in the later 1930s is not of the same standard. It would be good if the film could be seen in 35mm around the UK. There was one little flaw in the screening at Leicester. As an early sound film the ratio was distinct, 1.20:1. However, the Phoenix did not appear to have the projection plates for that ratio and there was some cropping at the top and bottom of the frame. One reason for more screenings – in the correct ratio.

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Dawn, UK 1928

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2015

bfi-Dawn

This is an early film about Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot by the Germans during World War I for spying. Her case became a cause celebre at the time and she has remained a fairly iconic figure since. This is the centenary of her death and Park Circus has re-issued a 1939 film, Nurse Edith Cavell. The Hyde Park Picture House has gone one better and recently screened the earlier film in a 35mm print and with a set of interesting introductions. The film previously has only been screened at the Imperial War Museum and the British Silent Film Festival.

The essential record. Cavell was a British Nurse working in Belgium when the war broke out. She became involved in a network helping escaped POW’s make their way home. The network was betrayed and 35 members captured by the Germans. 30 of the members were sentenced to hard labour, five, including Cavell, were sentenced to be executed. Three of these had their sentences commuted to hard labour, but Cavell and a colleague were shot. There were protests both by the Allied enemies and by ‘neutral’ nations, especially by the US Legation in Belgium.

Herbert Wilcox was one of the more successful producers and directors in British film in the 1920s. He specialised in historical dramas, and he also produced and directed the 1939 version, which starred Anna Eagle. There had been some short films about Cavell, in which the Germans were portrayed as brutes and Cavell as an innocent victim. But by the late 1920s the British Government was concerned to maintain good relations as Germany was shepherded back into the ‘democratic fold’. The German Government raised objections when Wilcox’s production got underway. The British Government evaded the issue with reference to the British Board of Film Censors [set up in 1912] as an independent censorship body: somewhat economical with the facts. Wilcox did in fact make changes to the film including the ending, but it does not seem that there is a record of these.

In fact when the film was completed the BBFC refused it a certificate. However, the BBFC’s remit was only partial in this period, as the Local Authorities actually held the legal right of licensing. Wilcox was successful in getting the film licensed by the London County Council and it received a general exhibition. It was also screened in Germany, without much apparent incidents.

The film was shot in black and white and is six reels – running about 85 minutes at 22fps. The original release was 7,300 feet: now it is 6,510 feet which suggests cuts due to wear and tear. The Writing Credits (in alphabetical order) Reginald Berkeley   … (story),  Robert Cullen   … (scenario) , Herbert Wilcox   … (adaptation). Cullen also directed and one of his films is Every Mother’s Son (1926) a wartime drama. It is possible that Wilcox’s adaptation is to do with the changes: what these all were is not clear, though it definitely included the ending. My thoughts on re-watching the film was that some of the title cards were likely the result of this change in approach.

The film opens with a series of title cards. They first laud Cavell’s ‘heroic life and death’. Then they offer a sort of generalised anti-war message, ‘Rulers of Europe, puppets of carnage ..enslaved by war.’

The film then moves into its story, and we see the Belgium Institute where Cavell worked. Inside we are presented with a children’s ward, the use of children is a recurring trope in the film. One boy puts on a Prussian style helmet, ‘I am an Uhlan’ [light cavalry in Poland, Russia, and Prussia]. Another boy puts on a different cap, ‘I am a chasseur’ [French light infantry’. The ‘Uhlan’ chases the ‘Chasseur’ who runs and shelters behind Cavell in her office. Briefly and directly the film sets up the drama’s plot and values.

The war arrives, Europe ‘blazed into flames’. Then we see a man on the run (Jacques – Mickey Brantford ) and Germans searching. His mother, Madame Rappard (Marie Ault) attempts to hide him and when Cavell arrives she arranges to take the man to the Institute. There she burns his uniform: right through the film, with one other exception, escaping soldiers are seen in civilian clothes. Later Cavell and Madame Rappard hide Jacques in a part of the basement and move a large wardrobe to hide the entrance.

So Cavell is drawn into helping escapees: a flashback shows Jacques telling her that there are ‘hundreds like me’. In most cases the men are taken through the streets at dark and secreted on a barge which travels along a canal across the frontier. The group appears to consists of Cavell, Rappard and two other women (Madame Ada Bodart – herself and Madame Pitou – Mary Brough) and a Bodart’s young son Philippe (Gordon Craig): rather different from the actual network. This is a woman’s group. One man, the bargee (Richard Worth) , hesitates to assist the prisoners and is roundly ordered to do so by his wife, Madame Pitou. Later it is a man who betrays the network. The only positive m male member is Philippe, a teenage boy and an unnamed man who guides the prisoners from the Institute..

The actions of the group are intercut regularly with the German military. At times this is quite stereotypical: the communication system is a post card mailed at the frontier. After a fruitless search one German soldier willingly agrees to post the card for the Madame Pitou. We also see the German high command, including the Military Governor, General von Zauberzweig (Frank Perfitt) . As they start to realise that there is an escape network investigations and searches are instigated. At one point it appears that escaped prisoners are being found among the allied dead after battles on the front line: clearly having rejoined the allies and their war effort.

The investigating officer is presented as quite intelligent. He remembers a conversation with Cavell which arouses his suspicions. His first search is fruitless, but after the betrayal he returns and discovers the hidden door behind the wardrobe. This is a moment of high drama in the film. Cavell is assisting a wounded and wanted RAF officer: the only other escapee seen in uniform. The search takes place as Cavell and an assistant attempt to smuggle him out of the Institute. This is done successfully: another rather conventional plot device. Meanwhile Cavell is incriminated by a discovered network document.

We then get Cavell’s trial and execution. ‘Trial between women and war machine’. Her women companions are also charged but the trial is predominately about Cavell. We do see the young Philippe who is a compulsory witness and who is committed for perjury. Cavell is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. A title tells us that the others are sentenced to hard labour: so unlike in actuality Cavell is to die alone.

Following the sentence the film includes the efforts of the US Ambassador to stop the execution. There are letters and visits by his aide, but the Commander cites ‘duty’. This section of the plot emphasises the ‘brutality’ of the sentence: the film does not raise the issue of spying by the actual network. It does provide sympathetic Germans who themselves sympathise with Cavell, undermining the German position. So an officer visits the Institute and sees the wounded airman, but ‘clicking’ his heels’ and saluting Cavell he leaves without reporting what he has seen.

Even more notably we see dissent among a member of the firing squad. This is Private Rambler, who demurs when he is selected for the squad. At the actual execution he hesitates when the order to ‘raise arms’ is given and then refuses. The officer commanding berates him. And there is an exchange of glances between Rambler and Cavell. This sequence is clearly cut, likely due to the changes made to placate the Germans. It would seem that there was originally more than one exchange of glances between Cavell and the soldier, and the suggestion of Cavell’s nod that he should ‘do his duty’. Note, ‘a legend long generally accepted’.

The execution took place at the Tire National, on the edge of a field behind the building. We see the preparations including an English Chaplain ministering to Cavell. She is them marched down stairs, through a basement to the yard. There is the business with Private Rambler but we do not see Cavell actually shot. What we do then get is a title showing the words that Cavell spoke to the Chaplin,

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

These are famous and off-quoted words.

The film has a very restrained feel. Partly this is down to the performance of Sybil Thorndike as Cavell: she is magisterial and even her emotional displays are restrained. There is some difference between her and other cast members’ performances: Madam Pitou and Rappard are quite a bit more expressive. This restraint is emphasised by the film’s direction. Wilcox is a fairly static director, his films concentrate on performance and mise ne scène. So the film is shot predominately in long and mid-shots. And even when there are close-ups they are not large, but almost themselves mid-shots. There is very little moving camera: though already Graham Cutts, Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock were using these techniques in their films. All I noted were several pans, especially during the court sequence.

The cinematography by Bernard Knowles is well done and there is some expressive lighting in certain sequences. The art direction is by Clifford Pember and would seem mainly to relate to interiors,. Much of the exteriors were shot in Belgium, frequently using actual locations from the events recorded. Note, the 35m print we watched was a composite, one could discern changes in lighting and definition within sequences. It appears this BFI print combines four reels from its own archive copy and two reels from a copy in New Zealand.

The film had a musical accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla on the piano. Darius gave a short explanation before the screening. His performance was partially prepared, partly improvised. He explained that in the 1920s there was a range of musical accompaniments: some using prepared musical sequences, some composed or arranged. The latter had at one extreme the Wagnerian romantic approach, The sort of music that Korngold bought to Hollywood in the 1930s. Some of it was closer to neo-classical, for example Kurt Weill. Darius’ accompaniment for this film was closer to the latter, re-enforcing the style of the film. Much of it was low-key and often with sparse notation, but he also bought in martial chords at certain points in the film,. I thought it set of the film exceptionally well. though it of course re-enforced the values the film offered.

Darius at the piano.

Darius at the piano.

The pre-screening talks were also informative. Dr Emma Cavell was related to Edith Cavell through an Australian connection. She filled out some of the family history. But her project around Cavell also bought her into contact with the Cavell heritage events. It is worth noting that Cavell was given a state funeral in the UK and there is a statue to her in Trafalgar Square where there is an annual memorial event. She was also added to the Anglican Church listing of ‘saints’.

Professor Fell talked about the history of Cavell and the network in which she was involved. There is evidence that the network not only assisting escaping soldiers but that they also passed on information concerned with the war effort – i.e. spying. She also pointed out that Cavell was not tried alone, nor was she executed alone but along with Philippe Baucq who was a key member of the network.

The disparities between the film and the record made sense when Doctor Claudia Sternberg talked about the representations of Cavell , including on film. Early illustration showed Cavell with long, streaming hair, younger than her actual 49 years and in some suggestions of rape. One newspaper illustration depicted the Germans as pigs or ‘swine’. One film of 1915 was entitled Nurse Martyr. She also talked about the depiction of Cavell as a lone victim in illustrations of the execution and the use of nurse uniforms rather than civilian clothes. She went on to fill in the context of the Wilcox film  and suggested that this was a transitional work, with ‘civilian society’ portrayed as ‘subordinate to the military’.

Dawn poster 01

The talks filled out the film and enabled a fuller appreciation of the representation and its relationship to the historical person and events. My main reservations were two-fold.

The suggestion was that the changes made by the film after the German objections gave the film a more general anti-war tone. I thought there was a discrepancy between the title cards and the visual representation in the film. The opening title cards in particular were quite strident and appeared to put together European powers on both sides of the conflict as war-mongers. However the actual narrative was much closer to conventional war films. Cavell and the network were portrayed sympathetically and shown as non-military. The fact that the key member were women seemed more about this type of discourse than any feminist rendering, though they did come across as strong characters. The Germans were portrayed through the film in conventional militaristic terms, re-enforced by the dissensions by individual Germans and the depiction of the US Legation. I incline to think that one of the ways that German objections were responded to was to change title cards rather than the actual imagery, a not uncommon way of ‘sanitising’ silent film.

Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.

Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.

The key changes to the visual imagery were the execution. Here there are clear cuts, at one point there is a shot of Cavell facing the squad and then a reverse shot, and we discover a field behind her. It is a disruptive moment. Presumably this cut was seen as diminishing the literal visual violence in the film, but all the business with the dissenting soldier remains.

I also had reservations about the idea of a transitional film. I can see that it has some of these aspects in terms of British film. But the anti-war tone had already appeared much earlier in the 1920s. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921) has a powerful anti-war drive and in this film civil society is clearly subordinate to the military. And in British film the jingoistic support of the allied war effort continued, a good example being The W Plan from 1930. Here Brian Aherne plays an British Officer and spy who outwits the stereotypical Germans.

It also need to be pointed out that ‘anti-war’ has a limited connotation in such films as Dawn. As  pointed out by Andrew Britton such films rarely address the actual politics of an actual war. This is centrally true of World War I. This was an imperialist war between European colonial powers and ‘plucky little Belgium’ had one of the worse records for colonial atrocities in the Congo.

But a great opportunity, so felicitations to the Hyde Park Picture House and to the contributors to the event.

There is more material in Rachel Low’s the History of the British Film 1918 – 1929, Allen and Unwin 1971.

The Belgium archive also have a print which is being restored.

 

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J’accuse (Per la patria), France 1919

Posted by keith1942 on May 9, 2015

jaccuse

This is a classic of the French silent cinema and also an early and famous example of an ‘anti-war’ film. The film was released in 1919, whilst the ravages and tragedies of the war were still fresh in the minds of the audiences. In France the war had actually taken place on French territory and there were not only the huge losses of men in military action but violence experienced by civilian population.

The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. A new version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. Lobster films are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.

The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama: romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. Opening in a French village we watch the experiences of different characters who suffer both at the front line but also from the depredations behind the lines. As might be expected at this period the representation of the Germans is fairly one-dimensional. But the French characters offer a variety of responses to the conflict. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.

Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. The film uses close-ups for dramatic effect. One sequence uses a series of shots of hands as the men of the village prepare to leave for the war. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.

The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though over three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War, [not strictly accurate].

The version screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (200(0 was on 35mm and had tinting and toning. It was projected at 16 fps and ran for 192 minutes. Stephen Horne on the piano provided a suitably epic accompaniment. The same version was also screened at the last Leeds International Film Festival. On this occasion the screening used a DCP. I only managed to catch the final third of the film. The transfer was good but the film ran about 20 minutes shorter. I suspect the problem was that the DCP was run at 24 fps: I certainly noted some sequences were running too fast. Unfortunately the UK is lagging behind in developments: the FIAF specifications for frame rates below 24 have been around for a couple of years but so far are little used here. There was a very good accompaniment to the film on the Town Hall organ, played by Simon Lindley.

 

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Silent Film Festival in Scotland

Posted by keith1942 on March 5, 2015

main5_before

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:

Event:

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

Event:

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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The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, UK 1927

Posted by keith1942 on February 14, 2015

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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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The House With Closed Shutters, USA 1910.

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2014

The Flag - The Drink.

The Flag – The Drink.

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of the mammoth and decade long retrospective of the films of D. W. Griffith. This is a one-reeler, [998 feet in length] released in August 1910. It was the 244th in the long series of films that Griffith directed for Biograph. And it was a one of a number of films that stood out in that series. It seemed to me to have enjoyed better production values than many of the other films from 1910. This seems likely to be because the film is a Civil War tale – there is a very impressive battle scene. Griffith, son of a one-time Confederate Officer, found one of his most compelling subjects in the Civil War. He had made four earlier films which used this topic. Moreover this was a popular genre in the period – 1910 was just before the fiftieth anniversary period of the conflict. And the war itself is one of the most potent memories in US culture.

The film treats the Civil War as part of a family melodrama – and Griffith’s films repeatedly join these two topics, notably in his infamous masterwork The Birth of a Nation (1915). As you might expect in a one-reel film the plot is relatively simple. Charles Randolph (Henry B. Walthall) joins the Confederate army as the war gets under way. However he has a fatal weakness – drink. Sent on a mission with an important despatch Charles flees to the shelter of the family home. His sister Agnes (Dorothy West) takes his place, delivers the despatch, but then dies in a battle. Her body is mistaken as Charles and he is deemed to have died a hero’s death. To preserve the family honour the mother (Grace Henderson) closes the shutters of the house and imprisons Charles there. Years later, an old man, he finally opens the shutters but succumbs to the light of day.

Griffith and his team imbue the film with great emotion. Dorothy West plays Agnes as young and vital whereas Henry Walthall makes Charles weak and indecisive. The house itself takes on the aura of Southern Gothic – a mansion where lies hidden the family secret. When the news of Agnes’ death and Charles now-heroic status arrives, the mother is implacable in immuring her son. The family interaction is set off against two young recruits to the Confederacy who are also suitors for the hand of Agnes (Charles H. West and Joseph Grayhill). It is they who provide a link between family and war and bring the news to the mother. In a later scene one of the suitor climbs in through an open window and the mother covers Charles with a blanket to hide him. There is also a ‘Negro servant’ played in blackface by William J. Butler.

The exterior scenes have an openness and fluidity that contrasts with the grim stasis of the shuttered mansion. Agnes’ ride with the despatch has an exhilarating rhythm. And when she is caught up in a battle between Union and Confederacy the audience is caught close up in the carnage of the conflict. A reviewer at the time commented “that the feature of the film that impresses most is the remarkable realistic battle scene.”

Griffith uses motifs to focus and intensify the drama. So the film opens with Charles and his sister as she sews the flag of the Confederacy. When later in the film she is caught up in the battle she catches a falling Confederate flag and dies waving it towards the enemy. When the suitors take their leave of Agnes she gives one a lock of hair and the other a flower from her hair. After her death and Charles imprisonment the suitor returns every year to lay flowers on the porch of the house: his and their ageing marking the passage of time.

At the centre of the story is Agnes, a strong and committed young woman. Whilst Griffith films often feature the heroine as innocent victim his films also feature strong, independent minded women. In this case Agnes’ commitment is to the Confederacy – in line with Griffith’s consistent support for the South and its reactionary values.

The film has approximately 60 separate shots and seven title cards. The title cards precede the relevant action, which relies extensively on the visual dramatisation for the story. The opening title sums up the moral line in the film, “The Price of Cowardice’. Most of the film is shot between mid-shots and long shots. The shots in the house are relatively long takes, but the actions sequences use shorter shots and faster editing. There is also parallel editing between the war actions and the family home

We were fortunate that this was one of the Biograph films that survive in a 35mm print [provided by the Museum of Modern Art]. It ran 17 minutes and 16 fps. According to my notes we had an accompaniment by Antonio Coppola, who is excellent with this type of melodrama.

There is a long article on the film by Tom Gunning in The Griffith Project Volume 4., bfi publishing 2000.

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Maudite soit la Guerre / [Damn the War!], Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on July 10, 2014

Maudite soit la guerre still

This was a film programmed in ‘Lay Down Your Arms! Pacifism and War 1914 – 1918’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. A restored version of the same film was shown as part of a retrospective of the director Alfred Machin at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Before then Machin was an almost forgotten film pioneer who worked in the Belgium, Dutch and French film industries. That year we enjoyed some thirty films directed by Machin, from shorts to full-length features. Between 1908 and 1931 Machin directed, and often scripted, a wide variety of films that fell into many different genres and into both fictional features and documentaries. Eric de Kuyper produced a bi-lingual study of Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker [French and English], that was published by he Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique together with the Cineteca del Commune di Bologna, (1995).

Maudite soit le Guerre is an anti-war melodrama. Whilst the plot does not identify the countries involved the characters’ names, dress and setting suggest Belgium/France versus Germany. Adolph (Baert) comes to train as an aviator and becomes friendly with Sigismond and his family, and romantically involved with his sister Lidia (La Berni). Then war breaks out and the friends find themselves on opposing sides in the conflict. Predictably they arrive at the same spot on a battlefield – an old windmill. Both die, but the film continues to the point where Lidia learns of the death of Adolph. The films end in a fairly downbeat manner.

Mariann Lewinsky, who programmed the 1914 series at the Festival, commented that in Machin’s films windmills often accompany death – as in this film. There was another example in La Fille de Delft (A Tragedy in the Clouds) a film directed by Machin in 1914. We also had an earlier example of the destruction of a windmill, where the mise en scène crossed over strikingly with Maudite …..

When I saw the film in 1995 it was restored to a 35 mm print, including the Pathé stencil colours, and the tinting and toning. It was the lustrous colours in particular that I remembered from then.

Nicola Mazzanti comments in the Festival Catalogue

… the chromatic composition of Maudite soit la guerre is constructed around the leitmotiv of two pastels, understated colours, the pink of the geraniums in the girl’s villa and the variations of brown (from terra die siena to ochre) of the uniforms and the battlefield, with the reds of the explosions providing the counterpoint.

For 2014 more digital work was done to ‘bring back the subtlety of those unbelievable pinks and browns’. Memory is not always reliable, but the DCP projected in the Piazza Maggiore looked rather as I remembered the 35 mm print. Unfortunately it did not run as smoothly as the celluloid. After about 40 minutes, as we started the final camera reel, the DCP ‘stuck’! The audience sat there uncertain. Gabriel Thibaudeau at the piano, who provided a fine accompaniment and who was approaching his climatic flourish, appeared stunned. Alas that was it for the evening. When I inquired later in the week it seemed that the digital box was still ‘stuck’. We may enjoy a repeat screening next year – can we revert to 35mm?

Fortunately I did have a fairly good memory from the 1995 screening. There is a scene where Lidia recognises a medallion given to Adolph. This was followed by a dream sequence, which had the finest use of colours in the whole film. And the ending is in a Convent. The film does develop as powerful anti-war stance, though it fails [as do most anti-war films] to address the actual circumstances of the 1914 conflict: [that is imperialist rivalry not events in Sarajevo].

I suppose the only positive aspect of a digital version is that it will probably circulate more widely. This is definitely a film to see when the opportunity arises. And Machin’s other works are also worth looking out for.

 

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