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The Youth of Maxim / Junost’ Maksima, 1934

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2018

This film was part of the programme ‘Second Utopia: 1934 – The Golden Age of Soviet Sound film’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 32 edition . The Catalogue introduction did not explain the use of ‘Utopia’ but did offer the following;

“1934 was the first year of relative political freedom in the USSR and, consequently, a year of perfect harmony in the Soviet film history. Film-makers seemed to have finally obtained a balance between high artistic standards, the box office and the authorities.”

The quotation is possibly correct about the competing factors in film-makers. And 1934 was a year which saw a large number of films using sound effectively. As in China and Japan the switch to sound films came later than in the advanced capitalist countries in the west; silent films were produced right through the 1930s and silent versions of sound films were made as well. When sound installation arrived it appeared in the cinemas in major urban areas but more slowly in rural areas. Against that is the increasing influence of what was known as ‘Soviet Socialist realism’: a form that Jean-Luc Godard rightly dubbed a part of the ‘Hollywood-Mosfilm axis’. Such ‘realism’ relied predominately on continuity editing, linear narratives and key leading characters with a rounded psychology. However, not all Soviet films suffered from this conventionality. The Great Consoler (Velikii utesshitel, 1933) directed by Lev Kuleshov from a novel by O. Henry used somewhat primitive sound imaginatively and offered an eccentric narrative. Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (Tri psni o Leninye, 1934), [not in the programme], was produced in both silent and sound versions, and utilised the notable montage found in Vertov’s earlier films. Alexander Nevsky (Aleksandr Nevskiy,1938) may have offered some of the traits of ‘socialist realism’ with its linear narrative and key leading characters but at the best moments in the film Sergei Eisenstein [the director] uses many of his varied ‘montage techniques’.

Happily this work, scripted and directed by Grigorij Kozincev and Leonid Trauberg, has as much eccentricity as in their FEKS (Fabrika Ekstsentricheskogo Aktera) films. The film was the first part of a trilogy following the career of a young militant who joins the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party [Bolsheviks] , his political development and his involvement in the proletarian struggles against the Tsarist autocracy.

The film opens with a prologue set in 1910 on New Year’s Eve and the film is introduced by the celebrations. At the same time revolutionaries are continuing their struggle whilst pursued by the Tsarist police. Here we meet two key characters, both at this stage unnamed; Polivanov (Michail Tarchanov), a leading revolutionary with several aliases; and Nataša/Natasha (Valentina Kibardina), a younger woman comrade.

With the main plot line we meet three comrades, Andrej (Aleksandr Kulakov), Dëma/Dyomo (Stepan Kajukov), and Maksima/Maxim (Boris Čirkov). The three live in a quarter of Petersburg and work in a nearby metal factory. Despite workers’ complaints the safety standards are lax and Andrej is injured at a machine and subsequently dies. Following another accident there is a large demonstration by the factory workers. Set upon by the police both Maxim and Dyomo are arrested. Later Dyomo is executed along with four other agitators. Maxim is imprisoned with Polivanov who begins his education in revolutionary theory and practice. A title informs the viewers that Maxim ‘went to University’.

Maxim receives a banning order covering major cities and urban centres. We next see him fishing on the bank of a river. In fact he is a lookout for a Bolshevik meeting in the woods. But the meeting is raided by police and soldiers. Polivanov, who leads the meeting and starts by reading a letter from Lenin, is wounded in the chase. But Maxim escapes and is hidden by railway workers. Later her rives at Natasha’s house where she is passing as an innocent young woman. With another comrade they prepare a leaflet. Maxim takes over the dictation of the leaflet, a demonstration that he has developed into a leading Bolshevik comrade. A following title informs the viewers

‘That is how Maxim’s youth finished’.

An epilogue follows and we see Maxim and Natasha hand-in-hand. Then he leaves on party work, striding out across an open landscape. The following two films in the trilogy, The Return of Maxim (Vozvrashcheniye Maksima, 1937) and New Horizons (Vyborgskaya storona, 1939), follow the later career of Maxim.

The film is an impressive tour de force though the style is uneven. The film displays the limitation of dealing with early sound. The sequences with extended dialogue are clearly shot in a studio with a fairly static camera and a pedestrian feel. This contrasts greatly with the other sequences of the film. There are numerous sequences shot on location, mainly in Leningrad. The prologue opens with a dazzling race by citizens celebrating New Year’s Eve and racing through the snow in horse drawn sledges. Several exhilarating tracks are followed by side on pans and the wholes sequence invokes a dynamic sense. The accompanying music, easily recognisable as by Shostakovich, adds to the air of exhilaration.

Other location work also opens up the film. There are sequences set in a factory which have the visual feel found in the classic silent films. There is an impressive open-air sequence for the funeral of Andrej. And following this there is the workers’ demonstration and the attack on this by mounted soldiers. This is an action packed sequence with real élan.

Not all the studio sequences have a static feel. There are a number of evening and night-time exteriors with a strong stylised lighting which offer an expressionist feel. And the location work and the studio sets are intercut for most of the film very effectively. For the majority of the film the muscular accompaniment is played on an accordion. This moves in and out of the diegesis. When diegetic the musician is part of the on-screen action and one could suppose that this might apply to all the accordion music in the film. And the characters break into song at several points in the narrative.

So this is an extremely well made film. Much of the style recalls the great work in Trauberg and Kozincev’s silent films, notably The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon , 1929). The cinematography by Andrej Moskvin is finely done. And this applies equally to the editing by Anna Ruzanova and the Design by Egenij Enej.

Trauberg and Kozincev’s script strikes a happy balance between the more avant-garde approach found in Soviet montage and the more conventional narratives that follow from ‘socialist realism’. Thus we have a linear narrative, but one which frequently slides away from the main plot line. Apart from the notable style in exteriors and some of the studio work we get sequences such as the when Maxim is photograph and measured by the prison authorities. The partly grotesque style imposed on Maxim recalls the eccentricity of FEKS from the 1920s.

It is also there in the catheterisation; M\maxim is played by Boris Čirkov who is something of a comedian. He brings a youthful jollity to his role which is shared by his two companions early in the film and later by Valentina Kibardina as Natasha. The Catalogue suggests that

The revolutionaries aren’t half as memorable as the policemen, stool-pigeon, prostitutes, jail guards”

Not exactly true but some of the more pedestrian scenes are those that present the political values upheld by the revolutionaries in the film. But overall the young Bolsheviks come across not just as heroes but recognisably sympathetic characters. Whilst the minor reactionary characters are interesting those from the upper echelons of the oppressing classes are rather like the villainous figures of the silent era.

The programme also included other films from 1934 including Čapaev (Chapaiev, 1934) which was a great success. The Catalogue notes

Junost’ Maksima came out just a few months after Čapaev. The film was very popular. But not quite as much as Čapaev. It was argued ,many time that, had it been released earlier, Junost’ Maksima would have gained firs place… Junost’ Maksima ended up being a complex, aesthetically challenging oeuvre. Too complex and challenging to reach the popularity of Čapaev.”

The last point is probably true but the fact that it was popular suggests a more complex interaction between films, audience, form and content that the debate on ‘socialist realism’ often suggests.

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Carbon Arc at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato

Posted by keith1942 on July 5, 2018

One of the real pleasures at this archive festival are the screening sin the Piazzetta Pasolini sourced from 35mm prints and projected from a 1930s Prevost 35mm carbon arc machine. There is always a great moment when the projectionist ‘fires up’ the machine and a shaft of light beams upwards into the night sky. The Piazzetta is full of light and shadows and then the image appears on the screen. This rare pleasure fills the courtyard with people, early ones sitting, later ones standing or using makeshift furniture.

This year we had three evening screening, attesting to the growing popularity of the event. The screening were part of a retrospective to the work of the cinema of Naples and the film-maker Elvira Notari. With her husband Nicola, and their company Dora Films, she was an important producer and director in Neapolitan silent cinema, working from 1910 right into the 1920s. Only three films and fragments survive from her output of about sixty films. The programme was also a tribute to Vittorio Martinelli who died ten years ago, a passionate student and writer on these films. As in earlier festivals the titles were accompanied by Neapolitan musicians. Making the events event a glorious brew of film, colour and music.

The opening event offered three films accompanied by Antonella Monetti (voice and accordion] and Michele Signore [violin and mandolin], a duo who had accompanied the films when they were screened at an earlier retrospective in Frankfurt. Antonella and Michele regularly accompany Neapolitan films and arrange the music, including traditional Neapolitan songs. We enjoyed the main feature Un Amore selvaggio (19120 which had fine tinting beautifully illuminated by the carbon arc light. The film is a rural drama about class conflict, involving a brother and sister who are increasingly at odds with the landowner for whom they work. There were two compilations of sequences from films by Notari which do not survive in a complete form. These were L’Italia s’è desta (1927) and Fantasia ‘e surdato (1927).

The second event offered a single title, a French film made by an a Russian émigré in Naples in 1925, Naples au Baiser de feu. The accompaniment was by Guido Sodo [Mandolin and voice] and François Laurent [], a duo I have heard before with pleasure. The film followed the doomed romance of a popular singer of the city, but whose life style inhibits his commercial success. The object of his desire is a bourgeois young woman who suffers from a frail constitution. The plot-line, which included a poor girl’s equivalent obsession for the singer, was conventional but done with aplomb. And the film intercut many sequences filmed in the city, including a major festivity. This was tangential to the story but presented Neapolitan life with interest.

I missed the third screening but a friend who attended said that he thought the film fine and really enjoyed the musical accompaniment. The films ere both title by Notari, Napoli sirena delle canzoni (1929) and ‘A Santanotte (1922). The musicians were a five-piece group E Zézi Gruppo Operaio. ‘A Santanotte was another melodrama in a print with the original colours reproduced.

In the 1990s there were several years where we had Neapolitan films with live music in one of the Cortile that are in a Palacio around the Pizza Maggiore.. I remember them vividly now and I am sure that will be true of these events in the Piazzetta. The only experience to rival it is the equally rare opportunity of watching surviving nitrate prints.

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Within Our Gates, USA 1920

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2018

Within Our Gates is a riposte to the racism and white supremacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). It is likely that Oscar Micheaux deliberately derived the title from a 1919 Griffith film, A Romance of Happy Valley, which contains the epigraph:

‘Harm not the stranger

Within your gates

Lest you yourself be hurt’.

This point is made in an article by J. Ronald Green in ‘Griffithiana 60/61’, a publication that accompanied the Giornate Festival of 1997, which saw the screenings of both the Griffith classic and the less well-known Micheaux film. Seeing the two films in succession demonstrated Micheaux’s success in confronting the pernicious arguments of the earlier film.

An important aspect of the rediscovery of Micheaux was a sense of the context for his film. Within Our Gates was produced for the US ‘race’ film market, and was therefore denied the resources and production values lavished on the Hollywood product, including Griffith’s epics. The dominance of these values, even today, makes Micheaux’s films appear inferior alongside those of Griffith. It is worth noting that at the 1997 Giornate, The Birth of a Nation received a full orchestral accompaniment, while Micheaux had to make do with a solo piano. But to appreciate Micheaux’s work it needs to be approached in the way one responds to an independent film. The emphasis is not on grandiose spectacle but intelligent and meaningful narrative.

The surviving print is incomplete and the film was frequently cut, sometimes by Micheaux himself, because the violence depicted in the lynching scenes sparked serious controversy. In Chicago the censors enforced cuts of 1200 feet, i.e. over an entire reel of the film. Moreover the source for the surviving print is a Spanish language version, so that the titles, translated into Spanish, have now been retranslated back to English. This apparently affects both the plotting and also the use of colloquial speech. One character’s name, Girdlestone, has changed to Gridlestone. It is also possible that some shots are in the wrong position, either through poor copying or carelessness in post production. This makes the plot somewhat difficult to follow at first viewing.

(Note: the contemporary terms for Afro-Americans citizens was Negro, or coloured, with more pejorative variations quite common. Negro was supposed to commence with a capital N, not to do so was considered demeaning by black people.)

The protagonist of the film is Sylvia Landry, a southerner. At the film’s opening Sylvia is in the north visiting her cousin, Alma. Alma, with the help of her other cousin, Larry, engineers the break-up of Sylvia’s engagement. Larry himself is involved in gambling and criminal activities. Sylvia now goes to work in a school for Negroes in the south, in the hamlet of Piney Wood. The school is clearly offering a path to betterment for poor Negro children, but it is almost bankrupt. Sylvia goes north again, to Boston, to raise money from wealthy benefactors. In Boston she meets a professional, modern minded Negro, Dr Vivian. Her rescue of a child from the path of an automobile brings her to the attention of wealthy Bostonian. Though a southern acquaintance schemes to prevent her funding a Negro school, the wealthy white woman provides the much-needed funds for Piney Wood and Sylvia returns to the school. There she turns down a proposal from its head teacher. Now Larry reappears and tries to blackmail Sylvia. To avoid more trouble Sylvia again travels to the north.

Larry is shot in a robbery. Dr. Vivian searching for Sylvia treats the dying Larry and then meets Alma. She tells him Sylvia’s story in a long flashback. We find Sylvia, not knowing her parentage, was raised by a black share-cropping family. The film illustrates the exploitation of black share-croppers. It also shows them victims of false accusations which lead to a lynching. This is intercut with an attempted rape. This is a powerful sequence of cross-cutting which provides the dramatic and critical heart of the film.

Some of the factors in engaging with the film are the conventions of the ‘race’ cinema. Whilst they follow the dominant Hollywood model in the main, the cultural opposition implicit in the films has an effect. Sylvia is introduced with a title card identifying ‘the renowned Negro Artist Evelyn Preer’. The predominantly segregated black audiences would have enjoyed a familiarity with her career and performances, probably completely unknown to equivalent white audiences.

A following title card then informs us that Sylvia is ‘typical of the intelligent Negro of our time’. Micheaux immediately offers a contrasting characterisation to those of Griffith and his Hollywood contemporaries. Micheaux also taps into the debates within the Afro-American communities of the time about their social values. Like many other successful Negroes (relatively speaking) Micheaux embraced the bourgeois values of the dominant society. His male protagonists tend to be self-made men. In several films they are either a homesteader or prospector, seemingly utilising Micheaux’s own earlier experiences. His arguments are for equality within the system. Dr Vivian clearly embraces the emerging imperial ideology of the USA. He proudly tells Sylvia of the Negroes’ role in the US adventures in Cuba and Mexico.

But Micheaux is not just a dissident black voice. A remarkable aspect of the film is the centrality and action of the heroine. In Griffith’s films women are idealised by men, saved by men and then married and protected by men. Sylvia travels, fundraises and fends off attacks on her own. She is an independent woman. Dr Vivian, a student of social affairs, persuades Sylvia to his point of view, but he does this through study and debate. Sylvia may be the victim of patriarchal violence, but she clearly confronts it.

It will be seen from the geographic plotting of the film that Micheaux also tackles the question of the South. Sylvia’s travels between North and South expose the particularly vicious nature of white supremacy in the southern states. However, Micheaux is also clear about the limits of northern liberalism. A wry intertitle reads:

‘At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist – though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.’

The performances and Micheaux’s mise en scène are predominantly within the conventions of the mainstream. The film offers an equivalent melodrama to Griffith. His contemporary Negro society has a fairly clear split between reputable and disreputable. Larry and his criminal associates are defined in anti-social terms, and receive the appropriate melodramatic punishment. Another aspect of Negro society is the religious trend. The Bostonian matriarch who opposes funding a black school proposes instead that money be given to a local minister and preacher. He preaches that Negroes should stay in their place and is clearly antithetical to the modern aspiring Negroes like Dr Vivian. He and his congregation are also characterised in the melodramatic performance similar to the Negroes in Griffith’s epic.

The plotting relies on melodramatic coincidences familiar from earlier film melodrama. Dr Vivian meets Sylvia when he sees her robbed in the street. And Dr Vivian rediscovers Sylvia through treating the fatally wounded Larry. At the climax of the film Sylvia learns about her parentage – “mixed race”. These characters are really melodramatic types rather than psychologically rounded individuals.

Visually the films share the style of earlier film melodrama. The staging is straightforward, with characters placed within simple changing settings. The standard shot is the mid-shot, with the action played straight to camera. The lighting is mainly naturalistic, but clearly limited. Because of this, many scenes have a low-key look. Micheaux’s choice of shots utilises a simple range and selection. He does use close-ups rather than the iris technique found in Griffith (iris shots tend to introduce or close sequences). He also follows the newly developed system of continuity, using shot, reverse shot and on- and off-screen actions matching.

His editing is the most distinctive use of technique. He parallels Griffith in his intercutting between characters and actions, both in order to generate drama and also to make comment. The manhunt and lynching is an incredibly powerful presentation. And the cross-cutting with an attempted rape in a different setting increases the critical power. This arrangement of cuts also presents the reality of lynching and murders for southern Negroes, and the rape and incest that accompanied this. Griffith’s inversion of the exploitation of black people after the Civil War is here re inverted by Micheaux, and he uses Griffith’s most notable technique to present his rebuttal.

Within Our Gates had a far more chequered career than The Birth of a Nation. Whereas the Griffith epic survives relatively unscathed, Micheaux’s riposte is heavily mutilated. This would seem to be a direct outcome of the dominance of Hollywood, and the oppressed cinema of the ‘race cinema’. Even so, it suggests a more complex audience experience in this period than might seem from the iconic status in which The Birth of a Nation is held.

Written, directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Book and Film Company

Existing print 5935 feet (six reels, originally seven or eight reels). Running time of 100 minutes at 16 fps.

Cast: Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Charles D. Lucas (Dr Vivian), Jack Chenault (Larry Pritchard), Flo Clements (Alma Pritchard).

Note, this is a shorter version of the discussion of the film in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’, Auteur 2014.

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The 4th Nitrate Picture Show

Posted by keith1942 on June 1, 2018

This Festival was held between May 4th and May 6th at the George Eastman Museum in upper New York State. The Eastman Museum is now one of the few places where one can see 35mm film prints on the stock that was once the standard for cinema, the flammable and luminous nitrate. The Museum’s Dryden Theatre was crowded for most of the weekend with archivists, critics and fans enjoying the distinctive image that the format offers.

Prior to the actual Festival, on the Thursday evening, we had a treat with a screening of Hamlet (1948) from a Library of Congress print. Lawrence Olivier’s film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s major masterpieces is a fine piece of work. He and his supporting cast are excellent. The play has been cut from its original length, but Olivier is a master of adaptation. The art design and cinematography are great to watch even though the technical standards of the period were more limited than now. The sound is equally well done and includes in the opening of the drama Olivier voicing the ghost of the dead king. The print showed up well on the nitrate stock. The frequent chiaroscuro looked good and the cast and their lighting had that silvery quality found on early stock.

As in previous years the actual programme was only unveiled on the Friday morning. This is one aspect of the Festival with which I have little sympathy. So we walked into Rochester centre to wander round the excellent second-hand bookshop there [Greenwood Books]. I watch the weight of my cases before I leave England because I know I shall succumb to the temptations in an extensive film section together with a wide range of other subjects.

The afternoon included two presentations. One was the annual James Card Memorial Lecture presented by Paul C. Spehr from the Library of Congress. James Card was the first curator of film at George Eastman and founded the collection there. Appropriately Paul talked about the history of archive collection at the Library of Congress. This has been a varied and at time haphazard affair. Early films were deposited [but not uniformly] on paper prints. And these were forgotten and only saved from decay in the 1940s. Even then whilst there was a copyright acquirement on film there was not a mandatory policy of collection. It is only in the last few decades that a mandatory deposit of film has become effective. So the Library’s collection, augmented in the 1990s by that of the American Film Institute, has some great films preserved but also lacks some key titles.

I should add that I retuned from Rochester via Washington DC. The Library of Congress has a memorial Mary Pickford Theater in it’s Madison building. I was fortunate that this was in a week in which one of the archive prints was screened, 711 Ocean Drive (1951). t is a delightful but small cinema on the third floor. And, as is usually the case, we veiwed a good 35mm print.

The first set of screenings at George Eastman were short films on nitrate. The programme commerced with Symphony of a City / Människor I stad (1947). This film, directed by Arne Sucksdorff, presented a day in Stockholm and the film won the Best Short Subject (One reel) at the 1949 Academy Awards. It was the Academy Award print that we viewed. We had enjoyed a Sucksdorff film in 2017, but that was a rural and night-time drama. This was a poetic treatment of the city, very much in line with the cycle of ‘city symphonies’ of the 1920s and 1930s. The film was in good condition with a rich contrast in the black and white imagery.

Father Hubbard’s Movietone Adventures: Lost Lake (1944). The ‘glacier’ priest’ was a member of the Jesuit Order who became famous for his explorations in Alaska from the late 1920s. He was a featured in several Fox Movietone shorts, a newsreel series that began in 1928. It used the Fox Movietone optical sound-on-film system. This later episode used Cinecolor, This was a subtractive two-colour system, one of a number of processes in the early development of colour on film. In this film Father Hubbard goes looking for a lost lake under an Alaskan glacier. With his companion the priest wends his way over ice and through crevasses, the latter seemed a rather dangerous route for exploration. Cinecolor produced fair results in bright colours like red but did not re-produce the whole colour spectrum. Whilst the expedition and commentary were conventional the print itself, from the Academy Film Archive, looked vibrant.

Lowell Thomas’ Movietone Adventures: Along the Rainbow Trail (1946). Another from the C20th Century Fox series, this time in brilliant Technicolor. Lowell Thomas was a long-time broadcaster who regularly narrated Fox Movietone shorts, He was also famous for his ‘discovery of T.E. Lawrence and, later in his career, his involvement in the development of Cinerama. The film includes ‘riding’ the rapids on the San Juan River in Colorado and then a hike to an impressive natural formation known as the Rainbow Bridge. Thomas’s narration is fairly conventional for the period but the landscape, especially the great red cliffs, looks impressive in Technicolor.

Our Navy (1918) was the only silent film in the programme and it was a pleasure to hear Phil Carli providing a lively accompaniment at the piano. This George Eastman Museum print was tinted and toned and in fair condition. There were some impressive shots of Dreadnoughts at sea but essentially it was a conventional display of the US navy and the film-maker’s patriotic zeal.

Let’s Go to the Movies (1949) was the first in a series by the Academy of shorts designed to celebrate the art and craft of motion pictures: we had a later film from the series in 2017. This film celebrated Hollywood films from the 1920s to the then present. There were clips of important films and stars, all designed to impress audiences at a time when the studios were facing severe problems.

The pick of the programme was Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937) in a print from the Museum of Modern Art. Only six minutes in length this is fine example of the work of this talented animator. Made for the General Post Office, officially the film was an advertisement for the role of the service in trade. In Lye’s hands it became a dazzling tapestry of colours, full of symbolism and metaphor.. Lye worked from existing film stock, turning the footage into a montage of bright coloured fragments. The sound track offered vibrant dance music from the Lecuona Cuban Band. The nitrate print was in fine condition and provided one of the highlights of the weekend.

The Friday early evening screening is traditionally a foreign language print and we were treated to an early Ingmar Bergman film, Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951). The US release had a changed title of ‘Illicit Interlude’, rather anachronistic: the Swedish title with ‘karlek’ suggests ”dear-play’. Much of the film presents a youthful romance in flashback. The main character, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is a star ballet dancer. Between flashbacks we see rehearsals, the ballet and post-ballet sequences of a performance of ‘Swan Lake’, [more on ‘play’). Her flashbacks concern a summer romance that ends tragically and the flashbacks are motivated by a diary record of the summer. However, the films ends with an upbeat finale in the present as Marie lays to rest the ghosts from her past. I think it is the first Bergman film with recognisable authorial narrative and characterisations. The majority of sequences were filmed in an archipelago over water and islands, and the dappled woods, sun-lit rocks and changing water hues were a real pleasure on nitrate. The print was from Kansallinen auidovisuaalinen instituutti {KAVI Finland]. The Brochure included several contemporary reviews of which my favourite was from the ‘New York Herald Tribune’:

“Some of the action and nuances of dialogue are a bit daring by American movie standards but the whole thing is played in such a frank and open-hearted manner that it never gives offence.” (Otis L. Guersey, October 27, 1954).

The late film, starting at 10 p.m. was the 1938 Holiday, directed by George Cukor for Columbia Pictures and starred Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. The two leads and supporting cast were good but I was not convinced by the script. The Cary Grant character, Johnny, is supposedly a free-thinking individual immune from desires for wealth and status. The original play by Philip Barry seems to have had a darker tone,

“divorcee and infidelity, chronic drunkenness, self-destructive tendencies. (Patrick McGilligan, ‘George Cukor’, 1991).

All these crises are played down with comic eccentricity. Partly for this reason I found the Grant character unconvincing. Katherine Hepburn, who had played the role of Linda on Broadway, worked better for me. The film itself is well produced in terms of design and cinematography. The print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive was reasonably good. It was also tinted in a sepia tone, a rare technical finish. And the film did look good in the screening.

Saturday morning saw only one film, The Razor’s Edge (1946). This was adapted , fairly faithfully, from a novel by Somerset Maugham.

“The novel’s title comes from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad, given in the book’s epigraph as: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to “enlightenment” is hard.” (Wikipedia).

The protagonist Larry has suffered a trauma through the death of a friend in World War I. He rejects the standard US pursuit of wealth and status to seek meaning in life. Along his odyssey he finds an answer in ancient Indian mystical philosophy: a point where the novel crosses over with James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizons’. The other main character provides foils for Larry’s ruminations and values.

The film starred Tyrone Power as Larry. The protagonist suited Power’s persona, which whilst often swashbuckling is also frequently divided psychologically. I found him more convincing as a social outsider than Grant’s Johnny. His main foil is a New England snob, Elliott, who is also a Roman Catholic; played with a fine acerbic tone by Clifton Webb. Herbert Marshall was engaging as the writer (Maugham) though his commentary was much reduced from the book. The Indian visit seemed more like the Buddhist Monastery in the film of Lost Horizons (1937). But the film does retain much of Maugham’s cynical characterisation, despite the mysticism. Opposite Tyrone Power are the young Anne Baxter, Sophie  [sympathetic] and Gene Tierney as Isabel [manipulative and unsympathetic]. Tierney enjoyed some of the best sequences in the film with a character that shared some traits with Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). The film was directed by Edmund Golding, an underrated director in Hollywood. He works well with actor and made several titles with Power. And he works well with the cinematography. There are frequent finely executed tracking shots which give the film an continuing flow as years and settings change. There was also good production design and a generally suitable score. This was Gene Tierney’s fourth appearance in a Nitrate Picture Show programme; [Leave her to Heaven, Laura (1944) and Night and the City (1950). Who is the unpublicised fan at the Museum? The official explanation was given that because Tierney worked at C20th Fox she benefits from the extensive Fox Archive at UCLA. The flaw in the argument is that this well-preserved print came from the Academy film Archive.

Then lunch. This year the Museum bar was augmented by food trucks out front. Fortunately whilst there was quite an amount of rain over the weekend it was absent in the meal breaks.

After lunch we enjoyed a print from the Narodni filmy archiv in Prague, Mlhy Na Blatech / Mist of the Moors (1943). This was a rural drama on fairly conventional lines.

“One of the most important components of the film is the nature, which ceases to be a mere stage for its plot – it serves almost as an autonomous plot agent.” (Festival Brochure).

This was true. The characters did not generate much concern for me, but the landscapes certainly held one’s attention . There were sequences where these landscape, with trees, hillocks and ponds showed up well on nitrate and shots of the lake covered in mist..

There followed an early Anthony Mann western, Winchester ’73 (1950). This is not Mann’s finest work but James Stewart, displaying the psychotic side of his character that was bought out in Mann’s films, is excellent. The film manages to include a shooting completion, Indians and cavalry, a bank robbery and an exciting finale. There are some fine landscapes and at the end an intense struggle between brothers on a steep cliff. It was some years since I had seen the film and I was surprised how much ammunition was expended in this struggle. One of the pleasures of the film is a cameo by Dan Duryea as Waco Jonny Dean, smoothly villainous. The one female part, with Shelley Winter as Lola, is not well written. The print came from the Library of Congress. It looked pretty good but did suffer from some warping which affected the focus.

The day ended with a real treat, a nitrate print of the marvellous Powell and Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948). I remember Ken Brownlow in a broadcast comparing silent film to ballet: this sound film is a tour-de-force of movement and colour. Apart from the brilliant ballet shot with great skills by Jack Cardiff, there are the pleasures of the acting/dancing with a terrific performance as a Svengali impresario by Anton Walbrook. The print was quite worn and the shallow focus was more noticeable than I remember. But the Technicolor was vibrant and the recurring tones set off the melodrama. In fact the projection relied on two prints, partly from a George Eastman Museum print, and for the final two reels a personal copy belonging to Martin Scorsese. The rationale for the change was a slight sound problems. I did think that the final two reels were of slightly better quality.

Sunday morning is usually the slot for a film noir, a genre which, with its chiaroscuro, suits the palette of nitrate. This year we had Cry of the City, a 1948 RKO film directed by Robert Siodmak. The film’s lead was Richard Conte as petty gangster Martin Rome. He is hospitalised and trying to avoid a murder rap. His nemesis, Lieutenant Candella, is played by Victor Mature.

“The principals are two men who had the same start in life – they were both of Italian parentage, came from poor families, and lived in the same rundown district; one made easy money the wrong way, the earned a small salary and did it the hard way …” (quoted in the Festival Brochure).

This is a conventional plot line, typical for crime stories of the period. The weakness is the casting of Victor Mature as Italian/|American, which he is palpably not. However he is good as a humane cop. Conte is standout as the gangster, exuding his regular charisma. The noir elements are only partially there. We have the victim hero, the world of chaos and the flashbacks. But there is not really a femme fatale though Rome does have an obsession that leads to his doom. The black and white cinematography by Lloyd Ahern is excellent and was striking in a good nitrate print.

The afternoon film was a Soviet musical, a rarely seen genre. The director was Eisenstein’s assistant from the silent era Grigoriy Aleksandrov; he made several film in this genre; the most famous Volga – Volga (1938) was a personal favourite of Joseph Stalin. Moscow Laughs (Vesolye Rebyata, 1934) offers a plot which centres on an a musical shepherd who is mistaken for a famous visiting conductor. The film opens in Odessa and there are some well done set-ups and a fine travelling shot on a local beach. There is a splendid sequence where the animals invade a local bourgeois reception creating chaos: the sequence offers almost surreal incidents. Later the ‘conductor’ takes his orchestra to a Moscow theatre. The latter stages are rather hammy and a little clunky. This is not socialist realism: more like a embryo effort for a new genre.

“When the Muscovites produce a film which does not mention Dnieprostroy, [a reference to a major hydroelectric construction under the Planned economy], ignores the class struggle and contains no hint of editorial Marxism, it immediate becomes one of the great events ODF international cinema. “New York Times quoted in the Festival Brochure).

In fact the class struggle is in the film, but in a minor key. The review demonstrates how little comprehension US critics often bought to Soviet films. I did speculate that the chaos created by the animals in a mansion of the bourgeoisie was not only class revenge but a subtle critique of the downplaying of political struggle in socialist realism.

The print’s distinction was that the film was restored in 1958 on surviving nitrate stock, making it the most recent film on nitrate seen at the Festival. The restored print apparently followed the original closely but some of the sound track was re-dubbed. The print came from Österreichischen Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum] who have quite a collection of Soviet prints.

This bought us to the ‘Blind Date’ screening. With even more coyness than over the programme the title of this film is only revealed as it runs on-screen. To tantalise the audience a single still is included in the Brochure as a clue. I have consistently failed to guess any of these correctly. In fact, this year’s was a second attempt. The still had appeared in the Brochure of the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show, but not the film as it was replaced by Ramona (1928), a wonderful screening with live music by Phil, Carli. In fact, this turned out to be nearly as memorable.

There was a ripple of response when the shot/still appeared in an early scene, a hole waiting repair on an upside down curragh used by The Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous docudrama from 1934. This is an epic portrait of a small isolated community on the edge of the Atlantic. We saw the central family fighting the rough seas, fishing for giant sharks, and laying out sparse potato patches on the inhospitable terrain. This was a fine demonstration of the virtues of nitrate. The roaring seas, the glistening foam, the sun-lit cliffs and shadowed rocks all looked magnificent. It was a high quality print of a striking film. The print was gifted to the George Eastman Museum by the Flaherty estate in 1964. It would appear that this was a print that had not experienced the variable treatment in exhibition and looked really fine.

The Festival Brochure includes details of the prints including the shrinkage. It is now reckoned that nitrate prints have a longer shelf life than acetate prints, whilst comparatively digital dies in childhood. But nitrate prints do shrink over time; it is reckoned that once shrinkage reaches 1% projection becomes extremely difficult or impossible. However, Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo had a shrinkage 1.15% and looked fine when projected. This is one of the difficulties faced by the projection team who also work with Projectors that contain safety features in case of fire. So there was frequent applause for the team during the Festival. We also had digital sub-titles for several films but I thought the Museum has not yet mastered the technology as on several occasions the English titles went out of sync with the foreign dialogue. Not a serious problem.

We had a full and rewarding weekend. Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 3rd to May 5th. This means it will fall on several important birthdays, notably that of Karl Marx. I suggested that a good title for next year would be Fame is the Spur (1947), a film by the Boulting Brothers which includes a rare feature, a photograph of Marx on the wall of a Manchester bookshop. Or there is May 3rd, the birthday of Mary Astor. It would be great to have a nitrate print of The Maltese Falcon (1941) or even Red Dust (1932).

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Ménilmontant, France 1926.

Posted by keith1942 on May 29, 2018

This title was screened at e Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 in ‘The Canon Revisited’. We watched a DCP sourced from a 35mm distribution print. The film had been re-edited by a distributor adding intertitles in the 1928: we saw the original version without intertitles. And alternative title translates as ‘The Hundred Steps’.

The film is an early example of what became known as ‘French impressionist film’. The actual story is conventional and melodramatic. Two sisters who move from a rural town to Paris are the objects of passion by a young ‘Lothario’. This results in one sister becoming pregnant and the other falling into prostitution. Late in the film the two separated sisters meet in the streets, both sad victims.

There is a definite cross-over with D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). In fact some critics compared the performance of the younger sister (Nadia Sibirskaia) to that of Lillian Gish. She also plays in a Griffith-type sequence, when pregnant and starving she is given dry bread by a tramp sharing a park bench.

What made the film stand out was the style, which features many of the techniques that became common in impressionist films.

There are sequences of violence in rapid montage, of dreamlike multiple superimpositions and lap dissolves (all done in camera), of documentary like impressions …, of classical continuity editing.” (Richard Abel quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The director, Dimitri Kirsanoff, seems to have done much of the hand-held camera work, which is another feature of the film. There are frequent scenes set in actual Paris streets, often after rain, or doused by the production: glistening cobble stones that must have looked great on nitrate.

Kirsanoff was Estonian who migrated to Paris. His father died in the Russian Revolution which seems to have darkened his views. He disliked ‘Potemkin’ but rated Stroheim. His helpmate was the film’s leading actor, Nadia Sibirskaia (originally a Breton Geneviève Lebas). They acted together in an earlier of his films, L’Ironie du destin (1921), now lost. Whilst Ménilmontant was a success after a screening at the avant-garde venue Théâtre du Vieux Colombier Kirsanoff’s career was caught between the conflicting pressures of commercial demands and avant-garde values. He made several more films but failed fine a niche in which to work consistently.

This title was screened in a double bill with Louis Delluc’s Fièvre (1921). The Catalogue offered the legend that Ménilmontant was transferred to digital at 18 fps and looked fine. Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco provided piano accompaniments to the films; both played music that was appropriate and set off the tenor of the titles.

I was able to revisit the film in May when it was screened from a 35mm print. The print was fine but the accompaniment was a problem. There was a piano, which offered sparse accompaniment which suited the film. However the dominant sounds were pre-recorded sounds and live Foley sounds. The pre-recorded sounds including rain and street noises. The live Foley offered aural representation of actions on screen. The nadir of this was when the sound of the munching of bread on the park bench was recreated. It is recorded that some silent screenings used sound machines and similar. But I cannot believe that such literal sound recreation happened for avant-garde films and/or at the Colombier. What made the practice even odder was that the afternoon of films opened with silent Laurel and Hardy titles: a pair of comics where live Foley sound could have been a successful addition.

So this is a rare occasion for me where digital trumps ‘reel’ film.

Posted in French film 1920s | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Die schwarze Loo / The Black Dancer, Germany 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on April 10, 2018

This film was screened in the programme of ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ at the 2017 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This was a vehicle for a major star of the period, Maria Orska. It was directed by Max Mack for the pioneer producer Jules Greenbaum at his Berlin studio.

The English title would seem to be misleading. Orska was not black in the contemporary sense and the word more likely refers to her social position and he outsider status. A German friend, Bodo Schönfelder, gave me some advice regarding the words and their usage in the period. This throws a light on the film title and its possible denotative and connotative meanings at the time.

“The name Loo could be an abbreviation, shortened or an invention to put the person in line with woman with names like Lou, Lulu, or Lola, to promise erotic adventures.: loo is a ‘dirty’ abbreviation of Louise. The most well-known example in German film history is Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola. The Hitchcock film Stage Fright (1950) in Germany was titled Die Rote Lola (The Red Lola) for obvious reasons.

The attribute black could refer to several things: ‘deep black hair’, either for the person in the film. (here she is a Gypsy) or the actress/dancer. Maria Orska had real very dark hair and appeared in public or on stage in this way and was known for this.

A second line of possibilities for the meaning of black concerns specially designed or selected dresses for women, with an erotic component too. Both hair and dress, at least in German culture, can have a dangerous erotic aspect. There were a lot of cheaply made paintings of very dark haired gypsy women with burning eyes. Pola Negri is an example: ‘The Black Pola’. Pola is a real German name, but here it is alluding to her Polish origin.

There is also the possibility that the newspapers and magazines referred to Maria Orska as ‘the’ or ‘a black dancer’ for her stage performances. Valeska Gerd, a dancer, was the woman who ran the bordello in The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925), and was labelled as ‘The Black Dancer’ for her stage performances. Since the name Loo makes no sense outside the German speaking culture, most likely the English version changed the name to the descriptive term.”

This certainly fits with the film as I experienced it. We first meet Loo (Orska) in a street as she enters a bar and offers to dance for money. She is clearly an object of erotic fascination for the predominately male audience here. And the bar itself, below street level, is cheap and tawdry. Later in the film a fight causes a police raid and Loo is is arrested, but later released. She dances with her dark hair flowing loose with suggestions of erotic promise, something reinforced by the style of her dancing.

The notes in the Festival catalogue by Karl Wratschko make this point.

“As anyone studying her work today will realise, Orska possessed a genuine erotic charisma which she used to great effect in her notoriously risqué performances.”

In fact the film offers both erotic and risqué pleasures whilst at the same time presented a moral fable. Loo is seen by a young, unknown composer. He is smitten with Loo and offers her food and shelter. She stays with him whilst he works at composing what should be his Opus Magnus. Her dancing inspires the music including that of a Hungarian theme. He dies just as he has completed this work: Loo is absent at this point whilst briefly arrested..

Loo returns to dancing and finds a new protector. However, the young composer has left Loo his possessions, including a trunk which contains his manuscript and a letter to Loo begging her to see his work and his name are published,. By the end of the film Loo is in a morally acceptable relationship and is following the final request of her dead lover.

The film style is typical for the period with the action and characters presented mainly in long shot. The print retained the tinting from the period,. Including a red tint for a moment of erotic drama. The film uses symbolism, so a superimposed skull foretells the death of the composer. And later in the film more superimposition is used as Loo dreams of her dead lover.

Orska’s character dominates the film. The Catalogue quotes a contemporary review:

“Maria Orska, the brilliant, spirited actress manages her role with such verve and, at times, diligence and power, that everything else around her fades.” (The ‘Neues Kino-Rundschau, May 1918).

The print, of four reels, from Deutsche Kinemathek was reasonably good quality. And the piano accompaniment was played by Daan van den Hurk.

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Prospecting for Gold / Sulla Via Dell’Oro [aka The Human Bridge], Italy 1913.

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a two-reel film screened as part of the programme ‘Beginnings of the Western’ at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and focussing on European productions. It was made at Cines and the director was [probably] Baldassarre Negroni.

“This story of a disrupted romance and a gold claim that provokes a bitter family feud is set in a landscape that is perfect for lots of horseback riding – often dry and flat, sometimes hilly and rocky, and at one crucial point marked by high cliffs.” Richard Abel in the Giornate Catalogue.

|The two families are the Sampson and the Woods. Sat the start of the film John Wood (Amleto Novelli) is sweet on Kate Sampson (Hesperia). In a reverse gold-digging role he spurns her when he realises that her family is poor. The tables are turned when Kate’s brother Sam (uncredited actor) finds a gold seam and stakes a claim. Instead of renewing his wooing John and his family attempt to take the find by force. They fire the Sampson buildings and then size Kate and her father (Ignazio Lupi). However, Sam first shoots John’s sister Lea and then nurses her. In gratitude she allows Kate and her father to escape.

The pursuit by the Woods leads us to the high cliffs and a spectacular sequence where one of the Sampson’s forms a human bridge over a chasm so they can escape. The climax of the film is a duel between John and Sam. A remore3wsful John has the opportunity to shoot Sam but desists. In an unexpected ending John and Kate again form a couple as do Lea and Sam.

This is clearly full-blooded melodrama. The extreme sequence is when the Woods attempt to discover the whereabouts of the claim by burying Kate and her father up to their necks in sand. But father and daughter refuse to divulge the secret. The ambush of the couple has the film under-cranked to heighten the speed of the sequence.

The cinematography makes fine use of the settings. The ‘human bridge’ sequence is filmed in long shot and presented as silhouette: with Sam and one other forming the bridge over which father an, mother and daughter crawl to safety. The film also make excellent use of tinting. The fire of the Sampson’s house is tinted red, adding to the drama. Only the final reconciliation and the newly formed new couples seems somewhat far-fetched.

We enjoyed a 35mm print from the Desmet Collection at the EYE Filmmuseum. The Dutch titles were provided with a translation and Donald Sosin accompanied the drama at the piano.

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Weimar Revisited at the Berlinale

Posted by keith1942 on March 12, 2018

The Berlinale, or Berlin International Film Festival, is one of the great Film Festivals. It has a vast and varied programme. Alongside the offerings of world cinema, mainstream productions, documentaries and experimental fare are well designed retrospective programmes. This year, in a treat for cinephiles, the Festival offered a focus on the era of Weimar Cinema, German film production from 1918 to 1933.

“In the heyday of German film-making, a variety of styles developed such as Expressionism and New Objectivity, inspired in part by American methods, a division of labour developed which led to greater professionalism and specialisation in many film production jobs.”

‘Expressionism’ is fairly well-known as a film movement, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari  (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) is the famous example. The ‘New Objectivity’ was an artistic movement which in some ways was a reaction against Expressionism. The films espoused a more naturalistic style, in keeping with their socially conscious themes. A late and favourite example of mine is Menschen am Sonntag  (People on Sunday, 1930).

Some of the titles from the Weimar period are rightly famous; The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924) by F. W. Murnau with Karl Freund; and Metropolis (1927) from Ufa and Fritz Lang; both films were trailblazers of the Silent Era. But this retrospective offers a fresh insight,

“But with ‘Weimar Cinema Revisited’, that prolific period of German film itself becomes the subject of a review for the first time. The attention is primarily on work that is often omitted from the core list of Weimar films.”

There were 28 titles and 18 short films screened over the ten days of the Festival. I have seen a variety of early German films but I had only see three of four of these titles before. So the retrospective offered a feast of new cinematic treats. The majority of titles in the programme were screened twice. Many were from the silent film period and had live musical accompaniments. There are several restoration screening in digital formats but 16 of the features were on 35mm film with one title on 16mm. There were three strands to the programme.

Exotic – worlds are portrayed in a variety of ways and genres. Travelogues, already very popular in early cinema were also a common genre in the Weimar era.”

There were early ethnographic films and traits of ‘Orientalism’.

“The mountain film, at the time a primarily German genre, can also be seen as a variety of the exotic.”

Quotidian – In turning to the New Objectivity of the second half of the 1920s, elements of contemporary reality and social issues were incorporated into the narratives of many films.”

The programme included titles by the film-maker Gerhard Lamprecht, I saw several of Lamprecht’s films in a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato and he appeared a talented and socially conscious film-maker of the period.

History – Lavishly produced period films, such as Der Favorit der Königen (The Queen’s Favourite, 1922) were very popular in the Weimar Republic.”

We also had an early version of the much characterised Ludwig II of Bavaria which offered an interesting comparison with the several later versions.

The Features: [in the order that I saw them].

Der Katzensteg (Regina, or the Sins of the Father) was released in 1927. It was directed by Gerhard Lamprecht and adapted from a novel of the same name from 1890 by the noted author Hermann Sudermann. It is a period drama set in the times of the Napoleonic wars. The novel’s popularity would seem to be confirmed by their being three other film adaptations and it seems that films set in the Napoleonic period were popular in Germany in the 1930s. The key characters are a Baron and his son, Boreslav (Jack Trevor); a Vicar whose daughter, Helene (Louise Woldera0, is romantically involved with Boreslav; and at the other end of the social scale a drunken coffin-maker whose daughter, Regine (Lizzy Arna), works at the Baron’s castle. The first act of the film presents events in 1797 with the French invading Prussia. There is an act treason which sets in motion a chain of catastrophic events. The acts of the fathers haunt the children.

By 1813 the wars near their end but revenge continues to blight the lives of the children. The conflicts come together in a powerful and tragic conclusion. This film was a dramatic tour de force though if often used conventional situations. Stylistically it was filmed with real panache. In particular the opening sequences involving night-time conflicts between French and Prussian troops were really gripping.

The film was projected from a 16mm print from the Deutsche Kinemathek. It was old and the definition was only fair but one could still enjoy the excellent use of the moving camera and effects like superimposition. The screening also benefited from a fine accompaniment by Maud Nelissen. Much of her music offered a slow and sombre accompaniment and there were finely timed silences at key moments.

KameradschaftLa tragedie de la mineComradeship (1931) is a famous German/French co-production. It was directed by the highly regarded George Wilhelm Pabst. Based on a mining disaster of 1906 the film shows how German rescue teams rush to aid their French comrades after an explosion. The film opens by stressing the borders that separated France and Germany, including a reference to the French occupation of the Ruhr industrial area in 1921.

The digital restoration was introduced by Julia Wallmüller from the Deutsche Kinemathek. She explained that there had been two versions on release, German and French. The German release did not fare well but the French version was popular. In Germany a final ironic ending was cut leaving a more upbeat conclusion. The restoration now included that ending.

The film is bi-lingual, German and French. It is extremely well done and blends effectively the actual film footage with studio recreations. We follow the general direction of the disaster but also are encouraged to identify with sympathetic individuals from both communities. The underground sequences combine almost documentary representation with tension, pathos and relief. The film focuses on the working class communities either side of the border and there is a sense of class and craft solidarity. The management and authorities remain in the background. The changed ending in Germany was symptomatic of the future when the organised German working class failed to halt the rising Fascist Party. Predictably the Nazis did not like the film.

Der Kampf ums Matterhorn / Fight for the Matterhorn (1928) dramatizes events leading up to Edward Whymper’s famous ascent of the key Alpine peak. The first six reels of the film chronicle the relationship between Whymper (Peter Voß) and Italian guide Jean-Antoine Carrel (Luis Trenker). Carrel lives in the village of Breuil with his wife Felicitas (Marcella Albani), his mother (Alexandra Schmitt) and step-brother Giaccomo (Clifford McLaglen): plus two dogs. The mountain drama is filled out with a triangle of passion with Giaccomo attempting to stir up enmities because of his desire for Felicitas. I found this melodrama distracted from the main mountaineering narrative. It appeared to be an attempt to provide dramatic aspects to the false rumours that Whymper had cut a rope when the later tragedy occurred.

The mountain sequences, with early attempts on the Matterhorn by Carrel and Whymper, are excellent (this is 1860 and 1863). The film generally blends location work with studio shots effectively. And it enjoys striking panoramas across the Alpine mountains. The cast involved skilled mountaineers and there are impressive shots of climbing on rock faces and steep snow slopes.

The film also has memorable canine moments. The house dog, a terrier, at one point nips at the dancers during a village celebration. The outhouse dog, a Labrador-cross, has an epic sequence. It races over snow, ice and rocks to call Carrel to aid his wife who, fleeing Giaccomo, has fallen down a slope on the glacier.

In the last three reels the film moves to the tragic events of 1865. Following the record fairly closely we see the party led by Zermatt guide Michel Croz with Whymper and the competing party from the newly formed Italian Mountaineering Club led by Carrel. Whymper reaches the summit first but there is a fall on the way down with the loss of four lives. The ascent is well filmed though the latter stages are presented through an iris (a telescope – long shots): presumably as they were not able to film high up the mountain.

There follows the accusation of a cut rope against Whymper. Here the film dramatises and we see Carrel climb up the Matterhorn and return with the rope to vindicate Whymper. The drama here works better than in the earlier reels which provide a reference point. But again I found it distracted from the central mountaineering story which is visually stunning. The DCP had introductory titles explaining that the restoration relied on several different print versions. The restoration and transfer were at 4K which produced an excellent and well-defined image. I did think the location and reconstruction shots were distinguishable, down I assume to the harder edges of digital. We enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Maud Nelissen: she made the melodramatic scenes passable and the mountain sequences imposing. The film runs for 117 minutes. There are shorter versions, including a 9.5mm version of three reels.

Menschen im Busch, Ein Afrika-Tonfilm (1930). We had an introduction from a member of the Deutsche Kinemathek who provided the background and context to the film. The film-makers, Gulia Pfeffer and Friedrich Dalssheim, filmed in the interior of Togoland [later part of Ghana and the Togolese Republic]. The land had been a German colony before World War I and post-war it became a British Mandate: a method used by the British to grab land in many places. This political dimension was not addressed by the film. Whilst the film used footage shot on location the sound was dubbed in Berlin. It seems that migrants from the territory now living in Berlin were used to ‘voice’ the dialogue in the film. There is also some African singing and a musical score, the latter fairly European in style. The use of actual African voices was a first in ethnographic film; a parallel to Edgar Anstey’s film Housing Problems (1936).

The film opened with an introduction from the former German Governor. We had been warned that his comments were littered with what are now ‘politically incorrect’ descriptions. He compared the Africans to ‘children’ and described their culture as ‘inferior to European Civilisation’. All was not lost, because most of his talk was heard over images of the coast line of the territory. The opening was very well done, we watched fishing boats landing their cargoes, battling through the surf to the beach. This, like the rest of the film offered excellent camera shots and movements.

The film presented a day in the life of the Ewe people in Chelekpe village. In fact the majority of the film followed one family, a village man, his two wives and children. The narrative ran from daybreak to late evening. There were meals, work, and leisure. The village had a division of labour, both in harvesting and hunting, and in the technologically dependent activity of weaving. Animals were a full part of the village life: goats, pigs, chickens, and some smaller animals we could not identify. In the evening there was a religious/social dance ritual. This was accompanied by drumming as both men and women, some in special costumes, swayed and rotated. The dancing and drumming reached a frenzied climax before darkness fully fell. We viewed a 35mm sound print.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 1: Weltbrand (Part 1: World Afire) was directed by Urban Gad in 1920 and in a digital form ran 80 minutes. This was the first of two films adapted from a novel by Jacob Wassermann. I do not know the novel but the plot of the films suggested a vast picaresque narrative. The opening title explained that the film is set in 1905 in several European countries. Conrad Veidt plays the titular role. Christian is the son of a wealthy industrialist. He lacks purpose though he has secret desire for his engaged step-sister. Spoilt and lacking direction Christian is introduced to a popular Pairs-based dancer with whom he begins an affair. Eva (Lillebil Christensen) is a man-eater and later in the film she has another affair with a Grand Duke, [a stand-in for the Romanov Tzar]. This links the film to the Revolutionary Year of 1905, though it is not actually presented in name. In the course of the film we have become acquainted with anarchists and a secret group called ‘The Nihilists’: appropriately their political programme is never explained. They are involved in protests and suffer in the repression ordered by the Grand Duke. In one scene he watches a s a machine gun opens up on a civilian demonstration. In the later stages the plot develops round an envelope of secret papers. The story ends pretty badly for everyone, except the Grand Duke and his henchmen: but Christian does survive.

The film followed the style of many early films in this period. Full of parallel cutting between characters and events, often in very short scenes. These move at speed and it becomes quite complicated following the plot. It is however full of conventional tropes and stereotypes, and combines motifs from several familiar genres of the period. In that sense it was probably easy for a contemporary audience to follow. Stylistically the production is not that well done. The editing leaves a certain amount to be desired though it was not clear how much was due to missing footage. The cast are reasonable but it is not one of Veidt’s great performances though he plays a familiar persona.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 2: Die Flucht aus dem Goldenen Kerker (Part 2: The Escape from the Golden Prison, 1921) is a sequel. The ‘golden prison’ is Christian’s family home where he feels bored and guilty over his privileges. A different friend takes him to a working class district in the hope of excitement. This they find, and Christian assists, a poor prostitute attacked by her pimp. He thus meets a young social worker, Rose (Rose Müller). Partly due to her attraction and partly due to acquiring a social and religious conscience, Christian starts to ‘give all he has to the poor’. However, in this slum we find few ‘deserving poor’ and an amount of ‘undeserving poor’. The film resembles Part I in that once again the story ends badly for most characters.

This film has a coherent narrative thread and avoids the endless parallel cutting. So it works in a more constrained and effective manner. In addition, whilst the film has the same director as Part I, it has new scriptwriters. Most noticeably it has a new cinematographer, Willy Hameister. His work offers frequent high angle shots of the slums. The exterior use both low-key lighting and effective tinting. It looks much better than the first part. And there are some excellent set-pieces in the slum tenements as the mass of working class denizens are involved in varied agitations. Part 2 seems a much better film than Part 1.

Stephen Horne provided the accompaniment for both films. He worked effectively with Part 1 but Part 2 provided greater scope for drama and emotion. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist, so we had several instruments; one at least, the accordion, provided a musical motif for working class scenes in both films. Escape from the Golden Prison is a definite film to see but watching the whole two-part drama makes better sense and the contrasts alone are entertaining. Both films had been transferred to DCPs.

Der Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth, 1927) was a social comedy. The lead character, Traugott Bellmann (Reinhold Schünzel, who also directed the film), is a Member of Parliament who achieves fame by condemning centres of vice. He specifically names the night club ‘Heaven on Earth’. However, newly married, he discovers first that his new father-in-law sells the copious amounts of Champagne consumed in the club; then, that it belongs to his step-brother, not seen for years. His embarrassment creates problem in both his public and personal life.

The situation opens in a very witty manner with a delightful satire of parliamentary action. The night club itself is only mildly unseemly and hardly at all immoral. The main consumption is the champagne. The dancing girls are leggy but not overtly sexy. And the nudes on the drapery are really quite prim. The comedy in the club is probably stretched out too long: I found the humour and wit dissipated at times. But it come together in a great and comic climax And the scenes of the moral guardians and some of Bellmann’s discomfiture are very funny.

The film was screened from a pretty good 35mm print. Maud Nelissen provided a score that included light sequences, lively dances and touches of ragtime.

Mit der Kamera durch Alt-Berlin was a nine minute film from 1928 on 35mm screened prior to a feature.

“It finds traces of old Berlin in the modern city. It juxtaposes drawings and engravings made about 1800 with the 1928 reality.“

Central to the tour is water and the River Spree. The director is unknown.

Die Unehelichen, Eine Kindertragödie (Children of No Importance, 1926) is an example of a genre of the period addressing the exploitation and oppression of children and often dramatising a ‘child tragedy’. The director was Gerhard Lamprecht, but here in the socially conscious mode. I had seen this film before in a programme at I Cinema Ritrovato and it was more typical of the work of the director than Der Katzensteg.

We had an introduction by Daniel Meiller who explained that as well has having a long career in German film Lamprecht was also an avid collector of films and film memorabilia. He was a key person in advocating archives in post-war Germany. And his collection formed the basis of the Deutsch Kinemathek when it was set up in 1960.

The film centres on four children who have been placed with foster-parents. The adults are mainly interested in the income. The man drinks and is often violent, the woman is feckless. An early scene shows the trauma for the children when their pet rabbit is killed. The two older children are Lotte (Fee Wachsmuth) and Peter (Ralph Ludwig). Lotte succumbs to the poor treatment and dies. Peter is given hope by kindly neighbours and then a woman who is prepared to adopt him. However, this prospect recedes when Peter’s father, who works on a barge, turns up and wants his son as additional labour. Peter has to pass through a traumatic and climatic ordeal before the film closes.

“The basis for making the film was an official report from a society for the protection of children against exploitation and cruelty and socially committed director Gerhard Lamprecht brought to light a deplorable state of affairs that was widespread in the Weimar Republic.”

Seeing the film again I was impressed. This time it was a digital transfer rather 35mm. It is very well done and the children are convincing. However I did find that the narrative and representations were rather conventional and used stereotypes to a degree. Once again we have the ‘deserving’ and undeserving’ poor with not a great degree of nuance in the characterisation. The film does effectively offer contrasts. The film opens with a privileged child of a bourgeois household playing in the garden and watched, on the other side of the railings, by Lotte and Peter. Late in the film, when Peter appears to have found an equivalent home, he plays with friends in a well-appointed garden.

Frühling Erwachen (Spring Awakening, 1919) was another ‘Eine Kindertragödie’. However this film dealt with school students in their late teens: at a time before the ‘teenager’ had been invented. The film was based on a Franz Wedekind play dealing with the ‘sexual tragedy of youth’. There are a group of students but at the centre are Moritz (Carl Balhaus) and Melchior (Rolf van Goth). Moritz’s family would seem petty bourgeois. His father harbours ambitions beyond Moritz’s abilities. But Melchior, from a bourgeois family, [like Hubble in The Way We Were, 1973], is gifted and finds school life easy. We also follow the boys’ relationship with two girl students. Melchior has a close relationship with Wendla (Toni van Eyck) who lives alone with her mother. Whilst Moritz engages with Else (Ira Rina). Her father is a successful businessman. Ilse, the vibrant person in the group, organises a party at her home on one of his business trips. There is sexual experimentation. And a veiled description of this in a notebook causes Moritz to face expulsion, despite his innocence. This incident is the one that mainly determines the tragic outcome.

The film was directed by Richard Oswald. I have seen his films before and found him a pedestrian film-maker. Spring Awakening is well produced and the cast are good. But the drama only takes off in individual scenes; shots in the cemetery are well done. And the treatment of awakening sexuality is timid. There is a sequence by a river with a young couple: I deduced rather than knew that coitus occurred. Of course, there was Weimar censorship. But there are films, like those adapted from Wedekind’s other plays, that are more explicit.

We had a good 35mm print to watch. And Stephen Horne provided a well composed score that was complimentary.

Die andere Seite (The Other Side, 1931) was an early sound version of R. W. Sherriff’s 1928 play, ‘Journey’s End’. So we had a German cast playing the British soldiers on the Front Line in 1918. The lead actor was Conrad Veidt as the commanding officer, Richard Stanhope. Once I got used to the German language for ‘Tommies’ I was really involved. Intriguingly we had two German performances of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, one the English original and one a German variant.

The film follows the play very closely. Its makes really good use of the moving camera, high and low angle shots, sound effects and inserts shots. The claustrophobia of the dug-outs, the squalor of the trenches and the desolate landscape between the lines are very effective. I thought that it worked better than the 1930 British/US version. The last time I saw that film it struck me as rather studio bound, even with a pretty good cast. And I also found this version superior to the newly released British version in colour and widescreen. That film adds additional scenes, apparently to fill out the pilot. In fact these rather dissipate the drama. And Die andere Seite works better at placing the conflict and battle. In an early scene Stanhope shows the positions on the map and one has a clear sense of the lay-out of the opposing sides. We enjoyed an original 35mm sound print.

Opium (1919) is a film I had seen once before but this was a new restoration presented on digital. We had an introduction on this from Stefan Drößler and Andreas Thein. Using nitrate elements at the Düsseldorf and Munich Archives and at the Austrian Film Archive they achieved a longer version closer to the original. Notably they also reconstructed the vibrant tinting (lots of reds) of the film. This was a transformation from the version I saw a few years ago.

“Made during a censorship free period, Opium combined the thrill of the exotic with them titillation of the erotic . . .”

The film is full of scenes of indulgence in opium and the vivid and bizarre dreams that the smokers experience. These in particular stand out in the film,

“[Robert] Reinart and his cameraman Helma Lerski developed a brilliant, hallucinatory cinematic language . . .”

Another of Reinart’s films is Homunculus (1916), a serial about a Frankenstein creation. This also has vivid tinting and hallucinatory sequences. The plot of Opium is picaresque, taking us from the USA to China, to Europe, back to the USA, to India and back again. There are supposed scientific investigations and good deeds. But there are also extra-marital affairs, long-term revenge journeys and, predictably with drug addicts, hospitalisation and death. This is a bizarre but powerhouse film. Keeping, I would think, the audience agog for its 91 minutes.

Die Carmen von St Paul (Docks of Hamburg, 1928) is another late silent that I have seen before on film. Here it was a digital transfer, but the standard of these has been good. Like so many other films it enjoys a variation on the famous heroine of Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet. This version uses recognisable character alternatives and some of the plot. But it avoids the final tragedy of the opera. As the alternative title suggests the film make extensive use of the harbour and port at Hamburg: the ‘St Paul’ area is the red light district. There is an amount of location footage of ships, machines and workers and these create a bustling sense of the port, whilst outside of the working hours it becomes quieter but closer to noir settings.

Klaus (Willy Fritsch) works for a shipping company and finds himself on night duty. Thus he meets Jenny (Jenny Jugo). She is involved with a gang of smugglers, though they are as much involved in theft as contraband. Poor Klaus is smitten. However, Jenny is younger and less cynical than the original. Even so Klaus loses his job and becomes involved in the gang. Jenny is flirts on the edge of crime. She also performs at a local night club. One number is a mock cycling race by women in sparse ‘sportswear’. Later, when a rival for Klaus appears, a motor racing driver, Jenny coolly claims to be a ‘fellow sportsman’. The plot develops parallel to those in the opera but this is a seedy underworld of a [then] modern urban industrial area.

St Paul is the home of vice and the gang are what was then called ”harbour rats’. So we watch criminal acts and innocents branded as guilty. Some of this is quite conventional. But the club, like the harbour sequences, has a distinctive atmosphere which is convincing.

“[the film] imbues putative everyday scenario with the mythical aura of of a Brechtian ‘Jenny the Pirate’. Travelling shots along the waterfront lend the film an almost neo-realist character….”

The cast are generally good but is Jenny Jugo who stands out. She has an on-screen charisma from the moment she emerges from a wet male attire on Klaus’ ship. Another of her films worth seeing is Looping the Loop (Die Todesschleife, 1928).

Abwege (The Devious Path, 1928) was a second film directed by G. W. Pabst. We enjoyed an introduction by Stefan Drößler who provided a context for the film. It seems that in a parallel to the ‘Quota Quickies’ in Britain following the 1927 Film Act, cheaper German productions were made in this period to fulfil requirements for indigenous film screenings. The cinemas, like Britain, were dominated by the Hollywood product. I think this showed as the narrative of the film was stretched to fill out the 98 minutes of running time. But it looks good and the main part of Irene, the bored wife of a busy and successful lawyer, is played by Brigitte Helm. She looks superb and the supporting cast play out their characters extremely well. Deprived of her husbands attentions Irene embarks on alternative pleasures. These includes exotic night clubs, a possible affair and illicit substances. These exploits, especially a long sequence in a night club, are extremely well done.

“…the great realist of the Weimar-era cinema, uses a marital crisis to paint a shimmering portrait of society. Camerawork [by Theodor Sparkul] that is as unchained as Irene herself delves into a whirling world of luxury and vice.”

These scenes are more about visual pleasure than plot development, but they do entrance. The film ends up more moral than many of Pabst other films, with a light touch almost worthy of Ernst Lubitsch. The film was screened from a DCP which looked really good and the tinting was fair. And Richard Siedhoff, a young pianist from Weimar, provided a deft score.

Ihre Majestät die Liebe (Her Majesty, Love 1931) was sound film starring Franz Lederer as Fred, the younger brother in a family combine who possesses fatal charm but little ready capital. Lederer, a Czech-born actor, was a popular lead in German film in this period. One of his most notable appearances was in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929). To annoy his family Fred spurns a union with a wealthy investor and marries the barmaid at a night club he frequents. Lia (Käthe von Nagy) is already smitten with charming but feckless Fred. The family opposition mean that their romance has to surmount a series of obstacles. On the way the film satirises the attitudes of the snobbish bourgeoisie.

The film was directed by Joe May, a successful director and producer in German Cinema. He gave Fritz Lang his start in films and like him ended up in Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood quickly made a copy of this films with the same English-language title, also 1931. The film has delightful humour and some fine witty lines. Much of it is due to

“The supporting actors [who] are the stars in this tempestuous film operetta. In a mad dash to a surprise ending, a colourful chorus of song numbers, sketches and artistic tomfoolery put those minor roles at the centre of attention – “

One of these being Szöke Szakall, later S. Z. Sakall, amongst whose Hollywood films is Casablanca (1942, as Carl at the famous club). The screening offered a 35mm sound print.

Sprenbagger 1010 (1929) had its title translated to the memorable Blast Excavator 1010. The title refers to a new invention by young engineer Karl (Ivan Kobal-Samborsky). It will increase production at the mining company dramatically. I did wonder if the technology actually made sense, but in the film managers and colleagues find his design brilliant. And, indeed, later in the film it does appear to work, though this relies on editing separate shots in parallel.

“Set against the background of the Leuna Works complex and the coal fields of central Germany, first tie director Acház-Duisberg (son of the head of I. G. Farben) made an apologia for the age of the machine.”

Building the machine near a rich seam of coal means disrupting the tranquillity and livelihoods of a quiet pastoral setting. Predictably there is opposition, including within Karl’s own family. And the conflict is dramatised romantically as Karl is desired both by fellow engineer Olga (Viola Garden) and local land-owner Camilla (Ilse Stobrawa).

“The violent clash of rural idyll and industry, machinery and romanticism is matched by the cinematic collision of industrial reportage and melodrama.”

What stands out in the film is the cinematography by Helmer Lerski [again] and the editing. There are extensive sequences of montage, especially when we reach the dramatic climax. The film had an early sound track of music. The score by Walter Gronostay has been recreated for the 35mm print that we saw. However, it was mainly in the C19th orchestral tradition and I did not find that it matched the images. The credits included the young Fred Zinnemann as an assistant cameraman.

Das Abenteuer einer schönen Frau, Deutschland 1932: Regie: Hermann Kosterlitz

Das Abenteuer einer Schönen Frau (The Adventure of Thea Roland, 1932) starred Lil Dagover in the title role. She is an independently-minded woman and a successful sculptor. A new commission sends her looking for a suitable male model. She finds him at a local boxing gymnasium: boxers were a popular film type in this period. However, her chosen subject is Jerry (Hans Rehmann), an English policeman and police boxing champion visiting Berlin for a fight. Inevitably romance, or at least desire, evolves. Dagover convinces as the independent woman but Rehmann has his work cut out as the English Bobby. We do see him in one scene directing traffic in London.

The film works hard at generating humour. But what stands out is in the latter part Thea has a child whilst unmarried. Despite the social contempt she receives Thea sticks to her child and independent living. The conclusion is rather more in keeping with the then current mores but in the course of the narrative it seems that Thea is a ‘new woman’ and Jerry is a ‘new man’. There is a sense of equality in their relationship including in the care of their child.

We enjoyed a another good 35mm print. It is a film with some excellent production design including quite distinctive props, as in the nursery. The film was directed by Hermann Kosterlitz, later Henry Koster, whose films in Hollywood include several of generic similar titles such as My Man Godfrey (1957).

Das Blaue Licht, Eine Beglregende aus den Dolmiten (The Blue Light, A Mountain Legend from the Dolomites, 1932) was one of the most well-known titles in the retrospective. Leni Riefenstahl, having established her cinema presence acting in mountain films, now took on the mantle of director as well as star. In an introduction we were told that the film had been re-edited at different times. In the later 1930s the screenwriter, Béla Balázs, who was a known Marxist, lost his screen credit. However, the version screened now was from the personal collection left by Riefenstahl and this had provided the basis for a restoration presenting the film as originally released in 1932.

The film has a very simple plot but is blessed with some very fine mountain cinematography. Two climbers arrive in a mountain village to attempt the local massif. A picture catches their attention and they are told the legend of Junta. Decades earlier the young woman, an outsider in the village, is viewed with suspicion. The situation is exacerbated by a ‘blue light’ which has appears half-way up the mountain pinnacle that overlooks the village. The light first appeared after a massive avalanche and is visible at the time of a full moon. Several men from the village have died attempting to climb up to the light when it appears at night.

However, Junta climbs up a down with immunity and regards the light as personal treasure. A painter befriends her. And one night he and Junta set out for the source of the light. They are followed by a villager intent on also reaching the light. These are impressive mountaineering sequences. There is predictably a fall. But there is also a hidden grotto on the massif. It is here that there is an explanation of the magical light. But in solving this mystery the way is open for the villagers to exploit the mountain, leading inexorable to a tragedy which is the reason why Junta is still remembered.

Riefenstahl plays Junta as a type of ‘earth spirit’: in some ways the character is reminiscent of the parts she played in the films of Arnold Frank, a key exponent of the ‘mountain film ‘. The film was screened from a 2K DCP which provided an effective transfer of the film.

Ludwig der Zweite, König von Bayern (Ludwig II of Bavaria, 1932) was a sound portrait of this frequently-filmed C19th monarch. The film was subtitled ‘Destiny of an unfortunate man’ (‘Schicksal eines Unglücklichen menschen’). The film treats of the last decade of Ludwig’s life, when his obsession with building castles took full flight. So the only nod to Wagner is a portrait and a telegram announcing his death. As the Brochure notes Ludwig is surrounded by ‘fawning courtiers and officials.’ The political class attempt to occupy him by indulging his castle mania. But as his breakdown proceeds he is placed under the care of a psychiatrist. The ‘unfortunate’ king descends into paranoia and finally death.

The film was directed by William Dieterle who also plays Ludwig. His performance is impressive but the film struck me as repetitious. I cannot remember a film with so many dissolves: more than half the scene changes use this device. Many of the sets are impressive and Charles Sturmar’s cinematography is well done. But other characters remain ciphers. I think if I had not seen later versions by directed by Helmut Käutner (1955) and Luchino Visconti (1973) I would have found some of the narrative puzzling.

The Brochure notes that the film

“which did not hide Ludwig’s fascination with the naked male body drew intense criticisms from Bavaria. When the Bavarian censorship board refused to intervene, Munich’s police commissioner imposed a ban on showing it on the grounds that it was ‘a danger to public order’.

Ludwig has clearly exercised a fascination for film-makers as there is also an earlier title from 1922. We had a 35mm print and an excellent accompaniment by Günter Buchwald.

Brüder (Brothers, 1929) was a ‘proletarian’ film directed by Werner Hochbaum. The basis for the plot was a famous strike in Hamburg docks in 1896.

“Made on the eve of the global economic crisis, Werner Hochbaum’s look back at the failed Hamburg dock-workers strike is a reminder of the achievements in social welfare that the trade unions and social democracy brought about in the Weimar Republic. This film, Hochbaum’s feature début, received support from both the Unions and the Social Democratic Party.”

The focus of the narrative is a leading union member and his family, which includes a wife suffering [apparently] from consumption, his own mother and their daughter. He is a key mover when an individual worker is knocked down by a foreman. In fact, at times the plot reminded me of Eisenstein’s Stachka (Strike, 1925) which would have been seen in Germany by this date. The film dramatises the solidarity of the striking workers and the unholy alliance of the state authorities and police with the capitalist management. There is a mass meeting of the dock-workers where, despite the caution expressed by the official, section after section of the work force support the call for a strike. What I found odd was that two policemen appeared to be sitting in on the meeting. I asked one of the staff from Deutsche Kinemathek and she thought that this was a legal requirement during Weimar. There was a system of strike pay but it appears to have been a pittance.

Late in the film our protagonist is arrested on a trumped-up charge. But a demonstration by his comrades enables him to escape. However, as in history, the workers are forced back. But, in a possible reference to Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin,1925) there is a colourised red flag.

We viewed the film on a pretty good 35mm print. The film was full of location shots which, I was told, were all filmed for the production by Gustav Berger. He was an adept cameraman, using high and low angles and some notable travelling shots. We had a fine score by Stephen Horne who seemed as inspired by the film as I was.

Heimkehr (Homecoming, 1928) was the second film in the programme directed by Joe May. The story follows two German POWs held in Russia in 1917, Richard (Lars Hanson) and Karl (Gustav Fröhlich). In terms of the drama and screen time Karl is the main character but Hanson had the primary credit. Rather than imprisoned in a camp Richard and Karl have been left unguarded to operate a river ferry: however, they are in the wilds of Siberia, so escape seems daunting. In between ferrying passengers, mainly it would seem fellow prisoners sent to work in the mines, Richard incessantly talks about and describes his home and his wife Anna (Dita Pario). When they finally escape Karl must carry the exhausted Richard but eventually Richard is recaptured, and Karl continues his escape journey.

A year later Karl arrives in Hamburg and visits the flat looking for Richard. He is still absent, but Anna is entertained by Karl’s stories of the duo’s life in captivity. She offers Karl the use of one room. Inevitably a romance develops between Anna and Karl, though they try to resist this. Inevitably Richard returns and finds how relationships have changed in his absence. The climax and resolution of the film essay the conflicting demands of friendship, jealousy and desire.

The film is very well done. The film relies extensively on sets, but these work fine and there is some fine low-key lighting. The cast is good. There is a delightful sequence when Karl arrives at the Hamburg flat and, thanks to Richard’s descriptions, he both recognises the layout and notes the changes. There is some very smart editing late in the film as parallel cuts show us the responses of the different characters as the drama unfolds.

“Producer Erich Pommer had just returned from Hollywood where he had made two war films, Hotel Imperial and Barbed Wire. With this story of a love triangle, he brought American production methods to bear on Weimar cinema.”

The film avoids excessive militarism; this is a downbeat story of soldiers and war. The film starts in March 1917 and I rather expected that the Russian Revolution would figure at some point. But the date is more to do with the war which, unlike in the West, ended in a treaty between Germany and the new Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. So, Richard’s release is signalled when a Red Guard tells prisoners that they can ‘go home’.

“In the tradition of earlier intimate dramas, the film focuses on the psychology of the three protagonists. In the process, it creates a model of masculinity – unusual for the way the subject was normally dealt with in Germany at the time – that is utterly devoid of military bearing.”

Whilst this is true the representation of masculinity is not that different. The resolution of the film completely focusses on the two men and after the point at which they leave the flat we do not see Anna again. This is a rather cavalier treatment especially as Dita Pario is excellent in the role. We enjoyed a good 35mm print. The piano accompaniment was provided by Richard Seidhoff, a young musician who performs in Weimar. His score was good, and I am sure I will hear him again at silent screenings.

So Hamburg became the most filmed city in the retrospective after Berlin. The docks obviously fitted well with the dramatic plots of the popular genres. And it also provided a range of interesting locations which the films were happy to exploit.

Der Favorit der Königin (The Queen’s Favourite, 1922) was entertaining but offered a plot that was pure hokum. The Queen of the title was clearly a stand-in for Queen Elizabeth of England. The film is set in London and among the many references are the new colonies in the North Americas, including Virginia, though we never actually travel there. The main plot device is a ‘Grey Death’ that mysteriously strikes down people. The opening, in a noir-like street as the bodies are carried away, is very effective. There follows a tavern frequented by body snatchers, a breed supplying doctors with cadavers since the Church and State forbid dissection of the dead, on pain of death.

However, leading doctor, Pembroke, believes that dissection is only way to establish the causes of the ‘Grey Death’. When he pays the full penalty of the law his assistant Arthur Leyde continues his work. Complicating the narrative is the mutual attraction between Arthur and Pembroke’s daughter Evelyne, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. But Evelyne is the object of desire of Lord Surrey who is already the Queen’s paramour.

It is the solving of the mystery of the ‘Grey Death’ which results in the resolution of the film, I would rather not spoil the fun by explaining this. But I can point out that Arthur’s treatment consists solely of his standing by the bed of a sufferer till the mystery illness passes. Presumably the limited medical knowledge of late C16th explains why no-one seems to notice that he does not actually carry out any medical procedures.

“In the suspenseful period film, [low on suspense actually], the stated goal of the doctors is to “liberate science from its shackles and the people from a scourge”. In 1922, it was no doubt a provocation – and not only in catholic Bavaria – to articulate a democratic ideal that was a resounding call to the powers that be and the clergy that “the people’s voice is the voice of God.”

However, the film is more interested in the elites than ordinary people who are represented as superstitious and gullible. The main characters are rather melodramatic. The film is from early in the 1920s, a period when acting developed closer to what we regard as a naturalistic performance. The performers are variable and there is a tendency to stand and declaim, a hang-over from the teens. The 35mm print was good. and Stephen Horne worked well in developing some psychology among the protagonists.

Whilst popular cinema in the 1920s was focused on fictional dramas there were a variety of non-fiction films. This was the decade in which John Grierson coined the word ‘documentary’ for films that presented the actual world about us. Germany, as elsewhere, produced films that utilised film shot in and about recognisable places, peoples and institutions. The travelogue, one of the earliest examples of feature-length non-fiction film, was popular. There were also experimental and avant-garde film-makers who offered films that emphasised cinematic techniques and explored the way that film represented reality.

Im Auto durch Zwei Welten (Across two Worlds by Car, 1927 – 1931) is a travelogue but also an adventure.

“For this prototype road movie, race car driver Clärenore Stinnes (1901 – 1990) and Swedish cameraman Carl-Axel Söderström covered 46,758 kilometres. Travelling in an Adler sedan and sponsored by companies like Bosch, Aral, Varta and Continental, they drove through 23 countries and once round the globe – ..”

The epic journey took two years and started out east from Frankfurt, through the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran, the USSR to Siberia, across the Gobi Desert into China and Japan. Crossing the Pacific it continued up the backbone of South America along the Andes: then by boat to the USA, ending up in New York. Another boat across the Atlantic bought them back to Europe and finally Germany. Söderström claimed that he did ‘more pushing than filming’ and in fact there are long stretches where the filming is sparse. All we see of the USA is the West Coast and then the East Coast. There was also a van or truck accompanying the sedan, presumably all the stores and equipment. After the journey Stinnes had the film edited by Walther Stern and added a commentary and a musical score by Wolfgang Zeller. The commentary accompanies the images but these are intercut with shots of Stinnes talking direct to camera. The score is European in style even for the far-away places.

The sponsorship by German firms was an important aspect of the production. In her opening comments Stinnes stresses the German composition of the team, then noting that the cameraman is Swedish. She adds, in a comment that is mirrored by others later in the film, that Scandinavian are Germanic ‘fellows’. The filming does tend to stress the backwardness and poverty of the lands through which much of the journey travels. In fact, even discounting the boats, the round-the-world journey is only partly driven. There are frequent sequences where local people are persuaded or paid for hauling the vehicles, often through mud, sand or rocky terrain. The most gruelling, for the labourers, is when they cross the mountains and deserts of Peru. So her comment that ‘the automobile makes the big world small’ is as much rhetoric as actuality. The film is interesting but conventional: Stinnes was not Riefenstahl. However, she clearly was an independent and adventurous woman. The screening used a 35mm sound print.

Milak, Der Grönlandjäger (The Great Unknown, 1927) is a fictional drama presented in documentary mode. An opening title explains that the film was inspired by the exploits of polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Elements of both explorer’s stories figure in the plot. Filmed largely on location in Greenland and Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago, the film combines impressive landscape footage with ethnographic observation.

“With their athletic way of filming in the open air, the camera staff from Arnold Fanck’s ‘Freiburg camera school’ used the natural world as a key player, even blowing up ice sheets to create high drama.“

The film follows an expedition crossing Greenland to a high point in the north. The team consists of explorers Svendsen, Eriksen and Inuit Milak, an expert dog handler [who is titular in the German title]. During the course of the expedition we also watch their families at home waiting to hear how they managed.

The film seems to have been successful: critics at the time suggested that it was ‘Germany’s answer to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The connection is obvious. Apart from being set in Polar regions the films also features Inuit. The difference is that whilst Flattery did not just record but directed Nanook and his actions, in this film the Inuit are placed in a completely fictional narrative.

I found the tropes from other polar stories, especially that of the British expedition led by Captain Scott, lacked conviction. The expedition is trekking across Greenland and there is a contest, a US team with the same objective. They struggle over ice slopes, snow slopes and crevasses. Eriksen sickens and we follow a sequence where he does a ‘Captain Lawrence Oates’ style exit from the tent in a snow storm. Then the team run low on food and face the possibility of failing to reach stores, fuel and safety. The plot avoids the tragedy of Scoot and his team, but the sequences are clearly modelled on that actual disaster.

What undermines some of the narrative is that the film combines excellent location work with rather obvious studio sets. This is the case in the sequence where Eriksen attempts ‘suicide’ during a storm and in the scenes where lack of food and exhaustion threaten the team and the expedition.

The team also use two dog teams, more like Roald Amundsen. Twice the dog teams fall into crevasses, the second time they do not survive. In each case it is down to an oversight of Eriksen. I have to confess that I hoped his fellows would save the dogs rather than Eriksen. What makes it odder is that one dog does survive. But it is clearly not one of the dog team, all black or dark-haired huskies. This sole survivor is brown and more like German Shepherd/Labrador cross, [the former then known as Alsatians]. This is a shame, because the location work and the sequences of the Inuit are well done. The ethnographer parts of the film work better than the dramatic episodes during the expedition. The film was screened from pretty good 35mm with Günter Buchwald essaying a balancing accompaniment between actuality and fiction.

The Light of Asia (Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925) was a joint German/Indian co-production directed by Franz Östen for Indian producer Himansu Rai. They worked on three productions in the 1920s, titles that are rare survivors of Indian cinema’s silent heritage. In this film English tourists are regaled by an old Buddhist monk with the story of a C6th monarch who has to choose the material and the spiritual; a choice that figures in several Indian mythic tales. Essentially most of the film is a flashback to this story. The film uses actual Indian locations and cast for its narration.

The film had been transferred to DCP and had an added music track by Willy Schwarz and Ricardo Castagnola, Schwarz playing traditional acoustic instruments and Castagnola contemporary electronic music. Willy Schwarz provide d an introduction in German but I noted that he used the terms ‘Bollywood’ and ‘4 by 3’, neither strictly applicable to Indian Silent Cinema,. I also found the score problematic The soundtrack was far too loud during the opening credits: I saw other audience members winching. The staff did lower the volume but I still found it too loud, especially with the harder tones of electronic music. So I left shortly after the flashback commenced. I checked later and the level of sound had been requested by the composers. This is a tricky issue as composers and performers are entitled to have their music presented as they intend. But in the case of film the music is an accompaniment and I do think it has to be subordinated to the image. In fact, I have noticed in recent years that increasingly some accompaniments are too loud or forceful and distract from the image. I suspect this is a follow-on from the increasing use of ‘live music’ as a way of attracting audiences to silent film screenings. Fortunately I had seen the film previously. At Le Giornate del Cinema Muto with live accompaniments on traditional Indian instruments.

Song, Dire Liebe eines armen Menschenkindes (Show Life,1928) is a classic melodrama jointly produced by Eichberg-Film GmbH, Berlin and British International Pictures. The German title translates as ‘dire love of a poor human child’.

“Moving between dive bar and cabaret, ocean liner and night train, the German-British co-production represented Weimar cinema’s first foray into the milieu of European ex-pats in a colonial setting, which was very attractive for western foreign markets.”

The main protagonist is John (Heinrich George) an entertainer who has a knife-throwing act and who is stranded in an unidentified Asian port. On a beach he rescues a young Chinese woman, Song, (Anna May Wong) from assault. He recruits her into his knife throwing act, which, with her physical charms, becomes a success in a cheap bar. But John’s old flame and mistress, Gloria (Mary Kid), a successful dancer, reappears. Implausibly John prefers the scheming Gloria to Song: in the late 1920s how many female stars would one prefer to Anna May Wong?

Desperation leads to criminality and a fateful accident. John is duped regarding Gloria and Song, who is devoted to John, is caught and suffers between them. There are some fine sequences including late in the film when Song herself has become a successful dancer. The cinematography by Heinrich Gärtner and Bruno Mondi, makes excellent use of low-key lighting. The contrasting sets, low-life and high-life, dramatise the conflicts on screen.

We had a fair 35mm print from the British Film Institute and a suitably dramatic accompaniment by Günter Buchwald.

Morgen Beginnnt das Leben (Life Begins Tomorrow, 1933) was directed by Werner Hochbaum who also directed Brothers. This is a film that fits in the New Objectivity and shares some qualities with the ‘proletarian films’. The film opens with Robert (Erich Haußmann) nearing the end of his sentence for manslaughter. On the day of his release he expects to find his wife Marie (Hilde von Stolz) there to meet him. But Marie has returned home late after a tryst with an admirer. She oversleeps. Both spend the day searching for their partner in Berlin. So the city, or a particular area, is itself another character.

The film has a dazzling array of techniques:

“using documentary images, expressionist lighting, subjective camera angles, and experimental sound and picture montages..”

At times there are multiple superimpositions and these also lead the audience into the flashbacks that explain Robert’s and Marie’s situation. Robert was the kapellmeister of a restaurant orchestra. Marie worked in the bar and the killing resulted when he intervened to stop Marie being molested by the owner/manager. One of the ironies is that Marie’s admirer, (possibly lover) is the new kapellmeister.

The narrative uses melodramatic tropes including, apart from missed meetings, a stopped clock, a un-received letter and unhelpful neighbours. The brochure notes that the film was made after the end of the Weimar Republic. This sort of [mildly] left-wing film was past its time. The film was attacked on the grounds that the director,

“politicised his methods to the same extent that he resurrected the rhetoric of the old avant-garde.”

Hochbaum made films up until 1939 but died quite young in 1946. We had a 35mm print but without subtitles. In fact I found the plot relatively straight forward to follow. And I read after the screening that the film had

“minimal, often deliberate incomprehensible dialogue’.

We did at one point see the un-received letter which [I suspect] explained something about Marie’s admirer/lover.

A programme of experimental film opened with two short films by Hans Richter,

“a pioneer of Germany’s absolute film movement,”

The movement also included Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger and the Swede Viking Eggeling. Dedicated to abstract art they had particular interests in light, time and imagery that suggested musical analogues.

Filmstudie 1(928) offered a five minute film with a montage of bodies, faces, glass eyes and geometric shapes.

Inflation (1928) ran for just three minutes with a combination of numbers and images.

“Within seconds, a wealthy man reading a newspaper becomes a beggar, the zeros on the banknotes multiply – right up until the stock physically collapses.”

Das Lied vom Leben (The Song of Life, 1931) ran for 55 minutes. The film was directed by Alexis Granowsky. It uses surrealist imagery and music by Walter Mehring and Hans Eisler. The film has a narrative but uses montage and extensive superimposition. A young woman, Erika, lives with her mother in poverty. She agrees to marry a rich baron. The wedding reception is a kaleidoscope of privileged but corrupt members of the groom’s class. Finally Erika flees and is tempted to ‘end it all’. She is saved by a young man and later they have a child. However, Erika has to undergo a caesarean to enable the birth. Audiences found the operation sequence shocking. Unsurprisingly the film sparked a battle with the German censors and the film was at first banned outright.

“Originally only approved for viewing by ‘doctors and medical professionals’.”

We had one short film projected silently; otherwise all the titles were films with soundtracks. The German film industry pioneered sound-on-film as it did with other technical developments and stylistic techniques. The Tri-Ergon system was, for many years, the dominant sound system in Europe. Whilst early sound lacked the quality developed later this 35mm print and the shorts on DCP were perfectly adequate for dialogue, noise and music.

Short Films 1: ‘Quotidian’ (‘Kurzfilme I: altag’) was one of two programme. The five films shared some of the themes and approaches of ‘New Objectivity’. They were projected from 16mm and 35mm prints.

Polizeibericht überFall (Police Report of a Mugging, 1929) made by Ernö Metzner was a film running for 21 minutes. The short drama offered a critical, equivocal and ironic comment on urban life. The prop which provides the focus for a series on interlocking scenes is a one-Mark coin. This is initially dropped and then picked up by a passing man. However, he becomes the focus first of a potential ‘mugger and then of a prostitute and her pimp. Wherever he goes or even runs an obstacle appears. The irony is that the coin is a dud.

“ The censor’s office regarded this social satire, shot in avant-garde style, as nothing more than a “crime film” that “due to its accumulated brutality and harsh acts was likely to have a lowering and deadening effect”. It banned the film. “

Markt in Berlin (Open-air Market in Berlin,1929), was made by Wilfried Basse and ran 18 minutes. “The weekly market at Wittenbergplatz, from the vendor set-up in the early morning hours to the clean-up in the afternoon, provides an opportunity for sympathetic observation of the customers.”

Wo Wohnen alte leute (Where the Old People Live, 1932).

“Artist Ella Bergmann-Michel presents an old-age home in Frankfurt’s Westend neighbourhood as a “functioning living organism”. While the elderly in the dark, inner city building descend into isolation and loneliness, the modern architecture of the newer building, with its light-flooded spaces, promotes socialising. “

Fishfang in der Rhön (An der Sinn) (Fishing in the Rhön Mountains, 1932), also by Ella Bergmann-Michel.

“who arranges collages of fish pictures for natural history books, films her husband angling in a crystal-clear river.”

The idyll is slightly disrupted by a cat stalking prey. For a contemporary audience this offers a premonitory warning. As the Brochure notes the film was made in the ‘final summer of the Weimar republic’. Ella was an abstract artist, influenced by Constructivism: both abhorred by the Nazi regime. During the Nazi era, the Michels survived by fishing and farming.”

Alexanderplatz Überrunpelt (Alexanderplatz Unawares, 1932 – 34) was a series of fragments from an unfinished film. Unfinished because

“the film was never completed because the director [Peter Pewas] was arrested by the Gestapo and the footage seized.”

The charge was treason, though I have not found the details. Pewas returned to film-making but had more problems in the 1940s. After World War II he had an extended film career. In the remains of this film we see the great department stores but also the contrasting pictures of urban rubble where children play. And there is a torchlight procession of Nazi Storm Troopers.

Kurzfilme 2: Experimente mit Ton und Farbe (Short Film 2: Experiments in Sound and Colour) offered nine film made between 1922 and 1934, the majority from the early 1930s. They consisted of actuality film, advertising film, puppet animation and conscious experimentation. All of them used varied colouring techniques for the period. Staff from the Deutsche Kinemathek introduced the programme providing illuminating detail on the various colour formats used. This selection was screened from 16mm and 35mm prints and DCPs.

Der Sieger (The Victor, 1922) and Das Wunder (The Miracle, 1922) used hand colouring and tinting processes, techniques that had appeared in the earliest days of the new medium.

Farmfilmversuche, Demo-Film für Sirius Farbverfahren (Colour Tests, 1929) used a Dutch subtractive two colour system. In the earlier experimentations in colour systems relied on two rather than three primary colours. This produced acceptable results and could utilise the two sides of the film print.

Wasserfreuden im Tierpark (The Joy of Water at the Zoo, 1931) relied on Ufacolor. This was another subtractive two-colour system introduced in 1931 by Germany’s major production company.

Palmenzauber (Palm Magic, 1933/1934) was an advertisement using Ufacolor.

Zwei Farben (Two Colours, 1933) was a more experimental advertisement using Ufacolor. It made great use of the two primary colours in the system, red and blue.

Alle Kreise Erfasst Tolirag (Tolirag Circles, 1933/1934) was an experimental work by Oskar Fischinger, a major cinematic artist in this period. Gasparcolor was a subtractive three -colour system, the technical advance that made Technicolor a dominant system for several decades. It was developed by a Hungarian scientist. Fischinger used it in several of his works in the period and at least one Len Lye animation also used the system. The palette was different from Technicolor but it looked really fine.

Pitsch und Patsch (Pitter and Patter,1932) was a drawing-based animation. In a distinctive set of techniques the sound was created by wave-like drawings that produced an equivalent of the soundtrack patterns printed on film stock.

Bacarolle (1932) used the same techniques but married with puppet animation.

This was a fascinating programme and I had great pleasure in watching the different colour palette and imagery. The different films came partly on 35mm film and partly on DCPs. Günter Buchwald provided accompaniment for the non-sound films.

The screenings were provided in two cinemas out of the many involved in the Berlinale. The CinemaxX is a multi-screen venue: one of a the many sited around the central space of the Festival, Potsdamer Platz. Screen 8 is the auditorium that can project both 35mm and D-Cinema. It seats around 250, has a fine rake and proper masking for the screen. I was devised [correctly] that the front three rows are vary close to the screen. For the retrospective a piano had been provided and bring-in eats and drinks banned.

The other venue is Zeughauskino sited just off the Unter den Linden. This is set among in an area of museums and cultural venues. It is a multi-purpose auditorium but well suited for cinema. It has 16mm,35mm and digital projection. The seating is good as are the sight-lines. And the screen has proper masking. It has a good quality piano and I thought the acoustics for live music slightly superior to CinemaxX.

The projection standards were good. We had a variety of 35mm prints and DCPs, several at 4K. The prints, with the exception of one dupe, were good. And I thought the digital transfers were of a good standard. Quite a lot of the sub-titles in English were digital projections but they looked fine.

The Light of Asia was the only film that I gave up on in the programme. I thought that the live musical accompaniments were well done. The four musicians were Günter Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Maud Nelissen and Richard Siedhoff. The first three are regulars at Festival such as Il Cinema Ritrovato or Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The are experienced and accomplished accompanist. Richard Siedhoff was a [for me][ a new voice and he is a promising talent.

The programme was popular,. There were always queues beforehand and a number of screenings were fully sold out. The audiences were pretty well behaved. There were few distractions form mobile phone rings; and I only saw one person taking still during a feature. We did get a number of people checking the time on their phones: a really annoying and unnecessary habit. But generally they were absorbed in the films and warms in their appreciation. This also applied to the final Sunday, ‘People’s Day’ / ‘Publikumstag’. Now ordinary Berliners (not just the film buffs) can check out the varied programmes and films. The last day and the final screening heard warm applause for the staff who had shepherded us through the ten days of the Festival. With almost stereotypical German efficiency it was really well organised.

One of the staff with Deutsche Kinemathek told me that they had checked about 200 films in choosing the programme. There is clearly scope for Weimar retrospective II which would definitely find me in Berlin again.

Quotations from Weimarer Kino neu gesehen Brochure.

Posted in Archival compilations, Early sound film, German film, Literary adaptation | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

An Inn in Tokyo / Tokyo no yado, Japan 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on January 18, 2018

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a programme ‘The Japanese Silent Cinema Goes Electric’. Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström, now regular curators at the Festival, explained in the Catalogue:

This programme explores particular mode of Japanese silent cinema, the so-called saundo-ban – films that were shot as silent films, but released with a post-synchronised soundtrack, usually consisting of a music score, sound effects, and the occasional popular song.”

This film was directed by the key director Ozu Yasujiro for the Shochiku studio.

Alex and Johan added on this tittle,

Ozu held out against making talkies longer than any other major Japanese director: his first full sound film, The Only Son (Hitori musuko), was released in 1936. Rather touchingly. Ozu’s intransigence was not out of aesthetic fidelity to silent cinema, but was the result of a promise made to his cameraman, Mohara Hideo, who was developing his own sound-on-film system.”

The film opens in an industrial waste land where Kiahachi (Sakamoto Takeshi) is looking for work accompanied by his two sons, Zenko (Kozo Tokkan) and Masako (Suematsu Takayuki). The setting, a flat terrain coved with weeds and detritus, overlooked by a gasometer or industrial blocks, reflects their situation. Their money is short, they are often hungry and on one occasion they have to make a hard choice between eating or bedding in a cheap lodging house. We follow them for several days, usually seeing them in the open as father and sons seek and debate some economic relief and later, in evenings, as they eat and/or bed down.

At one point the boys chase a stray dog as they can make money by catching the animal and handing it in to a rabies prevention programme. Kiahachi makes several fruitless enquiries at factory gates. At one point they meet a depressed mother and daughter, Otaka (Okada Yoshiko) and Kimiko (Ojima Kazuko). They meet them both wandering in the day as the adults seek work and in the evenings as they make do with the cheap lodging houses, all they can afford.

Matters look up for Kihachi and his sons when they meet an old acquaintance running a bar, Otsune ( Lida Choko). She lets them stay at the bar. Kihachi finds work and their prospects improve. Through the chats between Kihachi and Otsune we learn more about his background. It appears his wife has left him and the sons, probably due to economic reverses. But it also become apparent that Kihachi is prone to drinking sake and borrowing money.

This slightly more buoyant period encounters a crisis when Kihachi learns that Kimiko has fallen ill and Otaka is working as a waitress in a sake house [a disreputable job] in order to get money to pay for treatment At this point Kihachi makes a sacrificial gesture and the films ends with the futures of all the main characters uncertain .

The style of the film is very naturalistic and for most of the story lacking in strong drama. Critics have remarked the film as an early example of the form which was to become known as neo-realism. The camera is observational as we follow the characters in very everyday actions. However, the film is very carefully structured and the plotting present she narrative in a noticeable symmetrical arrangement. The style is recognisably that associated with Ozu though there is wider range of shots and angles than in his later films: there are several tacking shots as we follow the characters in their daytime rambles. Also recognisable are the settings and objects in which we find the characters. The gasometer, which appears a number of times, usually dominates the skyline. There is one shot of a clothes-line,a trope that turns up in innumerable films by Ozu. And interiors like the bars offer careful compositions of furnishings and objects like sake bottles.

The characters are presented very sympathetically. The adults, both single parents, are for much of the time long-suffering in their downbeat situations. It is the man, Kihachi, who towards the end acts more dramaturgically. The children offer a counterpoint and moments of humour and action as the boys play together or with Kimiko. The film reminds one of the early I was born but …. (1932) and the subsequent first sound feature The Only Son .

The film is interesting in the Ozu oeuvre {at least of the ones that I have seen] in its focus on ordinary and poor working people. Ozu’s films, especially the post-war titles, are usually set in middle-class or even upper-class households. Though this class dimension is also central in the subsequent The Only Son. Late in the film one character opines,

It’s awful to be poor’.

And this is the central experience of all the major characters. In its focus on the working classes, poverty and [to a degree] illicit activities, the film feels closer to those of Naruse Mikio than is usual with Ozu.

However, the film ends with a title card,

‘Thus has a soul been saved’.

A rather religious, even sentimental stance that Naruse would have avoided.

The film offers all the interests and pleasures one associate with Ozu. He is well served by the cinematography of Mohara Hideo who also edited the film. The screenplay was worked out by Ozu with Arata Masao and Ikedo Tadao. The music rack uses strings, some brass and at one point woodblocks. Yet some of the most depressed sequences, for example one where the father and boys cope with heavy rain, have no music at all.

Posted in Early sound film, Japanese film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Right to Happiness, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2018

Red heroine, Sonia.

This film was part of the ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. In the Brochure it was one of two films titled ‘The Red Peril’, an apparent witticism that seem inappropriate just before the Centenary of The Great October Revolution. This film at least had the merit of being less virulent than the second title, The World and its Woman (also 1919).

Kevin Brownlow, in the Festival Catalogue, recorded that

“1919 was the year of the Red Scare, when Holubar [the director and co-writer] exchanged the Hun as villain with the Bolshevik, in one of the many political films that appeared just before the movies rejected “message pictures” and embraced the Jazz Age. …. the film was not an anti-Bolshevik hate picture. It was unique in presenting not only good and bad Capitalists but good and bad Communists.”

Whilst Kevin Brownlow is correct that the film avoided the virulent caricatures of The World and its Woman he does not really address the negativity of the film’s representations. These are embodied in the films’ title. The outcome of the film narrative is that this ‘right’ is only to be found in the USA. In a trope that runs through mainstream cinema the positive characters leave Soviet Russia. However, the ‘happiness’ of the resolution is partial.

The print we saw was 4,819 feet in length, about five reels. But the original was eight reels so there were extensive gaps in the narrative. Thus some of the film’s plot and treatment has to be surmised.

The film opens in the Jewish quarter of ‘Petersburg in 1898: [an error or mistranslation as it would have been St. Petersburg then]. A US businessman, Hardcastle (Henry Barrows), is staying there with his twin daughters, Vivian and Dorothy. The quarter is swept by a pogrom perpetrated by Cossacks. In Hardcastle’s absence the two girls are caught up in the violence. Vivian survives thanks to a faithful nanny, Leah, and is found next day by Hardcastle. Dorothy is lost but rescued by a Russian peasant woman and her son. Whilst Hardcastle return to the USA with Vivian, believing Dorothy lost or dead, Dorothy is bought up by the Russian family as Sonia.

The film moves forward to 1917. Sonia is now a radical and supporter of the Revolution. We see her as a firebrand speaking at a public assembly. She is followed by her step-brother Paul (Robert Anderson) and by a Bolshevik character, Sergius (Hector Sarno). Neither Sonia’s nor Sergius’ politics are clearly defined; typical; in this type films. But a title card notes that Paul is a follower of Tolstoy whose values were inimical to the revolution, tending to religious pacifism.

Sonia leaves Soviet Russia, with Paul and Sergius, possibly to garner support for the Revolution. The plot moves to New York. Here we cut between the Hardcastle home and factory and a cheap boarding house where the visiting trio now live. Paul opines that the

“sun of freedom”

is found in the USA whilst Sonia reckons

“conditions must change.”

At the factory we see disagreements between Hardcastle and his partner Forrester (Winter Hall). Hardcastle is a typical profit-driven capitalist, Forrester a more liberal example. The key disagreements are about re-employing workers who return from serving in the armed forces and wage rises because of rising costs of living. Forrester leaves the business and sets up a co-operative, employing workers who have returned from overseas.

Vivian is now a wealthy and fashionable young woman. She has two lapdogs, one canine and one human, George. Vivian does ask her father for money to support the Red Cross whilst George pointedly declines to join up and support the war effort. Vivian is also friendly with Tom (William Stowell), a foreman at the factory. Tom provides a link across the two contrasting settings as he lodges at the same boarding house as Sonia and her two friends.

The film does address the poverty of the period. Another resident at the boarding house is Lily (Alma Bennett) is a poor, unemployed ,

“victim of darkness.”

Lily’s plight is mirrored by a declining plant on the window ledge of her room, declining through lack of sunshine. We also see Vivian visiting and assisting families in the slum area. But in a familiar trope the mother seems feckless and is sermonised by Vivian. Through Tom Vivian also becomes aware of the exploitative nature of the work at Hardcastle’s factory. This is also the focus of the political activity of Sonia and Sergius. At one point we see them agitating outside Forester’s co-operative factory, but the worker merely jeer at them. However, at Hardcastle’s factory they have a more positive response and Sergius is active in organising a strike.

The strike leads to violence at a demonstration outside the Hardcastle mansion. Sonia leads the mass of strikers. She is confronted by Vivian with Tom and there is a moment of unrealised recognition. The violence escalates and Sonia is shot. As she is carried into the mansion by Paul her history is revealed and Hardcastle realises that Sonia/Dorothy is the missing twin. Dying Dorothy begs her father for his workers,

“help them, love them’.

Following her death Hardcastle speaks to the mass of workers promising a co-operative, an announcement greeted with cheers. The film ends with Hardcastle, Vivian and Tom in the family garden.

The film’s treatment of the central characters is important in presenting the values inscribed in the drama. Dorothy/Sonia is a ‘good communist’, however she is also a US-born citizen. So the film avoids having an indigenous Bolshevik presented in a positive light. Moreover, Sonia/Dorothy dies at the end, rather in parallel to the death in genre films of women tainted by illicit sexuality. Because she is tainted by Bolshevism she cannot survive.

Sonia and Sergius

The other communist character, Sergius, is played in a relatively villainous manner. He is instrumental both in the strike and the violence. At one point in the boarding-house Tom sees his gun and tells him,

“we’re not in Russia, pal.”

Moreover, Sergius is a negative character in personal terms. In New York he makes advances to Sonia which she rebuffs. He then turns his attentions to Lilly. He give both women, at different points, a medallion; a sign of his duplicity. And Paul is a pacifist and supporter of Tolstoy. In her final moments Sonia’s plea to her father is more in line with Tolstoy’s values than those of the Communist movement, or indeed of the radical US labour movement.

Vivian is changed from a rather light-headed socialite into a socially caring character, mainly through the influence of Tom. Tom is a typical petty-bourgeois who subscribes to the basic tenets of capitalism, though with a socially acceptable façade. And Hardcastle, originally an explicitly exploitative capitalist is changed by the death of Dorothy into a more acceptable boss, though his company will still depend on the extraction of surplus value from the workforce. A point that is clear from their continued occupation of the affluent mansion.

The attributes of the Hardcastle characters are emphasised by the use of familiar tropes. So when we meet the young Vivian and Dorothy in Petersburg, each has a pet; Vivian a cat and Dorothy a dog. Dorothy’s Borzoi is instrumental in her rescue when the Cossack sack and burn the quarter. Later, Vivian’s frivolous nature is epitomised by the lapdog she carries. However at the finale, in the garden of the family mansion, the accompanying dog is a rough collie, the prestigious breed in Hollywood films.

It is difficult to judge the film overall from what survives. The style is conventional for the period. The set pieces are well done, especially the Cossack attack on the Jewish quarter: dynamic and dramatic. The ‘riot’ at the mansion seems rather truncated. The print we saw had both tinting and toning, and this was especially effective in the Cossack raid. I was preoccupied for much of the running time with keeping tabs on the characters and their actions. We had a dramatic accompaniment at the piano by Phil Carli, which I think also used some melodies and airs of the period.

Camera operator, star and director.

Overall the film’s message was summed up by a comment in ‘Photoplay’,

[Holubar] asks the working man a question: which will you have in this country to better your condition – destruction under the red flag, or construction and cooperation under the American flag?”

This at a time when the US state was suppressing the IWW and busy deporting left-wingers, especially anarchist, to Soviet Russia. More to the point of the film’s message was that the USA, along with Britain, France, japan and other countries, was involved in the invasion of the young Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Posted in Hollywood | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »