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Asta Nielsen

Posted by keith1942 on March 31, 2015


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

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

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

Ritrovato Catalogue, 2007.

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

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

The 'gaucho'dance in Abyss

The ‘gaucho’dance in Abyss

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

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

“Die Kinematograph”, Düsseldorf, December 1910.

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

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

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

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2015

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by keith1942 on January 5, 2015

My Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My love title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Early cinemas, Italian film | Tagged: | 3 Comments »