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Crazy Rays and Scattered Shadows
The 26th Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film
|Article Copyright © 2008 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
Weimar. The word invokes a time barely in living memory. To some, Weimar conjures up a place of smoky cabarets, where decadence rules, and anything can be had for the right price. To others, Weimar is a historical term, more properly described as the Weimar Republic, a time in German history starting in 1918 at the end of WWI and extending until 1933, when the Nazis came to power.
But to silent film fans, the word Weimar has a special importance. This was the era when Germany produced classics like Metropolis (1927), The Last Laugh (1924) and Pandora’s Box (1929). Critics and academics have anointed many of these films as to be among the greatest ever made.
Unfortunately, with all the attention given to these few, select ‘art films,’ the rest of the German films from this time period have been passed by or forgotten. There were more than 3000 German feature films produced in this era; prestigious films that achieved both critical and popular success. The goal of this year’s program was to showcase a few of these ‘Other Weimar’ films and offer them to the critical eye of a contemporary audience for reappraisal and reconsideration.
This year’s festival also honored René Clair, a landmark French director whose films straddled the silent and sound film period. As usual, the festival also included restorations and newly-discovered films, and the festival screened the next installment of its ambitious effort to show D.W. Griffith’s films chronologically this year’s program covered the years from 1921 to 1924.
The Return of the Native (Festival)
From its inaugural year 1981 up to 1998, the festival took place in the Verdi Theater, a serviceable, if outdated general-purpose theater built in the 1950s in the very center of Pordenone, a small town about 40 miles north of Venice. Local politics pushed for the eventual demolition and rebuilding of a new theater on the same site, a process of legal wrangling and construction that took eight agonizingly long years. During this uncertain time, the festival was held in the neighboring town of Sacile. While Sacile was beautiful, and the townspeople did all they could to make us welcome, the town was small, with an inadequate number of hotel rooms, and many attendees found themselves in a perpetual state of being bussed to or from the festival. Finally, the ‘new’ Verdi, designed and redesigned, modeled and remodeled, was ready to host Pordenone’s 26th silent film festival.
Arriving at this new theater, the attendees found themselves in a Pordenone version of a Sergio Leone film:
| Photograph: Lokke Heiss.
The Good: For the first time in more than a decade, there were enough hotel rooms for everyone. No more sitting on a bus for two hours a day. No more splitting the haves (those that had local rooms) from the have-nots (those who had to commute). The wooden seats of the old Verdi had been replaced by cushioned seats. We now had modern toilets! The sound qualities of this new theater were more than good they were superb.
The Bad: Promises aside, it was quickly clear that the new Verdi is first and foremost a concert hall. Showing movies in this theater was definitely an afterthought astonishing when one considers all the years it took to build. As the festival began, problems had to be solved on the fly. For example, the projection room portholes were so low that the beam didn’t clear the heads and back of seated patrons. Because of this, a large block of the best seats had to be roped off. Audience members who had nursed ambitions of “being in the pictures in the worst way” found their dreams fulfilled by ignoring the ropes, sitting in these chairs, and finding a shadow of their head bobbing on the screen.
The Ugly: With uneven, often unlighted, steps lurking below your feet on the floor of the theater, it almost seemed that the new Verdi was perversely built for the purpose of making people fall. For the first few days, the wonderful tinkle of piano keys in the dark was distressingly interrupted by a thunk or smack, as one attendee after another missed a step and fell. One distinguished member of the audience landed on her head, and was in the hospital for most of the week. Ushers with lights were brought in to help, and as the festival progressed, we learned where to sit (not in front of the projection booth) and how to walk in the dark (very carefully). Hopefully these problems can be fixed, as this new Verdi looks to be the permanent home for the festival.
“The Other Weimar” A Report Card
If the role of a national cinema is to explain or give testimony for why things happen, the national cinema of Germany is especially burdened by history: two world wars, the rise of the Nazi Party, the division of Germany into East and West the fallout from these dreadful and tragic events will continue to be felt for many generations, and contemporary German films continue to reflect these concerns. But German films from the Weimar period have a special problem they are also burdened by the influence of two books of film criticism, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1952).
Born in Frankfurt am Main, Kracauer’s original training was in engineering and architecture. Becoming a newspaper reporter in 1922, his writing soon expanded to include a vast smorgasbord of topics related to city life, including: urban planning, dance, photography, theater and film. In his attempt to both describe events and then to analyze their underlying meanings, Kracauer was one of the pioneers in a form of critical analysis that would eventually be called cultural studies. Kracauer left Germany for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis came to power, and in 1941 immigrated to the United States. In 1947 he published From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, in which he claimed to be able to trace the birth of Nazism by analyzing the films of the Weimar Republic.
Let me say from the start that I admire Kracauer’s observations as both a historian and as a film critic. In rereading From Caligari to Hitler, I was impressed both by his scope and his depth of insight. From Caligari to Hitler may be the single most important book of film analysis ever written.
But Kracauer is not beyond criticism, and in hindsight, sixty years from when it was written, it’s clear that Kracauer overreaches. In his attempt to conceptualize German film as a series of cultural signposts pointing the way toward Nazi rule, Kracauer uses a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Were these films a roadmap that prefigured totalitarianism? To start with, Kracauer would have been a lot more convincing if he had made these arguments as predictions in his essays written in early 1930s, rather than only two years after the end of WWII. But even if Kracauer’s overall presumptions are seriously flawed, the book offers many provocative thoughts about the Weimar era. (For example, he offers an interesting theory as to why German film abandoned expressionism for a form of realism often called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity). From Caligari to Hitler is so authoritative and comprehensive that the book’s conclusions would go largely unchallenged for decades.
In 1952, Lotte Eisner, a German refugee like Kracauer, but also a concentration camp survivor, published The Haunted Screen. Eisner did not take issue with Kracauer’s opinions, but instead adopted an art history approach to German silent film. She argued that this era of German filmmaking was a revistation of a prior Romantic period stories full of shadows and eerie events: doppelgangers, ghosts and vampires spreading terror over a quaking and fearful public. Eisner makes a clear and compelling argument that expressionism and romanticism were important components to the amazing jumble of competing art movements taking place in Weimer Germany. But while Eisner’s essays on the German horror film are models of their kind, one gets the idea from The Haunted Screen that most films shot in the Weimar period are haunted by dark, demonic shadows. Of course the reality is that most German films from this era were comedies, social satires, adventure films and historical romances.
As a response to Eisner’s famous book, this year’s festival made a deliberate effort to shake off the ‘haunted screen’ stereotype of Weimar cinema. The effort reminded me of a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Sussex Vampire,” when Holmes is asked if there might be a supernatural explanation for solving a mystery, he dismisses the idea with the answer: No ghosts need apply. In a similar rebuke to the horror/expressionist association typically applied to Weimar films, goblins, demons and other creatures of the night were not invited to this year’s program the only shadows in the films this week were the ones caused by a bright sun.
So how did these ‘other’ Weimar films rate? Here is my report card for some of films:
Buddenbrooks (1923), directed by Gerhard Lamprecht. This film is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s ambitious and sprawling novel of a slow decline of a prosperous mercantile German family. Published in 1901, Buddenbrooks put Mann on the map as one of the most important writers of his generation. With meticulous detail, Mann charts the efforts and ultimate failure of a family to carry the tradition and standards from one generation to the next. Lamprecht who directed many films in the 1920s and ’30s (his best-known work is Emil and the Detective, released in 1931) wisely does not try and film the entire book, instead focusing on the third-generation son, Thomas (Peter Esser) and his problems with his neglected wife.
In a major change from the novel, Lamprecht updates the story to the 20th century. In some stories this change would be negligible, but in Buddenbrooks, where detail is so important, this updating makes the narrative confused and forced, since the characters are now in a world they don’t belong. Worse, Lamprecht chooses to end his version of Buddenbrooks with an up-beat reconciliation of Thomas with his wife. In the novel, Thomas’ great mistake is that he marries outside of his class and position his unworldly wife, Gerda, has an artistic disposition that the husband lacks and envies. In the film version, the husband essentially works too hard, a situation solved by just working less. The novel Buddenbrooks is many things, but above all, it is a tragedy, and to give a film version of this story a happy ending is like changing the end of Anna Karenina so that Anna and Vronsky sail off to America to live happily ever after it completely misses the point of the story. So, while there are some occasional scenes in the film that are successful (such as when Thomas’ sister Tony, finds she has become a symbol of exchange and commodity to be bargained for just like other Buddenbrooks merchandise), overall the film is flat and uninvolving.
Verdict: Weimar filmmakers could make a mediocre adaptation of a famous novel as well as anyone else.
Das alte Gesetz [Baruch] (1923), directed by E.A. Dupont. A rabbi’s son pursues an acting career, facing the displeasure of his father. Eventually, the father is led to understand there are many ways a man can express his love of God and fellow man, and one of these paths is through art and live theater. Father and son are reconciled, and make peace with each other.
| Das alte Gesetz (1923). Henny Porten (left).
Photograph: Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum für Film und
Fernsehen; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Superficially this film has the same storyline as The Jazz Singer (1927), but that’s where the comparisons end. This film is a sincere and moving exploration of what happens when old world values clash with dreams and ambition. In addition, the film is beautifully shot. Director E.A. Dupont (best known for his 1925 film, Varieté) and his cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl, use light and space as compositional tools to visually reinforce the conflict between the son’s Viennese stage and his father’s east European shtetl roots. Rarely has chiaroscuro (the delicate interplay between light and shadow) been used to better effect than in this film.
Verdict: This is a great film, and deserves to be better known.
Der Kampf der Tertia [The Battle of the Tertia] (1929), directed by Max Mack. On an offshore island, the students of a Tertia (a fourth and fifth-year high school) squabble with a nearby coastal town of Boestrum. Also living on the island is a brilliant but antisocial girl, who with her dogs, gets into a fight with some of the boys. The conflict between the town and students escalates with the appearance of Biersack (played by Max Schreck, best known for his role as Graf Orlok in Nosferatu). Biersack is a furrier by trade, and collects money for pelts. Seeing a way to make a quick profit, Biersack comes up with a scam to make the town give up its cats. The boys, seeing that the cats are in for a bad end, start a private little war with both Biersack and the town, in the end, saving the cats.
This movie, more than any other in this Weimar program, invites interpretation and deciphering. At its surface, the film appears to be a harmless version of a schoolboy story, a genre currently made popular by the Harry Potter stories. American versions of schools or summer camps, such as Meatballs (1979), tend to portray a group of lovable losers, who forge a common bound by working toward some greater goal. These children, although they have their own personalities, are an idealized picture of fifteen-year olds: trustworthy, loyal, brave, courteous, etc. The children in Der Kampf der Tertia are more like unlovable winners, children so perfect it takes some time and effort for their elders to understand and appreciate them.
This film was never meant for anything more than escapist-fare for young teenage Germans, who for at least ninety minutes, could watch kids their age be smarter and more heroic than adults. And there are many good performances, especially the ensemble acting of the children playing students from the school. Yet, there are disturbing undercurrents running through Der Kampf der Tertia. Near the end of the story, the children write graffiti on the walls of the town, with slogans: “Save the cats!” “Cats are our friend,” “Don’t hurt cats!” All harmless enough in fact, one could argue that the students were doing everything possible to prevent the killing of innocent animals. But for many of us in the audience, the manner in which the students took the law into their own hands produced uncomfortable associations with acts such as the more ominous slogans painted on walls across Germany less than a decade later. And the great success of the student’s campaign to save the cats, all for ‘the greater good’ strikes one as prefiguring a time when ignoring laws led to the Holocaust.
Watching this film with contemporary eyes, one might think Kracauer has a point in his conclusion that Weimar films predicted a German collective cultural attraction for totalitarian regimes. But in From Caligari to Hitler remember, published in 1947 Kracauer likes this film, describing it as “a fine understanding of pre-adolescent emotions, pictured the Homeric fight boys of a school community put up to prevent the seizure and extermination of stray cats.”
Verdict: A film worth watching, but more for the reasons of the film’s historical inferences and social observation than for any of the elements of the story itself.
Rutschbahn [Luna Park / The Whirl of Life] (1928), directed by Richard Eichberg. When Heli (Fee Malten) while defending her brother, accidentally kills her brutal stepfather with an ax, she assumes the identity of a refugee, who has just died of an illness. Escaping to England, she meets Boris (Fred Lerch) the brother of the dead girl, and they fall in love but because of the circumstances of her stepfather’s death, they must keep up the pretense they are brother and sister. Boris and Heli meet a famous clown, Jig (Heinrich George) who takes them into his act. As the team hones its skills, the much older Jig falls in love with the beautiful Heli. Eventually, Jig learns that Boris and Heli are not brother and sister, and must realizes his own love for Heli is hopeless, and must make a life changing decision for the good of this couple.
A circus story about a beautiful girl and a clown that loves her seems like a ‘can’t miss’ plot for a silent movie, but the plot of Whirl of Life is so confusing that attention is drawn away from the obvious acting merits of Heinrich George. In his role of Jig, Heinrich carries on the rich tradition of silent film clowns Pierrot or Pagliacci-type figures whose larger-than-life clown personas allow them a wonderful permission to ‘chew scenery’ as they pine for their impossible loves. This film is a showcase for Heinrich George, an enormously talented actor who chose to stay in Germany after the Nazis took power in 1933. He went on to have one of the most active careers of any German actor in the ’30s, including several Nazi propaganda films. After the war, he was sentenced to a Soviet concentration camp, where he died in 1946 at the age of 53.
Looping the Loop: Die Todesschleife (1928), directed by Arthur Robison (the actual German title is in English, Die Todesschleife is a subtitle). This circus film recounts a love triangle between Botto (Werner Krauss), Blanche (Jenny Jugo) and André (Warwick Ward). André develops an act that requires him to perform a stunt in which his motorcycle loops a loop, and then Blanche must make a split second trapeze catch to save him from falling. As Botto falls in love with Jenny, he convinces himself that no one would ever love a clown, so he assumes a false identity as an engineer in order to romance her. Eventually, Blanche must choose between Botto and André, just at the critical life-and-death climax of the ‘looping the loop’ stunt.
| Looping the Loop: Die Todesschleife (1928).
Photograph: Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum für Film und
Fernsehen; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
A huge advantage of the carnivalesque atmosphere of these stories is that they allow for over-the-top plot lines and characterizations. But even in this circus setting, it’s hard to believe that Blanche could work with world-famous Botto the Clown, and yet not know it was the same man who was romancing her in the guise of an engineer. One must see this story as taking place in a comic book, superhero world, where reality is suspended to the point where hidden identities and alter egos are possible. On these terms, Looping the Loop is a goofy pleasure. Cinematic voyeurs may enjoy a gratuitous, completely revealing shot of Jenny Jugo wearing a ‘black-cat’ suit for a short sequence half way through the film. With her large, winsome eyes, and attractive figure, Jugo was a real Weimar sex symbol in the late silent and early sound period, and filmmakers tried to capitalize on this reputation by finding any possible excuse for her to undress.
One of the nicest touches of Looping the Loop is Warwick Ward’s portrayal of André as a raffish acrobat who falls in love with Blanche, and so provides the romantic competition for Botto. André falls in love with Blanche, but the problem is that André has also fallen in love with every woman he has ever met. After falling off a tower and breaking his neck, and with the prospect of never being able to move, we leave him in a hospital, flirting with a nurse with a single wink of an eye.
Verdict: A more watchable circus film than Whirl of Life, but why is either of these films included as ‘one of the best Weimar films you’ve never heard of’?
Der Mädchenhirt [Shepherd of Girls] (1919), directed by Karl Grune. A young man, Duschnitz, is rescued from a shipwreck by a ferryman, and while recovering from the accident in the ferryman’s house, he has an affair with the ferryman’s wife, which produces an illegitimate son. Duschnitz later becomes a Prague police superintendent, and his son grows up to be a dashing young man, Jarda (Henri Peters-Arnolds). Jarda becomes a waiter, handsome but poor, getting little support from his father. In struggling to make more money, Jarda hits on a scheme with his girlfriend, Betka to become a Mädchenhirt (a pimp). At first, Jarda only involves Betka in the scheme, but soon his ‘flock’ of women grows, including attractive Luise, who is in love with him, although Jarda ignores her. With this job he finds himself increasingly associated with the Prague underworld, and eventually becomes infected with syphilis and then accused of a crime he did not commit. Released from jail, he is sick and unable to find work. His friends abandon him except for loyal Luise. Jarda is remorseful and wants to change his life. He asks his father for money to leave the country, and is turned down. Angry, Jarda decides to rob his father’s house, but in the robbery, his father is killed.
Jarda is so regretful at what he has done, that when he meets Luise at their appointed rendezvous by the Vltava River, they decide to commit suicide by drowning. The end of the film echoes the lines of poetry seen at its beginning, from Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister,” a song about remorse and guilt (Who never ate his bread with tears, who never spent worrying nights weeping in his bed, doesn’t know you, heavenly powers. You lead us into life, you let the poor one incur guilt and then you leave him to his torment, for every guilt takes its toll.).
Viennese director Karl Grune is almost forgotten today, but he had a long film career, extending into the 1940s. His most notable film, an unusual blend of expressionism and realism, is Die Straße [The Street] (1923), a film that drew attention to the dangers of urban poverty. The concept of a street, or an urban location, serving as a representation for larger social issues had ‘legs,’ and this film (and subsequent plays and movies) launched a popular genre of ‘street films,’ that would find its way to America with films such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).
As much as I like The Street (filmed four years later), I found his Der Mädchenhirt slow and hard to follow. Worse, the characters seemed schematic they didn’t seem to have lives of their own, but were just filling out a larger function dictated by the needs of the script. As the two lovers decide to end their lives, and slowly walk into the water, I found myself looking at my watch, and wondering how soon I could eat lunch.
Verdict: Social message films work better if one cares about the characters. In response to the filmmakers using Goethe’s poem: Make me identify with the poor, miserable souls in the story, make me mourn for their fate, and I will be forced to eat my bread with tears.
Ein Glas Wasser [A Glass of Water] (1923), directed by Ludwig Berger. Ludwig Berger, perhaps best known for helping to direct Alexander Korda’s Thief of Baghdad, had a long career directing adaptations of plays and stage productions.
This film is an adaptation of a stage play detailing the scheming going between Queen Elizabeth in the time of the War of Spanish Succession. In what could be described as a lighthearted version of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), handsome young Masham (Hans Brausewetter) is caught in a court intrigue that has increasingly high stakes.
While watching this film, I was reminded of a comment reportedly made by Mary Pickford about Ernst Lubitsch, “He was a director of doors.” We can interpret her comment as a criticism, but I like to think of it as a compliment. Anyone who understands the mechanics of humor, farce in particular, must be able to know how to open and close doors down to a split second. One would have welcomed Lubitsch’s skills in this film, in which the doors are consistently opening and closing one moment too late. Despite the good performance of Hans Brausewetter, in his Tom Jones-ish portrayal of hapless but good-natured Masham, this film requires both timing and a clear story, and this film has neither. Perhaps this film is incomplete, and would be benefited by a restoration?
Verdict: Those who know the play already can fill in the details and enjoy Brausewetter’s performance. The rest of us will struggle to follow along.
Lumpen und Seide [Rags and Silk] (1925), directed by Richard Oswald. Erik (Johannes Reimann), a bored husband, decides to allow a factory girl Hilde (Mary Kid) to stay in his mansion. At first the arrangement is okay with Erik’s wife, Irene (Magdalena Prohashka), but as Hilde starts to enjoy the high life of the very rich, her jealous fiancé Max (Reinhold Schünzel) enters into the picture with ideas of his own. The couples must finally negotiate some common ground, where the poor can exist with the rich.
This is basically a ‘fish out of water’ story where Hilde finds herself in a mansion where she has to learn how to navigate the world and affairs of the very rich. With a storyline that had so many possibilities for complications, what could go wrong? In a word, plenty. When the film ended, I thought to myself: “What made this movie so disagreeable?” Part of the answer is that I couldn’t root for any of the characters. Erik and Irene are so full of upper class ennui that they are unsympathetic facing the prospect of spending time with such a pair of stuffed shirts, Hilde’s choice to stay at their mansion seems almost perverse. But then again, Hilde herself is hardly an improvement. More to the point, we are never given any good reason for Erik to invite Hilde to stay at their mansion, and motivations for the characters continue to be opaque at best. Finally, Oswald deflates any attempt to generate any real tension anything more than a hint of class conflict is forgotten as the story leisurely advances to the next scene. The festival program notes that the Film-Kurier reviewer in 1925 summed up the film as “flicking through the pictures in a good magazine.” Whatever the magazine is, I’ll pass on a subscription.
Verdict: Richard Oswald was an important and prolific director, but I can only hope that this was not one of his best efforts. Richard’s son, Gerd Oswald, was a notable director of American film and television, and I recommend his 1960s The Outer Limits episode “Forms of Things Unknown” as a very successful demonstration of German expressionist sensibility produced for American television.
Der Farmer aus Texas [The Cowboy Count] (1925), directed by Joe May. Adapted from a stage comedy, Kolportage (Pulp Fiction yes, that’s really the translated name), this film was a big budget attempt by Ufa studios to make an international hit from a very successful play. The plot details the complex machinations between two families after a ‘cradle switch,’ where the child of a count is switched with an infant of a poor widow.
| Der Farmer aus Texas (1925).
Photograph: Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum für Film und
Fernsehen; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
The Cowboy Count veers from slapstick to satire to serious drama as the two families duel with each other in a confusing storyline of who has the rights to the family estate and fortune. This film was meant to emulate the stage play as satire, but the parts of the film that work best is when everyone plays it straight (in particular, there is a well-staged, near-drowning scene when some of the characters fall into the ocean). Somewhere around the middle of the film, I gave up trying to follow the story and just watched the scenery. And for that, I was rewarded. The Cowboy Count is shot in a pictorial, tableau style each shot is composed so carefully that it becomes a visual bon-bon for your eyes to indulge in and appreciate. This approach is very different from the ‘continuity’ style of classical Hollywood filmmaking, and takes some getting used to. Understanding Joe May’s approach didn’t improve my ability to follow the plot, but it made watching the film more enjoyable.
Verdict: The Cowboy Count wants to be many things, and ends up being only a muddle of good intentions. Those who want to see (more successful) efforts at integrating a pictorial approach into the stylized world of silent film should check out Maurice Turner’s efforts, such as The Last of the Mohicans (1920). The best-known contemporary director using this method is Eric Rhomer, who has spent most of this career exploring the possibilities of canvassing the world with mostly a stationary camera.
Der Himmel auf Erden [Heaven on Earth] (1927), directed by Alfred Schirokauer. Traugott Bellman (Reinhold Schünzel) a self-righteous, priggish teetotaler, and also an important city council member, comes into money a lot of money, from his deceased brother, who includes him in his will. But there is a catch a very big catch. For Bellman to inherit the money, every night he must be physically present at his brother’s nightclub, named Heaven on Earth. To make matters worse, all this is scheduled to start on Bellman’s wedding night.
| Der Himmel auf Erden (1927).
Photograph: Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum für Film und
Fernsehen; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Faster than you can sing “Money Makes the World Go Around,” the prudish Bellman must contend with dancing girls, endless champagne, a trained monkey, and raucous jazz bands. Unwilling to explain to his family and friends where he has to spend his time, Bellman’s former rigid principles are bent all over the map to try and meet the conditions of his brother’s will. Finally, in order to escape from the nightclub without detection, he dresses up in drag. Discovered wearing jewelry and a dress, his humiliation is complete.
One could make a case that Reinhold Schünzel (1888-1954) and his fellow comedians were the biggest losers in the preoccupation of both Kracauer and Eisner with expressionist drama. The expunging of comedy from the German silent film canon led to comedians like Schünzel being essentially ignored and thus ‘erased’ from history. A protean talent, Schünzel started in Sittenfilmen (sex education films), such as the blackmailer in Different from the Others (1919), but he soon transitioned into comedies, notably films such as Halloh Caesar! (1926) and Hercules Maier (1927). In the early ’30s, Schünzel directed some of German’s best comedies, such as Viktor und Viktoria.
Heaven and Earth is an excellent vehicle for Schünzel, who with his chameleon-like persona, is able to slip and slide from one side of the emotional register to the other. He can go from gentle to sinister, or from smooth to crude and in exceptional moments he plays opposing emotions simultaneously. Many years later, Ernst Lubitsch told David Niven that, “Nobody should try to play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside.” Maybe he was thinking of actors like Schünzel, who reminds me of a German version of Zero Mostel (with a little Peter Sellers thrown in).
Verdict: Heaven on Earth succeeds on many levels: first, it is a frothy, fun delight, but more important, it works as social satire. This film, along with Schünzel’s other work, deserves more attention.
Griffith 1921 1924
This is the penultimate year of the festival’s goal to show D.W. Griffith’s surviving films chronologically. Over the last eight years, we have watched Griffith’s films, one-by-one, march across the screen a once-in-a-lifetime parade starting with tentative, fledgling efforts and progressing to groundbreaking masterpieces. But nothing lasts forever, and by 1921, most of his great work was behind him. Just as Griffith’s talents were learned and refined in years of methodical experimentation, his decline also did not happen overnight. But his occasional weaknesses in his earlier work seem more pronounced in many of this year’s films. For example, Griffith has increasing trouble keeping up a proper pace for the entire feature. Great scenes are now scattered around tedious, often unimportant, sections of exposition.
And his films were increasingly out of step with the spirit of the times. In the festival program notes, Tom Gunning insightfully points out that Griffith was not just an outdated Victorian living in a world that had passed him by. Griffith’s problem was the world had lurched in directions he had neither predicted nor had any wish to follow. Gunning explains that “Griffith’s filmmaking . . . [was] never exclusively the celebration of old fashioned rural values, or the embracing of a fast paced tempo of modern life, but crucially a complex staging of the encounter between these two opposed worlds . . . . Griffith maintained in the early 1920s, a vision of the utopian possibilities of society, religion, and the cinema, all which he saw as capable of immense, even millennial transformations. In this, he voices the progressive even radical ideas of the first generation to shape the 20th century ideas that in many ways were shattered by the technological carnage of World War I on the one hand, and by the post-war growth of a consumer culture on the other.”
| Lillian Gish (left) and Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm
Photograph: Photoplay Productions collection; courtesy
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
On opening night at the festival there was a special screening of Orphans of the Storm (1921) arguably Griffith’s last successful epic production. The story is set in the days before the French Revolution, when Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Louise (Dorothy Gish), a foundling, are raised together as sisters. Louise becomes blind, and years later the two women set off to Paris to find a cure. The two sisters are separated, and in the confusion following the revolution, Henriette is condemned to die by the guillotine. Only Danton (Monte Blue), a voice of reason in the madness of the Reign of Terror, can save Henriette’s life.
While odd, disturbing, elements creep into the flow of the story (for example, a title card explaining that Danton is the Lincoln of the French Revolution), overall, Orphans of the Storm is one of Griffith’s best efforts in integrating a personal, human element (the love between two sisters) together with the sweeping epic of the French Revolution. Griffith would try and repeat this epic formula with later films, but with never the same success.
Griffith released The White Rose in 1923. Starring Mae Marsh, Carol Dempster and Ivor Novello, this film is often described as a hothouse version of Way Down East (1920). The White Rose follows the story of a southern, aristocratic graduate from a seminary, Joseph (Ivor Novello), who decides he needs to experience life in order to better serve his congregation. Traveling incognito, without a minister’s frock, he meets Bessie (Mae Marsh) a naïve but good-hearted woman working near New Orleans. They fall in love, but Joseph, thinking he is failing in his calling to be a minister, leaves Bessie, to return to his parish. When Bessie finds she is pregnant, she quits her job and tries to raise her child. After much heartache, she locates Joseph, only to find he is now engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Marie (Carol Dempster).
| The White Rose (1923).
Photograph: Russell Merritt collection; courtesy Le Giornate del
This film has many charming moments, and benefits greatly from location shooting in the Teche country near St. Martinsville, Louisiana. However, the series of coincidences necessary to advance the plot strains even the credibility of the chance-filled world of melodrama. For example, Bessie, lost in a stormy night, just happens to stumble upon Joseph’s doorstep. If Joseph had been Humphrey Bogart, he might have mumbled: “Of all the houses, in all the towns in the Deep South, she knocks on my door.” And Joseph is such a wimp in his abandonment of Bessie that he makes The Scarlet Letter’s Arthur Dimmesdale look like an action hero by comparison. For these reasons, despite an excellent performance by Mae Marsh, The White Rose is more of a curio than one of Griffith’s great films.
One would think that after productions such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916), Griffith would have had his fill with the headaches generated from producing epic blockbusters. But amazingly, in 1924, he released America, starring Neil Hamilton, Erville Alderson and Carol Dempster. The film was originally released in 14 reels, two reels longer than The Birth of a Nation! The full-length film has been lost and what remains is a version marketed for Britain, alternately titled Love and Sacrifice. Whatever the title, the film tells the events of the American Revolution, through the eyes of a couple, rebel Nathan Holden (Hamilton) and his sweetheart Nancy Montague (Dempster). From their point of view, we watch the major events of the revolution, such as Paul Revere’s ride, and the founding of the Continental Congress.
About half way through this film, the narrative takes a strange turn. In his interest to placate the English audiences, Griffith chooses to play up the villainy of Captain Butler (Lionel Barrymore), who with the aid of Indians, tries to establish his own kingdom in the new world.
While Butler is a real historical figure (involved in New York’s Cherry Valley Massacre), Griffith chooses to amplify Butler’s role so that he now is an evil warlord, plotting to carve out his own empire, a threat which both the English and American army seem to rally against. Since this version of the film was edited for an English audience, it’s impossible to draw final conclusions regarding Griffith’s original vision. Still, Griffith was responsible for editing this ‘for-British-eyes’ version, so he must bear responsibility for the product. And when the Brits and Yanks join forces (!) to fend off Butler’s traitorous actions, the result is so bizarre that the story begins to feel like a Philip K. Dick ‘alternative-history’ narrative. America is not a great movie, but certain scenes do qualify as some of Griffith’s last successful attempts at big budget epic adventure.
Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) is, for me, the most interesting of the Griffith films of this year’s program. Starring Carol Dempster, Neil Hamilton and Erville Alderson, the film recounts the plight of post-WWI refugees trying to survive in poverty and hunger rampant in Germany. Like most of Griffith’s films from this period, the film is uneven, and veers from lurid melodrama to quasi-documentary. But Isn’t Life Wonderful does contribute to a more natural film style that would eventually be called Neorealism specifically, stories set in natural settings that describe the lives and social ills of common ordinary people. The most memorable scene in the film occurs when Carol Dempster tries to wait in line at a butcher’s shop, only to watch in hopeless frustration as she watches the meat prices climb to an amount she can no longer afford. This sequence would provide inspiration to future generations of filmmakers, such as De Sica and Rossellini.
The Rin-Tin-Tin Award
Each year I give my Rin-Tin-Tin award for the best performance of an animal actor. This year the award goes to an ensemble effort all the animals featured in Nell Shipman’s The Grub-Stake (1923), which was screened in the smaller companion theater that is part of the new Verdi building.
Nell Shipman is an important figure in the development of what has been described as ‘the outdoor film.’ Born in British Columbia, Shipman started her career as a stage actress, traveling around the country in various professional companies. Moving to the Los Angeles area, she soon became involved in the southern California film industry, Initially she wrote scripts, but was soon acting in movies. After witnessing an act of cruelty to a mountain lion, she began a life long interest in promoting humane care for animals. In 1915, Shipman was cast in a film titled God’s Country and the Woman (1916) in which the wilderness was essentially one of the characters in the story. Shipman followed this success by producing and starring in a second film, Back to God’s Country (1919), the first (surviving) feature film to be shot partially in Canada. Forming her own production company, Nell Shipman Productions, she moved an entire production company to a wilderness studio camp, Lionhead Lodge, at Priest Lake, Idaho, where she made a series of wilderness adventure shorts and feature films.
| Nell Shipman.
Photograph: courtesy Boise State University.
Fueled by writers such as Jack London, the 1920s saw a rapidly expanding market for exotic adventure stories. Shipman’s films were made to meet this demand, but what makes her wilderness films unusual was her underplaying of typical adventure plots of heroes and villains. Instead, the overlying theme of her films was that of a spiritual quest to reconnect with the natural world. Animals held a special place in her films. Instead of being part of the landscape for the hero to conquer and vanquish, the wild animals in her films are ‘guides’ that can help find our way back to nature. By becoming friends with these animals, Shipman’s characters were often able to discover greater truths about themselves. She described in her autobiography, “If I could show these animals on the screen, doing their stuff freely . . . then a step would be taken, a smidgen of communication established between fellow creatures.”
To facilitate the need for a variety of animals, the studio built its own zoo at Lionhead Lodge. The menagerie ultimately included: a bear, deer, elks, coyotes, wolves, a cougar, two wildcats, raccoons, skunks, eagles, owls, porcupines, marmots, muskrats, rabbits, plus eight malamute houses, and even a beaver dam.
The Grub-Stake, one of Nell Shipman’s most ambitious projects, recounts the story of Faith Diggs (Nell Shipman), a young woman who travels with her father “Skipper” (Walt Whitman) to the Klondike in search of gold. Punished by harsh conditions, and betrayed by men she trusts, she stumbles into a Lost Valley. In this shelter from the harsh world of liars and cheats, Faith is able to recover her spirit and strength, and face the world again.
With its completely natural locations, and a plot that strays far from Hollywood conventions, The Grub-Stake has a proto-feminist, independent feel. And since Nell Shipman codirected the film, wrote the script and was the lead actor, this is clearly her film all the way. But wearing so many hats is a hard trick for anyone to pull off, and there are places where the story meanders, including stretches where Faith is helpless (immobilized with an ankle sprain), throwing us back to outdated mustache-twirling plot conventions that other sections of the film seem to want to move away from. The film also has an odd combination of visual poetry matched to clunky title dialogue. Faith’s father, Skipper, can only talk in ‘shiver-me-timbers,’ sailor clichés that by comparison makes Popeye sound like Noël Coward. But The Grub-Stake has much to recommend it, including a charming sequence in the Lost Valley where Shipman makes friends with brown bears, deer, and even pets a porcupine.
Whatever its merits, The Grubstake ran into a problem that has torpedoed the best efforts of many an ‘indie’ production. Just as their film was premiering, their distributor declared bankruptcy. Financially ruined, the Shipman team tried to recover with a series of short films, but eventually, the lack of financial resources was too great, and the studio was disbanded. Creditors sold off many of the animals to the San Diego Zoo. All the projects and bold ideas hatched and developed in the glory days of the Lionhead Lodge, vanished in a dream-ending bankruptcy.
For another 45 years, Shipman made a living by writing screenplays and novels, but she was never able to return to a position where she could go back to what she loved best, making films. Nell Shipman retired to an area near Palm Springs, where she died in 1970. But with restorations, and with the new availability of her work (available on DVD through Boise State University), Shipman is secure in her place as a pioneer of the outdoor film.
Clair-Eyed Vision: The critical eye of René Clair
Every year the festival highlights the work of an individual artist, and this year the focus was on René Clair, an important French director who bridged the silent and sound era, and who also made films in Britain and the United States.
Born in Paris in 1898, Clair served in the ambulance corps in 1917, thus making himself part of a long list of important artists and writers who served in WWI ambulance services, (including such strange bedfellows as Hemingway and Walt Disney!). After the war, Clair became an actor and film critic, eventually becoming an assistant director, and used this position as a springboard to make his first film, Paris qui dort [The Crazy Ray] (1923). He also became a part of a group of artists that called themselves Surrealists. The carnage of WWI had in many ways invalidated the idea that a world could be built on solely rational principles. Surrealism instead championed impulsive, irrational thought and the importance of dreams.
| Paris qui dort [Paris endormi] (1923).
Photograph: La Cinémathèque Française, Iconothèque;
courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
In The Crazy Ray, a night watchman on the Eiffel Tower (Henri Rollan) wakes up to find the entire population of the city frozen in place. Soon he finds a group of unaffected individuals who have escaped the paralysis apparently because they were in an airplane and were high above Paris. At first the group enjoys the unrestricted freedom of doing anything they want: meals in every restaurant, jewels from any store. But boredom sets in, and the men quarrel over the one woman in the group. While on the Eiffel Tower, they receive a radio broadcast directing them to a local address. There they find a scientist who has invented a ray that ‘freezes’ anyone exposed to it. The effects of the ray are eventually reversed, and the world reverts back to its normal state, unaware of what has happened.
In the 1970s, seeing only the defects of story and editing, Clair himself severely cut The Crazy Ray down to a mere skeleton of 34 minutes, which is the version generally seen in the last two decades. The film screened at Pordenone is close to its original length of 67 minutes, still a short film by anyone’s standards.
With a machine that floods the world with a mysterious radiation, a deserted city, and a mad scientist around to explain everything, there is a very modern feel to this film. However accidentally, The Crazy Ray foreshadows a long list of 1950s ‘atomic apocalypse’ films such as The World, the Flesh and The Devil (1959) and On the Beach (1959). (A current ‘deserted city’ film, I Am Legend, was also a novel written by Richard Matheson in the ’50s.) There is no doubt The Crazy Ray is a science fiction film, but Clair is less concerned in the science than in the comic and satirical implications of what would happen if a city would suddenly ‘fall asleep.’ In this sense, Clair is more interested in Surrealism than science and technology. Still, the science fiction elements resonate throughout this film, adding interest to Clair’s sense of slapstick fun, as we see various tableaus of frozen characters stuck in various moments that range from gluttony to thievery.
Whatever genre you want to put The Crazy Ray in, the film is a visual tribute to the “the tall iron girl I have always been in love with,” which is how Clair described the Eiffel Tower. The Crazy Ray indulges us the fantasy of having the tower and its view all to ourselves, a wish anyone who as been on Eiffel Tower completely understands. A film like The Crazy Ray is the perfect platform for Clair to show off Paris, caught by his camera in 1925 like a fly in amber, forever preserved.
René Clair followed this film with Entr’acte [Between Acts] (1926), his fullest exploration into Surrealism. This short film, designed to be shown between acts of the Swedish Ballet, is full of chase scenes, camels and runaway hearses. The film was lauded by avant-garde artists of the 1920s, such as Jean Cocteau and Fernand Léger, and Clair could have used both The Crazy Ray and Entr’acte as calling cards in pursuit of fine art.
But after these initial efforts, Clair instead turned to commercial cinema, an art form he was to work in with various degrees of success for most of the rest of his career. His next film, The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1925) is a fantasy film about Julien Boissel (George Valtier), who, thinking his fiancée has rejected him, goes to the Moulin Rouge to drink himself to despair. While drinking, he meets a mysterious doctor, who convinces Julien to be part of an experiment in astral projection. Agreeing to this experiment, Julien is hypnotized, and is able to project his spirit away from his corporeal self. Separated from his body, Julien finds himself able to float around town as a ghostlike presence on the Parisian streets. Julien enjoys existing in a world without physical pain, and being invisible, plays practical jokes on unsuspecting Parisians. But the joke is cut short when the authorities find his inert body, and declaring him to be dead, prepare for an autopsy. In a race against time, Julien must reunite with his body, so that he can then marry his fiancée.
The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge has all the elements of the best and worst of Clair. The idea of astral projection is a wonderful concept, which could allow a story to go a hundred different directions. Yet Clair places this wild idea into the most routine of melodramas. The part of the film that works best is when Julien becomes an ethereal spirit, able to break away from the toils of the physical world. But just as the narrative seems to want to get into serious, even metaphysical issues about the nature of our soul, Clair drops us harshly back into a laborious plot about mistaken romantic intentions. Clair loved high art, and he also wanted to be a commercial artist, and too often he wants to tip his cap to both sides of the fence at the same time, often winding up uncomfortably in a space somewhere in between.
However uneven his later silent films, Clair’s one unquestioned success was Un chapeau de paille d’Italie [The Horse Ate the Hat, also known as The Italian Straw Hat] (1928). Taken from an popular play (first staged in 1851) this wonderful film is an example of what can happen when the right idea is given to the right director with perfectly-cast actors working with a production studio at the peak of its artistic ability. The plot is an exquisitely well-timed series of misunderstandings that occurs after a horse owned by bridegroom Fadinard (Albert Préjean) takes a bite of a straw hat hung in a bush by the side of a road. The hat belongs to a certain lady who was off in the woods with a certain man, not her husband, and she must replace her hat or there will be hell to pay. Pauline Kael called The Italian Straw Hat as “one of the funniest films ever made, and one of the most elegant as well.” With its playful sexual innuendo, I agree with those who consider this film to be the first true ‘screwball comedy.’
| Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (1928). Albert Préjean.
Photograph: La Cinémathèque Française, Iconothèque; courtesy Le
Giornate del Cinema Muto.
René Clair transitioned into the sound era with a series of great films, including À nous la liberté (1931), which is said to have influenced Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). But as WWII approached, Clair was forced to move to Britain and then the United States. Clair joined a long list of European directors who were unable to thrive as part of Hollywood studio system, and he returned to France after the war. But now Clair was considered the old guard, his plots and characters out of touch with the next generation of French filmmakers. An up-and-coming critic François Truffaut dismissed his work as “emotionless, studio-bound artifice.” Truffaut would use his position as film critic to start a career as a director, ironically duplicating the career move of Clair, who had also started as a film critic. René Clair spent the last years of his life recutting his old films in an effort to meet his own ever-more-demanding standards. He died in Neuilly, France, in 1981.
I do agree with Truffaut’s criticism that Clair often treated his characters as objects cleverly manipulated, and visually entertaining, but still objects. Perhaps it’s a shame Clair’s career didn’t start about ten years sooner I think he would have made a fantastic director of slapstick, and farce, where any attempts to analyze one’s deep meanings and interior motivations would be greeted by a quick pie in the face. While René Clair would make four decades of sound films, some of them important, I think his natural strengths played best in the silent era, where he could more easily carry on a delightful, and often masterful, mix of low comedy and high art.
Special Shows and Restorations
This year, the festival had as a special guest Jean Darling, one of the original members of the Our Gang series. To honor Darling, the festival screened Wiggle Your Ears (1929). The long running and hugely popular Our Gang series gets little attention from today’s highbrow film journals, but in the late twenties these films were often daring, almost experimental projects. A case in point is Wiggle Your Ears. For anyone who has dismissed Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) as pretentious and self-important, do we have a movie for you.
| Wiggle Your Ears (1929).
Jean Darling (left) and Harry Spear.
Photograph: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Mary Ann Jackson is smitten by Harry Spear because he can wiggle his ears. But Harry has a desperate crush on ‘vamp’ Jean Darling. Mary Ann tries to transform herself into flapper, but the strategy doesn’t work. Meanwhile Joe Cobb has made his ears wiggle with the help of chewing gum and string. He basks in attention, until his deception is discovered. Such is the complicated life of six-year-olds. Now imagine every scene in the film shot in close ups. Extreme close ups. With children’s faces expanded over the entire screen, the director of this film, Robert McGowan, has transformed a story about puppy-love angst into a tragedy of epic proportions.
Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc was filmed the year before, and one must assume McGowan was familiar with the film. Homage or send up? You be the judge. A word to Renée Falconetti: When you’re playing Joan of Arc, in the interrogation scene, try wriggling your ears. It’s a neat trick, and who knows you might win over the judges.
Another film screened this week was Séraphin ou les jambes nues [Seraphin; or, The Naked Legs] (1921). Director Louis Feuillade is best known for his work in serials such as Les vampires (1915), but he was an incredibly prolific director, making over 700 films before his untimely death in 1924. With his seemingly effortless ability to create compelling stories, Feuillade was one of the first great talents of silent film. And to borrow a tennis expression, Feuillade was an ‘all court player.’ Comedies, action films, melodramas he could do them all. In Séraphin; or, The Naked Legs, Georges Biscot (Séraphin) plays a fastidious manager of an insurance company, who while going to work, has his trousers stained. In trying to get them cleaned, through a series of misfortunes, he finds himself in increasingly compromising positions. Every step he takes makes matters worse until he ends up in the street without pants. The premise is routine, and one might expect a slapstick comedy, in the Mack Sennett mode. But Feuillade puts his own special charm into the film, turning it into a very funny farce of prissy Séraphin forced to cope with a series of hilariously embarrassing situations.
Should Men Walk Home? (1927) was Mabel Normand’s last film before health problems forced her retirement. She and Creighton Hale are two thieves who crash a party held at a mansion with the intent of stealing a brooch. Produced by Hal Roach and directed with great comic timing by Leo McCarey, this is one of Mabel Normand’s best comedies. Most of her available films today are from her Mack Sennett days, when Mabel was asked to do little more than pout and smile for the camera, so it’s nice to see a well-constructed comedy that allows her some real comic business. Oliver Hardy has a great bit as a party reveler who gets mixed up with Mabel’s efforts to steal the brooch the scene gives us a brief and tantalizing look at a ‘what-if’ comedy team of ‘Normand and Hardy.’
One of the most pleasant surprises of the festival was the showing of a relatively unknown film, The Stolen Voice (1915). This film was made in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was the original American movie-making capital before the appeal of sunny skies and a healthy distance from New York patent attorneys enticed studios to move to southern California. Directed by Frank Lane, The Stolen Voice is the story of a famous opera singer, Gerald D’Orville (Robert Warwick) who, under a hypnotic suggestion by Svengali-like Dr. Von Gahl (Giorgio Majeroni), loses his voice. Completely mute, Gerard leaves for Europe for a cure. Told his case is hopeless, Gerard returns to America, where he is befriended by an old friend, Dick (Bertram Marburgh) an alcoholic whom Gerald had previously rescued from the gutter.
A reformed Dick is now a movie producer, and has a job for which Gerard never needs to say a word he is cast as a movie matinee idol. With only a few exceptions (like The Hunchback of Notre Dame) silent films rarely had a character who was mute or deaf perhaps there was a fear of calling attention to the fact that everyone in a film made in that era, is in effect, mute. That is, silent film is not ‘silent’ (there is almost always music playing with the images) but the key element that defines the art form is that silent film has no synchronized dialogue. In a silent film, characters may communicate by title cards, but words cannot be spoken aloud. The Stolen Voice brilliantly disregards the silent film taboo of a mute character, and Gerard finds himself with a second career a film actor working in a medium in which his disability is in many ways an asset.
When Dr. Von Gahl, (who made Gerard mute because he was jealous of Gerard’s success), goes to the movies, he is shocked to find that his archrival, Gerard, is the star of the film, now more popular than ever. The enormous, dominating image of Gerard is too much for Dr. Gahl to take, and he tries to run out of the theater. But in a exceptionally clever shot, in an almost literal coup de cinema (“blow of the cinema”), the bad doctor collapses directly underneath Gerard’s image on the screen, thus lifting the hypnotic spell, allowing Gerard’s voice to return. The Stolen Voice is a wonderful, entertaining film, and a terrific example of the level of sophistication already reached by filmmakers in 1915.
The other ‘undiscovered gem’ of the festival was the restored version of Chicago (1927).
| Chicago (1927). Phyllis Haver (center).
Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive collection; courtesy Le Giornate del
In a single year, 1924, the city of Chicago was rocked by three separate violent crimes. In March an automobile salesman was shot dead by his drunk lover, a month later a woman shot her boyfriend and watched him die while she listened to her Victrola. And one month later, two teenagers, Leopold and Loeb, shot dead schoolboy Bobby Franks. Reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins condensed these three tales of murder into a single story that was ultimately made into a successful play, Chicago, an ironic comedy about America’s capacity to transform violence into entertainment. The silent film version of the story focuses on Roxie Hart, who shoots her lover dead in the first five minutes and then spends the rest of the film using every trick up her alluringly-perfumed sleeve to beat the rap. Little known actress Phyillis Haver is terrific as Roxie, completely ‘selling’ the point of the film that we love scandals, and we secretly love the bad people that give us the pleasure of these scandals. Directed by Frank Urson (but perhaps codirected by Cecil B. DeMille) this film has everything you’d want from a movie great acting, snappy title cards, a brisk pace . . . the obvious question is: why is this film so little known?
Chicago was one of many fine 1927 films to be brushed aside by the talking picture revolution. The film had other complications unrelated to its own merits: DeMille’s previously released The King of Kings (1927) was doing huge business, and theaters who were showing the pious story of Jesus had second thoughts about booking for their next film a sordid tale of sex, murder and corruption.
Another irony about Chicago is that the film comes just at the dawn of what would later be called the pre-Code Era. Hollywood films from 1929 to 1933 are famous for their stark and uncompromising handling of hot-button social issues such as violence and sexuality. In its cynical tone and hard-boiled sensibility, Chicago has to be considered one of Hollywood’s first pre-Code films, and as such, it delivers its unvarnished appraisal of what we truly value in this country. Virtue may be its own reward, but it’s vice that pays the rent. Chicago deserves a place among the top American silent films.
The year’s program of Weimar films was essentially curated by one man, film historian Hans-Michael Bock. When discussing his reasons for including the films in this festival, Bock made his reasons clear: “I wanted to show films from the Weimar period that no one has ever heard of.”
In this, Bock was successful. Of course he was not speaking literally, since these films are available in German archives. But in the larger sense, he was correct in that very few people, outside of specialists, had seen these movies. The problem with this approach is that the pressure was then on Bock to come up with a list of great films. If he had done so, he could make claim that because these movies had been left off ‘the list,’ the exaggerated influence of Kracauer’s and Eisner’s work had damaged the understanding of German film history,
But in watching these ‘films from Weimar that no one has seen,’ I had the opposite reaction. With only a few exceptions, (Baruch by Dupont, and perhaps Heaven on Earth), the films screened this week were not nearly as good as the ‘usual suspects,’ the 40 or so films promoted as the best films of the period. The claim that the films have interest as sociological documents, of course, can’t be argued, but what about the other 3000 feature films made from the same period. Are we going to make the same claims for all the films?
Another approach would have been to take a more focused theme, such as Weimar Comedy, or even to pick a special time, such as when Weimar was transitioning to sound.
Or perhaps the festival could have showcased films that are discussed in Kracauer and Eisner, but are still seldom given public showings, such as Sylvester (1923), or Shattered (1921). In response to this idea, Bock said (during a Q&A) that he did not want to show a film that was publicly available, or has ever been on DVD.
While Bock’s goals in this approach are well intentioned, I think the festival will be ill served if availability on DVD is ever a primary reason not to show a film in the main theater. This criterion will drive the Pordenone festival in the direction toward a clique of completists who come to the festival so that they can notch one more incredibly obscure film on their belt. Currently, the festival is using the smaller theater venue for projects and films available on DVD (such as the restoration of Nell Shipman’s The Grub-Stake). It makes sense to use the smaller venue mostly for digital projection, but if one takes this logic to an extreme, it will split the festival into two sections: a DVD festival of great films in the small theater, and a 35mm festival of mediocre films in the large concert hall.
An even larger issue is that this line of argument may be 40 years too late. The problem was never with Kracauer’s and Eisner’s two influential books the problem is it took so long for a major critic to directly challenge their views and perspectives. A program featuring ‘the other Weimar’ might have been incredibly helpful in 1968, when the history of German cinema was being codified by textbooks around the world. Today, a more pressing problem for film professors is just trying to convince a new generation of students why they should watch silent films at all (or even watch black-and-white movies, for that matter). For a large percentage of people alive today, WWII is a distant historical event that happened over half a century ago. Many are too young even to remember the Cold War. For this younger generation, Kracauer’s politically charged conclusions have no hold on their emotions or memories. They are merely words on a page.
But there are still people who do care about these things, and however belatedly, correctives do come. Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (2000) is an important work by a major academic scholar. Elsaesser takes issue with many of Kracauer’s conclusions, and offers new insights about silent German cinema, including a chapter on Reinhold Schünzel and German comedy. And if responses to Kracauer and Eisner are long overdue, it’s better late than never. Let’s hope this year’s “The Other Weimar” program will be a part of a much larger discussion to better understand a vital and still relevant period in world history.
The festival took place in October 2007 in Pordenone, Italy.