Casting a Silent Spell – Pordenone Silent Film Festival 2018


It’s autumn, early October in Pordenone. That means one thing for a particular group of cinephiles – let the silence begin. After 5 years of attending, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival has easily become one of my most eagerly anticipated events of the year. An experience unlike any other, the Giornate, as it is endearingly referred to, casts a spell upon like-minded enthusiasts of silent cinema for 8 days. Time seems to stand still during this period as one is transported back to the origins of cinema when the medium was not only being created, but in the process of discovering itself. The language was unique. The fruits of these early efforts were reaped by millions ever so long ago. And so it continues for the fortunate attendees of the Giornate each year, as the forgotten, rediscovered and restored classics are once again in the limelight, on the big screen where they once reigned. Silent cinema occupies that lofty position of being the blueprint from which everything that followed for decades was gleaned. It carved the path upon which many variations of the cinematic form branched, blossomed and flourished. Silent cinema is an artform that remains pure and unchanged as it was 100 years ago for an important reason: the eyes and the faces did all the talking.

The Giornate provides an opportunity to revisit and re-examine films once dismissed and forgotten. Not only do the collegium dialogues and master classes provide further insight and depth into the programme, but there are instructions for young and upcoming musicians, lectures on archiving, and on the meticulous and scientific art of film preservation and restoration. The films are ultimately why everyone attends the festival, but make no mistake – the star is the variety of musical accompaniment. The lauded world musicians invited each year to treat the audience to their talent shine as bright as the films. They play not only piano solos, but a number of instruments for maximum musical serenade. The opening and closing night films provide a full-bodied feast of an orchestra delighting the audience with original scores to accompany the screenings. Rehearsing for months leading up to the events, they deliver. Their importance was cemented this year with the Giornate’s inaugural award for Best Musical Accompaniment. The deserving winners were Stephen Horne and Luigi Vitale for the new restoration of Jacques Feyder’s 1921 exotic 3-hour adventure, L’Atlantide. With no time to rehearse due to a scheduling change, they watched the film quickly on fast-forward and delivered a flawless 3-hour performance that evening.

The Giornate allowed me to revisit one of the greatest silent classics of all time in a lovely 35mm print, The Phantom Carriage. Victor Sjöström’s 1921 silent gem remains as masterful as ever and confirms why I have seen it repeatedly over the years. As with Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, special efforts are made to screen films in 35mm. This year, in beautiful, unblemished prints, some of the memorable 35mm presentations and films were Cousin Bette (Max de Rieux, 1928), The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), Tokyo Ondo (Hotei Nomura, 1932), The Home Maker (King Baggot, 1925), The Enemy (Fred Niblo, 1927), The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Lev Kuleshov, 1924), The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923), and Captain Blood (David Smith, 1924). And last but not least, The Downfall of Osen (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1935), in which 17-year-old Isuzu Yamada lights the screen on fire with her intense performance as a young prostitute who offers protection to a bullied boy. Dismissed by critics upon release, even Mizoguchi was unhappy with the film, but I think it is a fine piece of work. From such a young age, one can see how Isuzu Yamada matured into even greater performances in Throne of Blood, Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy, The Lower Depths, Tokyo Twilight, and Flowing.

Alas, time does not permit me to write about all my favourites of the festival, but here are the discoveries that cast a spell upon me, in order of preference:


DCP | Carl Theodor Dreyer | Sweden | 1920 | Programme: The Swedish Challenge

At long last. I have been waiting to see Dreyer’s film forever and it was an unexpected experience. One expects greatness from the master, but I wasn’t prepared for a flat-out masterpiece. It baffles the mind as to why it is not considered one of Dreyer’s greatest works. Newly restored in 2018 by the Swedish Film Institute, The Parson’s Widow accomplishes the rare feat of not only being artistic and expertly made, but it is also very entertaining. In 17th-century Norway, three men have applied for the vacant post of parson in a village. The first one auditions and preaches about the beauty of heaven. The second is a comical oaf and is laughed off the pulpit. But the third gives the gathering what they brought their souls to church for – a spitfire lecture laced with fear about their sinful lives and the impending ugliness of hell where they were all headed. He is chosen unanimously. Happy he is for this position which will allow him the financial wherewithal to marry his fiancée. However, he quickly finds out that along with the new post he has inherited the deceased pastor’s widow, who is to be made his new wife! Alas, she is a septuagenarian and the young pastor is far too frisky and libidinous for such an alliance. The widow is played with severe rectitude and regal confidence by Hildur Carlberg. Her performance lends to the creation of one of silent cinema’s most complex and interesting female characters. Shooting on location in Norway in authentic 17th-century houses, Dreyer makes great use of the Nordic landscape. His penchant for authenticity is obvious throughout the entire production. What starts as an innocent adventure of a young pastor’s dream job morphs into a sobering look into loneliness, loyalty, and independence. For the widow (who is passed from pastor to pastor as they all die and leave her behind), her only remaining treasure is being in the pastor’s house, which she has grown accustomed to and knows intimately. The house represents the symbol and memory of her one true love – her first husband. Hildur Carlberg delivers a stunning performance of intelligence, strength and depth. Her lined face tells stories of a lifetime of nostalgia and this is made more painful as the actress was dying during production and passed away soon after the film was completed. She acted in a mere handful of films, but only with the best – Dreyer, Stiller and Sjöström.


DCP | Jean Epstein | France | 1923 | Programme: Honoré de Balzac

One of the unheralded masterworks of silent cinema and of early stylish filmmaking with a touch of the avant-garde, The Red Inn is straightforward in narrative, but the execution is anything but. Balzac’s tale of greed, guilt and treachery unfolds during a lavish dinner at a wealthy man’s home. One of the much-travelled guests is asked to tell a beguiling tale from one of his many journeys. Thus the tale begins on a dark and stormy night when a diamond merchant seeks refuge in an inn. The merchant confesses to two others at the inn about his precious cargo of diamonds and jewels. He begs to share their room as the inn is filled to capacity. Eyes bulge and lips are licked. Temptation is in the smoky air. The film shifts back and forth from the story-telling at the dinner to the titular inn. Epstein’s stylish images, ornamental designs and impressionistic methods were far ahead of their time. What they add to the film is ambiance and an impending sense of dread, shot mostly in close-ups, where the camera seems to glide across the guests’ faces at both the inn and the dinner party. Eyes do not look – they pierce, they accuse, they suspect. As the story progresses, so does the tension, the uneasy glances and the look of guilt on one particular face. Epstein tells this story of murder and a wronged man by way of faces filled with dread and anxiety. He seems to be probing deep into the soul of each character, as if prying into their darkest realms. A masterpiece of hallucinations and surrealism, it is enveloped in the warning shadows where dark deeds linger.


35mm | José Leitão de Barros | Portugal | 1930 | Programme: Rediscoveries

Predating the anthropological documentaries of the great Johan van der Keuken and the works of Frederick Wiseman, this 2h7m avant-garde portrait is an exhilarating excursion along the streets of Lisbon and into the lives of its people. Simply put, it is divine. Capturing old traditions with new cinematic techniques of the epoch, hurtling us into the lives of the people of Lisbon, it is a pulsating homage to the city and a remarkably artistic document of its inhabitants. Employing experimental techniques and at times a journalistic approach, the film commences with birth and ends with the inevitable death. The first images are of babies and children as they adorn perambulators, playgrounds, schoolyards, and classrooms. We are then whisked off to the streets and the rhythms, beauty and ugliness. Although many of the scenes are abstract, some sequences are staged for effect, but expertly done. Some may regard it as a travelogue etched in a particular epoch; however, the stitching together of the vignettes, the fluidity of the camera, and the faces of Portuguese people of various social strata all add to making this a very special film. The film baffled critics upon release, but today it can be hailed as a reflection of a defining moment in film history. A shorter version of the film exists, but the Giornate audience was treated to the full-length original release print, courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa. It’s not all pretty pictures – the director is not afraid to show some ugly fights that include fish slapping at the local fish market and some brawls. There is one particularly hilarious scene of an amorous man, his wandering hands and a scantily clad mannequin in a shop window. As the film began with the singing and crying of the young, the closing moments slow down to a whisper as the camera lingers on faces of old men, their walks, their moments of contemplation. And finally, as they prepare for the inevitable and that resting place in the dust, we observe the inhabitants of a home for elderly men who make their own coffins for that final appointment.


35mm | John Stahl | USA | 1924 | Programme: John Stahl

Stahl has revisited the theme of male insensitivity many times in his career. However, where many of those films end in tragedy, Husbands and Lovers maintains a wonderful balance between comedy and drama, while never maudlin or sentimental. Husbands and Lovers, along with the masterpiece discovered at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year, Seed (1931), and Memory Lane (1926) are his three best films. This one opens with a long scene highlighting a wife’s ritual morning chores as she takes care of everyone and everything in her home, except herself. She lays out her husband’s clothes for work, selects his tie, gets him a towel, prepares his breakfast; she even has to clean the splashed bathroom after he uses it every morning. On such a morning as he is pampering himself, he studies her in the mirror and makes insulting remarks about her untidy appearance. He asks if she has to look like this every morning, says she should do something about herself, especially her “rat’s nest hair”. Her face shows the pain his insensitive criticisms have caused, but in order to please him, she changes her appearance that very day. Alas, he does notice her transformation in the evening but insults her again, dismissing her new look. But she has now caught the eye of her husband’s womanizing friend. Due to the mistreatment by her husband, she contemplates whether she should be unfaithful to him or not. There is much dry humour on display, but told elegantly. One of the early films to flirt with the notion of acceptability of divorce and remarriage, Stahl’s film is far from a comedy about the battle of the sexes. It is an intelligent, marital drama that is heartfelt, honest, and funny. The film opens with a dedication that reads: To the tired American wife, who has a husband, but craves a lover!


35mm | Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown | USA | 1920 | Programme: The Canon Revisited

Dignified, complex, majestic, realistic – these are some of the words that describe this robust adaptation. It is also the most faithful adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel to screen. It remains one of the most popular works of American literature. Set in 1757 in the dense forests of upper New York, the French and British are at war, battling for control of North America. Both sides have engaged Native Americans as allies in this long fight. The fate of the daughters of a British colonel and their two native guides converge as they traverse the wilderness to reach safety. In pursuit is the villainous Magua, a Huron runner, who has set his sights on Alice (Yellow Hair), the younger of the two daughters. Maurice Tourneur suffered an accident on set and the film was completed by Clarence Brown during Tourneur’s recuperation. Regardless of how much of the film each director shot, Tourneur ensured that Clarence Brown received director’s credit and this proved to be a major boost to Brown’s career. There isn’t a single wasted minute of footage. All the actors, even Wallace Beery as Magua, perform remarkably. One gets the impression that both directors respected the scope of the novel and didn’t just focus on conventional trappings by dwelling too much on the romance. But they do not shy away from the complications of an ill-fated, interracial relationship. Very subtly and in a manner delicately, the lesson, simplistic as it may seem, is imparted that in all cultures there is good and bad. This breathtaking and gorgeously photographed film, with a nail-biting climax, is one of the best literary adaptations to the screen I have ever seen. Year after year, The Canon Revisited, along with Rediscoveries, are proving to be my favourite sections of the Giornate’s programme.


35mm | John Stahl | USA | 1926 | Programme: John Stahl

A wonderful surprise and an undiscovered gem of a film. A soon-to-be-bride is visited by her former lover on the eve of her wedding. It is obvious that she is still very much in love with him. The suffering of having lost his first love is clear on the young man’s face. She decides to take one last stroll down memory lane to bid farewell. The camera follows them as they talk and it is revealed that they have known each other since they were in school. Along the street, the ballad Memory Lane is sung by a group of men around the corner and the lyrics are displayed as inter-titles. Suddenly, from the orchestra pit, we hear the words of the song being sung out loud by the pianist, Donald Sosin! It was a lovely surprise and accompaniment to the very tender scene. She returns home, bids a final farewell and is married the next day. A misunderstanding and confusion lead to her former lover driving the young couple’s car on the way to their honeymoon. Angry and still hurt, he drives away with the new bride, leaving the husband stranded. The next act is unpredictable as I was not prepared for her actions nor those of her jilted husband. Needless to say, the gossip that ensues is like lightning, and this is depicted quite literally as the townsfolk spread the news via phone. We see the wires sizzling and burning as the scandal is spread. But Stahl is not interested in scandal. He fast-forwards the story years into the relationship where things are resolved, except one – did the young bride make the right decision on that eventful night? This is a beautiful film depicting the kind of unabashed love you only see in the movies.


35mm | Marcel L’Herbier | France | 1920 | Programme: Honoré de Balzac

Original, captivating and spellbinding. L’Herbier employs surreal and avant-garde techniques of early French cinema to tell the tale of a Breton fishing family. The father has two passions – the sea and his son. When the boy is born, he quickly whisks him away from his mother promising that he will be responsible for raising the boy and she will raise their daughter. He takes the newly born babe to the sea, lifts him high and introduces him to the crashing waves – not unlike that famous scene from The Lion King. The boy grows up to be a spoiled teenager who hates the sea and wants nothing to do with fishing. He is tempted by passions of the flesh. The corrupt city beckons him. When tragedy strikes at home, the boy’s criminal actions are too much to bear. The father decides that the sea would pass judgment and castigate his ungrateful son. Make no mistake about it, the main character is the sea. The sea which observes, punishes, but can also forgive. Making optimal use of its natural settings, L’Herbier uses the Breton landscape to convey the various moods of the film. Innovative and symbolic, it reminds one of the works by French masters Jean Epstein and Jean Gremillon. A daring scene in the corrupt city shows two women as they kiss and caress each other’s knees. A gorgeous, tinted 35mm print, courtesy of the Gaumont archive, was shown.


DCP | Victor Sjöström | Sweden | 1915 | Programme: Rediscoveries

This 40-minute gem by the always brilliant Victor Sjöström, part of the auspicious Rediscoveries section, seems like a dream as it is the rediscovery of the decade. Once considered long lost, a damaged nitrate print was recently found in Switzerland. It is now just the 5th film to have survived from Sjöström’s early years. In the opening minutes, his camera shows the level of maturity he achieved in a short time in the still-developing language of cinema. The compositions of light and space are very impressive for 1915 and it’s all a credit to the master himself. Holk, frustrated and burdened with an impending calamity, reluctantly goes poaching to get food for his sick wife and child. He is accompanied by his best friend, Blom. The two poachers are discovered by the forest ranger of the estate and are chased. An accident occurs and the forest ranger is shot dead. Terrified, both men escape, leaving their rifle behind. Blom is noticed as they are being chased and becomes wanted for murder. He hides in the attic of his best friend, who was not recognized on the day of the shooting. As the investigation deepens, a monetary reward is offered for information leading to the capture of Blom. Holk’s wife by this time has died and he needs money for her funeral. He is tempted to become the titular Judas and give up his hidden friend. But if he does, what price is to be paid? With each step, from the opening shot, Sjöström refuses to judge Holk and never pities him. At the centre of Holk’s choices is always the love for his wife and child. He is faced with compulsion, but never ego, arrogance or deviousness. Filmed with such maturity by a young Sjöström, it is a tragic story about spirituality and forgiveness. The spectre of death looms in the background as if anticipating death itself from Sjöström’s future masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage.


35mm | Paul Czinner | Germany | 1927 | Programme: Honoré de Balzac

Based on Balzac’s daring and oft-filmed novel, originally published in 1834 as Don’t Touch the Axe. The Duchess of Langeais forms a friendly alliance with a prominent Marquis, who is also a renowned war hero and a general. In the midst of an unhappy marriage and with an absent husband, Antoinette de Langeais is bored. Her social life is spiced with flirtations as she reaps flatteries that energize her. She uses her schemed coquetries to lead the Marquis on, only to play with him and then offer a cold rejection that has him smouldering with yearning. But he is not to be mocked and plans a calculated revenge, all the time trying to conceal the fact that he has fallen deeply in love with her. Czinner’s elegant tryst of a love affair, deception and sexual frustration is a sensation of mood and style. This is a completely German film, cast, production crew et al. But never for a second does any single scene or moment not feel authentically French. Elisabeth Bergner displays a range of emotions and is perfect as both the coquettish Duchess and the remorseful woman. After receiving glowing reviews upon release in both Germany and France, it is puzzling that this silent version is not well-known. The story behind the original title is that on a voyage to England, the Marquis visited Westminster Abbey. Upon observing the axe that was used to behead Charles I, he was told promptly by a Westminster guard: “Don’t touch the axe!” The Marquis acrimoniously relates this story to the Duchess immediately after suffering her cold rejection, and as he repeats the guard’s words, he keenly gazes at her delicate neck.


DCP | John Stahl | USA | 1917 | Programme: John Stahl

Among the restorations, a special event was The Lincoln Cycle, which was part of the John Stahl retrospective even though on screen it is credited to the actor and production company owner Benjamin Chapin. There’s a story behind this. It is considered Stahl’s earliest surviving work, but at the time of the film’s release Chapin took credit for writing and directing it. He also suppressed the names of all the other actors. Upon the film’s release Stahl informed the press that it was he who directed the film and revealed the names of the actors, in particular Charlie Jackson, who plays Lincoln as a boy. The dispute went nowhere as the production company and all the distributors refused to give Stahl his rightful credit as director, but interestingly enough they never contested his claim – a claim which he maintained for the rest of his life. The original film with all ten parts would have been approximately 4h30m, but the last two parts are lost, so the Giornate screened the beautifully restored 3h38m version. Based on the childhood of Abraham Lincoln and his autobiographies, The Lincoln Cycle focuses on how those childhood events shaped his decisions in the White House, especially during the Civil War. The film is authentic in the recreation of Lincoln’s childhood log cabin in Kentucky. Every single item and prop is a reflection of the early 1800s. Remarkable is the use of flashbacks and how subtly they are interwoven in the narrative. Special permission was granted for filming on the White House lawns, grounds and gardens, using the actual White House facade for many scenes. Towering above all in this impressive film is the young actor Charlie Jackson, who delivers a mature performance of depth and empathy with wide, mournful eyes. Gorgeous also are the artistic inter-titles which were accompanied with a flickering, silhouetted etching of the actual scene.