Nostalgia of the Silent Kind

Moen Mohamed is a guest contributor not directly connected with ICS.

A festival experience unlike any other, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival continues to thrill and excite lovers of cinema antiquity. Every year, for eight days in autumn, the origins of cinema unfold in various forms – in dialogue, discussions, screenings, analyses, book-browsing, DVD-collecting and good ole social inter-mingling. Nestled in northern Italy near Venice, Pordenone is a quaint and lovely little town sprinkled with cafes, shops and gelaterias – the latter being an institution of immense importance and a bastion of hope for those who have a penchant for the creamiest of confections. So many flavours, one must make the time to indulge in sampling of a leisurely kind. It is a town of many cultural events of which Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is just one.

What makes silent cinema so unique and special is that it requires nothing from modern or contemporary cinema for us to appreciate its significance as the lighthouse keeper. Silent cinema paved the way for what we perhaps take for granted today. In spite of the passage of time, silent cinema is an art form that remains fresh today, as innovative and transformative as it was 100 years ago.

Once again, the festival has delivered many surprises and discoveries. Like its summer counterpart, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the Giornate provides an opportunity to revisit and re-examine films once dismissed and albeit forgotten. The collegium dialogues and master classes provide further insight and depth to not just silent cinema and the programme, but lessons for young musicians, lectures on film preservation, archiving and restoration. An interesting and unique experience was the open dialogue with the festival director who talked about the programme and how it’s put together. He encouraged questions about why certain films are programmed, why some are scheduled very late at night and so on. He recommended that we discuss our feelings about watching actors in black-face and to talk about the racism in today’s context and how to examine our feelings about how this is portrayed in silent cinema. The films may be the central attraction, but without a doubt, the star of the festival is the music. These musicians are renowned and are invited each year to treat the audience to their talent. Films are not just accompanied with piano solos, but artists play a variety of instruments during a single screening for maximum musical serenade. One of the traditions of the festival is working with young students of local Pordenone schools who are still in training as they hone their skills. We were treated to their skills one evening as they played an entire orchestra of instruments to accompany a film, much to our enjoyment.

An unforgettable event was An Unprecedented Campaign (USSR 1931, Mikhail Kaufman); the music was performed by the Anton Baibakov ensemble. These talented Russian musicians were brought in especially for this screening and they lifted the lives of the peasants and farmers on screen to such operatic heights with their evocative music. The screening ended at midnight, but everyone was on their feet cheering and yells of “bravi” echoed throughout the Teatro Verdi when it was over.

I was fortunate to discover many gems at the Giornate this year, but these are very special indeed, in order of preference:

Artur Robison | Germany | 1923 | Programme: Italian Cinematheque

Here is a masterwork that demands to be rediscovered. Composed of striking images, painted in the blackest of black and the whitest of white, the visuals are enhanced even more in the strikingly gorgeous 35mm print. This is a film of the darkest imaginations, smoke and mirrors and a mischievous witch of a shadow-maker. It pushes the boundaries very early in cinema’s lifeline to show the possibilities of a narrative without narration. An aristocrat invites to his home four gentlemen. His wife becomes enamoured by one and flirtatious with others. Naturally, jealousy ensues. When the entertainment arrives in the form of a mysterious shadow player, the shows provide more than just shadows of fun and diversion. A superb entry in the Expressionism canon, it may be unjustly compared to the great masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but Warning Shadows is its own nightmarish wonder. Told entirely silent, there are no inter-titles, no dialogues, not a word is uttered on screen. The dance of shadows on screen, the expressions of the actors, the mesmerizing camera, the attentive people out there in the dark of the theatre who interpret and absorb the nocturnal hallucinations of an expressive kind, are all ingredients in the making of this great film work.

Victor Sjöström | Sweden | 1922 | Programme: The Swedish Challenge

Expectations are always high when one sees anything by the great master, Victor Sjöström, but this one is in a category of its own. Part of the focus on early Scandinavian cinema, Sjöström delivers a tale of murder, betrayal, suspicion, love and a trial by fire – all under the auspices of devout Christianity in medieval Sweden. A young girl is all but pawned off to a wealthy but much older man. She remains in love with a young man who reciprocates her affections. A vial of poison, surreptitious meetings, a street peddler of potent substances and one death later that results not from the vial of poison, she stands trial for murder. But was it murder? And who was to blame? As I am writing, I realize how shamefully inadequate my words are to describe Sjöström’s masterpiece. The feelings that arose within me while watching the mint 35mm print were electrified by the deliberate pacing, the long climax that culminates in the trial by fire. And then there is the remarkable Jenny Hasselqvist who gives a performance of such depth, strength and pathos. As she fights with her conscience about her culpability, the anguish on her face is heart-breaking.

Dimitri Kirsanoff | France | 1926 | Programme: The Canon Revisited

One of the great, unheralded masterworks of silent cinema and of early avant-garde film-making, Ménilmontant is straightforward in narrative, but the execution is anything but simple. The first two minutes of the film show a shocking axe murder of what appears to be a man and a woman. There are two young girls playing but we don’t know how this relates to the murder. These scenes are frantically shot and edited together with rapid-fire precision. Most of the film is edited like early avant-garde cinema, but as the narrative progresses, the style changes and the pace slows down. The two sisters, now grown, live together. One falls prey to a young manipulator and ends up pregnant. When the young man seduces the older sister, the pregnant girl finds herself homeless with an infant in a freezing winter. Like Warning Shadows, Ménilmontant is dialogue-free, there are no inter-titles, nothing to drive the narrative except the faces and acting. And what acting! Nadia Sibirskaïa’s performance is one of the great acting feats I have seen in silent cinema. Her waifish appearance, expressive eyes, innocent smile and tears of suffering are enough to make even stones weep. One of the best scenes, in my opinion, in all of silent cinema would be the sharing of bread on a park bench. The young mother sits in the cold with her child, a homeless man then joins her on the bench, he eats a piece of bread, she looks on with baby in arms, her face speaks of her hunger but she asks nothing of him, the harsh winter is apparent as the vapour of her breath indicates. The homeless man places a piece of bread on the bench, she looks at it, the homeless man does not look at her, she picks up the bread, quietly eats it, tears in rivulets on her face, she looks at him and nods her head. He continues to stare in the distance, does not look at her nor speak and places another piece of bread on the bench. All done in silence, sigh.

Robert Thornby | USA | 1920 | Programme: Nasty Women

Part of the Nasty Women programme, this little-known film packs so much energy, wit and commentary in its 63 minutes. This was the very last film I saw at the festival and I couldn’t have wished for a better way to end the eight days of discoveries. A young woman has taken over her father’s Wall Street business. She faces rivalry with one of her father’s business associates who wants to bully her out of a deal. He sees, thinks and dreams only of The Mighty U.S. Dollar. She decides he should be taught a lesson and has him kidnapped, taken to the countryside and planted in the wilderness with no means to get back to New York City, except with his wallet filled with money. His money proves to be useless as no one will take it from him, as arranged by her. When a young, handsome and brutish Boris Karloff shows up, he has other plans for her and the money. Karloff almost steals the show! The lovely 35mm print highlighted the beautifully shot outdoors, glimmering in the sun and sparkling with fun. The Deadlier Sex asserts that it is never too late to realize that money can take us far, but it cannot buy everything.

Holger-Madsen | Denmark | 1916 | Programme: Origins of the Western

This year’s Giornate, as it is fondly referred to by the regulars, offered many memorable moments. One of the best was during the screening, or in fact, the entire screening of The Man Without a Future. Upon realizing that the print had no English subtitles, but only Danish inter-titles, the programmer, who was in attendance, decided to spontaneously provide vocal translation of the inter-titles for the entire film. The microphones were all being used by the musician, so our sudden interpreter had to shout the translation at the top of his voice for the duration of the whole film. The pianist had to monitor the tempo and slow it down as the inter-titles appeared, so he could accommodate the rapid translation, which was heard loud and clear all the way up in the balcony. This spontaneous initiative made him the star of the day and he received a most thunderous applause. As if that wasn’t enough, the film turned out to be one of my favourites of the festival. A Danish production, with Danish actors, shot in Denmark but set in the wild American west. An heiress falls in love with a cowboy while on a trip to the prairies. Alas, she doesn’t think he has much of a future as a cowboy, so she rejects him and travels to Europe. Our dashing cowboy, heartbroken, has a stroke of luck when he discovers he has received a huge inheritance and title and is now a Lord. Of course, the former lovers meet again in Europe, but will he accept her? Utterly believable as a Western in spite of the very Danish shooting locations; the costumes, the acting, the set designs all add to its authenticity.

Ernst Lubitsch | Germany | 1918 | Programme: Films of Pola Negri

With robust direction and acting, Lubitsch and Pola Negri transform the infamous cigarette girl Carmen into an all-consuming human animal, whose appetite for romance leaves no one in her path unscathed. A bastion of free love, she will have satisfaction of all types, physical and emotional, regardless of whom she tramples. Her sensuous beauty and alluring physique are animalistic in their all-natural splendor, but what she doesn’t abide with are the conventional rules and manners of the civilized society of her epoch. She does not need to nest and nurture. She seeks, hunts, captures, relishes and moves on. Ambitiously mounted, sexually liberating, this early film version of Prosper Mérimée’s novella was ahead of its time. Pola Negri is a dominant force to be reckoned with. Her portrayal of Carmen is so fierce that it’s easy to believe that a stormy fire rages through her veins. The superb 35mm print was presented with a brand new score, expressly composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau for the film. It bore no reference or sampling from Bizet’s opera.

“For several years I’ve been searching for a film that would meld the warmth of the cello and the sparkling rhythms of the piano. Lubitsch’s silent Carmen seems to me like the dream medium for this. This new score (composed in Spring 2016, with no reference to Bizet’s celebrated music) contains a constant ballet that mingles several tangos and jazz-flavoured interludes, creating a bridge between the almost century-old patina of a great silent film and the public of today. I wanted to use the cello to embody the voice and sensuality of Pola Negri, with the piano maintaining the movie’s rhythm and action.” — Gabriel Thibaudeau

Jean Durand | France | 1929 | Programme: Rediscoveries

Jean Durand’s elegant tryst of love affairs and deception is a sensation of mood, style and opulence. Unhurried and elegant, the plot unfolds as love affairs do with a wife seduced, a husband negligent, a spurned femme fatale who twists and whispers in the ear of the seducer that yes, the wife is ready and willing. It just happens the seducer is a famous ballroom dancer and what begins as dance instruction turns into lessons of another kind. With its Art Deco design, angled photography, exquisite costumes, stately rooms and a very young and dashing Charles Vanel as the husband, La femme rêvée is reminiscent of L’inhumaine by Marcel L’Herbier. Unforgettable of the many memorable scenes is a lengthy tango performance on stage which the dancer promises that he will be dancing just for the wife. His intricate movements, intertwined limbs and suggestive steps, whilst looking directly at her in the audience, made for an exhilarating experience. Beautifully restored by Gaumont, this is a classic for the ages.

Febo Mari | Italy | 1917 | Programme: The Canon Revisited

A strange mixture of fantasy, art, impressionism and impossible love, Febo Mari’s film is an ambitious work that defies conventions of cinema of its time. A sculptor carves a life-size statue of a mythological creature, the faun who is half-man and half-goat, which represents first and pure love. One night, the sculptor’s model-lover discovers she is being two-timed by the sculptor. The faun, excellently played by the director himself, comes to life. He tells her, “Do not run from me. I am Love.” He then consoles the girl after hearing of her plight by saying: “Do not be hurt. From the heart down, all men are like me – beasts.” After many philosophical exchanges, the faun and the model fall in love and run away. Due to the faun’s physical appearance, their only place to hide inconspicuously is the forest, away from humankind. But before long, their rural idyll is threatened. Strangely and disturbingly erotic are the love scenes between the girl and the faun who was once stone and now flesh, but always half-goat. The gorgeous 35mm tinted print, courtesy of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, was a joy to behold.

Herbert Wilcox | Great Britain | 1928 | Programme: The Canon Revisited

The famous and true story of Nurse Edith Cavell, who helped soldiers escape to freedom in 1915 Brussels during World War I, frames this terse and unsentimental film. It recounts Cavell’s arrest and trial. A film that deserves to be rediscovered, not for the events which are duly recorded in the history books, but for the admirable film it is. It would have been easy to cast a pretty star in the lead role, make her younger and more attractive, but the film-makers do not follow this oft-chosen route. Sybil Thorndike as Edith Cavell is perfectly cast. She looks like and acts like an average, professional woman, who is also a no-nonsense nurse, thorough in her vocation and taking pride in it. The festival showed a Belgian restoration of the original uncut film. After the film ended, we were shown just the climax of the British-release version of the film, which was so butchered in its editing that we saw nothing of what really happened in the uncut version. The events were completely sanitized. Kudos to the festival for doing this and providing an opportunity for us to see for ourselves which version is more accurate. Ah, the sins of censorship…

John W. Brunius | Sweden | 1919 | Programme: The Swedish Challenge

Gentle is this tale of a young, Norwegian farm girl, Synnöve, who is in love with a boy, Thorbjörn, from a neighbouring village, who seems to attract trouble. Another man, Knud, has his eyes on her, but she rejects his proposal as she hopes to marry Thorbjörn. As Synnöve is from a conservative sect, her family finds him unsuitable. Yes, it is a familiar story oft-told, but the captivating Norwegian landscape creates a sense of authenticity that is crucial to the film. The mountains act as walls separating the two lovers and the photography evokes this parallel. Just when you think this love triangle predictably will develop into one thing, the film takes a spiritual road about forgiveness after an act of violence. Although the film at first is centered on Synnöve, the ultimate focus is on Thorbjörn and his journey through this ordeal. The 35mm print from the Swedish Film Institute enriched the screening experience.

Benjamin Christensen | USA | 1929 | Programme: Italian Cinematheque

An immensely enjoyable exercise in fun and the unexpected! Like The Deadlier Sex, I saw this film on the last day of the festival. Paced with non-stop action at breakneck speed, the madness begins when we are introduced to a young heir who has recently inherited a great deal of wealth. Much to the shock of his uncle, he plans on spending his inheritance on adventure and hunting in Africa. To celebrate, he goes to a party with his fiancée when suddenly, and I mean out of nowhere, there is a hold-up. They quickly escape, but once in the car, they realize they have been kidnapped by the driver. They are whisked off to a strange house and then the insanity really begins. They find out they have been abducted by Satan who has employed an irritated gorilla, a man on crutches, a dwarf, a wart-faced Fu Manchu lady, black-hooded men, a turbaned Oriental, machinations, secret rooms, contraptions, figures in the shadows, screaming debutantes with terrifying shrieks – all at work to ensure the maiden submits to Satan and her man must be put to the test to save her. But can he survive these tests? Although it is expertly shot from every angle in the house, the editing is the real star of this enterprise. Blink too fast and you may miss what just happened in this orgiastic feast of riotous insanity.

Other wonderful films seen at the festival: Trappola (Eugenio Perego, 1922); Thora van Deken (John. W. Brunius, 1920); The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921); Journey into the Night (F.W. Murnau, 1920); The Bride of Glomdal (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1926); An Inn in Tokyo (Yasujiro Ozu, 1935); Morænen (Anders Wilhelm Sandberg, 1924)