For over a quarter of a century Bologna has been celebrating the rediscovery and recovery of lost and forgotten films. Its Cinema Ritrovato festival revels not in the very newest pieces of filmmaking, but in the newly discovered or restored. Where other film festivals only imply that they believe movies matter, Il Cinema Ritrovato makes a very articulate argument that the cinema is important and relevant in so many ways. And one of the best ways of demonstrating this is by exploring the cinema of the past, along the way preserving and re-presenting, recontextualising that past.
In Bologna programming strands are informed by a range of dominant ideas – historical, technical, creative, artistic, aesthetic, national. This year there were three main sections, with more specialised strands in each. La Macchina del Tempo (The Time Machine) specifically explored the past, including the ongoing focus on the cinema of 100 years ago, this year obviously looking at 1912. Le Macchine Dello Spazio (The Space Machine) took parts of the world as the organising idea, especially this year, Italy and Japan. Il Paradiso dei Cinefili (The Cinephiles’ Heaven), apart from being a title that could be used for almost all the offerings, allowed the exploration of particular auteurs, or individual rediscoveries or restorations. And there were most certainly offerings that did make the cinephile feel they had gone to heaven!
Festival-goers usually made their first choice by deciding which of the Festival’s strands they would give priority to. That usually meant other strands were only sampled or missed altogether. At the same time, and perhaps inevitably, films in one strand started to connect and interrelate with others.
The strand that got my priority was Japan Speaks Out! The First Talkies from the Land of the Rising Sun, curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström, and a part of The Space Machine section. Whereas most countries adopted new sound technologies quickly after the success of The Jazz Singer in Japan it was only in 1935 that the majority of films produced were sound. Several factors led to this delay – the strained financial resources of the film producers, problems of suitable venues (especially in rural areas), and the tradition of the benshi, the performers who accompanied silent films with a narration.
This was illustrated with Why Worry? (Kyojin Seifuku, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923), a version of the classic Harold Lloyd comedy, but with a pre-recorded benshi track. This hybrid version of a film illustrates the difficulties in settling on a definitive version of a film. Clearly not the original cut, this version has its own validity in its Japanese release context. American films were popular in Japan at the time. (Just look at the way Yasujiro Ozu quotes them in his films of the period, with prominently placed posters or stills.) In the 1920s, Lloyd’s film would originally have been shown in a version with its English titles removed, and an in-cinema benshi describing and commenting on the action whenever it was shown. Different benshis in different venues would surely have created a different experience. This archive version “freezes” a version from the 1930s, an interpretation recorded by a benshi when sound was available. These versions of silent films with recorded benshi tracks are known as Katsuben Talkies, and several were screened in Bologna
Films screened included contemporary subjects (such as Woman of Tokyo [Tokyo No Onna, 1933], by Yasujiro Ozu), and historical stories. In this genre, the famous story of the 47 Ronin was an anchor subject, with two different treatments illustrating this transitional period of filmmaking, as well as providing the most impressive film in this strand. This fatal feud from the early years of the eighteenth-century has been filmed many times in Japan, perhaps most famously by Kenji Mizoguchi (Genroku Chushingura / The 47 Ronin) in 1941. An American version directed by Carl Rinsch with Keanu Reeves is promised (?) for 2013. Bologna screened what is certainly the oldest extant version of the saga, although it is a rather bizarre fusion of a number of different filmings. Chushingura is dated to 1910-12 and credited to Shozo Makino. But what exists today is a version prepared and issued in the late ‘30s. Lasting just over 40 minutes, it is cobbled together from a number of different early film versions. The slow film stock of the period means interiors are clearly filmed outdoors – and the different vegetation visible in the shots is a giveaway for the different film releases used for this version. The story probably would not be clear simply from the visuals alone, and here the importance of the benshi is obvious. The benshi soundtrack, apparently added in the late 1930s is necessary to piece the story together.
The other version of the story was, for me, the highlight of this strand of programming. Teinosuke Kinugasa is generally only known outside Japan for his avant-garde Kurutta ichipeji (A Page of Madness, 1928). His 1932 Dai Chushingura is the first sound version of the story. At 140 minutes, its stately pace allows for the saga to be fleshed out in a number of interesting ways, especially expanding the context of the story. It is not just a story involving a number of samurai, and nobles. Rather, these are characters with a wider personal, family and social context. Their rebellion exists in a wider community. At one point, we cut to a performance of a Kabuki version of the story. Not only does this serve as a refresher of “events so far”, it also acts as a commentary on how the media of the day saw the story, and as a comment on how the events impacted on ordinary people. This surely is one of the earliest examples of a film commenting on how the media of its day related (and related to) a current news story.
Film versions of such famous stories reflect also the values and attitudes of the period when they were made. In its exploration of the concept of insult and honour, and the code of dying to preserve that honour, Kinugasa’s film feels like it is rehearsing for World War II. So, although he is surely not deliberately fostering the attitudes that would lead to kamikaze pilots a little over a decade later, there is a sense that the film reflects strongly the zeitgeist of the period that would allow this development. As such, it is one of many films at Bologna that acted as keys to understanding the society that made them, and through this reflected ways of understanding our own time.
Another strand of programming was After the Crash: Cinema and the 1929 Crisis. Given that the economic crash and the Great Depression coincided with the introduction of sound technology around the world, it was inevitable that some of the Japanese films would have resonances with this separate strand. Two with very strong thematic links were Joriku Dai-Ippo (First Steps Ashore, 1932) by Yasujiro Shimazu and Ozu’s aforementioned Woman of Tokyo. First Steps Ashore clearly reflects the impact of American cinema on Japanese filmmaking at this time. Not only is there a still of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell on a wall, the film is basically a remake of Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York transferred to Yokohama, and as such a look at labour conditions and the plight of the working class at this time of economic crisis. Woman of Tokyo was wholly a silent film even though made in 1933; like much of Ozu’s output, it was a contemporary melodrama where the only way a sister can support her brother’s education is to work as a prostitute.
The strand After the Crash looked at variations of the theme of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. As the program says, “The simple axiom was that the crisis was not what spectators wanted to witness on the screen. The more invisible the better, and filmmakers answered by making escapism into mirrors reflecting bitter truths.” For example, Pal Fejos’ German-Austrian film of 1933, Sonnenstrahl (Ray of Sunshine). Its start reflects the grimness of the times, with both our leads contemplating suicide. But as soon as He rescues Her, the film turns positively rosy, practically channelling Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) in its optimism and confidence in love conquering all. There is even a repeat of the scene of our couple committing to each other during another couple’s wedding service. It is not quite as wonderful as Fejos’ American film, Lonesome (1927, soon to be available on DVD), with its resolution a bit too easily contrived, and the heroine played by an actress (Annabella) with not quite enough depth in her performance. Still, it is joyful and you can see it earning a warm response from its contemporary audiences, for the way it met them in their world of economic worry and took them somewhere much more optimistic.
Sometimes there are black secrets lurking in the archives, such as a Swedish film, Pettersson & Bendel (1933) directed by Per-Axel Branner. Here, the evil, heartless world of business is represented by the character of Bendel, who is quite prepared to destroy his partner Pettersson for his own financial gain. At the time, Swedish audiences reacted to it as an entertaining story of two chums responding to bad times in their own ways. From our perspective it is much more alarming. The character of Bendel is one of the strongest negative portraits of a Jew outside Third Reich cinema. The anti-Semitism positively reeks, and it is salutary to realise that this ideology was not simply a Germanic thing. It is no surprise that Goebbels liked the film, and had it dubbed into German for a wide release throughout the Reich. A sequel was made in 1945 but it was box-office flop in Sweden. As well as reflecting distasteful attitudes where we probably didn’t expect to see them, it is not a particularly well-made film, either. Branner was a theatre director, and his direction shows little cinematic awareness, and the whole narrative is too simplistic and pre-determined to be convincing.
The Cinephiles’ Heaven generally allowed a focus on single films or directors, but films in one strand could often relate to other strands – such as some of the films in the short Raoul Walsh retrospective. This included seven silent films, including his well-known Arabian spectacular The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and going back to The Mystery of the Hindu Image (1914), his fifth film but the oldest still known to exist today. Surprises came in several of his early 1930s films, such as Me and My Gal (1932), with a wise-cracking Spencer Tracy as a cop, and a startlingly blonde Joan Bennett. Like Sonnenstrahl and a number of other depression-era films, this starts with the rescue of a suicide. Walsh vividly creates the atmosphere of the time, a sordid waterfront of greasy spoon cafes, drunks and bums. This is clearly a pre-Hayes Code film, and Walsh relishes the chance to liven the film with the racy details, situations and dialogue that would soon be taboo in Hollywood. This was a side to Walsh I had not seen before – and I’d love to see more.
The work of film restoration gets its due at Bologna, which means not only are newly restored films greeted with warmth, but the actual work of the restorer is exposed to the critical commentary it deserves and often doesn’t get. This includes the discussion not only of what is restored, but how well it is treated. Perhaps the highlight restoration came from Sony Pictures Entertainment, Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958). In introducing his restoration Grover Crisp outlined some of his principles – basically, it was to recreate the film as it would have existed on first release, and not to assume what the filmmaker would have done with newer technologies such as sound. I did not need to be convinced of the beauties of Preminger’s film – I’ve always loved it. But what a joy to see a beautifully graded colour print, with just as much care going into the contrast of the also important black-and-white sequences. And the soundtrack is still as mono as when Preminger made it.
I also did not need to be convinced of the wonders of Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961), one of my all-time favourite films, and a centrepiece of the special open-air screenings in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore. There were problems that the restorers had to face, including the loss of the original negative in a fire back in 1970. As someone who loves the film so much it was a joy to see the way that the film was being discovered anew by so many people in the packed piazza – even against the distractions of a football final being watched in nearby cafes. But even so, it is a disappointing restoration. And a booklet published to mark the restoration shows how, with its ubiquitous illustration of a scene “before” and “after”. After restoration, obvious scratches have been removed. But so has the contrast and detail. There is no depth or character in Michel’s face, the luminous whites of the film have vanished, and there is a flatness that surely would have disappointed Jacques Demy, especially as his son Mathieu was heavily involved in the restoration.
These and other restorations will have a new commercial life on DVD, BluRay or even re-released in cinemas (such as Cineteca Bologna’s own restoration of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone, 1984). Other restorations from the early years of cinema will not have such a wide distribution, but their availability on formats such as DVD is increasingly important. Die Weber (The Weavers, Friedrich Zelnik, 1927) is a beautiful digital restoration by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden. Based on an 1892 play by future Nobel Prize Laureate, Gerhart Hauptmann, this recreated mid-nineteenth century riots by weavers affected by mechanisation of their craft. Hauptmann’s strategy of telling the story without the usual hero, instead having “the mob” as the main protagonist, is reproduced in the film. The film borrows heavily from other filmmakers of the era. The workers’ village is clearly expressionistic, like a more solid version of the village in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1919). Sequences or individual shots are strongly reminiscent of Metropolis or Battleship Potemkin. For example, the use of editing to contrast the lives of workers and capitalists is not original, but it is certainly effective in the context of the film.
Britain has been involved in a major restoration project of the silent films of Alfred Hitchcock. This project culminates in major public presentations of these films with live accompaniment in London for the Olympic Games, and the films were not available for Bologna. However, Bologna did program a series of films aimed to highlight the contribution to filmmaking made by his wife Alma Reville. It is interesting to mount a case for studying the career of someone who is not a director, producer, actor or one of the roles usually seen as “more creative” in the production of a film. However, the films screened did not produce a convincing case, that Reville’s “value added” was significant in creating a quality product. Her work with her husband was represented by Murder (1930) and its German language version, Mary (1930). Reville no doubt supported her husband in many ways in his career, but it seems to be drawing a long bow to claim that there are specific, identifiable ideas, themes or qualities only in the films because of her influence.
This is even more apparent when we look at some of the non-Hitchcock films produced as evidence of a specific Reville-factor. After the Verdict (Henrik Galeen, 1929) was a reasonably entertaining “suspense thriller”. Some Hitchcockian themes (such as the “transference of guilt”) could be extracted with some extreme mental gymnastics. Its story of two chums impacted by which one is chosen by the girl has connections with some other English stories of the time (such as The Four Feathers [written by A.E.W. Mason in 1902, with several film versions including one in 1915 by J. Searle Dawley and an American version in 1929, directed by Merian Cooper, Lothar Mendes and Ernest B. Schoedsak]). But it is not a distinguished film, with laboured plotting and an over reliance on withholding basic information from the audience.
The First Born (Miles Mander, 1928) is even less interesting. Miles Mander was presumably seen as talented at the time. He wrote the novel, adapted it to a play and then to the film version. He also directed and starred in this story of an upper class couple wanting to have a child. Mander has not conceived his role with any complexity or subtlety, and naive plot devices abound. It sorely needed a critical influence during production. For example, Mander is “sent to Africa” just long enough for his wife to help an unwed girl have a child that she can adopt. Fortunately, much of the film is spent with Madeleine Carroll (in one of her very first films) as the wife, and she is very effective. Is the connection that Hitchcock saw her and remembered her 20 films on in her career and cast her in The 39 Steps?
The career of Jean Grémillon is more worthy of re-evaluation. His career began in the silent French cinema of the 1920s. (1) For many years, he was really only known for Remorques (1941) and his reputation suffered when some of the French New Wave critics tarred him with the pejorative “cinéma du Papa” label. In recent years, as more of his films have been restored and rediscovered, his reputation has been growing. It will be aided by the release of three of his films by the Criterion/Eclipse DVD label.
Bologna showed two films from his prolific silent career, and these may have been even more stimulating than his later sound work. The titular character of Maldone (1927) is a wagoner who inherits an estate and has to give up his open-air freedom to take on the responsibilities of that estate. His inner conflict is embodied in the wonderful photography of Georges Perinal. His open-road persona is embodied in shots of the open country, a low horizon level and a sky filled with the most magnificent clouds. His “lord of the manor” persona is seen in dark, brooding interiors, with his final decision caught in a scene where mirrors reflect his confusion with the different calls being made on him.
Gardiens de Phare (1929) is another silent, with much of the action taking place at night inside a lighthouse, and the film tinted a steely blue that gave it a special, but brooding beauty. Grémillon’s career continued through to the 1950s, but some of his best-known films were made during the German Occupation. These are the focus of the Eclipse DVD release, and include one of his brightest films, Le Ciel est à vous (1943). (2) This is almost a paean to the pioneers of commercial aviation in France, with a heroine who, just likes that, creates a record for a long distance flight. Grémillon must have had to tread carefully in making a film about aviation history with the Nazis in occupation. But the result is a sunny, warm story. Perhaps it was this “all right’s with the world” mood that he had to create but the result does not feel forced.
Two more silent films deserve mention. One strand focused on Lois Weber (1879-1939), whose directorial career flourished in the 1910s in Hollywood, to the point that she was the top director at Universal Film Manufacturing, the precursor of Universal Studios. Much of her reputation today comes from a series of crusading films on a range of social issues. Shoes (1916) and Saving the Family Name (also 1916) dealt with issues related to women’s inferior place in the workplace, and the hypocrisy of conventional morality. But to me both were hampered by plotting determined to prove the problem, and a rather lacklustre heroine, Mary MacLaren, in both cases. More surprising was The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916). Almost two hours long, it was based on a once popular opera, which perversely had a mute girl as its main character, in a story of a revolt against Hapsburg rule in 17th Century Naples.
A reliance on locations around Los Angeles that could be shot in full sunlight meant that it looked more like a Mexican revolt. But the coup is the casting of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in her only feature film role. Her presence is charismatic, her balletic body language and mime so appropriate in the story. Weber not only draws a powerful performance from her neophyte film performer, she also brings an epic sweep in the way she marshals her large cast of nobles and revolting peasants. Costume are spectacular, and richly detailed. The film opens with a prologue in which Pavlova dances a solo (though she is lifted by a dancer completely in black so he is invisible against the black background). The Bologna presentation was accompanied with a score drawn by pianist John Sweeney, from the opera by Auber.
Giovanni Pastrone was one of the pioneers of Italian cinema, whose feature length Cabiria (1914) (3) was released a year before D.W. Griffith “revolutionised” filmmaking with his feature length, The Birth of a Nation. His spectacular abilities are already in evidence in his film screened in the “100 years ago” strand, Padre (1912). At about 45 minutes long, this told the story of a man separated from his daughter when he is framed by a business associate. At the start he escapes from prison to seek revenge on the man who has raised the girl as his own child. 1912 technologies may mean that indoor scenes have to be filmed outdoors in bright sunlight, and sets may be clearly painted. But these seem no restriction for Pastrone. Even when a scene takes place in a very theatrical tavern cellar, his ability to construct the scene with action taking place in the foreground, middle ground and the back gives a three-dimensional impact some current directors can’t even achieve with special 3D equipment today.
Early in the film, the eye is overpowered by one magnificent set. It is the foyer of a grand mansion, with a marble staircase two or three metres wide sweeping up either side of a space large enough for a large statue or a large gathering. This is such an elaborate and convincing set that it is only the lighting (clearly sunlight) that betrays this is a set. And the justification for this expanse comes in the climax, when it is destroyed in the most spectacular fashion, as our hero has to rescue his daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father) from the burning mansion. 100 years ago, some filmmakers didn’t need CGI, 3D or vast budgets to create spectacular, thrilling climaxes.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
23-30 June, 2012
- IMDB lists his birthdate as 1898, but the date of 3 October, 1901 is cited by Paul Vecchiali, curator of the Bologna retrospective of Grémillon’s films.
- Some sources list it as 1944, with some seeming to list the year of production, and others the date of first public screening. I have adopted the dates as used in the notes of the Bologna screenings.
- A 2006 restoration of Cabiria had a running time of 181 minutes at 16 fps. The Birth of a Nation is listed at 190 minutes at 16 fps in one source.