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Two topics have come up every time I’ve discussed the 2022 San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

One: This is the first edition of the festival after two consecutive cancellations in 2020 and 2021, leading festival president Robert Byrne to joke on opening night it is now the “no-longer-annual” Silent Film Festival. Owing to this, this edition of Silent Fest was the longest of the last few years, with 27 features and three shorts screened over the course of the week accompanied by three equally fascinating lecture events. It also marked the belated celebration of the 25th anniversary of the festival, and was the first year I have been able to attend since arriving in the Bay in the fall of 2019. 

Two: This year’s Silent Fest may be one of the last major film events at the historic Castro Theatre, where the festival debuted in the 1990s and has played since, following its acquisition by an entertainment conglomerate seeking to transform the venue into a space for concerts and other live events. At the time of this writing, it is unclear what to expect from the future of the theatre, which celebrates its centenary this summer. The risk of its loss is enough to disappoint many San Francisco locals, who made their frustration clear with calls to “Save the Castro!” ringing out from the audience throughout the week. We often hear about the death of the film-going public, perhaps even more so here in Silicon Valley where there is special incentive to see new media platforms succeed at the expense of theatrical events. If anything, the daily packed houses of Silent Fest offer proof of the opposite. There remains clear interest in interesting film programming in San Francisco, particularly the kind with little equivalent elsewhere on the West Coast: a seven-day festival dedicated entirely to silent film, made up almost entirely of restorations accompanied by original live music, without preference for a single country of origin, genre, or style. 

Sharing a centenary anniversary with the Castro was the opening film of the festival, Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), which doubled as the debut of a new restoration originally scheduled to open the cancelled 2020 edition. This was one of two Stroheim restorations at this year’s festival (the other last year’s restoration of Stroheim’s 1919 directorial debut, Blind Husbands), and one of at least three films to feature a massive fire as its denouement (the others include William Nigh’s The Fire Brigade [1927], a disaster film about a municipal fire department, and Julien Duvivier’s La divine croisière [The Divine Voyage, 1929], a more striking social drama recently released on Blu-Ray by Flicker Alley). Seeing these two Stroheim so close together is revealing. Some of the people with whom I spent the weekend argued the pairing shows how much Stroheim had grown between his first and third features – in between these two was The Devil’s Passkey (1921), now lost – though I’m not sure the change is so great, mostly because I don’t see the need for much growth in his debut. Stroheim’s tableaus impress us so much because of the comparisons they invite between the characters, benefitting from the fact that they are so strongly defined in their dress, personality, and action, as though they have real, lived history to them.1 One of the differences between the two films is how these tableaus relate to character. In Blind Husbands, the space of the scene is neutral territory where characters meet on more or less equal terms. In Foolish Wives, there is a greater intensity to them, extending the quality of the characters across the entire surface of the screen. The villa of Stroheim’s Count Karamzin is gargantuan, ornate, and empty. The apartment of the American envoy to Monaco (Rudolph Christians, in his final screen performance) is simple and strictly utilitarian. The shack where Karamzin and the envoy’s wife (Miss DuPont) hide during the rainstorm is grubby and rundown. In each case they speak to us in a certain way. Stroheim’s famous attention to detail, which landed him so much in trouble with Universal during and after the making of this film, is a reminder that the surface counts for something, and here for everything. 

In some ways, seeing these two Stroheim so early in the festival is unfair to the rest of the program, which will always, consciously or not, be compared to them. The emphasis on dense surface detail puts Foolish Wives in particular in an interesting position vis-à-vis several of the other films. Notably different is one of the most discussed films of the festival, the German film Sylvester (also known under the title New Years Day, Lulu Pick, 1924), restored from various archival copies based on a newly-discovered music score from the film’s premiere. Not unlike other German films of the period, Sylvester tends to generalise rather than specify: the three central characters, a married couple and the husband’s mother, are left unnamed to evoke a broad generational struggle within the German middle class, while its montage structure – borrowing most of all from Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) – draws neat contrasts between those celebrating the new year in luxury and those begging on the street. For Holger-Madsen, a Danish filmmaker and another partisan of deep-space filmmaking, the tableau carries a more social-democratic meaning: many sequences of Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars, 1918), though still establishing definite heroes and protagonists, are shot in wide spaces full of activity by ambient characters collaborating on scientific pursuits and suggest the common cause in which all participate. Perhaps the filmmaker most like Stroheim in his commitment to the reality of film space is Clarence Brown, whose film Smouldering Fires (1924) opened the final day of the festival. Brown began his career as an apprentice to the French filmmaker Maurice Tourneur during his stay in the United States in the 1910s and early ‘20s. Out of this collaboration came an approach shared by both filmmakers requiring all light to have an organic source somewhere in the shot. The results of this choice are often intriguingly paradoxical, lending their films more of a Gothic quality Maurice’s son Jacques Tourneur would draw upon in his well-known horror films directed for Val Lewton in the 1940s.2 However, if Stroheim and Brown share a sense of fidelity to dramatic space, its purpose diverges in striking ways: Brown’s moody interiors, often backlit by candles or fireplaces, tend to complement the emotions of his tortured characters and owes more to expressionism than to Stroheim’s psychological realism.

Sylvester

One of the more interesting themes we’re invited to consider with this edition of Silent Fest are the differences in the way countries narrate their national histories. Most explicit in this respect was the performance of Rebirth of a Nation (2004/2022), a live musical transformation of the original Griffith film by Paul D. Miller (who performs under the name DJ Spooky) in the tradition of Kenneth Anger and Arthur Jafa. On the other end of the American spectrum is William Beaudine’s Penrod and Sam (1923), an adaptation of the popular novel made in collaboration with its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Booth Tarkington. Set in a small midwestern town at the turn of the century, the film is comprised of a series of vignettes centred around the rivalry of two gangs of local children, one led by Penrod (Ben Alexander) and the other by the son of the town’s wealthiest family. Not unlike Tarkington’s more famous Magnificent Ambersons, the real intrigue to the film is how the dynamics between the children play against the adult relationships only vaguely understood by them. The most powerful moment in the film comes from Penrod’s discovery of his family’s social rank after seeing his father emasculated by the father of his rival, who leverages his status to coerce the other families of the town. Yet if Beaudine and Tarkington’s tragicomic approach proves revealing of the class politics of the early 20th century, it does so while mostly sidelining any direct confrontation with its racial ones. Though several Black children are part of Penrod’s gang, the absence of their parents leaves them entirely out of the film’s richest material, relegating them to a limited, ambient role.

In contrast to these stand the four Soviet films in this year’s edition: Order na arest (Arrest Warrant, Georgi Tasin, 1926), a psychological thriller closer in style to Pabst than Eisenstein screened as a benefit for the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Ukraine; Istoriya grazhdanskoy voyny (History of the Civil War, Dziga Vertov, 1922), a reconstruction of Vertov’s sophomore feature; and two from Soviet Georgia, Jim Shvante (Salt for Svanetia, Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930) and Ten Minutes in the Morning (Aleqsandre Jaliashvili, 1930), a short agitprop film about exercise convincing enough to have me twisting around in my seat, even if I detest its pro-war politics. Of these, Vertov’s film provokes the most curiosity perhaps because of its seeming differences to the films of his more familiar to film history. Originally made as a commission for the 1921 congress of the newly founded Comintern, the film was soon dismembered and the footage repurposed for several shorter newsreels in a fate similar to Vertov’s debut film, Godovshchina revolyutsii (Anniversary of the Revolution, 1918). Both Anniversary and Civil War were reconstructed by Russian film historian Nikolai Izvolov using the original shot list for each film as an outline to reassemble the scattered material.3

However, assuming the shot list accurately portrays Vertov’s original intentions for the film, more mysteries follow. In its present form, the film follows no apparent chronology, jumping between the war years with fairly free abandon. Neither is it particularly faithful to the geography of the war: although mostly focused on the Czechoslovakian front, we visit Kiev, Moscow, and the Caucasus mountains as well, often without narrative prompting as to why. The result creates the feeling of a collage that evokes most of all Rossellini’s Paisà (1945), an equally expansive panoramic view of a country’s experience of war made out in similarly crude, run-and-gun shooting conditions. Unlike Paisà, Vertov refrains from including any explicitly fictional material. At the same time – and this is the clearest difference between Vertov’s film and war documentary after him – Vertov equally refrains from sequences shot during battle and limits himself almost entirely to portraiture of Soviet soldiers before and after combat. Prominent among these portraits is Leon Trotsky, who appears a few times throughout the film; most interesting for me was the appearance of Chapayev, a Soviet war hero later commemorated in a popular early sound film directed by the Vasilyev brothers. The biggest disappointment with History of the Civil War is simply the condition in which the material now exists, which unfortunately retains a sort of muddy quality even in restored form. 

History Of The Civil War

Among the films I was most curious about going into this festival was Max Linder’s final feature, Max, der Zirkuskönig (King of the Circus, 1924), nominally directed by Édouard-Émile Violet in collaboration with the performer the year before his suicide. I’ve never been one for Linder’s features, which never quite reproduce the compact anarchy of his short films. Though there is always a temptation to compare Linder to Chaplin (a comparison invited by Chaplin when he named the French performer his primary inspiration) it is worth keeping in perspective the difference in the motivation for their comedy. No matter the subject of the film – torn clothes, a damaged apartment, marital trouble, a spoiled vacation – Linder’s films are always pitched to a petty bourgeois audience and play off particular aspects of their class anxiety. By contrast, the Tramp is never troubled by any of this; one never gets the sense that he has as much to lose. The Tramp exasperates others, while the comedy in Linder’s early shorts often comes from his exasperation.

Perhaps it’s because of the sense of personal abandon that makes King of the Circus stand out so much as Linder’s singular achievement. Usually, his comedy derives from a desire to keep up appearances, but the Max in this film aspires to a more bohemian lifestyle, preferring to fraternise with women at the clubs in Montmartre than live up to his family’s social rank. His romantic endeavours lead him to the circus, which he is quickly inspired to join much to the chagrin of his family and their stuffier neighbours. One of the great achievements of King of the Circus, which stands head and shoulders above the other features, is that it recycles some of the better material from those earlier ones and rephrases them in a new context: he borrows the best bit from Be My Wife (Linder, 1921) for an early scene, in which a box of insects is let loose in an unsuspecting crowd, while expanding a section from Seven Year’s Bad Luck (Linder, 1921) involving a caged lion into the entire back half of this film. The biggest laughs from the entire festival came from a scene after he decides to join the circus: armed with a handbook instructing how to pull off various acrobatic stunts, Max decides to practice his act with the help of the family’s butler in their living room. We cut back and forth from his antics, jumping and crashing about, to the apartment below where a sleeping man grows more and more disturbed until one final blow knocks the fan off the ceiling and brings the whole apartment complex to action.

King of the Circus

Two of the freer films in the festival, and two of my favourites, were Limite (Mario Peixoto, 1931) and Dans la Nuit (Charles Vanel, 1929). Both benefit especially from their cinematographers. Limite was one of the first films shot by the German-born cinematographer Edgar Brasil, who would go on to an extensive career working on many of the most important Brazilian films in the first half of the century. Among these include several films with Humberto Mauro, a collaboration the filmmaker Glauber Rocha compared to the ones between Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tissé, Orson Welles and Gregg Toland, and Raoul Cotard’s work with the nouvelle vague.4 I had previously felt Brasil’s major collaboration with Mauro, the experimental crime drama Ganga Bruta (1933), was his greatest accomplishment, though revisiting Limite has won me over to its side. So much of Limite rests on the powerful impression of Brasil’s photography. Lacking any strong structuring narrative beyond the suggestion of a prison break and criminals on the run in the Brazilian countryside, it is easier to admire his work as a simpler pleasure, without distraction. In a week of hustle and bustle, nothing else came close to feeling as casual.

Charles Vanel takes a similarly luscious approach to landscape in Dans la Nuit, a clear if sometimes forgotten milestone in the development of French poetic realism. Intended to be released without intertitles, the story is simple. Its first half is comprised of a long wedding party in the hills of Rennes in northern France, where the husband (played by Vanel) works as a miner. An accident mutilates his face and forces him to don a metal mask to cover the scars. The moody remainder of the film, reminiscent of Émile Zola, takes place over the course of a single night as the wife attempts to leave town with another man. Balancing the sharp contrast in tone between these two halves falls largely on the shoulders of cinematographer Georges Asselin, who would go on to shoot two films for Jean Renoir, Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) and La Nuit du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads, 1932), as well as a key film for Marie Epstein, La maternelle (Children of Montmartre, 1934). Dans la Nuit feels positioned between his two collaborations with Renoir. Scenes of the wedding party travelling through the countryside contain the same sublime natural quality as the finale to Boudu, while the atmospheric night-time photography of the second half is taken even further by Crossroads.

The tragedy in both cases is the films mark the sole directorial effort of both filmmakers. Vanel, who began his career as an actor, would work on a further short film before abandoning directing altogether to act exclusively, later notable for his performances for Henri-Georges Clouzot in the 1950s. Peixoto simply diversified his work to other mediums and never completed another film project in his lifetime.

Dans la Nuit

I’ve left until last any mention of Mikio Naruse, who deserves a section all to himself. Though Naruse’s reputation has grown since the efforts to renew interest in his work in the 1980s, this has mostly favoured his later melodramas and left his earlier work comparatively more obscure. There is an irony to this situation in that his early masterpiece, Tsuma yo bara no yô ni (Wife! Be Like a Rose!, 1935), was the first Japanese film to be released in the United States, where it was a failure. However, to limit Naruse’s accomplishments to his late career – or even simply to his sound films – would be a mistake. This is all the more the case given the tremendous difference between Naruse’s early features and his later ones as his style became more and more defined by restraint compared to his early flamboyance. Kimi to wakarete (Apart From You, 1933) is the first of Naruse’s seven existing silent films to play at Silent Fest, and one of his final films before committing to sound with Otome-gokoro – Sannin-shimai (Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, 1935). It was also the first Naruse film to receive critical prestige, placing fourth on the legendary Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo’s list of the best Japanese films of 1933. That same year, his Yogoto no yume (Every-Night Dreams, 1933) placed third.5 

Naruse’s early films are sometimes compared to Yasujiro Ozu, so much so that even the president of Shochiku, where both filmmakers worked, is said to have told Naruse, “We don’t need another Ozu.” 6 There is undoubtedly a resemblance on first glance: the finale to Every-Night Dreams does bring to mind an earlier Ozu film, Sono yo no tsuma (That Night’s Wife, 1930), while the father-son dynamics of Naruse’s earliest existent short, Koshiben ganbare (Flunky, Work Hard!, 1931) are not far from those in Ozu’s more famous Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But…, 1932). Both, likewise, are often frank in their films about their admiration for American comedies. However, this comparison has always been a superficial one. Biggest among their differences is that Naruse has an infinitely greater sense for the interior psychology of a character, which determines all the elements in his films. In these early films especially, the camera is often in motion but it seldom seems responsive to things in the frame and is never synchronised to any particular action. Rather, its motivation is often subjective and more revealing of specific characters than the world around them. 

I admire Apart From You as I admire many of Naruse’s early films. In several of them, the dramatic tension stems from generational conflict – parents who can’t live up to what their children need them to be. More often, Naruse’s focus is on the parent’s side of this struggle as they come into a better awareness of their responsibilities. Apart From You, by contrast, lays even greater emphasis on its teenage characters, one a juvenile delinquent (Akio Isono) caught up in a street gang and the other a geisha (Sumiko Mizukubo) in love with him, who run off together in the face of parental indifference. If the subject is familiar to us from the films of Nicholas Ray and early Bergman, so is the approach, which is equally poetic. What has always surprised me about Naruse’s early films is how lyrical they can be. The aspects that may have contributed somewhat to his uneven success in the ‘30s are the same ones that make his films even today seem radically avant-garde, full of narrative passages that do not entirely congeal in part because their logic is more associative than firmly continuous. It will take more time to thoroughly appreciate the unusual narrative structure of these early films, which benefit from frequent revisitation. We can only hope that more of them show up at future editions of Silent Fest.

Endnotes

  1. Compare this to The Fire Brigade, which can afford to be especially frivolous about its ill-drawn characters because they are predestined to be nothing more than fodder for the fiery spectacle of the film’s finale. The moralising aims of a film like this, celebrating the heroic sacrifice of firefighters, is incongruent with the deeply elaborate technical design of the catastrophe that befalls them.
  2. William K. Everson, from whom I first learned about Brown and Smouldering Fires, writes a lengthy, convincing defense of Tourneur’s films. See his American Silent Film (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998).
  3. An intriguing history of these films and their restoration was published earlier this year by Dorota Lech. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/dziga-vertov-s-long-lost-films
  4. Glauber Rocha, On Cinema, edited by Ismail Xavier (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2019), p. 22.
  5. Apart from You tied for fourth with Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Futatsu doro (Two Stone Lanterns, 1933). In second place was Kenji Mizoguchi’s Taki no shiraito (The Water Magician, 1933), while Ozu’s Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy, 1933) came in first place, the second of three consecutive top placements by Ozu in the early 1930s. See also Jean Narboni, Mikio Naruse: les temps incertains (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2006)
  6. Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985), p. 105

About The Author

Jonathan Mackris is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies film. His current research compares 20th century theories of film, with a particular emphasis on French film criticism.

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