Category Archives: silent cinema

Blu-ray: F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.

Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.

Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.

Yet it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau’s German films, a tragedy drawn in epic images like paintings in light and shadow on a scale that spans the world. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer takes Faust on a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Gretchen, abandoned by her lover and rejected by the pious townspeople for her sins, crawls pathetically through the snow while clutching her infant, gripped in a hallucination of sanctuary in the storm with tragic consequences. The townsfolk may not be big on charity, but they are very quick to capture and punish the wicked. The Devil couldn’t have orchestrated her torture better… and in fact, the Devil did.

The film ostensibly takes the position of man’s essential goodness in the face of temptation in the debate between the Archangel and Mephisto, but as the drama plays out, Murnau seems to favor the Devil’s position. When the death and doom of the plague first descends on Faust’s village, the citizens slip into a bacchanal and turns their little town into a Sodom. The so-called Christians pass judgment on Faust and Gretchen with such intolerance and lack of compassion that they close their doors and their charity on the victimized Gretchen as she suffers and starves with a dying infant. How easy it is for Mephisto to tap into the greed and lust of man, Murnau seems to be saying, to dig beneath pious poses of religious morality and reveal a vicious vindictiveness. A final act of sacrifice may save the souls of our tortured sinners (and what a stunning scene it is), but it seems to me that Faust lost his wager only because they never took into account the actions of the rest of humanity, only this one seduced soul.

Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories: seven distinct versions are known to exist, each composed of different takes (some barely noticeable, others marked by different framing and editing choices, still others put together with outtakes and otherwise discarded takes). According to historian Luciano Berriatua, who also supervised this restoration, this was a rare instance where the American cut was actually Murnau’s definitive version. Murnau saw his future in Hollywood (where he would make his next film, Sunrise) and, after editing his German version, took the negatives to the U.S. to personally prepare the American version of the film. That German cut was re-edited in his absence and subsequently lost. Kino previously released a version from the Ufa vaults that was prepared in 1930 from the Danish masters. This newly remastered version is a reconstruction of his original German cut using the materials from the American version (with supplementary footage from other negatives and surviving prints where necessary) and the intertitle cards that Murnau had originally prepared for the German version (but were subsequently discarded by producer Hand Neumann). The hand-painted cards feature text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light.

The quality is astounding, a beautiful print with rich tones and clear images and the finest the film has ever looked (at least in the past seventy years or so). The new restoration also features two scores—a compilation score of “historic photoplay music” by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement—and the 53-minute documentary The Language of Shadows: Faust by Luciano Berriatua (which compares many of the different versions and reveals many of the outtakes used in alternate negatives), lost screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production “Marguerite and Faust” and galleries of set designs and stills.

Also features a bonus DVD with the previously released 1930 Ufa version of the film, produced for DVD by David Shepard and featuring a moody orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.

Camilla Horn as Gretchen

Blu-ray: William Gillette is the original ‘Sherlock Holmes’


Flicker Alley

Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.

We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).

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Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Lon Chaney is ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

PhantomBDLon Chaney became a star for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) but it was the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) that confirmed his stardom and his talent.

The first version of many versions of the Gaston Leroux novel is still considered the definitive, thanks to Chaney’s committed performance (right down to enduring painful make-up that he himself designed to give him a death’s head look and a horrifying rictus grin) and magnificent sets for the grand Paris Opera and the underground labyrinth of tunnels and canals and secret rooms. This lavishly executed production threatens to slip into hoary melodrama with a magnificent backdrop but for Chaney’s performance.

Chaney, however, creates both a monstrous and a tortured villain, part shunned mastermind, part proto-Frankenstein monster smitten with a young beauty His backstory is left blank, which allows the viewers to fill in their own from his aristocratic bearing, his maniacal pounding on a pipe organ in his underground dungeon lair and his obsessive pursuit of the comely young understudy Christine (Mary Philbin), whose stardom he engineers via secret coaching and threats to the opera company owners. Chaney is both tender and terrible, wooing Christine from behind a mask, a mystery lover who dedicates his heart and soul to her success, then turns vindictive when she spurns him.

This was a troubled production, full reshoots and drastic re-edits that dragged on for two years and a few directors, finally released in 1925 with original director Rupert Julian’s name listed as director (reshoots were by Edward Sedgewick and others), and edited down again for a 1929 reissue with a synchronized soundtrack. And yet moments of beauty and terror survive the creative struggles and production upheavals: The grand chandelier crashing down to the floor of the opera house, The Phantom taking Christine through the underground canals like a fairy tale gondola poled by a demonic boatman through a literal underworld; the furious Phantom perched like a gargoyle on the roof of the opera house in a terrible storm listening to the object of his obsession betray her promise to him. Most dazzling and haunting is the costume ball sequence. A number of scenes were shot in the primitive and unstable two-color Technicolor process but this is the only color scene to survive and it is astounding: the revelry and merriment stops dead when The Phantom, costumed up as the Red Death complete with a grinning skull mask, marches down the staircase and through the frozen crowd.

Lon Chaney as the Red Death in the restored color sequence

Lon Chaney as the Red Death in the restored color sequence

Kino’s two-disc Blu-ray features the same editions previously released on a single Blu-ray by Image: three versions of the film with four different scores. I can’t see a visual difference between the editions but the Kino edition looks superb and, spread across two discs, allows for less compression and a higher bit-rate. The best surviving materials are from the 1929 reissue, which is mastered from archival 35mm elements with color tints and presented in two versions: at standard sound speed of 24 frames per second, or fps, with a new score by the Alloy Orchestra and an archival 1974 theater organ score by Gaylord Carter, and at 20 fps with a superb orchestral score composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau and performed by I Musici de Montreal. The 24 fps master is visually stronger but the 20 fps version is looks more accurate and appropriate in terms of movement on the screen. Both feature the color sequence and appropriate tints through the B&W scenes. The original (and longer) 1925 cut is taken from a surviving 8mm reduction print (without the color sequence) and presented with a piano score by Dr. Frederick Hodges. The drop in image quality is significant, due to the source (a worn and fuzzy print, probably a few generations removed from the negative), which is unrestored and presented in 1080i.

The commentary by film historian Jon C. Mirsalis, also carried over from the Image release, is on the 1929 reissue at 24fps, and accessed through the audio options available on that version. There’s also an interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, the original screenplay, and the trailer.

New to this edition is nearly an hour of excerpts from the 1930 sound reissue with a synchronized soundtrack and some new dialogue scenes added. Only nine minutes of the sound version exists on film but the entire audio survives and the disc presents a mix of audio only, silent footage synchronized to the discs, and the surviving sound film footage.

Also new are two archival shorts showing Paris in 1925: Paris From a Motor and A Trip on the Seine.

Lon Chaney as The Phantom

Hotpsots: Scandinavia in its Golden Age

‘The Outlaw and his Wife’

For a brief period between 1913 and 1924, the most sophisticated, mature and visually majestic films were coming from the Scandinavian countries in general and Sweden in particular, a trend that impressed Hollywood so much that the studios started importing artists from the Scandinavian film industries: Victor Sjöström (who became Seastrom in Hollywood), Mauritz Stiller, Benjamin Christensen, Lars Hanson and of course Greta Garbo. One of the unique qualities of this regional cinema was the embrace of the landscape as an essential part of the stories. Where Hollywood filmmakers of the 1910s generally scouted locations near the studios (when they didn’t try to construct their own worlds on studio stages), Sjöstrom, Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness and the mountains to find majestic views and epic vistas unseen in other national cinemas, a fitting backdrop for characters driven by powerful psychological and emotional forces. The roots of Ingmar Bergman, whose natural landscapes are much more intimate yet just as expressive and evocative of his themes, can be traced back to the silent era; he cited Sjöström as one of his most important inspirations and influences and paid tribute to his legacy by casting him as the old professor in Wild Strawberries.

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Videophiled Classics: Dziga Vertov – ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’


Flicker Alley

Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) presents four features (and one newsreel short) by the great Soviet filmmaker, all making their American Blu-ray debut. They have been newly scanned from the best sources available and digitally remastered by Lobster Films in France. The collection is a collaboration between Lobster, Film Preservations Associates (and the Blackhawk Films Collection), EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie and is presented in the U.S. by Flicker Alley.

The Soviet Union’s revolutionary documentarian and film theorist, Dziga Vertov was the head of production and editing of the Kino-Pravda newsreel unit between 1922 and 1925. He put his years of experimentation in weekly newsreels to work in the 1924 feature film with Kino Eye / The Life Unexpected (1924), a continuation of his work on the Kino-Pravda series. The mixture of slice of life observations (often captured with a hidden camera) with documentary studies and playful cinematic tricks was his first attempt to create a new kind of filmmaking celebrating life in the Soviet Union under communism. The episodic film is structured something like a variety show, with the recurring thread of “Young Pioneers,” a youth brigade of Soviet boys and girls dedicated to helping the poor and needy, running through the film as a kind of narrative glue. Nestled between these uplifting sequences are glimpses into taverns and bars, a state home for the mentally ill, and the black market, fanciful documentary investigations into the origins of bread and meat (from the slaughterhouse to the farm), and a scene of kids at play in the water that turns into a gorgeous diving montage that presages Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia by over ten years.

The source for this master was an original 35mm print from the Blackhawk Films Collection

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is Vertov’s most famous film, a landmark of Soviet silent cinema and international avant-garde and non-fiction filmmaking—a pretty impressive double play to be celebrated for both capturing and deconstructing reality. Part documentary, part film essay, part cinematic gymnastics, Dziga Vertov’s dazzling masterpiece is a spellbinding piece of cinematic poetry and one of the great non-narrative works of all time. It’s ostensibly a kind of symphony of a city, a day in the life of a big city for the Ukraine, but Vertov shot in multiple cities for his idealized portrait. Using all the ideas and experiments he had explored for years in his newsreel pieces, he created a film essay that celebrated the great Soviet experiment while challenging the very foundations of representation, editing, and narrative with images that dance on the screen. The man with the movie camera and the woman at the editing table are integral parts of a film that is in part about its own making and the possibilities inherent in the cinema. The Alloy Orchestra, guided by suggestions left by director Dziga Vertov, created a score built on their trademark mix of dramatic melody and expressive percussion—which is exactly what Vertov wanted. It’s an exciting, driving score that I now consider the definitive accompaniment. This edition features that score.

It’s also the best looking film on this disc. Previous editions were mastered from compromised prints, missing footage from damage or outright recutting and often duped down many generations for the source. This editions is mastered from a preserved, near-complete 35mm nitrate print struck from the camera negative and preserved in the archives of EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It preserves the full silent film image area (rather than a sound-era copy with reduced image area) and, though it has wear and some damage due to screenings over the decades, the image is quite strong. Missing footage was replaced from alternate sources and the high-definition digital copy was further cleaned by Lobster films. A detailed history of the film print and the restoration process is included in an accompanying booklet. In short, this edition features a fuller image and footage missing from previous editions.


‘The Man with the Movie Camera’

Vertov made his sound film debut with Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass (1931), his celebration of the Five Year Plan, which is an unqualified success under his direction. It opens on a woman listening to the news of the Soviet experiment over a radio set the scenes play out as if illustrating what she’s learning over the air. No surprise that Vertov treats sound much the same way he treats images: as pieces to be manipulated, cut and mixes to set a scene or make a point. There’s very little synchronized sound and no dialogue (though there’s a speech or two). Rather, he turns to the sounds of machinery and the cheers of crowds, with punctuations of sound effects providing a heightened percussion. Early on we see a conductor leading an orchestra and you would be forgiven for assuming that the symphony is a musical composition. For Vertov, the symphony is the image and sound, the dramatization of workers increasing production in the mines and foundries and on the farms, the building of ideas and themes to socialism triumphant. “The five year plan has been executed in four years!” and the masses rejoice.

There is damage and wear to the source, and a 35mm original print from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, but there is a great image beneath it and there is great detail in this HD Blu-ray presentation. There is also a warble to the soundtrack, which was restored in 204, in scenes toward the end.

'Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass'

‘Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass’

Three Songs About Lenin (1934), Vertov’s tribute to the leader who died in 1924, completes the set. It’s a symphony in three movements celebrating the triumph of socialism and the unity of industry and art. Which is not exactly what Stalin had in mind to teach the masses. Like Eisenstein, Vertov faced pressure to make more naturalistic narratives and clearer propaganda. The original cut of no longer survives—the film was reedited in 1938 under order Stalin’s regime, and again in the 1970s, this time to remove images of Stalin—and the film on this disc was mastered from a 35mm edited print preserved at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

All of the films run under 80 minutes, three of them at around an hour apiece. The disc, however, includes one additional film: Kino-Pravda (1925), aka Kino-Pravda Newsreel 21: Leninist Film Truth, one of the many newsreels created by Vertov that mixed documentary, cinema-verité, and agitprop. Also from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

All five films are collected on a single Blu-ray disc and the release features an informative booklet with notes on the films and the print sources.

Normally I don’t report on new announcements but if the above release interests you, you’ll likely be interested to know that the newly rediscovered 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette (who made a career playing Sherlock Holmes onstage and was the definitive stage Holmes as far as the public was concerned) will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in October by Flicker Alley. There will be a wealth of bonus material, including three bonus films featuring earlier screen appearances by Sherlock Homes. More information at Flicker Alley.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Silents Please!: ‘Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas’


Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas (Eclipse 42) (Criterion, DVD) is an apt companion piece to Criterion’s previous set of silent Yasujiro Ozu films on their Eclipse line. The artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, famous for the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his sound films, was a voracious film buff more interested in Hollywood movies than his own national cinema early in his career and he thrived in a great variety of genres. The previous Eclipse set collected a trio of family comedies. This one offers three gangster films: Ozu noir, so to speak, inspired by the late silent crime pictures by Josef von Sternberg and American pictures. These films are more intimate character pieces than the gangster romantic tragedies of their American cousins, but they are lively productions directed with a dynamic style he stripped away through the 1930s.

Walk Cheerfully (1930) mixes the gangster drama with character comedy in the story of a hood named Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada) who vows to go straight when he falls in love with a “good” girl. His old girlfriend, who sports a Louise Brooks bob, isn’t happy about being dumped and decides to get revenge on them both. In fact, there’s a lot of American influence in the film, from the storytelling to the camerawork (from tracking shots to oblique, dramatic camera angles) to fashions; these hoods are as sporty as their Hollywood counterparts with their flashy suits and fedoras and swaggering attitudes. This is a bright picture, as the title suggests. The mob isn’t happy that Ken and his partner (Hisao Yoshitani) have left the gang but for all the obstacles, this is on the more lighthearted side of the gangster genre.

More somber is That Night’s Wife (1930), which opens on the robbery of an office building by a lone gunman (Tokihiko Okada), a marvelous scene that is a model of crime movie direction, before revealing that the thief is no career criminal but a desperate father whose daughter is on the verge of death. The money is for the medicine that may save her life. Most of the film takes place in the one-room family home as the father and mother stand vigil over their young daughter, holding a cop hostage as they wait for her recovery. It’s a standoff with a poignant twist and Ozu orchestrates the situation beautifully with expressive camerawork and tight editing. This was shot and set in the depths of Japan’s depression. Ozu explored the plight of middle and working class families slipping into poverty and desperation in other films as well (see Tokyo Chorus in Silent Ozu: Three Comedies) but this is his most moving portrait.

'That Night's Wife'

‘That Night’s Wife’

Dragnet Girl (1933) is the most flamboyant of the three, a redemption tale not of the gangster (Joji Oka) but his moll Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who has a civilian job by day and plays in the criminal underworld by night. When her boyfriend is smitten by the good girl sister of a young boxer, she ends up befriending the girl and deciding to go straight herself. Except that he wants her to pull one last job. This was made after the explosion of Hollywood gangster movies in the early sound era and Ozu livens the story with fluid tracking shots, snappy editing, and striking compositions and editing. And he makes Tokiko a real tough cookie and a tough-love idealist, with a novel way of convincing her boyfriend to go straight.

Japanese intertitles with English subtitles. These are preserved rather than restored films, mastered from prints that are scuffed and damaged in places, but they are stable and well mastered from the existing element and feature fine piano scores by Neil Brand. As with all Eclipse releases, there are no supplements. Each film is in its own slimline case with an essay by house writer Michael Koresky.

More silent cinema on DVD at Cinephiled

Silents Please!: ‘The House of Mystery’ from Flicker Alley

Flicker Alley

The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère) (Flicker Alley, DVD) – Serials—the adventure cliffhangers what would play out in theaters before the main feature at a chapter a week—are commonly dismissed as kid stuff, glorified B-movies cranked out with little thought for story or character. France, however, produced some serials with high production values for adult audiences. Louis Feuillaude was a master at making surreal pulp thrillers like Fantomas and Les Vampires but Judex moved him toward epic storytelling with more mature themes (his later serials, which are even more adult if less exciting, are sadly unavailable in the U.S.).

Albatross, a French studio founded by Russian immigrants who fled the communist revolution, produced some of the most sophisticated films on the twenties, including the serial The House of Mystery (1923), an epic story of love, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and injustice. The opening credits tease the audience by presenting our hero in multiple disguises before revealing the face of Ivan Mosjoukine, suggesting he is something of a Judex or Fantomas. In fact he’s Julien Villandrit, the scion of a manufacturing family who marries his sweetheart Régine (Hélène Darly) and takes over the family textile mill. All seems well as we jump to “Seven Years Later” and find his longtime associate Henri (Charles Vanel) going all Iago, planting the seeds of doubt in Julien’s mind over the attentions of an elderly banker (Sylvia Gray) toward his wife. What seems unseemly has a rather touching explanation but it takes a dramatic turn when Julien is framed for murder and sent to prison while Henri remains free to pursue Régine. Nicolas Koline plays the woodsman Rudeberg, a photographer whose hobby gives him the leverage to blackmail his way into a steady job. It’s not quite as mercenary as it seems—it’s all to give his troubled son a shot at an education and a better life than him—but it means hiding the evidence proving Julien’s innocence and incriminating the true killer.

Over the course of a story that spans decades there is a daring jailbreak and desperate escape over rugged mountains and deadly ravines (it takes up almost an entire chapter and is a magnificent piece of silent action spectacle), and a series of disguises donned by our hero to return home and clear his name, but this is more romantic melodrama than thriller. A wedding scene is played in a series of silhouettes that resembles the delicacy of the cut-out animation of Lotte Reiniger and the trial sequence takes a break from courtroom drama for a lovely moment of silent movie connection as Régine nudges Julien to sit up, refresh himself, and reclaim his dignity, all communicated in gestures and glances across the room.

Ivan Mosjoukine

Ivan Mosjoukine


Mosjoukine is magnificent in the leading role, a part in which he invested himself completely. He transforms from nervous, unworldly, odd young man to confident husband and father to tragic hero who spends years attempting to reunite with his family, and that doesn’t include the characters he creates while hiding out from the authorities. Mosjoukine wrote the adaptation (it was based on a bestselling novel) and even created his own make-up, and his transformation is as complete (if not quite as extreme) as Lon Chaney in the states.

It plays like a modern TV mini-series, more concerned with dramatic complications and character conflict than with action-film cliffhangers. The serial format gives the drama room to breathe and the actors space to develop characters and relationships over 10 chapters and 6 ½ hours and Alexandre Volkoff directs with a high degree of sophistication and elegance. It’s what silent cinema does at its best: delve into the depth of the moment, drawing out action to explore the dramatic textures and letting the actors reveal the emotions of the characters, to show the audience rather than explain in intertitles. That sounds like a hard sell to viewers not already enchanted by the charms of silent cinema but this is a lovely film and a superb presentation of a rarity. It could make a convert of anyone with a love of classic movies and cinema history.

The complete serial was restored in 1992 and was digitally remastered for its home video debut by Eric Lange and Lobster Films in 2014, and it features a piano score by Neil Brand. Also includes a gallery of production stills and a booklet with an essay and notes on the film and the filmmakers by silent film historian Lenny Borger.

More silent cinema on DVD at Cinephiled

Rene Clair’s Hat Trick

A triumvirate of early sound comedies—Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À Nous la Liberté (1931)—made René Clair’s reputation as France’s master of modern screen comedy. They explored the possibilities of the new audio dimension as an expressive element without sacrificing the fluid style and creative imagery of the height of the silent era. To American audiences, it was like Clair burst forth upon the international scene fully formed. But that’s because his final silent film—and his first comic masterpiece—The Italian Straw Hat (1927) did not arrive stateside until much later, and then in a version cut by an entire reel.

‘The Italian Straw Hat’

Filmmaking was not Clair’s original ambition. He intended a literary career and didn’t consider film a serious undertaking. When he took bit parts in a few films as a lark (including a couple of late serials by the great Louis Feuillade), he changed his name to separate it from his journalism and writing, from Chomette (his given name) to Clair (“light”). But he got bitten by the film bug and started rubbing elbows with the artists of the avant-garde, which led to an invitation to direct a short film to play between the two acts of a Dadaist ballet by Francis Picabia. Entr’acte (1924) is filled with cinematic tricks and playful imagery and it features appearances by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Auric and a score by Erik Satie. Those are impressive credentials and Entr’acte is a landmark of avant-garde cinema of the twenties but apart from a brief revisit to non-narrative filmmaking in La Tour (1928), his love letter to the Eiffel Tower, it’s not where Clair’s heart lay. For that, look to his directorial debut Paris qui dort (1923), a comic fantasy set in a Paris that has been frozen in time by a science fiction ray gun (a prototype for Dr. Horrible’s freeze ray?).

Continue reading at Keyframe

Milestones: ‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’



In the Land of the Head Hunters (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a documentary but it is an invaluable historical document nonetheless. Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes on the west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that had almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. He lived for a time with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia and filmed some of their traditional dance for his lectures before he came up with the idea of making a feature with the members of the tribe.

Neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn as much (if not more) from western mythology and European fairy tales as from native cultures—In the Land of the Head Hunters showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. There’s a brave warrior in ritual of manhood, the daughter of a chief who is in love with him, a cruel sorcerer who plots to destroy the warrior, and the sorcerer’s brother. The actors were all non-professionals and Curtis, who is more documentarian than dramatic storyteller, a rudimentary filmmaker, but he worked with the tribe to recreate the costumes, masks, canoes, and longhouses of the old culture, preserving a legacy that the Canadian government was trying to stamp out (the tribes were forbidden from practicing their cultural rituals and this film provided an exception, which they eagerly took).

In this way, it anticipates Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which staged recreated scenes to show a way of life that was no longer being practiced by the Inuit people. Though In the Land of the Head Hunters (a reference to a dramatic act in the film but a misrepresentation of the tribal culture) is fiction, it serves a similar purpose as an ethnographic record. The storytelling is rudimentary but the imagery is often gorgeous, with Curtis’ photographer’s eye capturing dramatic images set against striking coast landscapes and seascapes. The dances are gorgeous as are the costumes, recreated village sets, and other props. The ambition of the project can’t be overestimated: it was initiated before feature films had become dominant in the industry and released before The Birth of a Nation debuted in 1915.

‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

The film was orphaned for decades and only existed in an incomplete version (titled In the Land of the War Canoes) reconstructed in 1973 from existing prints and set to a naturalistic soundtrack of native music, chants, and sounds until recently. In 2008 the original cut was reconstructed with newly-discovered footage and still images (to cover footage missing or damaged-beyond-reclamation), using and set to the original score composed for the 1914 debut. In addition to preserving that initial presentation, surviving copies of the sheet music with notations made by musicians helped in the reconstruction of the original cut. The condition of the footage is worn at best and badly decomposed at worst but it is a unique piece of film history that preserves some of the earliest footage of the distinctive culture of the North Pacific tribes. In 1999, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Milestone releases both versions of the film and includes scholarly commentary, the short documentary Documents of Encounter: The Head Hunters Reconstruction Project that explores aspects of restoration not always shown in such productions, a 1979 short documentary by Bill Holm and George Quimby (the men behind the seventies reconstruction) on the making of the original film, a feature-length presentation of Kwakwaka’wakw tribal dances performed by the Gwa’wina Dancers, and other supplements.

More restorations on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

The ‘Alt’ Oscars: The Silent Years

The Academy Awards were born in 1927, the brainchild of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a studio head whose original idea for an organization to negotiate labor disputes and industry conflicts evolved into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The awards themselves were an afterthought and initially more public relations gimmick than egalitarian celebration of the arts. Every member of the Academy (then as now an exclusive organization where membership is by invitation only) was involved in nominations but a committee of five judges picked the winners and Mayer, of course, oversaw it all. If he didn’t actually handpick the winners, be surely put his thumb on the scales. By 1929, Academy members were voting on the final ballots themselves and in 1934 the ceremony moved from November to March. Additional categories were added and other refinements made over the years (Foreign Language Film got its own statue in 1957) but otherwise the Academy Awards as we know them today were born: a glitzy event that brought the stars out and handed out trophies.

That leaves practically the entire silent movie era out of Oscar history. Hollywood had reached a zenith in terms of craftsmanship, glamor and ambition when The Jazz Singer was released before the first awards were handed out. It was. By its second year, sound films dominated the awards.


Let’s imagine an alternate history where the Academy Awards had been born earlier and (as long as we’re dreaming) with a more egalitarian purpose from the outset. What kind of winners might you have in an era when movies were more international and there was no such thing as a “foreign language film” when credits and intertitles were easily replaced for each region? What landmarks leading up to that first ceremony, where the twin peaks of populist blockbuster and artistic triumph—Wings and Sunrise—represented the Best of Hollywood, might have been chosen in the golden age of twenties cinema, or the birth of the feature film in the teens, or even the wild days of experimentation and rapid evolution in the decades previous?

Here are my picks for a few key awards in the imaginary Oscar history.

1928: Metropolis
Best Picture, Cinematography, Production Design
Released in January of 1927 in Germany and two months later in the U.S., this landmark was just too early for consideration in the inaugural awards (handed out in May, 1929). So I’m giving this early 1927 release a clear playing field with its own Oscar year: Academy Awards Year Zero. Sure, science fiction isn’t a big player with the Academy, but otherwise it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite: epic canvas, astounding sets, visionary visual design and the timely theme of man struggling to find his place in the rapid spread of technology and machinery, all under the firm control of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hollywood had never seen anything like it before. The film was soon edited down for and the original cut was lost for decades. The 2010 restoration restores scenes, characters and story lines unseen since opening night and confirms just how grand Lang’s vision was.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Presenting Thanhouser, the Greatest American Independent Studio of the 1910s

The title to Ned Thanhouser‘s documentary, The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema, isn’t mere hyperbole.

Veteran stage actor and theater manager Edwin Thanhouser (the director’s grandfather) made his move from live theater to making movies for the growing market of cinema in 1909. By 1918, as the industry grew beyond Thanhouser’s ability to keep pace, he closed it down. In those nine years of the studio’s existence, a period in which it produced over 1,000 shorts, features and serials, the industry changed dramatically. The stranglehold of Patents Trust over the fledgling industry was broken, short films gave way to features, the center of filmmaking relocated from New York to California, Hollywood was born, the grammar of narrative filmmaking evolved from tableaux scenes and simple continuity editing to complex patterns of shots to tell complicated stories, and the reign of the studio brand gave way to the birth of movie stars.

‘The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema’

According to the film, which is guided by historical research of Q. David Bowers, Thanhouser accounted for twenty-five percent of the independent films made in the United States at the peak of its success. The Thanhouser brand was a recognized mark of quality to audiences and distributors alike and two Thanhouser shorts, The Cry of the Children (1912), which addressed child labor in American factories, and The Evidence of the Film (1913), one of a number of Thanhouser films that incorporates the filmmaking process itself in the storytelling, were selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Yet only a few years later, the once-vibrant Thanhouser was in danger of becoming old-fashioned and behind the times. The story of Thanhouser is in the story of the rapid transformation of American movies in the most creatively and commercially dramatic era of American cinema.

Continue reading at Keyframe