Category Archives: silent cinema

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

Ten Silent Movies to Make You a Silent Movie Fan

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd.

You say that you’re really into old movies and you can’t get enough of the classics but you just haven’t found a way to love silent cinema? You say that all your friends are doing the silents and you feel left out? You say that you too want to be part of the early cinema crowd but just haven’t found your way to loving the movies before sound?

‘The New Gentlemen’

Even among many classic cinema buff, silent movies can appear alien and unfriendly, a duty more than a treat. And it shouldn’t be that way at all. In their day, silent films were a universal entertainment, a truly popular art that transcended language and culture.

There are those who think of silent films as primitive and naïve. Some were, to be sure, but movies grew up quickly in those early years. Those primitive experiments and one-shot gags matured into feature films in under two decades, and the knockabout slapstick comedies of the Keystone Kops gave way to the comic grace of Charlie Chaplin and the invention of Buster Keaton just a few years.

And then there’s those scratchy, poorly-preserved prints that were often presented at wrong projection speeds that made everything look sped up and absurd. It’s hard to appreciate let alone recognize the scope and technical wonder of the silent extravaganzas under such conditions.

Thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, a new spirit of cooperation between international film archives, and new digital tools, those days are fast disappearing. Silent cinema is getting a makeover and audiences are finally getting a chance to see the glamor and splendor that original audiences saw when they went out to the flickers.

There is a universe of films, genres, moods, sensibilities and styles to be discovered in the thirty-plus years of cinema before the introduction of sound changed the way films were made and experienced. This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest or the most important silent films (though there are some of both sprinkled through), but rather a selection of the most entertaining and engaging films of the era. Consider it a place to start your appreciation of the glory and grandeur that was the cinema before sound.

From the recently restored version of ‘A Trip to the Moon’

A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
You want to get an idea of how lavish and creative the so-called primitives could be? Magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès was a pioneering special effects artist and a fantasist with an unbound imagination, but more than anything else he was a showman and A Trip to the Moon is his most ambitious spectacle. Thanks to the painstaking restoration of the sole surviving hand-painted print of the film by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, we can now see what enthralled audiences at the turn of the 20th century: a picture-book fantasy brought to life as a work of pure, playful imagination with crazy special effects and delirious color. Accompany this with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and you might just come away with a new appreciation for the early years of filmmaking. And if this inspires more interest in the pre-feature era of filmmaking, try the fantasies of Ferdinand Zecca and the work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the most versatile filmmaker of her era.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Videophiled Landmarks: ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and ‘Verdun’ restored


Kino Lorber

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, streaming) is the grandfather and the godfather of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films of its era. Directed by Robert Weine, it features Werner Kraus as the tyrannical Dr. Caligari, a sideshow barker in cape and top hat who commands the sleeping Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the carnival’s star attraction, to rise at night and do his bidding, a literal sleepwalker who is both monster and victim. With its painterly sets of jutting beams, leaning walls and heavy black lines painted on flats and arranged to suggest both a skewed sense of depth and a forced perspective that flaunts its artificiality, the film dropped audiences into an aggressively unreal world and celebrated its theatrical artifice as a vision of madness and horror. It set the style for a movement, influenced a generation of filmmaker from Fritz Lang and Universal horror movies, and created images so vivid they are still referenced today. This is a movie that has seen some awful home video releases over the years but even the superior presentations (the Image DVD from Film Preservation Associates and the previous Kino DVD from an earlier Murnau Foundation edition) have suffered from damaged footage, missing frames, and inferior source material.

The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation (which previously spearheaded the astounding restoration of the definitive Metropolis) undertook the comprehensive digital restoration of this landmark using for the first time ever the original camera negative as the primary source (previous releases were taken from archival prints), with additional footage from the best of the existing archival prints. It was a two year project and the efforts are visible in every frame of this reclamation; the difference between Kino’s previous DVD and this stunning new restoration is night and day. The image is not just clean and free from much of the damage seen on earlier editions, missing frames and footage has been restored and the image is now sharp and strong, with deep blacks, vivid contrasts, and unprecedented clarity, stability, and detail.

Silent with German intertitles and English subtitles, with choice of two scores. Features the German documentary “Caligari: How Horror Came to Cinema” (with English subtitles), stills, restoration demonstration, and a booklet with an essay by film historian Kristen Thompson.

This restoration is also available to stream on Netflix and Fandor in HD.


Carlotta US / Kino Lorber

Verdun: Looking at History (Carlotta US / Kino Lorber, DVD, Digital, VOD) comes with an unfortunately passive title in its English translation. It was released in France as Verdun, visions d’histoire, which is more haunting (as if it’s resurrecting the ghosts of soldiers and civilians as visions of the past) and a more fitting title for Léon Poirier’s war 1928 epic. The sweeping portrait of the battle of Verdun, an eleven-month siege where the French held the line against an offensive of overwhelming German forces at the cost of 300,000 solders on both sides, was produced to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars and dedicated it to “all the martyrs of the ugliest passion that is war.” It is part human drama and part history lesson, complete with detailed statistics and animated maps of troop movements to put the big picture around human experience.

Poirier grounds the film in the “everyman” experience by identifying only the real-life historical figures by name. The fictional characters are referred to solely as titles and types—the French soldier, the German officer, the German soldier, the farmer, the wife, the daughter, the young man, and so on—but dramatic they are fully-formed characters whose experiences, soldier and civilian alike, are anything but generic. And while Poirier favors the French experience and can’t avoid the patriotic celebration of the French achievement, he doesn’t vilify the German officers or judge the German soldiers, who like The French Soldier (our central point-of-view figure, played with hearty embrace of life by the great Albert Préjean) are simply doing their duty in a terrible ordeal.

Celebrated upon release for its amazing recreations of battle scenes (which Poirier intercut with real battle footage from newsreels), it was eclipsed by the coming of sound (Poirier reworked it as a sound feature a few years later) and all but disappeared in subsequent years. It was restored in 2006 by the Cinematheque de Toulouse but was only screened a few times stateside since. Kino’s release of the Carlotta U.S. DVD finally makes it available to American audiences.

Features option of French or English menus and French intertitles with English subtitles, with a fine piano score by Hakim Bentchouala Golobitch. The featurettes “Restoring Verdun” and “Visions of Verdun” are French productions that explore the restoration of the original silent of the film and a look at the history and legacy of the film. “The French take their revenge in Verdun” is an archival documentary that shows the more familiar kind of nationalistic approach to war movies and offers a contrast to Poirier’s vision.

Also published at Cinephiled

The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

‘Chess Fever’

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

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Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

'The General'

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

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Videophiled Classic: Chaplin at Mutual and 25 Years of Mack Sennett

Flicker Alley releases two more collections of classic silent comedies. Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) collects the greatest run of comedy shorts in Chaplin’s career in newly restored and remastered editions, and The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies.


The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One is the goldmine here. It’s not that it necessarily features superior work to the Chaplin classics (those Chaplin Mutuals are among the greatest silent comedies ever made) but that it rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there.

It opens on Mack Sennett as writer and star of The Curtain Pole (1909), a nonsense comedy that sends Sennett (in heavy make-up and absurdly overdone facial hair) on a quest to replace the title object and ends with him literally gnawing on the pole to get it down to size. D.W. Griffith directs in perfectly professional mode, keeping the absurdities going with all due haste, but Mack Sennett takes the helm for the next five shorts, slowly removing himself from the frame and giving the star parts over to Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, two of his most reliable stars for the next decade.

This is slapstick at its most basic, all overcharged energy and wild-eyed mania, but Sennett (who eventually leaves directing to others but still writes many of them and produces them all) slowly perfects the genre through the course of the disc, which takes us through the evolution from one-reel comedies to two- and three-reel pictures with slightly more logical plots and creative comic inventions. And they introduce us to the great Sennett stock company: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and a young British comic by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

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