Blu-ray International: ‘L’Inhumaine’ from France, two Fritz Lang silent classics, three from the Taviani Brothers

LinhumaineThe 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.

Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.

L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.

The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.

SpiesLangFritz Lang’s sprightly, adrenaline-driven Spies (1928) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) harkens back to the cliffhanger thrills of early twenties adventure serials against an exotic backdrop of international espionage. A super spy and financial mastermind with the ominous name of Haghi runs an international espionage network literally under the cover of a bank: his secret headquarters is located under the foundation of his public bank. A master of disguise (in the tradition of Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas) who controls a vast surveillance and communications network (just like Lang’s own Mabuse), which he uses to steal state secrets. In fact, Rudolph Klein-Rogge played Dr. Mabuse and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis, making him the greatest supervillain of his day. There’s a beautiful cold-blooded super-spy named Sonia (Gerda Maurus), henchmen (Fritz Rasp), a femme fatale (Lien Dreyers), and the heroic Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), the “good” spy who falls in love with Sonia on his mission to stop Haghi.

Murnau was a master at this kind of serial-style pulp fiction. He began by writing the exotic cliffhanger thriller The Indian Tomb (1921), which was directed by Joe May, and writing and directing Spiders (1919) and the popular two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), both focused on a criminal empire headed by a mysterious, diabolical mastermind. Spies is a return to his roots, but he comes back with the technical virtuosity and exacting perfectionism he had developed in the intervening years, including Metropolis, which earned tremendous critical acclaim but lost money for the studio.

Spies was his answer to a sure-fire hit with his own obsessions stirred through. Lang creates a fluid, fast-paced, visually inventive film that weaves enough intrigue, double dealing, secret identities and criminal conspiracies in the underworld of pre-Nazi Germany for an entire serial into one whizzing feature. This was quite high-tech for its day, with science fiction buttonhole cameras along with the classic invisible ink messages, periscopes, peepholes, assassinations, seductions, drugged victims, and a spectacular train wreck woven through the machinations of the competing spies. In many ways it’s his most exciting silent movie, and arguably his most purely entertaining.

Like Metropolis, surviving prints of Spies were severely edited and the original cut was unavailable for decades until, in 2004, the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restored the film with over 50 minutes of missing footage, reconstructed from surviving film materials from archives all over the world.

WomanMoonWoman in the Moon (1929) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), Lang’s final silent film, practically plays as two separate film stitched together at the middle. The first part plays like sequel to Spies, a conspiracy of industrialists and scientists where experimental rocket plans are stolen back and forth until the ringleader (Fritz Rasp) secures a seat on the inaugural moon flight. The second part is science fiction, romantic melodrama, and a lunar Greed rolled into one. It is madcap and thrilling and pure pulp fun, with a tremendous visualization of space travel and rocketry for its day. The unveiling of the rocket is an awesome sight and the rocket science and flight details (right down to the countdown) are startlingly prescient. The story isn’t quite sturdy enough to support the epic production, but Lang’s masterful direction and magnificent sense of design and scale makes this pulp adventure in an epic shell an often thrilling and always impressive feat.

Both discs present the Blu-ray debut of the respective 2K digital restorations by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

Spies features a piano score by Neil Brand, the very informative feature-length documentary “Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action,” and the original German trailer.

Woman in the Moon features a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia and the featurette “Woman in the Moon: The First Scientific Science Fiction Film.”

TavianiBrosCollectionThe Taviani Brothers Collection: Padre Padrone / The Night of the Shooting Stars / Kaos (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) – Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Tavianni have been collaborating on films for over 50 years, drawing from the cinematic traditions of neorealism, literary magic realism and fantasy, and their own journalistic interests in politics and society. This collection presents three of their most acclaimed films.

Padre Padrone (1977) adapted from autobiographical novel by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, recounts the life of a young boy in Sardinia who is pulled out of school by his tyrannical father and forced to live the almost solitary life of a shepherd while he struggles to educated himself. I won the Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), their delicate and delirious story of war and survival as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, is an epic filled with a sense of wonder and absurdity amidst the acceptance of brutality and death. The Italian villagers are caught between the vindictive actions of the Nazis and Italian fascist soldiers and the advancing Americans in 1944 and the climactic battle in the wheat field between the partisans and the blackshirts is a chaotic and messy farce without a punchline. It won the Grand Prix at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. They followed up with a Kaos (1984), an anthology film of four tales of life in old Sicily based on the short stories of Luigi Pirandello, with an epilogue starring Tavianni favorite Omero Antonutti as Pirandello himself. Filled with scenes of rural beauty and magic realism, it runs over three hours and won two David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent to the Oscars.

All three are Italian classics. All three films have been newly restored from the original elements for DVD and Blu-ray. In Italian with English subtitles, with a two-hour interview with the filmmakers.

PaulineBeachPauline at the Beach (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After completing his “Six Moral Tales” (plus a pair of terrific literary period pieces), French filmmaker Eric Rohmer embarked on “Comedies and Proverbs,” a series of female-driven romantic comedies with headstrong characters, mis-matched couples, and the criss-crossing plots of a Shakespearean farce.

Where many of Rohmer’s films could be described as intellectual sex comedies without the sex, Pauline at the Beach (1983) embraces the earthy passion of sexual play as seen from the perspective of 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet). She gets an eye-opening lesson in the games grown-ups play on a two week summer vacation with her recently divorced older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle, every inch the vivacious blonde goddess). Smitten Pascal Greggory turns aggressive with jealousy when the smooth, seductive, happily shallow writer Feodor Atkine wins the fancy of the “perfect” Marion while continuing to fool around on the side. The tangled affairs, mistaken identities, and white lies are the stuff of sex farce, but Rohmer, true to form, doesn’t judge. He is more interested in the folly of love and the impulsive, illogical workings of human nature and his generosity of character rounds out everyone caught up in the tangled affairs and mistaken identities. Rohmer deftly crafts a gentle and sexy little human comedy that ends with Pauline learning perhaps the right lessons after all.

In French with English subtitles. The Blu-ray and DVD release is a significant upgrade from the earlier (long out of print) DVD and includes an archival interview with Rohmer from 1996.

The Heart of Guy Maddin

‘The Heart of the World’

The Heart of the World, one of a half-dozen shorts he made between his dreamily surreal pastoral fantasy Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and his ballet-as-expressionist horror meditation Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003), is the essence of Guy Maddin condensed into a brilliant, breathless, breakneck science fiction thriller. How marvelous that Maddin’s first major film of the 21st century looks like a mad masterpiece from the fevered mind of a silent moviemaker from 1925, discovered in the buried time-capsule vault of an asylum for insane artists. It just may be the greatest six-minute film ever made.

Maddin described his silent movie fantasia, produced for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of TIFF, as “world’s first subliminal melodrama.” There are two brothers, Nikolai the youthful mortician who seems just a little too passionate about his work, and Osip, an actor playing Christ in a passion play who takes lives the role outside of the play. They are both in love with Anna, a scientist who turns a vast telescope inward to the center of the earth to study the heart of the world: a literal beating heart, of course, and in danger of a world-shaking heart attack.

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Robert Flaherty: The First Poet of American Documentary

‘Moana’

In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty‘s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.

But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”

Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.

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Resurrecting ‘Sherlock Holmes’: An interview with Rob Byrne

“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”

After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.

William Gillette and his team in the 1916 ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.

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Blu-ray: ‘Fantomas’ – Cinema’s original supervillain, remastered

Kino Classics

Fantômas (Kino Classics, Blu-ray) – There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive, and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.

Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.

Gaumont bought the rights to the bestselling series and the first film, Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, hit screens in May 1913. Rene Navarre (star of dozens of earlier Feuillade films) opens the film by appearing in the series of disguises he’ll be taking on through the film, one incarnation dissolving into another, and then proceeds to brazenly steal the jewels of a Princess, personally handing his card to his victim: blank until his name fades in and then back out, like a taunt. Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) is assigned the case, a reporter named Fandor (Georges Melchior) joins Juve in the pursuit, and the battle of wits and wiles between the elaborate charades and schemes begins. There’s a manhunt, a capture, and an escape that has to be seen to be believed. It’s insane and improbable and irresistible and it was an instant smash with audiences, and the final shot of the short (the first chapter run just under an hour) feature essentially guarantees not just a sequel but a series: the Inspector is back in his office, dejected and beaten by the criminal who escaped the guillotine, and the final intertitle reads: “From now on, Inspector Juve will have but one obsession: capturing Fantômas.”

Their game continues through Juve vs. Fantômas (1913), which begins on another brazen theft and features a dramatic train wreck (a fabulous miniature of toy trains on an elaborately detailed set), The Murderous Corpse (1913), which opens with Juve missing and presumed dead, Fantômas vs. Fantômas (1914), with Juve is suspected of being the master criminal, and The False Magistrate (1914), where Fantômas murders a judge and takes his place on the high court (the judge himself is dispatched in a particularly insidious manner).

Each film is filled with wild plots and demented side schemes and features exotic gimmicks, from snakes unleashed into what should be the safety of one’s own parlor to a dead man hung from the inside of a bell like a clapper. There are poisons, guns, murders galore, and corpses that disappear and reappear with alarming frequency. But most insidious of all is the lack of motivation for most of his crimes. Greed seems beside the point: Fantômas likes to cause chaos and mayhem and seems to enjoy murder as a way of proving his superiority and taunting his nemesis.

Juve vs. Fantômas

In an era when the language of cinema was evolving at an amazing speed, Feuillade looks old-fashioned on the surface of things, shooting in series of still tableaux shots with the actors choreographed within the frame like it’s the proscenium arch of an intimate theater. In The Murderous Corpse, when the camera slowly pans over to reveal a corpse in the room, the anomalous movement itself is almost as startling as the dramatic reveal. But within the frame the staging is dynamic and dramatic, composed in depth and filled with motion, and the breakneck plotting and editing drives the film at a furious pace. Feuillade methodically explicates complicated schemes with a minimum of shots, and then detonates the screen as a scene explodes from stillness to furious action. In Juve vs. Fantômas, for instance, on what appears to be a deserted waterfront piles up with empty barrels, gunmen suddenly pop out of barrels and start shooting at Juve. The sudden transformation from still life is like an explosion. It’s both archaic in style and strangely modern; Feuillade shoots a lot of the film on location and makes effective use of landscapes and backdrops, and then drops in weird and unexpected imagery. Even with contemporary eyes you can see why audiences embraced its dime novel deliriousness and surrealists appreciated its mix of elaborate schemes and incoherent complications. This is the most fun as you’ll find in silent cinema before Chaplin went to Biograph. Or at least before Feuillade made his next serials, notably Les Vampires (1915-1916) and Judex (1916), the latter with a more coherent story (if only barely).

The five short features (they run from 54 minutes to 90 minutes) are mastered from a new 4K restoration from Gaumont and the Centre National du Cinéma (created for the film’s 100th anniversary), which was scanned from the original nitrate negative. The increase in texture and detail from Kino’s earlier DVD release is immediately evident, and it features an orchestral score (replacing the compilation score edited from classical music recordings from the DVD release). This is a significant upgrade from the DVD and it’s gorgeous.

It carries over the supplements of the earlier DVD. There is commentary by film historian and silent film expert David Kalat on the first two parts of the series. Well researched and passionately presented, it’s more of a lecture on the origins of Fantômas in print and the aesthetics of Feuillade’s direction and adaptation (“The Fantômas films are marked by narrative chaos”) than a running commentary on the films themselves, but it is fascinating and very informative. The set also includes two bonus Louis Feuillade shorts, The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912), neither of which have been remastered for HD, and “Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms,” a ten-minute featurette on Feuillade’s career originally presented on Kino’s Gaumont Treasures box set.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

Blu-ray: The silent south seas of ‘Moana’ and ‘Tabu’ restored with sound

MoanaMoana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.

Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.

The film was of course silent but Robert and Frances Flaherty (his wife was very much a partner on the project despite her lack of credit) wanted to accompany the film with the music and songs (especially “the singing,” as Frances remarked back in 1926) of the people. So in 1975, their daughter Monica traveled back to Savai’i with documentary legend Richard Leacock to record a soundtrack, not just music but sound effects and dialogue in the regional dialect, for a rerelease of the film. (Lip readers helped determine what was being said and a script created from that.) The sound was added to a copy of the film and Moana With Soundreleased in 1980, but the version of the film available to Monica Flaherty at the time was not accurate to the release version and featured worn imagery generations away from the original negative. This new restoration, produced by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen, restores the film from the best existing elements and marries the soundtrack (also cleaned up with new digital tools) to the superb imagery of the restoration. Some damage and wear can be seen in brief sequences but for the most part the film looks amazing.

Blu-ray and DVD with the new 40-minute featurette “Moana With Sound: A Short History” with Bruce Posner (who produced this restoration) and the shorter “About the Restoration” (also with Posner), two very informative productions debuting with this release, and filmed commentaries by historians Enrico Camporesi and Bruce Posner. Archival extras include Flaherty’s 1925 short film Twenty-Four-Dollar Islands, the 1960 interview with Frances Flaherty “Flaherty and Film: Moana,” and Flaherty home movies.

TabuTabu (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) was begun by Robert Flaherty in collaboration with German émigré F.W. Murnau, who wanted to revisit the culture of Moana as a backdrop for his own dramatic ideas. Sensibilities clashed and Flaherty left the film, leaving Murnau to create his own vision of Paradise Lost in the story of young lovers (Mathai and Reri) threatened by tribal law. Murnau uses the clash of cultures to contrast an Eden-like innocence with the corruption of modern society (one seemingly sensitive white soul is more opportunist than romantic). The mythic undertones are more European than Pacific Rim and Murnau’s portrayal of the young lovers as Peter Pan-like children of nature is paternalistic at best and downright condescending in parts. But Tabu is also astoundingly beautiful, like a B&W rendering of Paul Gauguin’s visions of Tahiti through an expressionist sensibility. This is classic Murnau, a powerful, poetic story of the doomed struggle against fate, and his final film. He was killed in a car accident just a week before the film premiered.

Shot as a silent film, it was released with a synchronized soundtrack with a score (called a “musical setting” in the credits) by Hugo Riesenfeld, preserved for this restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.

Blu-ray and DVD with the short documentary “The Language of Shadows,” a German language featurette on the making of the film and this new restoration that the institute produced, and the featurettes “Tabu: Takes and Outtakes” and “Tabu: A Work in Progress,” which present some of the unused footage shot by Murnau for the film with narration in German with English subtitles. Also includes Hunt in the South Seas (1940), an ethnographic short film created from unused footage from Tabu.

‘Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies’ and the Quay Brothers on Blu-ray

Chaplinessenay
Flicker Alley

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.

Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.

A Jitney Elopement is straight slapstick, an often inspired but otherwise familiar tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements ending in a Keystone-like car chase. The Tramp, however, features his most fully formed story to date and injects an element of pathos that will become central to Chaplin’s later films. The Tramp saves a girl from three ruffians and is rewarded with a job from her father (he proceeds to wreak havoc on their family farm), but stays only because he’s fallen in love. By contrast By the Sea feels thrown together, and likely was as Chaplin and company shot the loosely connected series of beachside gags in one day. Work finds Chaplin back in form: a force of pure chaos as a paperhanger’s assistant who turns a cozy home into a glue-spattered disaster area. You can see Chaplin’s story sense improve with The Tramp and Work while his persona becomes less aggressive and more hapless, oblivious to the destruction he’s causing all around.

Chaplin doffed his duds and his ubiquitous mustache for the first time since leaving Keystone and the last time in the silent era for A Woman, a hilarious short in which he disguises himself as an elegant society lady. As he flutters his eyelids and flirts with two leering men, including his sweetheart’s married father, she watches in tickled amusement. In The Bank, one of his best Essanay shorts, he waddles up the bank vault only to pull out a bucket, a mop and a smock. Chaplin smoothly combines pathos and slapstick in this story of a dreamy, lovesick janitor, the first of his Essanay films to approach the level of his later Mutual classics. Shanghaied is classic silent situational comedy involving a boat, a stowaway, a dastardly plot to sink the ship, and a plenty of seaborn humor. Chaplin’s gags flow smoothly through a cohesive narrative, building to an organic climax (as opposed to often arbitrary conclusions of his first Essanay efforts), while his talents as a physical comedian are in full display as he balances a dinner tray on a stormy sea and dances a spontaneous jig.

Chaplin is at the top of his form in the his final three films for Essanay. He takes two roles in A Night at the Show, the drunk dandy that was his music hall specialty and a working class rube with a droopy mustache, to wreak havoc at a vaudeville show. Producer David Shepard’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s original two reel version of Burlesque of Carmen, which was expanded by Essanay to four reels with outtakes and new footage, brings the sprawling parody back down to the concentrated, cohesive, and very funny comedy Chaplin originally created. Police is classic Chaplin, the misadventures of the Tramp who leaves prison for a world of rampant poverty and crime, portrayed with a cynical, satiric eye yet heartened with hope. The edition featured here is newly restored. It’s also his final film for Essanay. Mutual Studios gave Chaplin an offer and Chaplin left in 1916 for complete creative control and an unprecedented contract that made him the highest paid person in the world. Building from his evolution at Essanay, he went on to create a dozen comedy classics that remain, in the eyes of many fans, the most concentrated examples of the Chaplin genius.

The rest of the films are presented as supplements. Triple Trouble was constructed by Essanay in 1918 from an unfinished feature called Life and outtakes from Police and Work. While it lacks the narrative cohesion that Chaplin brought to his late Essanay films, it nonetheless features some excellent comic moments. And the set also features the debut of the newly restored Charlie Butts, a one-reel short assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out and released in 1920.

The set features all of these in both Blu-ray and DVD editions and includes a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and notes on the films and the restorations.

QuayBrosThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray) – Collaborators and identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have garnered a cult following for their strange animated shorts, surreal films created in a collision of 19th and 20th century styles and sensibilities. Their figures—mechanical contraptions of thread and wire, springs and coils, aged machine parts and simple tools—quiver and stutter, as if restless with nervous energy, through abstract dramas in doll house abodes in dreamscape worlds.

Directed in a highly stylized manner, with a shallow plain of focus that purposely keeps objects out of focus and a camera that moves with conspicuous mechanical precision (long before it became common practice in stop-motion photography), their works have a dream-like quality about them. This is directly alluded to in the subtitle of one of their most handsome films, The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990) where scenes of a lattice-work of ladders shooting through an angular construction is intercut with a sleeping woman. Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most famous short work, references turn-of-the-century cinema as a man peers through a Kinetoscope to watch the nightmare-tinged fantasy of a figure overwhelmed by mysterious forces on the deserted streets of city after dark. These are the longest and most accomplished short films in this collection of 16 short films spanning 30 years of filmmaking, but there are other spellbinding works: the early The Cabinet of Jan Svanmajer (1984) a tribute to the great Czech animator and the Quays’ spiritual godfather; the inventive art history documentary De Artificiali Persepctiva, or Animorphosis (1990); the four short works in the Stille Nacht series. These films, along with Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987) and The Phantom Museum (2003), showcase a vision of quivering objects and surreal narratives in a shadowy, self-contained dream world.

Three recent works make their disc debut in this collection: Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all of which recently toured the U.S. in a program of Quay films curated by Christopher Nolan, a fan of the filmmakers. He contributes an original documentary, the eight-minute appreciation Quay (2015), a profile of the filmmakers at work and in conversation discussing their inspirations. Also features commentaries for six shorts recorded by the Quay Brothers for a previous disc release and a booklet with an introduction by Nolan, a Quay Brothers dictionary, and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

The complete line-up is featured below:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or, The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
plus
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands (2013)
Quay (dir: Christopher Nolan)

The Quay Brothers’ ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1986)

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’

Sherlock1916
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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