Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.

Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).

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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

Shadows, Silence and Sternberg

3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”). That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.

Sternberg Before Sound (and Dietrich)

But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema. The three films in Criterion’s magnificent box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg may be all the evidence we have to this era (most of his silent films are lost and his directorial debut, the 1925 The Salvation Hunters, is unavailable on home video, though clips are included in the set supplements) but they are more than enough to show his mastery of the medium and the rapid evolution of his style, both a visual sculptor and as a cinematic storyteller. The “von” of his name (an affectation that didn’t originate with him but one he embraced who-heartedly) suggests an a European émigré and technically that’s accurate—he was born in Vienna and came the United State an early age—but Sternberg is an American, with European tastes perhaps but an American storytelling sensibility.

These films also showcase his often overlooked genius as a director of actors. While Sternberg fills the frame with light and shadow and layers of texture, he strips the performances down to the elemental base, their entire approach to life in their faces, their walk, the way they lean in for a comment or drop their eyes when they catch another’s gaze. In such carefully orchestrated performances, the smallest gestures, a lift of an eyebrow, a shift in body language communicates everything.

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