Silents Please: the original 1925 ‘The Lost World’ and Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ on Blu-ray

Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.

The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray)
The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.

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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.

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

Videophiled Classic: The ‘Sunrise’ on ‘Cat People’

Sunrise
Sunrise (Fox, Blu-ray) – A deliriously romantic fable on a magnificent scale, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise is a story of reconciliation and renewal and a Utopian vision of paradise lost and regained. A strapping young farmer (George O’Brien) under the spell of a sexy vamp from the city plots to kill his innocent Madonna of a wife (Janet Gaynor), but just when it seems to be playing out An American Tragedy, fate sends them on a second courtship through the bright lights and busy culture of the big city. It’s subtitled “a song of two humans” and it plays as much like verse as it does a story.

German master Murnau was lured to America by William Fox to give his studio class (Fox had money but he wanted was a masterpiece) and the director let his imagination loose upon the machinery of Hollywood to create the most beautiful piece of cinematic poetry to come out of America. There may be no more beautiful shot in all of cinema than the creeping prowl through the swamp, the camera pushing through leaves and branches and breaking through the mist, subtly shifting perspective without ever breaking it’s measured pace or floating gaze. His big city is like Metropolis for the jazz age, but invested with a benevolence that American filmmakers save for their small town portraits, and his storytelling is as unabashedly romantic as it is sophisticated. Sunrise reminds us of the silent cinema dream worlds lost in the new realism and visual literalness of the sound revolution. Almost a century of sound filmmaking has never equaled its emotional power or the cinematic purity. If there is a single essential silent classic, this is it.

sunrise2
Though produced as a silent film, it was released at the dawn of the sound era with a synchronized score by Hugo Reisenfeld in the U.S. and the disc features the original Reisenfeld soundtrack (with sound effects but no dialogue) and a subsequent score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock for the home video release. The disc presents two editions of the film, the original American release and a European silent version discovered a decade ago, created from alternate takes and sometimes different shots (a common practice in the silent era). The European print has a stronger image while the American version, mastered from an archival print (the negative was lost in a studio fire decades ago), is as close to the director’s definitive version we’ll find. Both are mastered in HD and debut on Blu-ray in the U.S. (many American collectors picked a British Blu-ray release few years ago; this is produced from the same digital masters).

Also features commentary by respected ASC cinematographer and cinematography historian John Bailey, outtakes with commentary by Bailey, the original scenario by Carl Mayer with annotations by F.W. Murnau, the original screenplay, and note on the restoration.

CatPeopleBRCover72dpi
Cat People: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is not the 1942 classic of shadow and suggestion and Freudian sexuality clawing its way out of a virginal young woman but the 1982 remake directed by Paul Schrader. Nastassja Kinski, in her second American film, is entrancing as Irena, who arrives in New Orleans to be reunited with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) only to discover that she belongs to a race of shapeshifters who turn into leopards when they have sex. Unless, of course, they keep it in the family.

Calling this a remake isn’t really accurate, I confess, even with the homages to the original film. Alan Ormsby’s screenplay doesn’t just update the story, it reimagines it with a backstory mythology that is both more literal and more dreamlike than the original and Schrader paints it with a palette of old world atmosphere and modern, unreal colors.

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Videophiled Cool and Classic: The most gothic ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Nosferatu’ restored

JaneEyre
The 1943 Jane Eyre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) stars Joan Fontaine as Jane, the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic romance about a meek orphan hired by a brooding aristocrat to be governess to his young ward, but it’s Orson Welles who dominates the drama with both his dark, electric presence as Edward Rochester and his influence behind the scenes of the production. He’s a bear of a Rochester, a rough, dark figure more at home with his hounds and horses than with people, and Welles drops his voice to a rumbling growl whether he’s barking orders or letting his guard down for a moment of intimacy.

The handsome production, one of the romantic classics of the forties, is directed by the literate British import Robert Stevenson but Welles had a considerable hand in the production, from the visual design of the production to script revisions, all of it uncredited. The result is a beautiful piece of Hollywood Gothic, sculpting a Victorian England completely out of Hollywood artifice and soundstage magic through magnificent set design, dramatic lighting and healthy helpings of stage fog. Just look to the cover of the disc for a sense of the visual atmosphere. This is one of the most expressionist American films of the era and Welles had no small hand in that.

Welles’ former producer and writing partner John Houseman co-wrote the literate screenplay with Aldous Huxley and Stevenson and longtime Welles composer Bernard Herrmann provides the dark, moody score. Agnes Moorehead (another Welles confederate) co-stars with Margaret O’Brien (as Rochester’s French ward), Peggy Ann Garner (Jane as a child) and Henry Daniell, and young Elizabeth Taylor has a small, unbilled role in the opening act as Jane’s only friend.

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Nosferatu
F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (Kino, Blu-ray) is the first great vampire film, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (it was tied up by the Stoker estate for years) which recreates the famous bloodsucker as a feral ghoul: bald, fanged, clawed, a bat-like creature whose bloodlust battles his sexual lust for the virginal Ellen. Count Orlock (played by the spindly, skull-headed Max Schreck) is a veritable force of evil, carrying disease and destruction with him, and Murnau shoots him as an eerie creature of the night, rising like a corpse from his coffin when the sun goes down and skulking in shadow. This Blu-ray debut was mastered in HD from the archival 35mm restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and features separate versions of the film, one with newly-translated English intertitles and another with original German intertitles (with optional English subtitles), both color tinted and accompanied by Hans Erdmann’s original 1922 score. It also includes the supplements from the previous Kino release: 52-minute documentary “The Language of Shadows: The Early Years and Nosferatu,” a three-minute featurette on the digital restoration, lengthy excerpts from other eight other Murnau silent films, and a stills gallery.

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‘Faust’ on TCM

My feature review of/historical essay on F.W. Murnau’s Faust and Kino’s new DVD release is now up at Turner Classic Movies.

Emil Jannings at the devil in Faust
Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Faust

Murnau’s Faust, scripted by Carl Mayer and subtitled “A German Folk Saga,” reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil, with Faust as a kind of modern day Job. Mephisto (Emil Jannings, as a hulking bestial being with massive gargoyle wings) and the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Seigfried with feathery wings that tower over him) debate the goodness of mankind in an abstract celestial setting, where shafts of light breath through storm clouds like the dawn coming through the dark night. “I’ll wager that I can wrest Faust’s soul from God!” he bets the Archangel, who accepts (confident of mankind’s goodness and, apparently, unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure). Mephisto emerges over a picaresque mountain village, a looming monster who hovers over the innocent town like a storm of evil, his cloak smothering it in darkness while spreading noxious fumes that carry the plague. The image is astounding, a vision of darkness and pestilence personified and an image of pure visual power.

Read the complete essay here. I also wrote about Faust and the new Murnau box set from Kino on Parallax View here.

DVDs for 3/17/09 – Murnau, Shimizu, ‘Elegy’ and more

Last week, there was a plethora of New Releases fighting for attention. This week, the attention belongs to just a few impressive pieces, including two trememdous box sets: one in tribute to one of the most acclaimed directors of the silent era (or any era, for that matter), one to celebrate a neglected Japanese director.

The Haunted Castle
The Haunted Castle

Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Made before Nosferatu, The Haunted Castle (1921) is not a horror film or a ghost story but a psychological drama and murder mystery set in a magnificent country manor. Murnau shows real skill building the story in clever crosscutting while maintaining dramatic tension and an ominous mood. The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) couldn’t be more different, a lighthearted espionage thriller scripted by Thea von Harbou that feels more like a Lubitsch lark than the dark expressionism that Murnau specializes in. And Faust, Murnau’s final German film before he left for Hollywood, is one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. His reimagining of the Faust myth as a holy battle between good and evil is full of magnificent visual effects (Emil Jannings’ Lucifer envelops a mountain town in his dark cloak of plague) and gorgeous images created in the play of light, shadow, and mist on his beautifully designed sets. This new reconstruction and restoration is the most beautiful it has looked since, surely, its original release, and it is now the definitive version of this essential silent masterpiece.

I go into detail on every film at Parallax View  here.

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. The silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a lovely character piece about best friends who follow very different life paths, marked by evocative, startlingly modern direction Mr. Thank You (1936) is a buoyant road movie set on a bus ride through mountain roads with a cross-section of travelers whose stories spell out the desperation of Japan’s depression. The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) are both set in mountain resorts in the lazy atmosphere of summer vacation, both full of lovely rhythms and a meandering pace that favors personality and character of plot and defined by a melancholy tone of impermanence. The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition but because Shimizu is as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

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DVD of the Week – ‘Murnau, Borzage and Fox’ – December 16, 2008

Murnau, Borzage and Fox actually came out last week, but I didn’t receive a copy in time for that column, so it’s featured this week. And yes, it is a beauty of a set, a labor of love and a gift to all lovers of silent cinema (and, for that matter, anyone who loves great cinema of any and all kinds). The box set features two silent films by F.W. Murnau and ten complete features by the much less well known Frank Borzage, one of cinema’s great romantics and forgotten giant of silent cinema.

At the inaugural Academy Awards in 1927, Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, won for Director and Adapted Screenplay, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise won for Cinematography and “Artistic Quality of Production” (a sort of high-art “Best Picture” award that disappeared the next year), and the two shared Janet Gaynor’s Best Actress award. This confluence of directors, studio and era is essentially the grounding for this year’s answer to “Ford at Fox.”

Mary Duncan and the boys: "City Girl"
Mary Duncan and the boys: "City Girl"

Sunrise is the only film on this set to have been previously available on DVD and it’s been newly remastered for this set. City Girl (1930), the third of Murnau’s three films for Fox, makes its long awaited debut and it’s a beaut. A late silent film made in a period while the studios were rushing to sound, it’s a rural romance between a sincere young man (Charles Farrell) from a Minnesota farm, the harried dreamer of a waitress (Mary Duncan) from Chicago who falls for his sincerity and honesty and accompanies him back to the farm as his wife – much to the displeasure of the man’s father, a hard, severe man as cold as the Minnesota winters. It’s a simple story with moments of unabashed beauty and freedom, as when she runs through the wheat fields of her new home, a burst of innocence and joy from a woman who thinks she’s found her dream come true. Unlike Sunrise, Murnau did not have carte blanche with this film and it was completed in his absence, as he had grown disenchanted with Fox and the American studio system and left to make Tabu in the South Seas.

While Sunrise was a financial failure, it reaped other rewards for Fox. Murnau the studio’s artist in residence and every director came by to watch him work and soak in the expressive qualities of his style and cinematic sensibility. No one benefited more than Frank Borzage, a good director who became great as he found the imagery and approach to match his own romantic impulses. In Seventh Heaven (1927), perhaps not coincidentally featuring Sunrise stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, his style burst forth fully formed and irresistibly passionate. Farrell stars as a Parisian sewer worker gives a home to a destitute street girl and the two fall in love in the seventh floor garret, but before they can marry he leaves to fight in WWI. Borzage tells his story as much through visual metaphor as narrative convention, expressing in images what words cannot. Their daily ‘telepathic’ communication across hundred of miles defies logic, but Borzage makes it believable in the context of his story which takes place largely on the spiritual realm.

This collection finally brings his holy trinity of romantic classics to DVD: Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star. All starring Fox’s eternal young lovers, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, they are among the most lush silent films ever made and the most entrancing celebrations of the redemptive power of love in all of cinema.

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