Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)
Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of Metropolis. Fritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.
Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.
Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.
No supplements with these films.
The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.
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.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.
With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.
I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.
Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.
And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.