René Clair was one of France’s most celebrated auteur directors, who made great films in both the silent and sound eras and on each side of the Atlantic. We’re thrilled that our festival will host the UK premiere of Lobster Films’ new restoration of his first feature film, Le fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge, 1925). And we’re even more excited to say that this screening will be accompanied by two of our favourite musicians, multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne and harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
Although Clair is credited, quite rightly, with one of the most sophisticated transitions to the talking pictures with the eloquent sound design of Sous les Toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930), his silent work is particularly fascinating and has been overlooked by too many people. His silent work combines the avant-garde, the comic and the fantastical to make films that are filled with beauty and wonder, as well as humour. Continue reading →
Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (From Morn to Midnight, 1920)
This year, the British Silent Film Festival is commemorating the anniversary of the birth of the Weimar Republic. This means we will be looking both at some acclaimed German films of the 1920s, but also international co-productions and those British films that betray the clear influence of Weimar cinema. We are also exploring the origins of the horror genre, as the nights draw in. So there is no finer way to begin our festival than with an influential and bold classic of German Expressionist cinema. We want to create the perfect atmosphere too, so our opening night movie will screen at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, which is home to an internationally acclaimed collection of Expressionist art.
The film we are screening is Karlheinz Martin’s From Morn to Midnight (1920) – a bold film that epitomises the styles and concerns of German Expressionism. The Expressionist movement moved from fine art – distorted perspectives and artificiality combine with thick, obvious brush strokes to create a visual representation not of naturalism but of the artist’s innermost psychological turmoil – to the theatre . From Morn to Midnight was made very shortly after the famous The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), which has widely been celebrated as the first true Expressionist film. It shares with that film a sense of foreboding and introspection, a feeling that the outside world is filled with danger – and of course a heavily stylised, theatrical production design.
Adolph Philipp and Marie Pagano in The Midnight Girl (1919)
We’re standing on the verge of the Roaring Twenties all over again. It’s often instructive (and fun!) to look back at how cinema has advanced in a century and 1919 was a particularly strong year for the movies. As the Cento anni fa strand at Il Cinema Ritrovato proved this year, many films we now acknowledge as silent classics were released just before the feted 1920s began. In 1919, the war in Europe had ended, Hollywood was growing strong, the feature film was rapidly becoming a fixture, and things were about to get very interesting in Germany. At the 20th British Silent Film Festival, we’re commemorating the anniversary of the Weimar Republic by looking at the fascinating German cinema of this period and its global influence too.
We’ll be screening several diverse films from 1919 at this year’s festival in Leicester: from Mauritz Stiller’s captivating Swedish drama Song of the Scarlet Flower starring Lars Hanson, to Maurice Elvey’s WWI movie Comradeship and Ernst Lubitsch’s frenetic comedy The Oyster Princess. One of the 1919 films on the slate is likely to be unfamiliar to most of us – The Midnight Girl, a charming two-reel comedy, which reveals the extent of the influence not just German culture but the New York stage had on mid-period silent cinema. Not only that, but our screening of the film will be very special.
Adolph Philipp, the writer and director of The Midnight Girl, was born in Germany but ran away as a teenager to join an acting troupe. In the early 20th century he opened a theatre in New York, where he staged many of his own musicals for the substantial German-speaking audience in the city, as well as selling his sheet music. Continue reading →
Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919)
Silent cinema began in the Victorian era and faded away at the end of roaring twenties, just before the repeal of prohibition in America. So silent films were made in the context of around four decades of social change. It was a time in which women fought for the vote, workers campaigned for greater rights, the world went to war, the Russian empire fell, the aeroplane was invented, the motorcar drove horses off our streets, factories built assembly lines, radio waves circled the globe, and attitudes to sex, and censorship went through revolutions.
When we talk about early 1930s Hollywood cinema, we call that period pre-Code: the last few wild years before William Hays’s MPDDA regulations about sex, violence, religion, race, drugs and alcohol were rigorously enforced on screen. Effectively all silent cinema is pre-Code, but that doesn’t mean that “anything went”. Hollywood studios practised some severe self-censorship in the early 1920s, following a few lurid scandals, and while 19th-century morality was not quite as prudish as it has been painted, early cinema was generally more coy about sex than films of today. But that is not the full story …
It’s still the biggest change ever to hit the film industry. The coming of sound changed the way films were made, and shown. It affected the livelihoods of actors, technicians, producers, musicians and cinema owners. This period of change, in which some filmmakers rose to the challenge and others struggled with the new technology is one of the most fascinating periods in cinema history. For the past three years, a research project led by British Silent Film Festival co-director Laraine Porter has been delving into this process of disruption and reinvention, as experienced by the British film industry.
Sound came a little later to Britain than to the US. The first fully synchronised sound film to be released in this country was horror film The Terror, in November 1928. The following year, studios and cinemas hurriedly mobilised to accommodate the “Talker Wave” and by the time Hitchcock had released his Blackmail in both silent and talkie versions, the industry knew it would have to enter the 1930s wired for sound.
Two years ago, the 18th British Silent Film Festival shared some of Porter and her team’s research, and several of the country’s first, occasionally faltering, sound films were shown. At this year’s festival, we’ll be finding out even more about the transition to sound. The five-day event opens with a one-day colloquium of papers and screenings, and then through the following days we’ll be showing some more assured early British sound films, which show studios and staff adapting to the new medium with greater confidence and more advanced technology.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016) Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures
Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time and The Great Flood screen at the 19th British Silent Film Festival
Archive silent film is rarely perfect. Age weathers all things, but especially nitrate film stock, which decomposes and distorts in the most alarming way. Watching a damaged print, you will likely see sections of the frame swallowed up by black or grey blooms, figures twisted, pock-marks raining across the image.
Experimental film-maker Bill Morrison has made a career out of savouring the beauty in these warped and wrecked reels. His work takes archive film and turns it into not just a history lesson, but a work of art in its own right. You may already be familiar with his haunting 2002 feature, Decasia, a collage of film footage haunted by the shadows and spectres of nitrate decay. We all fervently wish the damage weren’t there, of course, but we can also be awed by it.