Monday, 23 May 2016

Jenny Hasselqvist on the edge - Brennende Grenze (1927)

This is a long film – 146 minutes – and one that gives ample time for its leading players to express themselves in lengthy close-up. There are none more expressive-impressive than Jenny Hasselqvist who has the highest level of physical and emotional control along with the grace and force of being also one of the leading prima ballerinas of the age.

Director Erich Waschneck made the most of this beguiling asset and in one sublime sequence the whole effort of the film is made worthwhile… with her character’s son having just killed the leader of the occupying soldiers, she turns from the door after waving him away and agonises for long moments – hands clasped in flickering resolution and arms dropped in despair: how can they escape from retribution, how can she save him?
Jenny H
I’ve compared Jenny H to Isabelle Huppert before and I think that is more valid than ever after watching this film. Two actors who can pack more emotional signalling into their deeply-generous features and never overplay; always holding something back of their truth… leaving that ultimate connection to the watcher.

There are numerous moments in which Waschneck lets his actors’ reactions tell the story – the action is mostly implied off-screen – and this is a psychologically-driven drama with relatively few title cards.

Farmer and fist
A German farmer is confronted by the Captain of the occupying Polish forces; he stares in resistance at the platoon on horseback in front of him, clenching his fists with his granite features frozen in preparation, the camera switches from face to fist, face to gun until the spell is broken as the Captain shoots his hand… Waschneck does not need to show us a battle to reveal the tensions of occupation.

Brennende Grenze (Burning Border) is based in the aftermath of the Great War when an independent Polish state was established after a century of partitions from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. A series of border wars lasted until 1922 when national boundaries were finally settled.

Here come the Poles
During this border struggle – Grenzkampf – there were many injustices on both sides and this film, being German, focuses on the incursions into previously-German territory years before Poland was re-invaded.

Jenny Hasselqvist plays Luise von Will Bold, a widower left with a grand house defended only by the old-guard of the German army and her loyal staff. Her 18 year-old son, Heino (Hubert von Meyerinck) is a new recruit in the army and is shown writing to his mother (Hasselqvist was only 33 when the film was made) from the front lines. He hands his letter to a cavalryman and we see it wend its way through montage of rail and road to his mother, who is busily engaged in entertaining local notables all with a keen eye on this noble widow.

The commander and his gal...
Reading the letter Luise realises how much danger her son is in and the mood of the evening changes. The next morning Polish riders appear at the house for that well-wrought confrontation between the fist of the land manager and the commander of the Polish troops, Ladislaus von Zeremski (Hans Adalbert Schlettow).

At the house, Luis smiles at the pigs running through the hall, only to be greeted by the farmer; his bandaged hand economically explaining the outcome of the confrontation… another transition from happy to sad: her face literally says it all.

Oskar Homolka: what shall they do with the drunken sailor?
Meanwhile the invaders have quickly made themselves at home and are drinking the house dry led by a drunken sailor played by Oskar Homolka, an Austrian actor who enjoyed a huge career and was the star of many a sixties spy romp as a Russian or generic Euro-baddy for hire – he’s  great fun here as an emblem of the ill-disciplined occupiers.

Zeremski frolics with his moll, Nadja (Olga Chekhova) as baddies do but even these two have a human side, she treading on his toe as she rides their unwilling host and even showing vulnerability – this war has made them all a little mad and fear runs the day.

A soldier but still a son
An uneasy peace reigns and then Luis’ son returns home, found by his would-be sweetheart, Marlene (Camilla Spira), Luise’s housekeeper who  tells  her mistress and helps the soldier disguise himself as a waiter. The boy seems just that, gladly being cradled in his mother’s arms in a counter point to nasty Nadja’s moment of angst. But Heino is on the cusp of manhood and it takes all of his strength to resist knocking Zeremski to the ground after he starts dancing with Luise… this conflict throws the natural order up in the air and the commander is keen to taste the high life.

Fritz Alberti
But emotions really start to churn as one of Luis’ old loves, the traitor Tobias Raschoff (Fritz Alberti) re-appears as the Polish government’s nominated Commissioner… there’s a great reaction shot from Hasselqvist as she turns from playing the piano in her drawing room to face this man she loved so much but who now seems destined to be her oppressor.

And we’re hardly half-way through…

Martial law and the invaders out of control...
Martial law is declared and the Polish troops rampage through the town, taking their Kontribution – as they please. Tobias Raschoff takes a long walk in the country – his home soil - and we see from his pain that he is not as clear cut a collaborator as he seems. He has already sent his chauffeur off with a message trying to hold back the incursion but he is intercepted and Zeremski confronts him with his note… Nothing can now stop his troop from marching further.

One  man walks alone with his guilt?
Some spoilers…

But Raschoff is canny and takes the bull by the horns as the officers celebrate, ensuring they all get as drunk as possible, including the spiteful Nadja… a riot breaks out as the foot soldiers crowd at windows faces pressed against windows. Despite the party play – Waschneck builds a magnificent tension throughout – and scores will be settled.

Nadja runs riot on the table top dancing the full length before collapsing… she’s carried up to her room by  Zeremski’s Adjutant (Hugo Werner) who he orders to despatch Tobias: we see him enter and the door closes… one on one.

Heino bides his time waiting on Zeremski
Zeremski then heads up to have his evil way with Luise only to find his way blocked by the mysterious young waiter who has been an irritant all along… he raises his knife to strike and… Waschneck cuts once again, but we’d already seen the axe in Heino’s hand.

There’s so much to resolve in these final moments and the strands are brought together in dramatic fashion: love of mother for son, for country and each other triumphing against anarchy and opportunism – a message as welcome in Weimar Germany as any time since.

I watched the copy on the European Film Gateway which is as you can see low-resolution but watchable enough to show the performance skill and the cinematography of Friedl Behn-Grund. There’s no score so you just have to imagine and the German intertitles are a good excuse to brush up your translating skills but, in truth, they’re hardly needed such is the excellence of the performance.

Maybe one day Die Edition Filmmuseum may digitise for DVD or some kind souls will project on the big screen where it belongs.

The border

Monday, 16 May 2016

A light in the museum… Waxworks (1924), with Stephen Horne, Barbican

This was the last screening in the Barbican’s season of Weimar expressionist films (as opposed to films that are just very expressive…) with Stephen Horne, introducing as well as playing, quoting Lotte Eisner’s later-life conviction  that there were only two fully-fledged expressionist films - Von morgens bis mitternachts, and Caligari – along with the third segment of this film which, as Stephen promised, was well worth the wait!

As the Sun cracked the flags in the Barbican’s concrete courtyards, a substantial audience clearly preferred silence to shining as we gathered at the Centre’s lowest point: The Pit cinema.

Olga charmed by Emil
Waxworks was directed by Paul Leni who subsequently made The Cat and Canary, The Man Who Laughs and others in Hollywood. It is one of the first portmanteau horror/fantasy films with three stories all contained in a framing sequence set in a house of wax.

Leni recruited three of the Weimar’s leading men: Jannings, Veidt and Krauss who were respectively, corpulent, terrible and cutting!

Luna Park
A fairground – Luna Park – a whirl of double-exposed rides and lights, a young poet (William Dieterle) paper in hand, looking to respond for an advert for “an imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition”. He arrives at The Panopticum, a booth run by an elderly showman (John Gottowt) and his young daughter Olga Belajeff.

“Can you write startling tales about these wax figures?” asks the Showman before introducing his milky-faced cast of characters: Spring Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Haroun-al-Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad (Emil Jannings). Seeing the Caliph’s detached arm, the poet decides to write a story of how he came to lose his limb… the camera flicks out of focus and we’re in a wonderful, cartoonish Arabia looking on a paper-mache palace and plastic palm trees.

Assad canoodles with Zarah
The poet casts himself as Assad the Baker with the showman’s daughter as his wife – Zarah – one of the most beautiful women in the city not already married to the Caliph (he has a wife for every day…). The baker bakes and makes eyes at Zarah whilst the Caliph is pampered on the roof of his palace losing, badly, at chess. Distracted by the smoke from the baker’s oven the Caliph, perfectly reasonably, sends his Grand Vizier and his men to kill the baker but when they arrive they are distracted by Zarah’s beauty…
The Caliph's Palace is almost like a living thing...
The Caliph decides to investigate this woman for himself whilst Assad, forced to prove his manhood after Zarah realises that if she can catch the Grand Vizier’s eye she could do better, heads off to the palace to steal the Caliph’s magical Wishing Ring…

Cue a masterclass in kingly carousing from the protean Jannings, fleshy-grotesque in heavy padding, over-weighted turban and wicked moustache… he smiles, he gurns he licks his lips but he has charm enough to stop Zarah – and the audience – from running. Can Assad complete his task and keep his head and his wife? Have you read the Arabian Nights?

Next up the Poet turns his gaze towards Ivan the Terrible and a far more sinister tale ensues as Conrad Viedt’s Czar exhibits a sinuous delight in watching the grains of sand count down his tortured victims’ last seconds of life as they pass from chamber to chamber in his hourglass. It’s a horrible concept that perfectly encapsulates his silicon psychopathy.

Time waits for no man
But Ivan trusts no one, not even his poisoner-in-chief, who he has hunted down and killed but not before the man can write his master’s name on the terrible timer. Ivan is unaware as he continues his abuse of his subjects – terrible and not at all awesome in this context. When he does find out his solution reflects the tortured hyper-paranoia you hope haunts every psychotic despot – those to come and those passed.

The long day closes with that Eisner-authenticated expressionist sequence in which Spring-Heeled Jack comes to life and pursues the young couple in shadows and light as Leni let’s rip with every trick from the expressionist cookbook! Conrad Veidt’s sunken-cheeked ferocity aside, it is the film’s most genuinely haunting moment and right till the close you eye the Jack waxwork a little nervously.

Waxworks is a sight for sore eyes (hayfever and long drives…). Leni’s sets are superb throughout and Helmar Lerski’s cinematography brings them to life from the oppressive low-beamed ceilings of the Kremlin to the nightmarish exposures for jumping Jack flash.

Jack's menacing montage
Stephen played with his customary lyricism and control – playing the electronic keyboard always anchored with the Barbican’s splendid Steinway. Flute and accordion were also played all in sympathy with the film and as part of a remarkably well-structured improvisation. Waxwork’s range of moods presents a challenge to any musician, especially the curious mix of comedy, drama and horror (not to mention Emil!) but, once again, Mr Horne made it look like he’d spent weeks planning this all out with the ghost of Paul Leni or, possibly his animated wax figure…

Waxworks is available in its fully-restored length complete with tints, from Kino and you can order direct as well as from the long river that winds past localised tax-returns…

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Max Linder’s absurdification… The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922)

The man Charlie called The Professor
Max Linder stands tall in the land of daft with a range of ridiculous that stands the test of silly even after all these D'Artanians…  After this film, the normally sober New York Times – was it you Mordaunt? – was reaching for its thesaurus for new ways to describe this “whole-hearted mockery”, this “travesty” of Doug Fairbanks version of the Dumas tale which, it claimed, worked by the method of “absurdification“.

The film features the famous three swordsmen, Porpoise, Octopus and Walrus, not to mention the flashing blade called Dart-In-Again and runs ridiculous parallel to the Fairbank’s film’s romanticism. The Three Musketeers is outlandish enough and perhaps only a Frenchman could lampoon it as well as this – respectful tongue firmly in both cheeks.

Crossing the Channel
It’s the kind of intense humour you’d later expect of the Marx Brothers and whilst it has the physicality of Keaton and Chaplin it seems more overtly literate and literal in a surreal way. Donkeys love cows and our hero spends three months riding backwards on his humble steed whilst the Queen’s chamber quintet play jazz and the action counts down with the plucking of the remaining four hairs on a monk’s head.

Max is Dart-In-Again also known as Knockout and he leaves his father’s farm, to find fame in Paris. He travels by donkey (Jazbo the Horse!) much to the chagrin of beast’s Friesian friend: the tracks of the cow’s tears mark the depths of her loss.

"...ravishing yet love-starved..."
We cut to the court of King Louis Xiii where we find his Queen, Anne (Caroline Rankin) “…the ravishing yet love-starved wife…” who, it turns out is hardly the first but definitely the latter. She’s been entertained by her band of merry maiden musicians who raise their sax and trombones in a clear display of jazz… the first of many delightful anachronisms – there’s even a handsome cab that’s actually a cab.

The scarcely regal King (Frank Cooke) returns, nonplussed from his travels and the scheming Li'l Cardinal Richie-Loo (Bull Montana) watches on with his pet monk (Bynunsky Hyman) – half man-half pet… a bizarre sight.

Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman
The Queen’s paramour, Lord Duke Poussy Bunkumin (Harry Mann) walks on tenterhooks like Felix the Cat with her lady in waiting, Constance Bonne-aux-Fieux (Jobyna Ralston) to rendezvous with his sweetheart and, as he takes her prized jewellery as a memento, the Cardinal, perched, precariously on a stack of chairs spots the moment!

Meanwhile… Max makes his way to Paris where he mistakenly rescues a poor man from harassment at the hands of the the cheesy villain, Roquefort (Jean de Limur). He’s mistaken, the pair were merely sharing a joke, and is duly knocked unconscious, tied backward on his mule and sent off… “Three months later…” runs the title card as he wakes up many miles away.

Jobyna Ralston
Arriving in Paris, Dart fails to impress a local maiden and decides that he needs to trade in his four-legged friend for some new clothes. Suitably attired he bumps into Constance and creates an immediate impression.

Now, I hear you ask, what about the three other guys? Dart heads to the musketeers recruiting office where he presents a letter from hid daddy to the diminutive “Goliath” in charge of proceedings – a very un-PC sight gag that plays upon preconceptions of size and its relative importance.
The three elite musketeers enter: Porpoise (Clarence Wertz),   Octopus (Charles Mezzetti) and Walrus (John J. Richardson), only to be chided for killing just 99 of the Duke’s guards, thereby missing the cremation discount on a hundred dead.

Porpoise, Octopus and Walrus... possibly not in that order.
Worry not, pledges Dart tomorrow we can kill the extra one and a hundred more: the crazed merchandising of death. One by one Dart arranges to see the three the next day “one o’clock by the cemetery wall…” and he greets them by leaping from what looks at least a fifteen foot wall – Linder is every inch a match for Fairbanks in his stunt work and his swordplay is not only adept but so well timed he manages to maintain the incessant beat of tricks and gags.

The musketeers are ambushed at their rendezvous and team up with their new fourth member to defeat the Duke’s assassins – no worries about that discount today. There’s more daring do as the team celebrates as Constance, looking on, sighs “Oh Knockout, Knockout, the Samson of my dreamless nights!” what is keeping her awake?!

His regal majesty
But trouble’s ahead as the King, prompted by his stinky-cheese advisor, asks the Queen to wear her jewels for the ball. She’s bound to get found out unless, unless… Knockout Dart can get to London and retrieve them from her lover…

The films accelerates to its conclusion with a bewildering pace as telephones inform a guard on a motorcycles of the musketeers’ rescue plan and our hero sets sail for England on his horse. It’s great fun and the invention never slackens as Dart is surrounded by dozens of swords pointing at his head only to simply duck, leaving a platoon of the Duke’s guards pinned by their own swords…

A tight spot?
Linder struggled to find the level of success in Hollywood that he had enjoyed, pre-war, in Europe – he was making films in the 1900s - and he began to doubt himself after this film became another relative failure “…I sense that I'm no longer funny; I have so many preoccupations that I can no longer concentrate on my film character ... The public is mildly amused by my situations, but this evening where were the explosions of laughter that we hear when Charlie's on the screen?...Make people laugh, it’s easy to say make people laugh, but I don't feel funny anymore."

Jobyna and Max
His comedy is as sophisticated as anyone else from the period and is still genuinely beguiling. Linder’s mental health had been fragile after his war experience and seemingly he would never fully recover and yet, on this evidence he was still funny – very, very funny – and transcendentally so.

The Three Must-Get-Theres is available on the Kino DVD set and is among the most essential of all silent comedy.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Poetry and motion – Terje Vigen (1917) John Sweeney and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

I’m not sure if Victor Sjöström and John Ford ever met but from their mutual love of spectacular nature and their belief in The Strong Man (or Woman), I’m sure they would have got on like a wooden cabin on fire.

These two films came early in both men’s careers and show how advanced performance and cinematography had become by 1917. Two wildly different subjects and locations but two master film-makers at work capturing wild drama against stunning backdrops…

Out West… Bucking Broadway (1917) with Cyrus Gabrysch

This film was only rediscovered a few years back and looks very fine from the restoration on view. It features many Ford trademarks that were no doubt anything but at this relatively stage: beautiful scenery, hard-working ranch hands, a massed brawl – unrehearsed a free-for-all just like JF like them – and a slight story, balanced by not taking itself too seriously. It’s a fun film and very good-looking.

Harry Carey stars as Cheyenne Harry, the pride of the ranch and the apple of his boss’s daughter Helen’s eye. Helen is played by Molly Malone who looks far too young for Harry (39) and yet was 29 so, you can relax South Yorkshire Police Force…

Harry and Helen
Harry carves Helen a heart which she promises to keep and the couple are delighted when her father (L. M. Wells) agrees to their union and future life in a little log cabin Harry has built.

But… into this Wyoming paradise enters a gentleman from New York City, name of Thornton (Vester Pegg) a man with a baddie’s moustache if ever you saw one! He drives his fast car and eastern allure straight into the heart of the young couple’s relationship and before Harry knows it, has started to tempt Helen away with his talk of the bright lights, the big city…

Harry Carey and Molly Malone
As Harry and Helen’s engagement is announced it’s already too late and his intended has been swept off her feet, into Thornton’s car and the express train to NYC. Harry and her Father are distraught.

In New York which, sadly, we don’t get to see; any exteriors clearly being in LA… Helen is introduced to Thornton’s “sister” Gladys (Gertrude Astor) who makes very strange eyes at the younger woman: what’s really going on – white slave trade or something even more transgressive?!

Gladys' mysterious gaze
Helen begins to wonder and sends her wooden heart back to Harry who, as all cowboys do in times of emotional stress, was about to head off on his lonesome. He quickly reverses his decision on receipt of her letter and – literally – catches the next express to New York chasing after it on horseback and clambering on at speed – ye-hah!!

It’s only a matter of time before Thornton is showing his true colours – drinking, messing his hair up and pushing Helen around in front of his weird friends… and then it’s a question of how long it will take Harry to come to the rescue…

It’s a fun film aided by Cyrus’ G’s splendid accompaniment: a man equally at home with cattle wrangling in Wyoming dust as with Park Avenue sophistication and the chaos that ensues when both worlds collide.

Up North… Terje Vigen (There Was a Man) (1917) with John Sweeney and Lillian Henley

I’d previously watched the Kino DVD of this film but this was an altogether more immersive experience: the BFI’s 35mm film was screened and, in the absence of English translations, Lillian Henley read out a translation with actorly precision and powerful, controlled tones. The film is based on the poem by Henrik Ibsen and Lilian’s voice worked perfectly with the rise and fall of the verse: perfectly pitched!

John Sweeney accompanied with some of his most dramatic lines all the while allowing Lillian the space to vocalise before re-joining the action out at sea. The result was simply one of the best silent events I’ve witnessed at the Bioscope or elsewhere: it should be bottled and prescribed for all those in need of some silent spirit!

Victor Sjöström
The film marks a step change in Sjostrom’s direction and the beginning of his glory years aided and abetted by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon. Here Jaenzon captures the rugged coastline not far from Stockholm, which passes for the unforgiving Grimstad coast where the poem was originally set, whilst there are shots on board pilot’s boats, frigates and schooners that put the audience right in the middle of the relentless North Sea.

Camera angles may help a lot but so often we see Sjöström himself, climbing up rigging to splice the sails, rowing against the tides and diving under the murk to evade capture. He was a brave performer as well as innovative director and pushes his own performance to the limits here where his ability to switch from strength to vulnerability is remarkable. There is a man and one who loses all but still finds his soul in spite of a rage vast enough to match the sea storms.

Young Terje
Sjöström’s Terje is a creature of epic desolation – hair and beard robbed of all colour by the loss of his family in the English blockade of Norway between 1809-1815 – but before we know the cause we understand the effect as he rages full-on against the sea.

In flashback we see his previous noble standing and the joy upon his return from long moths at sea of discovering his new born daughter. Happiness lasts until his girl is a few years older and crumbles when war is declared. The British prevent all supplies and Terje, their strongest and bravest, sets off to smuggle food back.

Happy return
He evades the patrols but on his return with three precious sacks of supplies, he gets chased down over agonising and desperate minutes by an English privateer who cares not for his tearful pleading and simply laughs in his face. He’s locked up for long years and unaware of his family’s fate and when his hell is ended by peace, he returns home to the worst possible news.

Thus has he been made and yet he exists as a pilot helping ships in danger to navigate the cruel rocks he knows so well. But he is bitter and sick – a hollow man. When chance offers him the chance to even the score with the very man who condemned him to this fate… can he possibly resist?

You’ll need to watch it to find out.

Terje Vigen is available on a Kino DVD with the earlier Ingeborg Holm (1913) and you can buy it from Amazon and all the usual places but... it’s nothing like the real, live, thing!

Encore Bioscope! Encore!!