Monday, 30 November 2020

Hearts of darkness… The House of Shadows (1924), Stephen Horne & Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Silent Stream

Le Giornate is streaming highlights from previous festivals to whet our appetites for 2021 and to help keep the silent family together as we hide away in our various lockdowns and in tiered separation. This is a recording from a screening and accompaniment from the 36th Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2017 – my first year – as part of the Scandinavian Cinema: The Swedish Challenge stream… it’s a fine choice although, as I’ve said maybe too often, you can never have enough Scandi-silents.

Anders Wilhelm Sandberg’s film is an intense, mystical family drama that is as disturbing as it is haunting with some outstanding locations matched by some exceptional performances. I have to highlight Peter Malberg who plays Aslak, the mentally-impaired son of the fierce patriarch at the heart of the story. It’s a difficult watch for modern eyes as the understanding of mental illness was so different a century ago, yet he’s pretty brave creating an awkward yet consistent character and managing to gain our sympathy with theatrical manners that bring to mind Lear’s Poor Tom/Edgar lost in a wilderness of unresolvable parental conflict.

House of Shadows (Morænen), directed by Anders Wilhelm Sandberg, is a Danish film set in Norway, in the far north, bounded by the gloomy, rocky, Moraine valley and, whilst the characters are often uplifted by glories of the lakes and valleys, they thoroughly oppress the high sheriff, Thor Brekanæs (Peter Nielsen) who is often seen out on the rocks crying to heaven bemoaning the shame that he thinks has blighted his life.

Peter Malberg


The characters – even the authoritarian and unyielding Thor – are all rounded and no one is entirely good or bad not even Swein Gudmundsson (Sigurd Langberg), Thor’s protégé – his surrogate son - who recognises that he cannot marry sheriff’s ward Thora (Karina Bell) and make her unhappy. This doesn’t stop him from behaving badly driven by his jealousy of her true love, Vasil (Emanuel Gregers) but he feels real enough. Without these everyday human failings the film’s melodramatic mysticism might overwhelm, but whilst there’s a good deal about fate and family, actions leading to shame that lives on through generations and high energy railing against God for misfortunes received as a result, it’s the people that make it so compelling.

Swein pulls back from the arranged marriage that ruined Thor’s life and that of his wife Gunhild (Karen Caspersen) who grew to hate her husband and just as she is expecting their second son, reveals that their first was sired by another man. Thor’s reaction is to cast her down and with his stonewall refusal to forgive and to nurture the shame she has brought on his family name, he sets in course the tragedies to come. Gunhild dies in childbirth – she would have killed herself anyway and with Thor’s blessing - and the boy’s mind and body are deeply affected by the cursed relationship between his parents.

Glowing sun, I hate you... Peter Nielsen as Thor the god of thunder

Forward a few decades and Vasil is away studying law and Aslak has remained in childhood, looked after by his adopted sister Thora. Thora is the angelic yin to her adopted father’s furious yang and she even plays the harp to prove it… Karina Bell edges it as Morænen’s MVP partly because Sandberg can’t resist lingering soft-focused close-ups but mostly because she plays Thora as the most morally uncompromised character.

Vasil is also searching his true path and rebels against Thor by deciding to return and pursue life as a poet. Thora greets him in idyllic shots of his boat arriving up the fjord and then their reunion against a glorious valley backdrop. They are interrupted by Swein, conflicted by his love for Thora and his jealousy, who nearly comes to blows with Vasil as he gives him back Thora’s engagement ring…

Karina Bell 

Thor naturally takes an even dimmer view of a) the poetry plan and b) Thora’s revised matrimonial schedule and pushes back against the “son” he has always hated and, for good record, he has never told about his true parentage. It’s nature versus nurture and Thor has the sons his pride and hatred deserve… we never find out just who Vasil’s true father is but it’s just struck me that it could well be the rather kindly tenant farmer Gudmund (Charles Wilken), Swein’s father. That would make perfect sense, the man Thor sees as his natural heir is the half brother of his hated Vasil and, in the final reckoning, neither has his ruthless selfishness.

The exception Thor makes to his everyday regime of stringent cruelty is for his poor broken Aslak but even he is so much his mother’s son and even though he was too young to remember her “spirit” somehow lives on.

Emanuel Gregers and Peter Nielsen

He does not know that this is the song his mother used to play when she carried him under her heart… but those sounds somehow managed to touch the strings of his soul, and to chase the darkness of his spirit.

This is a film in which music plays a major part and the harp, especially, which makes Elizabeth-Jane’s contribution all the more welcome. She and Stephen make for a intuitive paring and allow each other the space to develop themes as well as knowing when to work two or four elements all at the same time, vocal and harp plus flute and piano at one point and all with just the four hands. Sometimes they agree a structure beforehand and some themes but it always works sympathetically and makes every screening so vibrant and musically fascinating.

This one is no different and they fill the characters with so much musical warmth as well as dread, lifting their lines above the swooping panoramas and pacing the viewing narrative with a measured precision that confounds the occasional reminder that this is all played live. There’s a rapture of applause at the end and I think you can just hear me whooping as well!

As Thora plays the harp, Aslak is calmed and can think clearly, soothed by his mother’s song*… but Thor is enraged and smashes the harp. But he can’t keep his former wife’s legacy from surfacing forever and as tensions rise over Thora, the sheriff’s inheritance and the next generation’s desire for free will, there’s a murder committed with at least three suspects!

It’s easy for Morænen to sound overwrought but Sandberg controls matters very well and if it’s a film full of emotional excess these are counterbalanced by those performances and the setting which, along with the accompaniment makes for very satisfying locked-down viewing!

The film can be found on the Giornate website here and watch out for more goodies as the build up to next year’s event continues.

*According to Magnus Rosborn and Casper Tybjerg in their 2017 catalogue notes, the music originally used for this was probably Berceuse (1904) by the Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt, who wrote the original score for Mauritz Stiller’s Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919).

I liked that at last year's Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and you can read about it here!


More excellent work from Slartibartfast...

Sunday, 29 November 2020

All tomorrow's parties... Slums of Berlin (Die Verrufenen) (1925), Edition Filmmuseum DVD

“Poverty and misery, vice and alcohol turn people into what is called the fifth estate. People who cannot escape their fate. A world of its own which we attack rather than fix.”

Weimar cinema is fascinating on so many levels, stylistically and technically but most obviously because – historically - we know what’s coming next. For too long one could lazily assume that there was a failure to address the concerns that would later fuel totalitarianism and yet so many films are concerned with the dangers of a society that was no longer working for the many. In this era of cracked actors trying to reclaim un-historical discourse and myths of nationhood, it’s chilling to view the commitments of those who we know now went on to lose the fight if not the argument.

Gerhard Lamprecht was the son of a prison padre and a humanist committed to moving society forward, a forward-thinking agenda that it’s all too easy to shake your head at: the rise of the most socially-destructive regimes was never inevitable and that is precisely why the recent history is so widely recognised in Germany and why Britain needs to take note.

Slums of Berlin (Die Verrufenen) is the story of an honourable man who through perjuring himself to save the reputation of his fiancé, falls from grace into the realms of the underclass where most cannot afford good manners and easy moral choices. It shows a depth of concern beyond an alarming amount of modern thought and whilst virtue is rewarded for some, for others there is no “levelling up”.

Bernhard Goetzke

Bernhard Goetzke – formerly Death in Fritz Lang’s Destiny – plays Robert Kramer the engineer who takes the fall for his high society girl, Gerda (Hildegard Imhof). We see him on his release from prison, granite features set in painful acceptance of all he has lost and even as he rejects the friendship of fellow con, Gustav (Arthur Bergen) so do his parents reject him in shame, his father refusing him entry as there is no place in his house for and ex-convict. Worse still, the woman he sacrificed everything for has moved on and married a wealthy man.


Lacking anyone to stand by him Robert’s only refuge is the doss house and banishment to the slums. Lamprecht depicts the life of the “fifth estate” with inspiration drawn from Heinriche Zille, a German illustrator, caricaturist, lithographer and photographer who was the first to portray the desperate social environment of the Berlin Mietskasernen, the crowded tenements filled with the poor, and he did so in cartoons that we both horrific and humorous. The film has some of this spirit, dropping the viewer into packed single rooms full of mothers and children or penniless men whilst also providing energy and wit chiefly from Gustav who seems to smile at triumph and disaster just the same and finds humour with the children on the street.


Arthur Bergen and Aud Egede-Nissen

Talking of which there’s a nifty scene with a young girl talking to a young boy who is ostentatiously smoking a cigarette. Unimpressed she says, “you’re good at taking a drag but have you ever been really drunk?” They grow up quick in the slums and we laugh but we sigh.


Goetzke’s intensity dominates the film and he carries the weight of his character’s desperation so convincingly it’s quite a shock to see his features transformed by a smile in one of the flashbacks. He wants to work and rebuild his life but finds nothing and friendless, he climbs onto a bridge to throw himself to death only to be pulled back by a local “working girl”, Emma played by Aud Egede-Nissen, who will go on to provide much of the light to Goetzke’s shade with a distinctly Clara-esque energy.


Emma takes him back to her tiny apartment where he meets Gustav again as the three share a basic meal. Emma is earning enough to keep Robert as well but he is determined to work even if it’s only sewing, using the skills learned in jail to make cloth bags using a Singer sewing machine liberated by Gustav during a raid on the local fortune teller’s house… there’s so much vibrant detail.


Gerda's husband ridicules the weakness of the poor...

The film has a series of pointed juxtapositions one as Robert is taken by Emma to the dive-bar dance, where the record table spins him round, round, round… until he’s back in a fancy ball with Gerda. In another telling scene, cutting to and from Robert and Emma’s humble meal, Gerda’s pompous husband scoffs at their dining table at the story of a man who had killed himself rather than face starvation, blaming victim for poor choices as… If someone really wants to work, he can always find something. Fine dining and ignorance, the “undeserving” poor and their lack of strategic thinking.

Robert meets a photographer called Rottmann (Eduard Rothauser) on the stairwell of their tenement and, after saying he was an engineer, the older man enlists his help in the business of taking shots of Berliners at play. At one theatre he encounters Gerda and her husband and, she makes her way to his apartment intent on getting him to accept the money to go to America – a new start for him and the end of any “embarrassment” he may cause those who knew him. He refuses and pushes the money back just as Emma returns and – sure of her man – the latter kicks Gerda out.

Bernard Goetzke and Aud Egede-Nissen

Robert has not lost his dignity and, with Emma’s help, he can move forward but good fortune is in short supply in the slums and if it wasn’t for bad luck, they wouldn’t have any luck at all. Robert eventually gets work on a production line in a factory run by Regines Bruder (Christian Bummerstaedt) and his kind, elegantly pretty, sister Regine (Mady Christians). There may be a chance of recovery for the engineer but fate is set by the harsh realities of social indifference and a class system based on self-perpetuated misery. To this extent Lamprecht uses Robert’s journey as a moral challenge for the audience; how are we to feel relief if this educated and decent man is “saved” when all those he leaves behind are doomed to remain. As the children play in the street near the end of the film, we know how fatuous their joy will be but in the context of the time and story, it didn’t need to be.

I watched the Edition Filmmuseum two-disc DVD which comes with Die Unehelichen/Children of no Importance (1926) which carried forward his concerns. Accompaniment for both is provided by the expert hands of Donald Sosin who enhances the emotional depth with some lovely lines and a firm grip on the emotional narrative. The set is available direct from their website.

The director is quoted in the booklet essay as wanting to use film as a social corrective but one critic at least, the educational reformer Siegfried Bernfeld, accused him of creating “a moving entertainment… (that) exhorts tears without obligation…” yet surely it is for the audience to decide how to progress their response to his work? That challenge is there now as much as it was in 1925.

Kids, yesterday... have you ever been really drunk?

Heinriche Zille

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Plays from yesterday... Play for Today, BFI Blu-ray box set

“…why resurrect Play for Today? What could today’s television industry learn from it? Looking at the seven plays in this Volume One BFI set alone, what stands out is the natural diversity of their subject matter and their brave search for originality.” Marcus Prince, TV programmer for BFI Southbank

After watching through this new set I can confirm wholeheartedly that Mr Prince is not just whistling Dixie; these plays are strikingly vibrant even after all of these years and the quality of performance and writing stands the test of time both in terms of emotional and historical resonance. For some, like myself, these plays were watched and understood as a pre-teen but they were a shared family experience and hearing my parents discussing them is one of my earliest memories of critical appreciation.

I only directly remember one of the plays, Shakespeare or Bust (1973), probably because it was one of three featuring Brian Glover, Ray Mort and Douglas Livingstone as Art, Ern and Abe, three Leeds miners in search of cultural and other adventure. But I recognise the style of the plays as well as the performers especially Alison Steadman who is joint record holder for most PFT appearances on nine, most memorably as Abigail and Candice Marie, along with Nigel Hawthorne. Here she’s an expectant mother alongside Bernard Hill (just the seven appearances) and they show exactly why they have enjoyed such long careers on their way from Rochdale here to Essex and Port Talbot as well as Arundel's Isle.

Gemma Jones in The Lie

Perhaps the most a-typical is the first play, The Lie (1970) written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Alan Bridges as part of an international co-production entitled The Largest Theatre in the World. It is more cinematic than the others as you might expect given the writer’s day job and typical of his concerns about relationships. This was the third play in season one and features Frank Finlay and Gemma Jones as Andrew and Anna Firth a professional couple in a sterile marriage, stifled by their careers and living all too comfortably in the fug of material wellbeing. After ten years of marriage they have two children, a nanny and sleep in separate bedrooms, but their balance is about to be upset as Andrew suffers at set back in his working life and turning back to fall on home comforts, discovers there’s far less warmth there than he thought.

Anna’s career is still on track and she has a long-standing secret lover, Ellis (John Carson) who himself is married. There’s an excruciating dinner party – avocado prawn starters all round – with Anna sat next to Ellis and Andrew with Ellis’ wife. The story is full of betrayals as you might expect from the four times married Bergman, but are lies better than revelations?

Frank Findlay, a lost soul swimming in a fish bowl?

There’s a striking cameo from Joss Ackland as Anna’s brother, a writer having a nervous breakdown and wearing make-up and nail varnish as he simmers away in hospital. Is he the author’s voice; driven to nervous exhaustion by being too honest to make the compromises that enable the others’ unhappiness? I wonder what becomes of him?

In Passage to England (1975) there are more deceptions and also the first sighting of the wonderful Colin Welland, writer and actor who in ten years would hoist his Oscar a lot and declare that the British were coming. Back in the seventies the adage was that British cinema was alive and well and on television and Play for Today surely played a major part in keeping things afloat prior to the cinematic revival heralded by Chariots of Fire.

Here Welland plays Onslow, captain of a small cargo boat, the very English Morris Dancer who, along with his partner Graham (Niall Padden) get an offer they could and should refuse from a young Ugandan Asian called Anand (Tariq Yunus); a bar of gold at bargain price if they smuggle him, his cousin Pramila (June Bolton) and sick uncle Dharam (Renu Setna) to England. The play balances a serious subject with a light-heartedness that serves to wrong foot the viewer even now with a nuanced discussion of the British and their empire.

Colin Welland was born in Liverpool

Written by Leon Griffiths the story is mostly set in the Amsterdam docks which director John Mackenzie uses to atmospheric effect much as he would do in The Long Good Friday; who doesn’t love a dock-side drama?

There’s more Welland, this time as writer of altogether more earnest and needfully complex tale of post-imperial national identity with Your Man from Six Counties (1976) in which a young Catholic boy Jimmy (Joseph Reynolds) goes to stay with his Uncle in the west of Ireland after his father is killed by a loyalist bomb in Northern Ireland.

Location is again an important part of the context and it looks very much as if all the shooting was done in situ from the hills and fields to cottages and pubs of County Sligo, you can even see flat-topped Benbulbin Mountain near Drumcliff, where W.B. Yeats is buried. There’s a very fine cast backgrounded with local faces that could only ever be Irish, with Donal McCann as Uncle Danny and a young Brenda Fricker (first Irish woman to win an Oscar for My Left Foot in 1989) as his wife Mollie. Young Jimmy is like a fish out of water, a city boy in the country, carrying a pet rook once rescued by his Dad, in a cage. Irish mythology may have it that these birds symbolise the souls of the dead yet, to local farmers, they’re a menace to be shot and hung out to dry.

Donal McCann and Brenda Fricker

Danny tries his best to bring Jimmy back to life and to put his father’s violent death behind him and yet the latter’s best friend Pat (Paul Antrim), a rebel in thought if not deed, wants to encourage the boy to hero worship his “martyred” father and to follow in his footsteps more forcefully than he has ever managed. Both Danny and Pat have something to learn about the boy and Mollie acts as the play’s moral heart trying to pull them together for the lad’s sake. Welland’s script allows so much room for interpretation especially as Katie Crosson observes in her booklet essay, “No two viewpoints are identical… “ meaning that there is no single straightforward narrative: you have to make your own mind up.

‘I want to have this baby and I want to see it being born and I want to feel it being born… and if you’re not interested in helping me why don’t you just sod off.’

Mike Stott’s Our Flesh and Blood (1977) is ostensibly more straightforward but is no less a deft thought-piece on contemporary masculinity as Bernard Blincoe (Bernard Hill) has to come to terms with his wife Jan (Dame Alison Steadman – if not yet, then soon…) and her desire for a baby on her terms. Bernard views this development with trepidation and his anxiety dreams turn into reality as Jan aims for a natural birth. At the hospital he gets a nervous young doctor, a reassuringly sassy sister (Diana Davies) and an old school consultant, Richard Briers on fine form and, amidst the comedic chaos finally catches up with Jan…  

Bernard Hill and Alison Steadman (who was also born in Liverpool)

The play has a lot to say about the role of the sexes at the time, men either pompously insistent or next to useless when the waters break, but this was not yet a country in which men routinely attended childbirth or in which couples were allowed too much of an opinion about how they were to have their baby. It’s a heart-warming glimpse of the future.

Back to Brian Glover on a barge to Stratford in Shakespeare or Bust (1973) for a mix of past and future as his earnest Art looks not just for the nation’s poetic truths but also comradeship and fairness. Peter Terson’s three heroes have working class pride and sense of self but also innocence as they happily punch above their weight on this aquatic road trip. They meet dropout boat dwellers who don’t share solidarity even as they’re happy to take Art’s coin, lock-keeper’s happy to mix with the man who turned their pub into a wine bar and follow an odd couple in a very posh boat; an older man with a yachting cap (Peter Honri) and his much younger boat dressing Hélène (Katya Wyeth). Abe reckons he stands a chance and the three sup their pints barely blinking in their awe-struck appreciation of this alien glamour.

Almost nothing knocks these lads back though and Art’s enthusiasm is infectious even if Ern can’t stop missing his wife and Abe just wants the one he can’t have. They relish every new turn as passionately as their drink and in the end are rewarded with surprises against the longest odds.

Ray Mort, Brian Glover and Douglas Livingstone

Back of Beyond (1974) is an altogether more mysterious affair with Rachel Roberts absolutely superb as the sad and mysterious Olwen; a woman hiding in solitude. Desmond Davis’s play is another to use locations to good effect, this time the Brecon Beacons and Llanelli-born Roberts looks like she grew up along with these hills.

There’s more mystery with John Bowen’s A Photograph (1977) featuring the great John Stride as pompous intellectual Michael Otway and Stephanie Turner as his long-suffering schoolteacher of a wife. There’s a great essay in the booklet from series producer/booklet commissioning editor Vic Pratt and this is further proof, if any were needed of Play for Today’s insistence on making its audience think.

Rachel Roberts yn ysmygu sigarét

Most of these plays have hardly been seen since first airing and the odd repeat. There were over 200 plays in the series and whilst some were wiped by a cost-conscious BBC, most survive and these seven provide not only proof of the quality and diversity but also a mouth-watering entrée to what we can only hope will be the start of more releases and screenings.

Play for Today: Volume 1 is released on 19th November and can be ordered direct from the BFI website now! 

There’s a trailer available here but for many this is Christmas come early.