Sunday, 18 November 2018

Comrades in films… Silent Guns, Kennington Bioscope Great War Centenary Day

There’s film of history and film as history: films that are essentially primary source in themselves, how else to view almost any cinema after the Great War in which six million men served, 725,000 British servicemen died and over 1.75 million were wounded, half of which left with life-changing injuries.

My great Uncle Alec lived the rest of his life with shrapnel in his skull whilst my granddad William saw much that changed his attitude to class, politics and religion; he also almost died twice. The First World War touches us still but for those making film during, after and about the conflict in the silent era it was an act of personal and professional exegesis. Even in Hollywood some had fought in the war, William Wellman and Richard Arlen were both fighter pilots a decade before they made Wings, whilst in Europe, as you’d expect, connections were everywhere.

The styles of cinematic representation differed even then from the forensic neo-documentary approach of the British reconstruction films such as today’s Q Ships (1928) to the more dynamic and crafted approach of perhaps the first true war blockbuster, King Vidor’s extraordinary The Big Parade (1925).

A shoulder to cry on - Comradeship (1919)
There are no winners in war but today there were two films that stood out, Vidor’s film and, to the delight and surprise of a fair few, Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) which was so deftly made it could have been made in California that year or ten years later in Ealing.

It’s so affecting that I’d like to demand both a re-screening as soon as possible as well as a Blu-ray and DVD release. I’m also agitating for a posthumous damehood for Peggy Carlisle who is excellent in the film and clearly one of the all-time great Scouse silent stars… they should get some stars for Mathew Street!

But first the Parade that was Big… this is a film that set the template for so much of what was to come from Wings, Hell’s Angels and All Quiet… right the way through to Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. The scene where John Gilbert, Karl Dane, Tom O'Brien and their company begin a slow walk in line with bayonets fixed through a forest littered with dead French soldiers is still unbearable tense. Slowly single soldiers fall, picked off by snipers, then two, then three as machine guns are trained on the men, then grenades and bigger guns… it is as if the real war is gradually being rolled out after a first half of comradeship and Gilbert’s character’s inevitable fall for the irresistibly-appealing Renée Adorée – the best leading actor in the film.

Renée Adorée 
Then, as even his closest buddies begin to fall, Gilbert is trapped in a crater with one of the Germans, he’s already fatally shot the man but, as with a dying animal, can’t deliver the coup de grâce… he gives the man a cigarette as he dies and, in an instinctive improvisation, pushes his face away repeatedly: he just cannot look at him.

There are a few moments of 1920’s artifice but whilst some might snigger as Adorée clings on desperately to Gilbert’s departing truck, the absolute panic as she searches for him as the thousands of soldiers depart is visceral and the way the soldiers can’t resist pawing at her an animalistic foretaste of the de-humanisation to come. The psychological impact of the war drives the story and that’s exactly why it still works so well: these people were far more familiar with the realities of war than us.

John Gilbert in the fight of his life...
It doesn’t get much more laudable than the second-highest grossing silent film ever and MGM’s biggest until they torched Atlanta 14 year’s later. Comradeship, however, was today’s revelation, the Stoll Company’s first feature film and one aimed at helping publicise the Comrades of the Great War; a post-conflict support group for ex-servicemen who, as King George V hoped, would keep alive the “splendid spirit” of the battlefield in peace time.

In Dr. Lucie Dutton’s fascinating introduction, she revealed that stage actress Lily Elsie, here making her only feature film appearance, donated her fee to the Comrades as did Louis Parker on who’s story the film is based, Director Elvey gave half his salary and Stoll 60% of box office receipts. It was a cause close to Oswald Stoll’s heart and even today the Stoll Foundation is active in supporting ex-service men.

Inventive mirrored shot of Lily Elsie in Comradeship (1919)
Elevy said that this story is “the finest I have ever read in my life and will make a very fine film…” not untypical enthusiasm for his current projects according to Lucie and it is indeed a fine story and one that entertains and engages and says so much about the period in which it was made. It’s an examination not just of the binary outcomes of the conflict but the deep impacts it left on the national psyche – the emotional elements are every bit as important as in The Big Parade.

Instead of John Gilbert we have Gerald Ames (whose teeth are not in the same league) as John Armstrong who runs a drapery in the small town of Melcombe, he is a pacifist at the start of the war but this will, of course, have to change – let’s hope we none of us ever have to go through the same moral calculations.

He is assisted in his shop by a fuzzy-haired blonde Peggy played by Peggy Carlisle who was all of 15 years old at the time and would become an Elvey regular after her cameo in Lloyd George she would feature in The Rocks of Valpre (1919) – screened at the British Silent Film Festival in 2015 – as well as the lost Keeper of the Door (1919) and the superlative Hindle Wakes (1928). She’s a terrific presence in this film and has to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting after being betrayed and left pregnant by a German spy, Otto (Dallas Cairns) who also works as a cutter the store.

Peggy Carlisle by a happier tree
Otto busies himself taking pictures of key landmarks and, after events escalate, he leaves with a note saying he will return as John’s master (we relay don’t like Otto). Local landowner Lieutenant Baring (the always watchable Guy Newall) always suspected Otto but the draper gave him the benefit of the pacifist's doubt.

John meets Baring’s cousin, the elegant Betty Mortimer (Lily Elsie) and it’s respectful-love-for -one’s-betters at first sight. After war breaks Betty decides to turn their home, Fanshawe Hall, into a wounded soldiers' hospital and she also takes in Peggy after her step-mother disowns her.

There are some excellent exterior shots in this film – Elvey always has that and it adds so much “volume” to his best films – with cinematographer Paul Burger excelling with some prize shots of Peggy set against a row of trees, her movement making her anguish clear even from a distance; she is alone and in need of friends like Betty.

Peggy Carlisle, Gerald Ames and Teddy Arundell
John goes to war and meets up with a fine fellow called Ginger (Teddy Arundell) a proto-Karl Dane who plays the accordion badly but will always stick with his pals. On leave he rescues Peggy from assault and they begin a tentative relationship whilst, at the same time, John sees Betty give a locket to Baring and jumps to the wrong conclusions.

Back in the war, the chums have a fateful encounter with Otto and as Gerald returns blinded and peace is declared, it seems his chances of happiness and purpose have disappeared for good. But this is when comradeship comes to the fore and I wasn’t the only one wiping something from my eye as steadfast humanity endures.

Some felt at the time that the film had come too late but fascinating shots of German artillery in the Mall – there for children’s delight and as proof of victory – along with the plot concerning the Comrades of the Great War, would have been very important to a society in shock: who was really celebrating in 1918-19? Society needed to be seen to be standing tall.

Offering help and comfort for the 800,000 disabled ex-servciemen
There’s also a very deft conclusion with Elvey making like Lubitsch with a close-up of just Betty and Gerald’s hands: will they, won’t they… you’ll have to watch and find out!

Meg Morley accompanied, fresh off the plane from Australia and her playing was soulful and naturally so supportive. Her next trick was to transform herself into John Sweeney some two-thirds of the way through the Anglo-German A Romance of the Great Battle of Jutland/Die Versunkene Flotte (1926). Their change-over was seamless and John followed Meg’s lines; total pros these guys!

This film was a fascinating mix of military drama and tangled romance with Agnes Esterhazy’s Erica choosing German naval commander Barnow (Bernahrd Goetke) over his best pal, Royal Naval captain Dick (Henry Stuart). War breaks out and they determine to remain friends even as Barnow commits himself to his men’s lives. Erica is sorely tempted by Lt Arden (handsome charmer Nils Asner), and spills the beans on the eve of the Battle of Jutland as the greatest navies in the World prepare for the defining sea battle of the Great War. Jutland was a “score-draw” despite heavier British losses, that showed the Germans they had no chance of winning outright given the resources and size of the Royal Navy: after Jutland the Germans accepted that they had been contained as a surface fleet.

The SMS Szent István sinks 
It is very well done and features extensive found-footage from the conflict including the capsizing of the Austrian battleship SMS Szent István in 1918… which adds extra reality with the horrific sight of hundreds of figures swimming away from the massive hull as it rolls over.

Kings College's Dr Lawrence Napper introduced and said that this, mostly German production was part of a process of more balanced relationships between the former enemies, by this stage the Germans are recognised as men with honour as well as ruthless efficiency.

Lawrence also introduced Q Ships (1928), a more typical battle reconstruction film, directed by Geoffrey Barkas and Michael Barringer for New Era Films (an offshoot of British Instructional Films) which showed the role of armed cargo ships in entrapping German U-Boats. After Jutland the prospect of another great face-off between battleship-led fleets diminished and submarines became the key German naval weapon as they attempted to interrupt supplies to the Allies. There’s very little fictional drama and the focus was very "procedural" as they tried to show the actuality. Admiral Lord Jellicoe – who commanded the British fleet at Jutland – even features in the film to add authenticity and it was not uncommon for former combatants to be featured.

Even the mud was imported in the quest for accuracy and authentic ships and weaponry was used along with narratives based on actual medal-winning events. The films were “memory spectacles” for old troops who would watch them on the afternoons of Remembrance Sunday.

John Sweeney played his own respects with accompaniment that let the story breathe as the Brits chased an enemy submarine.

Oooh, Q-Ships is on Grapevine DVD
There were also three sections compiling shorter films: in America at War: Hollywood in the Air, Kevin Brownlow talked through his interviews with Colleen Moore in relation to Lilac Time, the film she made with Gary Cooper and, mostly, William “Wild Bill” Wellman on Wings which left me wanting to watch that film again on the big screen. After The Big Parade, Wings was another blockbuster and Howard Hughes was watching, again and again as he put together Hell’s Angels.

Hollywood on the Ground had Glenn Mitchel and Dave Wyatt introducing a mixed bag of which my favourite was Pearl White’s Pearl of the Army (1916) – it may be incomplete but it shows how one of the pioneers of women in action adventure films worked. There were also some classy comic cuts from Harry Langdon, Natalie Kingston and Vernon Dent in All Night Long (1924).

As a treat, Colin Sell accompanied these two segments and showed that he may well have had some previous experience… only “Samantha” knows for sure and she’ll never tell!

Lastly there were shorts from this side of the pond with Europe at War which included a fascinating single reel of a Herbert Brenon feature in which the Germans invade Chester. Victory and Peace (1918) came too late and was dogged by bad-luck and self-sabotage and so only this one reel survives: it’s powerful in its way as the city is bombed and children die – but propaganda that was simply after the show. You can watch the film for free on the BFI Player.

Nurse and Martyr (1915) was a highly-propagandist take on the execution of Edith Cavell featuring the rather too glamourous Cora Lee in the lead and an unknown actor as Elsa, a no-mark German who blames Cavell for her own failings and gets revenge by selling her out. An unnecessary addition to the story which, as the Fifeshire Advertiser noted, will “touch the heart of a nation… the British ‘Joan of Arc’…”

Edith (Cora Lee)  is betrayed by evil Elsa
Congratulations and thanks to all at the Bioscope and Cinema Museum who make these days possible. At the end Michelle Facey reminded us of the main importance of these films: “we shall not forget” those who sacrificed all for their country in a war that finished a century ago but which shaped the Twentieth Century and beyond.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Days of future past… City Without Jews (1924), Barbican with Olga Neuwirth and PHACE Ensemble conducted by Nacho de Paz

In the pre-screening Q&A with Bryony Dixon, composer Olga Neuwirth mentioned that she had just heard Theresa May say that political leadership wasn’t about the “easy task” but about “the right task” in response to the people’s will. It’s a phrase that the Austrian felt chimed very much with the decision by the Chancellor in this film’s fictitious country of Utopia when, responding to the electorate’s constant blaming of the Jews for their every ill, he decides to exile them all even against his better judgement.

Populism is nothing new and neither is religious intolerance and this film and Hugo Bettauer’s book upon which it is based, are excruciatingly prescient and so very relevant now as then and much in between. Shortly after the film was released Bettauer was murdered by a former member of the Nazi Party… a man who was released after spending just two years in a psychiatric hospital: justice was poorly served in 1920s Austria and there was, of course, far, far worse to come.

What began as a comedy satire thus ended up almost immediately as tragedy and is now imbued with the unbearable weight of a history with no sign of let up. Today, as the British government squabbled over Brexit and our relationship with the European Union, a politics founded in defining our commonality by rejecting “otherness” once again took its toll: it’s the oldest trick in the book and it works a charm in extending human misery.

The Chancellor
Olga Neuwirth is an Avant Garde composer from Graz in southern Austria, she is of Jewish heritage and has witnessed a rekindling of racial tensions throughout her life in this mainly Slovanian area. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declined throughout the Nineteenth Century leaving a power vacuum and messy local conflicts one of which led to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand.

She has worked on film before and developed an opera based on David Lunch’s Inland Empire: she knows her films and her music and felt a specific responsibility with this commission. The result was uncompromising and nothing like we would normally hear for a silent film score but she wanted to present musically the enduring socio-political context this film already has.

Using a live orchestra of nine musicians and a pre-recorded backing track she produced an unsettling score that was hand-in-glove with the action on screen but which mixed jarring atonality with skilfully-twisted lines designed to disrupt and disturb. At one point a drunken, disjointed Land of Hope and Glory appears when some characters are in London, it was stretched almost beyond recognition but gave a hint of how the other themes used might sound to Austrians familiar with them: most of tonight’s audience didn’t have that context.

The people and their will
She used songs which were popular at the time and tunes which are contemporary symbols of the far right in Austria and always, wanted to convey “the creepiness, the uncertainty that everything can happen again… the past and the future are the same; it can always happen again…” and the music plays a major part in the connection.

The composer was already very familiar with the book and the film and when the missing footage was rediscovered in a Paris flea market in 2015… she was the natural choice even though she resisted at first and had to be persuaded by the head of the Viennale

She believes that the book should be taught in Austrian schools – Austria denied they were part of the Nazi programmes even until the 80’s – and feels it’s “already too late” to show the film given the rise of anti-Semitism again in Austria. It’s a depressing point of view but it is her truth and this is precisely why her score felt so angry; the more combative score I’ve ever heard for a silent film, a call for action and attention beyond the prime directive of accompanying this remarkable film.

This book is a satire but she didn’t feel that Bettauer felt he was any way in danger – he was playing with forms, even he didn’t want to recognise the seriousness… in the end it caught up with him as it has with millions. So, quite logically, Neuwirth’s score is as close to a red flashing light as you’ll get.

A thoroughly disturbing poster from 1926
Now the film… Directed by H K Breslauer this is often described as an Austrian expressionist film and yet, short of one great scene when an antisemitic parliamentary representative Bernard (Hans Moser) is jailed in a room full of twisted shadows and stars of David, it’s not going to pass Lotte Eisner’s test. It is very expressive and directed with skill but it’s tone – in sharp contrast to the score – is lighter given the expectation that the scenes in the film would not come to pass (although in this respect the film is more optimistic than the book).

Utopia is suffering from a devalued currency and post-war economic strife and new chancellor, Dr. Schwerdtfeger (Eugen Neufeld) responds to the ease as many voters blame Jews the hardship with their intelligence and general association with finance and the “arts” (what reasons do you need?). Gradually he accepts the unthinkable and passes a law banning Jews who must leave the country by 25th December – and a Happy Christmas to you too.

This impacts two lovers, Lotte (Anny Milety) who is the daughter of one of the members of the assembly who approves the law, and a Jewish artist Leo Strakosch (Johannes Riemann). She will never be able to see him as strict laws define who is and who isn’t a Jew.

A rich American anti-Semite (goodness me…) helps give the economy a lift and for a while, things improve for the Christians at least… but soon Utopia suffers as other countries refuse to do business with them and then, shock horror, their Yankee benefactor marries a rich Jewish girl.

At the same time the cultural life of Utopia suffers without the creativity of the Jews, their plays and their music whilst café become beer halls and a culturally-impoverished society becomes an intoxicated one.

As hyper-inflation kicks in – an all-too familiar experience – jobs are hard to get and Utopia is heading for disaster. Luckily, Leo, who has snuck back into the country disguised as a Frenchman, helps to organise counter propaganda to get his people back.

There’s a sardonic laugh from the Brits as a title card reveals they need a two-thirds “super-majority” to change to constitution in order to allow the Jews back – imagine that Mr Cameron?! There’s just one man in the way and Leo has a plan to deal with the troublesome Councillor Bernard…

City Without Jews (1924) on its own merits is a well-made film with good comedy moments and an excellent cast but in combination with Olga Neuwirth music it became something else indeed. The process of watching silent film normally involves re-connection with the sensibilities of the time and yet this performance did not allow that and who am I to say that, this time at least, that wasn’t exactly the right thing to do.

Whatever Albert Camus said about all art being an attempt to reconnect with those things that first “moved you”, sometimes its purpose is to agitate and to discomfort and to make you think. In which case job done.

A tip of the hat to the PHACE Ensemble as conducted by Nacho de Paz who were fascinating to watch at work.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

DJ Midas vs DJ Canute… The Man from Mo'Wax (2018), BFI DVD and Blu-ray

“Create your own universe, find your own identity. The rest is the product of your environment…”

This film made me relive the same hope and disappointment I had with the build up to the production and release of UNKLE’s debut, Psyence Fiction – DJ Shadow’s doing the music, Richard Ashcroft and Tom Yorke (!) are collaborating; this has got to be great but, in the end, too much and, at the time, we thought not enough… DJ Shadow had just released the era-defining Endtroducing through James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax record label and this was going to be a ”follow-up” on a grander scale with guest stars, a big theme, toys and tie-ins.

But it wasn’t to be, even though the record has some grand touches it fell under the weight of expectation and stands as the former head of A&R at A&M has it, as an attempt at the era’s greatest concept right at the end of that era… The music press hated it and I traded in my copy with barely a listen.

James Lavelle
And yet… by the end of this film, I so badly wanted James Lavelle to win I was beaming with delight as he turns things around with the most successful Meltdown Festival to date, curating some impressive talent and, more than anything, discovering how much how he was loved by a generation of music fans. Hell, he even gets back with DJ Shadow on stage for a sell-out UNKLE set at the Royal Festival Hall and there is peace, there is redemption and lessons learned.

This is where it begins, says James and you really do believe that. Since the film was completed Lavelle has released the fifth UNKLE album and the best-reviewed since Psyence Fiction… here’s a man who does not give up.

James had made a million by the time he was 21 through his record label, Mo’Wax – formed when he was 18 with Tim Goldsworthy - and the audacious signing of a wide range of hip-hop and dance artists from DJ Krush, Money Mark, Luke Vibert and Charlie Dark’s Attica Blues to the more esoteric electronica of Andrea Parker, whose Kiss My Arp was one of my favourites of the period. But it was DJ Shadow who was the world-shaking talent and his crate-scraping, totally-sampled Endtroducing… changed perceptions of what was possible for hip-hop.

DJ Shadow digging some crates
Mo’Wax, it seemed, could do no wrong and yet Lavelle was so driven, he couldn’t stop himself from driving ever onwards outside his comfort zone and that for pretty much everyone else working with him. In the press events for the launch of the collaboration Shadow (aka Josh Davis) looks haunted, he’d had enough and was burnt out with James a man for whom personal barriers were incidental to his pursuit of the right sounds and the sonic vision…

James’ mother recounts their having him tested by an educational psychologist as a youngster; he scored off the charts for creativity but a lot less for reasoning so, whilst Lavelle has undoubtedly pissed off a lot or people – hardly a bridge left unburned… there’s almost certainly a neurological reason for it. Whatever the cause, it appears he has learned to live within the rules most people accept intuitively… he’s also survived decades of DJ-ing, a job that goes hand-in-hand with sleep depravation and chemical methods of staying awake.

Lavelle got his break through writing a column called Mo’Wax for the forward-thinking jazz magazine, Straight No Chaser telling then editor James Bradshaw that he “needed him”, a young man with his finger on the pulse writing about the new “flavas of the month…”

It wasn’t long before his boundless passion saw him set up a record label – Mo’Wax infused with his love not just of hip-hop and sample culture but also street art with Robert Del Naja – 3D from Massive Attack (and a possible suspect for Banksy) – among those designing for the label along with New Yorker Futura 2000 aka Leonard Hilton McGurr who largely designed the UNKLE project.

He was expert at pulling people into projects but less so in “managing” them creatively or perhaps even as people. He was inspired by outfits like the Wild Bunch – who, including Bristol maverick Tricky, would morph into Massive Attack but wasn’t able to land them for his label nor Portishead the other leaders of the trip-hop movement of the early 90s.

Crowd pleaser
Mo’Wax attracted the attention of the bigger labels and A&M invested in the project… Lavelle may not have been a millionaire at 21 but he was close. Bigger business would bring trouble down the line even as he signed DJ Shadow and released Endtroducing. That record’s success helped him create the UNKLE project which, after two years gestation was so viciously cut down as a vanity project by the NME and others.

Listening to the record now it has stood the test of time better than expected, Shadow’s music is almost as inventive as his album and the collaborations work fairly well. But it underperformed and, as the film shows, was the peak for a project that delivered diminishing returns especially after Shadow left.

The question is always how much Lavelle was a genuine artist or just an “A&R man”, assembling talent and trying to gain credit for “editorial control” and vision. Lavelle is less revealing on this – clearly, it’s a painful subject – than current and past collaborators (there are many) and you gradually get the feeling that he has been dismissed too readily.

Hanging out with Noel and Ian in endless lost weekends in the mid-nineties
Artistic credentials aside, business acumen soon became Lavelle’s main weakness as A&M merged with Island and took all of Mo’Wax’s artists leaving Lavelle without a record label and facing decades of DJ-ing and fruitless attempts to create another breakthrough for UNKLE…

All of which finally brings us to his triumph at Meltdown and something like a happy ending. The fight goes on irrespective of personal and professional set-backs.

Director Matthew Jones has pulled together a tightly woven and dynamic story from many thousands of hours of footage from the last 25 years and made a compelling narrative for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with popular music and dance culture over that time. But it’s also a story about passion and one man’s refusal to submit to common-sense and personal approbation. James is now 44 and, as with all of us, you have to hope that it all begins now.

The Man from Mo’Wax is available in a stunning limited-edition DVD/Blu-ray set from the BFI shop online and on the ground: it’ll strike a deep chord with anyone who truly loves music and popular culture. Apart from anything else, James Lavelle has brought so much joy to people's lives and we should celebrate a career less than ordinary.

The set comes with a ton of extras including a 2018 hour-long interview with James Lavelle and DJ Shadow and an extended “interview mash-up” with Josh Homme, Futura, DJ Shadow, Ian Brown and more: it’s worth it for Josh alone, a raconteur of the highest order!

“Mo” – More

“Wax” – A vinyl recording

Monday, 12 November 2018

The haunted screen… The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), BFI with Stephen Horne

“It is there, that she lives…”

There is a house and it’s got Ushers in it but any resemblance between this film and Edgar Allen Poe’s story is purely surreal. Jean Epstein’s take on the story reflects the writer’s style, his “totality” in which every aspect of the tale has a bearing on the core narrative but it was, apparently, too much for co-scripter/assistant director Luis Buñuel who walked out over this divergence from the original story. Probably the two fell out over the ending, but no spoilers...

Usher is an outstandingly creepy film - pathetic fallacy running wild in terms of the relationship between the story and simply everything: architecture, weather, landscape, clothing, candles and oils… It’s claustrophobic and there’s no respite from any part of the film as the audience joins the un-named visitor - Charles Lamy – on his mission to help his friend Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt).

Charles Lamy
Summoned by a letter, which he studies using a magnifying glass, we are pulled immediately into this close-up world of disorientation and distress. The merest mention of his destination scares the customers at an isolated inn and only one man is willing to take him anywhere near this forbidding place.

When he arrives, he is greeted warmly enough by Roderick, who leans out from the strange house almost as if he’s bound to it. His wife Madeleine (Marguerite Gance, married to Abel...) is almost a ghost, a feverish presence who is painted obsessively by her husband, his every brush-stroke seeming to almost touch her as much as the canvas. Epstein frames Madeleine within shadow, cuts to Roderick’s hands as he moves them to his pallet and brushes and shows her fear as he paints her essence.

The Hall of the House of Usher...
Slow motion is used to emphasise the strangeness of these moments and nothing at all looks or feels normal… the hall of the house is huge with monumental stone steps leading down to a grand fire lighting a vast stone floor: more of a cauldron than a living space. Unholy winds blow drapes suggesting uncanny movements filling the walls… there’s dread and only the visitor’s good humour to sustain us.

“Why, you are feverish my dear Roderick…”

Roderick must paint and his wife must pose, but it doesn’t appear to do either of them any good. In this veriosn, “by some quirk of heredity, every male descendent of the Usher family devoted himself passionately to painting his wife’s portrait…” and Roderick is compelled to see this through to the end as, indeed, is his subject. We can only imagine the ties that bind...

Marguerite Ganc and Jean Debucourt
As his visitor studies, Roderick’s brush strokes seem to be transferring his wife’s life onto the canvas “… she seemed to give the painting, the strength that was ebbing from her body.” Then, suddenly, there are shots of melting candles on the wane and Madelaine’s haunted desperate face falling into multiple exposures including one of which is negative, a hauntingly effective device to show her void of natural light and her untimely death by oil painting.

“This is indeed life itself…!” declares Sir Usher but he is so engaged in the painting he doesn’t notice his love faint and fall away, and even when his friend returns from a walk they only bump into her body by accident; her living form is less important now than the artwork celebrating it.

There follows the strangest of burials with a long white veil flowing out of the casket as they carry Madelaine to the family vault, through damp paths, across a lake and onto an island. Roderick refuses to accept that she’s dead and tries to get them to leave the coffin lid open… yet there’s a strange doctor with his glasses often whitened out by reflection, to convince him to let her go where she must.

We’re in eerie slow-motion again and mournful montage highlights the unreality of the death and Frederick’s denial and all the while the veil acts as a reminder of his wife’s essence, floating, blowing in the wind, spread by the water in the wake of the boat as they row across to the island with the burial chamber.

After the ceremony, there’s a “double silence” that of the stopped body and a “nameless ghost which haunts areas where no human foot has trod…” As the characters fret, the veil blows through the door of the vault and the story has far to run…

Stephen Horne was at his uncanny best and created a supernatural sound-world all his own. There was a haunting three-note refrain that carried echoes of Saharan sands and which captured the mood of doomed longing every bit as precisely as Epstein.

Those notes and those feelings linger for days as we’re haunted by the screening along late-Autumnal streets as the low-lit sun coaxes us towards obsessions unknown. Poe could see the dangers of unfettered fascination as it closes in all around us; a fog to shroud our hidden passion from which, perhaps, they may never be any escape...

Monday, 5 November 2018

Fire, walk with me… Love’s Crucible (1922), BFI with Stephen Horne

This was my third viewing of Victor Sjöström’s Love’s Crucible (aka Vem Dömer?), and there is more to see each time.

I watched the film in Pordenone last year and at the Giornate last month saw Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) (1921) another Sjöström film which may or may not have an overtly religious message: it was interesting to compare the two. Vem Dömer? is best translated as Who can judge? and, as with Körkarlen, it’s not simply about the gift of religious redemption; it’s more personal. As with the director’s Ingmarssönerna (1919) – featuring an actual stairway to heaven – and Körkarlen (1921) featuring a carriage driven by a phantom – this is a supernatural story rooted in very human faith, responsibility and the process of coming to terms with yourself.

Jenny Hasselqvist’s character Ursula has caused her older husband’s heart failure even though she doesn’t realise it at first: she has hated him throughout their arranged marriage and longs to be with her younger sweetheart, Bertram (Gösta Ekman). The marriage had been arranged by Bertram’s father, The Mayor (Tore Svennberg) and Ursula’s intended, Master Anton (Ivan Hedqvist) a sculptor considerably older than his intended. Their wedding takes place amongst civic joy – a lovely shot of the bride passing through a hall full of flowers - whilst Bertram looks on in misery as Ursula’s life seems to end.

Gösta Ekman and Jenny Hasselqvist
Anton sculpts a statue of Ursula as the Virgin Mary as she poses exhausted on a pedestal… which is exactly where he has put her.  Anton worships her but she can only reciprocate with hatred for lost opportunities their bond has cost her and yet, whilst Anton chip-chips away, she finds freedom reading in their garden where she is joined by Bertram. Ursula’s desperation is on the rise and the visit of a friar selling herbs and remedies (Waldemar Wohlström) provides her with a way out:  she will buy some rat poison and commit suicide with Bertram.

The Friar overhearing the young lover’s desperation, swaps harmless powder for the poison before inadvertently exposing their secret to Anton in the inn where he drinks. In a rage the artist flies home to confront Ursula, who momentarily gets the opportunity to use the “poison” to work a different solution to her troubles…

This sets up a dynamic conclusion that the actress responds to operatically but convincingly; the film has a feel of a folk story more than a character-driven thriller especially when an angry mob cry “burn the witch!” and quickly arm themselves with flaming torches. It’s superstition versus human reasoning and love versus self-loathing, all very twentieth century concerns and home turf for Sjöström and Hasselqvist.

Ivan Hedqvist
The film is blessed with sublime visuals from cinematographer Julius Jaenzon who seems to delight in capturing the, if-not-impossible then the certainly ill-advised. Time and again we see actors filmed with bright light on their shoulders and yet with their faces clearly in view or an image drenched more in shadow than light: he captures extraordinary action in realistic ways and none of this is more in evidence than in Ursula’s fire walk at the end which stands as a tour de force of silent cinematic art.

Victor Sjöström’s direction is emphatic and economic as he keeps the focus on character above costume. The wonderfully expressive set designs of Axis Esbensen and Alexander Bakó are perfectly aligned from the unforgiving cathedral to Ursula’s little garden of romantic solace and Jaenzon’s cinematography captures every dark moment and flutter of joy. The acting is also superb and  Sjöström always seems to get the most out of his performers: takes one to know one.

Chief amongst these is, of course, Jenny Hasselqvist who is, for me, pound-for-pound one of the best performers of the silent era in this and every other film I’ve seen her in: Stiller’s Gosta Berling (1924), Johan (1921) and Balettprimadonnan (1916), Lubitsch’s Sumurun, Sjöström’s Eld Ombord (1923) and even in less impressive fare such as Erich Waschneck’s Brennende Grenze (1927).

Jenny on a pedestal and crucified by guilt...
Hasselqvist’s pantomime is so deliberately physical from a forlorn looseness at her opening prayers in the shadows of the cathedral, to the love-lightness of her scenes with Bertram and the heavy-hanging misery of her sterile posing for Anton’s statue. Once the accusations fly she stands tall in defiance and after the contortions of recrimination her final brave steps towards redemption are taken with head held high resolution: she holds herself so well with a prima ballerina’s posture.

She also has an uncanny ability to hold the camera’s gaze whilst emoting with equal grace; her natural style still stands and – as I always say – reminds me of Isabelle Huppert. For details of her fan club, contact me at the address below…

Jenny’s not alone in making this narrative compelling there’s an impressively youthful Nils Asther playing one of Anton’s assistants and Gorgeous Gösta Ekman gives a grand account as Ursula’s lover, even if he’s never quite the centre of attention and is overshadowed by the film’s true star.

Julius Jaenzon photographs with so much shadow with faces haloed in sharp brightness
Ivan Hedqvist is quite masterful – ahem - as Master Anton. Hedqvist was multi-talented and I’d recently seen Dunungen (In Quest of Happiness) (1919) in which he starred, wrote and directed... and here he is the perfect emotional mirror to Hasselqvist’s cool; burning with creative love for his young wife and with his heart, quite literally, at the limits.

Stephen Horne accompanied with passionate restrain, having fun with many bells-a-tolling in the story as well as the old artist’s turn on the mandolin in the tavern. He perfectly judged the lengthy crescendo of the fire walk, adding his own subtleties of tension and style to Sjöström’s measured cuts and Hasselqvist’s quiet intensity.

A trial by fire that revealed the truth and an audience intent and eager to discuss – intimate and, yes, immersive cinema.

NFT 3 was sold out for this screening and you have to think that there could be demand for more Scandinavian silents: Stiller and Sjöström directing, Julius Jaenzon shooting, not to mention Jenny Hasselqvist acting and, if we’re very lucky, dancing…