Sunday, 20 January 2013

The prestige… Cagliostro (1929)

Hans Stüwe
So many silent films have been completely lost and others are shadows of their former selves - are we to be any less stricken at a film that is only partially intact: half empty of half full?  Richard Oswald’s tantalisingly incomplete Cagliostro - Liebe und Leben eines großen Abenteurers survives in just enough quantity to show us what it probably was....

This edition has been painstakingly reconstructed by the French Cinematheque in collaboration with Potemkin films. It is based on a 9.5mm Baby Pathé abridgement (intended for family viewing) and one surviving reel of 35mm including some censored scenes featuring startling nudity - their removal from view ironically ensuring their eventual survival and public display 80 years on.

In the court of the Capetian King...
Based on Johannes von Guenther's novel about the life of Joseph Balsamo, alias the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, an Italian occultist, adventurer and freemason-adventurer (make what you will of that and pretty much the whole of his life story)… Oswald’s film is grand in scope and still has impact even in truncated form.

Hans Stüwe is impressively larger than life as Cagliostro, charming the courts of Europe with his prestidigitation and legerdemain. He turns lead into gold in some wonderfully atmospheric shots and sets the scenes with audacious use of a disco-ball…

Studio 1784
Seemingly he believes his own hype and calls for sick people that he can make better. But it may be more trickery and part of his attempt to gain social stature… moving ever closer to kings and queens. These early scenes feature elaborate mis-en-scene and expressionist flourishes that build up Cagliostro’s mystery.

Stüwe is striking enough to carry this off but he’s less convincing as a paramour and his love affair with Lorenza (Renée Héribel) initially lacks conviction, but maybe this was left on the Pathe cutting room floor? He woos Lorenza in a missing section and we quickly learn that it was not the adventurer Cagliostro she fell for but the man Balsamo who, for a time, stopped the circus.

Suzanne Bianchetti and Hans Stüwe
The couple journey to France in 1784 and find the country on the verge of uprising with economic strife compounded by uncaring royalty. In the midst of a political rally they encounter a disenfranchised noblewoman, Jeanne de la Motte (Illa Meery) a descendant of Henry II fallen on hard times: the “Barefoot Countessa”. Cagliostro takes her under his wing and vows to restore her fortune at the same time seeing a way into royal favour.

Charles Dullin
A number of characters have been lost in the cut and others have been reduced: Charles Dullin as Marquis de Espada-Comte de Breteil, is seen all too briefly for most of the film. An admirer of Lorenza the Marquis views Cagliostro as a fraud and is intent on exposing him and grabbing the girl.

In lavish surroundings, Cagliostro presents Jeanne to the court and raises money to help her, she is accepted back into royal patronage and becomes the Queen’s lady in waiting.

Illa Meery, not just bare feet...
But the Italian blows his big chance as his tricks don’t come off and he fails to impress King Louis XVI (Edmond Van Daële) and Marie-Antoinette (Suzanne Bianchetti) – has the Marquis sabotaged his act? In trying to redeem himself Cagliostro shows the Queen her future, Oswald cleverly zooming in on the magician’s eye to show Marie Antoinette’s final moments at la guillotine…

Alfred Abel
Cagliostro is banished from court but he plots revenge and calls in a favour from Jeanne to persuade Prince de Rohan (Alfred Abel) to buy an exceptionally expensive necklace for Marie-Antoinette with whom he is besotted. The con goes off well and we see Jeanne parading around in the Queen’s finery and little else. Cagliostro is strangely unmoved, perhaps his love for Lorenza is starting to affect his moral judgement although he still steals the jewels back.

But the game is soon up and Cagliostro is given over to the Marquis de Espada for questioning in his hi-tech arabesque palace – sliding doors and automated. Tied to a pillar he breaks free as the Marquis’ “questions” Lorenza in front of him… the anti gradually being striped away to reveal just  the hero.

Hans Stüwe and Suzanne Bianchetti
They escape back to Italy were they finally think they have finally found their freedom. only to be arrested by the Inquisition (no one expects the Italian Inquisition do they?) intent on punishing necromancy. Locked in Piranesi-esque dungeons, their doom fast approaches and, as Cagliostro finally seems to have caught up with the steadfast Lorenza’s feelings, they seem to have only hope left for happiness…

Elaborate imprisonment
The DVD comes with two soundtrack options which make for fascinating comparison.

There’s a DJ Cam cut up which could be perfectly suited to what is in effect a cut up of a film. He sounds very much like a Gallic version of the great DJ Shadow (a jazzier Endtroducing…?) but, even though his invention is entertaining, it lacks emotional flexibility and rides rough-shod over some of the narrative.

The piano accompaniment from Mathieu Regnault is more period appropriate and moves with the story. I understood the action more with his playing and had a better connection… there’s some lovely phrasing and it’s just more sympatico.

Both musicians make the very most of what remains and so should we. It’s difficult to make a case for this being up there with The Chess Player and other late silent era period classics, but it’s good looking and well played. The story is intact and there is sufficient drama left to have you on the edge of your seat right till the end.

The DVD is available direct from Potemkin although I got mine from the lovely BFI shop. It features an extensive booklet (tout en Français) including a fascinating essay written for May 1929 editions of Cinémagazine by Marcel Carné who was an assistant on the film. Whilst referencing lost scenes such as an apparently large-scale village fete, Carné elaborates on the set design and underlines the considerable will of his German director who, speaking hardly any French, had this film in the can within 60 days.

Not bad going for a multi-national blockbuster that interweaves so much of courtesans, kings and conjuring...

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