Friday, 5 April 2013

Amira Kheir band + Sumurun (1920) at the BFI

Pola and Jenny: girls on top
There’s a moment in Sumurun when our two heroines meet. It’s the only time in the film that they’re together and they glance with resolute smiles at each other knowing exactly what to do next, confident women trying to make their way in a tough world.

The film, billed as One Arabian Night (its US title) was being presented as part of the Birds Eye View film festival, part of which takes place at the BFI. A new score was provided by Sudanese singer, Amira Kheir with the support of a four-piece band.

Aud Egede Nissen and Jenny Hasselqvist
The result was an extremely interesting accompaniment with the score highlighting the film’s amazing pace and, surprisingly, given the atmospheric African flavour (which could be more about the mysterious than mirthful), bringing out the humour more than I remembered.

Carry on follow that camera… Sumurun is a screw-ball comedy and one could almost imagine Aud Egede Nissen, whose Haidee “manages” the harem, as Joan Simms leading the girl’s revolt with a brisk wink and some quick thinking.

Pola Negri
After laughing at the portrayal of Ms Negri in The Tailor Made Man musical, I owe Pola some redress: she’s superb in this picture displaying an open energy and self-aware sexuality that drives all the sheikhs mad. She can also dance too although not as well as Jenny Hasselqvist who’s even worth watching when she’s just walking – her ballet training providing her with an uncanny grace and control over seemingly every movement and expression.

But the whole cast performs well and this might well be down to the fact that many had already been in the theatrical version of the play including Pola and the Director Ernst Lubitsch who also plays lovelorn Yeggar, the Hunchback Beggar, revealing himself to be an actor of decent expression with comedy, pathos and tragedy all within his range.

Ernst Lubitsch
Lubitsch directs well as you’d expect given his other desert epics, The Loves of Pharaoh (1921) and The Eyes of the Mummy (1918).  Escapist German cinema was doing well in the post-war period and it had an ambition matched only by the US.

Sumurun is announced as a pantomime in six parts and it is important to remember that. For many years the only version available was the truncated One Arabian Night which lost the plot and generated many a negative, fixed opinion but, more recently, audiences have had the chance to view the whole story and the film’s reputation is on the rise. It’s not an absolute classic but it is very silly in parts and is very coherent.

Sumurun (Hasselqvist) is the Sheikh’s favourite from his over-crowded Harem, but she has eyes for another, the Cloth Merchant Nur-Al Din (Harry Liedtke) whilst, at the same time, the young Sheikh (Carl Clewing) longs for her… and this is all before we really meet Yannaia (Pola), whom everyone fancies.

Yannaia is a dancer travelling with a motley bunch led by Yeggar, who jealously guards his prize asset: a woman he can never attain and whom he loves more than any of her paramours. Yannaia is “talent spotted” by Achmed, the Slave Trader (grubbily played by Paul Biensfeldt) who realises that she will make an excellent addition to the Sheikh’s harem.

Yannaia rebuffs Yeggar
By this time The Sheikh (a menacing turn from Paul Wegener and his wispy beard) has caught Sumurun looking longingly for Nur-Al (even though her eyes fall with disappointment on the young Sheikh…) and almost kills her.

He’s distracted by the promise of this new dancer and travels incognito to witness some eye-popping contortions from Yannaia who by this stage has also caught the eye of the insatiable (endlessly frustrated) young Sheikh.

Sumurun refuses to beg for her life...
The troop are made an offer they can’t refuse for Yannaia  and yet Yeggar tries his best, eventually collapsing in despair and taking two pills that will render him in a death like sleep (c’mon it’s a pantomime!).

Meanwhile… Haidee arranges for Sumurun to visit the merchant’s house so they may further their mutual interest… Here we meet Puffti (Paul Graetz) and Muffti (Max Kronert) the merchant’s two servants who looked Weimar cabaret ready and annoyed my wife no end with their Charles Hawtrey-on-speed mannerisms… (she never did a summer season at Butlins whereas, in my youth, I worked two!)

The young generation
They smuggle Nur-Al Din back to the palace and past the suspicious eunuchs… and finally, Sumutun is able to dance for him with Hasselqvist delivering an effortless turn with her balance and strength clearly evident. Oh I like a happy ending… or is it?

Now things get really complicated as Yannaia arrives “oven-ready” with Yaggar not far behind in his seemingly hopeless quest to save and get the girl.

Yannaia leads the young Sheikh on
You will have to watch the movie to find out how this complex love heptagonal works out…
Lubitsch directs these complexities with relish, his familiarity with the play no doubt an advantage.  The cutting is fast and the camerawork from Theodor Sparkuhl inventive and assured.

The film is dominated by the two leading actresses with Hasselqvest’s sophistication contrasting with Negri’s raw power and sass: you can take the mickey out of Pola’s style but she was undoubtedly more honest in films like this than many a Hollywood leading lady.

If only she’d have had a von Sternberg to lead her Hollywood career?

Aud Egede Nissen completes the female dominance with her knowing performance but the cast are all clearly having a ball. Tip of the hat also to Margarete Kupfer as the old woman who looks after  Yaggar  and Jakob Tiedtke as Head Eunuch – tough gig.

Some eunuchs yesterday...
Amira Kheir was ably supported by a band comprising Nadir Ramzy on oud, Ben Hazleton on double bass  and Elizabeth Nott on percussion (I didn't catch the name of the forth musician - will track it down) who all played their socks off. Amira has been hailed as the Diva of the Sudanese desert by the Journal du Mali and here she expertly trod the path between ethereal lines and the need to reflect the comedy. The band seemed to be following the rhythm of the film with the many chase scenes and pratfalls counter-balanced against the love stories.

Yannaia auditions...
For her first “go” at a film score, Ms Kheir did exceptionally well working with the film rather than over it as can sometimes happen when genres “clash”. But Amira was fully aware of the pitfalls telling London Jazz News: When I write music independently, the driving force is always what I want to express. When scoring a film, the driving force shifts to trying to best interpret what someone else tried to express and lending my own relationship with music to that.

This she certainly achieved, enriching one of Lubitsch and Negri’s most energetic collaborations and sending the audience out into a bitter London evening with an extra bounce in their step.

The Kino DVD of Sumurun is available from the usual online retailers.

Amira’s debut album, View From Somewhere is available from emusic and direct from her own website.

Birds Eye View is now in its tenth year and runs until 10th April.


  1. What a great review! I was trying to track down an image from Tumblr (which turned to be from Sumurun) & the Google link brought me here. Luckily Netflix streaming has this available--at least here in the US--so I know what I'm doing with my evening... :) Thanks again for such an intelligent, entertaining review!

    1. Thank you very much for reading and for the kind words! It's a fun film with two great dancing leads and classy direction from Mr Lubitsch! I hope you enjoyed it.

      Best wishes.