Saturday, 17 August 2013

Photographing thoughts… The Salvation Hunters (1925)

It isn't conditions, nor is it environment—our faith controls our lives!

As someone who had lived on the streets for a time and “made” himself, Josef von Sternberg valued self-belief. Like many gifted with supreme native intelligence and willpower, von Sternberg could prescribe this belief as the cure for any situation and in The Salvation Hunters, his first film, the 31-year old put his philosophy across with earnest effectiveness.

The “self-help” doctrines of the Victorian era had been over-taken by the global rise of socialism and as a European, the director was probably closer to the full range of left-wing expression than many in America.

Bright light in the big city
Von Sternberg had found his own way educating himself after leaving school at fifteen with his voracious acquisition of knowledge including a cycling tour of Italy to visit churches and to absorb its rich cultural history. He was passionate about art, that much is clear from the painterly way he constructs this film and the ones that were to follow. As a mature man who had seen much he was offering a call to make the most of what you have and to show how self-belief could be restored even in the lost...

As he says in the foreword: “Our aim has been to photograph a thought—A thought that guides humans who crawl close to the earth—whose lives are simple—who begin nowhere and end nowhere…”

It would be clichéd if it wasn’t true and he meant it because he’d basically lived it.

George K. Arthur
It’s interesting that Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks were attracted to the film and the film-maker but were unable to channel his creative energies in their direction. Maybe they’d gotten soft or maybe Josef was just too hard-core to be messed around… whatever the reason, he wasn’t going to collaborate in the way they wanted.

When Kevin Brownlow came across von Sternberg in the sixties he hadn’t made a film for well over a decade yet still retained the attitude and bearing of the auteur. Brownlow challenged him to show how he created his totally-controlled shots and, gathering a crew and studio, allowed him to show just how he worked.

It’s a fascinating document and shows that even in his old age; von Sternberg was still a singular presence with his own way of working: no compromise, a master of the art.

Von Sternberg had been around movies for a decade when he put together this first, independent, release. It has a lot to recommend it even judged on its own merits and not through the hindsight of his later work.

He put together a cast of little known actors to tell the basic tale of life lived on the edges.

The Boy (baby-faced George K. Arthur) is already convincing himself that he’s a failure: hanging around the docks at Saint Pedro aimlessly looking for work but still dreaming groundless, fatuous dreams.

He’s sort-of involved with The Girl (the eye-catching Georgia Hale who Chaplin went on to enlist for The Gold Rush) a jaded, cynical young woman disgusted by her surroundings. There’s a great shot of the Girl looking disconsolately around when she catches sight of the dredger depositing another half-tonne of silt on a barge… her mouth contorts in disgust and she looks on, hope-less.

Unhealthy environment...
The two become protective of a young orphan who is getting in the way of one of the dredge-workers. They just about help him avoid a beating but the Boy lacks moral courage.

Away from their dockside despair the three make their way to the City in vague hope of finding a new way. They attract the attention of The Man (Otto Matieson) who offers them room and board in the anticipation that hunger will force the Girl into his service…

We can be heroes...
The Boy fails to find work and hunger does indeed drive the Girl to consider her limited options. She prepares herself for prostitution, by grooming in front of a broken mirror, attaching her chewing gum to the side and using the charcoal from a burnt out match to highlight her eyebrows. It’s desperate.

She returns with a man who loses courage when he sees her companions and gifts her some money before turning away… it seems only a matter of time as the Man looks on.

Nellie Bly Baker and Otto Matieson
He takes them out to the country hoping to win the Girl over… but he underestimates the Boy who finally finds the courage to strike back when he sees the Man abuse the child…

It’s deceptively simple but brutally so… the situation being far more overt than in most mainstream cinema of the time. Where many Hollywood films would play on destitution and make allusions of life on the game, von Sternberg is quite specific, not more so than Pabst in The Friendless Street perhaps but a different film culture…

But where the director really scores is in his composition and control with the docks and dredging sequences so effective with humanity, literally, swamped by their surroundings. As the dredging pulls up mounds of silt the people are continuously being left behind: even the dirt gets lifted up.

But, whatever has dragged them this low, can be counter-acted if they can only find new energy.

I watched a copy taken from an old video release… and it’s sad to report that this film is not more widely available. Excerpts are on YouTube but it’d be good to see a restored print of this most considered debut from one of cinema’s most controlled talents.

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