Monday, 14 October 2013

Live cinema… Harbour Drift (1929), with Stephen Horne, London Film Festival

Lissy Arna
Back before Blu-ray, VHS or Betamax had even been invented, people had an altogether more transitory relationship with cinema, you had to go out and watch it and once the release had finished, hope to see your favourites again at cinema clubs or, latterly, on TV… Can any of us really remember a time when cinema was mostly unavailable, long gone and an experience only relived in memory not on Memorex?

After a thoroughly absorbing 94 minutes watching Harbour Drift almost my first thought was “when’s the DVD coming out?”… now maybe that’s just me, but it’s a very modern instinct: storing any experience is a way of retaining it (and yourself) for longer. But doesn’t this take the edge off? Isn’t watching a film once every bit of an in-the-moment performance as the superb multi-instrumental accompaniment of Stephen Horne?

Hamburg provides the harbour
Thing is, currently there are no plans for a DVD* and so my relationship with Harbour Drift is entirely of that moment, sat in Row J Seat 15 of the BFI 1 cinema at the rain-sodden London Film Festival… As passing acquaintances go it was a rich and enjoyable one.

Of course, another aspect of the watcher relationship to cinema is that so many films were lost after their intended function was fulfilled. Harbour Drift was nearly one of them and was only recently restored to something like completeness – minus a few metres cut by the censors of “man kissing woman erotically…” as revealed by the lady from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, whose print it was.

Fritz Genschow
Originally entitled Jenseits der Straße - Eine Tragödie des Alltags, for the English it became Harbour Drift: a Tragedy of Everyday Life and it is a wonderful mix of high-silent technique in terms of cinematography, direction and performance. It’s the kind of film that got lost in the stampede of stilted sound films in spite of looking much better and meaning far more.

Directed by Leo Mittler, it’s an everyday story of life on the edges showing the struggle to break free of poverty even at the expense of others in which love can happen but only thrive if luck intervenes at the right moment. It was a product of the Prometheus Film company and is not as overtly political as that association might suggest: it observes and lets the viewer draw their own conclusion.

Mitter does, however, wear his influences on his sleeve and in addition to the heralded Russian influences of cross-cuts and speedy montage; you could also see aspects of von Sternberg’s docklands and the desperate shadows of Murnau, Pabst and Lang…

Paul Rehkopf
The film starts with the ugly contrast between wealth and youth…an old letch ogles a pair of young legs catching furtive glimpses through a newspaper reporting tragic stories of passing interest: more transience… and a call to the viewer to not walk away from the message.

“Millions of newspaper copies every day. Hundreds of thousands of notices … every day. Hundreds of thousands fates … Who gives these any thought between coffee and cigars?” intones the first inter-title, and, as the corpulent old businessman considers his approach, we catch site of just one of these stories involving an old man…

The film takes us back to a knee-high view of a busy street as the local legs go about their business.  The camera moves along to alight on the source of this view, a beggar, hunched against the side of building - Paul Rehkopf. We’re also shown one particular pair of high heels marching back and forth, their owner is waiting for customers and the going is not good - Lissy Arna.

Suits you, sir...
Into their life falls a string of pearls, dropped by a busy, bright young thing en route to somewhere better. She snarls at the old beggar as he tries to return them and then he decides that he should keep them… Unbeknownst to him the girl has been watching things unfold, making her own calculations.

The beggar returns to his ramshackle harbour side barge and shows his booty to a young unemployed man he shares it with - Fritz Genschow. The two hide the precious find away for a rainy day.

Meanwhile the girl seeks out help from a local fence known as The Receiver - Siegfried Arno. He’s a nasty piece of work who holds court in a seedy bar near the docks, protected by a sailor - Friedrich Gnaß.

Lissy Arna and Siegfried Arno
These lives begin to intertwine, driven by fear, lust and greed – against all the odds love blooms but is it a luxury these poor people can ever afford?

The film is packed full of superb shots - both interior and locations sequences are so well composed and great credit must be due to cameraman Friedl Behn-Grund who also helps mash together the high-speed montages when the young man fights the sailor and towards the film’s climax.

Leo Mittler had theatre experience but I believe this was his first feature film. He does exceptionally well as do his leads. Siegfried Arno is calmly sadistic whilst Paul Rehkopf plays the old beggar like a man struggling to awake from the nightmare of slow decay. Fritz Genschow is perhaps the closest the film has to a hero and his glances at a girlish neighbour show how naïve he may be.


Lissy Arna makes the greatest journey though even though she may end up exactly where she began… she’s street smart but lets her heart go to her head – will she be lucky?

I was struck by a moment when the girl is first making her way to the docks in search of the beggar’s lair, she walks down a narrow street and scrawled on the side of a door is a swastika. This is the Weimar Germany in 1929 but there was a sure signal of the change the Republic’s economic disasters were to partly enable. They could not have believed it at the time but far worse was soon to come for those who clung to life on the harbour side…

Paul Rehkopf and Fritz Genschow
Stephen Horne has been a long-time supporter of this film and it showed in his passionate and inventive accompaniment. He played flute, accordion and piano – sometimes at the same time - whilst also eliciting some intriguing sounds from the latter through use of an ordinary piece of paper… you really have to see/hear that one!

Together with Harbour Drift he helped create one of the best silent film performances I’ve seen this year: he has a habit of doing that!

Harbour Drift was shown as part of the London Film Festivals Treasures strand. I don’t know when it’ll next show up but until then, deprived of the opportunity to collect it, I’ll just have to remember it!


*Watch this space though… and if any film is worth watching repeatedly this is one of them, especially if they use Mr Horne’s score.

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