Friday, 26 February 2016

It’s in the air… Love (1927) Aphrodite Raickopoulou, Vadim Repin and Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Well it was certainly love for Mordaunt Hall, with the New York Times critic almost lost for words in describing Greta Garbo as "a blonde Mona Lisa" who "outshines any other performance she has given to the screen".

I doubt he could have contained himself had he been here to hear Aphrodite Raickopoulou's stonking new score written for and played by Vadim Repin ably accompanied by the might of the Philharmonia Orchestra… “Paramedic for Mr Hall!”

Is often been said that the camera loved Garbo – watching Sky Arts Movie documentaries it seems that the camera also loved Ava Gardner, Lana Turner et al and so on: that Camera was pretty fickle. I think that the director, cinematographer and, subsequently the audience loved Greta and Mordaunt Hall of course…

Mordaunt loves Greta
She must have brought something powerfully new to the screens and perhaps her European ethereality topped off an earthy sexuality that the West had rarely seen. Theda and Pola were too deliberate whilst Lillian, Mary and even Clara were girls in comparison with this woman who operated on unknowable levels. She has more in common with Asta Nielsen and the great Italian Divas, especially Bertini: realism with just a silent touch of a short-fuse.

A Lyda Borelli reveal borrowed from Malombra?
Her only vulnerability was love itself and even she could be charmed by the wholesome wit of John Gilbert. Gilbert was the proof of accessibility and possibility and, pause for sigh, proved that ultimately neither of things actually applied in Greta Gustafsson’s case.

But all that was to come and tonight, as in 1927, the audience believed in their love and, in the love of a mother and son as well as the love of a soldier for his comrades in arms: there was a lot of love going round.

But first to feel it was off-screen, as Vadim Repin – described as the leading soloist of his generation – took to the stage to rapturous applause alongside conductor Frank Strobel wading through the eighty-strong Philharmonia. Aphrodite Raickopoulou has spent much of the intervening period between her splendid score for Faust – performed in the same venue in 2012 – on this new piece and it was worth every note.

Repin took flight almost from the first few bars of the overture before the film began and Raickopoulou’s themes began to reveal themselves against the well-travelled narrative of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It is an interesting choice to follow up the more tonally extreme Murnau film but the score succeeded in adding flavour especially to Garbo’s almost mystical expressiveness. I probably said it before but she over-matches Mr Gilbert whose natural charm and earnestness simply washes over the swede’s hidden depths.

John Gilbert: at first sight
Don’t get me wrong, I do love John Gilbert and I would also agree with the rather leftfield suggestion from Hugo Vickers who in his introduction suggested that were he alive today, Gilbert would easily beat Donald Trump to the Whitehouse: well yes, him, Felix the Cat and Ben Turpin too!

Meanwhile, back in Tsarist Russia… as adaptations go, this one is remarkably economical with Director Edmund Goulding moving Frances Marion’s precis swiftly along and focusing on the aspects of love that bind the characters to their diverging paths: there is no easy way for any of them to follow their hearts. Such clever work Miss Marion!

John Gilbert also part directed, perhaps been given his head with his almost soul-mate – not for nothing did the publicists promote the film as “Garbo and Gilbert in… Love” although the original title was simple Heat which I’m less convinced about.

OK... it is a little warm in here...
Their first encounter is tantalizing as horse-drawn carriages career through frozen countryside. We only see Garbo’s face through a veil which delays the moment of her rescuer, Alexis Vronsky (Gilbert) seeing her face. After her carriage loses a horse he takes her to an n inn and after installing her in a double room wrongly assumed to be theirs, is transfixed when the big reveal happens: love at first sight!

But… it’s complicated: Anna is already married to the influential, rich and late middle-aged Senator Alexei Karenin (Brandon Hurst) and, worse still, they have a son, Serezha Karenin (Philippe De Lacy) who Anna adores more than life itself. The bond between the 10-year old boy and the 22-year old actress is a strong one but I’m pretty sure it’s meant to show the immensity of the maternal bond. True Vronsky is jealous in the selfish days of his passion but he comes to accept the boy’s position in her life.

George Fawcett does his Windsor Davies
But Vronsky is similarly compromised by his family connection to his regiment, led by the Grand Duke Michel (George Fawcett who is about as Cossack as Windsor Davies!). He faces being drummed out after generations of Vronsky family service if he doesn’t save face by giving up Anna.

Eventually the Senator intervenes, telling the lovers that they will destroy themselves. He is playing a long game and counting on the pressures of societal norms to keep them apart.

Ultimately Anna cannot leave her boy any more than Vronsky can walk away from his comrades and his familial history. Regretfully they give up their love and prepare for the misery of separation.

Anna gives her emotions away as she watches Vronsky's race
Famously two endings were filmed one based on Tolstoy’s and another crafted for local taste… you’ll have to watch it yourself to find out which one won.

Love is a very good film above and beyond G&G. There is some lovely cinematography from William H. Daniels who employs a good range of “European” camera mobility, following the characters through immense rooms and tracking John Gilbert during the soldier’s horse race – Anna’s heart is in her mouth and we respond in kind to the under-cranked danger of the equine dual.

It’s available from Warner Archives in a decent print but it would be good to see it released with this enormous, radiantly good-natured new score.

The concert launched the 2016 UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature and featured my pal Sarah’s live debut at a silent film – thanks for taking the chance SEG!

Monday, 22 February 2016

A hard day’s night… Von morgens bis mitternachts (1920) with Stephen Horne & Martin Pyne, Barbican

"No money in the World can buy anything of value... Money is the most miserable trickery!"

This was a fascinating opening to the Barbican’s series of Weimar expressionism which, it turns out, was far less a movement than a triptych. Introducing the screening Stephanie Bird, Senior Lecture in German at UCL, explained that expressionism was an extension of romanticism but, in its truest form, was limited to very few films of the 500 or so produced at the time.

Only this film, Caligari and the closing segment of Waxworks, can be considered purely expressionistic… even though elements of technique are commonly overlapping – atmospherics intended to show interior states but almost all using more conventional narrative structure and design.

Ernst Deutsch
Von morgens... was almost too radical to be released – either stylistically or politically - and details of its initial distribution are a sketchy as the painted sets. Karlheinz Martin’s film certainly avoided any commercial success and, thanks to a limited run in Japan a copy was preserved and then discovered in 1959 long after being written off as lost.

As it was this might well have been Von morgens bis mitternachts’s UK premier?

Martin had directed the stage version of Georg Kaiser’s 1912 play on its debut in 1917 (it was revived at the National Theatre as recently as 2014) and so knew what he was dealing with… and was able to take off confidently in a more cinematic direction. Expressionist art and theatre had been popular since before the war and expressionist elements were used in across different media without infusing overall substance. Take for example, the striking advertising for some post-war Murnau films that promise Caligarian experimentation whilst the films themselves deliver more conventionally.

The Lady reclines
Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morn to Midnight) might well be the high-water mark of Weimar expressionism – a drowned world of pained dislocation that makes Caligari look almost mainstream. Robert Neppach’s sets are off the scale eccentric and combined with Carl Hoffmann’s cinematography serve to rob the audience of any anchor in reality throughout the whole film: we’re as lost as the cashier who reaches in vain for his ideal and his truth…

The film was accompanied by an improvised score from multi-instrumentalists Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute and more) and Martin Pyne – a percussionist, vibraphonist and composer who has worked with Stephen on a number of other projects including Berlin, Symphony of a City and The Battle of the Somme.

The Cashier's cosy yet "nauseating" home life
Their styles blended perfectly and matched the swirling mood of the visuals from the stentorian Brechtian swing of the opening  – I think the boys have located the next whiskey bar alright – to the dislocations of the psychedelic cycle races and the fuzz-toned piano strings for the glimpse of the Cashier’s domesticated alienation .  At times I was reminded of the heavy modern jazz of The Bad Plus (known for unconventional covers of The Pixies, Nirvana and Black Sabbath) as well as the more experimental adventures of Uri Caine (whoprovides similar service for Gustav Mahler) - it was silent film accompaniment as aerobic workout and no less than this powerfully-strange film deserved - a hi-energy approach that must have blistered a few fingers and banged a few nails!

Unlike Caligari it is more difficult to pinpoint this film’s intent and story. The stage play looks more precise in terms of narrative and it would surely be cheating to use its seven acts to illuminate the film’s five… We have to go on what we see.

The actors are integrated into the sets their expressiveness strictly limited by the style of their surroundings. Conversely what we see is what they feel – a scrappy, uneven and rough-cut slash of life. A cashier trapped behind his till bars as surely as in any prison and a world unfinished in our perception by inherent contradictions and irreconcilable knowns and unknowns.

Erna Morena
Ernst Deutsch plays the Cashier in a regular-irregular bank. He is married with a piano-pounding daughter and an elderly mother to maintain. He is clearly a worried man – it’s painted all over his face, especially round his right eye – but he needs the work.

So, what makes him take the biggest step of his life when an attractive Italian Lady played by Erna Morena (who also starred in the expressive if not expressionist Algol (1920)) arrives to cash in a cheque. There is something wrong and the payment cannot be made – the Bank Manager (Eberhard Wrede) has beetle-like suspicions: yet another person trying to cheat the system he serves.

Money can't buy you love
But the money is important for the Lady must buy a picture… she is so desperate she is persuaded by a young man (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) at her hotel to offer her precious pearls as security.

The Cashier so wants to help that he casts all thoughts of family away and steals the money from his bank. He takes the stolen cash to the lady in her hotel and is confused by her acquisition – he does not understand the painting:  “is it you?” She laughs at him and his petty desire and is now further removed as she falls back striking a pose exactly as in the abstract painting.

A street girl also has the face of Destiny...
The Cashier rushes out into the street – his life in shreds and has a series of encounters with women, all played by Roma Bahn, a Beggar, a Whore and finally a Salvation Army Girl. In each case the woman’s face is replaced by a skull – an example of what Stephanie Bird sees as Expressionism’s misogyny – death connected to female sexuality? Of course Roma Bahn also plays The Cashier’s daughter.

Bicycle race
The Cashier travels in search of meaning for his money and ends up betting heavily on cycle racing in one of the film’s outstanding sequences: painted crowds cheering on the distorted wheels of chance: all the confusion of a real sporting event without the needs for a scorecard.

Society is layered just like the audience for the races
The cheapest seats are up top....
The Cashier’s search continues as his day raises far more questions than answers: will he find enlightenment before the clocks strike midnight…Can the Salvation Army help him in this hour of need?

Von morgens bis mitternachts is available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum if you’re feeling in a questing mood but the contemporary film industry obviously either didn’t see the point or were too concerned by the film’s less than enthusiastic take on capitalist society at a time when the German economy, already in tatters, was burdened with war debt and on the verge of three years of hyperinflation during which revolutionary alternatives began to abound.

Destiny thy name is Roma Bahn
And yet, the film made it to Japan. You have to wonder about its influence there – A Page of Madness deals on similar feelings and is an even more dislocated tale.

Next up in the series is Caligari itself featuring a four-hander from Neil Brand and John Sweeney… not to be missed. I hope they have their clothes suitably painted with white angles and star-bursts.

Times up

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The shadow connection… Malombra (1917)

“I committed my last image to the mirror. When you identify yourself within it, the mirror will break.”
Even through the ghostly haze of the nth copy digital images, this film carries an atmosphere and unsettling style all of its own. We’re almost exclusively in an old castle on an island in the middle of Lake Como and, like the star Lyda Borelli are unsure of what is and isn’t real.

In the film her character becomes somehow melded with a woman from the past and is gradually contorted by the agonies of her untimely demise whilst we look on pulled into the picture and locked in fascination at Borelli’s physicality and her use of gesture and form. The film is disjointed and my Italian is worse than my French but it doesn’t really matter as Lyda’s continuity of thought and expression explains all you really need to know.

Lyda Borelli
This is a Diva film and one explained with aplomb on the Silents, Please! blog but I’ll add my own take for what it’s worth. Lyda Borelli’s performance is mannered beyond all Anglo-Saxon restraint but that’s what so great about it: this isn’t pantomime, this is opera and Borelli’s expression is real in its exaggeration and how else would you want your Gothic heroine to disassemble?

Directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra is based on the 1881 novel by Antonio Fogazzaro and begins with the arrival of a young woman on an isolated island. Malombra wears a black shawl as the makes her way from the jetty up to the gates of a high-walled castle where she has come to stay: is she grieving or has she been ill? She is greeted by her uncle the Conte Cesare d’Ormengo (Augusto Mastripietri) who owns the property.

There’s already an atmosphere of dislocation building and clearly Malombra is not at her best: she has come to recuperate but is she also being imprisoned? In a later film, made during Mussolini’s war-time regime, Malombra can only leave the island once she has married.

Days are spent lounging in the castle’s impersonal rooms and watching the sky float past being rowed across the lake… peace may be finding Malombra. Then, she accidentally discovers a hidden diary in a bureau along with a mirror through which a connection is made through the ages with Cecilia… her uncle’s first wife and a woman driven to her death by his cruelty.

Too much of a connection
Malombra is sent into shock by this ghostly connection as Cecilia’s last moment passes into her… a young writer Corrado Silla (Amleto Novelli) comes to her aid and helps her recuperate. Soon the two are drawn to each other…

Years before Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen seduced each other through the medium of chess; Malombra and the Doctor grow closer over the board. The camera switches from one to the other, Malombra making her play, Corrado reacting and then back to the winner who in losing the game has the man at her feet.

You just don't get this with draughts...
But all is not right with Malombra, and the next day she is overcome and tries to escape only for Corrado to stop her… in a daze and panicked she is clearly not the grand master of her emotions she had appeared… the two share an embrace but it is not right.

Silla withdraws from the island leaving Malombra in the care of the family Contessa Salvador (Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto), Steinegge (Amedeo Ciaffi) and the latter’s daughter Edith Steinegge (Consuelo Spada). Malombra is nudged into the direction of Conte Salvador (Francesco Cacace) – the Countessa’s son. But Malombra’s strangeness makes her impossible to reach and she prefers to read gothic romance rather than to re-connect with the living.

Borelli is perfectly suited to the expression of a woman possessed – her face and form contorted into extremes – everyday comforts losing their taste as she pours flowers onto the floor of her rooms: signs of life cast aside a funeral for hope with no life left to celebrate.

Elsewhere Silla has a relationship with Edith but he will always be drawn back to the unfinished business of his love.

Opera and not pantomime
Gradually Malombra realises the full horror of her connection to Cecilia and must confront the need to balance books… but has she been driven too far and is there any way back?

Giovanni Grimaldi’s cinematography captures the light and Lyda perfectly and there are no end of images shot for painterly impact alone. The Isle of Death, the woman who’s soul is being lost to the shadows and the tortures that move across her face as she loses herself in Cecilia’s nightmare.

Abandon in boats
The horror is in the inevitability of possession and the relentless descent. I’m not the only one to think of Rebecca but this film lacks that story’s sense of restraint… It is, however, a magnificent vehicle for Borelli and another example of Italian cinema in its silent prime.

Sadly Malombra is not available on commercial DVD apart from excerpts featured on the Diva Dolorosa DVD which, as previously mentioned is available separately or along with Angela Dalle Vacche’s essential Diva, Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema.