Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Victor verdict… Vem Dömer? (1922) with Neil Brand and Frank Bockius, Pordenone Giorno Quattro

Judgement Day at le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Vem Dömer? (La prova del fuoco/Love’s Crucible) (1922) is perhaps not regarded at the same level of Victor Sjöström’s major works but it is an immensely powerful film with Julius Jaenzon’s peerless photography and one of Europe’s finest actresses (and the world’s best ballerinas).

Jenny Hasselqvist had great technical gifts, prima poise and physical control but she was also a skilled choreographer of emotional narrative. You can see stories unfold across her features in a manner that always reminds me of Isabelle Huppert: you don’t need title cards just a print as gloriously fine as tonight’s projected on the Teatro Verdi’s mighty screen.

The story itself, as you would expect from Sjostrom, is more than it seems and about as conventionally-religious as Ingmarssönerna (1919) – featuring an actual stairway to heaven - or The Phantom Carriage (1921) featuring a carriage driven by a phantom… In other words, it’s another delightful Victor puzzle to de-code. In their notes for the festival, Magnus Rosborn and Casper Tybjerg point out that the overt religious context was often misinterpreted critically and may also have undermined the film’s success and yet it played a major part in getting its director his gig in Hollywood.

Vem Domer? Is best translated as who can judge? and it’s as much about guilt and self-judgement as it is about religious redemption. Jenny Hasselqvist’s character Ursula is after all responsible for her older husband’s heart failure even though she doesn’t realise it. This sets up a double whammy that the actress responds to operatically but convincingly; the film has a feel of a folk story more than a character-driven thriller especially when an angry mob cry “burn the witch!” and quickly arm themselves with flaming torches. We just can’t do proper mobs anymore…

It’s superstition versus human reasoning and love versus self-loathing, all very twentieth century concerns and home turf for Sjostrom and Hasselqvist.

Neil Brand accompanied with some thunderous piano and Frank Bockius on heavy-hitting percussion worthy of John Bonham. Together they whipped the packed-out Teatro Verdi into a frenzy and a standing ovation… although perhaps some just wanted to check that everyone was alright in the orchestra pit! They could have run the climactic fire-walk over for an encore! Surely there’s still time before the festival ends.

Vem Dömer? was, for me, the third huge crescendo of the festival and this sceening cemented its position one of my most cherished Sjostroms. It also features perhaps the most purely expressive performances I’ve seen from Jenny Hasselqvist and it’s interesting to compare with her more dialogue-driven work in Gosta Berling. Hopefully it will be screened in London and more people can see this remarkable actress at work.

Nadia Sibirskaïa
We also watched: Dimitri Kirsanoff’s beguiling Ménilmontant (1926) was the perfect coda after the faith and flames with Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco weaving sophisticated lines around the seemingly disjointed story line. It all makes sense though as violence begets misery and two orphaned sisters eventually find themselves in Paris. One of these is played by Nadia Sibirskaïa who runs deeper than the stillest of waters; her face a puzzle of intensity framed by a mass of frizzed red hair often haloed by her husband’s camera direction.

The film was paired with Fièvre (1921) directed by Louis Delluc of whom Léon Moussinac of Le Crapouillot said was “inside cinematic truth…” in his review. “The image is absolutely self-sufficient, with only strictly indispensable textual interventions…”

Yuliya Solntseva, she got a hat and she got ahead...
Also inside cinema but with, perhaps a different truth, was the soviet fantasy Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) which I had seen previously but not – I think – in this length or quality. Once you stop thinking of Aelita as science fiction, it makes a whole lot more sense; a film about the difficulty of consolidating revolution a mere half decade after Russia had been won. It’s a mix of styles even on Earth and the sections on Mars, stunning sets and costumes aside, are almost more dramatically straightforward.

It’s an enjoyable sprawl with many soon to be famous actors making their debut and a big budget hit at a time when The Dream was still alive even in the year Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov died.

Jenny Hasselqvist: dancing days

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