Saturday, 13 July 2019

Classical connections… Entering the Classical World through Silent Cinema, with Stephen Horne, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre

This evening was a real treat featuring three un-restored films about antiquity and a beautifully restored, digital projection of The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (1917), a UK premier in fact, fresh from the Cineteca di Bologna. The screenings were arranged as part of the – deep breath - 15th Congress of the Fédération internationale des associations d'études classiques and the Classical Association annual conference 2019 and were aimed at showing how the new medium of film presented the classical world to the people of the Edwardian and Great war period.

The Bloomsbury Theatre is part of University College London where the conference was being run and UCL’s Maria Wyke provided the introduction along with Bristol University’s Pantelis Michelakis. Professor Wyke pointed out the contemporary aims for these productions; to educate and to provide some link to enduring truths of the ancient world during the First World War. Many hundreds of films were made about the classical world in the silent era – many not surviving of course – and Wyke’s project has been to consider what the classics offered cinema and, indeed, what cinema offered the classics.

Clearly, classical literature and ancient history provided content with a proven track record with existing media – theatre, opera, books, and even painting and sculpture. People were familiar with these stories sand eager to see them come to life on screen. Cinema exploited the ancient word to hold a mirror up to the modern world, through religious or political messaging. Cinema also used classics to add much needed gravitas… part of an ongoing process of legitimising the medium; placing it on the same level as the other arts.

An excursion in ancient Greece (1913)
Cinema provided a pathway to the classics for ordinary people democratising the ancient world and opening it up for those from lower classes who didn’t have Latin or Greek. This meant portrayals that used the tropes and style of populist cinema, something at least some of the audience found difficult to contextualise.

An excursion in ancient Greece (1913) Pathé, from Filmarchiv Austria

This travelogue showed the remains of ancient Athens with a greatest hits run-through of monumental ruins of ancient Greece on and around the Athenian Acropolis; pretty thrilling of you’ve never travelled much from your hometown.

Pompeii and Vesuvius (1906) Italy, from the Library of Congress (Washington)

This film was fascinating as it included shots from a 1901 film of tourists wandering through Pompeii that was recently featured in the BFI’s Victorian film programmes. This film was intercut with scenes showing the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 connecting the current event with its disastrous forebear in a way that would give contemporary audiences pause for thought…

Slave of Phydias (1916/17), France, from the British National Film Archive

I’ve seen this film before and in some ways it appears dated for 1916 with static camerawork and the presentation of the story through a series of tableaux but it does make the most of this approach with good depth of field and locations (it was shot in the south of France).

Directed by Léonce Perret for Gaumont, it tells the story of the sculptor Phydias’ love for the slave-girl who models for him. Their love is doomed by social conventions and they are forced into exile leaving Greece, the ‘land of beauty and of love’ in a way that, as Professor Wyke points out, is redolent of the displacement of the Great War.

The Tragic End of the Emperor Caligula (1917), Italy from the Cineteca di Bologna

This was a sparkling restoration that had been screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017. Directed by Ugo Falena, it featured some extraordinary dancing from Stacia Napierkowska who some will remember being poisoned on stage by Musidora in Les Vampires or playing the desert Queen Antinéa in L’Atlantide (1921). She’s an extraordinary presence and Stephen Horne accompanied her movements with practiced ease; the highlight of the night.

There’s a typically well-researched and fascinating post on Katherine Frances’ Silents Please site about the dancer, born in Paris in 1886 and classically trained before she started appearing in films in the 1900s. This film features the longest dance scene of any of Napierkowska’s extant films and it’s worth watching for that alone.

The film itself was praised at the time for displaying all the richness of an art work: ‘marvellous landscapes, powerful effects of light and shadow, all the beauty of the Roman countryside and its ancient monuments, all the spirituality of the catacombs and, what’s more, a faithful reconstruction of the imperial palace after the most recent excavations on the Palatine. But above all it is a tragedy.’

Stacia Napierkowska lets rip
The story is a mash-up of Caligula and Nero’s stories with our over-the-top Emperor launching the persecution of the Christians after his son dies and the balance of his mind is tipped. He forces Napierkowska’s character to dance at his feast/orgy or he will kill her friends and we get her stunning swirls mixing fear and defiance. These things never end well for any evil emperor and someone is watching over those Christians…

Stephen Horne came equipped with his full arsenal of sound to add to the Bloomsbury’s grand…as the Professor said, his day job is to enable audiences to connect with old films and this becomes even more important with these films that are about history and are now historical themselves. The music needs to align in structure, intent and emotion with the action on screen and Stephen, as usual, translated the language of silent auditorium to perfection.

Further details of Professor Wyke's research are available on UCL's Department of Greek and Latin's website.

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