Monday, 5 August 2019

New dawns fade... Tonka of the Gallows (1930), Phoenix Cinema with Stephen Horne

“To become a little child again…” or "Verily I say to you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." Matthew 21:31, as quoted at the start of this film.

This film was one of the hits of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival and understandably drew a substantial audience of the Capital’s silent cineastes to the Finchley Phoenix. We’d come to see the serene Slovenian Ita Rina who had impressed me so much in Gustav Machatý’s Erotikon (1929) and who had, as Phoenix Programmer Miranda Gower Qian described, a delicate beauty which underpinned her quite staggering performance in this film.

Tonka was the first synchronised sound film in Czech Republic and the latest restoration, from 2017, is based on the French release which features one song and a prayer amongst the scratchy dialogue. The Phoenix elected to show the film as silent, with the exception of those two moments, partly because the film unarguably is directed as a silent but also because Stephen Horne, who played with it in San Francisco, could repeat his alchemical accompaniment for what is visual tone poem played out across Rina’s immaculate features.

Jack Mylong-Münz and Ita Rina
It was an event for the connoisseur, described by the SFFF’s Jay Weissberg as “…a deeply empathetic portrait of a prostitute whose self-contempt is equal to the scorn she receives from those around her.” We’ve seen that movie many times but rarely as affecting as here with an actress on song and a director who knows enough to hold back on the melodrama and let the audience and actress collude on the meaning and the depth of tragedy.

All starts well enough as city girl Tonka Sibenice (Ita Rina) returns from Prague to the village she came from, impressing the yokels (all great “faces” tempted from the fields of the Moravian countryside around Veselí nad Moravou) with her style – stockings and high heels. Her mother played by the terrific Vera Baranovskaya (star of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 film Mother) is delighted to greet her and the homecoming is like a fairy tale as Tonka sets out a coffee grinder and other presents. An old flame, Jean (Jack Mylong-Münz) rushes to the house and her romantic future seems assured… this is how films are supposed to end and yet this is only the start.

Jean's proposal only makes Tonka realise what she has lost
As Jean proposes, Tonka tumbles down from this blissful plateau and pulls herself back to Prague drawn by her guilt having lived life as a very popular prostitute – she has deemed herself not worthy and not for the last time. The key to her downfall is not her chosen profession but her self esteem mixed with a kindness that exceeds her calling. One night two policemen arrive after a condemned man has requested a woman for his last night, the others shrink away but Tonka willingly accepts although she doesn’t quite understand why until after she arrives.

Her scenes with the killer (the excellent Josef Rovenský who featured in Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl) are exceptional, the two terrified, she of him and he of his last night, until Tonka brings out a child’s wind up toy and they become distracted. The two are lit in close up, the condemned cell flooded in shadow as the focus is on their desperate attempt to find comfort and, as Tonka says, courage. It’s a tour de force from the performers and tribute to Karel Anton’s direction as well as cameraman Eduard Hoesch - the gravitational core of the film drenched in the darkest night before the final dawn.

Josef Rovenský and Ita rina
Tonka gives the killer the strength to comes to terms with the end of life and the second sound sequence features her reading of the Lord’s Prayer; surely a sign that she too has found peace through this kindness… only words are exchanged as she realised, at last, what made her come to this man.

As with the Spring, so too is this moment another moment of tragic misdirection from Anton for her act only serves to condemn Tonka in the eyes of the World. The other workers at the brothel have always been jealous of her and now they exact merciless revenge on “The Widow of the Hanged”… Tonka’s appetite for the life she lives drains away and soon she is on the streets, battered with charity is in shorter supply than cheap booze.  A chance encounter with Jean in a dive bar brings hope as  he takes her back home and this time they will be married but on the eve of their wedding another meeting in a bar with one of her old customers drives him wild and he throws her across her mother’s floor in a shocking rage.

Back she goes to Prague and deeper and deeper she declines… will there be one last chance?

There are many silent films that show the descent from, often rural, innocence to degradation via sex in the city and yet Tonka is cleverly structured to give the viewer more pause for thought. At many points Tonka could save herself and yet, clearly, she doesn’t… why is this? The tragedy is all the more poignant for our having to wonder why and Tonka’s evocations of childhood bliss make our awareness of the fall from innocence even more pronounced.

There’s also an ending worthy of David Lynch which, as with many points of the film, wrong-foots the viewer; have we just watched a dream of the doomed?

Stephen Horne accompanied with the range and sympathy you would expect and there was more than one moment of exquisite timing such as when the bordello’s pianist stops in readiness for Tonka’s song. Such an emotional film requires a delicate touch and Stephen had many deliciously-poignant lines to underscore Ita Rina’s delicate emotional shifts – a sublime and heart-breaking duet.

As Miranda Gower Qian had said in her introduction, the combination of live music and visuals can lift silent music free of its time and place. In the magnificent setting of the grand old Phoenix and with such an appreciative audience, this is always assured!

You can order the Czech DVD of the 2017 restoration screened from Amazon or direct from the Czech Film Institute which is cheaper! 

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