Sunday, 10 October 2021

Iron man… Maciste All’ Inferno (IT 1926), with Teho Teardo and Zerorchestra, Le Giornate 40th Edition Streaming Day Eight


And, as always, the masses sided with the strongest…

 

This was essentially a cross-over event in the Dante Extended Universe, L’Inferno II plus Maciste XXVI equalling a completely decadent vision of Hell and an Earth of fairy tale pleasantry. It was a return to the glories of ground-breaking Italian film making with a soul-devouring Lucifer drawn directly from Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe De Liguoro’s masterpiece, a feature film diligently drawn from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Three years later and Giovanni Pastrone’s sensational Cabiria introduced the character of Maciste, a mighty slave who rescues the Roman girl of the title. The character was played by Bartolomeo Pagano who returns here for his 26th performance as the likeable lunk who combines power and morality as the Italian superuomo.

 

I could quote the works of Professor SE Finer on the enduring nature of political cultures but it’s not an over-stretch to say that the Italians had always favoured strong individual leaders and, indeed, this film accepts as much with the quote at the top. Il Duce was indeed a fan and wikiparently adopted several trademark Maciste poses as part of his fascist fantasy. He was prime minister when Maciste All’ Inferno was made so perhaps that puts a more intense spin on that line… Mussolini was five feet sex inches whereas Pagano was fully six feet and Lord knows what his chest measurement was.


Maciste assailed by hundreds of extras!

Anyway… this is such a wild ride with amazing special effects from the legendary Segundo de Chomón along with direction to die for – literally – from Guido Brignone, along with set and costume direction from Giulio Lombardozzi. This looks like Hell and it’s ugly, fierce and outrageously sexy. Hellzappopin’ alright with Pluto (Umberto Guarracino) ruling over all he surveys with the definite exception of his second wife Proserpina (Elena Sangro… statuesque ain’t the word!) and daughter, the barely clothed Luciferina (Lucia Zanussi).

 

No wonder it left such an impression on Federico Fellini who remembered it as the first film he ever saw – aged five or six? – even down to the details of Proserpina’s capture of Maciste. If Albert Camus is right and a man’s work is nothing but a trek to rediscover those great images in whose presence his heart first opened then, ladies and gents, I give you Satyricon and many more…


Pluto... Umberto Guarracino

Back in the Underworld, no one’s finding much satisfaction and after Maciste despatches a troop of demons back from whence they came, Pluto despatches his best guy Barbariccia (Franz Sala, who is having the time of his life!) to Earth with a group of others all wearing evil cloaks, hats and leers. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to gather as many good souls as possible including that of Maciste.

 

After his many adventures, Maciste has settled in a rural idyl, tending his garden, smoking fine tobacco and drinking barrels of fine wine. He looks after his lovely neighbour Graziella (Pauline Polaire) and all is peace until the arrival of Barbariccia and the boys… After a direct confrontation doesn’t work, Macist’s brawn versus Barbariccia’s brain and magical cheats, the latter looks to find the former’s weaknesses. He targets Graziella who, though far too holy for a direct attack, is vulnerable when helping Giorgio (Domenico Serra) a young man thrown from his horse by a demon storm. The two youngsters fall in love and soon a baby arrives only for Giorgio to hop off back to the city and his bachelor freedoms, this distracts Maciste enough for Barbariccia, having stolen the baby, to trap him and transport the big man straight to Hell.

 

Franz Sala giving his all

Now the fun really begins… as Maciste fights off hoards of demons, Brignone depicts his raunchier version of Dante’s inferno and Pluto’s women try to trap Maciste into kissing them for, if any earthman kisses a she-demon he is turned into a demon and condemned to remain in the fiery pits. Well… upon the basis of the images shared here, how long do you think Maciste is going to last?

 

But damnation is not the end and there’s battles a plenty as all Hell breaks lose as Barbariccia storms Pluto’s palace.

 

This hugely enjoyable romp was perfectly accompanied by Pordenone-born composer Teho Teardo who’s electronica was accompanied by local favourites the Zerorchestra along with Accademia Musicale Naonis and cellist Riccardo Pes. For this tale of many contexts, the cello represented Dante’s “voice” whilst the booming brass of the Accademia Naonis was that of Maciste. I think this was the performance that kicked off the pre-Festival event in Teatro Zancanaro, Sacile judging from the applause at the end and, as with everything streamed, I’d have loved to have been there in person to see it!


Elena Sangro
 

Before all this we had maestro John Sweeney accompanying three Vitagraph shorts that told stories of Japan at a time when the West was fascinated in the still emerging country. Thoroughly entertaining the three shorts said as much about the country that made them as their subject: Love of Chrysanthemum (1910), Ito, the Beggar Boy (1910) and Hako’s Sacrifice (1910).

 

So, another year over and done and a brilliant “bundle” of digital and live screening… here’s to 2022 and a 41st Edition viewed in person! 


Fellini particularly remembered Lucia Zanussi's belly button - fact!

OK, how Dante was this film?

Almost nine circles...
Feeling in Limbo

The wind-buffeted second circle... 

Nude heretics (probably) level six...

The Malebolge, eighth circle for fraudsters...

Old Nick exactly as he appears in  L'Inferno (1911) below...


For 'tis no enterprise to take in jest,
To sketch the bottom of all the universe…

Saturday, 9 October 2021

The piano teacher… Moral (DE 1928), with Donald Sosin, Le Giornate 40th Edition Streaming, Day Seven


Imagine it: a prince under the skirt of a shameless woman! It makes a mockery of the strict morals of our royal house!


The rediscovery of Ellen Richter has been one of the big themes of this year’s Giornate live in Pordenone and I’ve been waiting all week to meet her digitally… I was not disappointed. As the festival’s artistic director, Jay Weissberg, said in his online introduction, Richter has been overlooked as she didn’t make any films with the major directors of Weimar film, with her husband Willi Wolff directing her from 1918 onwards, and this has left this once major star somewhat in the shadows. Well, she’s not there anymore and this film shows off her radiance to full effect.


She’s one of those performers who naturally draws the eye and apart from having charisma to burn she has a richly centred persona with a smile that radiates glee as powerfully as sardonic rage. You don’t mess with Ellen but, if you do, she’ll have you back and relish her casually cool revenge with glee not to destroy but to educate; here it’s not just piano she teaches, it’s self-respect. Then we have the fashions… Ellen wears clothes in ways you cannot, gold lame pantaloons that only a true diva could carry off especially one with such a refined south German sense of humour. The fashions are spectacular but so is she and knowing that enables even the truly improbable garb to hang naturally and unselfconsciously.


Beyonce was on the Southbank at the London Film Festival this week, she and Ellen would have got on like a palace on fire… the flames holding back, unable to compete with the heat.


Making an entrance!

We will not tolerate this Berlin filth here in Emilsburg!


Anyway… here Ellen plays stage performer Therese Hochstetter known as Ninon d’Hauteville who causes a stir when her troop come to play in the provincial town of Emilsburg. We find her on a train, standing room only apart from the first-class section where she catches the eye of the town’s MP Beermann (Jakob Tiedtke), who lets her sit with him, calls himself “Meier” (“Smith”) before trying to further their intimacy before she turns the tables on him by sending another passenger into the darkened compartment.

 

Therese walks past the deflated hypocrite at the station little knowing that his daughter Effie (Hilde Jennings) is the one who designed the poster for her show, an image her father decries at that evening’s meeting of the male, pale and stale Moral Society. The men of the MS meet in the Blue Lion hotel to debate all the things that are debasing local society and there’s no end of irritations including a guide to marriage which is essentially a cookbook. If Beermann epitomises their hypocrisy Professor Otto Wasner (Ralph Arthur Roberts) exemplifies the priggish element, if he’s not having fun nobody else should.

 

Men. Yesterday.

The group believe they act in the name of the monarchy’s strict moral code but we switch to Prince Emile XXVII (Julius Falkenstein) looking at the advert and reminiscing about his youth in Berlin studying the trombone and watching the dancing girls at the Metropoltheatre; what a dandy fellow I was in my youth, and my son is such a milksop! He decides to find a music teacher for his son (Harry Halm) amongst the ladies of the ballet…

 

Meanwhile, back at the Blue Lion, the MS decide to disrupt the disgraceful show during the prince segment and the clash of cultures is set.

 

The film gives great cabaret with precious original footage of the Haller Review Where and When featuring Marcella Rahna, June and John Roper, Thelma de Lorez and the Lawrence Tiller Girls. There’s a riot on stage with hundreds of legs choreographed to perfection performing routines that would make Mr Berkley drool with envy, the visceral thrills of live entertainment produced by a cast with muscle memories drilled by thousands of hours practice all delivering in seconds of smiling precision.


Tiller Girls

Follow that Ellen/Therese and she’s about to in the sketch, The Prince and the Courtesan, atop a large stage prop bustle through which another dancer appears cross-dressed as a prince, before the Moral Society’s protest kicks off, the old men blowing their own trumpets, penny whistles and making a racket to drown out the act and force the curtains closed. It’s a comedy but this feels uneasy… then as now there were plenty of people wanting to censor expression.


Therese is confronted by Beermann and Professor Wasner after the show is forced to stop and spots her would be abuser from the train. Then she gets an offer she can’t refuse from the Prince as Von Schmettau, the royal chamberlain (Ferdinand von Alten) asks her to teach the young prince piano… the Moral Society will not get rid of her that easily.

 

The prince is bowled over by his new teacher as she slinks towards the piano in a backless dress and their hands keep clashing on the keyboard even as his leg brushes against hers on the pedals. He’s learning about a lot more than crotchets and semi-breves and is more than semi-quavered in her presence as the original Piano-Cam reveals (you don’t get this at the Kennington Bioscope!).

 

Harry Halm and Ellen Richter

The young man is not alone in seeking instruction from Therese and soon all of the Moral Society are signed up for lessons, all using assumed names. She decides to secretly film her new students and their non-musical advances and isn’t disappointed as the dirty old fellas try it on every time. She even manages to capture the priggish Prof off guard and trousers down… There’s a lovely cameo from the actress playing her maid who looks with increasing alarm at every Muller, Meier and Mayer.

 

It’s a film in which those looks are core to the meaning with Richter’s own expressiveness a delight throughout, her husband knowing exactly how to catch her humour and flashing glances to side and ceiling, exasperated by the male ego and the moral guardian’s ability to divorce libido from appearance. Only if we all learn to play music as she does will we be free to dance… seems to be the message and the arrival of the police starts the narrative on course for a hilarious clearing of the air all round in the final segment.

 

Ellen Richter

Richter had a rich theatrical background and had played in Ludwig Thoma’s original play as far back as 1909 as an ensemble player at the Stadttheater (Municipal Theatre) in Brno. Wolff and prolific writer Bobby E. Lüthge’s screenplay retains only the basic plot and characters, watering down the more explicit elements and leaving a lot to those suggestive looks from Ellen. It’s the most enjoyable of moral tales and despite her character’s elaborate revenge you get the feeling the actress could be endlessly forgiving if people were more honest, considerate and just didn’t scrimp of the floral tributes!


Donald Sosin accompanied on fine form with some support from the broader family for the protest scene. His was an upbeat and wholly sympathetic score that recognised Richter’s zestful appeal. An old star is reborn and whilst two thirds of her films are lost, I want to see more – there just aren’t enough gold lame trouser pantaloons in films these days.

Bonus theatrical scenes!! 


John about to catch June Roper

Fab title cards too!


Friday, 8 October 2021

An education... The Public Prosecutor and the Teacher (1948)/Phil for Short (1919), Le Giornate 40th Edition Streaming, Day Five and Six

Evelyn Greeley has some questions...


If people chose to see wrong and evil in aesthetic beauty then there’s something wrong with them!

 

Catching up on the last two days of online Giornate, there’s a common thread of judge not let you too be judged or at least read the book not just the cover. Whether it’s Korea in 1945 or the USA in 1919, people are all too willing to think the worst of others based on appearances and it’s only those who look deeper who make themselves and others happier.

 

Day Five: The Public Prosecutor and the Teacher (1948)

After liberation from Japanese colonial control in August1945, filmmakers in Korea still made silent films with a shortage of equipment meaning that half the films of this period were effectively silent or, in the case of The Public Prosecutor and the Teacher (1948), interpreted by a byeonsa – a more improvisational version of the Japanese benshi, here Sin Chul described by Jay Weissberg, artistic director of Giornate del Cinema Muto, as the last of the great practitioners working up to the 1980s.


Lee Yeong-ae also wants to know the answers


The story feels a little similar to other Korean films I’ve seen from this time but is none-the-less still affecting and well constructed. It’s not a classic but it is not only representative of the cinema of the newly liberated country but also shows the performance ability of the actors. The MVP here is Lee Yeong-ae who plays the titular teacher, Choi Yang-chun, and rightly gets the most screentime. As the school is kind hearted and morally brave, offering help to one of her poor students, Min Jang-son who lives in poverty with his ailing grandmother.


As well as feeding the young man and encouraging his studies, she takes an interest in his home life, helping to keep his greedy landlord at bay as well as feeding his gran. No doubt without her assistance he would be lost and when she suddenly has to leave the school he is distraught until she gives him a savings book and the money to carry on his studies. She leaves without knowing that his grandmother has just died but she has given him a lifeline…


The teacher and the murderer


A decade later she lives with her husband in another part of Seoul and bumps into Su-dong, an acquaintance of Min who is a baker. He tells her that, last he knew, Min had continued his studies and had qualified as a lawyer but that he hadn’t seen him for years. Then Choi meets a young girl who is crying as she has lost her father and once again she looks after the child.


Then a murderer escapes prison and finds his way to Choi’s house when  her husband is away, again she calms herself and tries to help him on the promise he gives himself up after seeing his daughter – the same girl she found in the streets.


After the man is arrested the locals gossip and somehow manage to blame Choi and he returning husband feels shamed and threatens her with a knife only to trip and kill himself. She’s charged with murder and, finally, reunites with Min (Kim Dong-min) this time in his role as a prosecutor….


Kim Dong-min


Such melodramas were very popular in Korea and developed very stylistically to suit local tastes – as everywhere. The story arc is satisfying and Lee Yeong-ae is excellent as the kind of teacher we all need and there’s a constant focus on schoolyards full of the next generation. Education and second chances would be vital over the coming years.


Day Six: Phil for Short (1919) with José Marìa Serralde Ruiz

Oh, my husband’s all right – but he’s not vital.


Talking of education… there’s teachers, schools and disagreeable neighbours in this thoroughly daft but enjoyable film which, despite being censored for being too nice according to Nasty Women curators Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak, also managed to offend Variety who’s reviewer condemned it as a “a sissy play, too nice for our boys; we want them to be manly,” after a local screening attended by a Boy Scout troop in Wilmette, Illinois. What would our Robert Baden-Powell have said? I do hope he saw the film.


Evelyn Greeley and Hugh Thompson


Directed by Oscar Apfel it features a scenario from Clara Beranger – another American woman silent film writer - and Forrest Halsey and is a delightful comedy about old fashioned responses to the ancient ideas of Greek freedoms of movement, thought and free will (gosh). The moral majority base their highground on the old days but they’re completely at a loss in explaining away the really old ways…


But as Maggie and Laura say, it’s not boys but girls who dress up as boys who disrupt the sexual norms in this film, this chiefly being Damophilia Illington – call me Phil for short* – played by the wonderfully energetic Evelyn Greeley.

* Wouldn’t you rather be called Phil than Damn?


Phil’s so-called after a poem by the much misunderstood Sappho (yes, she was…) who as Hennefeld and Horak point out was oft sourced for silent films as part of a general attraction  to Greek literature with the precise hidden depths that the Old Fogey’s object to here. As with “Greek Deployments” by the likes of DeMille, there’s an excuse for under-the-counter meaning and shorter frocks justified in the name of higher art.



This film plays with so many angles and Greeley is wonderfully peppy, hardly pausing for breath justifying her love of Greek movement and expression or deciding on cross-dressing as her own “twin” to escape from her overbearing – would be husband – her late father’s doctor and a man old enough to be her censor.


She meets a classics teacher “woman-hater” John Alden (Hugh Thompson) who is just female phobic, as a boy and then cross-dresses again as his twin Phil… to assist him in connecting with his female students and in the hope of connecting more intimately with him…


It’s not as frankly sexual as say Ossi Oswalda in Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918) but it is a surprisingly forward American film and very entertaining too. I’d loved to have been in the audience for a screening in the bible belt circa 1920 0r even 2020…


As with Ossi, Greeley is in control throughout, or at least driving her own agenda in a world full of closed and confused male minds. That’s not “naughty”, it’s liberating!!


They don't stand a chance!!


Design for loving… I Know Where I’m Going (1945), BFI, London Film Festival Restoration Premier


What more is there to say about this film beyond the personal? Introducing, the BFI’s Robin Baker – general mood, "Christmas morning" - recalls seeing it in the mid-70s at home with his parents and the emotional impact it had, and still has, when the three pipers march towards Moy Castle at the end. In a video introduction Martin Scorsese describes seeing it late in his growing fascination with Michael Powell’s work and, expecting a rather mannered romcom, was never so delighted to be proven wrong, blown away by its “enchanted suspense.” It was Emeric Pressburger’s favourite of the films he made with Powell and his grandson, Andrew McDonald, a filmmaker and Scot, couldn’t agree more; the film’s precision being matched by its disciplined 90-minute length – a producer’s dream.


The restoration of our cinematic crown jewels, has taken some four years according to the BFI’s Film Conservation Manager Kieron Webb, who described how the various surviving elements were combined, including one pre-release positive that was slightly longer during the whirlpool scenes, to produce the sharpest images but also the sharpest sound. He suggested there might be a PhD in the use of sound in post-war cinema and it’s certainly worth listening to this film afresh.


Kieron often gets asked what it’s like to work on a film you love and then have to spend so much time with and the answer was, broadly, that the heart only goes fonder in restoration proximity which is only appropriate for a film that not only is about love but which also makes you love or even fall in love… For me, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have captured that feeling and not for the first time.


Wendy and Roger

Few can match the duo for sheer heartful strangeness and they can comfort and unsettle all at the same time and whilst they represent a type of British-ness they also subvert it with their films containing elements of expressionism and mysticism that are distinctly European and challenging. There are obvious cultural reasons for this in Pressburger’s case but Powell, from Kent, had spent time at his father's hotel in Nice and gained experience in German film studios in the silent era.


Released post-war in late 1945, this film offers the re-assurance of enduring love and community spirit after the battles won…and offers a Celtic companion to the previous year’s ethereally English A Canterbury Tale. I Know Where I’m Going also returns Powell to his beloved Scotland and to the highlands and islands previously showcased in The Edge of the World (1937). This time the location is Mull, and the distant shores of “Kiloran” (a fictional isle roughly in the position of Colonsay). All are beautifully photographed by Erwin Hillier - all darkness and light with some stunning shots of mountains, shore and sky.  These are perfectly matched by expertly constructed interiors in Denham Studios which may be 500 miles away, but they feel part of the location as surely as if they’d been built there.


What does Joan see in Catriona?


Wendy Hiller is sublime as Joan Webster, a bank manager’s daughter from Manchester who – seemingly – knows exactly where she’s going and always has done. The film opens with a series of witty scenes showing the heroine’s steadfast pursuit of what she wants at different stages of childhood and presenting the credits on various bits of the scenery. This helps to accentuate the material world in which Joan lives and, shortly after we see her leaving an art-deco industrial building she informs her father that she’s off to Scotland to marry Consolidated Chemical Industries or at least the factory’s owner Sir Robert Bellinger, one of the richest men in England.


Joan is absolutely sure of herself and waves goodbye as her train heads north for her inevitable wedding and, if she has doubts, we only see them as the off-kilter dreams she experiences as she heads towards the border. However, nature conspires against her as dense fog will not permit the final leg of her journey to the island Bellinger has let and upon which they are to be married.


This is Scotland in 1945 and yet the feeling is Archers’ other-worldly with the misty magnificence of the exterior landscape mixing with wonderfully vibrant characters. The Gaelic community endure the English wartime invasion with a pragmatic shrug and a knowing smile. There’s a well-to-do family with a chatterbox wife always desperate to play bridge and whose daughter (Petula Clark, who once sat on the swings with my mother-in-law in Weymouth) seems more mature than the adults, just about tolerating her mother’s skittishness. They contrast with wise old matriarch Mrs. Crozier (Nancy Price) who waxes lyrical about the dances… Scottish passion versus English artifice... But the English can go native and throw themselves into the area as eccentric Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight) proves in his vain attempts to train an eagle as a kestrel.


Pipe smoker of the year, 1945

He rooms with Mrs Catriona Potts, played by Pamela Brown as wild as the wind… and also the love of Powell’s life, here acting to set the emotional template for the film. Catriona’s ahead of Joan in actually feeling where she’s going and not rationalising… “there are more important things than money…” she tells the younger woman. She is a force of nature and the younger woman is transfixed when she appears: Hiller’s reaction shot is superb and you can sense the rest of the story panning out in those few seconds.


By this stage, Joan has met Torquil MacNeil as played magnificently by Roger Livesey who has relaxed clarity of purpose and intensity that’s hard to pin down; wild as Catriona and as sure footed as Joan. Torquil is a naval officer on shore leave who is also the Laird of Kiloran and is the one letting the land to Joan’s fiancé. There’s an instant frisson between the two... something fierce.


There’s also something unspoken between Torquil and Catriona… an understanding certainly but maybe more:  they’re rooted in their culture, location and earthy self-recognition. It’s most un-English but that’s exactly why Eric and Emeric loved the Scots! There’s seemingly not a lot of Manchester left in Joan’s very (southern) English ambition but Hiller’s Stockport accent slips out in the nightclub scene when asking for a “sherr-ay” and a “doo-bonnay” … the Lassie’s from Lancashire alright.


Pamela knows

Joan wishes for a wind to blow her way clear to Kiloran but she summons a storm which leaves her stranded with Torquil’s increasingly intimate company. Something’s afoot and as he explains his family’s curse as they walk past Moy Castle, the depth of the link between land and folklore becomes clear: “My father never entered Moy Castle, nor did my grandfather or his father, and nor will I.”


The two stay in a hotel but Joan insists on sitting at separate tables…not just for appearances sake but her own. But the barriers crumble further as they attend a ceilidh in honour of a local couple’s 60th anniversary. Here, superbly marshalled by John Laurie – fine actor and student of Gaelic folk - the music and the dance is frenetic and the emotions charged… Couples old and young whirl around the floor, their individual dramas played out as Joan watches from a step ladder with Torquil pushed gently against her legs. He translates the lyrics of the song and emphasises the last line almost too forcefully as he turns to look directly into Joan’s eyes ‘Ho ro, my nut-brown maiden…You're the maid for me.’


By now Joan is desperate to get to Kiloran and, in spite of the dangers, pays one of the locals over the odds to take her there. It’s potentially suicide but Torquil fails to argue her round. Only when Catriona points out that he is the reason she’s leaving – Joan is running away from him – does Torquil take action. He leaps into the boat to fight for his life and love… and you really should watch the film if you want to find out what happens next.



It is not surprising that I Know Where I’m Going is the kind of film that people become strongly attached. It’s a love story but one that avoids cliché with its unpredictability and spirited call to know thyself and to always be prepared to be blown off-course. Love is facilitated by chance and by the right time and the right place… away from industrialised routines, Joan is able, finally, to “know” where she has to go. It’s a call to take the chance and be open-minded as the dance doesn’t go on forever.


It doesn’t matter if it’s you first or twenty first time as Scorsese says, there’s always something new in a film that never fails to stir and inspire. It’s never looked – or sounded – better, so look out for this exemplary restoration in 2022... I know where I'm going, back to the BFI to watch it all over again!

 

Fine people, very fine people indeed.


Thursday, 7 October 2021

Song for... Europa (1931/2). BFI London Film Festival 2021, Opening Night

Franciszka Themerson in Europa

we, who drag along the streets

our queue of sunken bellies

our powerless fists

stuffing our pockets

we shall, lose, lose, lose… as always

 

Taking a mid-week break from the digital Pordenone for and actual trip to the actual, in the flesh, first night of the BFI London Film Festival and the screening of a film not seen since 1933; a World Premier of its restored version no less, followed by a second screening. Europa was the first film made by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, two radical minded Polish artists who believed in the political importance of art at a time of confusion.


This was an extraordinary session, not just in terms of the content but also the context and the line up of speakers, led by William Fowler, BFI National Archive Curator, who advised us that this was – apart from everything else – the first screening of this year’s festival (although Idris Elba missed it being otherwise occupied at the Royal Festival Hall) and as such a fine example of collaborative restoration and historical import, it deserved to be.


Jasia Reichardt shows pages from the Themersons scrap book


After Will’s introduction we saw Jasia Reichardt, a renowned Polish film historian and programmer – with a CV to make your mind melt - who first met the Themersons as a child when she was more impressed with their cats than anything else. She stayed friendly with the couple throughout their lives, all three much travelled from home after the rise of Nazi Germany. After the couple died in 1988, she has curated their collection and showed us elements of a precious scrap book they kept illustrating not only their method and purpose – including some lost films – but also reviews and contemporary reaction.


She’s already published a 6KG collection of their works and one hopes this extraordinary diary sees the light of day too. She started off quoting President Macron’s warning about the rise of right wing thought in Europe and couldn’t think of a better time for her friends’ film to be restored.


The Nazis took all five of the Themerson’s films in 1940 and the family had always expected them all lost for good and yet, as another presenter, Anne Webber, Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, pointed out, Hitler’s regime suppressed a lot but actually destroyed very little of what they stole. This meant there was always a chance that films like this can show up, lost, in this case in Nazi and then East German archives before the Themerson’s niece and heir Jasia Reichardt learned from Poland’s Pilecki Institute that a copy might be in Germany’s Bundesarchiv in 2019.


Our replica of Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnower's 1929 booklet


From then on there has been an international effort to restore the film and to even add music from Lodewijk Muns who’s pre-recorded introduction explained his approach to the composition, all of which was, erm, music to the ears of silent film aficionados. He aimed to compliment the visuals using the instrumentation and style of the period and not to create his own narrative distractions for source material of tremendous historical significance but which also does not have anything like a typical narrative to riff with or indeed off. He succeeds but, even after two viewings on the night, this is a film which requires further study.


So important was the lost film considered that two attempts were made to reconstruct it in the eighties, firstly Europa Reconstruction (1983/4) by the Themersons and then Europa II directed by Piotr Zarebski in 1988. Both were screened tonight but, for obvious reasons, didn’t compare with the emotional hit of the first film.


Europa (1931) (c) Themerson Estate


Europa was based on a poem from Anatol Stern publishing in Reflektor magazine in 1925, it was then published as a book in 1929 designed by two avant-garde artists Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnower and then used as a handout with the first screenings of the film in 1932 and again a replica was given to all attendees of tonight’s event.


They feed us

They feed us

They pour down our throats

Food for the spirit!!

500 metres of trichinae of sermons

Faded tapeworms of newspapers

Sweet

Virulent

Bacilli of words…


Europa (1931) (c) Themerson Estate


The poem is about social crisis, loss of moral equity, with Europe at the edge of a precipice. Stern described it: ‘my dry chronicle devoted to the tragedy, the misery, the wisdom and the wickedness of Europe’ although I’m not sure he was specifically discussing the Mail, Telegraph and Sun… he might as well have been.


Stefan and Franciszka Themerson translated these words into moving images with photograms and collages… they did later consider adding a score having used Tchaikovsky’s music, and so, in some ways Muns faced a similar challenge of interpretation. Music, film and poem together create a more defined understanding.


The film opens with bleached negatives of grass and flower growing – the Themersons had grass growing between two paving stones in their apartment so they could show it slowly forcing its way through; nature will out.


Europa (1931) (c) Themerson Estate


Then we see a lean worker, some knives and an overweight businessman eating meat from various angles. The press, radio and other speakers spout the divisive rhetoric mentioned above, some smile, others get angry… more close ups of mastication, greasy lips, intercut with newspapers… a man being force fed newsprint another smoking a cigar. 90 years on and we still tell you not to fund hate and not to buy the Sun…


A gun appears a man falls to the ground, then we see what looks like an x-ray of a beating heart, a recurring motif that was set up in the Themersons house. Images of war, German soldiers from the Great War barbed wire, then a naked man holding a cross and having nails banged through his palm before we cut to dancing girls and the population being distracted.


It’s possible to stop start and dissect the rapid cuts and montage now of course but following this all on screen in 1933, you’d feel a bit like Alex in A Clockwork Orange: so much stimulation some almost too fast to process. Did the Themersons invent subliminal messaging? Maybe that’s why their film survived?


Europa (1931) (c) Themerson Estate


Boxing – organised fighting – leads to another beating heart pause before we see fish and a jellyfish… musical instruments then fruit and a negative image of a man eating and apple. We’re assailed with apples sliced and running on three production lines… knowledge? Or mass produced pseudo-knowlegde?


Numbers, maths, architecture dance or is it worship… nature and stop-motion leaves. Apples on pavements… the grass growing tall, forcing cracks… slowly our nature destroys order. Cities and towns, like trees, fall. People running and afraid… disruption, a close up of naked women, repeated images from earlier. A woman dives superimposed over the heart… the film finishes.


Europa is one to study for understanding especially as occasionally the film is very literal in its interpretation of the poem, showing the “throng of raging bacchantes…” as “One centimetre of my skin” even while it is mostly puzzles your mind has to pattern.


Europa (1931) (c) Themerson Estate


It stands alone as does the poem and now the music and taking all three together in a packed NFT1 was potent indeed. The force of history weighs down and is expressed through this film and it has meaning anew through the very fact of its survival.


It’s a work of art we should celebrate and ignore at our peril.

 

Europa reel original 35mm nitrate now at BFI National Archive