Saturday, 31 March 2018

Sea song… The Call of the Sea (1927) with Taz Modi Ensemble, Barbican, 16th Kinoteka

This was another impressive restoration at the close of this year’s Kinoteka Film Festival a digital restoration combining two incomplete copies that has produced a complex two-hour film that was probably even longer. Given that only some 5% of Polish silent films survive, we should be grateful.

Call of the Sea (Zew Morza) was presented in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute in London to a packed house in the Barbican’s cinema. Directed by Henryk Szaro based on a novel by Stefan Kiedrzyński which occasionally threatens to bog down a mostly sprightly narrative. Szaro is a skilled silent director and is inventive in joining the dots of the source material, a toy family from the orient is used to show how both one of the character’s is spoilt but also that she misses a mother whilst the same character has a pet parrot that only tells the truth and, strange as it may seem in a silent film, the audience knows it just as much as the inadequate man who strives to be its owner’s suitor…

Szaro also show us some stunning location shoots of old Gdansk and Gdynia medieval relics still on show before the destruction began a decade later. Excitingly he also shows us a car chase, warships and a combined aerial and naval sea hunt. Officers of the Polish Navy and Maritime Squadron took part in the filming in Puck using two torpedo boats ORP Kujawiak and ORP General Sosnkowski as well as a seaplane LeO H-13 from the Maritime Squadron in Puck. Stanisław Hryniewiecki, for example, was actually the torpedo captain of ORP Kujawiak and here he plays himself.

Now we're in the air!
It makes for a great advert for the armed forces as well as a thrilling final race to save lives and vital secrets: a real crowd pleaser; a Polish blockbuster!

Szaro also develops his characters well despite a populous cast with a lot of sub-plot. Then as now the key was to cast actors of character and this works very well with the remarkably modern Nora Ney who plays the exotic Jola, daughter of a shipping magnet and owner of the above-mentioned articulate avian who is a wild child with great fashion sense and a decent heart. Less successful perhaps is the casting of the gurning Mariusz Maszyński as Lord Karol Skarski, a kind of Boris Johnson figure, who is desperate to marry the hero’s love with only a vast fortune and a face that could sink a thousand ships to offer.

Nora being exotic... those three toy figures will also feature as a motif.
That hero is Stach who we see initially as a seven-year old boy (played by Tadeusz Fijewski who went on to become a huge star in Poland after the war) who is obsessed with stories from the sea as well as the daughter of the local landowner, Hanka (Krysia Długołęcka). He reads heroic stories of seafaring heroism and the actors who are to play the grown-up versions of Stach and Hanka, Jerzy Marr and Maria Malicka, first make their appearance as a prince and queen in one of these stories – pretty smart eh?

Stach’s dreaming ways displease Hanka’s English governess Miss Phlipps (Izabella Kalitowicz) and there’s a great standoff as she towers over him and he is viewed through the space formed by her angry folded elbow. The boy copies her body language and she ends up breaking his toy boat, her only response to his defiance.

Lord Ha-Ha (not Boris)
Eventually it’s too much and Stach leaves for a life on the ocean wave. Working his way up from cabin boy to midshipman and beyond, Stach earns his keep on the merchant vessels of Van Loos (Antoni Bednarczyk) and is well liked by the crew with the single exception of the boatswain Rudolf Minke (Stefan Szwarc) a “bosch” who also has a fancy for jazzy Jola. Van Loos offers Stach a partnership and his daughter’s hand in marriage then Minke turns up with more than the hand in mind… Dismissed after attempting to assault Jola the boat-swine swears revenge on Stach and you know there’ll be trouble.

Stach returns home to announce his success after so many years away. He finds his parents in their bucolic water mill, father (Antoni Różański) and mother (Józef Modzelewska) but old love is re-awakened when he is visited by Hanka… even though he has Jola and Hanka is being pursued by silly Lord Skarski (whose wealth will solve he father’s cash-flow issues), this thing is bigger than commerce.

Queen Maria and Prince Jerzy
Stach doesn’t even need Van Loos’ company as he has a true heart and plans that will revolutionise seafaring! He just needs to take good c are of those plans for German smugglers are on the look out and, remember the boat-swine?

There’s a tremendously kinetic finale and the film is satisfyingly dramatic and stylish another example of the strength of Polish silent cinema!

Pianist and composer Taz Modi (Submotion Orchestra, Matthew Halsall) lead an ensemble playing his part-improvised score including the lauded Matthew Bourne on piano, synthesizers and cushions, Duncan Bellamy (Portico Quartet – is it really ten years on from their splendid Knee-Deep in the North Sea?!) on drums and live sampling, Chris Hargreaves on sinuous bass and Simon Beddoe on brass; if music speaks a thousand words his lonesome trumpet picked out some of the most poignant.

Jerzy Marr and Maria Malicka
These players have serious chops and the music was a very modern mix of post-acid jazz eclectic that fans of the above bands, the Cinematic Orchestra, Nils Frahm and even Max Richter would appreciate. It didn’t entirely work seamlessly with the narrative though and sometimes it was headed off on a trajectory which, whilst it would eventually meet the story, distracted from the film’s own build-up. A little like the race between a car and a steam train that silent film watchers will be familiar with: the story follows a winding path, the train on straight lines. There were some lovely moments and lots of impressive playing but this was a good gig alongside a good film.

That said, I would pay to see both!

All in all though a splendid evening yet again thanks for playing, screening and programming!

Dziękuję Kinoteka!!

PS In addition to the Portico Quartet, I would also urge you to check out the Submotion Orchestra and Mr Bourne’s Kraftwerk re-werk Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited.

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