Old and treasured—The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival is May 29-June 1 at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre
On Thursday, the always popular San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) returns to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre and runs through Sunday with a program of 19 rare silent-era gems well worth coming into San Francisco for. From iconic silent film actors to fantastic restorations, this year’s lineup spans the far corners of the globe and delivers an outstanding mix from cinema’s golden age. Now in its 19th year, SFSFF this presents these gems in all their glory as they were meant to be seen—on the big screen, with live musical accompaniment, in the beautiful Castro theatre, a beloved San Francisco landmark built in 1992 during the silent era. The festival’s spectacular historical footage of foreign lands, old customs and great storytelling is what keeps me coming back again and again. This year’s festival includes early films from China, France, Germany (2), Japan, UK (2), Sweden and the USSR (2). The line-up includes such rarities as the first footage of Tibet and Everest; the first social realist film in Chinese cinema; an early feminist story from Sweden, and a 1924 tour of Moscow where an American learns that the Soviets are not the Barbarians he expected they were. The Castro seats 1400 but these films are immensely popular, so do buy your tickets ahead of time to ensure you get a seat.
Last week, I was able to speak with festival director Anita Monga about the festival and these early foreign gems—
For people who have just one day to devote to the festival, what do you recommend?
Anita Monga—Saturday, May 31. At noon, we’ve got something really special. French film preservationist and entertainer, Serge Bromberg, is coming in from Paris for “Treasure Trove”— a screening and conversation about some new discoveries. Film historian, Fernando Peña, is also coming from Argentina. The program will be focused on Peña’s discovery last year of a lost version of Buster Keaton’s short “The Blacksmith,” a huge discovery in the world of film. Peña is the same guy who discovered an original uncut version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in Argentina’s Museo del Cine a few years back. In this version of “The Blacksmith,” there are several minutes of never-before-seen Keaton gags and film’s ending is different too. It’s rare, but there have been cases where different versions of a film have cropped up because, during the Silent Era, it was common that two cameras would be placed side by side, each shooting, producing two separate sets of negatives. It’s a real coup that we were able to get these two great film historians to San Francisco at the same time to make this presentation. So this is going to be great.
What can you tell us about John Noel’s “The Epic of Everest” (1924) which also screens Saturday? I understand that the explorer John Noel first made his first attempt to get to Everest through Tibet in 1913 but failed and that the British Film Institute is commemorating the centenary of that heroic effort with the restoration of the 1924 film, which was actually the third British expedition attempting Everest.
Anita Monga—This is an amazing documentary. It includes the earliest film footage of Tibetan culture and captures British explorers’ Mallory and Irvine’s tragic attempt to reach the summit of Everest. This was created back in the era where we had already reached the North and South Poles and the allure of the world’s highest summit had the entire world transfixed. It’s got everything—gorgeous shots that capture the thrill of this difficult journey and the amazing Stephen Horne will be on the piano accompanying.
I understand that film was made under extremely difficult conditions at high altitudes and in very low temperatures. The negatives were sent down the mountain and across the Tibetan plains by yak to Darjeeling where Noel had set up a special laboratory to process the films. (To read an article about the BFI’s restoration efforts, undertaken with Noel’s daughter, Sandra Noel, click here.)
Anita Monga— Yes. The circumstances under which this was filmed make it all the more special. We (the festival) are presenting the BFI National Archive with a special award on Saturday honoring their exceptional restoration work which has recreated the film’s original beauty. Another special event on Saturday evening will be Gerhard Lamprecht’s “Under the Lantern” (Unter der Laterne, 1928), a rarely screened German film which tells the story of a good girl’s fall into prostitution, a common theme of the silent era. We’re screening a newly restored 35 mm version. The Donald Sosin Ensemble, which will accompany the film, is one of the most extraordinary performances that you will ever experience, so prepare to be transported right into Weimar Germany.
You’ve got two early Russian films this year. The one that caught my eye was Lev Kuleshov’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks” (1924), a satire that explores stereotypes of Russians and Americans and includes spectacular footage of Moscow in the 1920’s. It’s also a prime example of early Soviet montage cinema, a new form of cinema that emerged in the 1920’ that was influential to subsequent generations of Russian filmmakers.
Anita Monga — The Landmark Theatres used to have a trailer that ran before every film with a globe and a narrator saying “The Language of Cinema is universal…” and this film fits right into that because it makes a very funny but important point about how the Americans are afraid of the Bolsheviks without really knowing much about them. This film appropriates American iconography and very cleverly tells a story of an American businessman who takes a business trip to Russia and comes away with an entirely different impression. Kuleshov also mimicked the American style of filmmaking and ended up with a new style of film—montage—which became very influential.
Who decides what films will be included in the festival and what criteria is used?
Anita Monga—I do. Sometimes things just happen in the film world. For example, Edwin Carewe’s “Ramona” (1928) (screening Friday at 7:30 p.m.) had the big world premiere of its restoration in March in Los Angeles and I knew we had to have it. It was done by a Native American director which makes it rare to start with. For decades, it was considered lost but actually it has a remarkable survival story behind it that includes a Czech print being confiscated by the Nazis and going to Berlin and Russia and back to Czechoslovakia and then to the U.S. where it was recently restored. So there are films surfacing for some topical reason that I include. This year, we’re giving a special award to the British Film Institute so we’re screening two British Films—“Epic of Everest” and Maurice Elvey’s “The Sign of Four” (1923), a Sherlock Holmes adventure that was adapted from Conan Doyle’s novel. And there are some films that have been on my radar for a long time like Leo Mittler’s “Harbor Drift” (1929), a masterpiece which is set in Hamburg, Germany, during the period of extreme unemployment and destitution and its characters are all desperate and brought together by a beautiful pearl necklace which could change their lives forever. We’re going for diversity and unique appeal.
On Sunday, you’re screening two films that feature take charge young women—Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl” (1933) which has Kinuyo Tanaka in an early role as a typist by day and gangster’s moll by night and Swedish director Karin Swanström’s “The Girl in Tails” (1926) which is the story of a young girl who isn’t able to have a dress for her graduation so she goes in her brother’s tuxedo instead.
Anita Monga—One of the big stars of “The Girl in Tails” is the director, Karin Swanström, who was extremely powerful and influential woman in Sweden in the 1920’s. This was the last film she directed and it’s fantastic. She plays a country matron. The girl’s story is something that was common: she fills in as a caretaker in the family to her recently widowed father and brother. She does the work but the boy gets all the perks. like great clothes. Things erupt when she is denied a new dress for a school dance and comes to the dance in one of her brother’s suits.
There are a lot of great musicians at the festival who seem to be regulars and they travel great distances to perform here. How would new talent break in to what seems to be a pretty close-knit group?
Anita Monga—It’s really difficult because music is expensive and it’s such an important part of the experience. I would love to have more musicians at the festival but there’s nobody that we’ve brought to the festival that we don’t want to have back again…they’re literally the best in the world at what they do. This year we’re bringing in a new German percussionist, Frank Bocklus, who will be sitting in with several musicians and playing in the Donald Sosin Ensemble, along with bass player Guenter Buchwald who is also new. Our primary consideration is ultimately they have to be really good and very tuned in to the film itself. Matti Bye, a festival favorite, also does scoring for contemporary films in Sweden and is in high demand for that.
Has the San Francisco Symphony’s film series, Film Night with the San Francisco Symphony, which includes a film and live orchestra experience, had any impact on your festival? I’ve been amazed at the series popularity—it’s brought a new and much younger audience out to the Davies Hall and it’s wonderful. I caught Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” there in April and loved every minute of it. They’re doing Disney’s “Fantasia” this weekend.
Anita Monga—We hope there’s some spillover. The Symphony does films that have full orchestral scores and the Chaplin films, for example, require presenting the full orchestral score by Chaplin. Many of the silent features have that stricture, that they cannot be performed live but they can be shown with the sound track that accompanies it and, of course, at this festival, we do live musical accompaniment but not full orchestration. We always promote their showings and we’re great fans.
What can you tell us about the festival audience?
Anita Monga—San Francisco is a very special place for film, period. The audience, which comes from all over the country, is also special and very adventurous. They are willing to try things they don’t already know and that’s a huge part of this festival—taking it on faith that it’s going to be good. Once they get through the door, they get how rare this live cinema experience is and how much logistical planning goes into preparing such an expansive program. The real pleasure is in discovering new names and making all sorts of connections. And in between films, they get to experience the wonderful Castro neighborhood.
Details: The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs Thursday, May 29, 2014 through Sunday, June 1, 2014 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street (between Market and 18th Streets), San Francisco. Tickets: $15 to $20; click here to purchase tickets. Festival Pass $190 for Silent Film Festival members and $225 general. Click here to purchase passes. Information: (415) 777-4908 or www.silentfilm.org
Parking Alert: If you plan on coming by car, street parking is the only parking available. Plan to arrive 45 minutes early to leave sufficient time for parking and walking to/from the theatre.
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