ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicks off Wednesday with silent golden oldies and live music

Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s drama, “The Man Who Laughs” (1928) which opens the 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival, on Wednesday. Newly restored by SFSFF and Universal Pictures, the film will be accompanied by Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, making their fifth appearance at the festival. The 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival is May 30-June 3 at the Castro Theatre.  Image: Universal Studios

One of those old adages worth its weight in gold is “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.”  The pre-sound era produced some of the most beautiful and engaging films ever made, shedding light on societies that were changing rapidly.  If you’ve never experienced a silent film the way it was meant to be seen—on the big screen, with the correct speed and formatting and with riveting live music—it’s high time!  Silent film might just be the experience you’ve been waiting for.

On Wednesday, May 30, the 23rd edition of San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) kicks off with 23 programs pairing silent-era films with live musical accompaniment, including eleven recent film restorations.  Ten of those restorations will make their North American premieres and four are SFSFF projects.  Nine countries are represented this year.  What makes SFSFF particularly wonderful is its top rate live accompaniment by more than 40 musicians (soloists and groups) from all around the globe.  These musicians serve as conductor, arranger and accompanist melding film, music, theater and art into one.  It all takes place at San Francisco’s historical Castro Theatre, May 30-June 3, 2018.

The festival kicks off Wednesday evening with Universal Pictures and SFSFF’s new restoration of Paul Leni’s 1928 “The Man Who Laughs”.  Considered one of the treasures of the silent era, the film is based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, but set two centuries earlier.  The story involves an orphan, Gwynplaine, who is captured by outlaws who use a knife to carve his face into a hideous permanent grin.  Disfigured and all alone, he rescues a baby girl and they are raised together by a fatherly vaudevillian. Everything centers on Gwynplaine’s extraordinary wide grin which inspired the Joker character in the original Batman comic books.  This presentation also marks the world premiere of a commissioned score by Berklee College of Music’s Silent Film Orchestra.

 

Sally O’Neil and Buster Keaton in a scene from Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy, “Battling Butler,” SFSFF’s closing night film.  Still: courtesy Cohen Film Collection.

Closing the festival on Sunday, June 3, is the North American premiere of Cineteca di Bologna’s restoration (in collaboration with Cohen Film Collection) of Buster Keaton’s 1926 “Battling Butler,” which will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Keaton considered this sparkling comedy his personal favorite among his works.

Recently, I had my annual interview with Anita Monga, SFSFF’s insightful artistic director who programs the festival.  She decides what films will be included, how they are ordered and the rhythm and flow of the weekend.  With her guidance, I put together an overview of the festival.

 

Cinematography buff?

A still from “Fragment of an Empire”.  Image: courtesy SFSFF

The Russian film by Fridrikh Ermler, Fragment of an Empire(Oblomok Imperii)(1929) (Sunday, June 3, 5:30p.m.) is virtually unknown and has an unforgettable opening.  The film is a portrait of a soldier who loses his memory during WWI and returns home to St. Petersburg, a place of heart-wrenching change.  He gains back his memory after seeing his wife on a train but later learns she has remarried.  The cinematography enforces the cold psychology of the revolution, the state of human condition, the rapid pace of modernism.  SFSFF worked on the complete restoration with EYE Filmmuseum, and Gosfilmofond of Russia), based on materials preserved by EYE Filmmuseum and Cinémathèque Suisse.  This rarely-screened-in-America film only existed in chunks with some very famous scenes, like its image of Christ on the cross with a gas mask on.

Friday’s 2 pm Silent Avant-Garde program presents early American Avant-garde films from 1894-1941 and has some amazing images. “Everything in the Unseen Cinema collection is fascinating,” said Anita Monga. “The Slavo Vorkapich montage (four rare segments) took my breath away.” For the look of film on film, Monga recommends Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer’s 1925 “Master of the House” (DU SKAL ÆRE DIN HUSTRU) screening Thursday at 2:45 p.m..

 

Arm chair traveler?

Seeta Devi (L) and Himansu Rai in a scene from “A Throw of Dice”.  Image: courtesy British Film Institute

Sunday’s “A Throw of Dice” (Prapancha Pash) from 1929, the third collaboration between German director Franz Osten and Indian film producer Himansu Rai, was shot entirely in Rajasthan, India with a cast of over 10,000.  Inspired by one of India’s masterpieces, the Sanskrit poem The Mahabarata, it tells the story of two kings vying for the hand of a young woman.  A game of dice and a desperate gamble play into the story.  It provides a unique vision of Indian life and is extraordinary in its presentation of wild nature: elephants, tigers, snakes, monkeys, birds and riversides and jungles with plush fauna.  It also has extravagant palaces, teeming streets and gorgeous costumes.

 

A scene from “People on Sunday” (Menschen am Sonntag). Still: courtesy Janus Films

If you are interested in seeing what Berlin street activity was like in the 1930’s, Thursday evening’s “People on Sunday” (Menshcen am Sonntag) was shot entirely on the streets on Berlin. It was created by a group of young filmmakers who would go on to become famous—Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnermann. Their idea was to create a film without actors and they went out on the streets and started filming.  “It really skirts fiction and documentary and captures the feel of life in Berlin in that moment, just on the cusp before the world would change,” said Monga.  “All of the Weimar titles are so devastating because we know what is about to happen in Germany.” (Screens Thursday, may 31, 7:15 p.m.)

 

Takeshi Sakamoto in a scene from Yasujirô Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo (Tokyo no yado). Still: courtesy Janus Films

On Thursday at 5:15 p.m., Yasujirô Ozu’s poetic “An Inn in Tokyo” (Tôkyô No Yado), from 1935, is an expressive portrait of industrial pre-war Tokyo framed by Hideo Shigehara’s amazing cinematography.  A single father (the great Takeshi Sakamoto who starred in over 100 Japanese films) is struggling with his two sons as he tries his best to find work.  As they wander the streets of the Koto district, he has his sons catch stray dogs for cash.  The film addresses the essence of family and the dignity of an ordinary individual in crisis, Ozu’s forte.

Ozu made silent films well into the mid-1930’s, several years after sound was available.  He did this because of the prevalence of Japanese “benshi” performers who stood right next to the screen and interpreted the action for the audience, taking on all the characters’ roles and creating entertaining dialogue.

 

1906 SF Quake junkie?

An image from the short “San Francisco 1906” showing people looking at the debris and wreckage left behind from the earthquake.  Some 8,655 frames of found footage were photographed with a digital camera and then cleaned up and made back into a film.  Image: courtesy Jason Wright

If you’re fascinated with post-earthquake footage of 1906 San Francisco, you can’t miss the 10 minute short,“San Francisco 1906,” newly found earthquake footage that SFSFF has restored.  It will be shown on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. when it screens with the lovely Italian film from 1922, Eugenio Perego’s “Trappola”.   The footage was found in 2017 at the Alemany flea market in fragile condition and is thought to be one of the longest surviving segments of the lost Miles Brothers’ film.   The Miles Brothers produced and directed numerous films in the early 20th century. Their 13-minute film, “A Trip Down Market Street,” explored pre-quake Market Street and was shot on April 14, 1906.  Their studio was destroyed by a post-earthquake fire on April 18, 1906, along with many of their films.

“This is essentially the same sort of footage that the brothers shot when they made “A Trip Down Market Street,” said Monga. “We make the familiar trip down Market towards the ferry building.  The buildings are now in rubble. When the people get to the ferry plaza, you see all the horse-drawn carriages and understand that the people are there to escape to East Bay.”

 

Gaga for Garbo?

Greta Garbo in her first starring role in 1924 in “The Saga of Gösta Berling”.  Image: courtesy Swedish Film Institute

Saturday evening delivers Greta Garbo in 1924, in her first starring role in the great Swedish director, Mauritz Stiller’sThe Saga of Gösta Berling” (Gösta Berlings Saga) with live accompaniment from the Matti Bye Ensemble.  Garbo is radiant opposite Lars Hansen in this romantic drama. Jon Wengström from the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) will accept the 2018 Silent Film Festival Award at this premiere screening of SFI’s beautiful new restoration which was completed earlier this year and adds 16 minutes to the previous version and restores the film’s original tinting scheme.

 

Love Freebies?

Film preservationist and SFSFF board president Robert Byrne collaborates with film archives around the world. He and SFSFF colleague, Russell Merritt, will share the story that led to the rediscovery and restoration of Richard Oswald’s German version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” from 1929, the last silent Sherlock Holmes’ film, considered the most important Hound produced in Europe.  (screening on Saturday). Image: courtesy SFSFF

Thursday morning’s Amazing Tales from the Archives, is a free program in keeping with the festival’s education mandate, which flies in experts from the world’s top restoration facilities to share their personal experiences in breathing life back into critically damaged nitrate.  This year’s guests are Deutsche Kinemathek’s Martin Koerber and Weimar film scholar Cynthia Walk, who will talk about the complete reworking of E.A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law” (screening on Sunday); Davide Pozzi from L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, whose Kinemacolor presentation will examine the first successful color process for motion pictures; and Elzbieta Wysocka of Filmoteka Narodowa, with SFSFF’s Robert Byrne and Russell Merritt, will share the detective story that led to the rediscovery and restoration of Richard Oswald’s German version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” which screens on Saturday.

 

Details: 

SFSFF is May 30-June 3, 2018 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.  Visit http://www.silentfilm.org/ for tickets, festival passes, and detailed information on films and musicians.  Advance ticket purchase is essential and most screenings are $17 to $24.  If you are driving in, allow an additional hour to secure parking.

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May 28, 2018 Posted by | Chamber Music, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment