Varieté at the NZIFF: An interview with composer Johannes Contag

variete-1925-nziff

Varieté (also known as Variety, Vaudeville and Jealousy) is one of the most prominent works of the Weimar cinema. Directed by E. A. Dupont for UFA in 1925, it is as famous for Karl Freund’s freewheeling cinematography as for the performances of its leads, Lya de Putti and the ubiquitous Emil Jannings. Recently been restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in collaboration with the Filmarchiv Austria (Wien), Varieté has been touring the festival circuit over the last year or so.

For Varieté’s presentation at the recent New Zealand International Film Festival, the NZIFF and the Goethe-Institut commissioned Wellington-based composer and musician Johannes Contag to create a score for chamber orchestra. Jo’s previous musical projects include his score for King Vidor’s The Crowd (1929) at NZIFF 2013, as well as work with groups like Cloudboy and The Golden Awesome. I spoke with Jo about his work on Varieté.

Hi, Jo! I really enjoyed your score when I saw Varieté in Wellington. Can you give a brief introduction to your work on Varieté, and how you became involved in this project?

Hi Katherine, thanks for inviting me to talk to you, and I’m glad you enjoyed the performance! After working on The Crowd for NZIFF with the SMP Ensemble, we were all keen to do another project together. Bill Gosden from NZIFF and myself brainstormed potential films for about a year until we settled on Varieté. Like The Crowd, it presents a detailed and convincingly authentic milieu, and there are great actors carrying a story that still seems topical today (Berta-Marie is a boat refugee from the Middle East!) – although in this respect Varieté is full of expressionist swagger compared to Vidor’s gentler and more sober realism. To me, this seemed like a good progression to build on musically; I could get a little more lyrical and follow some extremer tangents, and there is more dramatic tension to tap into. Continue reading

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Casa Lyda Borelli in Bologna

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Lyda Borelli was already a celebrated theatrical actress and fashion icon when she burst into film with the seminal Ma l’amor mio non muore! (But my love will never die!; 1913). Her cinematic career was relatively sparse—over six years, she only made 16 films—but enormously successful. Her elegance and unique screen presence were greatly admired, and she gave rise to the noun borellismo and the verb borelleggiare (to ‘Borrelli-ize’, i.e. to emulate the appearance and poses of Borelli).

In 1918, Lyda Borelli married the industrialist and aristocrat Conte Vittorio Cini, and retired from acting altogether, thereafter devoting herself to raising the couple’s four children. While in Bologna for Il Cinema Ritrovato, I learned of Casa Lyda Borelli, located on the via Saragozza, and decided to take a look.

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Image, light, sound – magic: Reporting back on Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016

The Boys from Feng Kuei ( 風櫃來的人, 1983)

The Boys from Feng Kuei ( 風櫃來的人, 1983)

There was a time when cinema came out from behind trees, burst forth from the sea; a time where the man with the movie camera arrived in town squares, entered cafés, and turned screens to windows into infinity.

In this quotation, Hen­­ri Langlois was speaking of the time of the frères Lumières; yet the spirit of the statement finds expression in Il Cinema Ritrovato, the annual festival held in Bologna to celebrate archival and restored films. Perhaps it is especially fitting in a year in which the festival devoted a programme to the films of the Lumières, those views on the world from almost 120 years ago; but Il Cinema Ritrovato provides ‘windows into infinity’ to all eras of film and all different parts of the world: art films alongside Hollywood commercial fare, Italian rarities from 1916 alongside Iranian cinema of the 1960s. The energy of the festival was as large as the Bolognese heat: much like in the era of the first films, cinema burst forth in a projection of shapes, movement, and life. Open-air carbon-arc screenings, the films of Marie Epstein, vintage Technicolor prints, and even Douglas Fairbanks’ backside: there was a lot going on at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Here, I’ll touch on some of the highlights on my Italian week of cinephilia.

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Live cinema: experimental shorts in Modena

A quick despatch from Italy! It seems that silent cinema finds me wherever I am: I’m currently staying in Modena, Italy, and what should be taking place but an open-air cine-concerto. Therefore, last night I attended the event Anemic Cinema, which presented a selection of 1920s experimental films with live accompaniment. Continue reading

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Previewing Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016

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In a week’s time, the 30th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato will kick off in Bologna, Italy—and for the first time, I’m going to be there! It goes without saying that I’m really pumped to be attending—it will be a fantastic opportunity to catch up with friends and take in a lot of wonderful cinema. Below, I take a quick tour through the festival programme.

Pola Negri in A Woman of the World (US 1925)

Pola Negri in A Woman of the World (US 1925)

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In search of Astrea, mysterious ‘strongwoman’ of the Italian silent cinema

Astrea. Postcard from my collection

Astrea. Postcard from my collection

The silent era was something of a golden age for athletic female stars. American serial queens were beloved by audiences around the world—it would be hard to overestimate how popular (and bankable) stars like Pearl White were at their peak. In France, Josette Andriot was the premier French action actress, playing black-bodystockinged detective Protéa in five separate film instalments. Elsewhere in Europe, daredevil acrobats like the Dane Emilie Sannom enthralled audiences with their stunts.

Italy was not immune to the action woman craze: Pearl White was a popular draw, and Danish director Alfred Lind made several action-themed films in Italy, including these two circus pictures, and Sannom’s last film, La fanciulla dell’aria | Mistress of the Sky (1923).

via European Film Star Postcards

Astrea postcards via European Film Star Postcards

But what of the homegrown talent? Of several Italian women who are noted to have performed athletic roles on film, perhaps the most prominent is the mysterious Astrea, who starred in four films between 1919 and 1921. In Greek mythology, Astrea (or Astraea) was the virgin goddess of innocence and purity; there is also a connotation of stardom or diva status to the name. A woman of considerable stature and strength, the actress Astrea was promoted as the ‘female Maciste’,1 playing roles that emphasized her physical power as well as her beauty and elegance. Continue reading

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Stacia Napierkowska on film

La modella IT 1916 Napierkowska (7) SML

Stacia Napierkowska in La modella (1916)

As dancer Marfa Koutiloff in Les Vampires (FR 1915-16), Stacia Napierkowska gave the silent cinema one of its most iconic images: a woman in a black bodystocking and great black bat wings, stretching and swirling as if to take flight. Later, she starred in a genuine blockbuster, L’Atlantide | Queen of Atlantis (FR 1921), playing the eternal and rapacious Queen Antinéa. However, much of Napierkowska’s feature film career took place not in France, but in Italy. Today, I’ll take a tour through Napierkowska’s screen career, with a particular look at two films she made one hundred years ago in Italy: Effetti di luce | Effects of Light and La modella | The Model. Continue reading

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