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.
Watching the silents
Silent cinema was represented well in Bologna, due particularly to the Rediscoveries and Restorations and Cento anni fa (One hundred years ago) sections. Quite a few of the silent heavy-hitters were films I’d seen already and therefore scrupulously avoided; however the 1916 section was filled with great stuff. Alongside Yevgeni Bauer’s classics like The Dying Swan (Умирающий лебедь, Umirayushchii lebed) and A Life for a Life (Жизнь за жизнь, Zhizn za zhizn), one was able to see a rarity like Nelli Raintseva (Нелли Раинцева), in which Zoya Barantsevich plays the title role of an upper-class woman who desires to know a freer life. Bauer handles the direction with his typical elegance. Also intriguing was Boris Sushevich’s Belated Flowers (Цветы запоздалые, Tsvety zapozdalye), which—unusually, for a Russian silent—survives in colour. As the protagonist Marusja, Olga Baclanova is unrecognisable from her later Hollywood roles, and plays Marusja’s suffering with restraint and nuance. Belated Flowers survives in two incomplete prints, which were both shown, and it was fascinating to see how the tints/tones and footage differed between the two versions: some shots did not appear in both prints, other shots differed in length; even the details of the story were slightly different.
Another comparison was offered up in the screening of Balettprimadonnan | The Ballet Dancer (SE 1916), starring the wonderful Jenny Hasselquist. Balettprimadonnan is an early work of Mauritz Stiller, for which new footage has been unearthed only recently. A reconstruction of the film was carried out in the 1990s, in which the surviving fragments were rounded out with stills and explanatory intertitles, but just last year, another fragment came to light. Thought to be from the same release print as the other footage, this heavily damaged section shows Hasselquist—a prima ballerina at the time—dancing! And as such, was a huge treat. Presented on DCP following the screening of the 1990s restoration, this new fragment is still undergoing restoration, so what we watched in Bologna was something of a ‘rough cut’—a new restoration will incorporate both film elements.
The Swedish Film Institute also presented a series of shorts from their collection: French and Italian films from the 1900s. Kudos to the curator of this programme, because it was absolutely top-notch! Les suicides de Lapurée (1909) and L’ours et la sentinelle (1903) were both delightful comedies, the pictorial films were stunning, and my old friend Stacia Napierkowska even turned up in programme centrepiece L’Oeuvre de Jacques Serval (1909). The closing film, André Deed (Cretinetti) comedy The Mad Wife, or All Wickedness Is but Little to the Wickedness of a Woman, may have the greatest film title of the festival (even if its original Italian title is as yet undetermined).
As mentioned above the films of the frères Lumières were a big theme at this year’s festival, on account of the concurrent Lumière exhibition on display in Bologna. As well, it was Il Cinema Ritrovata’s 30th anniversary, and thus it seems fitting to mark this milestone with a celebration of cinema’s genesis. I couldn’t get enough of the programmes of Lumière films and other early shorts and actualités. While this kind of cinema is—for me at least—generally a tough sell to watch at home, on the big screen I find such films very moving and beautiful.
I’m a big fan of Musidora, and so it was a pleasure to see her up on the big screen in Lagourdette, gentleman cambrioleur (1916), a meta-fictional take/burlesque on Les vampires in which Honoré Lagourdette (Marcel Lévesque, Les vampires’ Mazamette) attempts to win Musidora’s favour by pretending to be a master cat-burglar. ‘Musi’, setting down her copy of Les vampires, challenges him to prove it; much mirth is to be had in the resulting circumstances, as Lagourdette engineers his ‘theft’ at an opera performance. One might call it the lighter side of Les vampires: Lagourdette is a gem which proves that Feuillade was able to poke fun at himself.
Other cinema muto viewings included Universal late silent The Last Warning (1929), a fun mashup of the ‘backstage film’ and haunted house genres. The heavily-hyped Shooting Stars (GB 1927) is one that I would class as fun, but perhaps not altogether essential—although I must note that the high tracking shots through the film-studio-within-the-film were fabulous. Back in Italy, Gigetta Morano was winsome and spirited in Ambrosio film La meridiana del convento (1916; available to watch here on Vimeo).
Last but not least, the Marie Epstein stream of films was a highlight for me. Although I didn’t see as many of her films as I would have liked, this programme continually impressed, from Epstein’s acting and writing work to her sensitive direction in features such as Peau de pêche | Peach-skin (1928). Even the turgid Le double amour (FR 1925)—an initially promising film that utterly ground to a halt in its second half—was boosted by the presence of the always-reliable Natalia Lissenko. However, the high point of the Epstein series was undoubtedly the carbon-arc screening of the magnificent Coeur fidèle | The Faithful Heart (FR 1923). This lyrical, expressive film tells the story of a tragic romance, but it’s all in the atmosphere: mesmeric close-ups, double exposures, inventive cutting and framing. Illuminated by the shifting glow of a carbon arc lamp and projected onto a screen that ever-so-slightly undulated in the gentle Italian breeze, Coeur fidèle seemed to breathe with the audience.
Les abysses (1963), directed by Nikos Papatakis, was one of the true revelations of the festival for me. The plot, such as it was, concerned two sisters: resident ‘caretakers’ in an old and neglected manor house, the wild and uncontrollable duo are determined not to be ousted from their stronghold by the returning owners. It’s a while since I’ve seen something so purely unhinged—the performances of Francine and Colette Bergé were incredible in their feral intensity. A portrait of destructive lunacy—dare I say it, hysteria—pervaded with a certain black humour: a film not to be forgotten.
On the other end of the emotional scale, another defiant woman was played by Simone Signoret in Raymond Rouleau’s Les sorcières de Salem (FR 1957), a Franco-East German adaptation of the Arthur Miller play The Crucible. The play was fresh in my mind, having seen a very good stage performance a few months ago, and while Les sorcières makes several adjustments to the narrative I thought it was both a successful adaptation and a very powerful film. Yves Montand (Signoret’s real-life husband) gives a wholly committed and passionate performance as the John Proctor to Signoret’s Elizabeth. A thoroughly engrossing film, where I realized the long running time only after retrospectively consulting the printed programme.
Yet the woman of the festival, at least for me, was Valeska Gert, dancer, actress, and iconoclast. She achieved fame in Weimar Berlin for her ‘grotesque dances’, experimental pieces that eschewed grace in favour of expressive movement—and often jagged provocation. In the astonishing Czech/German feature Takový je život | Such is Life (1929), Gert plays the mistress of the husband of the main character. The latter is played by the great Vera Baranovskaya, whose nuanced, understated performance is the heart of the film: that wonderful face! And Gert is the perfect counterbalance, a ‘loose’, slightly vulgar woman who we see dance on a tabletop in an astonishing scene of rapid-fire montage. Takový je život is told purely visually: the only intertitles that appear in the film are ‘chapter headings’ that introduce each day of the week. This incredibly bleak tale of proletarian life balances its grim realism with a strong sense of humanity, enriched by the great visual sophistication of the storytelling.
The spotlight turned next to Gert herself in Volker Schlöndorff’s Nur zum Spass – Nur zum Spiel. Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert | Just for Fun, Just for Play: Kaleidoscope Valeska Gert (DE 1976-77), filmed shortly before the end of Gert’s life. Schlöndorff encountered Gert while working on his previous film (Der Fangschuß, DE 1976) and, fascinated, decided to create a documentary portrait of this artiste.
“It all started from the madness of my ancestors,” said Valeska Gert, explaining how she began as a dancer. And she was defiantly original throughout her whole life. In Weimar Germany, she was a sensation, performing experimental dances based on boxing, procurement, circus acts, even the simulation of sexual intercourse and orgasm. One dance involved her simply standing in silence—a kind of 4’33” for the 1920s. Regretfully, there is not much footage of her performances, but the couple of short clips that do survive were included in Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert, showing that she was as wild and provocative as her reputation suggests. Schlöndorff has Gert reenact some of her dances via Pola Kinski (daughter of Klaus), although Gert quite often takes over to suggest the movements herself. I really liked this approach; since we don’t have any recordings of the vast majority of the original dances, this is a great way to capture their spirit across time.
While Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert follows a rough chronology of her life, a lot of the documentary simply allows space for the idiosyncratic and opinionated Gert to talk. She’s fabulous throughout, but I was especially entertained by her memories of her films and her time in that milieu. According to Gert, she never really watched any of the films she appeared in; she dismisses the work of heavyweights like Lang, Murnau, etc, as “kitsch”; she pans the work of a leading German actress who ‘we all hated’ (who she is talking about is tantalizingly unclear). Rather than being mean-spirited, she’s endearingly matter-of-fact about her iconoclasm. Also of interest: Gert talks about her romance with Sergei Eisenstein (!); apparently he was madly in love with her, sending roses all the time, picking her up after her performances, etc, although the relationship was not ultimately consummated. Curiously, Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert doesn’t mention Tagebuch einer Verlorenen | Diary of a Lost Girl (DE 1929) at all, one of her Gertiest film performances, though we do see clips of most of her other films.
After her Weimar Grotesk-Tänzerin days and cinema days, Gert immigrated to the US and opened a New York cabaret beloved of the Hollywood elite, the Beggars Bar; later, she returned to Germany, eventually stationing herself in a house in the sand dunes—where indeed she also opened a cabaret. This is the site of the dance reenactments, as well as many of the interviews conducted by Schlöndorff, where she muses on everything to her self-painted walls, to avant-garde performance, to her love of reading gossip magazines.
Nur zum Spass – Nur zum Spiel. Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert is one of those rare documentary portrait that feels organic and truly captures the spirit of its subject. According to the Deutsches Filminstitut website, a DVD release of Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert is planned. That day can’t come fast enough. The DFI’s Volker Schlöndorff subsite features a page on Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert with a wealth of material about the film—well worth checking out.
The ingredients of cinema
What exactly are we watching when we watch a film? Festivals like Il Cinema Ritrovato make it their mission to bring films of the past back to life, and a large part of this renewal occurs through the simple fact of showing films to a collective audience; but another key part of ICR’s strategy is to celebrate and make explicit the material history of cinema. In Bologna, celluloid prints are shown alongside 4K digital restorations; screening introductions describe the physical history of the film; lectures are devoted to restoration efforts.
This year, this emphasis on the materiality of film was stronger than ever. Original dye-transfer Technicolor prints—not later chromogenic processes, or digital surrogates—were screened in Bologna, including a sensational open-air screening of The Band Wagon (US 1953), the only Piazza Maggiore screening that I ended up attending (well, partially: I arrived during the ‘Triplets’ song, which I’ve always found rather terrifying—just in time for the magisterial ‘Girl Hunt’ sequence). In this and other screenings, it was a true pleasure to see the wonderfully vivid hues of Technicolor. And while some of the Technicolor prints showed their age—particularly in the ‘Reference Collection’ screening, which showed single reels from a variety of films—many were from private collections, including that of Marty Scorsese, and were in incredibly good condition.
The colour specialities were not limited to Technicolor. I managed to catch Japan’s first colour feature, Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Karumen kokyō ni kaeru; 1953): a slight film that revels in the Fujicolor stock it was shot on. My single favourite colour film screening, however, was a compilation programme entitled Programma magie del colore, which combined early stencil colour films with the jazzy ‘direct films’ of Albert Pierru (scratched and painted directly on the filmstrip, à la Len Lye), adverts and experimental films by Oskar Fischinger, and several shorts in Kinemacolor. Kinemacolor was the first major successful natural colour film process, an additive colour system in which the black-and-white frames were projected through successive red and green filters, corresponding to how they were shot. Since it’s all but impossible to show Kinemacolor in its ‘natural’ state, any restoration has to approximate the alternating orange/red and cyan/green frames of the original via digital colouring. The restorers kept other interventions to a minimum and the result was successful, not erasing the colour fringing inherent to the original.
Among the silent films, of particular interest was the Czech feature Bílý ráj | White Paradise (1924), starring Czech silent film dream-team Karel Lamač and Anny Ondráková (later known as Anny Ondra in her international career). A relatively likeable if undistinguished film, probably one of the better Lamač/Ondráková films that I’ve seen—but the real star here was the tinting and toning, achieved through traditional chemical means. It’s rare to see a truly tinted/toned silent film restoration to begin with—generally chromogenic stock is used, if the workflow is not purely digital—but it’s even more significant here, since the restoration copy was tinted and toned using a technique that did not require cutting and splicing each shot to the next. The mastermind behind this method, Jan Ledecký, hasn’t disclosed how he achieved this seemingly impossible task, and if the archivists involved know, they aren’t talking. Very intriguing, although perhaps not surprising considering that the Národní Filmový Archiv in Prague were trailblazers in the preservation of silent film colour. And yes, the colours of Bílý ráj did look fantastic, with some lovely tint/tone combinations. Also notable were some unusual (but true to the original) colour choices, such as snow scenes tinted bright yellow.
Aside from colour, another technical aspect of cinema was also emphasized: projection! Generally speaking, projection is something of an invisible art (and science)—the audience isn’t encouraged to think about how the images are reaching the screen, just that they are. This is increasingly true in our current age of digital projection, where the film isn’t going to show any signs of analogue wear-and-tear.
So it was a pleasure to attend open-air carbon arc screenings in the Piazza Pasolini (the courtyard of the Cineteca di Bologna). Film buffs will know that carbon arc lights were once the main light source used in film projection, long since replaced by xenon lamps; Il Cinema Ritrovato therefore provided a near-unique chance to experience this kind of projection. The noticeably if subtly fluctuating colour temperatures emphasized that fact that all such screenings are, in a sense, a performance.
But the most special screening of all took us back to the origins of cinema. Using a restored projector from the late 1890s, Nikolaus Wostry of the Filmarchiv Austria screened the very first programme in cinema history: the ten films shown at the Grand Café on 28th December 1895 by the frères Lumières. Contrary to received wisdom, this programme did not include L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, although it did contain classics like L’Arroseur Arrosé and Le repas de bébé. The basic facts—a strip of flexible plastic, passed in constant but intermittent motion past a lamp, and true to early cinema, throwing a projection of relatively small dimensions—don’t convey the symbolic power of such a screening. The films have lost none of their life, but having era-accurate cinematic apparatus in use (and on display) in service of these films conveys a peculiar and alluring sense of historicity.
I caught only a couple of films each of the Mario Soldati and Jacques Becker strands (partly, it must be said, because they were hosted in the theatre with poor air conditioning). Soldati’s Dora Nelson (IT 1939) was an enjoyable romp, a version of the classic story in which a regular woman’s resemblance to a haughty movie star leads to hi-jinks and melodrama. (Silent film connection: Dora’s secretly-alive blackmailing first husband was played by Luigi Cimara, who acted in a dozen or so silent films, including 1918’s Caino). And Malombra, with its portentous gothic extravagance, was great fun. Isa Miranda’s haughty glamour gave the film a slightly distanced feeling, which played interestingly against the themes of ghostly possession and feminine psychic disturbance.
Of the two or three Becker films I saw, Le trou (1960) was undoubtedly the greatest: beautifully paced, shot, and edited, a tour-de-force of the prison-break genre. There’s one astounding shot, a single take almost five minutes long, which shows the men breaking through their cell floor in real time—bludgeoning the concrete until they manage to break through to the cellar space below. The confidence and unremitting tension of the film summed up in one shot. Le trou is based on a real-life prison break that occurred at La Santé Prison in 1947, and indeed, one of the real-life attempted escapees plays the character who masterminds the jailbreak in the film. Highly, highly recommended.
Más allá del olvido | Beyond Oblivion (1955) was a beautiful Argentinian film, very reminiscent of Classic Hollywood in style. The premise is similar to that of Yevgeni Bauer’s incredible After Death (RU 1915; read my long article on it here) and indeed Vertigo (US 1958): a man meets a somewhat lower-class woman who bears a striking resemblance to his beloved dead wife. (All three films have a common ancestor in Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-mort). Unfortunately, I had to miss the end of Más allá del olvido, but this was one that stood out for its stunning cinematography and wonderful performances.
And finally, I have to mention the astounding, haunting Iranian feature Brick and Mirror (خشت و آینه, Khesht va Ayeneh; 1965), a poetic-realist feature which operates as both absorbing human story and social metaphor. The sequence near the beginning of the film, where taxi driver Hashem goes to near-abandoned building in search of a vanishing woman, is virtuosic in its attention to composition, lighting, and mood. A masterful, confident, and above all human work which was certainly one of the highlights of the festival for me; I regret not catching the other Golestan Studio films.
(Side note: the pre-credits noted that Tom Gunning, he of ‘cinema of attractions’ fame, was one of the major donors to the restoration of the film. Very nice, Tom!)
The Cinema Ritrovato experience
With four cinemas—next year to be five—running in parallel, the amount of films screened is huge, and hard choices must be made. My approach was very much one of bricolage, rather than following particular programmes/sections in their entirety; I also didn’t try to make every screening, as 10-12 hours of films per day is just too much for me! There were, of course, the inevitable regrets for having missed certain films … but such is life.
Spending a summer week indoors in darkness may sound strange to some, but the Bolognese heat was intense, and throughout the festival I was dressed pretty much as if I was going to the beach. After a sortie outside between films, it was actually a huge relief to step back into a pleasantly cool movie theatre and sit down to watch a film in the dark.
A huge part of the festival was catching up with far-flung friends, meeting new fellow cinema fiends, and having the kind of late-night conversations that only can come about after several glasses of wine and a full-day diet of film. Thanks to all who helped make the festival a great experience! I hope to be back in the next couple of years.