What’s your favourite Latvian nationalist historical fantasy war epic? From the silent era, I mean. Taking a little while to decide? Cool, I’ll share mine. It’s Lāčplēsis AKA The Bear Slayer (Aleksandrs Rusteiķis, 1930), newly restored by Riga’s Studio Locomotive.
To reassure the squeamish among you – there is no bear slaying in this film. The Bear Slayer is a strongman of Latvian legend, so burly he can kill a bear with his bare (sorry) hands, but he uses his might for right. This film starts with a hell of a bang, in full-on fantasy mode as an evil “Black Knight” (Osvalds Mednis) with an alarming bullet-shaped head and a supremely sinister gaze tries to bear down on a damsel in distress (Lilita Bērziņa) in a castle. She has an enchanted brooch that will save her, but the Knight gets his ghoulish, wizardy goblin pals to reverse that charm. They begin preparing the cauldron with the usual eye of newt etc and at the last minute, as they prepare to take the blood of an innocent dove, the Bear Slayer/Lāčplēsis (Voldemārs Dimze) throws his sword into the works and foils the dastardly scheme.
Around this time we jump to 1905 and young peasant Jānis reading about the exploits of Lāčplēsis and decides to emulate his bravery. Then the film, which played very naturally, but very long at 18fps begins in earnest. Essentially this is an action-packed WWI saga that overlays the mythical story of Knight/Damsel/Slayer onto the very messy business of combat, occupation, liberations and the establishment of Latvian independence. (We all went rushing toe Wikiepdia afterwards to find out more.) The fighting and parades lag a bit around two thirds of the way in, but this is mostly a fast-paced, inventively shot and wittily edited war epic with an enjoyable supernatural twist. The characterisations are a bit one-dimensional, but played with gusto. Honestly I had far more fun than I expected to with this one. Many, many thanks to the tirelessly brilliant accompaniment from Neil Brand and Frank Bockius – this was a very loud silent film, as it should be.
Rusteiķis, I read in the catalogue, is considered one of the founders of Latvian cinema. Is it all this much fun?
Latvia was not alone in Keeping Silent Cinema Weird. Germany offered a magical marionette drama titled The Great Love of a Little Dancer (Alfred Zeisler, 1924). Set in a mind-bending sideshow in the Caligari mould, this is the story of a pretty young thing who incurs the wrath of a mean-spirited stranger – magician Dr Larifari. He curses her so that any man in snogging distance will find his head rotates 180 degrees. And it just got stranger from there. Tod Browning would blush! And such material brought out the whimsical, Germanic side of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, who played up to the quirkiness of the film, while retaining the drama. I especially enjoyed the percussion overture. This certainly a good Pordenone for oddities. Keep them coming please.
From Latvia and Germany it is just a short hop to Ruritania and the suitably pan-European co-production His Majesty, the Barber (Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius, 1928). The setting is a small seaside town in Sweden and when the grandson of the “exotic” (read immigrant) barber arrives back from university, the young ladies of the borough soon develop that shingling feeling. Young Nickolo, played by dreamy Chilean actor Enrique Rivero, is so charming that soon all the nice girls want to be bobbed by him. All perhaps except Astrid (Brita Appelgren), whose grandmother (played by the goddess Karin Swanström) has built a fortune on hair tonic and disapproves of such short cuts. She wants Astrid to marry a local dullard of a count… but complications ensue.
First Astrid and Nickolo meet and bicker their way to true love, and then the barber reveals to the hair-tonic queen that his grandson is really the heir to the throne of Tirania and just a coup d’etat away from greatness. But is the crown of Tirania really all it’s cracked up to be? Shades of The Oyster Princess here as old-world aristocracy and new-world capitalism rub up against each other in awkward ways. But it is gleefully hilarious throughout and just the tonic (sorry) for those who have been finding the Ruritanian films a little old-fashioned. Not that I number in that unfortunate group.
‘I’m the crown prince of Tirania!’ ‘No, I’m the crown prince of Tirania!’ ‘I’m the crown prince of Tirania!’ You get the gist. Hyltén-Cavallius also directed the glorious Sister of Six, starring Betty Balfour, so I was pretty sure this was going to be a Ruritanian pleasure cruise to remember, but Rivero is another great European star. He appeared in Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète (1932) for example. And I always adore Swanström who here has all manner of funny hair-raising tics (quite literally). The scene-stealer is German actress Maria Paudler as Nickolo’s most enthusiastic customer. I am sure I have seen her before, but browsing her IMDB I cannot pinpoint exactly where.
Norma Talmadge and Frank Borzage: a marriage made in Hollywood heaven, even if it doesn’t rhyme as you’d think it would. Tonight’s main attraction was the beauteous melodrama The Lady (1925). Everything here was as pretty as a picture – especially, this being a Borzage film, the really, really seedy bits. it helps to have William Cameron Menzies as art director. Having played a Native American woman earlier in the day in The Heart of Wetona, Talmadge is very much proving herself the Scarlett Johansson of her day, though tonight’s choice was less contentious. Our scene opens in Marseilles, where Talmadge is Polly Pearl the silver-haired, broken-hearted landlady of the Brixton Bar and possibly… a Cockney. She seems to be a Londoner, but she reminisces with a punter over coming from the same village and then sheds a tear over photographs of… Oxford. But this does not matter. In a Frances Marion-scripted Borzage picture, only fine feelings count. And noble sacrifices.
Polly flashes back to her days on the music-hall stage at the turn of the century, where she is, as all music-hall performers in melodrama are obliged to be, engaged to a toff much to his domineering father’s chagrin. They honeymoon in Monte Carlo, and separate there too – thanks to the interference of a haughty old friend with Gibson-Girl hair and sultry makeup. Though three cheers for Polly going after her with her own minxy parasol. Soon Polly is down on her luck, but with a baby to look out for. Strong stuff, but I like them that way, and Talmadge is mostly excellent though her trademark restraint wobbles a little at the really powerful moments. It would take a hard heart not to feel for her, especially with John Sweeney emoting at the keys. A sublime finish to a head-turning day.
Victorian Intertitle of the Day
“Olive oil! Prince Albert! Love to the Queen! Pip pip!” Everyday English banter from Fanny in The Lady.
Jazz Age Intertitle of the Day
“Grandmother will be furious – but anyway – shingle me!” It could only be His Majesty, The Barber. For more on raging tonsorial debates of the mid-1920s, tune into the surviving fragment of Bobbed Hair on Thursday.
- A date for your diary: Lāčplēsis Day is on 11 November, and commemorates those who defended Latvia’s independence in 1918-1919. If you miss it, apparently there is a bear slayer beer you can drink all year round.
- Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.