Pordenone changes a person. I don’t just mean in the way that my bloodstream is now 80% espresso. It changes your aspirations. My dream now is to live in an apartment designed by Sonia Delaunay, watching Peter Elfelt’s dance films (they are playing before several of the screenings) all day. For loungewear, I would choose the louche shawl-collared robe sported by Jaque Catelain in Le Vertige, and if I ever left the flat, I would wear the stunning geometric coat and hat sported by Madame Gilberte in Le P’tit Parigot. I’d take the vintage Bugatti too, please.
Yes I am still popping to Paris every morning, and today I journeyed on to the French Riviera later in the day for Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Vertige (1926), a post-revolutionary doppelgänger romance that surely Hitchcock gave more than a double-take… Natacha (Emmy Lynn – we saw her in Abel Gance’s The Tenth Symphony (1918) last year) is unhappily married to a Tsarist General but passionately in love with dashing young Leiutenant Dmitri (Catelain), whom her husband shoots to death amid the turmoil of 1917. Years later, the miserable couple have fled to Nice and there amid the gay riviera, poor heartsick Natacha spies Dmitri’s double, an fashionably idle diplomat named Henri de Cassel. She must find him and rekindle her passion, but she daren’t tell him the truth…
It can’t end well, and L’Herbier really makes us wait for the conclusion, but supplies plenty of beauty and intrigue until the final moment, a hearstopping duel with a Russian Roulette twist, appropriately enough. Slow and sombre but gorgeously to gaze upon, as you’d expect from L’Herbier and his artistic collaborators, including Delaunay and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Gorgeous to listen to, also, with Stephen Horne’s sparkling multi-instrumental score – I especially enjoyed the touches of accordion.
From hence to Germany, and 1923’s Die Strasse (Karl Grune), playing in the Canon Revisited strand. The ur-Street film? Maybe. With an expressionist touch to the sets, wry humour, dark economic realism, a touch of the macabre and very few intertitles, this was very much meine Tasse Tee. Not to mention, a rare sighting of Max Schreck not playing Count Orlok. He played a blind man, gaunt with a beard, and very melancholic. Almost unrecognisable, save for the melancholy.
Simply put, Eugen Klöpfer steps out for the night, leaving dull old wifey at home, lured by the dazzle of the urban nightlife, and Aud Egede-Nissen, slinking around corners (give or take a death-mask jump scare). The street is full of dangers: fast women, unpredictable cards and menacing men with guns. Captivating, very funny, and another triumph of set design (Karl Görge was the man behind this hell-scape city0, Die Strasse was capped off by superb accompaniment from Gunter Buchwald – just note-perfect for every twist and turn.
For light relief, a little animation, and a talk I have been anticipating for months, and which did not disappoint. Mindy Johnson gave us the lowdown not just on Bessie Mae Kelley but on a raft of other women from the early American animation industry, without whom our childhoods would have been so different. All of this was ultra-fascinating to me, being someone who knew little about this field I feel glad to have been introduced to the women of this era so soon in my education. And Kelley’s work was charming and full of character. Johnson is doing remarkable work on her legacy – now I am in anticipation mode all over again, for the forthcoming book and film.
It’s been a very good day full stop. And it’s an especially cheering day when I can say that two of my favourite programmes were British. Not least when one is all new to me. Tonight’s midweek gala was a genuine Great British Silent Classic, and a northern one to boot. The clatter of clogs, the rollercoaster romance, the magnificence of Marie Ault!Hindle Wakes (Maurice Elvey, 1927) swept up the Verdi crowd with the enchantment of the bright lights of Blackpool, and the thrill of an illicit liaison in north Wales (clandestine in Llandudno). It’s gradely. When Estelle Brody’s Fanny Hawthorn defires convention in the final reel, the room spun like a reel of Lancashire cotton. Emotionally we had been put through the mill, but we were glad of it.
And flat caps off too Maud Nelissen and her triumphant score, commissioned by Kinothek Asta Nielsen in 2019 and played here tonight by Nelissen and her ensemble. I sensed her passion for the film throughout, and an already lively film had the flavour of a carnival… and it’s queasy aftermath. Brava.
But I said new material. I was utterly captivated by an hour of early British films from the Filmoteca de Catalunya, accompanied by John Sweeney, and looking crisp and smart. Here was comedy, including G.A. Smith’s overcrowded cab gag and Frank Mottershaw’s Sheffield burglary trick film (daring and in daylight, but backwards and down a drainpipe), a stunning phantom ride across the Firth of Forth, an impeccable dog-rescue film (surely one arena where we lead the world) and wonderful footage of Magnus Volk’s completely loopy and impractical seagoing electric railway off the coast of Brighton. From Inverness to Margate, Venice to Sri Lanka, British silent filmmakers got everywhere, but it’s especially cheering to find them here in Pordenone.
Russian Intertitle of the Day
“Vodka is like dust. In its haze, ghosts pass.” A reflective, boozy moment in Le Vertige.
- I spoke up for the cats yesterday but the dogs must have their day, and in Pordenone it was Wednesday, from the Dalmatians in Le Vertige (gulp!) to the heroic rescue dog in The Robber’s Ruse, or Foiled by Fido (A.E. Coleby, 1909).
- 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.