HomeEntertainmentPirmoji Banga 2022: keeping silent cinema weird in Vilnius

Pirmoji Banga 2022: keeping silent cinema weird in Vilnius

Greetings from Lithuania!

It has been a bit of a quiet summer here. The reason is that I have been working on a couple of research projects, and travelling too – mostly around the country talking about Pre-code cinema (I’m in Scotland this week, and Belfast next month – links below). But also to further-flung spots such as Vilnius, home of Pirmoji Banga. And if you don’t know what that is, you have come to the right blogpost…

Pirmoji Banga means ‘first wave’ and this is a festival of early film, in the extended sense. from the very beginnings to the first talkies, everything before the second world war, more or less. The festival is substantially devoted to silent cinema, which is presented with live music from international artists. And some of this year’s screenings benefited from a benshi too, which was particularly special. The screenings are all held at a smart arthouse cinema by the river, called Skalvijos Kino Centras. A cool place. Very silent film hipster. Check out the foyer display for the festival (and two people who definitely aren’t hipsters in the mirror):

Skalvijos Kino Centras

Pirmoji Banga is in its seventh year and it seems to be on a high. The screenings I attended were full to bursting and the standard of curation and accompaniment was consistently first-rate. Silent cinema is the universal language, but in case you were wondering, all screenings are subtitled in Lithuanian and English. Even the Japanese benshi narration was subtitled, which I am not sure I have seen before.

The festival also incorporates a conference, Film Heritage Without Borders, at which I spoke on the Friday, along with some much more illustrious folk from the world of silent and and archive film. This was a great opportunity to hear from lots of people working in their own corners of the silent film world, about what works and what doesn’t, what choices they make and how they envisage things improving. Or as Elif said, just our festival conversations over coffee, but with microphones and PowerPoints. Here is the lineup over the first two days of the festival.

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi spoke brilliantly about the daily discoveries made at the Eye Filmmuseum and how that can be so very exciting but also barely shifts the dial when it comes to the size of the surviving corpus of silent cinema. Jay Weissberg let us into his decision-making process when it comes to commissioning musical accompaniment for Pordenone, Ichiro Kataoka gave a wonderful overview of the long, global history of Benshi narration – and a thrilling demonstration. Beatrice Starewitch talked about her grandfather Ladislas Starewitch’s life and amazing work and then we were treated to a shaggy dog story about the amazing discovery of some pre-revolutionary Russian silents in a photography museum in Lithuania. This last featured a remote zoom contribution from Peter Bagrov in Rochester. I spoke about what I do and what Silent London does – telling stories about silent cinema. And of course I had made a meme.

A silent film critic, preaching to the converted.

You can catch up with the archived live stream of the conference here.

On to the films. This year’s festival had three strands: there were three Japanese films, some dazzling work by stop-motion animator Ladislas Starewitch, who spent some of his early years in Lithuania, and a banquet of circus films, all inspired by the lost-and-found film we heard about on Saturday, Daniel Rok (1916) What a fun theme! I was lucky enough to introduce the brilliant He Who Gets Slapped on the Thursday evening, a screening enhanced by some low-key, but sprightly accompaniment from Mantas Ralovėcas, Girmantė Bubelytė and Frank Bockius. I had chills.

I really loved these three strands. They roamed wide. He Who Gets Slapped was the only Hollywood film screened all weekend. And it’s hardly mainstream, or especially American. The circus strand brought silent cinema back into the context of contemporary popular entertainment and live performance – trapeze acts, roaring lions, stunt riders, clowns and all – as well as introducing an element of surreal oddness. The uncanniness of the clown’s painted face, the elaborate elevated horse stunt featured in Nordisk drama The Circus Catastrophe (1912), the disturbing dream sequence in Superstition (Aberglaube, Georg Jacoby, 1919).

Festival director Aleksas Gilaitis introduces a Starevitch programme.

One idea we discussed at the conference (and subsequently at lunch over a glass or two of kvass and some dumplings) was how healthy it can be not to try to assimilate silent cinema into a received idea of what film is or should be. Why play by sound film’s rules? Instead we can lean into the strange. Celebrate the oddities, the quirks, the short films, the trick films, graphic intertitles, stage makeup, half-forgotten performance styles, stencil colour, serials… Everything that makes silent film special and unique. The campaign starts here: keep silent cinema weird.

Ladislas Starewitch would certainly have been on board. I was only really familiar with The Cameraman’s Revenge before this weekend, but we saw a broad selection of his work in Vilnius, including his live-action dramas (still with a little camera magic) from his early Russian period, and his feature-length children’s film, the wickedly funny, and very cute The Tale of the Fox, made in 1930, premiered in 1937. We saw the French-language version from 1941 and it was a hoot. The tinies in the audience went wild for the fight sequence especially, in which stop-motion foxes, bears, sheep and hares do their best Douglas Fairbanks impressions, non-stop. Elif and I were besotted with the Josephine Baker mouse. All children’s films should be this clever. Clever like a fox.

There was more Starewitch to come at the family-friendly screening of four of his films on the Sunday afternoon. As I had realised by this point, there is far more to the man’s work than stop-motion insects, though I did very much enjoy In the Claws of the Spider (1920), in which a tender fly from the country gets finds herself in the clutches of a natural predator in gay Paris. Stop-motion marionette bugs, stencil colour and some flashes of wicked humour made this a melodrama with a difference. There were also two films that mixed marionettes with live-action, including appearances by Starewitch himself and his young daughter, under her stage name Nina Star. My second favourite was another animal caper – a riotous take on the old fable The City Rat and the Country Rat (1926). Though I had to agree with the cooing kiddies in the audience – that kitten WAS cute. All these 1920s films from his French period prove the truth that Starewitch was a grownup film director who just happened to tell his stories with marionettes, monkeys and bugs. Nothing juvenile here.

Le Rat de Ville et le Rat Des Champs (1926)

We also saw some work that was highlighted as Starewitch’s spiritual kin, including a wickedly funny Segundo De Chomon film, recently discovered by Eye Filmmuseum, The Tapeworm (1912). If you are coming to Pordenone you will get a chance to see this hilarious, gross, and very fanciful short comedy. Don’t miss it. The tapeworm has a life of its own, believe me, and when you bear in mind that over here the word reel seems often to be translates as tape, this long, segmented beastie seemed extra meta, too.

Where the festival took time to honour celebrated features, even here we deviated from the classical a little. Japanese films are not often at the heart of silent film curation and these three made me think that was a mistake (although yes I know this is largely due to avialability). We began with a sound comedy, The Pot Worth a Million Ryo (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935), in which a simple earthenware jar functions as a McGuffin that leaves a trail of destruction and exposes some serious character flaws. But oh it is funny, despite some dark moments, and the dojo fight scenes were really great.

Otto Kylmala introduces The Water Magician.

Next, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician (1933) brought the festival to a standstill. This beautiful, tragic film was probably always likely to blow our socks off, but with the passionate performance of benshi Ichiro Kataoka and some truly inspired, sensitive accompaniment from Viktoras Orestas Vagusevičius on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion it was spell-binding. These three worked so well together, never overcrowding the film, which really needs space to breathe. I loved this screening.

On the final night, I was lucky enough once again to introduce a beloved, if controversial samurai film featuring the ‘King of Swordfights’ himself Buntsama. This was Orochi (The Serpent, Buntaro Futgawa, 1925). Once again, we had the benefit of Kataoka’s vocal accompaniment, here beautifully emphasising the pathos and social critique of this sad, sad story, and a stunning score from Lina Žilinskaitė-Petkevičienė on the chordophone and Džiugas Daugirda on Japanese drums, which was artfully minimal for the most part, and then decidedly maximal during those famous fight sequences. A wonderful event.

The festival drew to close with one of the greatest melodramas of all time, albeit a decidedly twisted one, as Marlene Dietrich destroyed Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930). A fitting end to a wonderful long weekend that enriched, and deepened, my appreciation of early, silent and talkie cinema.

Vilnius is a beautiful town, and this is great festival. Congratulations to Aleksas Gilaitis, his team and all the musicians. If I tell you that Pirmoji Banga is a little weird, believe me, that is a compliment!

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