All silent film festivals are not the same. Tromsø Stumfilmdager in northern Norway is full of surprises. For one thing, it was the first time I have ever been offered, and gratefully accepted, earplugs before a silent movie screening.
But first of all, as we’re (mostly) Brits here, you’ll want to know about the weather. And boy was there are a lot of it. Tromsø is 69 degrees north, comfortably inside the Arctic Circle and yet in late April they often expect balmy temperatures of 5 Celsius or so, and clear skies. Not this year. As our pilot informed us en route, “winter has returned”, and we spent four days in the Arctic snow. A delightful Christmas-card novelty for us, but something of a drag for the locals who were looking forward to spring.
There was no escaping the weather on-screen either. The movies included the stories of a seasonal thaw, a woman driven insane by the desert winds, a serial killer operating under the cloak of city fog and a demon destroyed by sunlight. Ten points if you guess all of those titles correctly (although you could just check out the programme here).
Tromsø Stumfilmdager (silent film days) has been running since 2006, organised by the same people who run the Tromsø International Film Festival in January and hosted at the absolutely stunning Verdensteatret, a “kinematograf” that opened in this town in 1916. There are two or three screenings a night over four days, although you might more properly call these events ciné-concerts, as the music and the musicians are just as important as the movies.
The film programme is pretty nimble too. My absolute highlight of the festival was a late addition to the programme, Mikhail Kaufman’s Kyiv city symphony In Spring (1929). This is the seasonal thaw film, as it tracks winter giving way to spring, the snow melting, the rivers bursting, the city stretching and opening out to the sun. It could hardly be more bittersweet to see Ukrainian people enjoying their city, strolling in the sunshine, several decades ago. Are some of the plump-cheeked babies in this film alive to bear witness to the horrors of today? It’s just about possible, but chilling to think about.
In Spring was scored at the festival by two incredibly talented Ukrainian musicians, Roksana Smirnova and Misha Kalinin, who claim they are just getting started in silent film accompaniment, but you’d hardly guess. Smirnova’s piano followed the film closely, while Kalinin’s electric guitar provided an eccentric collection of melodies and noises that expanded the soundscape. I really didn’t want this one to end, and I hope we get a chance to see Smirnova and Kalinin play for this film or another in the UK soon. This is a film as much about the Ukrainian people fighting to reclaim their city from the travails of winter as the natural transition of the seasons – a breathtaking experience in 2022 or any other year.
The other films were not new to me, I admit, but I soon realised that the musical choices are what makes this festival distinctive. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) was accompanied on the festival’s opening night by modern Nordic jazz outfit Wako – a loose, melodic score that at first I felt could never quite fit, but then I realised that this is a film of awkward encounters and misapprehensions, and the sharp corners of this music rubbed against the film in interesting ways. Definitely a score compiled to fit the mood rather, or the “vibes of each scene” as the band put it, than the narrative. An experiment that mostly worked.
We were in sure hands for Erotikon (Gustav Machaty, 1929), with John Sweeney at the keys, wringing the romance out of this compelling tale of lust, loss, and sexual entanglement. It’s a dark and sensual film, and seems to be operating on a logic that is more instinctive and musical than verbal anyway, so Sweeney’s tender melodies swept the audience right through the melodrama to the wonderfully ambiguous conclusion. It left me in a daze. Sweeney is something of a regular at this festival, which shows impeccable taste on behalf of the festival curation team, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I was more or less jolted right out of that swoon with Buster Sledge and Kjetil Schjander Luhr’s country-tinged, rattling and rolling accompaniment for The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), starring those two Silent London favourites Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson (AKA Large Handsome). The western flavour of the tunes lulled us into the scene-setting as our Virginian heroine finds herself isolated on the Texas prairie, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity of the music for her mad scenes. It was every bit as wild as the star’s performance, which is to say 120%, at least. Gish may be trotting out some familiar tricks and mannerisms from her earlier films here but in the thick of it, there’s no one to match her for dragging the audience into the depths of her unhinged psyche. Such a beautiful, strange and disconcerting film.
There were a couple of films I missed in the programme due to touristing and to one being rescheduled due to illness, so we can cut now to the closing night already, and a packed hall of keyed-up stumfilm spectators passing round bowls of earplugs in preparation for the arrival of the deathbird himself, Count Orlok. Closing night film Nosferatu (FW Murnau, 1922) was accompanied by a drone metal/doom rock super group of sorts who called themselves The Nosfera 4. Whoa. Driving metal drums, eerie drone electric guitar, and a pulsing, relentless melody sent this screening into a kind of gothic overdrive. Friend, I thought I knew this film backwards and I have seen it with many different scores, but this was the scariest Nosferatu I have ever encountered. I jumped! Twice.
Tromsø Stumfilmdager may not already be on your radar, but this is a silent movie festival that really knows how to rock. And to prove it, the afterparty was shared with the Sami arts and culture festival that had been going on all week in Tromsø. A female Sami DJ collective spinning indigenous music, a sweaty dancefloor and giddy visuals – what a way to end a week of meteorological magic at the top edge of Europe.
Q&A: AKA I just got back from a silent movie festival, AMA.
Is the festival all in Norwegian?
Short answer, no. The films are all presented in English, with English subtitles and introductions/musician Q&As. One event showcasing Norwegian archive films was in Norwegian and so was the short intro to Nosferatu, but this is a very accessible festival for anglophones.
So is it an international festival?
Yes, although surprisingly few Brits. We need to change that. It’s a very welcoming event and a trip to this part of the world is totally mind-blowing. This is a small festival, so it’s really friendly and the cinema bar is a great place to hang out and meet your fellow stumfilm fans.
How do you get to Tromsø?
Personally, we flew from Heathrow, changing planes in Oslo, with SAS. Very smooth journey, even landing in the snow. And I can recommend our hotel, the Scandic Grand, especially if you get a room on the top floor – what a view!
Snow you say… It’s in the Arctic! Is it really cold?
Not as cold as you might think. We arrived in a “trick spring” where it had been sunny, but the snow had suddenly returned for a couple of weeks. So it wasn’t as warm as it usually would be, around freezing point every day. However, with such bright sun and a nice warm cinema and lots of cafes to hang out in, I was never really chilly. Just be careful on the ice, though the pavements are mostly clear.
Does the sun ever set?
Sure, but not for long. And the five or so hours in which it is down at this time of year are mostly a combination of twilight and dusk, so yeah, make sure your hotel room has good blackout curtains if you want to kip.
Is Norway very expensive?
Yep. But there are lots of supermarkets in town where you can pick up cheaper snacks and you can’t beat the 50Kr hotdogs (reindeer, pork or soya) from the kiosk in town for a quick hot lunch. Airbnbs are available and you can hang out/use the Wi-Fi in the library (a very cool building) for free, too.
Do I need to dress up like Roald Amundsen to get around?
OK, I’m not your mum, but thermals and sunscreen are a good idea. Even though we had snow every day, I got by with walking shoes, jumpers’n’jeans, and a big coat. Not to mention my snazzy pink festival beanie. Even out in the fjords.
What is there to do when the films aren’t on?
Tromsø has lots of museums and if you’re into winter sports you will be in heaven with the opportunities to ski and sled etc. Our highlights were a trip round the local fjords, a ride on the cable car, the Perspectivet Museum (devoted to local author Cora Sandel), and the essential tour of Mack, the world’s most northerly brewery. A more low-key suggestion? Grab a coffee in the gorgeously retro Kaffebønna and take a window seat to watch the snow fall and the world go by.
C’mon, did you REALLY need earplugs for the Nosferatu soundtrack?
Yes my friend, I really did. The festival slogan isn’t Not So Silent for nothing.