The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Day 3

With Day 3, I think I have found my favorite program of the festival, and that would be the series of Polish films.  It is perhaps the festival’s largest series, and it’s also the one I have talked about the most about so far. One reason for this, even despite the average quality of these films, could be attributed to their uniqueness.  I am inclined to disagree though, because I do think that the quality is pretty high, which is why I was surprised to learn that the Polish themselves have spoken poorly of the films.

Before this, there probably has never been a consolidated, curated program for pre-WW2 Polish films such as this available for public viewing. Well, perhaps in Poland, but maybe not even there. This morning started with another Who’s Guilty? short, and was followed with The Call of the Sea (Zew morza, Henryk Szaro, 1927), a maritime and country melodrama.  That was quite a strange film for Poland to produce at the time though, since most, if not all, of the film production was done in Warsaw, far from any sea. Back then, they had also only recently got access to the Baltic Sea where this was shot. But with help from the Polish Navy, it was possible to create spectacular action sequences, which included torpedo launches and what could only be described as captivating aerial eyecandy (utilizing one of the Navy’s hydroplanes).

The Call of the Sea contrasts these unusual images with shots of the countryside, which are beautiful in their own right, creating a juxtaposition that was curiously riveting. While the story was mostly following a run of the mill romantic triangle (standard fare) – it is quite comedic at several points, proving to be visually arresting and simultaneously entertaining- I had a great time with it! Marjusz Maszynski (in the snapshot above) in the role as the unmarried rich son getting desperate to find love is particularly fun to watch.

Day 3 was also the day when the City Symphony program really kicked off.  City symphonies are films which bring together documentary and avant-garde styles to bring the rhythm of the city to the films. The most well known ones are Berlin: A Symphony of a City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). These works were hugely popular and very influential, and they inspired filmmakers all over the world over to create more symphonies in the late 1920s and 1930s. On today’s program were three very different symphonies: an Argentinian film (This is How the Obelisk Was Born, Horacio Coppola, 1936), a Brazilian one (São Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis, Adalberto Kemeny & Rudolpho Rex Lustig, 1929) and the Hungarian Budapest – the City of Spas and Cures (István Somkúti & László Kandó, 1935).

São Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis (Kemeny & Lustig, 1929) (image copyright

I missed the first of these, but I got in on time for the longest city symphony that was made, which was the one on the city of São Paulo. According to the festival catalogue, it is supposed to be only 90 minutes long-which would make it the longest of them- but in truth, it felt much longer than that, and I would not be surprised if the archive sent a longer version. The style of city symphonies doesn’t lend itself to lengthy films, as that would probably make it too indulgent. São Paulo, Symphony of a Metropolis seemed to be close to ending at several points (it even had a classic sunset scene), but it consistently caught both the audience and the pianist by surprise by the fact that it didn’t want to end, which was greeted with great laughter. It was adamant in hammering home a very patriotic and nationalistic message before it decided that enough was enough. At the end of the day it was the most talked about film – so it had that going for it. Seeing a city on its way to becoming the modern city it is today is rather interesting also as historical architectual fingerprints.

Camilla Horn and John Barrymore in Tempest (Taylor, 1928) (image copyright United Artists)

Another fascinating, politically loaded film was the main event of the day, the Hollywood production Tempest (Sam Taylor, 1928). In the history of Hollywood, as with every nation’s film production, there has been a tradition of looking to other nations as being somewhat exotic and dangerous. Tempest takes place during the Russian Revolution and it becomes clear very quickly that it is a film that does two things: provide a solid melodramatic romance story with two great actors (Camilla Horn and John Barrymore) and to tell about how scary communism is. A peasant (John Barrymore) advances to the rank of lieutenant but is resented by the aristocrats surrounding him. WW1 breaks out putting the country in all sorts of trouble and a mythical figure (Boris de Fast), with strong similarities to Grigori Rasputin slowly convinces the working class to rebel and the mise-en-scène turns more and more hellish as we get a situation very similar to the execution of the Romanov family in 1918. While the Russians and communism looks convincingly scary much thanks to the vivid art direction of W. M Menzies, it is perhaps most interesting as a look into how Hollywood wanted Americans to think about communism, after having gone through a first wave of Red Scare in the early 1920s.

Zaubertrick mit opfblume / Lady Conjurer with Potted Flower (year unknown), the first of the chromolithographic loops shown.

I have yet to discuss the German chromolithographic loops, which were occasionally used start the screenings! These very old (dating them is very difficult) short “loops” are colored, single-action “films” that stretch the definition of what film is, since back in the day, they were not projected for mass audiences. Instead, they were regarded as toys and not taken seriously. Having them projected on the big screen on a big festival like this (with accompaniment, no less!) makes a clear statement that we should take a good look at them and take them seriously in archival and academic circles. That being said, they are great fun pieces that work well as an aperitif to the main events. One had a frog jumping to and from a box, and featured a man standing there and watching on, frustrated as he tries to catch it. In my little cinematic utopia, I’d personally love to see cinemas do more of this, and have short, less than a minute fun films to put the audience in the mood, which makes for a nice change from a string of seeming endless (and uninteresting) commercials.





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