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Silent Cinema

Blu-ray: ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1920)

Stage and screen legend John Barrymore took on the good doctor and his vicious alter ego from the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel in this silent horror classic, adapted as much from the stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan as from Stevenson’s original book. It wasn’t the first adaptation of the story but it became the most celebrated until Fredric March took on the role in the sound era, and it helped elevate the respected actor into a major big screen attraction.

As Dr. Henry Jekyll, the moral, religious man who keeps company with society gentleman who find Henry more than a little self-righteous, Barrymore takes on a theatrical nobility: quiet and subdued, he stand tall and stiff and favors his great profile to the camera. He runs a free clinic (called “the human repair shop,” a phrase that inadvertently brings to mind Frankenstein more than Hyde) that his friend Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) sneers at. “You should live–as I have lived,” he advises the sheltered Henry. Sir George is the father of the proper young lady Millicent (Martha Mansfield), who admires and loves Henry, a seeming contradiction that he explains to Henry thusly: “I protected her as only a man of the world could.” After a visit to a seedy nightclub, where Sir George invites dancing girl Miss Gina (Nita Naldi) to get Henry all hot and bothered, Henry decides that maybe it’s time to let his baser desires out for a romp. But rather than sully his soul (or his reputation) he concocts a potion is release the evil buried inside (the original sin?), essentially releasing the id from his dominant superego, to take a Freudian approach

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Blu-ray: ‘Master of the House’

The theme of Master of the House, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1925 screen adaptation of Svend Rindom’s play Tyrannens fald, is better captured in the film’s original Danish title Du skal ære din hustru: Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife. Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer), the master of the house himself, is indeed the central character of this domestic drama, but his journey is all about learning to appreciate his wife Ida (Astrid Holm), who he has driven to illness with his ill temper.

While the opening intertitles of the film, a sentimental paean to the overlooked and underappreciated work of the mother and housewife, leave no ambiguity about the drama to come, Dreyer is far less obvious in his direction. The film opens with Ida’s morning ritual, a routine that Dreyer observes with the patient care of a documentarian and the delicacy of a painter. Ida is never still as she makes breakfast, cares for the children, and sacrifices her own meager luxuries to give Viktor a little extra butter on his bread, but neither is she rushed or harried. There is a grace to her toil and a pride and satisfaction in the work she does. Her confidence and clarity unravels, however, when Viktor emerges for breakfast, complaining with his first steps into the room that coffee is no waiting for him on the table.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Freshman’

Harold Lloyd was the collegiate kid to Chaplin’s underdog tramp and Keaton’s earnest social misfit, the young, modern guy full of energy and spunk taking on the world with the ambition of a go-getter and the smart-aleck attitude of a city boy. Yet for a young man who epitomized the up-and-comer in the modern urban world, he only made one film where he played a college kid: The Freshman, which became his biggest box-office hit of all time and the definitive college comedy of the 1920s.

Lloyd had tried out a number of personae over his career but when he put on those round glasses and flashed that smile, he created the incarnation that made him one of the biggest stars of the twenties. He referred to that creation as “the glasses character” but in the movies he was invariably called Harold. In The Freshman he’s Harold Lamb, a small town boy preparing to go to college by watching movies and practicing his elaborate greeting, a little jig of a dance step followed by an extended hand and a slogan of an introduction: “I’m just a regular fellow – step right up and call me ‘Speedy’.” (Fans of Yasujiro Ozu may recognize that bit from his Japanese college comedies like I Flunked, But… , an example of life imitating art; where Harold copies it from a fake movie, Ozu’s students pick it up from their love of Harold Lloyd comedies.) He’s convinced himself that the movies and the dime novels about campus heroes are an accurate portrait of college life and he studies them like textbooks. In fact, he studies them instead of textbooks. The Freshman is a college film where no one attends a class, goes to the library, or crams for a test. “Tate University – A large football stadium, with a college attached,” reads the title card for Harold’s arrival on campus, and the film makes good on the joke.

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Blu-ray: Lon Chaney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Lon Chaney was the most unlikely of Hollywood superstar actors. Talented and ambitious, he fearlessly took on roles of tortured victims, twisted villains, and misshapen outcasts, parts that he brought to life with a mix of elaborate make-up, physically demanding incarnations, and emotionally intense performances. In some ways, you could see him as the De Niro of the silent era, sinking himself into each role so deeply he loses himself in it, at least as far as the viewer in concerned. In an industry that celebrates physical beauty and charisma, Chaney won over audiences by playing characters that looked or acted like monster while communicating their inner drives and torments with his eyes and his face and his body language. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 was his first major production, a lavish period drama based on a classic novel and created at a cost of over $1 million by Universal, at the time a second-tier studio with ambitions to compete with the majors in the blockbuster realm. It made him one of Hollywood’s biggest screen stars.

This adaptation largely hews to the narrative of Victor Hugo’s novel. Chaney plays Quasimodo, the horribly misshapen, deaf and half blind bell-ringer at Notre Dame, nominally raised by Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.

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Louis Feuillade: An Introduction

In the rapid evolution of film style in the first twenty years of cinema, from the earliest shorts by the Lumieres, the Edison Studio and Méliès to the narrative storytelling of D.W. Griffith, editing is king. It is, we are told, the foundation of film grammar. It gives the filmmaker a tool to direct our attention, brings us from the general to the specific with cut-ins, provides point and counterpoint with cross-cutting, provides intimacy, slows the action down to let us absorb the emotional content of a scene or build suspense, and speeds it up to increase anxiety and tension in action sequences.

‘The Murderous Corpse’

As Griffith created more sophisticated narratives with increasing reliance on editing and varying shot size, the old tableaux style of static cameras and scenes played out in full, with the frame akin to the proscenium arch of a theatrical stage, began to look old fashioned, like the primitive efforts of early cinema and the elephantine grandeur of the Italian epics of the early 1910s. But even as American and British cinema was developing its grammar of film editing, in Paris, Louis Feuillade was playing with the possibilities inherent in tableaux filmmaking.

Feuillade found his style making scores of short comedies, fantasies, and historical spectacles at a pace that would make even D.W. Griffith blink. While Griffith was slowing down his output to craft and shape his stories and develop his narrative film grammar, Feuillade was cranking out shorts, serials, and short features at a breakneck pace, setting up scenes and letting coherence and chaos battle it out in his mise-en-scène. He wasn’t behind the times. His distinctive approach to filmmaking simply followed a different path. Where Griffith drove action through editing and turned to cutting as a defining element of his pacing, Feuillade was exploring the possibilities of set design, elaborate staging in depth, character movement, and surprise revelations, directing the audience’s attention within the frame and setting the rhythm of the film through its internal movement. His scenes played out in single takes with unmoving cameras (apart from the rare pan), yet he packed his frames with energetic movement and his labyrinthine stories with the fantastic and the unpredictable. In the years 1913 through 1917, there is no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive and entertainingly surreal filmmaking than in his wild crime serials: Fantômas (France/1913-1914), Les Vampires (France/1915-1916), and Judex (1917).

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SFSFF 2013 Spotlights: The ‘Beauté’ of Louise, the ‘Safety’ of Lloyd, and those ‘Joyless’ Germans

G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the Centerpiece screening on Saturday night, is a landmark drama of social commentary, a savage portrait of Germany after World War II, when rampant inflation and record unemployment plunged an entire class into poverty and widened the gulf between rich and poor into a veritable ocean. Decadence and desperation and degradation: this has it all, and with a drumbeat of social drama drawn in stark images and situations.

Greta Garbo takes her first role since being “discovered” in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924) and is marvelous as the devoted daughter of a widower civil servant, basically taking care of her father and her little sister while he gambles their entire future on a stock market bet (a rigged game that we know is doomed to ruin them). Endlessly nurturing and sacrificing herself for others, we know where she’s headed when she ends up in hock to Frau Greifer (Valeska Gert), the neighborhood clothier with the secret club in the back and the procurer who turns desperate women into hookers for her male clients. Garbo is elegant and dignified without tipping into the Hollywood glamour that would soon define her (and fix her teeth), the honest working class innocent about to be savaged by the economic piranhas circling the stream.

Greta Garbo in ‘The Joyless Street’

The ostensible lead, however, is Asta Nielsen, the thirtysomething German superstar playing the teenage daughter of an impoverished and pious war veteran who accuses her of prostitution and essentially pushes her to it out of necessity. Dressed to the hilt by a smitten banker in fashions that make the Ziegfeld Follies look restrained, she goes through the movie like the walking dead, numb with shock at her station, which apparently her foreign fat cat client finds alluring, if confusing. Werner Krauss plays the butcher, who hordes his products to trade for sexual favors and wields the power of his position like a petty tyrant, and there’s an American aid worker, an aspiring young banker trying to follow in his market-manipulating boss’s footsteps, and a decadent young woman ready to trade her affections for the richest beau, plus there’s a couple of murders, a fiery suicide, a healthy dose of madness, and lots of lurid spectacle.

And yet watching the film is tough. Manny Farber’s designation of “elephant art” came to mind while working through the screening. This is long (over 2 ½ hours), important, heavy, full of social commentary and dreary lessons, and it goes on and on, teasing us with the threat of degradation of its struggling characters while showing damaging actions of the rich. It’s also overloaded with storylines, top-heavy with major characters (some of whom suddenly disappear for long periods, perhaps due to missing footage), confusing and complicated and at times clumsy in its storytelling.

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SFSFF 2013 Premieres: ‘The Half-Breed’ and ‘The Last Edition’

I surveyed the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival for Fandor a few weeks ago, covering the highlights and landmarks in brief. But it was always my intention to explore the films, and my experience with them, in a little more detail, time permitting. As it turns out, time has not permitted much opportunity, so I’ve carved a few hours out of a weekend to collect my notes and my thoughts over a few of the films.

The San Francisco International Film Festival has been expanding its size and its mission from the very beginning, when it was a single film showing with live music. Since then, it has expanded to four days, playing new restorations and rediscoveries, bringing in the finest silent film accompanists from around the world, commissioning original scores, and offering presentations from archivists walking us through their latest projects.

This year marks the latest and most exciting expansion of their mission: the world premiere of two new restorations undertaken by the SFSFF in collaboration with international film archives.

Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Half-Breed’

Allan Dwan’s 1916 The Half-Breed, a California frontier western starring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role, has been available before in a largely complete but partially re-edited 1924 re-release held by the Cinématèque Française (that version was released on disc a few years ago in Flicker Alley’s marvelous Douglas Fairbanks box set). Rob Byrne set about attempting to reconstruct the original, longer 1916 cut with the help of an incomplete (and very damaged) print of the original release held by the Library of Congress and a radically re-edited reduction print found by Lobster Films in France. Research into the scant documentation verified a few incomplete sequences and a couple of completely missing scenes, which Byrne, collaborating with Cinématèque Française, was able to reconstruct with the additional prints. (At the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation on Friday morning, Byrne presented a step-by-step look at the process of not just finding footage, but doing detective work into finding the original titles, the original narrative, and the editing as seen on the original release; it was the most detailed presentation I have seen on the work and research that goes in to restoring a silent film.)

The result is not necessarily one of Fairbanks’ best films, but the restored film shows a more nuanced and interesting drama than heretofore seen, a conflicted portrait of racism and prejudice through the filter of history that decries intolerance without defying it (the film can’t let even as noble a half-breed as Fairbanks walk off into the sunset with a white woman), yet vividly lays out the hypocrisy of prejudice and white superiority in scene after scene. The film was adapted from a Bret Harte short story by Anita Loos, whose distinctive wit is evident in the surviving original intertitles (most of them are lost and the difference between the deft language and satirical edge of Loos and the bland writing of the rewritten titles of the reissue is unavoidable).

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2013 Wrap

I knew that San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the premiere silent fest in America, but I was elated to learn from Céline Ruivo, curator of the film collection at the Cinématèque Française and a special guest at this year’s festival, that in Europe, SFSFF has a reputation as one of the premiere silent film festivals in the world. It has earned that reputation. In its now four-day length (three full days plus a gala opening night), it is both selective and expansive in its programming, with rediscoveries and new restorations along with well-known audience favorites and world masterpieces.

‘Prix de Beauté’

The opening night program qualifies as both rediscovery and revival. Prix de Beaute (1930, France), directed by Augusto Genina from a screenplay by G.W. Pabst and Rene Clair (who originally developed the project for himself), is famous largely for its star: it was Louise Brooks‘ third and final starring role in her brief European vogue. It was also released in both silent and talkie versions, and the sound version (with La Brooks dubbed by a French actress) is what most people have seen. The recently restored silent version is both longer and more interesting, even while it remains a minor coda to her Pabst masterpieces. The story of a newspaper secretary who wins the Miss Europe beauty contest takes abrupt tonal turns from bubbly romantic comedy to high-society spectacle to working class drama to operatic melodrama. But at its best it offers a look at working class life at work and at play in 1930 Paris and it sweeps us up in the rush of Brooks’ fairy-tale journey to stardom. Her fresh, natural presence in the world of late silent-era acting makes her all the more guileless and innocent in a culture where every man wants to possess and control her.

The programmers are as careful with the musical component as they are on the film materials. Every film is accompanied by live music from world-class silent film musicians. The opening night films was accompanied by Stephen Horne, a solo musician as one man band: he plays piano, flute and accordion (often two at once), and plucks strings of piano to suggest a Spanish guitar in a nightclub scene. The affectionate joke around the theater is that Horne returns to SFSFF every year because they get a combo for the price of a solo act! Also returning this year are the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra from Colorado and the Mattie Bye Ensemble from Sweden, while German pianist and organ player Günter Buchwald made his SFSFF debut on four programs.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Safety Last’

The image of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the Los Angeles city streets may be the single most iconic shot that says “silent movies” and “slapstick comedy” to the general public without further explanation. It is of course one of the great set pieces in Safety Last! (1923), the fourth and still most famous feature from the acrobatic silent comedy superstar.

Lloyd plays the small town swell trying to make good in the big city, putting on a show of success for his girl back home while scraping by as a department store at the fabrics counter, still waiting for his big break. He’s simply called “The Boy” in the credits but his pay stub puts his name right out there — Harold Lloyd — and why not? It’s a familiar variation in his repertoire as “the glasses character,” as he called the persona defined by his distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and Horatio Alger spirit. Whether rural or urban, he was the everyman trying to make his way in the world and win the girl. All of the great silent comics pretty created a defining screen character which they dropped into different situations. As popular as Chaplin and Keaton and even more successful financially, Lloyd was the modern man of the big three, the bright young man of the jazz age trying to carve out his piece of the American dream. Lloyd didn’t take directing or writing credit (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor share the directing title card and Keystone komedy king Hal Roach is one of the screenwriters), but at this point in his fast-rising career he was, like Chaplin and Keaton, very much in charge of his films. He developed the stories, helped design the stunts, and made sure the production looked big and handsome and impressive.

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Videodrone: ‘French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928’

French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928 (Flicker Alley) presents of the stateside DVD debut of five silent classics from Film Albatros, a French studio founded by Russian artists: The Burning Crucible, Kean, The Late Mathias Pascal, Gribiche, and The New Gentlemen.

Three of the films star Ivan Mosjoukine, the great Russian actor who fled the revolution and landed in Paris, and the other two are directed by Jacques Feyder. All of them are examples of the sophisticated filmmaking coming out of France in the twenties.

Which is not to say that they are all masterpieces — The Burning Crucible (1923), which not only stars Mosjoukine but is written and directed by the actor, is inventive and full of lively images and playful techniques but is all over the place and jumps willy-nilly through styles and episodes — but they are all tremendously entertaining and full of filmmaking energy. Mosjoukine plays eleven roles in The Burning Crucible, including the leading role of Detective Z, a man of many disguises, and Mosjoukine the director rolls Russian formalism, German expressionism, and French surrealism together in a simplistic but richly imaginative story that at times borders on craziness of Louis Feuillade’s serials of the previous decade.

Mosjoukine also stars in Kean (1924) as the great 19th century stage actor Edmund Kean and in The Late Mathias Pascal (1926), the fantasy epic directed by Marcel L’Herbier that Flicker Alley released on Blu-ray earlier this year. I reviewed it for Videodrone here.

The final pair of films in the set are from Jacques Feyder.

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DVD: ‘The Circle’

“Man may select a wife – but he should be careful whose wife he selects.”

The Circle, based on the 1921 play by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by Frank Borzage in 1925, is a fascinating and ultimately moving film that defies expectations. It slips between high melodrama and drawing room comedy, with jabs of social satire and romantic tragedy along the way, before upending all expectations to deliver characters that defy convenient definition.

The film opens on a very young Joan Crawford as young beauty Lady Catherine, who leaves her amiable but dull millionaire husband Lord Clive Chaney (along with their young son) to follow her heart and run off with her lover Hugh, who happens to Clive’s best friend. Borzage plays it as a grandly romantic moment of both passionate risk (for Catherine, leaving everything to follow her heart) and devastating abandonment (Clive, betrayed by the people he loved most, holds tight to his son, oblivious to it all).

Jump ahead thirty years and the story seems poised to repeat itself, with the vivacious Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman) married to Clive’s son Arnold (Creighton Hale), who has grown into the cliché of the spoiled, prissy, socially awkward scion of wealth, and planning to run off with handsome “good friend” Teddy (Malcolm McGregor), a smug permanent houseguest and suspicious opportunist. Complicating things is the presence of the Clive (Alec B. Francis), now aged into a gentle, doting patriarch watching the youngsters with a knowing smile and a quiet authority. “I had a friend like that,” he confides to Elizabeth. “… Hughie.” But before she does anything rash, she has arranged for Lady Catherine (now known as Kitty and played by Eugenie Besserer) to visit Arnold for the first time since running off.

The high melodrama of the prologue slips into a satirical portraits playing out their roles on a romantic farce. Clive wanders in like a doddering old man in hunting gear waving his shotgun around, which is hardly the welcome they were preparing for the return of his runaway bride. Arnold has the look of a sneering, petty European prince villain in a Lubitsch or von Stroheim continental sex comedy, dressed in with a monocle and trim Prussian mustache, and, after much anticipation, Kitty arrives as a blowsy, loud dowager dragging Hughie (George Fawcett) behind her, the once dashing figure now a sour, carping curmudgeon.

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‘Blancanieves’: A Retro Retelling of Snow White

Maribel Verdú: simply wicked

The obvious comparison to Pablo Berger’s inventive retelling of Snow White as a silent-movie melodrama, set in the 1920s bullfighting scene of Seville, is The Artist. Both channel the international language of silents for modern viewers, and both have been embraced by audiences and lavished with awards. Blancanieves comes stateside with 10 Goya Awards, Spain’s answer to the Oscars.

The similarities end there. Berger draws from different inspirations—grand melodrama, flamenco, circus fantasy, and toreador worship—and mixes them with silent-film conventions and contemporary storytelling. Think Blood and Sand by way of Victor Sjöström and Pedro Almodóvar, with a modern, empowered heroine.

That heroine—called “Snowhite” in one mashed-up word—is Carmen (Macarena García), the all-but-abandoned daughter of a crippled bullfighter (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Her social-climbing wicked stepmother Encarna is played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También) with scheming, sadistic glee. There’s also a band of dwarfs with a gypsy bullfighting act and a poisoned apple, but the fairy-tale elements end there. In the enchanted corrida, amnesia-struck Snowhite becomes a matador in her own right, an adored heroine and Prince Charming all at once.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Late Mathias Pascal’

Even the most famous of silent movies are a specialized interest when it comes to home video. Apart from the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton or a few acknowledged landmarks of silent cinema (think Sunrise or Metropolis or Nosferatu), many movie fans view silent films as primitive or dull. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At its best, silent cinema is a pure kind of moviemaking that tells stories in images and metaphor. It’s a different kind of storytelling, but it is no less complex or evocative than the best of sound cinema.

The Late Mathias Pascal, Marcel L’Herbier’s fabulist epic from 1926 France, is a marvelous example of silent cinema at its most ambitious from one of the most inventive and most influential French directors of the era. Based on a novel by Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mathias Pascal (originally titled Feu Mathias Pascal) stars Ivan Mosjoukine, a Russian émigré who became a leading star in French silent cinema, as a dreamer whose life takes a fantastic turn. The film opens with Mathias as the spoiled son of a wealthy widow who loses the family fortune because he, the aspiring artist and would-be genius at work, is too self-involved to be bothered with the family affairs. He’s hardly a classic hero – when asked by his best friend Jerome (Michel Simon), a shy and bumbling but good-hearted working class schlub, to approach the town beauty Romilde (Marcelle Pradot) on his behalf, Mathias ends up falling in love with her himself and ultimately marrying her – but he’s also resilient, plucky, and driven to succeed after his sudden turn of fortune.

Mathias and Romilde move in to a dreary old apartment with Romilde’s sour mother and Mathias takes a job in a horror of a municipal library, yet he approaches both with optimism and ingenuity. When he first enters the former church turned neglected book warehouse, a place that could have spring from the imagination of Kafka in a whimsical mood, he finds rats nibbling the haphazard stacks of books and responds by bringing in a pair of cats. He watches them clear the place with the joy of a kid. But while L’Herbier makes a point of creating a vivid portrait of the social culture of working class life in this small town, realism is the last thing on the director’s mind. The plot takes wildly abrupt turns and shifts in tone–the storybook romance of this marriage is poisoned by his never-satisfied mother-in-law, his optimism is swamped by a double-shot of tragedy, and when his misery sends him on a trip to Rome, fate turns around and suddenly pours on the good fortune. The provincial dreamer who loses it all becomes an innocent in the high society of Rome where he wins it all back, but his new life comes with a wicked price.

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Blu-ray / DVD: Fritz Lang’s ‘Die Nibelungen’

Die Nibelungen (Kino) is the original fantasy epic, a magnificent silent spectacle based on the same German myth that inspired Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the wellspring that nurtured “Excalibur,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Game of Thrones” (not mention “Metropolis”).

This blood and thunder myth of warriors and dragons and brotherhood and betrayal, is awesome in its scope, both visual and dramatic. Warrior prince Siegfried is both innocent child-man of the wild and the blonde Aryan ideal of German myth, a mortal god in his own right destroyed by the pettiness of human vanity and weakness of his own sworn blood brother. The betrayal of the first part of this mighty diptych is answered in the title of part two: “Kriemhild’s Revenge.” His widow vows vengeance (“Blood cries for blood!”) and it is as enormous and devastating as anything Shakespeare created, practically destroying two kingdoms in a literal conflagration.

On the one hand, Lang presents is as a tragedy, of vengeance burning down everything and everyone it touches, but Kriemhild can also be seen as the hand of the gods burning out the corruption of a compromised kingdom that defends a killer with the same sense of honor that justified the betrayal of a blood brother. “You do not understand the German soul,” explains one knight to the King Attila of the Huns, but as embodied by the weak-willed King Gunther, their is little to understand beyond perhaps regret for past sins and a futile gesture to regain lost honor.

Beyond that, “Die Nibelungen” is simply magnificent to behold, a mythic landscape of ancient forests, fairy tale waterfalls, lakes of fire, and caves and crevices hewn out of earth and rock, built entirely in the studios of Ufa. There’s a half-hearted inclusion of Christianity with a massive cathedral and a few carefully-placed crucifixes, but if there is any religion to this film, it is of the Earth and nature and the old gods, and every set and manufactured landscape serves the grandeur of this primeval, pre-religion world.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Paul Fejos’ ‘Lonesome’

Paul Fejos’ Lonesome is both one of the great films of the late silent movie era and one of the oddities of the transition to the talkies. It was released as a hybrid silent film that (like The Jazz Singer) features a few sound sequences with synchronized dialogue scattered through the film. While they stick out as static and somewhat awkward diversion, they are also a unique gimmick of a turbulent era and a contrast to the graceful filmmaking of the silent era surrounding them.

Barbara Kent in ‘Lonesome’

“In the whirlpool of modern life, the most difficult thing is to live alone,” states the intertitles, as we ride a train into the empty dawn of New York City (an introduction right out of Berlin: Symphony of a City and Man With a Movie Camera) and watch it wake up for the day. In one sparse but pleasantly personalized rented room is Mary (Barbara Kent), a young switchboard operator whose leisurely morning routine stands in sharp contrast to Jim (Glenn Tryon), a witty young man who oversleeps and races through dressing, breakfast, and the subway station to get to work (he stamps out razor blades on an assembly line) on time. Both of them are driven by the punchclock of the workplace (Fejos even frames shots of their workaday monotony through the face of a clock) until the workday ends and the promise of a holiday weekend sends their friends off in pairs. It only reminds them that they have no one. Setting out singly for a day at the beach, they cross paths, he preens self-consciously (there’s something of the joker in him as he poses as a swell), she smiles and flirts coquettishly and runs off like a child tagging a new playmate. A lovely little romance blooms amidst the ever-present crowds.

Lonesome is right out of the late-silent film culture that gave us Sunrise, The Crowd, People on Sunday, and other films of youth and romance in the modern (circa late 1920s) urban world. Fejos’ gentle affection and empathy for these lonely kids, and his inventive direction, lift the film from an overwhelming, potentially smothering society of the modern metropolis. The urban bustle of the city and the crowded, equally bustling vacation playground of the Coney Island getaway are as much characters in their own right as Jim and Mary. Fejos brings that world to life with an affection for that big city ambience even as it picks out our heroes from the crowd, never losing them in the human sea.

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