At the 30th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna's annual celebration of restored and rediscovered cinema, the bonus addition to the bill was not a film-maker, or a movie, but a projector. The machine in question was a British model, made in 1899 ...
The best festivals contain surprises, secret gigs arranged too hastily to appear in the printed programme, but which draw a discerning crowd, jumpy with anticipation. At the 30th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna’s annual celebration of restored and rediscovered cinema, the bonus addition to the bill was not a film-maker, or a movie, but a projector. The machine in question was a British model, made in 1899, but now once again in perfect working order.
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Fittingly, the projector was positioned in a piazzetta near the Cineteca di Bologna as the sun was setting, and threaded with a reel of the first films ever projected – the 50-second slices of life shot by the Lumière brothers in 1895. A spark of electricity between two carbon electrodes in the projector illuminated the screen, and while the handle was patiently turned, the faces and bodies of our 19th-century forebears appeared. The films, more than a century old and already familiar to most in the audience, had a new crackle of authenticity, which was due to more than just the flickering caused by the Victorian mechanics. The relatively small frame thrown on to the canvas, the fluttering light as the carbon lamp fizzed and sputtered, and the drama of the occasion prompted a few strained necks and gasps of pleasure. This was how our ancestors would have watched the first films – perhaps with more excitement, but less hushed respect. The technology was on display as much as the films themselves, with a microphone placed close to the machine so that its constant whirr would harmonise with the piano accompaniment.
Having completed its short programme without a visible hitch, the vintage projector was wheeled away and the evening’s advertised entertainment could begin. Another carbon lamp projector, but larger, and less ancient, showed Jean Epstein’s beautiful coastal romance Coeur Fidèle (1923). The impressionist style of that film, with its superimpositions and haunting closeups contrasting with a grimy setting, was as apt an illustration as you could find of how later silent film-makers built on the work of the Lumière brothers, transforming their techniques and eye for composition into a visual poetry. Elsewhere in the week, the same carbon glow would be bestowed on outdoor screenings of Hollywood’s first adaptation of Stella Dallas, an accomplished and wonderfully poignant film from 1925, and a programme of shorts from the 1900s, featuring glimpses of astonishingly vivid hand-applied colour.
At this year’s festival, amid a more than generous selection of films and talks covering all decades of cinema history, there were many such opportunities to connect with the beginnings of the medium. The immensely popular series of screenings covering the pre-code escapades of producer Carl Laemmle Jr at Universal featured the roving, “unchained” camera-work of cinematographer Karl Freund, who gave German expressionist silents Metropolis (1927) and The Last Laugh (1924) such emotional unease. That strand also contained Paul Leni’s crackpot The Last Warning (1929), a haunted-theatre yarn that mines all the gimmicks of the silent-film playbook for shocks and giggles. An overdue, and excellent, restoration of silent veteran Lewis Milestone’s talkie The Front Page (1931) created room to enjoy its claustrophobic, circling camera-work in the poky press room as much as the celebrated machine-gun dialogue. And the stunt-fighting and physical comedy of Tay Garnett’s sleazy romantic drama Her Man surely owed a debt to the era of great silent slapstick that was just ending when it was made in 1930.
That magical screening of Coeur Fidèle was part of one of my favourite strands at this year’s Ritrovato: that devoted to Marie Epstein. The sister of the well-known director Jean herself worked as an actor, screenwriter and director, before spending the later part of her career preserving films at the Cinématheque Française with Henri Langlois (she acted in, and co-wrote, Coeur Fidèle). Working with co-director Jean Benoît-Lévy, Epstein’s greatest successes among the films shown in Bologna this year showcased great child acting, as in the rural silent Peau de Pêche (1928), or the magnificent ballet-school drama La Mort du Cygne (1937), an unforgettable, juvenile Black Swan. The intensity of emotion and clarity of drama in these films often rendered the festival’s offering of simultaneous translation redundant.
Related: 'This slapstick looks ridiculous in the making': when silent movies went meta
Silent films burst forth in other strands of the festival, most notably the Restored and Rediscovered programme, and the section devoted to centenarian titles. In the former, Czech social drama Taký je život (Such Is Life, 1929) was perhaps the most remarkable discovery: a female-led drama starring Vera Baranovskaja, which lays bare the deprivations of urban poverty. The film is notable for its minimalist intertitles – they are used only as chapter headings, with proverbs attached to each day in its week-long structure. The plot, comprising multiple characters and small but crucial incidents, is told entirely visually. Avant-garde dancer Valeska Gert adds spice as a minxy waitress. Another highlight was a showing of Volker Schlöndorff’s sharp, gossipy film portrait (Nur Zum Spass – Nur Zum Spiel, 1977) of this amazing performer, who spent most of her career on the stage but made indelible appearances in films by Pabst and Fellini, among others.
British silent Shooting Stars (1928) showed us one of the earliest and best examples of the industry turning its focus, and its humour, inward – while an original Technicolor print of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) repeated the jokes at a safer distance. Der Müde Tod (1921), one of Fritz Lang’s shorter (98 minutes) and earlier “monumental films”, was presented with its original colour tinting revived. A restoration of Pola Negri’s whip-cracking comedy A Woman of the World (1925) brought some very 1920s humour, and sexual double standards, to a modern audience, and a screening of Clarence Brown’s sizzling Flesh and the Devil (1926), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, played to a packed house.
A screening of DW Griffith’s epic Intolerance (1916), with live musical accompaniment, running for more than three hours, would normally be a gala event, but here it was just one of the juiciest titbits in the section devoted to films from 1916. Pre-revolutionary Russian films, early Hollywood genre pictures and precocious work by names such as Frank Borzage, Allan Dwan and Douglas Fairbanks revealed a picture of a lively and ambitious year in film history, including the last gasps of Europe’s dominance in the world market.
There couldn’t be a celebration of silent cinema without Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, though, who were both featured strongly in the programme. Having completed restoration work on Chaplin’s films, Cineteca has started on those of his stone-faced peer, with The Keaton Project. Some of those new prints were shown: shorts The High Sign (1921), The Paleface (1922) and Cops (1922), as well the hour-long caper Seven Chances (1925), appeared across the week. There were also al fresco screenings of two classic Chaplin features, Modern Times (1936) and The Kid (1921), in the city’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore, with live orchestral accompaniment. Throughout the festival, the silent screenings were among the most popular events, with queues forming outside the screening rooms even for obscure titles. For the Chaplin films, delegates, tourists and Bologna residents came in their thousands, thronging the square and bouncing laughter off the palazzo walls. The Lumière brothers, who had a permanent presence in the Piazza thanks to the eye-opening exhibition devoted to their work, would have been pleasantly surprised. Louis Lumière famously told George Méliès that his invention had no future. Little did he know that it would still be thriving more than a century later, and that its future could live so happily with its past.
• For more on the festival see the Cinema Ritrovato website.
Film,Culture,Festivals,Charlie Chaplin,Buster Keaton,Silent film,Comedy,Romance,Drama,Comedy,Film adaptations,Books