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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Build your own silent film festival

Screen Grabs: Build your own silent film festival

Fairbanks, Murnau, Pabst, and more bring a golden age to your home screen. Plus a new Ferlinghetti doc and more

For years the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a July event, and this summer would have marked its 25th anniversary—but due to you-know-what, that big Castro Theatre shebang was postponed first to the fall, then to next year. (Another mid-summer local film staple, the SF Jewish Film Festival, is moving to an online version for 2020. We’ll preview that next week, in advance of its July 16 start.)

The Silent Fest is offering a consolation prize in the form of 1916 western The Good Bad Man, whose 2014 restoration it had a hand in. Douglas Fairbanks plays the masked bandit known only as “Passin’ Through,” anticipating his later role as Robin Hood by handing stolen loot to the poor (“helpin’ kids that’s born in shame”), then reformed by love for Bessie Love, a “white flower amongst poisonous weeds” who’s fending off the attentions of a bad bandit king. It was directed by Allan Dwan, the insanely prolific Canadian emigre whose half-century career also encompassed star vehicles for Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, The Ritz Brothers, John Wayne, Jane Russell and Kay Kyser. Pre-existing members and new supporters can watch the 50-minute adventure for free through July 10. Sign up here.

You can throw your own mini-silent film festival at home with a quartet of recently restored 1920s German titles just released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Classics. The arrival of the talkies erected a language barrier that made movies suddenly much less international. But during the decade that saw silent cinema’s creative peak (and demise), many thought Germany’s industry the most sophisticated and important worldwide, in terms of advancing the medium as an art form.

The most famous of the four Kino is The Golem, which came out a few months after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920, and likewise startled viewers with its arresting German Expressionist visual design. If Caligari remains the better-known example of that style, that’s perhaps because its portrait of madness allowed for a more purely imaginative abstraction, whereas Golem abstracted an at least faintly recognizable medieval reality in illustrating a Jewish legend. Director-star Paul Wegener had actually made a prior, modern-dress version (now lost) of the same story in 1915, which he was reportedly unhappy with.

This ambitious period retake sees the Jewish ghetto of 13th century Prague under threat by a Christian emperor’s prejudiced decrees. A necromancy-dabbling rabbi conjures a being of mud and clay (played by Wegener in grotesque makeup) to protect and avenge the community. Like Frankenstein’s monster, of course, this creature proves lethally hard to control. With its still-stunning set designs, and no less than three original musical scores to choose from in the Kino package, this Golem (whose full original title was The Golem: How He Came Into the World) remains a singular fantasy fable.

The other three titles will be new even amongst many silent film fans. SF Silent Fest attendees already got a gander last year at 1927’s The Love of Jeanne Ney, a sprawling story that starts out in post-revolutionary Russia, but soon leaves politics behind for romantic and criminal chicanery in Paris. Our heroine (played by Edith Jehanne, who fell into such obscurity later that her country of origin and time/place of death are unknown) loves a virtuous but falsely accused Bolshevik (Uno Henning).

Her blind friend Brigette Helm (who starred in Metropolis the same year) is courted for her fortune by evil schemer Fritz Rasp, Germany’s go-to screen villain for much of the 20th century. Directed by G.W. Pabst between his better-remembered showcases for pre-Hollywood Greta Garbo (The Joyless Street) and expat Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl), it’s a vivid thriller with energetically diverse menu of stylistic influences.

Another great director of the era was F.W. Murnau, whose major collaborations with actor Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, Faust) were considered remarkable advances in motion picture artistry, as was his first Hollywood feature Sunrise (1927). Less remembered is his middle Jannings vehicle, 1925’s Tartuffe, perhaps because it was a contractual obligation Murnau supposedly didn’t really want to do. Ergo he treated Moliere’s play as raw material, framing a drastically simplified version of its content as a movie-within-the-movie, shown by a grandson to the wealthy grandpa being bilked by his housekeeper as a lesson in trusting false friends.

It takes nearly half an hour (in a film just 70 minutes long) to introduce Big Kahuna Jannings, then considered by many the medium’s greatest actor. It was a sentiment with which he apparently concurred—among colleagues (and ex-wives) he seems to have been regarded as a giant, pompous pain in the ass. (His great if brief subsequent Hollywood success terminated by a thick accent and sound, Jannings returned home to enthusiastically serve the Nazi regime, for which his career paid a deserved postwar price.) The star’s toadlike religious hypocrite is grotesque without being funny, suggesting comedy was not a strong suit for either actor or director. Yet even this decidedly minor Murnau still has inventive and visually sumptuous touches.

By contrast, a major find from less tabled talents is 1927’s  The Great Leap, which deploys the major director (Arnold Fanck) and stars of German “mountain films” at the time, but unlike most such exercises is exuberantly silly farce rather than a poetical melodrama. Leni Riefenstahl, before she became the most notorious of Nazi directors, plays “Gita, an Italian Goatherd” living on the Italy-Tyrol border with her little goat Pippa and umpteen little (human) siblings. She often free-solos to the top of local precipices to playfully escape suitor Toni (strapping Luis Trenker, who’d direct and star in some of the genre’s greatest hits), but tries less hard to evade woo pitched by tourist Michael (Hans Schneeberger). He’s a hypochondriacal Berliner in the pink of health who’s sent to the countryside to get some exercise “and maybe a wife” by his exasperated doctor.

The highly physical hijinks climax in a long, spectacular, fanciful ski-race finale whose slapstick stunts are so impressive you have to wonder just how many legs got broken. Basically playing Buster Keaton, athletic Austrian Schneeberger never acted before or after—instead, he became one of German cinema’s leading cinematographers for decades to come.

Not all that is golden is silent, however, and local movie venues have dug up some additional archival treasures that have actual soundtracks. The Pacific Film Archive’s “BAMPFA From Home” program is currently offering Claude Sautet’s 1960 Classe Tous Risques aka The Big Risk (more info here), often considered the apex of French crime melodramas. An Italian co-production, it stars Lino Ventura as a veteran gangster in hiding from the law, Jean-Paul Belmondo (the same year as Breathless) as an up-and-coming one, and Sandra Milo as a woman who helps them both—though this is the kind of pessimistic thriller in which ultimately no one can be helped. Also available (and for free) are three vintage civil rights scrutinies from pioneering African-American documentarian Madeline Anderson: 1960’s Integration Report 1, 1969’s A Tribute to Malcolm X, and 1970’s I Am Somebody, about a black hospital workers’ strike in South Carolina (more info here).

This coming Fri/10, brings three more streaming attractions of particular Bay Area interest. Rafael@Home will begin hosting Christopher Felver’s Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, a tribute to the celebrated SF poet who is still with us at (now) age 101 (more info here). There’s the general streaming release of Harry Mavromichalis’ documentary Olympia, another portrait of a veteran artist—the 89-year-old actress who’s won an Obie, an Oscar (for Moonstruck), and in more recent years played several major roles for Carey Perloff at American Conservatory Theater (more info here).

Finally, Cine+Mas/SF Latino Film Festival is reprising its 2018 program “Have You Seen Her, La Mision?,” on Roxie Virtual Cinema (more info here). It’s a program of film and video works that capture the Mission District under duress from the dot-com boom’s gentrification wave in the late 1990s, encompassing documentaries (like the late Nora Cadena’s Ni aqui, ni alta aka Neither Here Nor There), poetical miniatures (Alfred Hernandez’s That Mission Rising!), and Pepe Urquijo’s half-hour 1998 drama Algun dia (Someday), a B&W tale of strolling troubadours and predatory landlords in the wake of the punitive anti-immigrant state proposition 187.

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