Ge­of­frey O’Brien

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Il Cinema Ritrovato a film fes­ti­val in Bologna, Italy, June 23–July 1, 2018

Il Cinema Ritrovato a film fes­ti­val in Bologna, Italy, June 23–July 1, 2018

To roam at will among films lost, films never seen, films quite likely not even known by you to ex­ist, day af­ter day among spec­ta­tors all an­i­mated by a com­mon at­ten­tive­ness and pal­pa­ble cu­rios­ity, as if noth­ing ex­isted out­side the par­al­lel world of cinema: for some of us that might be the most ir­re­sistible es­cape of all, a plunge not into obliv­ion but into all the cor­ri­dors of mem­ory, lit by a thousand cam­eras. In early sum­mer of each year Bologna be­comes the site of such a col­lec­tive im­mer­sion. On July 1, Il Cinema Ritrovato wrapped up its thirty-sec­ond edizione, in which dur­ing nine days more than five hun­dred films (of lengths rang­ing from a minute to many hours) were shown on as many as nine screens.

The fes­ti­val be­gan in 1986 as a three­day event, pro­vid­ing a show­case for the work of film re­stor­ers around the world, un­veil­ing films that have been found again, stitched to­gether from scat­tered frag­ments, or made newly vis­i­ble de­spite the in­cur­sions of ni­trate de­cay. By now the den­sity of the pro­gram­ming is stag­ger­ing, en­com­pass­ing mul­ti­ple strands in any given year. This time the themes in­cluded the ca­reer of Mar­cello Mas­troianni, Soviet films of 1934, Chi­nese cinema of the late 1940s, the work of the film­mak­ers Lu­ciano Em­mer, Mar­cello Pagliero, and Yil­maz Güney, and a salute to Tech­ni­color. There is a fes­ti­val tra­di­tion of pass­ing in re­view the films of a cen­tury ear­lier, so it was 1918 that filed by in fea­tures, se­ri­als, news­reels, trav­el­ogues, and even a film that can barely be said to ex­ist: Ger­maine Du­lac’s multi-episode melo­drama Âmes de fous (1918), a few bits of which re­cently sur­faced in a Dutch archive. These pieces of film were shown in­ter­spersed with still im­ages of other scenes and in­ge­niously in­cor­po­rated into a thirty-minute live read­ing, with vig­or­ous mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment, of the film’s con­vo­luted sce­nario, cre­at­ing the il­lu­sion of hav­ing watched a three-hour far­rago of se­duc­tion, mad­ness, and stolen in­her­i­tance. This was the more re­mark­able in that the ac­tual cel­lu­loid com­po­nent of the pro­gram, split up into in­fin­i­tes­i­mal glimpses, ran about two min­utes in all. Imag­i­nary films, as the fes­ti­val codi­rec­tor Mar­i­ann Lewin­sky re­marked, can be more pow­er­ful than real ones. The fes­ti­val is marked not by out­ward ex­u­ber­ance but by a cur­rent of in­tense fo­cus. A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with time is un­der­stand­able at Il Cinema Ritrovato, where over­lap­ping screen­ings of­ten make it nec­es­sary to en­ter af­ter the be­gin­ning or leave be­fore the end; by the same to­ken a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity be­tween two films can per­mit a glance at some third spec­ta­cle, whether a sam­pling of Tech­ni­color dye trans­fer ref­er­ence reels from the early 1970s or a one-minute movie from 1898 de­pict­ing the burn­ing of Joan of Arc. Archivists, pro­gram­mers, film stu­dents, his­to­ri­ans, and mere ded­i­cated cinephiles, gen­er­ally with their pro­gram guides close at hand for ref­er­ence, move con­tin­u­ally up and down the streets of cen­tral Bologna, from the aptly named Pi­azzetta Pier Paolo Pa­solini where the Cineteca di Bologna is head­quar­tered, past the spa­cious Cinema Ar­lecchino and Cinema Jolly, to the Pi­azza Mag­giore where each night there is an open-air pro­jec­tion of a film by Ernst Lu­bitsch or Ing­mar Bergman or Ser­gio Leone, on a screen vast enough that their im­ages can vie with the city’s sur­round­ing Gothic mon­u­ments.

As one fes­ti­val­goer re­marked, the pur­suit of cin­e­matic rar­i­ties can feel like a soli­tary way of life. Bologna pro­vides a re­as­sur­ing sense that there are at least these thou­sands of others,

con­verg­ing from around the globe, who care with equal in­ten­sity about the re­motest cor­ners of film his­tory, and who will line up for a 1919 court­room drama by John M. Stahl (the ob­ject of a ret­ro­spec­tive se­ries this year) as if it were the most ur­gent break­ing news. In this rar­efied at­mos­phere, the films do in­deed ac­quire ur­gent force. Once you are ac­cus­tomed to a do­main where ev­ery­thing is old, each film can seem freshly re­vealed, as if seen for the first time. The im­ages as­sert them­selves with a de­fi­ant new­ness—not sim­ply the new­ness of an op­ti­mal restora­tion, but of a long-mis­laid mes­sage forc­ing its way into view.

That court­room drama, The Woman Un­der Oath, was a per­fect in­stance of the un­ex­pected en­coun­ters that flour­ish here. Stahl is re­mem­bered from his hey­day in the 1930s and 1940s as a mas­ter of the “woman’s pic­ture,” rec­og­nized for the per­sua­sive power of such films as Back Street (1932), Im­i­ta­tion of Life (1934), When To­mor­row Comes (1939), and the never to be for­got­ten Leave Her to Heaven (1945), a Freudian fever dream in hal­lu­ci­na­tory Tech­ni­color. The Woman Un­der Oath is a woman’s pic­ture too, in its open­ing ti­tle card ask­ing the ques­tion: “Is a woman tem­per­a­men­tally fit­ted for ser­vice on a jury in a crim­i­nal case?” A nov­el­ist (Florence Reed), per­haps mod­eled on Edith Whar­ton, puts it to the test as a ju­ror in the mur­der trial of a young man ac­cused of shooting his em­ployer. The sixty-minute film has enough plot—by turns rough-edged, tragic, and pre­pos­ter­ous—for a much longer fea­ture, and feels like an ex­per­i­ment in how rapidly a sit­u­a­tion can be laid out and cross-cut with other scenes. It has the rhythm of ma­chin­ery be­ing pushed to its max­i­mum speed, with ever more im­prob­a­ble sur­prises pil­ing up as it rounds its fi­nal cor­ners. A harsh po­lice in­ter­ro­ga­tion, a din­ner in an ex­otic sup­per club, a masked ball on New Year’s Eve, a rape in a locked of­fice, a vi­sion of ghostly ac­cusatory fig­ures in the win­dow of the jury room: these and much else al­ter­nate and re­peat in vari­ant forms un­til the story’s am­bi­gu­i­ties are fi­nally straight­ened out in a sin­gle stun­ning shot where the strands come neatly to­gether.

Sur­prise is con­stant here, even ap­par­ently for the most learned film schol­ars in at­ten­dance. There is an un­avoid­able sense as well of the pre­car­i­ous­ness of these films’ sur­vival. Jean Grémil­lon’s Daï­nah la Métisse (1932) can just barely be said to have sur­vived, since its pro­ducer cut the film in half and ev­i­dently re­ar­ranged its se­quences. Even so it is one of the most over­whelm­ing films at Bologna. An el­e­gant woman of mixed race in­ter­acts flir­ta­tiously with the guests at an oth­er­wise all-white party on board an ocean liner, all of whom wear night­mar­ishly grotesque masks while “Cock­tails for Two” plays on the sound­track; her mo­rose dark-skinned hus­band stages feats of sur­real magic. The dream­like at­mos­phere gives way to scenes of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, rape, and mur­der, and, as a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­folds, the shad­owy re­gion be­low decks be­comes a place of labyrinthine ter­ror. The gaps in the story make Daï­nah per­haps an even more mys­te­ri­ous ob­ject than it was meant to be, but there is no mis­tak­ing Grémil­lon’s visual dar­ing. This is a film that haunts even while be­ing watched for the first time.

The newly re­stored, nearly com­plete Chris­tian Wahn­schaffe (1920–1921) was like­wise an as­ton­ish­ment. Adapted in two fea­ture-length parts by di­rec­tor Ur­ban Gad from Jakob Wasser­mann’s epic novel (known in English as The World’s Il­lu­sion), this is a panorama of early-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury tur­moil

as seen from the start of the Weimar years, with Con­rad Veidt giv­ing an ex­treme and man­nered per­for­mance as a wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ist’s son dab­bling in rad­i­cal pol­i­tics and utopian spir­i­tu­al­ity. The ir­re­sistibly in­tense Nor­we­gian ac­tress Lillebil Chris­tensen dom­i­nates the first part as an ob­ses­sive Parisian dancer em­broiled with Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and grand dukes, as things move in a vi­o­lent swirl to­ward a fiery and sui­ci­dal cli­max. In part two, Veidt meets up with his costar from The Cabi­net of Dr. Cali­gari, Werner Krauss, who in a blunt-force turn em­bod­ies a pimp of the most ab­ject moral loath­some­ness, as the film plunges into the mis­eries of a work­ing-class room­ing house racked by a sav­agery that re­mains un­set­tling.

One can only imag­ine how dis­turb­ing Chris­tian Wahn­schaffe, with its episodes of po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tion, ar­son, rape, mur­der, and lynch­ing at the hands of an aroused but mis­guided pro­le­tariat, must have been to its orig­i­nal au­di­ence. But the cu­ri­ous alchemy of the fes­ti­val—an alchemy that has ev­ery­thing to do with the pal­pa­ble at­ten­tive­ness its au­di­ences bring with them—en­cour­ages an ac­tive en­gage­ment by which his­tor­i­cal dis­tance seems to dis­solve and the films be­come al­most eerily present. Louis Feuil­lade filmed his 1918 se­rial Vendémi­aire in his na­tive re­gion of Provence, and the wine har­vest around which it cen­ters was oc­cur­ring pre­cisely at the time de­picted, dur­ing what were not at that point known to be the last days of World War I. Melo­drama and doc­u­men­tary min­gle, as refugees from the war-torn north head down the Rhône on a barge and a ne­far­i­ous es­caped Ger­man prisoner who has boasted of be­ing the first sol­dier to use poi­son gas against the en­emy dies from the toxic fumes of fer­ment­ing grapes in the stor­age cel­lar where he has taken shel­ter. The lov­ingly pho­tographed vine­yards and cot­tages and wa­ter­ways are al­most tac­tile in their im­me­di­acy, un­der­scor­ing the film’s in­sis­tence on ter­roir as a sym­bol for France. A feast in cel­e­bra­tion of the new vin­tage be­comes a pa­tri­otic cel­e­bra­tion of “the wine of lib­erty.” Re­al­is­tic in its de­pic­tion of a French pop­u­lace all too ready to be­lieve ru­mors and false ac­cu­sa­tions, par­tic­u­larly when lev­eled at the itin­er­ant poor, Vendémi­aire is a dif­fer­ent sort of master­work from Feuil­lade’s Fan­tô­mas and Les Vam­pires but shares their in­fal­li­bly po­etic in­stinct for the ex­pres­sive use of found lo­ca­tions.

As the days go by in Bologna an oceanic sense of in­ter­con­nec­tions takes hold. The films com­mu­ni­cate among them­selves, from their re­spec­tive van­tage points in time. Fic­tion and his­tory blur to­gether. In a news­reel shown af­ter Vendémi­aire, Parisians cel­e­brate the Armistice that had al­ready oc­curred by the time Feuil­lade’s film was re­leased. In an­other from the same year, Gen­eral Al­lenby leads his vic­to­ri­ous forces into Jerusalem on foot; this was paired with a timely 1918 Ital­ian adap­ta­tion of Tasso’s epic Jerusalem De­liv­ered.1 In the 1949 Chi­nese film The Win­ter of Three Hairs,2 based on a comic strip about an or­phan strug­gling to sur­vive on the streets of Shang­hai, the scrappy Three Hairs is up­lifted by news of the vic­to­ri­ous rev­o­lu­tion, and the scene changes to doc­u­men­tary footage of the Eighth Army parad­ing ju­bi­lantly. The Amer­i­can doc­u­men­tar­ian Her­bert Kline, in his brac­ing, long-for­got­ten Lights Out in Europe (1940), films Nazi troops ar­riv­ing in Danzig and Pol­ish vic­tims of aerial bomb­ing, while Lupino Lane re­gales a Lon­don mu­sic hall au­di­ence with “We’re Go­ing to Hang Out the Wash­ing on the Siegfried Line”; in the Amer­i­can fic­tion film None Shall Es­cape (1944), di­rec­tor An­dré de Toth dra­ma­tizes a fu­ture war crimes tri­bunal un­der the aus­pices of the United Na­tions, urg­ing the movie au­di­ence to con­sider its own verdict. Rum­mag­ing in the past we find the rem­nants of al­ter­nate fu­tures.

In­va­sions, vic­tory marches, warn­ings, ex­hor­ta­tions: it is like the scat­tered armies of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury col­lid­ing with one an­other in a float­ing af­ter­life. Where have we landed now, and in what year? What dis­as­ter just ended, or is about to hap­pen? The sense of leak­age from past to present lingers even as one takes fur­ther refuge into some more idyl­lic re­cess, sa­vor­ing the comic in­ter­play of Monty Wool­ley and Gra­cie Fields in Stahl’s Holy Mat­ri­mony (1943) or sur­ren­der­ing to ninety-six min­utes of un­re­strained ban­ter­ing and quar­rel­ing and teas­ing on the part of Sophia Loren and Mar­cello Mas­troianni in Alessan­dro Blasetti’s La For­tuna di Essere Donna (Lucky to Be a Woman, 1955). Here by turns are horses and storms and barges and swamps. Is this an­other movie about im­pos­si­ble love, an­other about the bru­tal ex­er­cise of power, an­other about a life seen at its end­point in ret­ro­spect? They come to seem part of a sin­gle movie whose edges re­cede into time­less dark­ness, a movie of which you are in­ex­tri­ca­bly a part. Call it In Search of Time Lost Once Upon a Time in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury.

Af­ter dusk the streets might seem to swarm with the ghosts of the spec­ta­tors for whom these films were made. It feels as if they are close at hand, hov­er­ing like the smoke that rises from the car­bon arc lamp pro­jec­tor in the Pi­azzetta Pa­solini, at an open-air night­time screen­ing of Fan­ta­sia ‘e surdato, di­rected by Elvira No­tari, a 1927 film based on a Neapoli­tan bal­lad about love and death. There is a mir­a­cle in these im­ages hav­ing been re­stored, and at the same time their dis­cernible flick­er­ing as they pass through the an­tique pro­jec­tor is a con­stant re­minder of im­per­ma­nence.

1 di­rected

La Gerusalemme Lib­er­ata, by En­rico Guaz­zoni.

2San Mao Li­u­lang Ji, di­rected by Zhao Ming and Yan Gong.

Con­rad Veidt and Lillebil Chris­tensen in Ur­ban Gad’s Chris­tian Wahn­schaffe, 1920–1921

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