Weimar – Dienstag

The Festival appears to get busier day-by-day. All the screenings have queues beforehand, sometimes forming nearly an hour before the scheduled time. By the point at which doors open the queue for CinemaxX 6 is down the stairs and curling round a corner. And there is a second queue for people with out tickets hoping there are places left. Then we all file in and look for favoured seats.

Die Carmen von St Paul (Docks of Hamburg, 1928) is another late silent that I have seen before on film. Here it is a digital transfer, but the standard of these is good. Like so many other films it enjoys a variation on the famous heroine of Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet. This version uses recognisable character alternatives and some of the plot. But it avoids the final tragedy of the opera.

As the alternative title suggests the film make extensive use of the harbour and port at Hamburg. There is an amount of location footage of ships, machines and workers and these create a bustling sense of the port, whilst outside of the working hours it becomes quieter but closer to noir settings.

Klaus (Willy Fritsch) works for a shipping company and finds himself on night duty. Thus he meets Jenny (Jenny Jugo). She is involved with a gang of smugglers, though they are as much involved in theft as contraband. Poor Klaus is smitten. However, Jenny is younger and less cynical than the original. Even so Klaus loses his job and becomes involved in the gang. Jenny is flirts on the edge of crime. She also performs at a local night club. One number is a mock cycling race by women in sparse ‘sportswear’. Later, when a rival for Klaus appears, a motor racing driver, Jenny coolly claims to be a ‘fellow sportsman’. The plot develops parallel to those in the opera but this is a seedy underworld of a [then] modern urban industrial area.

St Pauli is the red light district and the gang are what was then called ”harbour rats’. So we watch criminal acts and innocents branded as guilty. Some of this is quite conventional. But the club, like the harbour sequences, has a distinctive atmosphere which is convincing.

“[the film] imbues putative everyday scenario with the mythical aura of of a Brechtian ‘Jenny the Pirate’. Travelling shots along the waterfront lend the film an almost neo-realist character….”

The cast are generally good. But is Jenny Jugo who stands out. She has an on-screen charisma from the moment she emerges from a wet male attire on Klaus’ ship. Another of her films worth seeing is Looping the Loop (Die Todesschleife, 1928).

A programme of experimental film opened with two short films by Hans Richter,

“a pioneer of Germany’s absolute film movement,”

The movement also included Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger and the Swede Viking Eggeling.

Dedicated to abstract art they had particular interests in light, time and imagery that suggested musical analogues. Filmstudie 1(928) offered a five minute film with a montage of bodies, faces, glass eyes and geometric shapes. Inflation (1928) ran for just three minutes with a combination of numbers and images.

“Within seconds, a wealthy man reading a newspaper becomes a beggar, the zeros on the banknotes multiply – right up until the stock physically collapses.”

Das Lied vom Leben (The Song of Life, 1931) ran for 55 minutes. The film was directed by Alexis Granowsky. It uses surrealist imagery and music by Walter Mehring and Hans Eisler. The film has a narrative but uses montage and extensive superimposition. A young woman, Erika, lives with her mother in poverty. She agrees to marry a rich baron. The wedding reception is a kaleidoscope of privileged but corrupt members of the groom’s class. Finally Erika flees and is tempted to ‘end it all’. She is saved by a young man and later they have a child. However, Erika has to undergo a caesarean to enable the birth. Audiences found the operation sequence shocking. Unsurprisingly the film sparked a battle with the German censors and the film was at first banned outright.

“Originally only approved for viewing by ‘doctors and medical professionals’.”

Abwege (The Devious Path, 1928) was a second film directed by G. W. Pabst. We enjoyed an introduction by Stefan Drößler who provided a context for the film. It seems that in a parallel to the ‘Quota Quickies’ in Britain following the 1927 Film Act, cheaper German productions were made in this period to fulfil requirements for indigenous film screenings. The cinemas, like Britain, were dominated by the Hollywood product. I think this showed as the narrative of the film was stretched to fill out the 98 minutes of running time. But it looks good and the main part of Irene, the bored wife of a busy and successful lawyer, is played by Brigitte Helm. She looks superb. And the supporting cast play out their characters extremely well. Deprived of her husbands attentions Irene embarks on alternative pleasures. These includes exotic night clubs, a possible affair and illicit substances. These exploits, especially a long sequence in a night club, are extremely well done.

“…the great realist of the Weimar-era cinema, uses a marital crisis to paint a shimmering portrait of society. Camerawork [by Theodor Sparkul] that is as unchained as Irene herself delves into a whirling world of luxury and vice.”

These sequences are more about visual pleasure than plot development, but they do entrance. The film ends up more moral than many of Pabst other films, with a light touch almost worthy of Ernst Lubitsch. The film was screened from a DCP which looked really good. And Richard Siedhoff, a young pianist from Weimar, provided a deft score.

My final film was not part of the Weimar retrospective but from the Berlinale Classics, Az én XX, Századom (My 20th Century, Hungary/Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1989). I had seen the film before when it was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival. [on that occasion the venue had problems with the aspect ratio, 1.37:1, lacking the correct plates for 35mm]. Now I saw it in a fine 4K DCP. We also had an introduction from the director Ildikó Enyedi, winner of the Berlin Golden Bear award in 2017 for her film On Body and Soul (Teströl és lélekröl). Only now with a Academy Award Nomination in the Best Foreign Language category does the film appear to be screening in Britain. We also heard from the cinematographer Tibor Máthé who was responsible for the luminous black and white images of My 20th Century.

The film was the director’s first project after Film School. It is in some ways a celebration of early cinema. But it also shows the influence of Eastern European classics. Some images are surreal and I thought that Vera Chytilová’s work found echoes here.

The film opens and closes with Thomas Edison and light is a central motif throughout them film. The protagonists are twin sisters, Dorá and Lili (both played by Dorotha Segda as well as their mother). Dorá becomes independent, amorous and a confidence trickster. Lili is more hesitant and becomes involved in oppositional activities, I think of the anarchist type. Separated as children they only meet again late in them film in dazzling recreation of the ‘hall of mirrors’ from The Lady from Shanghai (1947), one of numerous cinematic references.

This is a film by a young adventurous filmmaker. Not all the themes are realised and the film almost over-balances with homages. But it looks wonderful and sounds really good. A cinematic treat.

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