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Glory of the Silents Reborn: the 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923)

Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923)

By Janine Gericke.

I’ve been going to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) for ten years. My first introduction to the festival and the Castro Theatre was Buster Keaton’s 1923 film Our Hospitality. It was the first time I had ever seen a silent film with live musical accompaniment. I was enthralled, loving every second. I had found my people.

Every year the festival presents restored classics and live music from some of the most talented musicians in the world, to an audience of film fanatics – many of whom are costumed head to toe in 1920’s finest styles. You’ll even spot a few regulars with backpacks bulging full of sandwiches and picnic kits, people who won’t let the munchies interfere with their golden age binge watching. For five days, comedy, action, romance, and even a little mystery are all housed under the deco roof of the magnificent Castro Theatre. This year’s festival hosted 23 programs, including 11 restorations. Each of the restoration stories is epic. These films have been brought back from the dead, using everything from scraps of nitrate prints, shooting scripts, and music cue sheets to piece everything back together. The festival is always a grand opportunity to see these films as they were meant to be seen.

Although the entire festival was a delight, here were a few of this year’s highlights:

Amazing Tales from the Archives

Hound of the Baskervilles

Hound of the Baskervilles (1929)

The Amazing Tales from the Archives program, which has become an annual tradition (and one of my favorite parts of the festival), showcases recent restorations and discusses the difficulties of film preservation. During the program, Martin Koerber of the Deutsche Kinemathek and Weimar scholar Cynthia Walk discussed the most recent restoration of E.A. Dupont’s 1923 film The Ancient Law, which premiered at this year’s festival. It took two years to restore this German film by piecing together nitrate fragments from collections from around the world, along with using the original censor’s certificate, which provided the intertitles. The original color was also digitally restored. Davide Pozzi of the L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna then gave a presentation on Kinemacolor – a two-color additive process which was in use until 1914 and was the first successful motion picture color process. Pozzi brought along some shorts to accompany his talk about the technology used to restore these films. Last but not least, SFSFF’s own Robert Byrne was joined by Elzbieta Wysocka of Filmoteka Narodowa and film scholar Russell Merritt, to discuss the restoration of Richard Oswald’s 1929 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Der Hund von Baskerville), which also made its premiere this year. The restoration was created from a 35mm nitrate print with Czech intertitles which was found in Poland as well as some German censor cards which were also uncovered after some digging. Seeing the film, I was even more impressed by the work that went into the restoration. I am always blown away by these stories. The people who tirelessly search for these missing films and then bring them back to life are my heroes. It takes such passion and precision and persistence to get it right. The entire program was illuminating, with side-by-side comparisons and in depth details about the processes it took to bring these gems back, all with the evocative accompaniment of Donald Sosin on the piano.

An Inn in Tokyo, 1935

Inn in Tokyo ( )

An Inn in Tokyo

I love the films of Yasujirô Ozu, and I’m not alone. You can clearly see his influence on filmmakers today. Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch are among his biggest fans. Ozu’s films offer quiet peeks into the everyday lives of his characters. Although they are mostly dramas, he also manages to find a little bit of humor in each film. An Inn in Tokyo (1935) was featured this year, with a captivating score by pianist and violinist Guenter Buchwald and percussionist Frank Bockius. The narrative follows a man and his two sons as they walk the outskirts of Tokyo looking for work. The film deals with issues of poverty and what one will do for their family to survive. This is a beautiful picture with themes that are very much still relevant with an absolutely heartbreaking ending. Seeing any Ozu film on the big screen does not disappoint.

People on Sunday, 1930

Billed as “a film without actors,” People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930) (1) showcases the everyday lives of five Berliners right before World War II. It was created as an experiment by filmmakers Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, who all went on to have great success in Hollywood. The film paints a portrait of a group of twenty-somethings on a Sunday, blending fiction with documentary. Although not much happens, the film is a symphony of this pre-war city, portraying Berlin as a character as well. We see the city, the people walking around the streets, the U-Bahn rushing by, along with quiet moments filmed at Wannsee, a large lake southwest of Berlin. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided lively accompaniment, transporting us all to a summer afternoon in 1930.

Legends of the Silver Screen

People on Sunday

People on Sunday

This year saw gorgeous restorations of two films starring two legends of the silver screen. First, Mary Pickford in Ernst Lubitsch’s first Hollywood film, Rosita (1923), and then Greta Garbo’s film debut in Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings Saga, 1924). Rosita was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The print of Rosita, from the Museum of Modern Art, looked fantastic. For some insight into the restoration, check out this behind-the-scenes video with MOMA’s Dave Kehr. Pickford stars at the titular Rosita, a clever young street singer who catches the eye of a lecherous Spanish king, much to her dismay. She shines in this role. The film has some interesting history: Pickford actually abandoned the film years after its release, letting her personal print deteriorate, and thus allowing the release to virtually disappear. The film was brought back using a nitrate print found in Russia and 35mm elements from the Mary Pickford Foundation. This was a major Hollywood production, with its elaborate sets and costumes, and the restoration has captured all of this and more. The film looks the way I imagine it must have upon its release.

The Saga of Gösta Berling was then 18-year-old Greta Garbo’s very first film, and what a way to start a career! The film centers on a young Countess who falls in love with a disgraced minister. Restored by the Swedish Film Institute, the film has regained its original color tinting and runtime of 200 minutes. Much like Rosita, the film also has remarkable set pieces and intricate costumes, perfectly capturing its 19th-century setting. At the festival, Saga was accompanied by the dazzling Matti Bye Ensemble.

The Saga of Gösta Berling

The Saga of Gösta Berling

Last year footage was discovered in a flea market of San Francisco in the days immediately following the 1906 earthquake. “San Francisco, 1906” was a sight to see on the big screen. It is thought that the Miles Brothers, who filmed A Trip Down Market Street just days before the earthquake, also shot this footage days after. The camera moves down Market Street all the way to the Ferry Building, showing the city in ruins on either side of the street. People are milling around and working to clean up the debris. Once at the Ferry Building, you can see people lined up, waiting for ferries to take them out of the city. Some of the footage is tinted red, showing the demolition of a downtown building. There is an excellent interview with SFSFF’s Rob Byrne on KQED’s Forum, where Byrne discusses the discovery and restoration of this footage. This film screened before Trappola, the 1922 Eugenio Perego comedy, which was also a real treat.

Serge Bromberg’s 3D Program

This year, preservationist Serge Bromberg and his traveling roadshow brought along an entertaining program, including some 3D shorts. The special allure of this program was that it was billed as silent films in 3D. Bromberg explained that Georges Méliès was often concerned about the piracy of his films, so he built a special camera with two lenses that would shoot two reels simultaneously, with one print intended for the European market and one for the United States. Once these side-by-side prints were discovered, Bromberg found that Méliès had essentially created 3D films, and that the 3D effect could be accomplished by combining the two negatives into a single print. The work of this true magician offered highlights in an extraordinary 3D lineup at the festival. The films included two newly restored Méliès’s films, The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), which has some 3D, and Robinson Crusoe (1902); accidental 3D films Oracle of Delphi (1903), Magic Cauldron (1903), and Mysterious Retort (1906); Louis and Auguste Lumiére’s stereoscopic film L’Arriveé d’un Train (1935) which is actually a remake of the famous 1895 film of a train pulling into a station; and René Bünzli’s stereoscopic shorts from 1900. Bünzli was a watchmaker who experimented with the technique, creating shorts that lasted 10 seconds or less. Bromberg’s narration throughout only made the program more enjoyable and quite funny. Donald Sosin’s piano accompaniment brought a perfect touch of whimsy to the program. I can’t pick a favorite among these films, as each one was so much fun to watch. If Serge Bromberg puts on a show in your city, do yourself and favor and go see it!

Special Guests

In addition to the many film screenings, each year there are special guests. Festival favorite film critic Leonard Maltin was in attendance throughout. He also introduced the closing film, Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926). Film historian and all around preservation hero Kevin Brownlow was also in attendance. Celebrating his birthday during the festival, Brownlow also introduced the 1926 Rex Ingram film Mare Nostrum.

With nearly every seat filled throughout the five days, this year’s festival was one to remember. It is nice to be able to watch a movie from the comfort of your living room, but it really is fun to watch films in a packed theatre with an enthusiastic audience ooo-ing and ahh-ing throughout a screening. The live music only heightens this experience. And to have it all happen at the Castro, is just icing on the cake.

As a side note, this was the first SFSFF without Stephen Parr in the audience. Stephen, who passed away late last year, was a pillar of the San Francisco film community and a great friend to many. A film archivist and the director of Oddball Film + Video and the San Francisco Media Archive, Stephen was a huge proponent of film preservation. I was always happy to see him at the festival every year. He is greatly missed.

A big thank you to the staff and volunteers of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and The Castro Theatre for hosting yet another stellar year. I also want to thank everyone who worked so tirelessly on the many restorations of these amazing films. They are true pioneers who are saving our cultural heritage. I am looking forward to hearing about all of the restorations that will be premiering next year.

Endnote

1) The film is also available from the Criterion Collection.

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

1 Comment for “Glory of the Silents Reborn: the 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival”

  1. Richard Oswald is a very underrated director whose work needs to be better known than it is today.

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