By Thomas Gladysz.
Arrest Warrant (1926), an Ukrainian film directed by Heorhii Tasin, is a briskly paced gem. It tells the story of Nadia (played by Vira Vareckaja), who’s revolutionary husband flees the city in the midst of civil war, leaving her behind with a cache of secret documents. Expressionist effects, at times riveting and then distressing, highlight Nadia’s psychological torture at the hands of the authorities.”
A rarely seen Ukrainian silent is one of the many international offerings at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The 25th anniversary event – the first in three years due to the pandemic – includes 29 programs featuring films from 14 countries. Among them are a number of recent restorations, including seven completed by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The annual Festival is renowned for its unusual selection of films from around the world. Along with films from Japan, India and the Soviet Union, this year’s event include examples of Brazilian experimentalism, French melodrama, Danish science-fiction, and German horror.
Notably, the festival will screen Arrest Warrant (1926), an Ukrainian film directed by Heorhii Tasin. This briskly paced gem tells the story of Nadia (played by Vira Vareckaja), who’s revolutionary husband flees the city in the midst of civil war, leaving her behind with a cache of secret documents. Expressionist effects, at times riveting and then distressing, highlight Nadia’s psychological torture at the hands of the authorities. It is a must-see film, poignant, and timely. SFSFF artistic director Anita Monga describes it as “a narrative about a historical conflict not well-known to Westerners, a nuanced, human look at war, and an exemplar of VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, 1922–1930) filmmaking.”
Arrest Warrant came to the attention of the SFSFF after it was shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy in 2019. Monga stated that the SFSFF planned on presenting it in 2020, until that year’s event was cancelled due to Covid. The festival then planned on showing it in 2021, until that showing was cancelled. The Dovzhenko Centre in Kyiv allowed the SFSFF to hold on to the film for the 2022 event. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, the film is strikingly resonant.
Monga noted, “All along we looked forward to sharing this extraordinary film with our San Francisco audience, but now we feel especially keen to remind the world of Ukraine’s independence even within the Soviet system.”
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Arrest Warrant screening has become a benefit. Proceeds will be donated to World Central Kitchen, which is serving refugees in the area, as well as the National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Dovzhenko Centre is an archive which preserves and promotes the national film heritage in Ukraine. The San Francisco screening will be accompanied by the Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble, who will incorporate Ukrainian melodies into its score.
Along with Arrest Warrant, the festival will also show a recent restoration of a Soviet documentary with a similar historical setting, The History of the Civil War (1921). This Dziga Vertov directed film was once thought mostly lost, except for a 12-minute fragment, until what is a near complete film was uncovered. Vertov is best known for his singular masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The latter is visually exciting – The History of the Civil War much less so. As propaganda, it pales in comparison with the human drama found in Arrest Warrant.
The SFSFF is the largest festival devoted to silent film in the Americas. This year’s event includes 19 recent film restorations. Notably, nine of those restorations will make their North American premiere at the May event.
Among them, the 2022 festival will premiere its restoration of The Street of Forgotten Men (1925). This little-known film from the Irish-born director Herbert Brenon (Peter Pan, The Great Gatsby, Beau Geste) centers on a gang of professional beggars who feign disfigurements in order to solicit money from those who pass them on the street. The film stars Percy Marmont, Mary Brian, and Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the 1960s television show, Batman). The film also includes Louise Brooks in a small role in her first film appearance.
Erich von Stroheim’s study of decadence, Foolish Wives (1922), opens the festival. It has been newly restored by the SFSFF and New York’s MoMA, and will be accompanied by Timothy Brock’s SFSFF-commissioned score. The following day, the festival will show the Austrian Film Museum’s restoration of von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands (1919), a film the celebrated director also stars in and wrote.
Other films at this year’s festival include the SFSFF restoration of The Primrose Path, one of 14 features Clara Bow made in 1925. Another SFSFF restoration set for the 2022 festival is The Kid Reporter (1923), a comedic short starring the late Baby Peggy.
Universal Pictures has contributed its restorations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), starring Lon Chaney, and Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926), a delightful comedy with Reginald Denny, Laura La Plante, and Hedda Hopper. Also on the schedule is William Nigh’s The Fire Brigade (1926), a 2021 restoration by the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation, which focusses on a tightknit group of firefighters and features “spectacular color effects.”
The 2022 Festival will also show The King of the Circus (1924), a restoration by Deutsche Kinemathek and Cineteca di Bologna of an Austrian film starring the French comic Max Linder and the Hungarian-American actress, Vilma Banky. Another transnational effort is A Sister of Six (1926), a restoration from the Swedish Film Institute of a Swedish film set in Hungary featuring an international cast which includes Betty Balfour and Willy Fritsch. It will be accompanied by the European musicians Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.
Three other unusual films will also be featured. A Trip to Mars (1918) is a Danish science fiction film about a group of explorers who take a “sky ship” to the red planet where they discover its inhabitants are peace-loving vegans. Another offering is Limite (1931). Brazilian director Mário Peixoto’s fascination with an evocative André Kertész photograph was the catalyst for this avant-garde masterpiece—his only completed film. The elements of the narrative—a man and two women adrift in a small boat—are secondary to the visual poetry of this haunting work. Also on the schedule is the Deutsche Kinemathek restoration ofLupu Pick’s Sylvester (1924), whose intertitle-free script and “unchained” camera combine for nonpareil kammerspielfilm.
Closing the festival is another MoMA restoration, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), Ernst Lubitsch’s take on Oscar Wilde’s drawing room comedy starring Ronald Colman.
The SFSFF describes each of its programs as “live cinema” events, as each feature live musical accompaniment and some a special introduction. Among the international musicians scheduled to perform are the Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden, Stephen Horne from the UK, and Timothy Brock, an American resident in Italy. Other American musicians include the Mont Alto Motion Picture, Philip Carli, and Donald Sosin. The Alloy Orchestra has reformed under a different name and are now known as the Anvil Orchestra. They will accompany The History of the Civil War. The Club Foot Orchestra, based in the Bay Area, will perform under the name Club Foot Hindustani when they accompany Prem Sanyas (1926), a film made in India. Sitar player Pandit Krishna Bhatt joins Club Foot for the presentation.
Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, will accompany Rebirth of a Nation, his live remix of The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film by D. W. Griffith that mythologized the slave-holding South. DJ Spooky will joined by the musician Guenter Buchwald, and Classical Revolution, an ensemble of classically-trained musicians who perform in non-traditional venues.
The 25th San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place May 5 through 11 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Additional information, including a complete schedule of films, can be found at https://silentfilm.org/
Thomas Gladysz is the author of numerous articles on early film, as well as four books including Louise Brooks, the Persistent Star. Forthcoming is Around the World with Louise Brooks.