Salt For Svanetia (1921) + The Arabian Nights (1921) + shorts

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, London

 8 February 2017

 

It was very much a Russian evening tonight at the Kennington Bioscope, with films encompassing docu-drama, animation, comedy and fantasy.  And just to add to the international theme there was also an American accompanist making his UK debut at the Cinema Museum

The evening kicked off with a delightful little partially-animated film, The Voice of the Nightingale (1923) directed by Moscow-born Ladislas Starewitch (there are any number of western transliterations of his name, Starewicz, Starevitch and Starewich?).  In the film, a little girl catches a nightingale but as it sings during the night it causes her to dream.  Eventually she realises that the nightingale has its own family to look after and, on waking, she lets it go.  In return for its freedom, the nightingale loans the child its voice for use in the daytime, which is why nightingales only sing at night.  From this slight storyline Starewitch conjured up a visually striking film in which stop frame animation and live action were seamlessly combined.  The scenes of the sprites and fairies emerging from blossoming flowers was quite stunning, the sprite’s battle with the spider to rescue a trapped fairy reminiscent of St George versus the dragon (albeit with a grasshopper as a trusty steed) while the injured grasshopper on crutches added a nice comedic touch.  The nightingales themselves were so well animated it was often difficult to tell that they weren’t real.  Additionally the film was superbly hand coloured and even the inter-title cards were beautifully decorated. 

When this film was made Starewitch (image, below right) had already been making animated features for over a decade, initially in Lithuania, then Russia and finally in France.  Yet he became an animator almost by accident.  Fascinated by insects, he bought a camera and attempted to film them, but they kept dying under the hot lights. He decided to film the insects through stop-motion animation and by creating articulated insect puppets. The result was the short film Lucanus Cervus (1910), widely credited with being the first ever movie to feature animated puppets performing a plot.  Starewitch’s films were often virtually one-man shows with him as writer/director/cameraman/designer/animator.  Although his film projects were frequently beset with financial problems he continued to make much-lauded animated films until his death in 1965.  Although one of the great pioneers of animated film, probably up there with Walt Disney (and a decade ahead to boot) Starewitch today is largely forgotten but he has provided the inspiration for many more recent animators such as the Brothers Quay and Jan Švankmajer. 

Accompaniment for the film came from Lillian Henley who, with a lovely lightness of touch, perfectly captured the gentle delight of this film.

The Voice of the Nightingale can be viewed on a Milestone Films Starewitch compilation DVD, The Cameraman’s Revenge.  It can also be viewed on-line. 

Next up was Child of the Carnival (1921) directed by and starring Russian émigré Ivan Mosjoukine.  The film was introduced by film collector Chris Bird who was heavily involved in the film’s restoration. The film sees a destitute Yvonne (Nathalie Lissenko) leaving her baby son on the door of the wealthy Marquis Serge de Granier (Mosjoukine) on Carnival day.  Granier and his butler Philippe (Bartkevitch) attempt to look after the baby but are soon forced to employ a nanny, who just happens to be Yvonne.  Eventually Yvonne and Granier fall in love and are married.  This was a fairly light but nevertheless enjoyable comedy. With an original running time of some 70 minutes, the only surviving version was this 14 minute 9.5mm version edited for Pathe home release.  However, this version retained a cogent plot and there were some very nice moments.  Mosjoukine was excellent as the invariably tipsy party-animal Garnier and Bartkevitch superb as the somewhat dour and long-suffering butler.  His reaction when Garnier returns home drunk once more and with a woman’s garter as a headband was a classic of unconcealed disapproval.  And while Mosjoukine played his role for comedy, Lissenko added a necessary touch of pathos. There was also a lovely scene between Yvonne and Philippe where he realises that she is the baby’s mother but decides to keep her secret.  Although Mosjoukine was better known as an actor than as a director he exhibited a lightness of touch with the story and came up with some striking images, for example the overhead shot of the tiny baby in a huge bed while the two men slept on the floor or the shot of the roulette wheel dissolving to Yvonne’s husband and then to the carnival dancers. Although the 9.5mm version we saw had largely the same plot as the original, Chris Bird did reveal that there was one glaring difference, namely the ending.  In the original, the baby’s father was reunited with Yvonne and they departed with the baby, leaving Granier alone.  Now that seemed to jar badly with the tone of the rest of the film, so perhaps this is one of those rare cases where the edited version is preferable to the original!    

Mosjoukine was already a star of Russian cinema when he left the country to escape the 1917 revolution but he quickly established himself as one of the top stars of French silent cinema.  His most famous role came in Viktor Tourjansky’s 1926 epic Michel Strogoff.  In 1926, Universal Studios invited Mosjoukine to America to star in The President (aka Surrender) (1927) in the hope of turning him into ‘the new Valentino’ but it was not to be.  There was no chemistry between him and co-star Mary Philbin and the film did not do well.   Mosjoukine’s  heavily accented voice meant he was never going to be a success in newly emerging American ‘talkies’ and he returned to France where he died of TB in 1939.   

Lillian Henley once again provided an excellent accompaniment to this film, not only highlighting the lighter moments but also capturing the underlying pathos and drama. 

Child of the Carnival is available to watch (legitimately) on-line and there is an excellent write-up of the film at moviessilently.com .      

We then had another Russian émigré film, The Arabian Nights (1921) directed by Viktor Tourjansky.  As Chris Bird explained in his introduction, the film was originally a ten-reeler entitled The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, much of which is now lost.  The only version of the film which survives intact is this heavily cut-down 9.5mm version, edited for home sale and running for just 37 minutes.  In the film, the newly married Scheherazade realises that the only way to avoid her new husband’s habit of beheading his latest wife after their wedding night is to captivate him with a never ending story.  The story she tells is of a princess, Goul-y-Hanar (Nathalie Kovanko), washed ashore in a strange land.  Sentenced to death by the local pagan king for praying to Allah she is set free by the king’s son Prince Soleiman (Nicholas Rimsky).  When Soleiman is also caught praying to Allah he to is sentenced to death but Allah himself intervenes, turning the city’s population to stone.  Soleiman and Goul-y-Hanar flee.  Captured by another villainous sultan who takes a fancy to Goul-y-Hanar while also sentencing Soleiman to hard labour, they eventually escape once more and return home to Goul-y-Hanar’s father who promptly abdicates and hands over his kingdom to Soleiman.  And after 1001 nights of stories, Scheherazade’s husband rescinds his plan to have her beheaded and makes her his favourite wife instead! 

OK, so this was not even a remotely politically correct story but it was nevertheless an interesting film in several respects.  It was certainly a big budget production, with a large cast, location shooting (in Tunisia), sumptuous costuming and superbly detailed and grandiose sets.  It was also novel in its treatment of Islam, making this a central tenet of the plot and one that was somewhat surprisingly treated very positively. So not a DVD likely to feature in the Donald Trump collection!  But on the negative side, the acting was mainly at the overly-melodramatic end of the scale (apart from Nathalie Kovanko, who for large parts looked positively comatose) and none of the cast really engaged you, although it was nice to see that Bartkevitch had progressed from being butler Philippe in Child of the Carnival to now being an evil sultan. There was also an awful lot of seemingly aimless wandering over deserts, while the plot depended upon some coincidences which strained credibility even for a silent film.  So perhaps not an epic, even in its full 10 reel version, but interesting nevertheless and nice to look at in its colour tinted glory. 

The excellent piano accompaniment to the film was provided by Meg Morley.

The Arabian Nights is available to watch (again, legitimately) on-line thanks to Chris Bird and moviessilently.com provides a superbly detailed write-up on the film.    

Lastly this evening, we had a film from a Russian who didn’t leave come the revolution, but stayed to make Salt For Svanetia (1921).  Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov this film is now feted as one of the earliest ethnographic films, documenting the life of the Svan people who lived in isolated mountain villages in the Svanetia region of Georgia, which at that time was a republic within the then newly established Soviet Union. Made in what would now be termed a dramatised documentary style, the film begins with shots highlighting the ruggedness and isolation of the region.  It shows the tall towers constructed by villagers to serve as a defense against feudal landlords from the lower valleys and shows the villagers fending off tax collectors by heaving rocks from the towers. We see aspects of daily life including sheep rearing, producing wool and yarn, quarrying and threshing barley.  The unpredictable nature of the climate is highlighted by a July snowstorm which threatens the barley harvest.  There is also an extended scene of funereal rights and the iron grip of religion on the region, intercut with the casting out of a pregnant woman due to the belief that childbirth during a funeral is ‘unclean’.  Critical for the Svan people and their animals is a lack of salt. A party of workers are shown bringing salt back to the village but most are killed by an avalanche.  The solution to the salt shortage comes with the first Soviet Five Year Plan and the heroic construction of a road linking the Svan people with the outside world. 

Salt For Svanetia is without doubt visually stunning, the camerawork is outstanding and the editing at times mesmeric.  The way that the camera follows stones being hauled up the towers and then them being hurled down on the tax collectors is breathtaking.  But the film is equally interesting in capturing the grinding hardship, bitter tedium and constant struggle of daily life for the people and more so for their animals. The propaganda aspect of the film begins to develop as the film goes on, focusing on the technical and industrial backwardness of the region, its isolation, the apparent vice-like grip of religion and its associated barbaric customs.  While the death of the pregnant woman’s baby may be a dramatisation we see the ritual slaughter of an ox and the deliberate running to death of a horse as a funeral rite in all its ghastly detail. Then, as the film reaches a climax the propaganda element fully bursts forth as the solution for the Svan’s problems is clearly the Soviet Five Year Plan.  While we might see the Svan towers earlier on resisting the feudal tax collectors, there is no way they are going to resist the encroaching Soviet Union, for good or bad!

Upon its completion, Salt for Svanetia was criticised by Soviet authorities for its unbalanced treatment of the Svan people.  The authenticity of some scenes were disputed by the Svan people themselves, who subsequently denied the existence of some of the customs shown in the film.  Kalatozov’s next feature, the industrial propaganda film Nail in the Boot (1932) about a shoe-factory worker, was attacked for its supposed negative depiction of the Army and was subsequently banned and he didn’t complete another film until 1939.  But it was not until Stalin’s death and the subsequent limited relaxation of political control over Soviet artistic freedom that Kalatozov’s career really flourished.   His 1957 film The Cranes are Flying, depicting the cruelty of war and the damage suffered to the Soviet psyche as a result of World War II, was received with great popular and critical acclaim, winning Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.  Although his 1964 film I Am Cuba was not received well by either the Russian or Cuban public and never received a Western release, it was subsequently ‘rediscovered’ in the 1990s and is now hailed (in the West at least) as a classic.  Kalatozov made his last film, the perhaps best forgotten international co-production, The Red Tent, and died in 1973. 

Musical accompaniment for the film came from American pianist Jeff Rapsis making his UK debut this evening and he performed heroically with the sometimes breathtaking pace and dramatic climax of the film, particularly as he had only arrived in London on the morning of the screening, following a transatlantic flight.  

Salt for Svanetia is available on DVD in a number of different compilations.  It can also be viewed online at Vimeo. 

And so, the end of another fascinating and entertaining evening at the Ken Bio watching an eclectic but always interesting mix of films. In complete contrast, their next offering is Nell Gwynn (1926) on 1st March.  Check out silentfilmcalendar.com for all the details.