Of all the arts activities that I might have expected to be in plentiful supply when I moved to Inverness, silent films with live musical accompaniment weren’t one of them. I’ve seen half a dozen different films over the last year, and rarely has their live accompaniment been anything as prosaic as a piano. Whether a klezmer band, electronica, a woodwind collective or a jazz trio the performances I’ve seen haven’t been afraid to innovate or push boundaries in interpreting silent movies and the screenings have been universally packed.
I’m personally of the opinion that the best way to watch silent film is with live musical accompaniment. There’s something about live interpretation of a film in music – whether in fitting a pre-prepared score to the film as it spools along, or improvising as they go – that gives silent film a vibrancy that seems to get lost in the cold crispness of a DVD transfer and its pre-recorded soundtrack. Something of the mutability and fragile wonder of the early years of the medium restored to the viewer for a short while.
The first film of my double bill did actually feature the traditional piano based musical accompaniment. And what a feat of piano playing that turned out to be. The Thief of Bagdad is a two and a half hour epic in the old fashioned sense. Despite his massively influential role in Hollywood during the silent era, I’d never actually seen a Douglas Fairbanks picture before – I’m generally more of a Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy type when it comes to early US cinema – and this film really showcases his legendary swashbuckling charm. Despite its unconvincing dragon – there was a good deal of sniggering in the screening – the other special effects are really quite effective and the action sequences quite thrilling. It moves at a cracking pace – the accompaniment certainly helped keep the pace up – and honestly you’d never have known it was as long as it was, there was never a spare moment to get bored in.
The Graeme Stephen Trio appear to have something of a specialism in the works of German Expressionist Cinema. (This year saw them interpreting Faust in Eden Court for Hallowe’en while last year on the same date they were interpreting The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in Perth. They’ve also won prizes for their scoring of Murnau’s Sunrise and recently completed a new score for Metropolis.) The film itself is every bit as dark and strange as one would expect from a meeting of the source material, the director and the general period. It’s set in that weird late semi-Medieval period that I’ve only ever encountered in German cinema – though perhaps it equates to an actual historic period in central Europe, my mainland European history knowledge goes, Rome, Vikings, defeat of Napoleon, German unification so I may be missing some subtleties – and can’t be entirely certain whether or not it actually existed. I’d always thought of Faust as being a story of a scientist/philosopher lead to temptation by a thirst for knowledge. But actually his temptation here is a much more complex affair which I feel made it a much more interesting film.
It’s interesting to note that while I can easily call to mind numerous German film directors of this period, I struggle to name more than one actor – Conrad Veidt for some reason, those compelling eyes probably – whereas in Hollywood at the same time I could reel off numerous stars but the directors names are unknown to me. Perhaps it says something about the different film cultures in Europe and the States a the time, that there wasn’t really an equivalent of the star system that was so dominant in the US. Or perhaps this is an artificial distinction wrought by the perspective of being more used to looking at European cinema through the lens of auteur theory. That we associate genres with particular genres in early European cinema, whereas in early Hollywood cinema we associated them with stars. Or perhaps my continuing interest in German expressionism in film and in film noir has just skewed my perspective towards a focus on stylistics.
The main thing that these two films have in common – other than having been made within two years of each other – is that they are essentially adaptions of earlier literary sources. While The Thief of Bagdad is quite a loose adaptation, it plays heavily on the idea of the existing mythos of 1001 Arabian Nights to allow it to make use of tropes and motifs from the genre as shortcuts that require no explanation. Faust on the other hand is much more of a straight up adaptation of Goethe’s novel – how close and accurate an adaptation it is, I cannot tell, as I haven’t read the book. The other major commonality between the two films is how they function as morality plays, where a protagonist of dubious morality has to face the very real consequences of his sins to someone he cares for and is given the opportunity to redeem himself.