Pordenone 2023 in Review
October 27, 2023
I know dreadfully little about American silent film, let alone international silent cinema. For the past few years that the Pordenone Silent Film Festival has provided an online option, they’ve presented an embarrassment of riches. This has exposed me to countless new movies, most very rare, that I wouldn’t have had a chance to experience otherwise.
Last year I became obsessed with two selections, Die große Liebe einer kleinen Tänzerin/The Great Love of a Little Dancer (Germany, 1924) and Up in Mabel’s Room (US, 1926). (Read about those HERE.) While my enjoyment of this edition’s offerings didn’t tip into obsession territory, I relished several selections. Here’s a brief overview of my fest favorites.
A still from Cretinetti che bello!
This year, Pordenone put three compilations online: Slapstick Shorts: Transatlantic Echoes, Early British Films from the Filmoteca Di Catalunya, and 9½: Film in 9.5mm, 1923-1960s. I adore shorts compilations, especially from cinema’s early days or forgotten formats, because many of these titles haven’t been seen in decades.
From the slapstick selection, Cretinetti che bello! (Italy, 1909) and At Coney Island (US, 1912) were my favorites, the first for its twist on the male gaze, with a man outrageously dressed turning the head of every women, most of whom were men in drag, and the second because of the amazing shots of early 20th century Coney Island—and the Mack Sennett comedy, of course. The early British films boasted such sights as an electric sea car (I think?!) in Brighton, elephants and camels parading the streets of Inverness, and Busby Berkeley-level choreography with a group of schoolboys. Lots of random scenes, but that's also another thing I enjoy about these treasures: You never know what you're going to get.
What enchanted me most were the 9.5mm selections. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the rare home movie format, we were treated to snippets of hot air balloon rides, holidays, weddings, and much more, from all over the world. These snapshots of real life often clue us in as to how regular people went about their lives years ago, making them fascinating, unique, and valuable historical artifacts; there’s always something to connect to even across countries and time periods. What I really loved about this program was that every single movie used was credited at the end with the date, where it was shot, and who filmed it. We even got to see the very first film shot on 9.5mm from 1923. Very cool indeed.
The robot from Rivalen. (From @Semantrical on Twitter)
Harry Piel features
I had no idea who Harry Piele was before October 2023. Turns out, he was a huge star of early German cinema, a famous writer, director, and sometimes actor of many action and adventure films, most notably in the 1910s and 1920s. He’s been all but forgotten today, so it was great that Pordenone shared three of his films with the online audience: Das Abenteuer Eines Journalisten/The Adventure of a Journalist (Germany, 1914), Das Rollende Hotel/The Rolling Hotel (Germany, 1918), and Rivalen/The Miracle of Tomorrow (Germany, 1923). All three displayed some daredevil stunts, including car chases, airplane bombs, a super dangerous fun slide, leaping across a broken bridge, a crazy underwater cage, and more.
The last of those films, Rivalen, proved the most compelling. First of all, any 1920s movie that has the word ‘robot’ in the logline—I’m sold. Piel took directing and acting reins on this one, playing a man named Peel (can’t make this up!). The story centered around a scientist whose rival crashes his “party in hell” and kidnaps his daughter. Naturally, Peel comes to her rescue. Said party was absolutely insane as far as set design and costumes go; I mean, guests entered through Satan’s mouth. The robot comes into play when the scientist’s rival unleashes his evil automation on the partygoers, and while they think it’s someone in a clever outfit at first, all hell breaks loose when the robot starts shooting electricity! Between the eccentric party, the action-packed plot’s twists and turns, and the brazen stunts, Rivalen proved a riotously entertaining time. Ironically, it’s thought to have been the middle of a trilogy, but it works just fine on its own.
Der Berg Des Schicksals/Mountain Of Destiny (Germany, 1924)
Without a doubt, the film that impressed me the most this year was Der Berg Des Schicksals. This German silent clocked in around 100 minutes and utilized almost no intertitles. (Apparently, after the first release it was revised with new title cards… not sure why.) That said, it stands as a prime example of the power of silent cinema and the emotional depths one could reach without sound or dialogue.
The film was written, produced, and directed by Arnold Fanck, a geologist who went on to make documentary films after WWI. He shot Der Berg Des Schicksals in the Dolomites, and he wrote a story around the footage he captured afterwards. The plot is simple: a man obsessed with climbing dies doing it, and his son grows up in his footsteps to eventually conquer the mountain his father perished on. The clouds, the mountains, the climbing—all were mind-blowingly stunning and incredibly dramatic. Fanck took his time with the climbing shots, which resulted in a mesmerizing, truly cinematic viewing experience. It’s also worthy to note that the film feels extremely modern at times, because some vertical shots, similar to how we record on phones today, are intercut with the footage. To be honest, it’s probably the most gripping silent film I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever been that entranced by a silent before—and one so long (for me), at that!
Eine Frau von Format/A Woman of Distinction (Germany, 1928)
Before last year, I’d only ever seen Mady Christians in 1940s US films. I never knew she starred in German cinema in the 1920s. Pordenone introduced me to a young Christians last year in The Runaway Princess (1929), a film I really enjoyed, so I was happy to see her name pop up again this year.
In Eine Frau von Format, she plays a diplomat fighting for the attention of a princess with another male diplomat; they both want the island the princess is selling. The man uses his charm to get cozy with the royal, while Christians has to try to outsmart and trick him. She’s adorable and delightful, and of course, the two rivals fall in love. While this film didn’t sparkle as much as The Runaway Princess, Christians stood out. Her vivacity connects with the viewer (at least it did for me), and she seemingly had a ball with the role. It’s not a perfect film, but Eine Frau von Format was a fun watch nevertheless.
Circe the Enchantress (US, 1924)
Long thought lost, the incomplete version of Circe the Enchantress we got to experience was, well, enchanting. Mae Murray starred in full Jazz Age flapper mode as the vivacious life of the party, Cecilie. Suitors line up for her affections, but she doesn’t give them the time of day; instead, she’s attracted to a staid doctor. When she bets her house and loses, things come to a head. Giving up the wild life she’s living, she journeys back to the rural area she grew up near a convent, where she gets into an accident and recovers just in time for the doctor to find her.
The film briefly shows that Cecilie was a modest child who wanted to be a nun. Being pawed constantly by men turned her into a cynic and convinced her to play the game by her own rules. (Apparently, the lost footage dives more into her backstory.) Murray is in top form; she’s vigorous, vibrant, and a joy to watch. I also thought that the turning point hinges on a very interesting statement by the doctor; after Cecilie loses her home and injures her hand out of anger, she asks the doctor why it seems to be her fault that the men around her act crazy. He chides her, saying that she intentionally appeals to men’s basest instincts. His assertion felt very timely, as I see women charged with the same daily, especially online. And to think this was almost 100 years ago! Some things never change.
Die Straẞe/The Street (Germany, 1923)
Die Straẞe was kind of a mind trip. The film's dual storylines eventually intersect: In one, a man takes to wandering the city out of boredom and finds himself in trouble, and in the other, a blind grandfather gets separated from his grandson in the chaotic metropolis.
I used the phrase mind trip, because some of the scenes, especially from the bored man’s perspective, were filmed in a hallucinatory manner. We’re talking expressionist shots with terrifying shadows that made the city feel chaotic and overwhelming. Die Straẞe is another film with very few intertitles, but you don’t need them. Director Karl Grune did an excellent job drawing immense emotion from his actors amidst such a frenzied atmosphere, which translated into an engrossing, dramatic plot. Several times I found myself thinking, almost simultaneously at times, how similar and different city life was a century ago!
If you caught Pordenone’s online edition—or the in-person fest—what were some of your favorites?
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