My love of silent films began in my teens, when I stumbled upon Lotte Eisner’s masterpiece ‘The Haunted Screen’ in my local library. An account of German cinema from the end of the First War to the rise of Hitler, it was filled with evocative stills from titles such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, ‘Nosferatu’, and ‘Der Golem’. I couldn’t wait to see the entire films, but in the days before VHS tapes, let alone Youtube, that was almost impossible. Later, studying film at University, I had the immense pleasure of running a 16mm print of Murnau’s astonishing version of ‘Faust’ (1926), all by and for myself.
Then in 1980 came Kevin Brownlow’s landmark TV series ‘Hollywood’ with its evocative Carl Davis score, and James Mason’s impeccable narration. For the first time we saw extracts from the great titles of the silent era as they were meant to be seen, carefully restored, run at the correct speed, and dazzlingly coloured. Just as ‘silent’ films were never actually shown in silence, so ‘black and white’ films in the silent era were often gorgeously and laboriously hand-coloured.
So I’m a great fan of any effort to show silent films as they should really be seen, not just with an added music track, but with live musicians playing alongside the projected images. Fortunately this is becoming an increasingly common experience, whether it be the great Neil Brand channelling the fleapit pianists of the 1910s and 20s, or specially composed contemporary scores. It’s especially interesting when such live music brings to life a film that was largely forgotten outside the specialist circles of film historians. That was true, a few years ago, of a tour of the last great Soviet silent film, ‘Salt for Svanetia’, accompanied in lively fashion by Moishe’s Bagel. And it’s currently true of the tour by ‘A Kind of Seeing’ (Shona Thomson) of the 1915 Italian drama, ‘Assunta Spina’, superbly accompanied by the Edinburgh-based South Italian folk band, The Badwills.
When we experienced this film/music combo at Eden Court last weekend I was thrilled—a remarkable film brought back to life by very sympathetic music-making. But talking to a very knowledgeable film fan afterwards, I was surprised to find he didn’t share my enthusiasm—too stagy, too static, ‘they should have known better by 1915’.
This set me thinking, and this is where I have to get a bit technical, so bear with me. The standard narrative of how feature films developed as a story-telling medium goes something like this: D W Griffiths invented the key elements of film narrative–the close-up, which encourages empathy, and rapid cutting between two different scenes, which builds tension (most infamously in the Ku Klux Klan ‘rescue’ in ‘Birth of a Nation’, made, like ‘Assunta Spina’, in 1915). Then in the 1920s, along came Eisenstein, who invented montage to stimulate emotional and intellectual responses (think of the Odessa Steps sequence in ‘Battleship Potemkin’).
This narrative puts editing at the very heart of movie-making, even if editors rarely get the acclaim they deserve (it was wonderful to see Thelma Schoonmaker getting her Lifetime BAFTA last month). And it does seem that, more and more, editing is what makes a picture, even on TV. I found myself, a while ago, comparing the editing styles of two contemporary cop series, the Swedish version of ‘Wallander’, and the Italian series about ‘Inspector Montalbano’. The cool, austere, reserved Swedish world was, surprisingly, created with very rapid cutting, with whole series of shots lasting little more than two or three seconds each, while the volatile, theatrical Sicilians were portrayed in long, leisurely shots often lasting a minute or more.
But there are other ways to tell a story on film. I’ve an obsession with directors who work in very long takes, organising the action before the camera, rather than later in the editing suite. Of course, in the days of celluloid film, this was very difficult to achieve. In ‘Rope’ Alfred Hitchcock used all sorts of visual tricks to suggest that the entire film had been shot, in real time, in a single take, when in fact reels of film lasted only ten minutes. The result was a noble failure. Now, digital makes almost anything possible, and several films have now, in reality, been shot in a single take, with all the action devised in advance to display before the unblinking eye of the digital camera. The first, and probably still the most extreme example, was Alexander Sokurov’s ‘Russian Ark’(2002) in which the hand held camera prowls the length of the immense Hermitage Museum, as a cast of hundreds replays centuries of the building’s history in front of it.
But even before that, one contemporary film-maker who made the most dazzling use of very long takes was the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. His films can be hard to find, and for a non-Greek they can be difficult to watch, as they are immersed in the details of Greece’s tragic recent history. A good place to start is ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’(1995), not least because it stars Harvey Keitel! There is one scene especially where a static camera is placed to look straight into the entrance hall of a middle class Greek house while, in an unbroken sequence of about 10 minutes, a huge cast of characters suggest three decades of history by their comings and goings, their changes of clothes, their sense of panic or euphoria.
And that brings me back, at last, to ‘Assunta Spina’. Yes, in one way my friend was right: made the same year as ‘Birth of a Nation’, compared with that film it betrays its origins as a stage play all too readily. But, as a way of telling a narrative on film, I found the end result fascinating, in several ways. First, the static camera, never cutting to close-ups, rarely even to mid-shots, relied instead, as much later in Angelopoulos’s films, on a careful, meticulous organising of the action before the camera. In the court room scenes in which Assunta’s lover is tried for attacking her in a fit of jealousy, crowds of extras, all individual personalities, are orchestrated to convey a remarkable feel of ‘authenticity’.
And another result of the stage origins is that the film image uses depth of field in a way that Orson Welles would make famous in Citizen Kane, a full quarter of a century later. That is, we have to scan the entire screen to work out what’s happening—the crucial action might be set well back in the frame, such as when, at a birthday party, a clutch of party-goers disperses to reveal, leaning on a balustrade yards behind the oblivious Assunta, the man who will ruin her life.
And the stage actors go through reams of dialogue from the original play with hardly a single inter-title, though such is the familiarity of the basic scenario, and the vivid (hammy?) nature of the acting, that the viewer is never in any doubt as to what’s being said. Silent Hollywood films of this period, and later, can be hard for us to watch today because the inter-titles are so frequent, and stay on screen for so long (audiences weren’t always so used to reading in those days), that the momentum of the action can be fatally disrupted. Not in ‘Assunta Spina’, where the paucity of intertitles allows long scenes to run uninterrupted.
Finally, this use of the static camera results in one extraordinary effect of which, I’m sure, Hitchcock himself would have been proud. Assunta’s man (Lover 1) is in prison for scarring her for life. It is Christmas Eve, and Assunta is at home, preparing a meal for her new protector (Lover 2). Suddenly, in bursts Lover 1—he has been released six months early. He still loves her, thinks the meal is set out for him, wants to get back together. Assunta, and we, the audience, know that Lover 2 will return at any moment. As Assunta and Lover 1 argue with increasing passion, at the back of the set there is a glass door, and beyond it a view of the street. We can barely focus our attention on the fierce melodrama being played out by the two protagonists in the foreground, because we cannot take our eyes off that glass door, through which, we know, Nemesis—Lover 2—is bound to appear. That is, we are watching a void, and doing so with ever increasing tension, an effect wonderfully ratcheted up by the music of The Badwills.
Now, I’m quite prepared to accept that ‘Assunta Spina’, which it is now generally recognised was co-directed by its star, the magnetic Francesca Bertini, is an accidental masterpiece: that Bertini and her colleagues had no idea of creating visual effects that would anticipate much later masterpieces, indeed that these effects may not have struck any viewer at the time, but only seem remarkable viewed through the lens of film history. But accidental masterpieces are still masterpieces—think of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. And sometimes it helps to go back to the origins of film, and to think about how the triumph of the Hollywood version of film language was not inevitable, and that there can be other ‘ways of seeing’.