21 May 2017 | kekseksa
fighting the anti-silent prejudice
We are slowly correcting the terrible errors committed in 1928-1929 that led to a sort of cultural holocaust during which the golden age of cinema was largely forgotten, destroyed or reduced to a caricature, so that for nearly a century an entirely inaccurate view of cinema informed or rather deformed all cinema-criticism and all histories of cinema. I have referred to this re-discovery of early cinema elsewhere as a process akin to the Renaissance and firmly believe it is one of the most culturally important events of the last ten or twenty years.
Nevertheless we still have some way to go. So long as it is still possible for people to make remarks like "I am not very keen on silent cinema" without realising that they are accusing themselves of cultural philistinism - it is a bit like saying, "I don't think much of Shakespeare" or "I don't care for Italian Renaissance painting". It's a view one is perfectly entitled to hold but it marks one as a cultural ignoramus.
"Silent cinema" does for most modern audience involve a learning process (as does Shakespeare or "Renaissance" Italian art because we have very largely lost the capacity for concentration that it required of its audience. There are of course good and bad films at the period just as there are in any period but the principal failing is not with the material (except in so far as it has so often been badly conserved) but in us as viewers who have learned everything we know about cinema from "dark age" commentaries that had themselves little understanding of early cinema. It is something that only time and a gradual process of re-education will correct.
The German Monumentalfilm is not one of my favorite genres from the period and I am not a great fan of "orientalism", another fashion of the period that strongly marks this film, but even so this Joe May film seems to me an interesting and important work, superbly filmed and mis en scène by a very expert technical crew (the same essentially who would later work on the masterpieces of Fritz Lang). It was not a huge success at the time - it is rather slow - but it has if anything improved with age as have other of May's films of the period (the superb Asphalt for instance).
It is interesting too because of its subsequent history. Our understanding of post-silent cinema (I am not idiot enough to say "I don't think much of sound cinema") can in fact help us to appreciate earlier films once we case to be prejudiced in favour of one or the other. Asphalt, for instance, is more interesting because we know of the Hitchcockian thrillers of which it is an important forebear. And in this case we have the opportunity to compare the silent version with two later sound versions, that by Eichberg in 1938 and that by Fritz Lang in 1959.
Lang was co-writer of the script along with the original novelist Thea von Harbou (later Lang's wife) and is said to have resented not being asked to direct it (May as producer did give opportunities to other directors) because of his inexperience. He had already left Germany by the time the Eichberg version was made and it was not until his return to Germany in the late fifties, after all the bitterness and frustration of his years in the US, that Lang was at last able to produce his own version. The long-awaited return was something of a disappointment (Germany no longer had the wonderful cinema industry it had had in the twenties and thirties and Lang himself was perhaps no longer the great director he had been in those days), so the 1959 films are not amongst Lang's best. Nevertheless we have a lavish "modern" version by a director of great repute.
I have written elsewhere of the reluctance critics still show in accepting the possibility that a silent film version may be better than a sound one even when the latter is a much-acclaimed film by a much-acclaimed director (the 1925 Niblo Ben Hur is in my view far superior to the 1959 Wyler version). There are in fact many examples where this is the case but the example I like to give, because it is so glaring, is that of the two versions of What Price Glory?, Raoul Walsh's irresistible black-and-white 1926 version (a great hit at the time with Victor Mclaglen and Edmund Lowe)and John Ford's dire 1952 Technicolor version (with James Cagney, no less).
So full marks to the reviewer who makes the comparison between this and the Lang film and comes to the honest conclusion (I think quite correctly) that these are the better films. They are the only version in which Thea von Harbou's purpose as a writer is really clear (the story of the revived Yogi may be a lot of hookum but it makes sense of the story). Despite being a bit too much of a studio film compared particularly with the Eichberg version which was largely shot on location in India), it is consistently the most interesting version visually. Lang's by comparison is simply glossy (rather as Wyler's Ben Hur is when compared to Niblo's), lacking any of the more radical cinematic effects that marked German films of the twenties and thirties and which would no doubt have been present in a Lang version had he ever had the chance to make one at that period.
This remains a relatively minor film of the period but reveals very well how the strength of the German industry was not simply its great directors or its great actors or its great technicians but in the combination of all three. Within that context, May, who was no genius, could produce very fine films; without that context Lang, who was, produced work that was less than wonderful.