Posts tagged ‘Benjamin Christensen’
November 10, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria

These notes accompany the screening of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria on November 11, 12, and 13 in Theater 3.

H. G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, simultaneous with the birth of the movies. By sending out their cadre of globetrotting cameramen, the Lumière brothers quickly opened up the world of the present (replete with all its regional oddities and exoticism) to film audiences. Wells mastered the speculative future in the tradition of Jules Verne, but perhaps even more intriguing for filmgoers was the possibility film offered to travel back in time and retrieve the distant past.

D. W. Griffith had dabbled in this (with his In Prehistoric Days, 1913, for example), but the real heavy lifting was done by the Italians. This is appropriate, since the thousand-year history of the Roman Republic and Empire was unrivaled in its impact on the contemporary world; Italy practically owned history. This was accentuated for visual artists by the poignant beauty of surviving ruins and statuary, both in Rome and spread over three continents. Italy’s heritage contributed mightily to the seeming authenticity of its celluloid spectacles.

November 3, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph
Blanche Sweet in <i>Judith of Bethulia.</i> 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist

Blanche Sweet in Judith of Bethulia. 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist

These notes accompany the D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph program, which screens on November 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3 as part of the two-year </em>An Auteurist History of Film</a> exhibition.</span></p>

1915 marked the publication of poet Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture, the first serious attempt in English to come to grips with the medium that had outgrown penny arcades and nickelodeons and was now threatening to appear in venues that would rival cathedrals. In the preceding year, as extraordinary European films like Benjamin Christensen’s The Mysterious X (released as Sealed Orders in the U.S.) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria were arriving on American shores, D. W. Griffith had been tearing at the seams of his constraining Biograph contract. As with so many early commentaries on the movies, Lindsay struggled to find the language that would do justice to his thoughts. (One thinks of a young Eugene O’Neill groping for words, or of Griffith himself, trying to articulate something previously undefined and unrecognized.) In fact, in his enthusiasm for film, indicative of the heady atmosphere of the times, Lindsay waxed positively Biblical, informing filmmakers:

“All of you who are taking the work as a sacred trust, I bid you God-speed…. You will be God’s thoroughbreds…. It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes. In after centuries its beginning will be indeed remembered. It has come, this new weapon of men, and by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that it will go on and on in immemorial wonder.”

October 28, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: "Two Danish Innovators"

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the “Two Danish Innovators” program, which screens on October 28, 29, and 30 in Theater 3.

Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) has been called “the first real auteur film.” Actually, it appears now to have been a collaborative effort between director Stellan Rye (1880–1914), cameraman Guido Seeber (1879–1940), and star Paul Wegener (1874–1948), whom the same critic (Klaus Kreimeier) dubbed “the first modern German film actor.” Although the Danish Rye died fighting for Germany early in the First World War I, Seeber went on to photograph the 1914 version of The Golem and G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street and Secrets of a Soul. Wegener, a Max Reinhardt protégé, acted in or directed (or both) The Golem and its more famous 1920 remake, along with several Ernst Lubitsch films, Rex Ingram’s The Magician, and numerous films for the Nazis. In 1926, Henrik Galeen took Hanns Heinz Ewers’s story for The Student of Prague and remade it with the great Conrad Veidt as Der Student. Ewers was later the chronicler of Nazi icon Horst Wessel, who was made famous by Wegener’s 1933 film performance.

Rye’s film was a clear forerunner of the German Expressionist style and psyche, making it all the more a pity that he died so young, a tragedy that perhaps rivals Jean Vigo’s death at twenty-nine. Although shot in naturalistic locations in Prague, Rye’s imaginative facility with the camera evoked the Faust legend, E. T. A. Hoffman, and Edgar Allan Poe. If Rye had lived a normal lifespan, he might have been confronted with the choice between his native Denmark and his proto-Nazi compatriots and collaborators.