t the San Francisco Silent Film Festival you can expect to see many great, even perfect, treasures of cinema, popular classics, and critical favorites. At the age of twenty-four, the event has become increasingly central to the silent cinema calendar—one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the world. It was founded in 1996 as a one-day event showing three films to a 1,500-strong crowd; now it welcomes about 25,000 people over five days each spring, and more to its Day of Silents in the winter. As well as screening movies with live music by some of the world’s best silent film accompanists, the festival has a close and fruitful relationship with international archives. The SFSFF works with these partners to create new restorations of films, and also highlights the work of scholars and preservations among its screenings. Watching a film here is not just a sensory immersion, but an education—as we learn about the journey of each title from its first run to its rediscovery—and often a voyage into the obscurer corners of cinema history.
Indeed what I found most captivating in the 2019 edition, held this May, was the presence of the shadows of the films themselves, the lost or censored reels, fleeting formats, and forgotten histories that make what remains simultaneously precious and enigmatic. From unrealized ambitions, latterly reconstructed, to cardboard ephemera that brought us closer to the novelty of cinema’s birth, the flaws, or rather the surprises, add to the enchantment. It was Gian Luca Farinelli of the Cineteca di Bologna, introducing a selection of shorts produced in searing Kinemacolor, who made the distinction between today’s films and the silent era archive. “We live in a world of digital perfection,” he said. “Welcome to the realm of imperfection.”
It’s not the films themselves that are imperfect—although Farinelli was referring to a glitch in some of the Kinemacolor films that revealed a full frame of red or green instead of the magical combination—but our sight of them, our access to them. It’s near-impossible to see these works exactly as they were made. Partly that is to do with the evanescent nature of a silent film screening: the live music and projection that can never be exactly repeated. At other times, it’s because restoration techniques can never quite undo the damage inflicted by time. By reproducing the delicate tints and accents of stencil color to Rapsodia satanica (1917), an ethereal Faust narrative starring the mesmeric Italian diva Lyda Borelli, restorers have allowed the film’s vibrant beauty to sing again. A sudden burst of print decay—white blotches on the frame—can’t detract from its singular gorgeousness, but instead acts as a reminder of the film’s archival status. For a silent film enthusiast, these moments provide a thrill akin to the return of a prodigal son, the recognition that this treasure might have been lost but is now saved.
Every film shown at the festival has a story behind it. Even the festival venue, the Castro Theatre, has a tale to tell. It was built by the Nasser brothers, who owned Nickelodeon down the road, in a Spanish style to match the nearby Mission Dolores Basilica, and opened on June 22, 1922, with the Wallace Reid aviation drama Across the Continent. It’s one of the few 1920s cinemas in the U.S. still in operation and in more recent decades has been surrounded by the development of one of the country’s most prominent and oldest LGBT neighborhoods, which was in its heyday as the theater went over to repertory programming in 1976. In Bright Lights Film Journal, Gary Morris has described the modern Castro as “a crucial component of modern gay life,” hosting drag acts and queer cinema, in addition to its wider-ranging repertory programming.
Just as the cinema has been changed by its growing surroundings, the films shown at the festival have evolved in meaning and interpretation. Goona Goona: An Authentic Melodrama of the Isle of Bali, directed by André Roosevelt and Armand Denis in 1932, once claimed educational value, as a sort of documentary displaying the rites of a far-off culture, but it’s no travelogue. A love triangle emerges among the younger generation, and with it a revenge narrative. Goona Goona, with its casual nudity and violence, joined a spate of Balinese exploitation films that found an enthusiastically prurient audience in the U.S. in the early 1930s. It plays differently now. A contemporary audience is more likely to question the ethics of two white filmmakers capturing so much naked foreign skin on film. And yet viewers, plenty able to see flesh and blood at the cinema (or online) on any other night of the week, are also better placed to emphasize the story’s romance rather than its ethnographic titillation. The festival itself went a long way to reclaiming these frequently beautiful images with its choice of musical accompaniment. Goona Goona was screened in San Francisco with a soundtrack that was a kind of duet by two local musical groups, the Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which plays traditional Balinese instruments, and the Club Foot Orchestra, which specializes in silent film scores.
Some restoration techniques can bring something new and elevated to the cinema experience, realizing the dreams that filmmakers were never able to achieve. One of the most memorable screenings at the festival was Marcel L’Herbier’s L’homme du large (1920), a coastal melodrama filmed on a craggy stretch of the Brittany coast. As Serge Bromberg explained when introducing the film, it only survived in a print without intertitles, just markers for where they should appear. The restorers designed intertitles that reflected the sketches in L’Herbier’s notebooks—powerfully geometric, colorful designs double-exposed with live action, that he probably couldn’t actually have achieved with silent-era technology. Of course, the intertitles were in French, but because the cards were so beautiful, the festival didn’t want to cover them up with subtitles. The solution was impeccably elegant. Alongside Guenther Buchwald and Frank Bockius’s haunting musical accompaniment, inspired by Brittany folk tunes, actor Paul McGann read out the English translations for each card. It was a screening of an impossibly beautiful film, with ambitious on-screen designs, live music, and spoken-word accompaniment. The film itself was ninety-nine years old, but this kind of event could only take place now, with twenty-first-century technology and the presentational care lavished on such films by an established festival.
Restoring films isn’t always just about the prints themselves, either. One of the week’s most outrageously entertaining late-night screenings was narcotic drama Opium (1919), a product of the brief window when German films went uncensored. This was a sort of Weimar-era Reefer Madness, warning of the dangers of drugs while reveling in hallucinogenic imagery of fauns and nymphs cavorting in the sunshine—such were the narcotic visions of the film’s delirious opium-smokers. Werner Krauss plays a wicked Chinese opium dealer who lures a professor (Eduard von Winterstein) into sampling the drug he has only previously studied scientifically. Conrad Veidt costars as the professor’s assistant who is in love with his wife. The performances are striking albeit rather chaotic, but it’s the atmosphere and the look of the film that burns brightest—whether in its rampant exoticism, those narcotized pastoral daydreams, or a startling encounter with a lion, in rural India no less.
In fact, it’s not the film so much as the filmmaker that was restored at this year’s festival. Director Robert Reinert is a little-known figure, whose reputation rests on a handful of works including the notorious, boldly experimental film Nerven, the 1919 movie that David Bordwell has said might have been as central to German Expressionism as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if it had been as widely screened. And why wasn’t it shown to as many audiences? Because allegedly, it drove spectators into frenzies that required hospitalization. One woman, it is said, woke up in the middle of the night and took to the streets in her nightclothes, screaming: “Now I am going to die!”Opium was in a position to astound, if not traumatize, as it screened in a new tinted restoration that is far more complete than the versions that have circulated over the years. As Stefan Drössler from the Filmmuseum München explained, the restoration involved more imagination than most, as the film was reconstructed from two negatives (the domestic and export versions) that in places hardly matched at all. What was especially touching was that Drössler had managed to find out more about Reinert himself and his life—including the information that he had suffered from mental illness and been treated with cranial surgery. The audacious and often otherworldly imagery in Opium, Nerven, and his 1916 fantasy Homunculus may reflect the wayward imagination of a psychologically damaged man, or just the compulsive creativity of a man who wrote and directed prolifically until his sudden death of a heart attack in 1928, in his fifties.
“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts.”
My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.
The process Beaulieu used to print his flip books was similar to the halftone photoengraving method used to reproduce black-and-white photographs in newspaper—etched metal plates that build an image out of tiny dots—so these scenes lack some of the richness and clarity of a film image. They look like specters of the real thing. As they were designed to be flipped by a finger and thumb, the books “play” at a variety of frame rates, sometimes as slowly as eight or ten frames per second. Still, thanks to the ingenuity of Dutch photographer Onno Petersen, Byrne and Lecointe were able to present the images from these flip books in motion, projected onto the vast Castro screen. It was hypnotic to watch what appeared to be photographs of trains and people lurch into motion. It’s a primal cinema scene. These primitive flickers of moving images looked as raw and yet revelatory as Eadweard Muybridge’s first experiments with capturing motion—the horse gait studies he presented here in San Francisco in the 1870s.
In Muybridge’s motion studies and in these glimpses of early cinema, we find the roots of the silent classics of the 1920s, the gorgeous presentations of the films that played each evening at the festival. Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928), for example, was enhanced by a charming and personal introduction by costar Fay Wray’s daughter Victoria Riskin. Two of the other headline acts, Clarence Brown’s railway melodrama The Signal Tower (1924) and G. W. Pabst’s adventurous Soviet action drama The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), appeared in fresh restorations that should go a long way to securing new reputations for these long-overlooked films.
These films’ audacious grasp of relatively new technology was pleasingly echoed too by the mechanical slapstick antics of Buster Keaton in opening and closing films The Cameraman (1928) and Our Hospitality (1923). The sight of Keaton haplessly getting to grips with a moving picture camera for the first time seemed a fitting accompaniment to our exploration of the birth of a new medium. Suddenly, for a few days in spring in San Francisco, early film history makes a fresh kind of sense. The films, and their provenances, were animated by the restoration and research that makes even an archive festival a journey into the unknown: a realm not of imperfection but of fascinating variation.