Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 33: Nanook of the North (1922)

It’s canonised as a progenitor of the documentary film, but I think it’s also now well-known that director Robert J. Flaherty made compromises in committing this story to film, ones that later documentarians would try to avoid — things like staging scenes, manipulating reality for filmic ends, even changing the names and relationships of the people seen on screen — making it more of a documentary-based drama. The story deals with “Nanook”, living in northern Quebec with two women and a daughter, as he builds an igloo and forages for food, trapping seals (an almost comic scene, if it weren’t so brutal) and hunting a walrus. There are a number of cute little vignettes — staged, of course — like him being introduced to a phonograph by a local trader, but the film is at its strongest when it depicts the simple act of living within nature that Nanook and his fellow Inuit must daily practise. Even if Flaherty has them using spears rather than (more accurately for the early-20th century) guns, it still depicts a way of life that’s far beyond the comprehension and comfort of most Western viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Robert J. Flaherty; Length 79 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2015.

British Silent Film Festival 2014

The Cinema Museum logo The regular presentation of Britain’s early filmed legacy this year took the form of a one-day conference followed by a day of screenings at Kennington’s Cinema Museum. There were four sessions, each presenting a feature film, and some shorts, with the final film of both late-morning and late-afternoon sessions being a feature directed by Hungarian émigré Géza von Bolváry and starring Britain’s 1920s screen darling Betty Balfour, respectively The Vagabond Queen and Bright Eyes (both 1929). Other highlights were a drama about a woman finding liberation through, ahem, secretarial work in The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a sort of proto-kitchen sink drama about working-class East Enders, one of whose set finds love with a posh toff in The Right to Live (1921). Each of the sessions was accompanied by a different musician, respectively John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lily Henley, and Stephen Horne, all of whom did a wonderful job.

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Crainquebille (1922)

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


Crainquebille (1922) [France]

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

For me, there’s something similar here to the way Fassbinder lays on the incidents and watches his character suffer under their weight. Feyder’s touch is lighter, though, and while things seem bleak at times, it never feels masochistic. The character of Jérôme Crainquebille (or “Bill” in the name given him by the original English-language release of the film) has a largely fatalistic approach to the way he’s treated, first arrested on a false accusation of abusing a bored cop, before being processed through the justice system and eventually released, shunned by his former customers. The scenes in the court, indeed, have an almost farcical quality to them, as we see defence, prosecution and judge respectively amuse themselves, showing little interest in what’s going on before them, and the statue of justice at the front of the courtroom turns and looks accusingly at the poor wretches in the dock.

What elevates the film is the almost naturalistic acting by Féraudy and the other minor characters (shopkeepers, cops, prostitutes and newsboys) who populate this world of street vendors based around the Les Halles market, itself long gone. The set design emphasises the dirt and shabbiness of these lives, punctuated a brief fantasy interlude in which Crainquebille imagines a life in the country, growing his own vegetables rather than selling them from his cart. And while tragedy at times seems inescapable, the film remains affectionate towards its impoverished characters, and allows for a little bit of hope to shine through the gloomy black-and-white.

Crainquebille film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France); Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster; Starring Maurice de Féraudy; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014.

Continue reading “Crainquebille (1922)”