277: Bonn Silent Film Festival

Archival Spaces 277

Bonn Silent Film Festival: Panel Discussion

Uploaded 3 September 2021

Bonn Silent Film Festival

Between August 12 and August 22, 2021, the 37th International Silent Film Festival – Internationalen Stummfilmtage – Bonner Sommerkino –  was held in Bonn, Germany, co-organized by the Förderverein Filmkultur Bonn e.V.  The live version of the Festival has taken place for decades in an open-air cinema at the University of Bonn, and this year – given the ongoing COVID pandemic – required not only the usual accreditation but also social distancing and a vaccination pass. However, the restored and digitized films were also available online for forty-eight hours after the screening, allowing people like me to actually view the program. Programmed by newly appointed Artistic Directors Eva Hielscher and Oliver Hanley, the films were invariably accompanied by live music by internationally known musicians, including Elisabeth-Jane Baldry, Günter Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Richard Siedhoff, Daniel Stetich, Sabine Zimmer, and Sabrina Zimmermann.

Even though I have seen literally hundreds and hundreds of silent films over my forty-five-year career as a film historian and archivist, I had actually only seen a couple of the films shown in Bonn this year. Some of the highlights for me were the following:

Girl in Tails (Foto: Svenska Filminstitutet/SF Studios)

Flickan i Frack/Girl in Tails (1926), a Swedish film, directed by Karin Swenström, was a revelation. Swenström was a well-known actress in Sweden who directed half a dozen films in the 1920s, which are completely unknown abroad.  Here she plays a supporting role as the wealthy éminence grise in a very conservative, small town in Sweden, where the local school and church are the center of all life. That stifling atmosphere is familiar to us from Ingmar Bergman or the 2005 Oscar Foreign Film nominee, As It Is in Heaven (2005, Kay Pollak), but this film has a strong feminist aspect: A very smart young woman wears tails to the graduation ball because her father refuses to buy her a gown, even as he pays for tails for her brother. She is interested in a local classmate/nobleman, who she tutored to graduation, and moves in with his family when she breaks with her father after being ostracized by the town. The young nobleman’s chalet is populated by a group of five highly accomplished professional women, whose relationship to him and each other is unclear, but their mannish demeanor, cafe klatsches, and cigar smoking could be mistaken for a lesbian commune.

Zuflucht with Francis Lederer, Henny Porten

Another discovery for me was Zuflucht/Refuge  (1928), starring Francis Lederer and Henny Porten and directed by Carl Froelich. Lederer portrays an upper-middle-class, German ex-soldier who returns to Germany destitute, after fighting as a Communist revolutionary in Russia and is afraid to go home to his mother because his brother had ridiculed him for his political beliefs. He meets and falls in love with Porten’s proletarian vegetable market woman, but their happiness is short-lived because he has apparently contracted tuberculosis. While the film is clearly a melodrama a la Henny, it also visually reproduces the working classes of late 1920s Berlin in an almost neo-realist manner, similar to Joe May’s Asphalt (1928) or Piel Jützi’s Mother Krausen’s Trip to Heaven (1929). The scenes in a Wedding tenement, when the mother’s limo pulls up and is surrounded by hoards of dirty-faced children is remarkable.

Seine gelehrte Frau (1919) with Esther Carena

I was also bowled over by Seine gelehrte Frau/His Learned Wife (1919), starring Esther Carena and directed by Eugen Illés, i.e. Illés Jenő, as he was known in Hungary. Also called Women Who Shouldn’t Get Married, this is a feminist film about a highly successful woman obstetrician, Dr. Ada Haller, who neglects her husband, he a wealthy factory owner, leading him somewhat reluctantly to have an affair. When his mistress becomes pregnant, the doctor must deliver the baby but is unable to save the mother. Realizing her own culpability in her husband’s philandering, she takes the child as her own, leading to a reconciliation with her husband.  Esther Carena was a well-known and popular film diva from 1915-1919 who remains underexposed in film history because so few of her films survive, and because the pre-Caligari period has been neglected. Indeed, this recently and beautifully restored title from the Federal German Archives is not even listed in any of the German filmographies and it is unclear how many of her more than 25 pre-1920 films survive.

Karin Swenström
Eugen Illés aka Illés, Jenő

On Sunday 8-22, the Festival hosted a Zoom panel discussion with a host of film programmers and archivists to discuss “finding an audience for (silent) film heritage today.” Among the participants were the Hielscher and Hanley, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Archive), Elif Rongen-Kaynakci ((Eye Institute, Amsterdam), Janneka van Dalen (Austrian Filmmuseum), Matjey Strnad (Czech Film Archive), Ellen Harrington (Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt), Rob Byrne (San Francisco Silent Film Festival) with Grazia Ingravalle (Brunel University, London) moderating. There was general agreement that even though audiences are often gray-haired, younger audiences, are enthusiastic, especially in Eastern Europe.

It was also agreed that special events, in particular those featuring live musical accompaniment, were successful in winning over new audiences, but that the musicians had to be chosen carefully and had to be professional. Programmers also had to be convinced of the quality of the films they show, in order not to waste time or turn off the audience due to flawed films. While some felt that films with racial or gender stereotypes should be avoided, others noted that discussions about such stereotypes have been productive and desirable for audiences. Finally,  it was noted that online platforms for silent films, both temporary for festivals or permanent archival sites, have vastly increased audience numbers and won them over for silent films.

Certainly, this blogger has been grateful for the online programs of Bonn and Pordenone. 

With a Motocycle Above the Couds (1929) Oesterreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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