Archival Spaces 277
Bonn Silent Film Festival: Panel Discussion
Uploaded 3 September 2021
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:
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, but 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.
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.
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 poplar 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.
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. Programmer also had to be convinced of the quality of the films they show, in order not to waste time or turn off audience due to flawed films. While some felt that films with racial or gender stereotypes should be avoided, others noted that discussions abut 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.
Archival Spaces 276
Remembering Cuban Film Star Xonia Benguría
Uploaded 20 August 2021
In October 2017, UCLA Film & Television Archive screened a new 35mm restored print of Casta de Roble (1954) in the massive retrospective, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960. Its star, Xonia Benguría, died in Astoria, N.Y. on 31 July 2021 after sixty years in exile. Earlier, in July 2016, Luciano Castillo, Director of the Cinemateca de Cuba, had hand-carried a dupe negative of the film, along with several other pre-revolutionary Cuban films to Los Angeles from Havana for preservation. In Casta de Roble, a young peasant girl, played by Xonia Benguría, who also wrote the script, has a baby by the master of the plantation, which is taken away from her. She marries and has another son, but the loss of the child has scarred her for life. Shot mostly on location in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, the film visualizes the harsh life of peasants and workers in a sugar economy, where only a privileged few at the top benefit, while the workers are enslaved as tenant farmers. Directed by Xonia’s then husband, Manolo Alonso, the film had a keen sense of style, its social realist narrative enlivened by many compositions quoting Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovchenko. Given that for five decades the Communist government suppressed the knowledge of any filmmaking activity in Cuba before 1959, the film was a revelation.
Born in Cuba on 4 October 1924, Xonia Benguría grew up in privilege. Her family’s extensive sugar plantations allowed her father to become a well-respected calligrapher, her mother a dedicated housewife who encouraged the artistic ambitions of her three children; Carmina, an older sister, became internationally known for reciting poetry. At twelve, young Xonia was sent to Averett College’s prep school in Danville, Virginia, to learn English. Returning to Cuba a year later, she had ambitions to act and sing and made her debut in May 1944, singing her own songs at Havana’s Teatro Auditorium. She followed that up by acting in the play “Petit Farándula” at the Teatro America, and a radio play, “Rendezvous at Five.” Shortly after the end of World War II, Benguría went to New York to study with Frances Robinson Duff, the “foremost dramatic coach” in America who had trained the likes of Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, and Miriam Hopkins.
Returning to Cuba in the late 1940s, she married the actor Alberto Garrido from the Afro-Cuban comedy team of Chicharito (Garrido) and Sopeira (Federico Piñero), and gave birth to a son. She co-starred with the duo in two Cuban musical comedies: Escuela de modelos/School for Models (1949) and Cuando las mujeres Mandan/When Women Rule (1951), both directed by José Fernández. In the first film she played a scantily clad nightclub dancer-singer. The latter featured the comic duo as Cuban nationals who desert from the Korean War and land in a country run by Amazonian women. Treated as sex toys by their two female captors (Benguría & Olga Uz), they lead a successful revolt for machismo. The films seem typical for Cuban film productions of the period.
After Xonia divorced Garrido, she married Manolo Alonso with whom she had a daughter. A prominent film director and close confidant of Cuban President, Ramón Grau San Martin, Alonso was born in Havana in 1912. In 1938, he started the 1st Cuban newsreel, Noticiero Nacional, and was involved in founding Cuban television in 1950. Alonso directed his first feature, I am Hitler (1944), a series of satirical sketches, and, Siete muertes a plazo fijo/Seven Timely Deaths, a thriller-comedy in 1950. Alonso probably met Benguría while he directed Garrido and Piñero short films, and hoped to star her in Leonela, which remained unproduced; based on the 1893 novel by Nicolás Heredia about the colonial sugar industry on the verge of bankruptcy, exploited by ruthless big city merchants. But nothing in the couple’s biography could predict the ideological turn away from Hollywood-style comedy to Casta de Roble, which in exploring the plight of the poor in a rural society followed the lead of Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez’s Mexican films, like Río Escondido (1948).
The project came to fruition when Xonia showed her script for Casta de Roble to David Silva, a well-known Mexican actor who agreed to star. Alonso hoped to hire Gabriel Figueroa as cameraman, who was unavailable, but managed to secure the Spanish cinematographer, Alfredo Fraile, who would shoot J. A. Bardem’s The Death of a Cyclist (1955). Hailed as a new beginning in Cuban cinema, Casta de Roble (1954) met with unanimous praise in Cuba and abroad, where Columbia picked up distribution.
Unfortunately, it was the last Cuban film for the couple, who would divorce, remarry, and divorce again in exile. After the revolution in 1959, Castro asked Alonso to build up the Cuban film industry, but he declined for ideological reasons. After the intervention of the Japanese Ambassador, Jotaro Koda, the family was allowed to leave Cuba, arriving in Miami in December 1960.
In exile, Manolo Alonso directed La Cuba de ayer (1960s), a compilation of pre-revolution newsreels. Meanwhile, Xonia Benguría worked in New York Latinx theatres, including the Teatro LATEA, IATI Theater, Nuestro Teatro, and INTAR Theatre. In 1989, she starred in the premiere of Luis Santiero’s “Lady From Havana,” and received raves from the Miami New Times: “Creating very different characters in the course of one evening, and giving both roles depth and honesty, is an acting challenge, but these women make it look easy. Xonia Benguria commands center stage as the Queen Mama Beba, and portrays Gloria in Act Two with a fragile dignity.” Xonia had hoped to come to L.A. for the premiere of Casta de Roble’s restored print, but age and illness prevented it.
For more information on Manolo Alonso, see Alejandra Espasande Bouza’s excellent article, “Manolo Alonso: A Cuban cinematic pioneer, http://alejandra-espasande-bouza.blogspot.com/2008/10/manolo-alonso-cuban-cinematic-pioneer.html. Many thanks also to Fabricio Espasande Bouza, who pulled together a ton of information on Benguría and translated it for me. See also Hollywood Goes Latin. Spanish-Language Filmmaking in Los Angeles, ed. by María Elena de las Carreras and J.C. Horak (Brussels: FIAF, 2019).