Search This Blog

Saturday, May 7, 2016

One Week, Two Coasts, Two Extraordinary Silent Film Experiences

I don't know what I did to deserve such good fortune. In the course of one week--over one long weekend, to be exact--I was in the audience for two spectacular screenings of brilliant silent films, accompanied by live orchestral music composed recently, with the composers in attendance. One was on the west coast in Los Angeles at the Turner Classic Film Festival, Friday April 29, and the other on the east coast, here in Brookline, MA, at the Coolidge Corner Cinema, on Monday, May 2nd. The liberal use of superlatives in this post must be excused, as they are completely warranted; anyone in either audience will attest.

The TCM Film Festival screening: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), Fri. April 29th I'll be publishing another post shortly about some of my experiences at the festival, but this film was a highlight.  The film was made in Germany, directed by Carl Dreyer, and considered one of the masterpieces of the silent cinema, if not all cinema.  Its iconic star is French-born Maria Falconetti,
who is little known outside this film, but who gave one of the most stunning performances of all time.  This was my first ever viewing of the film, and it was unlike anything I'd seen. A dramatization of the final trial of St. Joan before her famous burning at the stake, it was not unlike one imagines the biblical Christ on trial by Pilate, with hypocritical judges manipulating the saintly Joan, both physically and psychologically, slowly toward her doom. The camera style was beyond expressionistic, mostly in either projecting disjointed close-ups of Joan and her accusers in a parade of faces, or capturing the environment with odd angles. Purportedly the actors used no makeup, leading to a raw, emotion-packed drama of personality, wits, and will.  It was somewhat of a miracle that the film survived, as it had been lost for many years until an original print was found in 1981 in a Norwegian insane asylum (!)
Enhancing the drama with astounding beauty was the live musical accompaniment -- festival attendees were witnessing a live performance of the 1994 score, the oratorio "Voices of Light" composed by Richard Einhorn.  Einhorn composed the piece at least in part, for the film, appropriately using medieval texts from mostly female mystics such as St. Hildegard of Bingen.  The soloists and U.C. Berkeley alumni chorus added a medieval other-worldliness to the proceedings.  Einhorn was present at the screening, and was interviewed beforehand by film critic Leonard Maltin, and shared how the film inspired him.  In a move unusual for film screenings, attendees were given a program for the performance with detailed notes and text of the oratorio.  Imagines of the cover and  inside pages of the program are here:

The audience held its collective breath until the final credits, when the chorus, who had been seated stealthily in black in the first several rows of the theater, stood up, turned and faced the audience, and delivered the Epilogue "Letter from Joan of Arc" --  So God King of Heaven, wills it; and so it has been revealed by the Maid".
The orchestra warming up before the screening
I hope to revisit the film soon, as I was so caught up in the emotion and thrill of the performances, both cinematic and musical, that I'm sure I missed so much detail of the drama taking place.  Many thanks to TCM for adding this event to the 2016 festival schedule.

For those interested, the complete oratorio can be heard on YouTube:

The film itself can also be found on YouTube.

The Coolidge Corner/Berklee Screening: VARIETÉ (1925) Mon., May 2  Readers of this blog know I previewed this theatrical event in my post here last month.  The experience did not disappoint.  The digitally restored film, directed by E.A. Dupont, and starring Emil Jannings, was an operatic melodrama of the highest order, with stunning visuals by cinematographer Karl Freund.  Accompanying it was a world premiere score, as written by Berklee College of Music film scoring students, conducted by the student composers, and performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  The music did, as film scoring Professor Sheldon Mirowitz said, enhance the drama.  It was clearly a modern piece but with tunes that evoked early 20th century culture.  What struck me the most was the brilliant acting of Emil Jannings.  Using only his face, he could convince you that he was a mild-mannered man in love, or an angry, menacing murderer. The confrontation scene between Janning's character and antagonist 'Artinelli' is one of the most beautifully choreographed and chilling scenes I've witnessed.

The contrasting faces of Emil Jannings:

I've now seen Jannings in five films, and my opinion of him as an actor has grown in each.  This performance may be his finest, although I loved him in THE LAST COMMAND, a role for which he won the first best actor Oscar even given.

The gorgeous art deco Coolidge cinema
The audience at the screening, similar to that for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, gave the performers, both from 1925 and today, a standing ovation.  The deserving six student composers are Mateo Rodo (Argentina), Larry Hong (USA), Austin Matthews (USA), Hyunju Yun (Korea), Kanako Hashiyama (Japan), and Nathan Drube (USA). The audiences in Martha's Vineyard, San Francisco, and Beverly, MA, who will have the opportunity to catch the encore performances in the next couple of months, will be no doubt tremendously moved and satisfied, as will audiences who purchase the upcoming release of the film and score by Kino Lorber later this year.

A thorough and scholarly review and appreciation of the score to the film is provided here, in the Boston Music Intelligencer.


  1. Congrats and welcome to the CMBA! So wonderful to meet you at #TCMFF!! … Kellee:-)

    1. Hi, Kellee, thanks for reading and same here! All of you in the CMBA are such inspirations for glad to be a part. :-)