This article appeared in the August 10, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927) screens in the Teatro Verdi at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, October 1, 2022. Photo by Valerio Greco
When I go to a silent film festival, I have devilishly high expectations: I’m there for new restorations of long-lost masterpieces, virtually unseen for over a century, snatched from the abyss of archival decay, beautifully curated with transcendent music, and experienced with a passionate community of fellow travelers. I try not to set the bar too high, but what can I say?
One such moment occurred last October at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the largest annual silent film festival in the world, which takes place in Pordenone, Italy. The opening-night program featured more than 10 minutes of newly unearthed footage from The Unknown (1927), Tod Browning’s macabre circus film about a seemingly armless knife-thrower (Lon Chaney) who falls madly in love with a woman who has a phobia of men’s hands (Joan Crawford). That haunting premiere was preceded by a screening of Polish duo Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s recently rediscovered, anti-fascist, avant-garde opus Europa (1931-1932), which had been stolen by the Nazis in 1940 and was deemed lost until 2019. The two prints shared a historical connection: The Unknown’s (figurative) phantom limb materialized from a Czech circulating copy that had been seized from the Nazis by the Soviet army as a “war trophy” in 1945, repatriated from Gosfilmofond (Russia’s state archive) to Národní filmový archiv in Prague, where it was identified in 2017, and finally shipped to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, where archivists and technicians combined it with an incomplete, extant French version of the feature in 2022. José María Serralde Ruiz’s newly commissioned orchestral score for The Unknown and Maud Nelissen’s soaring accompaniment to Europa made these time capsules of wartime dispersal pulsate with a multisensory urgency.
What enchants me most about silent film events is their startling sense of contemporaneity, which goes beyond topical relevance or the archival alchemy of restoring a badly damaged nitrate print. Whether the theme at hand is Ruritanian cuckoldry (think: a Swedish barbershop sex comedy about Balkan geopolitics), Russian divas in Italy, or women screenwriters in early Hollywood, these worlds—thought dead, if thought of at all—surge into the present. These films are not nostalgic escapes from the crises of today or factual documents that bear witness to the authenticity of the past, but revelatory kernels of unrealized possibility. When the Danish daredevil Emilie Sannom dives headlong out of a fighter plane onto a bell tower in the only surviving fragment of the Italian feature La fanciulla dell’aria (Mistress of the Sky, 1923)—which screened in the “One Hundred Years Ago” program at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, and streams currently on the Danish Film Institute’s wonderful website—it shakes something loose. “The fragment convinces that it is part of a larger unseen reality,” wrote Grant Hyde Code for the journal Close Up in 1928 after a screening of E.A. Dupont’s Variety (1925). The “eccentric angles” deployed to depict a doomed trio of trapeze acrobats, according to Code, exposed “the trick” of inhabiting a world composed of disjointed fragments.
Curating categories at silent film festivals is a way to assert new concepts of film history. These categories can be conventional, playful, weird, impossibly ambitious, or thematically expedient: a centenary celebration, the stardom of a forgotten movie queen (Norma Talmadge or Ellen Richter), the costume designs of French artist Sonia Delaunay (co-founder of the Orphism movement), 9.5mm Pathé-Baby home movies (an amateur format introduced in 1922), or hand-colored trick films about violent metamorphic dolls. (If you liked Barbie, you’ll love The Doll’s Revenge, from 1907, in which an abused toy figure comes to life, clones herself, and eats her assaulter alive.) But the centerpiece of any revival festival will always be new restorations and rediscoveries. At the Ritrovato festival, the crowds thronged to three wildly different tales of maternal sacrifice, all unseen or poorly seen by moviegoers for decades: Ernst Lubitsch’s “unfaithful” Oscar Wilde adaptation, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925); Japanese silent avant-garde master Teinosuke Kinugasa’s blue-tinted, intertitle-free A Page of Madness (1926); and Henry King’s original Stella Dallas (1925), written by Frances Marion. At Pordenone, Viktor Abel and Alfred Zeisler’s spellbinding tanzfilm The Great Love of a Little Dancer (1924), an unofficial parody of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), roused the audience with a marionette theater that Walter Benjamin once described as “more beautiful than anything you could imagine.” It is the only celluloid trace of the Schwiegerling family of puppeteers, and the audience felt that vanishing context very deeply.
Though many of these treasures will often later screen online, the somatic experience of watching them in a setting dedicated to their collective exhibition stirs up (to borrow a phrase from scholar Ann Cvetkovich) the “archive of feelings” they preserve: glimmers of unorthodox fantasy and wayward possibility liberated from the slow-burn oblivion of ordinary reality. Their projection briefly resurrects an affective horizon foreclosed by history and excluded from visibility in the present—fugitive gestures, close-ups of obsolete landmarks, flash points of hell-raising revolution. These films gain power in their very incompleteness, deemed “fragmented works perpetually in motion” by Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon in Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film. Such texts, Beeston and Solomon suggest, “open a space—an elsewhere—for projection and fantasy, speculation and conjecture.” They unsettle the false closure of the canon and give us gateways into film history as a trove of discontinued possibilities and fleeting sensations.
That creative spark might be triggered by Albert Samama Chikli’s ethnography of daily boat work in Tunny Fishing in Tunisia (1905), which captures the feeling of swaying vessels filmed two years after Chikli first took his camera underwater inside a wooden submarine. (You can read all about Chikli’s archives and his vast filmography in Mariann Lewinsky’s new collection, Albert Samama Chikli: Photographer, Director, Navigator.) Or perhaps by Kathryn Boyd’s aerial close-ups in The Flying Ace, Richard E. Norman’s 1926 detective film about Black fighter pilots, which is screening outdoors (and streaming globally online) this month at the annual Stummfilmtage in Bonn, Germany—alongside a new restoration of Pavement Butterfly (1929) with Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich’s breakthrough role in Café Electric (1927), and the Chinese femme-fatale arachno-fantasy The Cave of the Silken Web (1927).
New silent film festivals take off every year: the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society will host its debut installment in September (on the heels of Pirmoji Banga, a similar event in Vilnius that began in 2016), while FIC-Silente celebrates its seventh annual edition in Puebla, Mexico in November, spotlighting a competition for 21st-century silent productions. From flagship festivals in San Francisco; Pordenone; Bologna; and Bo’ness, Scotland to online extravaganzas epitomized by interactive live-stream events like Kennington Bioscope and Ben Model & Steve Massa’s “Silent Comedy Watch Party,” the public project of archival curating has become a bulwark against the looming catastrophe of an increasingly unstable material culture, and a windfall for an intergenerational moviegoing community.
What I feel when I come together with my fellow silent-film lovers—archivists, programmers, musicians, critics, scholars, and fans—is contagious commitment to cinematic objects (both extant reels and untold lost films) and the boundless histories that swirl around them. For hard evidence, read Pamela Hutchinson’s daily recaps of Pordenone on her blog Silent London, listen to José Arroyo and Richard Layne’s podcast First Impressions: Thinking Aloud About Film and Michael Gebert’s NitrateVille Radio interviews, and follow the activity of the Women Film Pioneers Project and the journal Feminist Media Histories. “We can and should be changing the film history that was handed down to us,” declared curator Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi in a recent conversation with Kate Saccone. For me, as for countless others, the future gains a jolt of existential promise through silent cinema’s reanimation of lost worlds.
Maggie Hennefeld is an associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; the author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia University Press, 2018); and a curator of the four-disc DVD/Blu-ray set Cinema’s First Nasty Women (Kino Lorber, 2022).