• Print
  • TWEET

Miracle in Bologna

Il Cinema Ritrovato

a film festival in Bologna, Italy, June 23–July 1, 2018
Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden
Conrad Veidt and Lillebil Christensen in Urban Gad’s Christian Wahnschaffe, 1920–1921

To roam at will among films lost, films never seen, films quite likely not even known by you to exist, day after day among spectators all animated by a common attentiveness and palpable curiosity, as if nothing existed outside the parallel world of cinema: for some of us that might be the most irresistible escape of all, a plunge not into oblivion but into all the corridors of memory, lit by a thousand cameras. In early summer of each year Bologna becomes the site of such a collective immersion. On July 1, Il Cinema Ritrovato wrapped up its thirty-second edizione, in which during nine days more than five hundred films (of lengths ranging from a minute to many hours) were shown on as many as nine screens.

The festival began in 1986 as a three-day event, providing a showcase for the work of film restorers around the world, unveiling films that have been found again, stitched together from scattered fragments, or made newly visible despite the incursions of nitrate decay. By now the density of the programming is staggering, encompassing multiple strands in any given year. This time the themes included the career of Marcello Mastroianni, Soviet films of 1934, Chinese cinema of the late 1940s, the work of the filmmakers Luciano Emmer, Marcello Pagliero, and Yilmaz Güney, and a salute to Technicolor.

There is a festival tradition of passing in review the films of a century earlier, so it was 1918 that filed by in features, serials, newsreels, travelogues, and even a film that can barely be said to exist: Germaine Dulac’s multi-episode melodrama Âmes de fous (1918), a few bits of which recently surfaced in a Dutch archive. These pieces of film were shown interspersed with still images of other scenes and ingeniously incorporated into a thirty-minute live reading, with vigorous musical accompaniment, of the film’s convoluted scenario, creating the illusion of having watched a three-hour farrago of seduction, madness, and stolen inheritance. This was the more remarkable in that the actual celluloid component of the program, split up into infinitesimal glimpses, ran about two minutes in all. Imaginary films, as the festival co-director Mariann Lewinsky remarked, can be more powerful than real ones.

The festival is marked not by outward exuberance but by a current of intense focus. A preoccupation with time is understandable at Il Cinema Ritrovato, where overlapping screenings often make it necessary to enter after the beginning or leave before the end; by the same token a window of opportunity between two films can permit a glance at some third spectacle, whether a sampling of Technicolor dye transfer reference reels from the early 1970s or a one-minute movie from 1898 depicting the burning of Joan of Arc. Archivists, programmers, film students, historians, and mere dedicated cinephiles, generally with their program guides close at hand for reference, move continually up and down the streets of central Bologna, from the aptly named Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini where the Cineteca di Bologna is headquartered, past the spacious Cinema Arlecchino and Cinema Jolly, to the Piazza Maggiore where each night there is an open-air projection of a film by Ernst Lubitsch or Ingmar Bergman or Sergio Leone, on a screen vast enough that their images can vie with the city’s surrounding Gothic monuments.

As one festivalgoer remarked, the pursuit of cinematic rarities can feel like a solitary way of life. Bologna provides a reassuring sense that there are at least these thousands of others, converging from around the globe, who care with equal intensity about the remotest corners of film history, and who will line up for a 1919 courtroom drama by John M. Stahl (the object of a retrospective series this year) as if it were the most urgent breaking news. In this rarefied atmosphere, the films do indeed acquire urgent force. Once you are accustomed to a domain where everything is old, each film can seem freshly revealed, as if seen for the first time. The images assert themselves with a defiant newness—not simply the newness of an optimal restoration, but of a long-mislaid message forcing its way into view.

That courtroom drama, The Woman Under Oath, was a perfect instance of the unexpected encounters that flourish here. Stahl is remembered from his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s as a master of the “woman’s picture,” recognized for the persuasive power of such films as Back Street (1932), Imitation of Life (1934), When Tomorrow Comes (1939), and the never to be forgotten Leave Her to Heaven (1945), a Freudian fever dream in hallucinatory Technicolor. The Woman Under Oath is a woman’s picture too, in its opening title card asking the question: “Is a woman temperamentally fitted for service on a jury in a criminal case?” A novelist (Florence Reed), perhaps modeled on Edith Wharton, puts it to the test as a juror in the murder trial of a young man accused of shooting his employer.

The sixty-minute film has enough plot—by turns rough-edged, tragic, and preposterous—for a much longer feature, and feels like an experiment in how rapidly a situation can be laid out and cross-cut with other scenes. It has the rhythm of machinery being pushed to its maximum speed, with ever more improbable surprises piling up as it rounds its final corners. A harsh police interrogation, a dinner in an exotic supper club, a masked ball on New Year’s Eve, a rape in a locked office, a vision of ghostly accusatory figures in the window of the jury room: these and much else alternate and repeat in variant forms until the story’s ambiguities are finally straightened out in a single stunning shot where the strands come neatly together.

Surprise is constant here, even apparently for the most learned film scholars in attendance. There is an unavoidable sense as well of the precariousness of these films’ survival. Jean Grémillon’s Daïnah la Métisse (1932) can just barely be said to have survived, since its producer cut the film in half and evidently rearranged its sequences. Even so it is one of the most overwhelming films at Bologna. An elegant woman of mixed race interacts flirtatiously with the guests at an otherwise all-white party on board an ocean liner, all of whom wear nightmarishly grotesque masks while “Cocktails for Two” plays on the soundtrack; her morose dark-skinned husband stages feats of surreal magic. The dreamlike atmosphere gives way to scenes of sexual harassment, rape, and murder, and, as a criminal investigation unfolds, the shadowy region below decks becomes a place of labyrinthine terror. The gaps in the story make Daïnah perhaps an even more mysterious object than it was meant to be, but there is no mistaking Grémillon’s visual daring. This is a film that haunts even while being watched for the first time.

The newly restored, nearly complete Christian Wahnschaffe (1920–1921) was likewise an astonishment. Adapted in two feature-length parts by director Urban Gad from Jakob Wassermann’s epic novel (known in English as The World’s Illusion), this is a panorama of early-twentieth-century turmoil as seen from the start of the Weimar years, with Conrad Veidt giving an extreme and mannered performance as a wealthy industrialist’s son dabbling in radical politics and utopian spirituality. The irresistibly intense Norwegian actress Lillebil Christensen dominates the first part as an obsessive Parisian dancer embroiled with Russian revolutionaries and grand dukes, as things move in a violent swirl toward a fiery and suicidal climax. In part two, Veidt meets up with his costar from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss, who in a blunt-force turn embodies a pimp of the most abject moral loathsomeness, as the film plunges into the miseries of a working-class rooming house racked by a savagery that remains unsettling.

One can only imagine how disturbing Christian Wahnschaffe, with its episodes of political assassination, arson, rape, murder, and lynching at the hands of an aroused but misguided proletariat, must have been to its original audience. But the curious alchemy of the festival—an alchemy that has everything to do with the palpable attentiveness its audiences bring with them—encourages an active engagement by which historical distance seems to dissolve and the films become almost eerily present. Louis Feuillade filmed his 1918 serial Vendémiaire in his native region of Provence, and the wine harvest around which it centers was occurring precisely at the time depicted, during what were not at that point known to be the last days of World War I. Melodrama and documentary mingle, as refugees from the war-torn north head down the Rhône on a barge and a nefarious escaped German prisoner who has boasted of being the first soldier to use poison gas against the enemy dies from the toxic fumes of fermenting grapes in the storage cellar where he has taken shelter. The lovingly photographed vineyards and cottages and waterways are almost tactile in their immediacy, underscoring the film’s insistence on terroir as a symbol for France. A feast in celebration of the new vintage becomes a patriotic celebration of “the wine of liberty.” Realistic in its depiction of a French populace all too ready to believe rumors and false accusations, particularly when leveled at the itinerant poor, Vendémiaire is a different sort of masterwork from Feuillade’s Fantômas and Les Vampires but shares their infallibly poetic instinct for the expressive use of found locations.

As the days go by in Bologna an oceanic sense of interconnections takes hold. The films communicate among themselves, from their respective vantage points in time. Fiction and history blur together. In a newsreel shown after Vendémiaire, Parisians celebrate the Armistice that had already occurred by the time Feuillade’s film was released. In another from the same year, General Allenby leads his victorious forces into Jerusalem on foot; this was paired with a timely 1918 Italian adaptation of Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered.1 In the 1949 Chinese film The Winter of Three Hairs,2 based on a comic strip about an orphan struggling to survive on the streets of Shanghai, the scrappy Three Hairs is uplifted by news of the victorious revolution, and the scene changes to documentary footage of the Eighth Army parading jubilantly. The American documentarian Herbert Kline, in his bracing, long-forgotten Lights Out in Europe (1940), films Nazi troops arriving in Danzig and Polish victims of aerial bombing, while Lupino Lane regales a London music hall audience with “We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line”; in the American fiction film None Shall Escape (1944), director André de Toth dramatizes a future war crimes tribunal under the auspices of the United Nations, urging the movie audience to consider its own verdict. Rummaging in the past we find the remnants of alternate futures.

Invasions, victory marches, warnings, exhortations: it is like the scattered armies of the twentieth century colliding with one another in a floating afterlife. Where have we landed now, and in what year? What disaster just ended, or is about to happen? The sense of leakage from past to present lingers even as one takes further refuge into some more idyllic recess, savoring the comic interplay of Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields in Stahl’s Holy Matrimony (1943) or surrendering to ninety-six minutes of unrestrained bantering and quarreling and teasing on the part of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Alessandro Blasetti’s La Fortuna di Essere Donna (Lucky to Be a Woman, 1955). Here by turns are horses and storms and barges and swamps. Is this another movie about impossible love, another about the brutal exercise of power, another about a life seen at its endpoint in retrospect? They come to seem part of a single movie whose edges recede into timeless darkness, a movie of which you are inextricably a part. Call it In Search of Time Lost Once Upon a Time in the Twentieth Century.

After dusk the streets might seem to swarm with the ghosts of the spectators for whom these films were made. It feels as if they are close at hand, hovering like the smoke that rises from the carbon arc lamp projector in the Piazzetta Pasolini, at an open-air nighttime screening of Fantasia ‘e surdato, directed by Elvira Notari, a 1927 film based on a Neapolitan ballad about love and death. There is a miracle in these images having been restored, and at the same time their discernible flickering as they pass through the antique projector is a constant reminder of impermanence.

  1. 1

    La Gerusalemme Liberata, directed by Enrico Guazzoni.  

  2. 2

    San Mao Liulang Ji, directed by Zhao Ming and Yan Gong.