By Richard von Busack
Considering silent film, Lillian Gish said that it occurred to her that it looked as if cinema had worked its way backward—it seemed to be the end result of cinematic evolution instead of its beginning. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of the world’s best film fests, bringing an eclectic range of rediscoveries and established classics. Here’s the brashness of William Wellman, directing Louise Brooks as a cross-dressing hobo in Beggars of Life (1928). Here also is the subtlety of Yasujiro Ozu, in 1930’s That Night’s Wife, screening June 3, a proto-noir about a solid citizen who turns robber to buy medicine for his child.
There’s a tradition of filming in Northern California that goes back to the westerns made by Broncho Billy Anderson on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. Thus: The recently rediscovered Mothers of Men (1917) a melodrama, filmed in Santa Cruz, about the rise of a female politician. June 5th’s Girls Will Be Boys is a program based on author Laura Horak’s study of the elasticity of sex roles in pre-Code film.
Among the dozens of silent films at this year’s fest are two examples of the primacy of German film in that movie era: Varieté (1925) by director E.A. Dupont and photographer Karl Freund (who later directed the Karloff Mummy). The two collaborate on this story of circus performers at a Berlin auditorium. The would-be Boss of the place (Emil Jannings) is lured away from his wife by a new arrival (Lya De Putti). The love story is almost secondary to the daring innovations in camerawork, which made this an international success.
As a rule, if anyone has seen just one silent film, it’s Metropolis. But before Fritz Lang created his future-themed allegory about Weimar Republic anxieties, he made the romance Destiny—aka The Weary Death (1921): A nobly-told, fatalist story of a wager between Death and a grieving lady, played out during three historical episodes. It’s an expressionist Intolerance, made right before the creation of UFA, the German film studio that rivaled and often surpassed Hollywood.
The 21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place June 2–5 at The Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco; 415/621-6120; silentfilm.org.