Méliès in 3D

First Chaplin, now Georges Méliès. Much more of this and we’re going to need a new category for stereoscopy. Kristin Thompson, on the essential blog Observations on film art which she co-authors with David Bordwell, has written a piece on a season of 3D films that they saw recently at the Cinémathèque Française. Part of the season was a programme of early 3D films presented by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. And when we say early, we mean really early – Bromberg showed experiments made by French inventor René Bunzli in 1900, ten-second vignettes including “a mildly risqué scene of a man arriving to visit his mistress and another discovering his wife in bed with her lover”.

But the startling revelation is the 3D effect achievable from films which were not shot in 3D in the first place, which is where Méliès comes in. Thompson explains:

Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. Aftern the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!

Two 1903 titles – I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron [Le chaudron infernal] and The Oracle of Delphi [L’oracle de Delphes] – triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.

One’s first thought is how absolutely delighted Méliès himself would have been at this unexpected effect. The second – more remote – is whether other such instances of films being shot side-by-side for domestic and foreign markets (not an uncommon practice in the silent era) might be found which might demonstrate the same 3D effect. Would we want to see this, or might it be a vulgarisation comparable to the colorisation of black-and-white films? Vulgar or not, I’m rather thrilled by this glimpse of a hidden dimension to early film just waiting to be untapped. Hats off to the lateral thinkers at Lobster for having spotted the possibility.

Chaplin in 3D

Announcement of the Chaplin series being made in Mumbai

DQE, an India-based company which describes its activities as “Animation, Gaming, Live action production and global distribution” has announced its intention to produce a series of 3D animated short films for television, in collaboration with French production companies Method Animation and MK2. The subject of the 104 six-minute episodes will be Charlie Chaplin. The press release fascinatingly describes the character they will create as being Chaplin’s “Animated Avatar”, and promises that the films will preserve “the sense of humour and the emotional values present in all of Charlie Chaplin’s 70 films, all the while bringing out the quirky, burlesque and comic tone of the character he created”. The films will be ‘silent’ themselves, and though they won’t follow any of the story-lines of Chaplin’s own films, they will use gags from them, while putting Chaplin in modern situations, which sounds intriguing. Variety reports on seeing a 45-second clip in which an animated Chaplin performs “one of his trademark pratfalls” against a New York City backdrop, and shows him using a mobile phone which is shaped like an old-fashioned phone. The press release stresses this intention to combine past with present:

With a global production budget of approximately Euro 8 million, the first series will be developed in colour creating a timeless atmosphere and a unique look, blending early 20th century with present time, allowing for younger generations to identify with the Charlie Chaplin character. In keeping with the spirit of Chaplin, the short episodes will be presented without dialogue, giving enough space for the full scope of the famous character’s talents in pantomime. Completing the picture, putting particular emphasis on the choice of music and the sound design, will add to the laughter and emotion of the adventures of the legendary tramp.

The really intriguing element here is the 3D. The press releases promises that “the entire series will be produced in stereoscopic 3D bringing forth a fully immersed visual and emotional experience”. 3D television is gloing to be the next big media revolution (at least, that’s what the industry is baking on) and there is going to be a need for ready-to-use programming to help fill world schedules. The series will be developed for mobile, television, home video and internet platforms, naturally.

So this may be a smart move by DQE and partners (DQE has already found success with the 3D animated series Iron Man: Armored Adventures), producing a language-free content package which will have appeal across the world, though whether “21st century kids and the[ir] families” will identify with – or even recognise – Charlie Chaplin is something that remains to be seen.

Méliès encore!

Undoubtedly one of most significant DVD releases in recent years in the early and silent cinema field was Flicker Alley’s Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913). Issued in 2008, this 5-DVD set features 173 titles made by the premier filmmaking genius of the early cinema period. It brought together material from collections around the world in as near comprehensive a form as possible, turning what had previously would have taken half a lifetime for just a handful of dedicated researchers to see into something available to all. The set contained revelations for everyone, whether early cinema expert or those stumbling upon these visionary films of magic for the first. The Bioscope produced a review with full listing of all of the titles, including Star-Film catalogue number (the name of Méliès’ film company), the original French title and English title on the discs.

The set was extensive, but it was not complete. More Méliès films were known to be out there, and now Flicker Alley has just announced Georges Méliès Encore, a single disc follow-up which adds a further 26 titles produced by the Frenchman between 1896-1911, plus two titles by his Spanish contemporary Segundo de Chomón done in the Méliès style which have long been is taken for his work. That latter offering sounds a bit odd (let’s instead see a comprehensive DVD dedicated to the supremely artistic work of de Chomón alone one day, please), but the chance to take things that much closer to the complete extant archive is a cause for rejoicing.

The production description available on Amazon.com gives these English titles:

The Haunted Castle from 1896 relies on shot-substitution, the filmmaker’s first trick discovery; it is a work in 21 shots at a time when everyone else in the world was making only single-shot films! An Hallucinated Alchemist is a beautifully-colored trick film from 1897, which survives in perfect condition. Among other surprises, the set includes military re-enactments (The Last Cartridges, Sea Fighting in Greece), dream films (The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship, Under the Seas), dramatic narratives (The Wandering Jew and The Christmas Angel, both with original narrations), slapstick comedies (How Bridget’s Lover Escaped, The King and the Jester, The Cook’s Secret), and, of course, a substantial group of the lovely trick films on which rest Méliès modern reputation.

Flicker Alley has now (updated information, 27 January) provided a full title listing on its website, from which the Bioscope has produced this listing (which corrects some slips):

1896
15 – Défense d’afficher / Post no Bills
78-80 – Le manoir du diable / The Haunted Castle

1897
95 – L’hallucination de l’alchimiste / An Hallucinated Alchemist [Note: this is a misidentification – see comments]
100 – Sur les Toits / On the Roofs
105 – Les Dernières cartouches [Flicker Alley call this Bombardement d’une maison] / The Last Cartridges
110 – Combat naval en Grèce / Sea Fighting in Greece

1901
359 – L’omnibus des toqués ou Blancs et Noirs / Off to Bloomingdale Asylum

1902
392-393 – l’oeuf du sorcier / The Prolific Egg
397 – Éruption volcanique à la Martinique / Eruption of Mount Pele
430-443 – Les aventures de Robinson Crusoé (fragment) / Robinson Crusoe

1903
472 – La flamme merveilleuse / Mystical Flame, The
545 – Un peu de feu s.v.p. (fragment) / Every Man His Own Cigar Lighter

1904
662-664 – Le juif errant / The Wandering Jew
669-677 – Détresse et charité / The Christmas Angel

1905
550-551 – Les apparitions fugitives / Fugitive Apparitions
662-664 – Le juif errant / Wandering Jew, The
669-677 – Détresse et charité / Christmas Angel, The
693-695 – Le baquet de Mesmer / A Mesmerian Experiment
750-752 – L’île de Calypso / The Mysterious Island
786-788 – Le dirigeable fantastique ou le cauchemar d’un inventeur / The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship

1906
888-905 – Robert Macaire et Bertrand, les rois des cambrioleurs / Robert Macaire and Bertrand

1907
912-924 – Deux cent milles sous les mers ou le cauchemar du pêcheur / Under the seas
929-933 – Le mariage de Victorine / How Bridget’s Lover Escaped
1010-1013 – Satan en prison /
1040-1043 – François 1er et Triboulet / The King and the Jester

1909
1476-1485 – Hydrothérapie fantastique / The Doctor’s Secret
1530-1533 – Le papillon fantastique (fragment) / The spider and the butterfly

The three Pathé titles are
Le vitrail diabolique / The Diabolical Church Window (1911)
Les roses magiques / Magic Roses (1906)
Excursion dans la lune / Excursion to the Moon (1908)

So, where (and what is) The Cook’s Secret?

Georges Méliès Encore is released on 16 February 2010, price $19.95.

StummFilmMusikTage 2010

Die Carmen von St. Pauli, from http://www.stummfilmmusiktage.de

StummFilmMusikTage is a festival of silent film and music which takes place each January, held in Erlangen, Germany. This year’s festival takes place 28-31 January, and takes as its theme ‘Tough Guys and Easy Girls’. Here’s what they mean by that:

Friday, January 29th

6pm Film Historian Kevin Brownlow introduces Josef von Sternberg and Underworld

7pm Underworld (USA 1927, 80 min, Dir: Josef von Sternberg) – Score and accompaniment: Helmut Nieberle Trio

Saturday, January 30th

4pm Buster Keaton goes crime (short Films, USA 1921 – 22, 60 min, Dir: Buster Keaton u.a.) – Score and accompaniment: Yogo Pausch

6pm Introduction Sadie Thompson and Gloria Swanson by Film Scholar Ursula von Keitz

7pm Sadie Thompson (USA 1928, 94 min, Dir: Raoul Walsh) – Score: Joseph Turrin; Accompaniment: ensemble KONTRASTE conducted by Frank Strobel

9pm Introduction to Asphalt and the German Crime film

10pm Asphalt (GER 1929, 90 min, Dir: Joe May) – Score and accompaniment: Interzone Perceptible

Sunday, January 31st

11am In the beginning there was the hold-up – treasures from the BFI Archive (GB/USA/F 1900 – 10, 60 min) – Score and accompaniment: Miller the Killer

12.30pm Slapstick-Lunch – Snacks and Short Films in the Upper Foyer

3pm Die Carmen von St. Pauli (GER 1929, 114 min, Dir: Erich Waschneck) – Score and Accompaniment: Miller the Killer con Conny Corretto

6pm Reading from the novel Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques
7pm Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler – Part 1 (GER 1922, 95 min, Dir: Fritz Lang) – Score and accompaniment: Aljoscha Zimmermann Ensemble

A fine programme, though a slapstick lunch sounds a bit hazardous. The festival is being held as usual in the Markgrafentheater Erlangen, a baroque theatre built in 1719 and still in use. Details, including advance tickets, are now available from the festival site (in German and English).

The man who stopped time

Another day, another Muybridge image, but they always look so good, and fit practically any purpose. This time it’s because there’s news of what should be a highly worthwhile event at the British Library. Currently we’re running there an exhibition on nineteenth century photography, entitled Points of View, which I’ve seen twice and will see twice more if I can, and strongly recommend it to anyone in the vicinity. It’s as clear and illuminating an introduction to the history of photography as you’re likely to find. The exhibition stays open until 7 March.

There are events associated with the exhibition, and on 1 February there is to be The man who stopped time: Eadweard Muybridge – pioneer photographer, father of cinema and murderer. It will be presented by Brian Clegg, author of The Man Who Stopped Time, the recent biography of Muybridge, and an additional attraction will be some unique animations of Muybridge photographic sequences by Marek Pytel. Come along at witness the historical point at which photography wills itself into cinema.

The event takes place 18:30-20:00 at the British Library Conference Centre (close by St Pancras station), and tickets can be booked now, price: £6 / £4 concessions.

The great Londoner

Yesterday an exhibition opened at the London Film Museum, Charlie Chaplin – The Great Londoner. The exhibition promises “insights into the life and career of Charles Chaplin, the boy from the London slums who won universal fame with his screen character of the Tramp, and went on to become a Knight of the British Empire”. Produced by Jonathan Sands and devised by Leslie Hardcastle in collaboration with David Robinson, Chaplin’s biographer, the exhibition is in six sections, described thus:

A London Boyhood
Charles Chaplin was born in 1889 in East Street, Lambeth, and his early years were spent, often in acute poverty, in this square mile to the South and East of the present London Film Museum. This section evokes the life of the poor in late Victorian Lambeth, and the escape provided by the light, colour and fun of the music halls, in which his parents were performers.

A Child of the Theatre
At the age of 10 the young Chaplin found work in a juvenile music hall troupe, and his future was decided. As a boy actor he made his mark as the comic page-boy in Sherlock Holmes, and even played the role in the West End. But his greatest success came in the music hall, and at 20 he was already a star of the Karno comedy companies. This section sets out to recall the atmosphere and the stars of the music halls, with memorabilia relating to Chaplin’s own stage career.

America and the movies
Between 1910 and 1913 Chaplin twice toured the American vaudeville circuits as a star of the Karno company, and was greatly excited by his encounter with the New World. At the end of 1913 he yielded to an offer from the Keystone Comedy Company, ruled by Mack Sennett and arrived in Hollywood. At first disoriented by the new medium, he learned rapidly, and within weeks was directing his own films. The exhibition evokes the buccaneering atmosphere of early Hollywood, its primitive studios, and its rapid evolution towards an international industry.

The Tramp
Searching for a character for his second film, Chaplin put together a costume from elements found in the Keystone wardrobe shed. The result – the Tramp – achieved instant popularity and within a year or two was known and loved across the world. Chaplin’s creation remains to this day the screen’s iconic and most universally recognised character.

Citizen of the World
When Chaplin finally took a rest and visited Europe in 1921, he was astonished to find himself a world celebrity, mobbed by crowds everywhere he went, and sought out by the great men of the day. Increasingly he used his comedy to comment on the fundamental problems of humanity. Modern Times is a broad-ranging social critique; and in The Great Dictator, having finally abandoned his character of the Tramp, he pillories Adolf Hitler, fascinated by the physical resemblance between the best-loved man in the world and the most hated.

The Happy Exile
In the paranoia of the Cold War years, Chaplin became an object of suspicion to the Communist-obsessed American political right. His anti-war statements in Monsieur Verdoux and his friendships with liberal intellectuals led to increasingly virulent attacks and accusations of Communist sympathies. In 1952 he came to England for the premiere of his last American film, Limelight (a recollection of the London music halls of his youth) never permanently to return to the United States. His final years were spent contentedly in Switzerland, surrounded by his growing family and still planning films, two of which, A King In New York and A Countess from Hong Kong, were made in Britain.

This is good news, and the exhibition will also become part of the permanent museum display. But what’s the London Film Museum, eh? Last time I looked there wasn’t one. The Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) sadly closed in 1999, and in 2008 an odd and seemingly short-term attraction with the ungainly title of The Movieum appeared on the South Bank as part of the popular attractions based in the former County Hall complex. It didn’t look like it would last long or offer much.

Bu the Movieum has turned out to have more staying power and ambition towards being a genuine commemoration and repository for moving image heritage than one might have supposed. It has been rebranded as the London Film Museum (strictly speaking, the London Film Museum now incorporates the Movieum), at the same location, and the first expression of its new status is the Chaplin exhibition. And, as some will know, Leslie Hardcastle was one of the presiding geniuses behind MOMI, so to have his approval of the new venture is significant indeed. We shall watch these developments with interest.

Literature and the mass-produced image

http://nyugeoconference.wordpress.com

All call for papers has been issued for a one-day conference taking place at New York University on 2 April 2010. Although Literature and the Mass-Produced Image isn’t specifically about silent film, the conference themes are each reflected by film from the silent era. Here’s the conference blurb to explain more:

New York University’s English Department will host a graduate student conference exploring the fate of literature in the age of the reproducible image. The nineteenth-century emergence of photography, a medium which Walter Benjamin referred to as “the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction,” coupled with the subsequent development of the motion picture, irrevocably shook not only the art world, but also the literary. This conference aims to uncover the affinities, negotiations, and interrelations between literary texts and visual media like photography, cinema, and the more recent medium of digital imaging and video. Investigating these issues from the perspectives of both literary and visual culture, this one-day event aims to bring together new work being produced by graduate students studying literature, cinema studies, visual culture, the history of media, and social historiography.

We will be focusing on a number of related questions including (but not limited to): How has the development of visual media affected literary aesthetics? In what sense has the vocabulary of film and photography been appropriated from and by literary culture? How do motion and pacing – elements inherent to cinema – reveal themselves in creating and staging action, plot, and character development in literary narrative?

Other possible topics include:

  • Photographic representation in literary texts
  • Literature as motion: imagery and the mind’s eye, storytelling and motion
  • Cinema, literature, fragmentation and non-linear chronology
  • Descriptions of photographs within literary works
  • The ‘urban’ and its centrality to cross-media works
  • Modernist critique/appropriation of visual culture
  • Art, the avant-garde, and experimental motion/stop-motion
  • The function of written text in a visual medium
  • Depictions of movies and movie-going in literary narrative
  • Film vs. Literature: ‘high art’ in the era of mass culture

Please send abstracts (400 words) to nyugeo.conference@gmail.com by FEBRUARY 1, 2010. Abstracts should include your name, contact information, paper title, and a short bio with your institution & department affiliation and year in graduate school. Please specify any audio-visual requirements. Panel proposals are also welcome for panels comprised of 3-4 participants; in your proposals, please include panel title and brief description (limit 500 words) as well as a list of papers with corresponding abstracts and speaker information.

Conference organizers: Yair Solan, Kathryn Bullerdick and Blevin Shelnutt.

This conference is sponsored by the New York University Department of English, with financial support provided by the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Science.

I think it is something to be proud of when one can combine academia with film fandom, and it’s worth noting that conference co-organiser Yair Solan is the person behind the estimable The World of Charley Chase website. Modern literature and silent comedy – now there’s a really healthy combination of life-skills.

Losing films

Production still for 4 Devils, from http://www.lost-films.eu

The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that there has been no announcement for the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films. I’ve decided not to pursue the festival any further. It ran for two years, and attracted quite a bit of interest, but I was never quite happy with the way it worked, and then there were the various people who contacted me subsequently who wanted to know where these long-lost films were, and who couldn’t grasp what was going on. And then there was the embarrassment of one of the films that I wrote about not being lost at all – or so I understand (I’ll identify it and report on its happy rediscovery when more concrete information emerges). All in all, it’s time to move on to other things.

But while we’re on the subject of lost films, it would be handy to summarise where things are these days, in particular to reassess the Lost Films site created by the Deutsche Kinemathek. Established in 2007, the ‘Lost Films’ project set out to gather information on films believed to be lost, with archivists and historians invited to add information, documents etc. What started out as a wiki with a strong emphasis on lost German films has grown into a fully-fledged portal, “aimed at collecting and documenting film titles, which are believed or have been declared ‘lost'”. 3,500 titles are now listed, many of them described in detail and illustrated by photographs and documents, and while the emphasis remains with German cinema the range has extended greatly to include lost films from around the world. Not all are silent films, but given the biases of time, the great majority comes from the pre-1930 era.

As an example of what one can now find on the site, take a look at one of the most keenly sought of all lost films, F.W. Murnau’s 4 Devils (US 1927). Starring Janet Gaynor, Charles Morton, Barry Norton and Nancy Drexel, this circus drama was Murnau’s second American film, and it was issued both as a silent as with a Movietone score (not with Murnau’s co-operation) with synchronised sound effects, music and dialogue sequences.

Lost Films gives us a synopsis (including different versions of the ending), cast and credits for both silent and sound versions, release information including length and censorship details, premiere dates, and this commentary by the Deutsche Kinemathek’s Martin Koerber on the film’s ‘lost status:

A print of this was last seen in the 1940s in the Fox warehouse in Los Angeles. According to the files on this title in the Fox papers at UCLA, the print was given to Mary Duncan, lead actress. Legend has it that she either burned it or drowned it in her swimming pool. We can still hope this is an urban legend. No one has traced Mary Duncan’s things, she died only in the 1990s, and there may be heirs. Janet Bergstrom’s video essay about this lost film is a fascinating story, presenting all the surviving stills and sketches and other evidence. This is a bonus on the SUNRISE DVD (or on some of them, anyway.)

Attached to this record are a mouth-watering 172 digitised documents:stills, programmes, advertisements, audience questionnaires (see above), censorship documents, drawings, screenplay (just a sample page, alas), distribution documents and more. The documents come from the Deutsche Kinemathek’s F.W. Murnau collection, and obviosuly not every lost film will be so richly documented, but nevertheless Lost Films has become a rich research resource, not just for specific lost films but for silent film history in general.

There are various ways in which you can search for films – by title, director, country, or year. One needs to be aware of the bias towards German production, and that the numbers of lost films per country is not a measure of overall loss – so, for example, there are currently 1,931 German films listed, but only 42 Japanese, yet the survival rate for Japanese silent film is catastrophic – at least 95% of all production is estimated to be lost (more on such figures in a moment). There are 752 American films listed, and 174 from the UK. Not all are silents, do note. Many of the American and British titles come from the Presumed Lost section of Carl Bennett’s Silent Era site.

Unidentified film no. 145 from Lost Films, a drama of Europeans in Japan, thought to date c.1925, possibly American

Lost Films invites you to register and then contribute information, including adding your own digital materials. It has a helpful links section (though I wish they’d spell my name right), which covers not only lost films but report on films which have been re-discovered. There are different kinds of lost film – those which we know about but no longer exist; those which exist in incomplete form or some non-original version only; those which exist but are hard to find (or see); and those which exist but are effectively lost because they are unidentified. So Lost Films has a section on films that require identification, all illustrated with stills, and a number (chiefly American) happily now identified.

A number of the stills has been contributed by the Nitrate Film Interest Group, and off-shoot of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), which is using Flickr to host images of unidentified films in the hope that someone somewhere can identify a name, place or film company logo. There are some highly knowledgeable folk out there who can, and there is pleasure to be had simply in witnessing how sharp-eyed some people are. Do have a go, becuase if you don’t recognise the performers you may be able to spot a location, or a form of dress, and a piece of décor which may provide the vital clue.

There are other lost film resources out there, either aimed at the film history enthusiasts or the archivist looking to identify the mysterious or to help complete a national collection.

  • Moving Image Collections – Lost Films
    The AMIA and Library of Congress-support film archives portal includes a lost films section (all American), and a complementary found films section too.
  • The Silent Era – Presumed Lost
    The aforementioned Silent Era service list hundreds of lost silents from around the world, with credits, references and technical information, plus updated information on films previously listed as lost which survive complete or incomplete somewhere.
  • Recherche des films perdus
    Listing (in French) of films which were listed as lost in 1996 but which have been discovered in archives around Europe by the LUMIERE project (the list is arranged by country of archive, then by country of production).
  • Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika
    This handy site on Latin America silent cinema (it’s in German) includes a listing of key lost films from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico etc.
  • Wikipedia
    Wikipedia has a selective list of lost films, arranged by decade, which many of the most sought-after titles. It also provides lists of incomplete or partially lost films and rediscovered films. (Much of the information derives from The Silent Era).

  • For the rest, check out Lost Filmslinks page.

To review all of the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films entries, visit the Series section of this site which has all the links – and see if you can guess which one now survives. While you’re there, you can also follow the links for the Lost & Found series, which tells the stories of the discovery of lost film collections.

There are some books on the subject too: Harry Waldman, Missing Reels: Lost Films of American and European Cinema; David Meeker and Allen Eyles, Missing believed Lost: The Great British Film Search; Frank T. Thompson, Lost Films: Important Movies that Disappeared. Note also Anthony Slide’s Nitrate Won’t Wait: a history of film preservation in the United States (2000); David Pierce’s essay, ‘The Legion of the Condemned: Why American Films Perished’, Film History vol. 9 no. 1 (1997), a revised version of which appears in Roger Smither (ed.), This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film (2002); and Gian Luca Farinelli and Vitorio Martinelli, ‘The Search for Lost Films’, in Catherine A. Surowiec, The LUMIERE Project: The European Film Archives at the Crossroads (1996).

There are different kinds of lost film, and different degrees of loss. Indeed, some argue that no film can be described as being definitively lost, since by the very nature of the medium multiple copies were produced, so there is always the chance that one may be squirreled away somewhere. Lost films are found in archives, in private collections, on distributors’ shelves, in projection rooms, in people’s basements, attics or garden sheds, in auction sales, and in some romantic cases among a collection of old radios (The 1895 Derby), hoarded by a Swiss school (the Joseph Joye collection), in a Chinese flea market (The Case of Lena Smith), at the bottom of the sea in the wreck of the Lusitania (The Carpet from Bagdad), buried underneath a Canadian swimming pool (the Dawson City collection), or on eBay (Zepped).

Nitrate films in an advanced state of decomposition, from http://www.archives.gov

But just how many silent films are lost? The figure generally bandied about is 80% of all films from the pre-1930 era, this was put together quite a few years ago (I believe it was at the behest of the Federation of Film Archives, or FIAF), and it hasn’t been challenged much since. It may be correct, but it was estimated by matching titles held in national film archives with the titles recorded in national filmographies. But national film archives don’t hold everything (as any proud collector will tell you) and national filmographies have tended until recently to restrict themselves to the fiction film. Nowadays there seems to be a less blinkered approach, but as the Film Foundation says, while “a mere 10 percent of the [fiction] films produced in the United States before 1929 are still in existence … for shorts, documentaries, newsreels, and other independently produced, ‘orphan’ films, there is simply no way of knowing how many have been lost”. Where did that 10% figure come from? The American Film Institute calculated in the mid-1970s that 25% of American silent era films were lost, a much-quoted figure, but as Anthony Slide points out, “such figures, as archivists admit in private, were thought up on the spur of the moment, without statistical information to back them up”.

Solid information for other countries is hard to find, and is certainly not gathered together in any one place that I know of. Here’s a start, however:

  • Australia – 50 out of 250 feature films made between 1906 and 1930 survive in whole or in part (source: National Library of Australia)
  • Brazil – around 10% of silent feature films survives, though many only in a fragmentary state (interview with Carlos Roberto de Sousa)
  • China – 5% of 1,100 productions made 1905-1937 survive (source: Griffithiana no. 54, 1995)
  • Germany – No overall figure, but of 700 films made in 1916 just 60 survive, while one fifth of films made in 1925 are held by the Bundesarchiv (source: Bundesarchiv, ‘Lost Films’)
  • India – of around 1,330 silent fiction films made, thirteen survive, all incomplete (India Profile)
  • Japan – 95-99% of all silents are estimated to be lost (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto catalogue, 2001)
  • Russia – 286 films, out of an estimated 1,716 films produced 1907-1917, or one sixth of production, is preserved by Gosfilmofond (Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908-1919, 1989)
  • United Kingdom – “a huge proportion of Britain’s early film heritage is believed lost” (BFI Collecting Policy document)
  • USA – a survival rate of 7-12% for each year of the teens (feature films only), moving to 15-25% for the 1920s (Library of Congress figures from 1993, cited by David Pierce)

(Anyone who has a source for figures from other countries, or better figures, please let me know)

We need an up-to-date international set of figures, one which takes into account the most authoritative filmographic work and which makes it clear the proportion of fiction and non-fiction, professional and amateur film that we should be considering. It would need to make clearer the national differences in survival rates, and what survives in public institutions, commercial concerns, and privately (however much of a guess the latter would have to be). Where certain figures cannot be computed, we need formulae that give an indication. The methodology needs to be made clear. We need the same for the talkie era, for the television era, and now all over again for the digital era, when user-generated content is rewriting the rules for what can be produced. Only then will we know with accuracy just how shamefully we have treated the medium that supposedly is the great mark of the modern age. And we will treasure what survives all the more.

A sixth part of the world

Happy new year one and all, happy new decade too, and to kick things off well for 2010 there’s news of the latest silent DVD release from the always excellent Edition Filmmuseum, Dziga Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World (Sestaja cast’ mira) and The Eleventh Year (Odinnadcatyj), with new scores by Michael Nyman.

As your scribe is currently suffering from a sprained wrist (one icy pavement too many), and writing is a bit of a trial, I hope you’ll forgive me if I mostly just give you Edition Filmmuseum’s own words on the release:

Edition Filmmuseum 53

The poetic travelogue A Sixth Part of the World and the “visual symphony” The Eleventh Year mark the beginning of Dziga Vertov’s most creative period, which peaked in the canonical film Man with the Movie Camera. This 2-disc set presents the two rare masterpieces in a new transfer and with new soundtracks by British composer Michael Nyman. The bonus features offer materials on the methods of the filmmaker, as well as an introduction to the Vienna research project on Vertov, “Digital Formalism.”

The Films

Sestaja čast’ mira (A Sixth Part of the World) Soviet Union 1926 Directed by: Dziga Vertov Assistant and editor: Elizaveta Svilova Director of Photography: Michail Kaufman – Produced by: Goskino, Moscow – Premiere: October 19, 1926 (Berlin)

Odinnadcatyj (The Eleventh Year) Soviet Union 1928 Directed by: Dziga Vertov Assistant and editor: Elizaveta Svilova Director of Photography: Michail Kaufman – Produced by: VUFKU, Kiev – Premiere: March 21, 1928 (Kiev)

Im Schatten der Maschine. Ein Montagefilm (In the Shadow of the Machine. A Compilation Film) Germany 1928 Directed by: Albrecht Viktor Blum, Leo Lania – Produced by: Filmkartell “Weltfilm”, Berlin – Premiere: November 9, 1928 (Berlin)

Vertov in Blum. Eine Untersuchung (Vertov in Blum. An Investigation) Austria 2009 Written and directed by: Adelheid Heftberger, Michael Loebenstein, Georg Wasner – Produced by: Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna – First release

DVD features (2-disc DVD)

DVD 1

* Sestaja čast’ mira 1926, 73′
* Music by Michael Nyman
* 32page bilingual booklet with essays by Barbara Wurm, Thomas Tode, Adelheid Heftberger, Aleksandr Derjabin, Michael Loebenstein, Alexander Horwath

DVD 2

* Odinnadcatyj 1928, 53′
* Music by Michael Nyman
* Im Schatten der Maschine. Ein Montagefilm 1928, 22′
* Vertov in Blum. Eine Untersuchung 2009, 14′
* ROM section with additional documents and interactive applications about Vertov’s “Phrases” in Odinnadcatyj, the film’s intertitles, the “Blum Affair” and the projekt “Digital Formalism”.

Edited by: Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna
DVD authoring: Ralph Schermbach
DVD supervision: Michael Loebenstein, Adelheid Heftberger, Georg Wasner

First edition: December 2009

Further silents are promised by Edition Filmmuseum soon. Shortly to be released will be Svend Gade’s Hamlet (1920), with Asta Nielsen as the Dane, and Boris ‘Miss Mend’ Barnet’s Devushka s korobkoy & Dom na Trubnoy (1927/28), while these titles are in preparation:

Frankfurt im Film 1900-1945
Karl Valentin und das Kino 1912-1930
Der Hund von Baskerville Rudolf Meinert, 1914
Sein eigner Mörder Max Mack, 1914
Von morgens bis Mitternacht Karl Heinz Martin, 1920
Sappho Dimitri Buchowetzki, 1921
Max Davidson Comedies Leo McCarey, 1927-1928
Abwege Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1928
Das Mädchen Sumiko Shigeyoshi Suzuki, 1929
Waterloo Karl Grune, 1929
Der lebende Leichnam Fedor Ozep, 1929