The Metropolis showroom

Frame comparison demonstrating stabilisation with camera pans, from

Those who haven’t yet had their fill of the story of the restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis may be interested to check out the websites of two of the facilities companies involved.

Scientific|Media is a German digital media production company. On its Metropolis Showroom it demonstrate through short clips the work it has to do to the battered 16mm elements which had to be inserted digitally into the final version. Processes illustrated include stabilisation (OnePoint, MultiPoint, Cross-DeWarp and MotionFiltering/DeJitter), grain management, and the inserting of sequences such as letters and handwritten notes into German. It’s for the technical specialist, but you do get a clear sense of the huge challenges involved.

Secondly there is Alpha-Omega Digital, another German company, which undertook the overall digital restoration work, matching the new material to that which it produced for the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation in 2001. Their website reports on this and describes in detail the work that it undertook for the film’s 2001 restoration.

For the record, previous posts here on the Metropolis discovery are:

Alice – random but cool

Alice in Wonderland (1903) from

It has been fascinating to watch what has been happening to the BFI’s latest online video release of Alice in Wonderland (1903). Restored and issued a few days ago to coincide with the release in the UK of Tim Burton’s new Alice in Wonderland feature film, made for Disney, the film has enjoyed a remarkable reception. Since 25 February it has attracted 123,564 hits on YouTube and has been embedded on numerous other websites (now including this one). Blogs have commented on it, websites have reviewed it. The link has been passed on goodness knows how many time via Twitter, and again and again the reaction from all kinds of people has been positive about the film. The line that keeps on being repeated is that the film is superior to Burton’s bloated effort, but there is more enough evidence of genuine appreciation for what could be achieved in 1903. Here are some sample tweets:

jolie_jolie In anticipation for the Alice in Wonderland movie, here’s the very first film, from 1903 – over 100 years ago!

sillyjilly81024 RT @ohnotheydidnt Random but cool: silent Alice in Wonderland from 1903: Just in time for Tim Burton’s new, some…

alisongang RT @neatorama Alice in Wonderland – 1903 version – Neatorama

RadioNikki The VERY FIRST Alice in Wonderland film from 1903 !!

katejcrowley The first Alice in Wonderland movie ever made. We’ve come a long way! Pretty cool though. From 1903: via @addthis

I read this as meaning that the general audience of 2010 is more than capable of appreciating the creative strengths of early cinema. There is delight at its invention alongside amusement at its quaintness. There is genuine appreciation of its proto-special effects with an understanding of how they fit into an ongoing history of film fantasy.

How different from the ways such films were disseminated and received only a few years ago. Alice in Wonderland has been in the BFI National Archive for years, and the common ways in which we were able to present such films to an audience were at very occasional screenings at the National Film Theatre as part of early cinema programmes (attended by a couple of dozen people if you were lucky) or at festivals and exchange screenings with other film archives and institutes. Sometimes we just viewed the films by ourselves and bemoaned the fact that so few people could see them, or might ever want to see them. Only we understood their true value – or so we believed. VHS and DVD came along to help spread the message, but it was always a tough proposition to sell a compilation of early films. What one seldom had the opportunity to do was to show such films individually.

Now look where we are. Alice may well have garned more views in the first week than it received on its original release in 1903 (does anyone know how many people got see an individual film in 1903? I’ve no idea). Moreover it is being seen by such a wide range of people. It has been taken out of its specialist field into general appreciation. This is what YouTube does, and what other film archives need to take note of. It establishes a common platform that is so much better for these films than the specialist ones that we have created for them in retrospectives, festivals and niche DVD releases. When these films are shown to the afficionados or those deemed to know best how to appreciate them, we learn little about them that is new. They are constrained by their select surroundings. Make them available among the skateboarding cats, comic skits, rants and ravings, music videos and TV clips that make up YouTube’s mad mix (all of them short films, just like early cinema) and they are given new life through new audiences. The reactions will be wild at times, there will be plenty of misinterpretation or ignorance of ‘proper’ film history, but the positives far outweigh the petty negatives. The positives are that the film is available to all, that it will be placed in contexts that we as curators or custodians might never think of, that it is exchangeable and shareable as information, that it belongs to today as much as yesterday. And since I started writng this post two hours ago, the number of views has risen by nearly 5,000 to 128,285. While I’ve been rambling, others have been watching, and sharing.

For the record, Alice in Wonderland was produced in Britain by Cecil Hepworth (left), whose studies were in Walton-on-Thames outside London. Denis Gifford, in his British Film Catalogue, credits the direction to Hepworth and his regular director at this period, Percy Stow. Mabel (May) Clark, who had joined Hepworth as a film cutter, plays Alice; Hepworth himself plays a frog, his wife Margaret plays the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, while future director of Irish films Norman Whitten plays the Mad Hatter and a fish, while cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull and his brother Stanley are two of the playing cards. The film was originally 800 feet or twelve minutes in length (though it was divided up into sixteen scenes which could be bought separately). Eight minutes survive today, in a somewhat ragged state. It was the longest British film yet made.

Alice was made with close attention to Tenniel’s original drawings, though it was bold enough to include its own additions to the narrative, giving Alice a magic fan (Tim Burton adds the Jabberwock to his version of the tale, which seems a somewhat greater liberty to take). Its special effects, achieved using optical printing and some ingenious use of scenery, allow us to see Alice grow large and small with impressive effectiveness. But perhaps the most delightful element is the procession of playing cards (filmed at the Mount Felix estate at Walton), which seems to have involved the participation of a local school. The narrative makes no sense when viewed with cold logic, but then neither does Lewis Carroll’s original. In short it is random – but cool. Now go tell someone about it.

The new Metropolis

Metropolis being screened in front of the Brandenburg Gate in an icy Berlin, from the Arte live video stream

Today saw the premiere of the restored version of Metropolis, complete with the previously missing sequences discovered in a version held in Argentina. The film has been restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (the Murnau Foundation) in cooperation with ZDF and Arte, and the Deutsche Kinemathek, and with the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducros Hicken (Buenos Aires). It was given its first screenings simultaneously at the Alte Oper, Frankfurt am Main, and at the Friedrichstadtpalast, Berlin as part of the 60th Berlin International Film Festival. The film was also shown for free for the general public on a big screen in front of the Brandenburg Gate, with a live video stream (at some distance from the screen) of the Friedrichstadtpalast event, delivered by French TV channel Arte.

The film was presented with a newly adapted music score based on the original Gottfried Huppertz score of 1927. In Berlin the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin played under the direction of Frank Strobel, in Frankfurt the Staatsorchester Braunschweig was conducted by Helmut Imig. The missing sequences amount to some 25mins of screening time, though the Argentine film is a 16mm dupe neg and in poor condition.

The story has been told many times now (including on the Bioscope), but briefly to recap: when originally released Metropolis, though now one of the most iconic and revered of all silent films, was a bit of a flop. The film was drastically cut soon after its premiere to try and make it more appealing to audiences, but as is so often the case in these instances, dramatic logic suffered. Almost a quarter of its original length was lost. The film at its original length of 4189 metres (or 147mins at 25fps) was therefore only seen for a short while (until May 1927 in Berlin); thereafter a cut version of around 113 mins was all that could be seen. The most recent restoration of the film before this one, that overseen by Enno Patalas in 2001, runs at 118 mins. In 2008, Paula Félix-Didier, new curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, learned of a curiously long screening of a print of Metropolis at a cinema club some years before, a print which had come to Argentina in 1928 and eventually a dupe neg found its way to Museo del Cine in 1992. Félix-Didier located the film, recognised its significance, the news went excitedly around the world, and now we have the results. The restored film runs for 147mins (it doesn’t say at what speed).

Design by Eric Kettelhut from the Deutsche Kinemathek exhibition on Metropolis

There is a website devoted to the restored film, put together by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, with information on the film’s history, its restoration and the premieres, with a helpful set of FAQs (in English and German), which include these notes on what the new sequences show:

The METROPOLIS version 1927/2010 differs significantly from all the versions known so far. Although the plot of the film keeps its well-known framework the structure of the plot changes: It becomes more harmonic and more comprehensible. Especially the minor characters that Fritz Lang gives room emerge again. Two newly found scenes give Georgy, Josaphat and The Thin Man back their own profiles that through the cuts were almost downgraded to extras.

The now included sequences like Georg’s car ride through Metropolis as well as Freder and The Thin Man’s visiting with Josaphat turn out to be siginificant for the plot. But also the relationship between the inventor Rotwang and Joh Fredersen, the ruler over Metropolis, as well as the reason for their rivalry become clear through the current restoration: Finally one can see the famous scene “Chamber of Hel”, the departed woman loved by both rivals, from which up to now only one still and several descriptions existed.

Arte has a special feature on the film and a documentary on its restoration (Voyage à Metropolis), including a video clip from the restoration showing a sequence with Fritz Rasp and Alfred Abel in a taxi and a delightful sequence with lifts (the video is available in embedded form but can’t be embedded into a WordPress blog, curses). Other videos have interviews with those involved in the restoration, and there is a photo gallery and features on actress Brigitte Helm and director Fritz Lang. There’s an AFP news report on YouTube which has interviews and fleeting clips (embedding not allowed, sigh). The Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin has an exhibition on Metropolis and its restoration which runs until April 25th.

The Bioscope saw about an hour of the live video stream, but as the image at the top of this post indicates, although of excellent quality it wasn’t the ideal way to experience the film (indeed it was as interesting or even more so for the people-watching experience, as people indifferently trudged by in the cold as high melodrama unfolded on the screen). However, judging as best one could from the live stream, and the video clips online, the new sequences have been cleaned up as well as one could have hoped for, and the transitions from 35mm to blow-up from the digitally restored 16mm do not jar at all. It looks to be a very professional piece of work.

Finally, and as an antidote to the hype, you might care to take a look at H.G. Wells’ notorious 1927 review of the film. He didn’t much care for it:

I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier. And as this film sets out to display the way the world is going … It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has been produced at enormous cost. It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own…

And then he really lays into it. Yes it’s a folly, but it’s a magnificent folly, and it’s now a coherent magnificent folly. A theatrical print of the restored film is expected to be available in the autumn 2010, with Transit Film, Munich in charge of sales. A DVD release from the Murnau Foundation is expected at the end of 2010.

Photoplay online

Do you remember if those early days of the Web, when businesses and organisations would proudly announce that they had just launched a website? Apart from start-ups, you don’t get so many such announcements these days, particularly for well-established businesses. But some move at more casual pace than others, and so it is that Photoplay Productions – established 1990 – has just launched its first website, which also marks its twentieth anniversary.

Photoplay is the independent company, run by Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury, dedicated to film history and in particular to reviving and sustaining interest in silent film. It was formed in 1990, but as the About Us section recounts, the history goes back to 1955, when Kevin Brownlow first entered the film industry as an editor. While working on documentaries and feature films (notably editing Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) and directing his own distinctive features (It Happened Here, 1964, and Winstanley, 1975) Brownlow was building on his childhood passion for silent film. His extensive interviews with people from the then sorely neglected silent era of film helped make up his classic 1968 book, The Parade’s Gone By.

The book encouraged the UK’s Thames Television to commission a television series, Hollywood – The Pioneers (1980), made by Brownlow and TV director and former ballet dancer David Gill (left, with Brownlow). The series teamed Brownlow and Gill for the first time with composer Carl Davis, whose sweeping scores came to be synonymous with the silent film revival. That revival took the form of eye-opening screenings of restored silents, shown in optimum conditions and correct running speeds with live orchestral accompaniment. The first and most spectacular of these was Abel Gance’s Napoleon, first shown at the London Film Festival in 1980. Its success led Jeremy Isaacs, then setting up the new UK television channel Channel 4, to commission a series of restorations and broadcasts under the title of Thames Silents. Those of us around at the time sat awestruck as The Wind, Ben Hur, The Crowd, The Thief of Bagdad and others were returned to the screens large and small. Thames Silents also led to three exemplary television series, Unknown Chaplin, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius.

Thames Television lost its franchise at the end of the 1980s, which meant the end of Thames Silents (Channel 4 Silents followed it for a while). The changes in the UK broadcast landscape encouraged the formation of independent production companies to chase commissions, and one of these was Photoplay Productions, formed in 1990 by Brownlow, Gill and finance expert Patrick Stanbury. The new company continued to undertake restorations and to produce television series on aspects of film history, notably D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993) and Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995).

David Gill died in 1997, but Brownlow and Stanbury have carried on, in the face of increasing difficulty in obtaining commissions or funding restorations for the ‘difficult’ subject of silent film. The distribution of their ‘live cinema’ titles is a major part of the business, and the website lists all of their productions, with full technical details and information on disribution services and licensing. The site also has information on Kevin Brownlow’s book publications, and its News and Upcoming Shows section lists screenings of Photoplay productions and restorations around the world. In particular, for those in the UK, there are three screenings being held at the Barbican in London to mark Photoplay’s 20th anniversary – Orphans of the Storm (7 February, above), The Chess Player (11 April) and The Iron Mask (30 May).

It’s is great to seen the new site, which makes clear all of the tremendous work undertaken by Brownlow, Gill, Stanbury and colleagues in support of the undying medium that is the silent film. A few dud links need to be sorted out (how curious it is that the link for Napoleon – rarely-screened owing to technical complications, expense and legal issues – isn’t working as yet), but this is not just a guide to the industriousness of one company but a primer on the appreciation of silent film. Congratulations, and many happy returns, to Photoplay Productions.

Metropolis in Berlin


Metropolis, from

The restored, now almost full-length Metropolis – with a long-lost missing half-hour added thanks to a 16mm copy discovered in Argentina in 2008 – is to be premiered at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival on 12 February 2010.

As was reported here at the time, after the film’s disappointing reception following its premiere in January 1927, it was cut by producers Ufa. Some 950 metres were removed; almost a quarter of its original length. The film at its original length of 4189 metres was only seen for a short while (until May 1927 in Berlin); thereafter a cut version of around 113 mins was all that could be seen.

Following a convoluted history, a 16mm print of the uncut film (the original 35mm is lost) found its way into the vaults of the Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, in 1992, where it lay unconsidered until film archivist Paula Félix-Didier found it. She alerted the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in Germany, which has produced the most recent restoration of the film (in 2001). At which point the sensational discovery was announced to the world.


Scene from the previously missing section of Metropolis, showing Maria fleeing

The restoration and reconstruction have been handled by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, and after the festival screenings demand will be loud to have the film shown worldwide. As the Berlinale press release reports:

Restoration and re-screening are being funded by the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, the Gemeinnützige Kulturfonds Frankfurt Rhine-Main, by the Verwertungsgesellschaft für Nutzungsrechte an Filmwerken mbH, as well as the DEFA Foundation. Transit Film GmbH (Munich) will be in charge of internationally distributing this most recent reconstructed version of Metropolis.

The film is to receive a dual premiere. There will be a gala presentation in the Friedrichstadtpalast with a re-editing of the original score by Gottfried Huppertz played by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the direction of conductor Frank Strobel. Parallel to this, the film be premiered on the same day in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt am Mai, when the music will be performed by the Staatsorchester Braunschweig under the direction of Helmut Imig.

Want to read more? Here are some handy links:

The Rose of Rhodesia


Chief Kentani (left) and Prince Yumi in The Rose of Rhodesia, from Screening the Past

A while ago we wrote a piece on the peripatetic American film director Harold Shaw, who – in between periods in America, Britain and Russia – for a short period (1916-1919) produced films in South Africa. Shaw made three films in the country – De Voortrekkers, The Rose of Rhodesia and Thoroughbreds All (a fourth, Symbol of Sacrifice, was started by Shaw but completed by other hands). The first was an Afrikaner nationalist epic of the Battle of Blood River; the third (a lost film) was a racing horse comedy.

The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) has been attracting a lot of interest lately, following its happy rediscovery by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. The process of critical rediscovery has led to a special issue of the always commendable Australian online journal Screening the Past dedicated to the film. There are pieces by the two foremost experts in filmmaking in Africa at this period, Neil Parsons and James Burns, which provide rich detail on the background to the film’s production and personalities, Parson concentrating on the production history and Burns on Bioscope audiences in South Africa at the time (Bioscope was – and I believe remains – the common name for a cinema in South Africa). There are other essays on its racial politics, political and literary perspectives and position in cinema history, and a rich selection of background materials including reproductions of original press notices and advertisements.


Prince Yumi (Mofti), Edna Flugrath (Rose Randall) and M.A. Wetherell (Jack Morel), exchanging a white rose

But what it is particularly notable is that Screening the Past is delivering the entire restored film itself (streaming only), courtesy of the Filmmuseum [this link no longer works – see note below]. 81 minutes long, with German intertitles (an English translation is supplied) and inventive soundtrack by Matti Bye, the film is a revelation. What commentary the film had received before its rediscovery (chiefly Thelma Gutsche’s 1972 great history The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940) dismissed it as an amateurish failure which was roundly dismissed by local audiences. It is hard to match the recorded disappointment of South African audiences with the remarkable, engrossing film we see now (which is some 20 minutes shorter than the film as originally produced) which more than merits the attention given it by Screening the Past. Indeed, as Shaw had fallen out bitterly with Isidore Schlesinger, film producer and owner of practically all of the South African distribution and exhibition business, one suspects that the film’s reception was sabotaged.

The story concerns, at least initially, the theft of a diamond from a Rhodesian mining concern. The diamond is called ‘the rose of Rhodesia’, but Shaw develop this into a deeper metaphor, as Rose is the name of a gold prospector’s daughter (played by Edna Flugrath, Harold Shaw’s wife), who falls in love with Fred Winter, the overseer who has stolen the diamond, before transferring her affections to a missionary’s son, Jack Morel, played by M.A. Wetherell. Jack is friendly with Mofti, son of the chieftan Ushakapilla, and a white rose is exchanged as a symbol of their friendship. Ushakapilla is planning an uprising against white rule, and expects his reluctant son to adopt the cause, but after Mofti’s accidental death and news that his people’s ancestral lands has been granted to them by the “great white Chief”, Ushakapilla relents. Rose retuns the diamond to the mining corporation (it had been found by one of Ushakapilla’s men), and the reward money enables she and Jack to marry.


Prince Yumi, as Mofti

The Rose of Rhodesia is distinguished in particular by its portrayal of Africans. The African parts were taken by members of the M’fengu people, with Ushakapilla played by ‘Chief’ Kentani (probably a local headman) and Mofti by ‘Prince’ Yumi (possibly a migrant worker or student). The portrayals are sympathetic and convincing, and the friendship between Mofti and Jack Morel affecting and unforced. The theme of African discontent over loss of lands reflects genuine feelings of the time, and the potential for uprising was one that greatly exercised white authorities at the time (to the degree that the film could never have been made in Rhodesia itself, where the authorities greatly feared cinema’s subversive potential, and was instead filmed at Sea Point studio in Cape Town and by the spectacular Bawa Falls in Eastern Cape – none of the film was made in Rhodesia). It may be felt that the films shies away from what seems to be its initial interest – to depict African versus white tensions – by playing it safe with a story of diamond stealing. Interestingly this was even commented upon at the time by the British trade paper The Kinematograph Weekly:

At the start the impression is given that there is to be strong drama founded on a conflict between the interests of the natives and those of imperialism. But, in reality, the “native question” does not develop. The producers have carefully avoided the danger of giving offence to either partisan side … [and] have left a story rather devoid of “punch”.

But viewing the film now one is struck by how readily the diamond plot is set to one side, and how inter-racial relations become the film’s real interest. Local sensibilities undoubtedly stayed Shaw’s hand, but the theme of the importance of mutual trust and respect demanded of black and white is not diluted at all. Such a progressive view of Africans would not appear again in South African cinema for many years thereafter.

The Rose of Rhodesia was written and directed by Harold Shaw for Harold Shaw Film Productions. It was photographed by the American Ernest G. Palmer and Briton Henry Howse (like Shaw a much-travelled figure whose career included filming for the Salvation Army and in the Arctic). It was first shown on 23 March 1918 in Cape Town, and in Britain on 28 October 1919. It is unclear how widely it may have been seen in Britain (it gained some trade press coverage, reproduced in Screening the Past), while it it a mystery how a print turned up with German titles as no record has been found of its exhibition in any German-speaking territory. Its story is a fascinating one, while its quality as a film is unexpected and most welcome. I warmly recommend seeing the film, and engrossing yourselves in its history.

The Rose of Rhodesia is a late addition to the programme at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival.

Update (March 2017): Screening the Past has changed its website, and the above links to issue 25 of the journal and the film no longer work. These are the changed links:



The Australian connection


Mutt and Jeff: On Strike (1920), from The Film Connection

News of the successful outcome of an archival repatriation project. The Film Connection is a joint project between the National Film Preservation Foundation in America and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to bring American films no longer held in America back to American audiences. Through this collaboration, a number of short American silents that survive only in Australia have been preserved, digitised, and six of them made available online. The six are:

  • The Prospector (Essanay 1912)
  • U.S. Navy Documentary (1915?)
  • A Trip through Japan with the YWCA (The Benjamin Brodsky Moving Picture Co. c.1919)
  • Mutt and Jeff: On Strike (Bud Fisher Films Corporation 1920)
  • The Sin Woman Trailer (George Backer Film 1922?) [trailer for 1917 film]
  • Pathé News, No. 15? (Pathé News 1922)

The six films can be viewed and downloaded from the National Film Preservation Foundation site here, together with useful background information on each title, and you can read all about the project here. One of the films, the Mutt and Jeff cartoon On Strike, will feature at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival.

Harold Brown RIP


Harold Brown, on left in the 1940s (from the British Film Institute), on the right in 2008 (courtesy of Eve Watson)

You will not find the name of Harold Brown in many film history books, but there are quite a number of film histories that could not have been written without him. Harold, who died on Friday 14 November, essentially invented the art and science of film preservation. Countless films have been preserved either by his hands, or by the hands of those he tutored, or those archives around the world who adopted his methods.

It was in 1935 that Harold Brown (born 1919) started as office boy at the newly-formed British Film Institute, where Ernest Lindgren was setting up the National Film Library. Brown was subsequently to become its first preservation officer. In the early 1930s there were no film archives, or almost none. In that decade the four great national archives that were to become pillars of the film archiving movement were established: the Museum of Modern Art Film Library (New York), the Reichsfilmarchiv (Berlin) and the National Film Library (London) in 1935, the Cinémathèque Française (Paris) in 1936. These archives were established by a dedicated band of pioneer archivists with a passion for the film as art. They were driven in particular by the passing of the silent film era, and the imminent loss of the films of that first period of cinema history, films which were being dumped by the studios who saw no value in a heritage that they could no longer sell to anyone.


Harold Brown printing a film using the Mark IV

Ernest Lindgren, as Curator of the National Film Library (later the National Film Archive and now the BFI National Archive), laid down principles and Harold Brown came up with the working methods which formed the basis for film preservation. The original film was, as far as possible, inviolate. It needed to be copied, in a form as faithful to the original as possible. Films needed to be treated not only according to their importance but to the extent of, or their potential for, chemical decay. One of Harold’s most notable achievements was the artificial ageing test, which enabled archivists to determine when a film was likely to start deteriorating, and at what time it should be copied. This allowed archives to plan sensibly for the future. A noticeable legacy of Harold’s is the punch holes that you will see occasionally in National Film Archive prints, created so that a circle of film could be put through the ageing test. Another famous Brown creation was the Mark IV, a step printer for dealing with shrunken and non-standard perforation film, built out of bits of toy Meccano, string, rubber bands and parts from a 1905 Gaumont projector.


Harold was a self-taught pioneer. His investigations established basic methods for the identification of early film formats, the repair of damaged film, the storage of film, and the treatment of colour film (his work on Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 film The Black Pirate, in two-colour Technicolor, was an early classic of film restoration). Awarded an MBE in 1967, he carried working at the National Film Archive until 1984, though he continued as a mentor and consultant to film archives internationally, well into retirement. He passed on his knowledge not only in person, but through some key publications. His Basic Film Handling (1985) and Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification (1990) are standard reference guide to the film archiving profession, and the latter is still available from the site of the Federation of International Film Archives (FIAF). Nor was he solely a nitrate era or early film specialist. He stayed abreast of issues in film archiving throughout, and it was he who gave the name ‘vinegar syndrome’ to the phenomenon of the degredation of acetate film which film archives discovered, to their alarm, in the 1980s.

You can see Harold at work in his prime in a 1963 Pathe Pictorial report on the work of the National Film Archive, available from the British Pathe site (just type in ‘film archive’, or click here for the same film from ITN Source). He features towards the end, delicately handling four frames of film, then seen operating the Mark IV. If you can, check out his modest four-page memoir in the FIAF publication This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, edited by Roger Smither. Or you can read about how Brown and Lindgren went about creating a film archive in Penelope Houston’s Keepers of the Frames: The Film Archives (1994). Or read this text by David Francis (Lindgren’s successor as Curator of the National Film Archive) for this year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival catalogue on Brown’s role overseeing the projection of the 548 films dating 1900-1906 shown at the seminal 1978 FIAF symposium on early film. Or get a copy of the BFI compilation DVD, Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers, most of the examples of which are films that Harold took in, preserved, and made available for future generations.

Harold was a wise, methodical, determined and kindly man. I was lucky enough to know him and to exchange information with him on early film formats at my time at the BFI, in the mid-1990s. I was rather awe-struck just to be holding conversations with him, but I found him to be every inch a gentleman. He has been held in reverence by generations of budding film archivists, and even as his pioneering methods have been superseded by more sophisticated technology, and as the film archiving profession now encounters the digital frontier, his understanding of the life – and the after-life – of a film underpins all that a film archive stands for. Gladly would he learn and gladly teach. Thank you, Harold.

With our troops on the Yser


With Our Troops on the Yser, from

In this month, the ninetieth anniversary of the ending of the First World War, there have been many commeorative events, programmes and publication. The Bioscope has already reported on the Imperial War Museum’s DVD release of The Battle of the Somme. Now comes news of another important film, one originally released ten years after the war, issued on DVD for the first time. The film is With Our Troops on the Yser, a record of the war from the Belgian point of view, though a record of a quite particular kind. Here’s the blurb promoting it:

After four years of horror, the First World War ended on 11 November 1918. Ten years later, a Belgian veteran named Clemens De Landtsheer made With Our Troops on the Yser, a film on the ‘Great War’. The film is neither a triumphant retrospective nor an objective documentary, but a bitter protest in which the hardships of ‘our boys’, the simple soldiers at the front, are central.

As secretary of the ‘Yser Pilgrimage Committee’ De Landtsheer was part of a movement with a political agenda: to promote Flemish nationalism by emphasizing the purportedly disproportionate suffering and abuses endured by Flemish soldiers during the war. To this end, his film combines authentic archival footage from the war with staged images from existing fiction films, as well as a tendentious voice-over commentary. The result is both a unique cinematic experiment and a fascinating historical document, as Daniël Biltereyst (Ghent University) and Roel Vande Winkel (Ghent University – University of Antwerp) explain in the extras on the DVD.

With Our Troops on the Yser was screened more than 400 times in the interwar period. Its success inspired De Landtsheer to found the company Flandria Film. The fascinating story behind De Landtsheer’s film career is also illustrated in the extra documentary on this DVD, accompanied by several Flandria Film productions.

With Our Troops on the Yser was originally released in 1928, but was subsequently revised and augmented several times. The version on this DVD is the definitive colour version of 1933, restored by Noël Desmet (Belgian Royal Film Archive). The soundtrack is based on the original musical recordings used by De Landtsheer to accompany the images. The film can also be viewed with a scholarly audio commentary (in English, French or Dutch) co-written by Leen Engelen (Media & Design Academy), Roel Vande Winkel and Bruno Mestdagh (Royal Film Archive).


The film runs for 83mins, and comes with Dutch intertitles and English or French subtitles. Bonus features are three other Flandria Films productions by Clemens De Landtsheer: 10th Yser Pilgrimage (1929, 12 mins), Winter Has Come – Ice Festivities at Temse (1933-1934, 5 mins), Jules Van Hevel Tribute (1935, 9 mins); and a 25mins documentary Clemens De Landtsheer, by Daniël Biltereyst, Roel Vande Winkel and Erik Martens. Clearly this a pamphleteering film demanding contextualisation, particularly knowledge of Belgian nationalism, and the understanding of the experience of the war from the Flemish point of view. The commentary is provided by some of the leading lights in film and history today. Well done to all concerned for bringing out this title on DVD and widening our understanding of how film of the war was used and understood, not just during the conflict but in its aftermath. The DVD is Region 0, and is available from the Cinémathèque Royal de Belgique.

The dead

All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Is it right to let us see men dying? Yes. Is it a sacrilege? No. If our spirit be purged of curiosity and purified with awe the sight is hallowed. There is no sacrilege if we are fit for the seeing … I say it is regenerative and resurrective for us to see war stripped bare. Heaven knows that we need the supreme katharsis, the ultimate cleansing. We grow indifferent too quickly … These are dreadful sights but their dreadfulness is as wholesome as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. It shakes the kaleidoscope of war into human reality … I say that these pictures are good for us.

Those words were written by James Douglas in The Star (25 September 1916, p. 2). He was reacting to a screening of the film The Battle of the Somme, a film whose impact upon audiences was unprecedented and – it could be argued – has never been repeated. Douglas, like many commentators, was trying to rationalise what he saw, to express the meaning and to find justification for a film whose stark images of the war that was still raging shocked audiences into a realisation of sacrifice and death. It was the images of death in the film that so disturbed many. If soldiers were not shown being killed (and some apparently were), then every face that stared at the camera was likewise facing death. The audience had been made witness to this, complicit in the soldiers’ fate.

While some called for the film not to be shown, for most it was justified, to the point of becoming almost a moral obligation. Through watching The Battle of the Somme, they gained a sense of the enormity of what troops in their name were undergoing, what the sacrifice (the optimum word) was that army and nation were making. Douglas’ evocation of religious feeling put the film in terms that many would understand. It is not a pure reaction to the film itself – that is not possible. Instead he saw the film through his own thoughts on the meaning of war. Any image, any film, is identified by us through expectations and understandings that are informed by time, place and culture. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was a different film to The Battle of the Somme in 2008.

This we can now judge through the release of the film for the first time on DVD, produced by the Imperial War Museum, whose archive preserves the film. Alert to the complexities of authenticity, the IWM presents the film in a form that encourages us to question how we see what we see. Firstly, the film (for which no original negative survives) has undergone a digital restoration which has brought out details which were hitherto obscured. Even for those familiar with the film (and all of us must be familiar with it to some extent, given the widespread use of sequences from the film in television documentaries etc.), it is like seeing the film anew. But the major coup is the music. We are given two music tracks. One is a modern score by Laura Rossi, a symphonic work for full orchestra. The other is a recreation by Stephen Horne of a likely original score, taken from a contemporary cue sheet which suggested the sort of musical passages musicians might want to adopt in accompanying the film in 1916.

The latter will amaze many. Jaunty marches and popular airs accompany scenes of troops marching to the killing fields of the Somme, the scenes of battle and their aftermath. What were they thinking of in 1916? It is a complicated question to answer. Partly the musicians of the time were responding to what might have seemed just another war actuality film, which required patriotic accompaniment. But also the audience of the time saw heroism and uplift where we, after almost a century of awful contemplation of the futility of that war, bolstered by poems, novels and films, see something profoundly pitiable. It is with consciousness of such modern expectations, but equally with a sense of being true to the film’s original vision, that Rossi supplies a rich, subtle and binding score that connects 2008 to 1916. Which of these two very different scores will you prefer to listen to, and why? Or might your preferred option be to witness the film in silence?

The digital restoration, which allows us to see so much, is perhaps most striking when it comes to the famous ‘over the top’ sequence. This is the part of the film that will be most familiar. It is shown on television (at least in the UK) every time a shot is needed to evoke the First World War. Troops clamber over the top of a slope, then march slowly over barbed wire away from the camera, a couple of men falling down as they do so, shot dead.

Oh God, they’re dead!

a woman is reported to have exclaimed in a cinema showing the film, and it was this sequence that aroused the greatest comment at the time, the greatest need to explain the film’s significance. But they were not dead. As is now known, the sequence is a fake, set up in a trench mortar battery school some time afterwards, simply because the actual scenes taken of troops going over the top were deemed disappointing. At the time, no one knew of this subterfuge, and as far as reception is concerned, it did not matter. People believed they were witnessing death on screen; and producers and exhibitors felt this to be an acceptable thing to show. Which you may think is extraordinary.

What seldom gets shown on television is the shot that immediately follows the ‘over the top’ sequence in the film. This shows genuine footage of troops going over the top. But we see them only in the far distance. The cameramen (there were just two, J.B. McDowell and Geoffrey Malins, who shot both ‘over the top’ sequences) were greatly restricted in what they could shoot. Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images. And there was the danger. The most obvious indication of the ‘fake’ nature of the first sequence is that the cameraman would have been in absolute peril of his life had it been genuine. But for the above shot, Malins is a long way off, and far in the distance we can just pick out tiny figures on the horizon – British troops, coming over the top and marching into no-man’s land. Looking closer into the middle ground, the digital restoration now reveals to us a sight not previously detected in the film: a number of troops proceeding leftwards, one or two of whom fall down. Oh God, they’re dead.

Do we want to look that closely? Can they really seem dead when viewed at such a distance? Is the death we seek not in the falling bodies, or even in the corpses seen later in the film, but rather in the eyes of the still living, whose fate awaits them, and who are all dead now of course. That was a line the film historian Denis Gifford would sometimes come out with when we were in the basement theatre at the British Film Institute, watching some collection of British silent shorts. The figures would parade to and fro, some of whom he knew, having interviewed them in the 1960s, but then that sad moment of realisation:

They’re all dead now, of course.

This is a poignancy that seems particularly linked to the non-fiction film. Dramatic films, of whatever age, are attempting to entertain. Either they do or they don’t. But the film of actuality trades on the depiction of life, and then the distance created by time. This was recognised even in 1916. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a poem inspired by the experience of watching the film, entitled ‘The War Films’, but made memorable by its opening line:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground —
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Malins and McDowell, two experienced newsreel cameramen, who knew well how to capture plain packages of actuality. McDowell was the senior of the two, who ran his own film company (British & Colonial). Malins had been filming on the war front for longer, and is the better known, not least for his somewhat vainglorious memoir, How I Filmed the War (available from The Internet Archive). Malins co-edited the film with Charles Urban, to whom credit should be given for seeing that the footage Malins and McDowell has shot would work best at feature length, rather than as a series of ten-minute shorts which had been the practice up til then. His vision gave the film the presence it needed to capture the audience that it found. The producer was William Jury, and the film was made for the British Topical Committee for War Films, a trade body working under War Office sanction, which would be replaced by the War Office Cinematograph Committee once the film started to enjoy huge success. It has been estimated that it was seen by 20,000,000 people in the UK in six weeks – almost half the population.

The DVD comes with the alternative music scores, commentaries, interviews with archivists and musicians, and five ‘missing’ scenes and fragments. We do not know what the original The Battle of the Somme was like exactly; the version that survives was re-edited, and the footage used in multiple other films, during and after the war. Rather than insert these extra scenes where it is not quite certain they should go, the IWM has chosen to present these (without music) separately. There is a booklet as well, with information on the film’s production, reception, restoration and particularly its music. A website,, will provide viewing notes, additional information, suggestions for further reading and teaching resources. It is a magnificent achievement, one whose influence on research, teaching and the appreciation of First World War history is likely to be considerable. The only possible disappointment is the menu, which simply divides the film into its five parts, where a more detailed use of chapters could have helpfully guided researchers to particular points of action, regiments, location etc.

More will follow. The booklet notes the publication next year of Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw, and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, a book which analyses the film in great detail, overturning some of the traditional understanding of who filmed what, which regiments are shown, and which locations are featured, while confirming that the vast majority of the film is genuine actuality. There is still more to be discovered about The Battle of the Somme. It is a film we will have to return to, again and again.

The DVD is available from the Imperial War Museum Shop (Region 0, PAL, duration 74 mins with 58 mins extras).

A CD of Laura Rossi’s score is available from Virtuosa Records.

On the weekend of 15/16 November 2008 there will be two screenings of the film at the IWM in London, the ‘original’ score on Saturday, the Rossi score (not played live) on the Sunday. Both screenings are free, and start at 14.00.

The Battle of the Somme has been recognised by UNESCO by being accepted for inscription on its Memory of the World register.