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In Praise of Silent Cinema and Film History


Acceptance Speech for the 2023 Jean Mitry Award

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 42/Pordenone Silent Film Festival 42

Film history, silent film, early cinema: I have researched and published in these areas, and I have tried to keep history present while teaching and engaging with film curatorial work. But the merits of my contributions to film history are small compared to what film history has done for me, along with it the multitude of those who have made it possible for me to encounter films over and over again. Film history has broadened my perception, changed my relationship to the world, changed my thinking, and changed my life. I began to think about these effects in the early seventies, and began to open up films from there: What do films do to the audience? and also: What propaganda effects do they create? The very first research situation I worked in was as part of an independent study group on National Socialist cinema at the Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv. This was followed by a critical engagement with Hollywood and European auteur cinema, including prominent Weimar films.

The 1970s saw the rise of feminist film analysis, which from the outset focused on the female viewer. Dominated by the question "Why do women go to men's cinema?", a subversive appropriation of film history began - from below, so to speak. In the '60s, and after '68, this "below" referred to the status of the audience. In socio-economic terms, the status of workers, women, the colonized. And with the rise of sexual emancipation, "below" also meant the unconscious, the sexual drives: Psychoanalysis gained influence in film studies. In the 1980s, however, "below" took on an additional film historical meaning, namely that of the forgotten, locked-away history that underlies the present: the beginnings, the early years of film and cinema. Its rediscovery brought a turn, a kind of revision, not only to film historiography in general, but also to the feminist view of film in particular. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto played a unique role in this, at least for me.

In the mid-1980s, I had begun watching early German films in the archives - the first color restorations after the long years in which we equated and revered film with the black-and-white 16mm prints of Weimar auteur cinema. At that time, I was also a member of the program committee of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. A long fax (email was still unknown) from David Turconi landed on the desk of Karola Gramann, the festival's director at the time. I kept this fax, dated July 8, 1986. It was an invitation to the 5th Pordenone Silent Film Festival: "which will take place from September 29 to October 4 and will be dedicated to Nordic cinema from its beginnings to 1918". The invitation promised additional programs, including diva films and the French series Mandrin. The invitation also read: "The 50th anniversary of the Cinémathèque Française (one of its founders, Jean Mitry, is now chairman of LE GIORNATE) will be celebrated with a midnight screening of the Henri Fescourt’s MANDRIN series, an example of the major restoration plan undertaken by the Cinémathèque on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.”It also states that, for the first time, a prize will be awarded "to reward people whose work contributes to the preservation and dissemination of the silent film heritage". Kevin Brownlow and David Gill are named as recipients. Today, I am one of the successors - and fortunately one of a number of female successors - of the first, most deserving recipients of the award that later bore Jean Mitry's name. In 1986, I watched the entire festival program from early in the morning until late at night - and my eyes were opened. The light in the Scandinavian films, the play of light and shadow, awakened a strange feeling of happiness, as did my regular nightly immersion in the story of Mandrin.

What was extraordinary - and what the research in the archives couldn't give access to - was the experience of the cinema as a place of silent film. The sunny autumn days I spent in the darkness of the Cinema Verdi, kept awake by the light of the projector and dreaming away to the sound of a piano, allowed me to get an idea, a feeling, of the early audience, the viewer of a different cinema than the one I had known, analyzed, and criticized. Only much later did discover Dorothy Richardson's text "The Film Gone Male," written on the threshold from silent to sound, in which she sums up the importance of silent cinema for women: it was "their" cinema, freed from the conventions of language, with films made without guardianship in mind and at eye level with the audience.

I am still glad that I was able to contribute to the 1990 Pordenone Festival, which focused on early German cinema. During this collaboration, I developed a friendship with Paolo Cherchi Usai that has remained dear to me. Paolo, you visited me in Frankfurt, if I remember correctly, on the occasion of a silent film and music event at the "Alte Oper". We spent days together in Berlin, visiting the film archives in the West and in the East and watching films. I also have a letter from that time. Paolo wrote: "Genoa, November 18, 1987, ... I hope you enjoyed the festival in Pordenone. The 1988 edition will be dedicated to the American feature film of the teens (1911-1920), which became the Vitagraph film program. It has also been decided that the 1989 and 1991 editions will be devoted to German silent film: your suggestions for prints to be selected for the retrospective will be most welcome. [...]" Then, in 1989, Pordenone also witnessed the incredible and stunning rediscovery of pre-Soviet Russian cinema.

As you can see, the first years were also the key to my love for the Giornate del Cinema Muto and my loyalty, which continues despite the demolition of the old Verdi and our confrontation with the new building. Looking back, however, inevitably brings back memories of so many people I met every year in the cinema, at the bar (in the foyer of the old Verdi), and places around the city, who are no longer with us and whom we have lost.

It remains for me to thank the living who have sustained this festival over the years: in particular the organizers, because I have known them since the beginning: Piera Patat and Livio Jacob, Paolo Cherchi Usai; thanks to Federica Dini, Max Mestroni and the wonderful team; thanks also to Carlo Montanaro and the technical team. Jay Weisberg, I thank you and wish you and all of us the best of luck for the years to come.

Pordenone, October 13, 2023

From left to right: Jay Weissberg, Heide Schlüpmann, Natalia Nusinova, Livio Jacob, Piera Patat
Snapshot: Karola Gramann