100 and 101 Years Ago: The Best Films of 1922 and 1923

by Peter Rist Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 27 minutes (6682 words)

Nosferatu (photo source, Eureka/Masters of Cinema)

Once again, it is the end of the year, when we look back on what we have seen and liked in 2023. To be sure, it has been a pretty good year, with two great films from France directed by women, Saint Omer (Alice Diop) and Anatomie d’une chute (Justine Triet), documentary/fiction hybrids from Latin America, also directed by women—El Eco (Tatiana Huezo, Mexico) and Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta with Adirley Quiros, Brazil)—also excellent American films directed by both white (Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up) and black (A.V. Rockwell, A Thousand and One) women, and some fine films directed by men, including L’envoi (Scarlet, Pietro Marcello), All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh, UK), Tab (Walk Up, Hong Sang-Soo, Korea Republic), Mami Wata (C.J. Obasi, Nigeria), and Youth (Spring) (Wang Bing, China); not to mention some amazing, traditional, non-CGI, Hollywood technology overseen by Christopher Nolan on Oppenheimer, and, arguably the most authentic car racing footage ever shot and edited for a fictional film, Ferrari (Michael Mann), which unfortunately was not made with an Italian cast (although Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz as Enzo and his wife, are exceptionally good).

I have clearly missed seeing many of the most highly-acclaimed new feature films because I was absent for all of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal while I attended the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy at the same time in October. Herein is evidence that I am still catching up with film history and this year I attended three other archival film festivals: two Noir City festivals (in Oakland and Chicago), and the Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, New York. So, I am proposing a survey of films made 100 and 101 years ago—I missed writing on 1922 last year—as being more valid, from my perspective, and perhaps more interesting than a review of 2023.

I will pick five “classic” films from each year—which can be read about on the Observations on film art website where David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have been going back 90 years: https://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/12/31/the-ten-best-films-of-1922/ and https://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2013/12/29/the-ten-best-films-of-1923/ and then discuss five more lesser appreciated films, some of which I have only recently “discovered.” As Bordwell and Thompson also claim, these were not, arguably among the greatest years in world cinema history, so a combined list makes sense. However, the following year, 1924 marked the beginning of an explosion of creativity before sound struck the death knell for silent films, all over the world.

Germany produced some of the very best films at this time, following the line of Expressionism, most notably with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, 1922), Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922), and Schatten: Eine Nächtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows, 1923), directed by Artur Robinson. To this day, Nosferatu remains the seminal vampire, horror film, so much so that Werner Herzog encouraged Klaus Kinski to recreate the role played by Max Schreck, in both his actions and his look for Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). Murnau’s film, as much “impressionist” as expressionist with a lot of shooting on location (not just in the studio) and with brilliant editing, including cross-cutting to connect Count Orlok and his final victim, Ellen before they ever meet, holds up well, perhaps more than any silent drama of the period. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know what is the best version available on disc.

Brent Reid, in his amazing eight-part Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide details how only awful versions of the film could be seen until 1965 when a German distributor, Atlas Film released the best version to date of the complete MoMA, 1947 print. Reid claims that this black-and-white (b+w) version of Nosferatu has been bootlegged perhaps a thousand times, worldwide, but that the film should always be seen in a colour version, not b+w, for example, to best appreciate blue tinted night scenes, which can look like broad daylight in b+w, shot day for night (with audiences wondering how the vampire could survive). The first serious restoration was conducted in 1981 by Enno Patalas of the Filmmuseum München in conjunction with the Cineteca di Bologna resulting in a 84 min. (@ 18fps) b+w version, while a second restoration was conducted in 1984, with “speculative” tinting, and a third in 1987, after a newly discovered original French tinted print, resulting in a longer version: 93 min. (@ 18fps). https://www.brentonfilm.com/nosferatu-history-and-home-video-guide-part-4 David Shepard brought the MoMA version to video, in colour, only to be copied (perhaps “stolen”) by Eureka in England and Patalas did yet another restoration in 1995, which is the version I have on Kino DVD (2002). The most recent restoration was supervised by Luciano Berriatúa for the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stifftung in 2005/6. This last restoration was adopted by Kino for their most recent BluRay (BD) 2-disc set (2013), which exhibits many problems. Reid is OK with the Masters of Cinema/Eureka (2013) BD of the Berriatúa restoration, the BFI BD (2015, his favourite) and the Kino (2002) DVD from the 1995 restoration, but every version has a different colour scheme. One of my problems with most digital restorations, including these, is that they don’t apply tinting and toning chemically (as the Czech archive always does), meaning that the entire frame is coloured, and detail is lost in both the light (tinting) and dark (toning) areas.

There are no such problems with Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, since all film, video, or disc copies I am aware of are rendered in b+w. Following on from the villainous Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes’ stories and Louis Feuillade’s Gaumont serials, especially Fantomas (France 1913–1914), and his own two-part Die Spinnen (The Spiders, 1919–1920), on a criminal gang, Lang and screenwriter/wife Thea von Harbou created (from Norbert Jacques novel) the most dangerous, and cleverest villain of all time in Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). At the beginning of the long first part of the film he is shown in many disguises, one after the other, when he becomes richer and richer leading to his principal role as a gambler, where he demonstrates his magic with cards and ability to hypnotize, represented in extreme close-ups of his eyes, tracking into his staring face, and reverse angle cutting to and from his victims. The first part, entitled Der große Spieler. Ein Bild der Zeit (The Great Gambler. An Image of the Time) was premiered in Berlin on 27 April 1922 and the second part, Inferno. Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit (Inferno. A Game of the People of Our Time) was first shown a month later. Referring to its “genre,” Lang called his film a “sensation,” and indeed it was very popular, but he insisted in noting that Dr. Mabuse was a very serious work like a “documentary” in showing how crime had taken over city life in post-World War I Berlin, where the gap between rich and poor was enormous.* The consensus best, 2 BD edition of the film, is from a restoration and reconstruction by three German archives in 2000, completed by L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, Bologna: Masters of Cinema (2013), part one, 155 min., 10 sec, part two, 115 min. 40 sec. See DVD Beaver, for example: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDCompare2/drmabusegambler.htm

Far less well-known is Warning Shadows, which was important because the director, U.S.-born Robison and producer Albin Grau (who also produced Nosferatu) experimented with making a completely silent film, without using any intertitles. In this sense it was a purely visual film, which was attempted by other German filmmakers, including Murnau in the following year with Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh); a very different film in its ushering in a realist tendency. Dr. Mabuse was strikingly “expressionist” especially in its production design (Otto Hunte and Karl Stahl-Ulrach), and Warning Shadows is predominantly expressionist, with its shadow play and stylized acting, which the filmmakers hoped would allow the audience members to clearly understand the narrative. (For a 1928 re-release, explanatory titles were added to help audience understanding). Warning Shadows is brilliantly reflexive, where Plato’s allegory of the cave is suggested, when members of the audience in the film are hypnotized by a travelling showman, and they act out their repressed desires in shadows on a screen within the screen. In Anton Kaes’ words, “In the tradition of so-called “Aufklärungsfilme” (sex education films) from 1919–20, Schatten invokes a sexually charged atmosphere of aristocratic decadence and depravity, including, in the phantasmagorical scene, bondage, implied gang rape, and murder (represented as shadow play)” and that the “hallucinatory shadow play” is a “perfect double for the immersive cinematic experience.” http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDCompare2/drmabusegambler.htm Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to see an excellent copy of Warning Shadows on disc. The independent company, Grapevine Video put out a BluRay disc in 2021, but its running time is listed as only 77 minutes, instead of 93 min, @18fps, of the 35mm print I saw at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2017, and maybe the Grapevine disc is copied from the re-released version since the catalogue lists “English sub-titles, and a 2K copy of a b+w print” The tinted and restored DVD published by Kino Lorber in 2006 is no longer in print.

In France, two avant-gardes were beginning to flourish: for narrative feature films, often called “impressionist” films and much shorter, mostly abstract films, usually called “experimental” works. It seems to me, that whenever there are innovations which depart from normalcy, which was certainly the case with the two “classic,” narrative films chosen here, they can be considered to be experimental. The most important of the two in terms of today, is Germaine Dulac’s La souriante Madame Beudet (1922–1923), which stands as being one of the first truly feminist films made in the world. The title character, played subtly by Germaine Dermoz whose interests in Debussy music and Pre-Rafaelite painting are completely opposed to her accountant husband who has very traditional bourgeois tastes. She feels trapped in the house in Chartres where the couple lives, and it is only in the beginning and end of the film where the camera goes outdoors, but the sense of depression concludes the film where we see the couple walking together, again. (The title is ironic.) She had fantasized about killing her husband, and his gun is fired at her by him, who doesn’t realize she has loaded it. The film is a mixture of realism and symbolism, and Dulac was fascinated by the power of the Close-Up, and the use of in-camera effects, like super-imposition to reflect the inner states of her heroin. Madame Beudet is autobiographical to a large extent. Raised by an aristocratic grandmother and educated in a Catholic boarding school, Dulac became engrossed in the arts and politics of the left. She married in 1905 but was divorced in 1920. Madame Beudet, it seems, was unable to achieve the freedom of the film director. Unfortunately, only this film and a later, “surrealist,” similarly medium-length film, La coquille et la clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1927) have been available to watch of the 30+ fiction films Dulac had directed, and La souriante Madame Beudet was mostly seen on silent, b+w, 16mm prints which ran for 26 min. @ 24frames per second. Arguably the best version that can be watched with English sub-titles (42 min. 39 sec.), is that included in the Flicker Alley, 6-disc BD/DVD boxset, “Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology.”

Abel Gance’s monumental La roue (The Wheel, 1922) is an amazing cinematic achievement, shot mostly on location, and in sets built alongside railway tracks, and on Mont Blanc. It ends in tragedy as befitting the declining health of the director’s companion, Ida Danis (from tuberculosis) and the film’s leading man, Séverin-Mars (as Sisif, the locomotive engineer) who died just after the film’s completion. Sisif rescues a baby girl from a train crash and raises her as his daughter. Both he, and his is son, Elie fall in love with the adult Norma (Ivy Close), but she is allowed to marry Elie’s best friend, Hersan to avoid a perceived incestuous relationship. When Sisif moves to Mont Blanc to work on the funicular railway, which he is safe to do despite his loss of sight in one eye, the two young men fight and die on the mountain ledge, while Norma looks after Sisif until he also dies. Extremely melodramatic, La roue contains amazing scenes of high-speed train journeys and the initial, dramatic crash, which are made more dynamic by rapid editing. These episodes were extremely influential on other filmmakers and remain a major contributor to the montage trope of impressionist/narrative avant-garde cinema. Taking almost three years to complete, La roue was initially 32 reels long, and ran between 7 and 9 hours depending on the projection speed. This was reduced to 5 hours, and eventually 2 ½ hours for general release in France, 1924. In 2008 a 273 min. (4 ½ hour) restoration was assembled from five different versions by Shepard and Eric Lange, and released on DVD in North America by Flicker Alley (now out-of-print). In 2019, a 7-hour version was presented by the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, the Cinémathéque Française and the Cinémathéque Suisse at the Lumière Film festival, and subsequently shown at the New York Film Festival in October, 2023. A French title card, 4 DVD edition was distributed by Pathé in 2021, but this is already prohibitively expensive, so it is to be hoped that Janus who have the rights in the U.S. will publish a BD version (probably through Criterion) in the not-too-distant future.

The early-1920s was a great period for Hollywood comedy. All three of the greatest “silent clowns,” Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd made extraordinary films in 1922 and 1923. I am avoiding the inclusion of more than one film by any director/star, and in Keaton’s case this is very difficult. He continued to make short films in this period, and all nine are terrific. Normally I would include Cops (1922, co-directed by Edward F. Cline), which surely has one of the greatest chases in film history after Keaton is incorrectly identified as having thrown a bomb at the police. In 1923, he made his first two feature films, the first of which, The Three Ages is a spoof on D.W. Griffith’s interrelated, splicing together of stories from different time periods in Intolerance (1916). The second, Our Hospitality, for which John G. Blystone was credited as co-director (perhaps for the dramatic scenes of U.S. southern family feuds), and which combines a high degree of “surrealism” in the beginning, with a crazily engineered railway train sequence, and clever stunts on a cliff and over a waterfall in the second half, is my choice for the top ten. I defer to Bordwell and Thompson’s excellent analysis of the film as a complex work of mise-en-scéne and narrative from their very first edition of Film Art: An Introduction in 1978 until the twelfth and most recent edition in 2019. There are two different restorations of Our Hospitality that are available on BD in North America, the more recent being a double disc with The Three Ages from the Cohen Collection (2023) and the other, produced by Lobster (2019), with both being distributed by Kino. I don’t own either version, but the latter is recommended because it has an audio commentary by Keaton expert, Imogen Sara Smith and Farran Smith Nehme.

As for Lloyd, whose first full-length feature film, Grandma’s Boy (1922) made the Bordwell and Thompson list, I must go with Safety Last (1923, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor) for the most famous thrill/comedy conclusion in film history, where Lloyd’s glasses character climbs up the whole side of a building, thinking the stunt man who had agreed to do it for him will take over. The image of Lloyd hanging from the hand of a clock, when the face of it falls down 45 degrees is one of the most-recognizable film shots of all time. It is only recently that we have understood how Lloyd, who had lost three fingers from one hand, was able to fully achieve this stunt sequence, although we realized all along that there must have been some kind of platform below him to protect his possible fall. For the extreme long shots of a man climbing a building, these featured stuntman Harvey Parry, although Bill Strother, a steeplejack by trade, who played the “Bill” character who was supposed to climb the wall, maybe seen as Lloyd’s double in some climbing shots. Safety Last has been available on BD from the Criterion Collection since 2013, and although it is not a new restoration, the disc also contains the excellent documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989).

Chaplin directed the 3-reeler, The Pilgrim in 1923, in which he masquerades as a priest after escaping from prison. It was his last film for First National, and it was really good to see it on the big screen at the Giornate (46 min., DCP), in October, accompanied by the Orchestra da Camera di Pordenone, playing Chaplin’s score. However, the top ten must include his unique feature film, A Woman of Paris for a number of reasons: He directed but did not act in it (except for a Hitchcock-like cameo); it was his first real “drama”; although it was also, at times, a “situation comedy of manners” following on from Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (Sweden, 1920); but more importantly influencing Ernst Lubitsch’s American career, especially his sophisticated, European-set comedies, beginning with The Marriage Circle (1924). The “Woman of Paris” is played by Chaplin’s regular leading lady, Edna Purviance. Her character is not married but having an affair with a rich man, Pierre Ravel (Adolphe Menjou). She meets up with her former fiancée, Jean, who shoots himself after a confrontation with Pierre. The film ends ambiguously as the two lovers pass each other, unknowingly, on a road. A Woman of Paris was very well-received by critics but not audiences. It virtually spelled the end of Purviance’s film career, but gave a big boost to Menjou’s. Unfortunately, the best version of the film, taken from a 35mm print in the Chaplin family vaults, is a French, mk2, DVD, published in the U.S. by Warner Brothers in a large boxset (2004), which is now out-of-print . Strangely my copy is included in a 2-disc part of the set, and the disc marked A King in New York is actually A Woman of Paris and vice-versa! Even worse, is that I must adjust the settings on my brilliant Panasonic Viera television just to play the silent feature correctly in its Academy ratio, since otherwise the film is cropped top and bottom and fills the screen. I have never been able to find the extra features on the disc, either.

Continuing the made-in-the-U.S. drama theme (with a touch of comedy), I must surely select Eric von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922). Stroheim himself, plays the “man you love to hate,” in this case a phony Russian Count always dressed in military uniform who lives with two phony Russian princess cousins, and who seduces the wife of an American diplomat. It was scandalous for its time and was censored just about everywhere. I was fortunate to attend the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) in 2022, when the new restoration by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and SFSFF was shown, accompanied by a “making of” session. Every year, the SFSFF digitally restore at least two feature films, and always insist on going back to film, and making a 35mm print. The new restoration is no longer than the American Film Institute’s 1972 print which had been compiled from the MoMA circulation print and a BFI print of the European version; 146 min., the premiere print was 14 reels long, approximately 3 ½ hours @ 18fps. (As was normal for Hollywood product, there had been two different camera negatives—one for Europe and one for the U.S.—and both had been long lost.) What was new was the re-discovery of the Italian nitrate print in Milan—the original source for the BFI version—which was used especially in trying to reconstruct tinting and toning, and some hand colouring.** I suspect, though that the Italian print was actually used for many of the new restoration’s shots, since I detected numerous jumps within shots (missing frames) in the SFSFF 2022 projection—I counted more than 100 examples. Dave Kerr, in charge of the MoMA restoration team told me that the Flicker Alley BD could well be a better copy than the print we viewed. And, it seems to me that the DCP shown at Bologna outdoors at the Piazza Maggiore, during Il Cinema Ritrovato in late-June, 2022 looked better than the SFSFF print.

Nanook of the North (photo source, Flicker Alley)

Much maligned because of its perceived colonialism, where the American filmmaker, Robert J. Flaherty, like an outsider-anthropologist, supposedly exploited the Inuit subjects, Nanook of the North (co-produced with Revillon Frères, France, 1922) was granted a Special Event, centenary screening at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, at which new information revealed that the director’s methods were “exceptionally collaborative,” in the “collective” spirit of Inuit culture, and that Flaherty had an 11-year relationship with the Hudson Bay people. In his programme notes for the festival, Francesco Ruffini wrote that:

On 11 June 2022, the Inuit community of Inukjuak, a town on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay in Canada, gathered to celebrate the centenary of Nanook of the North, a

local heritage. Among the audience were descendants of the hunter Allarkariallak (Nanook’s real name), and of Robert J. Flaherty. His relationships with Inuit women were kept secret until his death, including the one with Maggie Nujarlatuk – Nyla, the fictional wife of Nanook. Thirty two years after their affair, during the Canadian High Arctic Relocation of 1953 and 1955, their son Josephie Flaherty was deported together with his and other Inuit families to the inhospitable Grise Ford, a hamlet in the Arctic Archipelago of the northernmost Canadian territories..***

Thus, Ruffino puts the blame for the disruption to the future lives of the cast of the film on the “forces of colonization and industrialization (federal governments, fur trading companies, prospectors…etc.),” without discussing that Allarkariallak died of tuberculosis only two years later, (probably caused by contact with white people). For many, it is disturbing that Flaherty tried to recreate the way things were for Inuit people, e.g., not using guns for hunting, and showing the people to be unaware of the modern world, e.g., Nanook comically thinking a gramophone record is food; but his restaging of events for the camera, rather than directly observing actuality was necessary. It wasn’t possible with available camera and film stocks to film inside an Igloo, for example, so that a partial example was constructed, just for the film. Most importantly, Nanook of the North was the first successful attempt at making what was later called a “documentary” feature film (by John Grierson after seeing Flaherty’s Moana in 1926), and was among the first 25 films chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for preservation in 1989. To this day, it might still be the most famous film ever shot in Canada. For the 2022 screening of an 85 min. DCP from Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, in Pordenone, a brilliant new score was composed and conducted by Quebec’s own Gabriel Thibaudeau, featuring four flutes and Inuit throat singers Lydia Etokf and Niina Segalowitz, plus two other vocal soloists and the festival’s regular percussionist, Frank Bockius. In his notes Gabriel thanks all of his collaborators with “Nakurmlik! (Thank You, in Inuktitut.)” http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm/ed_precedenti/screenings_recorden.php?ID=8651

Hopefully, this score will be available on the next BD release, but, in the meantime, the best version is probably that included in a six film Flicker Alley release, entitled, “Nanook of the North, The Wedding of Palo and Other Films of Arctic Life,” 2013.

Very much closer to what non-fiction film was considered to be before Nanook of the North, Dziga Vertov’s series of Kino Pravda (Film Truth) news items was initiated in 1922. By the end of 1923, 17 of the 23 “newsreels” had been made, but most observers date Kino Pravda to 1924, and this was the year that Soviet cinema really took off. I saw an 11-minute fragment of No. 7 (1922) in Bologna (2022), but there was nothing to indicate that Vertov would become such an innovative filmmaker. At the 1996 Giornate—the first one I attended—the oldest films that I saw in the series entitled, “In the Land of the Soviets, 1918–1924” were from 1919, and I managed to see seven of these, one of which was a six-minute documentary by Vertov on the Kino Train, Agit-Poezd, into which he is shown to be ushering children. One was a clearly fictional satire on royalty, while the five others were made in the mode of rhetorical re-constructing the past; four anti-Tsarist works, including the only feature, Babocij Sevyrev (Worker Sevyrev, dir. Ceslav Sabinskij), one looking back, historically to the failure of the French Revolution and the first 1905 attempt at revolution in Russia, including shots of Marx writing the Communist Manifesto (in 1848) which look like a documentary footage: Proletarii Vseh Stran, Soe-Dinyaites’! (Workers of the World Unite!, dir. Boris Sushkevic). Arguably, the most interesting film in the series was an ambitious “documentary” restaging of the Storming of the Winter Palace, Vzjatie Zimnego Dvorca (1920), directed by avant-gardist Nikolai Yevreinov and others, and where thousands participated. It was a film of a huge theatrical staging, outdoors in the square in front of the Winter Palace. Eisenstein apparently borrowed many of the titles from this film for October (1927), and could he have actually used some of these shots, I wonder? In any event it is a good representation of the debate which followed, where theorists argued for and against the restaging of reality—“played” (e.g., Eisenstein) vs “unplayed” (esp. Vertov)—but where all agreed that ”reality” must predominate.

The following five choices are all equal in value to my ten choices, above, but are either less appreciated or less well-known than those. White Russian emigrées, escaping (Red) Russian communism, were now established in other places, especially Paris, where Ladislas Starevich, born in Moscow as Wladyslaw Starewicz to Polish parents continued to be the most prominent puppet animation film director in the world. He had made over 30 films in Russia between 1911 and 1918, and one of his best-known French-made films is Les grenouilles qui demandent un roi (Frogland, 1923) based on the Aesop fable, The Frogs Who Desired a King, where God answers the frog’s request with a snake that eats them. Starevich’s version is an allegory for the Soviet regime. Two other refugees who didn’t deliberately engage in politics in their film work, were Alexandre Volkov and actor/director, Ivan Mosjoukine (or Mozzukhin), who was the greatest star of the pre-Soviet Russian cinema. They became key members of Albatros Films, and the fourth release of that company was the 10-epsisode, 6 ½ hour serial, La maison du mystère (The House of Mystery, 1921–1923), directed by Volkov (and uncredited, another Russian, Viatcheshlav Tourjansky), and co-produced by a fourth Russian, Joseph Ermelioff. I had first seen eight of the ten episodes during May 2003 at the Cinémathèque Québécoise (CQ), with the great Thibaudeau on piano. It was a French inter-titled 35mm print with beautiful tinted and toned sequences. Later that year I saw the 2 ½ hour, 1929 feature film re-release at the Giornate, which allowed me to catch-up on most of the two episodes I had missed. La maison du mystère was the first serial to be greatly admired by French film critics. Before this they were considered to be crass, commercial, and popular. Even Feuillade had to wait to have his serials rediscovered as works of “art” much later on. Indeed, Mosjoukine is a revelation as an action figure, while the film brilliantly combines emotionally moving scenes of drama, with excitement. Julien Villandrit (Mosjoukine) is unfairly accused of murder and, while in jail, his wife, Régine and daughter are pursued by the real killer, Henri Corradin (Charles Vanel). In the fifth episode, “Le pont vivant”/”The Human Bridge,” Julien, working on a railroad gang is cross-cut with Corradin trying to persuade Régine to leave her husband and marry him. Julien escapes with fellow prisoners and they jump on a train and then into a lake. They are pursued by prison guards on horses then in a car along winding roads above and alongside the train. The escaped convicts are followed to a gorge where Julien’s colleagues form a “living bridge” for him to cross—he had earlier been shot—and then help him down a cliff on a rope and, eventually onto a sailboat to go to the mainland from Corsica. Episode eight, “Champ clos”/”No Way Out” features an amazing hand-to-hand combat between hero and villain in a library, which features towers of books falling on them. Throughout the serial, the acting is consistently good and the cinematography (Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, Nikolai Toporkoff, and Fédote Bourgasoff), full of camera movement, is very impressive. In 2015, Flicker Alley produced a 3-disc DVD collection, but this is now out-of-print. However, the same version can be streamed through the Henri collection of the Cinémathèque Française, with Neil Brand on piano, but no sub-titles: https://www.cinematheque.fr/henri/film/145051-la-maison-du-mystere-episode-1-alexandre-volkoff-1922/.

Although the Albatros group can be considered to be part of the French Narrative Avant-Garde, Luis Delluc and Jean Epstein, along with Gance and Dulac (above), are more closely associated with the movement of “impressionist” film making. I am choosing Deluc’s La femme de nulle part (The Woman from Nowhere, 1922) and Epstein’s L’auberge rouge (1923), here, their first solo directed features. I saw La femme de nulle part on a 68 minute DCP, in Bologna, as part of the Ritrovato’s Cento Anni Fa (One Hundred years Ago): 1922, and it was a revelation in its use of flashbacks, superimpositions, and quasi point-of-view shots to engage the audience emotionally with the character of a woman (Delluc’s wife, Ève Francis) who returns to the house where she lived 30 years ago. It transpires that she left her family to join her lover, and things turned out badly for her. She is invited into the house to spend the night by a man who is going away for a short time, and she realizes that his wife (Gine Avril) is facing a similar situation, planning to leave him and her child to meet her lover. Initially the older woman persuades the younger woman to stay to avoid the unhappiness she had faced, but later tells her to leave. The film ends ambiguously. Ahead of its time, in encouraging the audience to identify emotionally (and impressionistically) with both women, it is not at all “flashy.” Tragically, Delluc died young (age 33) of tuberculosis, after finishing just one more film.

One of the most important film theorists of the 1920s, Epstein initially believed in the distinctiveness of the art of cinema and L’auberge rouge is a deliberately cinematic adaptation of a short story written by Honoré Balzac in 1831. I saw a 73 min. DCP version during a wonderful series of films based on Balzac at the 2018 Giornate, co-programed by Jay Weissberg and Anne-Marie Baron, from the Societé des Amis de Balzac, who agreed with me that this was arguably the best silent film adaptation of the great French author. Very few changes were made from the novella—moving the location from Germany to Alsace, some minor characters—and the bulk of the story is told at a dinner party by a guest to an uncle, his young niece, her suitor and others with Raoul Aubourdier’s camera continually tracking and panning around them. He tells of a rainy night at an inn long ago when his friend, Posper Magnan (Léon Mathot) and another man, Jean-Frédéric Taillefer (Jean-David Evremond)—they are both doctors—are asked to share a bedroom with a stranger—a travelling diamond and gold merchant. Magnan imagines stealing the jewels and killing the “Dutchman,” but recoils from the thought. But, when he awakes, he finds the jewels gone, the Dutchman dead, and Fréderic gone from the scene. The film occasionally returns from the flashback scenes to the dinner party and great use is made of out-of-focus shots, fast cutting and superimpositions to represent Magnan’s psychological trauma. At the end it is revealed that the “uncle,” is indeed the killer/thief. L’auberge rouge is a fine, under-appreciated example of French impressionist filmmaking.

Die straße (The Street, 1923), directed by Karl Grune, is a really important German silent film, which I had never seen until 2023, in Pordenone, of course. Its name ushered in a new genre of the “Street film,” and continued the attempt at making purely visual films with no, or very few titles, contrasting with the verbal aspect of theatre. The most important feature of this film, though, is the remarkable development in the studio construction of city exteriors (by Karl Görge & Ludwig Meidner), especially where background models of houses suggest a far greater depth than would otherwise be possible, and this approach influenced Hollywood, seen most notably at Fox in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). A bank clerk (Eugen Klöpfer) sees shadows of bustling city life on the ceiling of his bedroom, and leaves his wife for a night on the town. Attracted by a young woman (Egede Nissen), he thinks he’s following her to her rooms, but is caught up gambling away all his money. The simple story is also graced with a lot of movement by the characters and the camera (Karl Hasselmann), opening up the sets. Grune had entitled an essay he wrote in 1924, “Der Film ist Bewegungskunst” (Film is the Art of Movement.) My final selection is a bit odd, because I am choosing a film which only survives in a fragment, Ernst Lubitsch’s final film in Germany before going to Hollywood, Die Flamme (The Flame, aka Montmartre, 1922–1923). I saw 22 minutes, virtually only one reel, of a German 35mm print (with simultaneous French translation) at the CQ in 1997. I wrote then that it could be Lubitsch’s best looking German film with its intimate (Kammerspiel) lighting and relatively subtle acting, including Pola Negri’s performance as a doomed Parisian prostitute, who eventually kills herself (in the missing conclusion), after falling in love with a rich and sensitive young man. In 2006 at the 25th Pordenone Silent Film Festival (relocated to Sacile), I saw a 44 min. version on Beta SP, which included stills, drawings and titles in an attempt by the Munich Filmmuseum to reconstruct the full storyline. In my notes for this 2nd screening, I appreciated what I called the “arbeiterfilm realism” that pre-dated G.W. Pabst’s later work, and I suggested that the overall style was derived from Max Reinhardt’s subtle theatrical staging and lighting. Lubitsch had wanted to make something closer to the Hollywood style that he admired, and he clearly succeeded. I wrote that Die Flamme featured “efficient but fairly elegant, if simple sets” with plain walls, while arches, windows and doorways were cleverly used as framing devices. Let us hope that more of this excellent film will be rediscovered.

Perhaps for the first (and probably) the last time, I only featured three countries—Germany, France and the U.S.—plus Canada, for a best films list. If I had included five more films, they might also have only been made there. Many people would probably include Danish director, Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, Sweden) on their best films of 1922 list, and it is certainly a brilliant, cinematographic work. Haxan was made as a medical training “documentary” and in its historical reconstructions of the burning of witches it is very critical of the Christian church, but then contemporary hysteria in women is compared to the treatment of witchcraft, and left unexplained. Haxan is often shown in the context of the horror genre, and this is fine, but I find that its messages don’t hold up so well. I prefer Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized Ones, aka, Love One Another, 1922), a multi-character work, that argues strongly against anti-Semitism, but it is a German film, albeit based on a Danish novel.

In the interest of diversity I should mention that the oldest surviving Chinese film, not made by foreigners, was from 1922, Zhiguo Yuan (Love’s Labours, or Fate of a Handsome Man) directed by Zhang Shichuan for the Mingxing (Star Film) company. It is an interesting comedy, which can be found fairly easily online. The only Japanese films that I have seen from the period, Hototogisu (The Cuckoo, 1922), a fictional short, directed by Yoshinobu Ikeda, and Kohitsuji (The Lamb, 1923), a fiction feature, directed by Zanmu Kako, both for Shochiku, are also very good, but hardly at the level of greatness to be found in Japanese silent films just a few years later. Almost all of the surviving films made in Mexico in the early-1920s are documentaries, and the best of them that I have seen, México Industrial (1922) is a very dynamic promotional film, focusing on a textile factory, and its production of woven cloth. In saving the best for last, a series of British, lightly comic films, based on the novels and novellas written by W.W. Jacobs were shown in Pordenone, 2012. Five of them were directed by Horace Manning Hayes in 1922, and they are delightful stories, often involving seafaring men and their amusing adventures on the shores of the Thames Estuary. My favourite is The Skipper’s Wooing (1922), where Captain Wilson’s romantic yearning for the daughter of another ship’s captain is balanced by the misadventures of the crew. As far as I know, none of these films are available on disc, nor can they be streamed online.

*Fritz Lang, “Kitsch: Sensation-Culture and Film” (1924), and “Fritz Lang on Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” A Acrapbook (1959, 1967, 1972, 1975); booklet for 2 BluRay disc set, Eureka/Masters of Cinema, #69 (2013)

**James Layton, “Searching for Foolish Wives: The Decades-Long Effort to Reconstruct Eric von Strohemi’s Masterpiece”; booklet for BD & DVd 2-disc set, Flicker Alley, FA0082 (2023)

***In, Catherine A. Surowiec and Piera Patat, editors, Catalogue: 41, 1/8 ottobre 2022, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Pordenone, Italy: La Cineteca da Friuli, 2022), pp. 190–192.

100 and 101 Years Ago: The Best Films of 1922 and 1923

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 Essays   Film Reviews   canons   expressionism   giornate del cinema muto   impressionism   silent cinema