The World’s Greatest Film Festival: The Nitrate Picture Show, Rochester, New York
Clearly this title will need some explanation. What about Cannes, Venice, Berlin, or even, Toronto’s TIFF you might ask. The key is in the word, “film.” These days, most major festivals of new work, like those mentioned, rarely show film prints, but digital copies of “movies” that mostly have also been shot digitally. Even if a work is shot on 35mm or 70mm film, it is usually edited digitally and released to theatres via a DCP (Digital Cinema Package). The leading archival festival, Bologna, Italy’s Il Cinema Ritrovato shows film prints when it can. But films made before 1952 were made on flammable cellulose nitrate, the film format that, when projected, was referred to as the “silver screen,” and to see a good quality nitrate print is to see the film as it was intended to be seen. The Nitrate Picture Show is now in its seventh edition, and I wrote about the first four (2015–2018) for the online journal, Senses of Cinema. 1 . By then it was already my favourite film festival, and I was inspired by the festival founder, Paulo Cherchi Usai, who believed that “film projection is the goal of film preservation,” and that “cinema comes to life when the film object is brought into contact with the world.” 2 It is extremely important to preserve films in ideal conditions – one archival goal – and restoring them is also important, which many archives do. But, Cherchi Usai and the three directors of the fifth, 2019 Nitrate Picture Show—Jared Case, Jurij Medem, and Deborah Stoiber—wrote that “the George Eastman Museum (GEM) is proud to host what is truly the First Festival of Film Conservation,” getting as close as possible to showing original nitrate, 35mm copies, as they were shown before 1952. 3
The films for the 5th edition were received from five different archives in the United States—GEM, Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Library of Congress, Culpepper, Virginia, and two in Los Angeles, Academy Film Archive and UCLA Film and Television Archive—as well as the National Audio Visual Institute in Helsinki, Finland, the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm, and the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. On Friday before the first screening of short films, we were graced with lectures by David Walsh of the Imperial War Museum in London and Elaine Burrows, who since her retirement from the British Film Institute has been the editor of FIAF’s Journal of Film Preservation among other film-related tasks. Originally a chemist, Walsh discussed his technical work with nitrate, while Burrows discussed the criteria involved in preservation–only copying films to safety stock if the nitrate original was in danger—and having to hose down nitrate vaults in the 1983 heatwave. For me, the highlight of the festival was Nightmare Alley (1947), directed by Edmund Goulding, which is surprisingly sordid for a film made under the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code. The first half of the film displays great depth in the nitrate print, with many deep tracking camera moves by cinematographer, Lee Garmes, and becomes highly noiresque in black and white contrasts when Tyrone Power, in arguably his best, and certainly his bravest role, wears evening dress, performing as a fake mentalist. His character’s career ends in humiliation as an animalistic circus “geek.” It is always good to see films noirs and there was another one in this edition, Dead Reckoning (1947) directed by John Cromwell. Unfortunately the projection of a fine 1930 print of Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or, which had been sold by Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque française to James Card, the first curator at the George Eastman House was spoiled through a bold attempt to simultaneously translate the French dialogue into English. It was an excellent print though, as were those of the two Nordic titles introduced by Antti Alanen, both of which lavishly display life on the water and its surrounding nature, Arne Sucksdorff’s 15 minute, Strandhugg (Sweden, 1950) and the very rare, Ihniset Suviyössä (People in the Summer Night, Finland, 1948), directed by Valentin Vaala, which was regarded at the time as being the finest cinematic rendition of the Finnish landscape. As always the “Show” ended with a “Blind Date,” where a single frame only is shown in the catalogue and the title is not revealed until the credits unravel. It was Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950, UK), which I had never seen before, in its full-length, 110 minute version, a richly coloured print from GEM. (It had been cut to 82 minutes for its U.S. release.) In particular, this screening thrilled film historian, Graham Petrie, who had been responsible for always programming one or two nitrate prints for the Toronto Film Society’s (TFS) August Bank Holiday weekend screenings at GEM. 4
COVID 19 put a necessary pause on the Nitrate Picture Show. Whereas other film festivals could go online to stream titles, a festival that only shows film prints cannot continue in this way. Its return for a sixth edition in 2022 entailed an expansion from 10 programs to 12, beginning on Thursday evening with a reprise of a “festival favourite,” and a change in date from the first weekend in May to the first weekend in June, allowing for more students and university professors to attend. A larger number of archives supplied prints, six from the U.S. and four others: the Imperial War Museum, the Cinémathèque Française, Paris, the Cinémathèque Suisse, Lausanne and the National Film Archive of Japan, Tokyo. The edition was dedicated to the memory of Ed Stratmann who worked at GEM from 1974 to 2016, and most notably had been a core instructor in the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation from its inception, and had always been a friendly welcoming presence at the Show.
Portrait of Jennie
I have already declared that the 2016 screening of Portrait of Jennie (U.S., 1948)—directed by William Dieterle, and mostly shot by the great Joseph August, who died during the production—was one of the most spectacular screenings I have ever attended, especially when the curtains open up to reveal a wide screen, green tinted and sepia toned final reel, which along with multi-channel sound makes the dramatic storm climax more visceral.5 5 The reprise in 2022 was equally exciting and memorable. In the Friday morning shorts program, the MoMA copies of the two short, colour films directed by Len Lye were incredible. I had seen Rainbow Dance (UK, G.P.O. Film Unit, 1936) before on disc, but it was as if I was seeing it for the first time, appreciating its mixture of live action (a dancer filmed on black and white stock), with colour animation, positive and negative, and hand drawn and painted images on film, so much more than ever. Musical Poster No. 1 (UK, Crown Film Unit, 1940), which I had never seen before, was similar and impressive in its wartime messaging, where its final text stating “don’t give out information to anyone,” is still relevant today. A series of U.S. Technicolor trailers from the GEM collection was interesting in representing the change from relatively realist, muted and pastel colouring in the 1930s— A Star Is Born (Selznick International Pictures, 1937)— to the outrageous, rich intensity of Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (Twentieth Century Fox), especially Carmen Miranda’s “Girl in the Tutti-Frutti Hat.” The “Keepers of the Frame” lectures were given by Céline Ruivo on her experiences with nitrate, and especially with lantern slides, and Jan-Christopher Horak on his experiences with James Card and his recent research and curatorial work on Spanish-language filmmaking in Los Angeles. We witnessed what is likely the last screening of GEM’s print of Schlussakkord (Final Chord, Germany, 1936), which is a true “melodrama,” mixing music and drama, and is arguably the most cinematic of Detlef Sierk’s (Douglas Sirk) films – a revelation, especially in appreciating the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When the print is good, it is not just the image that is clearer on cellulose nitrate than on cellulose acetate stock, but also, surprisingly, the sound.
I had seen Mikio Naruse’s Meshi (Repast, Japan, 1951) on DVD, but seeing it on the big screen and in nitrate was like seeing it for the first time, with complex interior sets/staging and Setsuko Hara’s subtle performance of a housewife who never stops working and whose smile hides her frustrations. The first screening on Saturday, was a rare example of a silent feature that has not shrunk too much, and can still be projected: the U.S., shortened release version of G.W. Pabst’s Die Feudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925), which is only 75 minutes long, projected at 17 frames per second—distributed in 1927. By way of promoting Greta Garbo’s Hollywood career, all of her scenes are included but little of Asta Nielsen’s fine acting is included. The GEM print, which James Card had bought on Agfa stock from a Cleveland junk dealer in the 1950s, looked fine in its mostly sepia tones, and was accompanied well by Phil Carli, on piano. Arguably, the crowd-pleasing highlight of the 6th Show was the screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946). Most of us had seen the film before in some form, but the beautiful UCLA print, and a near-full house enabled the comic moments to be greeted with infectious laughter. The biggest surprise was reserved for the Saturday afternoon screening of an Imperial War Museum technicolor print of Western Approaches (UK, 1944), written and directed by Pat Jackson. It was the great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff’s first effort, made all the more difficult by unfavourable, uncontrolled lighting conditions, and the fact that the huge three-strip camera was mounted at sea, in a lifeboat, with mostly non-professional actors. I was extremely keen on attending the Sunday screening of Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (Daybreak, France, 1939). It is a film that I show often as a precursor to American film noir, and I have always been concerned that digital transfers don’t show the opening of the film, correctly. My memory of seeing film prints in the past encouraged me to think that the opening, exterior shots gradually lighten up from darkness, reflecting the dawn, but seeing the brittle, somewhat warped nitrate print from La Cinémathèque française was inconclusive in that regard, although shimmering, dust-laden scenes inside the foundry, and elsewhere, justify a screening of the nitrate print.
The 7th Nitrate Picture Show, from June 1–4, at the Dryden Theatre, in the GEM, was the best, yet. Under the direction of the knowledgeable and sophisticated film historian, Peter Bagrov, who is keen to make the programme as diverse as possible, the team of Anthony L’Abbate, Caroline Yeager, Meden, Stoiber and Case produced a memorable event. Meden, as in 2022, was not in attendance because he was continuing a search of European archives. Indeed, the amount of work that goes in to make this festival happen is incredible. When a print is identified, the holder must check it for shrinkage, warping, splices and its ability to be safely projected. Shipping must be carefully arranged, and when it arrives in Rochester the print must be fully checked again. Before the event, every chosen print is screened in its entirety in the Dryden Theatre to ensure there will be no mishaps on the day. The annual event is planned more than a year in advance, and, remarkably, we were told that next year’s programme is over 90% scheduled. On Friday morning an announcement was made that only a few festival passes remained to be sold, and the Sunday morning screening of The Wizard of Oz was “sold out.” In truth, few seats remained for any of the 12 screenings.
Like the previous year, the Show began on Thursday evening with a “festival favourite,” the Academy Film Archive print of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (UK, 1947). Although the film does not hold up well in terms of its “orientalism,” with white actors, like Jean Simmons playing Indian characters, and its lack of criticism of the “British Agent” (David Farrar), for its time, it looked to be progressive. Through Rumer Godden’s source novel, the film was critical of an order of Anglican nuns operating in the Himalaya mountains, and of the unnatural British presence in a magical, remote (and fictional) place. However, there can surely be little criticism of the beauty of Black Narcissus‘s art direction (Alfred Junge) and Technicolor cinematography (Cardiff). I sat in the middle of the front row in order to best appreciate the stunning visual quality, where we move from subtle, pastel, naturalistic colour in the first half of the film towards a saturated, film noir-like (almost, horror) palette, where the colour red, and dark shadows emanating from the dress of the mentally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), come to dominate.
The Friday morning shorts programme was notable for a world premiere of the world’s first Irish-language sound film, Oidhche Sheanchais (A Night of Storytelling, 11 min., Irish Free State, 1935), directed by Robert J. Flaherty, as a way of correcting the all-English soundtrack of Man of Aran (UK, 1934), by inviting some of the Irish-speaking participants of that film to listen to, and comment on, a fantastic story of men at sea told by Seáinin Tom Ó Dioráin (who tragically died at sea shortly after the film was made). Discovered in Harvard University’s Houghton Library in 2013, A Night of Storytelling helps to counteract the notion of Flaherty being a totally elitist filmmaker. Norman McLaren’s hand-drawn, Hen Hop (Canada, 1942), made for the National Film Board as a “soft” propaganda film, promoting War Savings Certificates, had the last 41 seconds removed from all prints after the war ended. A complete, good quality, colour nitrate print in the collection of Jean Bélanger was discovered after his death by Louis Pelletier and Jean-Pierre Sirois Trahan, and this is what we saw. It was also really good to see MoMA-supplied prints of two Walt Disney shorts, the very first three-colour, Technicolor film, Flowers and Trees (1932, dir., Burt Gillett), and The Band Concert (1935, dir., Wilfred Jackson), which surprisingly showed a full range of rich colours—on its 1937 Canadian, Kodak print—while both films displayed excellent musical sound. Although not a Joseph von Sternberg film to my taste—too “ugly,” slow and predictable, but with a stunning performance by Marlene Dietrich—it was good to see a nitrate print of Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, Germany, 1930) in order to appreciate the difference between the extremely cluttered stage of the cabaret, with women drinking and cavorting when not performing at the beginning of the film, and the later, more spacious rendition of it, albeit still lacking depth. The 1931 print was supplied by the Österrisches Filmmuseum, Vienna. Following my disapproval of the alleged “homage” to the silent film era in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (U.S., 2022), it was great to see such a charming return to the period in René Clair’s Le silence est d’or (Silence Is Golden, France, 1947). Clair was one of many French directors whose careers were downgraded in the late-1950s by the critics of Cahiers du cinema, which is why most of us had never seen this delightful film. Maurice Chevalier plays a producer at the 1910 Fortuna film studio, who lusts after a much younger budding film starlet (Dany Robin), while his shy young friend (François Perrier) also falls for her, ironically following the older man’s advice on romancing. While the plot is still relevant today in terms of older male figures abusing their positions of power, Le silence est d’or contains magnificent slapstick scenes, especially of sets collapsing, and of workers playing cards while chaos reigns.
Le silence est d’or
Saturday’s programme was also notable for resurrecting a somewhat maligned film title. I had seen a 16mm print of Fritz Lang’s You and Me (U.S., 1938) many years ago and found it to be a strange mixture of gangster film and musical/comedy genres, but now it looks to be an interesting, and arguably successful narrative experiment. The fine, original Paramount release print was supplied by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and car radiators and wine glasses, among other objects sparkle brilliantly. You and Me begins with a Kurt Weill song on money, “You Can’t Get Something for Nothing,” and in the most extraordinary scene, the Sylvia Sidney character, Helen Roberts, who is on probation, demonstrates to her gangster colleagues, on a chalkboard, the budget of how the money to be gained in a robbery is divided up, with their participation only rewarded with a couple of hundred dollars each, out of tens of thousands. The message is “crime does not pay,” while a marriage between a fellow gangster played by George Raft, who has finished his parole, and Roberts is annulled, enabling them to marry again at the end after she deliveries a baby, cradled by Warren Hymer (Gympoy Carter), who against type, is cast as the “intellectual” gangster. Perhaps the best screening of the festival, on late Saturday afternoon, was of a legendary print: an original 1933 release print of Max Ophuls Liberlei (Flirtation, Germany) from the Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna. We were told in Bagrov’s introduction, both that this was the last great German film made before the Nazi era, and that none of us had ever seen this film properly. All video and digital copies have been copied from 2nd or 3rd generation dupe, safety prints, and that any 35mm or 16mm prints that have been screened previously don’t approximate the look of the original. In short, Liberlei is a work of genius. From the moment the young lovers meet, the camera moves around them, dancing joyously, and then on a sleigh ride, in luminous snow, where the camera tracks alongside, and from the front and back of the sleigh. Lieutenant Fritz Lobheimer is ending an affair with a baroness, and when her husband discovers that the liaison had occurred, he challenges the young officer to a duel. Immediately the film becomes very fast cut, and the camera doesn’t move again until after the offscreen fatal shot is fired, when the bereaved Mitzi understands that Fritz must have died. In the film’s last shot, the camera pans across a snowbound graveyard. Forever more, Ophuls had connected the tracking camera through space to life, and love.
Bagrov also stated in his introduction to the 7th edition, that they don’t just want to show “masterpieces,” and the result of this approach could be seen in the propaganda film, The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (U.S., 1939), produced by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co., to promote their pavilion and the company’s efforts to stimulate the introduction of electricity to the entire United States population. To its credit, the 55 min. print from the Prelinger Archives in San Francisco does justice to the relatively naturalistic colour palette of early Technicolor. On the other hand, its fictionalized treatment of an upper-middle class, Long Island family, deliberately casts the daughter’s boyfriend, the “foreign”-born artist, Nicholas Makaroff, as the villain of the piece, and the pavilion’s host, Jim Treadway, a family friend, as the hero. Among the negative baggage that Makaroff carries is his use of French and Spanish greetings. Did the film have to be so anti-European in its pro-Americanism? Thankfully, the final day was graced with a screening of a spectacularly vivid print of a wonderful film which I had never heard of, Pavel Petrov-Bytof’s Kain I Artiom (Cain and Artem, USSR, 1929), based on Maxim Gorky’s anti-Tsarist story, which exposes Russian anti-Semitism. When Bagrov asked the audience if anybody had seen this film before, only one hand was raised in the auditorium. In his notes on the film, he remarked on how it was arguably the most “expressionist” of Soviet films, full of metaphors and symbols, and how it was made almost entirely inside a Leningrad studio, even though many exterior settings were involved; most notably a staircase leading down to a harbour where a woman jumps to her death (offscreen). Petrov-Bytov had complained that the best-known Soviet films abroad were not made for ordinary people, and the faces and bodies of the actors in Cain and Atrem look far less glamorous than in any other silent feature film that I have seen: all of the clearly impoverished men are bearded and grotesquely “realist.” The original print of the 1931, French release version, with a soundtrack added by Abel Gance (who loved the film) had been stored by the media archive of the Swiss Army, and had been donated to the Cinémathque Suisse in 2014. As Bagrov wrote in the festival catalogue, “Isaak Makhlis’s stylized sets were sophisticatedly lit and transformed by Nikolai Ushakov’s inventive camera,” and followed by saying:
Cain and Artem was widely distributed abroad. Asta Nielsen, who booked a box to
watch it every evening, wrote to her friend, the critic Béla Bálazs; “[It] is a film poem that has no equal. Reality, but seen as if through tears, an inexorable reality, but illuminated by a great idea: Simple facts become fantastic.” 6
The “Blind Date with Nitrate” was very well received; The Third Man (UK, 1949), directed by Carol Reed. The original British release print that was shown, supplied by the Packard Humanities Institute, at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, was missing the final two reels (2,000ft), and thus BFI nitrate reels were substituted for them. Unfortunately, the very end of the film, including one of the greatest final shots in any film, where Alida Valli walks past Joseph Cotton, straight at the camera, without even glancing at him, was spoilt with mold in the centre of the image. To make up for this, immediately following the film’s conclusion, a scene at the beginning of the penultimate reel, where Cotton and Valli’s characters meet at a train station, was projected on safety stock. Although this material was clear of damage, one could easily note how the black and white contrast in the nitrate print was superior to that in the acetate print and also how a greater sense of depth was appreciated within the nitrate shots; not to mention how magnificent Anton Karas’ Zither sounded on nitrate. With growing popularity, especially amongst budding film scholars who wish to experience the “silver screen” for the first time, we advise registering for a pass to the 8th Nitrate Picture Show, 2024, as soon as they become available.
- Peter Rist, “Four Years of the Nitrate Picture Show, Part 1: Beautiful Colour – Tinting and Toning,” Senses of Cinema, issue 89 (December 2018): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2018/feature-articles/four-years-of-the-nitrate-picture-show-part-1-beautiful-colour-tinting-and-toning/ “… Part 2: The ‘Silver Screen’, Beautiful Black and White,” Senses of Cinema, issue 90 (March 2019): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2019/feature-articles/four-years-of-the-nitrate-picture-show-part-2-the-silver-screen-beautiful-black-and-white/ ↩
- Paulo Cherchi Usai, “Introduction,” to the program booklet of The Fourth Nitrate Picture Show: Festival of Film Conservation, George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, May 4–6, 2018. ↩
- Paulo Cherchi Usai, Jared Case, Jurij Medem, and Deborah Stoiber, Introduction to the program booklet of The 5th Nitrate Picture Show: festival of Film Conservation, George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, May 3–5, 2019, p. 4. ↩
- We suspect that the popularity of these screenings encouraged Cherchi Usai to launch the Nitrate Picture Show, and unfortunately, with a steep increase in registration fees requested of TFS, and the decision to not allow them to screen nitrate any more, this spelt the end of the Canadian group’s annual visit. ↩
- Peter Rist, op. cit. ↩
- Peter Bagrov, “Program 11; Sunday, June 4; 2pm,” the booklet of The 7th Nitrate Picture Show: Festival of Film Conservation, June 1–4, 2023 (Rochester, NY: George Eastman Museum, 2023), p. 19. ↩