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Film

How rare silent films are celebrated in Germany

Are silent films just slapstick and gags? The Silent Film Festival in Bonn is breaking down clichés of the genre by screening soundless movies about prostitution in Vienna, Ireland's IRA - and a film from China.

DW: Mr. Drössler, does the Bonn International Silent Film Festival, taking place from August 10-20, present freshly restored films?

Stefan Drössler: I don't like the hype about that. What is "freshly restored" supposed to mean? This term should be used carefully. These days, you can't sell a DVD if it's not labeled "restored." I prefer to use the term "reconstructed." That refers to films that are newly put together, so the result is more complete than it was before. I think that's more interesting.

So does the 2017 program include a reconstructed film?

Yes - the opening film, "Little Veronica," a (1929 Austrian-German silent film directed by Robert Land) that had disappeared. That film wasn't newly put together with different materials, but it did go unnoticed in an archive under a different title. 

In Germany, it ran under the title "Unschuld" (Innocence). It is a somewhat daring story of a girl from the countryside who is sent to Vienna -  the film contains some wonderful images of Vienna. The girl lives with her aunt, and everybody is very nice to her.

A scene in Little Veronica by Robert Land, Germany-Austria, 1929 (Förderverein Filmkultur Bonn e.V./Stummfilmtage Bonn)

In "Little Veronica" the protagonist inadvertently finds herself in Vienna's red light district

The girl doesn't totally understand that she has landed in a red light district. That's why all the ladies around her are very busy at certain times. The truth emerges slowly over the course of the film. It's a very entertaining film that doesn't portray the scene in a degrading or speculative way. It was a daring topic, which is why it took a long time to discover which film that was. It was restored just recently by the Austrian Film Museum.

Read more: The best films about filmmaking

Another special film this year is Arthur Robison's "The Informer." Why was it selected?

I personally have waited many years for it, because I very much like this film. "The Informer" by Arthur Robison is a British film. Only one copy of it existed. The first part was silent, and the second part had sound. It was shot both as a silent film, and as a film with sound - twice!

For some reason, somebody combined these two films in that one single copy, so that the final product is a mixture of both. The original content could, however, be found in the British Film Institute. The silent version has now been completely restored.

"The Informer" reveals strong expressionist influences from Germany. At the time, there were many German film technicians who were invited to England to participate in international productions. Arthur Robison shot his expressionist film "Schatten" (Shadow, 1923) in Germany. The set designers of famous German expressionist silent films also worked on "The Informer." It's an excellent and enthralling work about a traitor who was chased by Irish freedom fighters.

A scene from The Informer by Arthur Robison, 1929 (Förderverein Filmkultur Bonn e.V./Stummfilmtage Bonn)

"The Informer" by Arthur Robison deals with IRA violence

A silent film from China is also on deck. How did you come across that work?

Yes, we're showing the first Chinese silent film from 1922, which has been preserved in its entirety. One problem that we encounter is that many people don't know many silent films, so they have certain clichés about them in their minds. We want to overcome these clichés by showing that silent films aren't all slapstick comedies, or an exaggerated form of expressionism.

Back then, they had everything we have today. Okay, the special effects were less expensive, but they were also elaborate. The video editing went very quickly then. There are Russian films that were edited more quickly than modern films. The festival aims to present the silent film genre in all of its different forms and expressions. 

And that's why you're also showing a Chinese film?

We always look for films from different cultures. I was always disappointed that we weren't able to access any Chinese films in the early years of the festival. In my position as the head of the Munich Film Museum, I travel a lot and give lectures and present restorations we've done. That's how we managed to achieve a collaboration wtih the Chinese film archive.

Over the past few years, we have always included a Chinese film on the program - and the same is true of Japanese films as well.

Scene from Chinese silent film Romance of a Fruit Merchant (Förderverein Filmkultur Bonn e.V./Stummfilmtage Bonn)

A silent film from China by Shichuan Zhang depicts the fate of a fruit merchant

There are certainly many Chinese films we've never heard of - the Chinese are just now working through their film history. Now we want to concentrate on the roughly 20 or 30 Chinese silent films that I have watched, so that at least these films that I consider to be important can be shown to a broad audience.

How would you assess the general situation of silent films nowadays? Who is still interested in them?

It has become a lot easier to show silent films. When we started here in 1985, you needed special projectors running at a particular speed to show a silent film. You also needed special picture windows to show the right parts of the pictures. You had to overcome all kinds of technical hurdles if you wanted to adequately present a short film. Nowadays, just about anybody can show a short film as long as it has been digitalized. 

How do you present these films in Bonn?

It's of course a totally different experience watching a silent film on a DVD at home rather than on a big screen with music, which adds a live aspect. We always invite very good musicians that keep their summers free to come to Bonn. The whole thing feel like a live concert. They musicians let themselves be inspired by the audience and the atmosphere, which makes each screening a unique event. 

What kind of music do you present during the shows?

Stefan Drössler (DW/J. Kürten)

Stefan Drössler is the director of the Munich Film Museum

Many screen silent films accompanied by modern music. They usually only show the big titles like "Metropolis" or "Berlin, Symphony of a Metropolis," so they know that people will come and the applause will be loud because the films are so great. We take a different approach. 

For me as a historian, it's important that we select appropriate pieces of music that authentically fit with the film, so that the experience resembles its premiere. With modern music, the film seems almost degraded to a video clip. For us, the main focus should be on the film. We only work with one, two or three musicians maximum because they are still able to communicate directly with the images they see.

The joy of discovering new things seems to inspire you. Does that lead to success? 

A total of 1,200 to 1,500 seats are available, and usually they're mostly full. The films usualy never have fewer that 1,000 viewers. And on some evenings, the courtyard is so full that people can't come in anymore. The festival has developed so positively that I don't need to worry about it. I don't need to attract people by showing the dozen titles people know best, like "Metropolis," "Battleship Potemkin," "Nosferatu" or "Berlin, Symphony of a Metropolis."

At the Bonn International Silent Film Festival half of the films shown here are so unknown that hardly anyone who comes could possibly know of them.

Stefan Drössler founded the festival in 1985, which has exclusively screened silent films since 1995. Drössler also became the director of the Munich Film Museum in 1999.

 

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