The Bacchanal of Death

A thing I kept hearing at Bologna — “Are you going to THE BACCHANAL OF DEATH?” Nobody knew what this thing was, some kind of incomplete movie screening in an outdoor showing, by carbon arc light, of various shorts and fragments. But it was called THE BACCHANAL OF DEATH, for God’s sake. Or DAS BACCHANAL DES TODES. Anyhow, you had to be curious.

This was my BIG DAY, when I spent I think nine hours looking at cinema screens — it wasn’t certain I was going to see this, but when my composer friend Jane Gardner and I got out of WOMEN IN LOVE and struck up a conversation with Angela Allen, who did continuity on that film as well as THE THIRD MAN and THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and then we managed to have dinner together and she and Jane turned out to have a friend in common, and then we suggested seeing another movie, this seemed like the best show within easy reach.

It was quite a show! The fellow introducing it explained that it had a kind of tinting very rarely seen — there was only one other film known in any collection which had this — he called it “disco tinting.” All the films in this program had some kind of colouring, tinting, toning, stencilling… Well, “disco tinting” is when a few frames are tinted one colour, then the next few are a different colour, so the film flashes different hues at you as the action proceeds.

Well, the disco tinting excelled all expectations. The scene involving it was an actual dance, on illuminated floor panels, pure SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (which was screening elsewhere in the fest). A wow. And I got to glance over to see if John Huston’s continuity girl was enjoying it. Although I’d forgotten how many John Frankenheimer movies she did so never got to ask about him.

(Disco-tinting is a little like THIS. try scrolling really fast. While imagining Helen Richter dancing in a cursed Harlequin costume. In fact, maybe if YOU dance in a cursed Harlequin costume…)

The rest of the movie was very much like a dream. Incomplete, and obscurely plotted, plus I was kind of tired after eight hours of viewing, plus the soft-titles had gotten cropped, rendering them a bit more obscure than necessary, even given the imperfect translation one comes to expect… but I think it was just a weird film. I kept wondering if it was some kind of narrative experiment — are we continually jumping back in time? Or is it just the characters going back to the same place again? At some point did I fall asleep and start dreaming the movie?

(Werner Krauss is in it. Per the program notes, star Helen Richter fled the Nazis in 1933 with her husband after he was beaten up outside a Berlin cinema.)

The dancer in the cape and “cursed Harlequin costume” — it didn’t really look like a Harlequin costume, but characters kept talking about one and this was all that seemed to answer the call — with the disco tinting — a night scene in a snowy forest with a mob/dragnet carrying glowing flares, filmed dusk-for-night so the sky is ominous and the brilliant incandescence of the torches is really burning holes in the image — glancing over and seeing that Angela Allen (Angela Allen!) seemed to be quite enjoying this oddity. The carbon arc screenings are always memorable — it’s the light of another day — but this was special.

Entirely possible I will never get to see this again in my life. Quite certain the event will never be so memorable. So — are you going to see THE BACCHANAL OF DEATH?

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