Jul 2nd — Mercoledi as they call it in Italy. And I ran out of stamina in Bologna, temporarily.
The day began well with FANTOMAS. I wasn’t completely sure of my ability to take the two-and-a-half hour SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT at 9am, so I opted for Feuillade’s serial, tempted by Ehsan Khoshbakht’s praise for the restoration. And indeed, so clean was the picture that it looked like a modern pastiche. When Rene Navarre looked into the camera he seemed to be RIGHT THERE with you.
In Edinburgh I had met Christoph Huber, curator of the Domenik Graf retrospective. Here he was again, in company with fellow donkey enthusiast Olaf Moller. Christoph wore a golden donkey T-shirt. Olaf, more discrete, had on a donkey pendant. And both made the revolutionary claim that Donkeys Make Everything Better. The donkey is an axiom of cinema.
So both were in ecstasy at the screening of scenes from the Ottoman empire — Turkish travelogues from the teens. Many exciting shots of donkeys, including a donkey photobombing a shot of camels at a trough. The ships of the desert are slurping away, and things are looking picturesque, and then the donkey sweeps majestically into frame in closeup profile, like Charles Bronson in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and wipes them off the screen.
But for true Donkey Heaven we would have to wait a day…
After lunch I made, i think, a mistake, dropping in on a Heinosuke double-bill — these early Japanese talkies tend to foreground sound and the voice in quite literal ways — the one I eventually stayed awake for was all about music, and featured a blind character for whom sound was particularly significant. These two, THE BRIDE TALKS IN HER SLEEP and THE GROOM TALKS IN HIS SLEEP were mild screwball comedies in which the voice plays a key role. Anyhow, I lapsed into unconsciousness for the first one and bailed on the second, which was apparently the better of the two. Makes me wish I’d discovered the Italian compendium films sooner, or opted for THE EPIC OF EVEREST, which cause quite a bit of excitement, or MIDNIGHT MARY, which is a SUPERB Wellman. When sleep threatens, you need a certain kind of movie.
I should have gone to see GIANT at this point, but opted for Barbara Steele’s video appearance, which I thought might be live and interactive but proved to be a pre-record. Beautiful Babs was speaking with regard to the Riccardo Freda season and was very entertaining and there is no danger of falling asleep when SHE is on the screen.
I followed this with DER LETZTE AKTE, (THE LAST ACT, 1955), which deals with Hitler’s last days and is maybe the first big film to do so. It’s directed by GW Pabst and, as Olaf Muller said in his intro, comes from the post-war period when Pabst’s international reputation was and is very low, partly due to some inferior films but mostly because he had failed to get out of Germany during the Nazi era. Not that he ever made anything with pro-Nazi sentiments. The print was pure grindhouse — as Olaf put it (I paraphrase), “After seeing a lot of digital restorations that have all the charm of a hastily-done boob job, we are about to see source material that corresponds more to sagging skin and clumps of grey hair — to my body, in fact.”
The movie was indeed in ratty condition, but that somehow fit the low-ceilinged, oppressive claustrophobia of it. After two hours in the sweaty Sala Scorsese with intermittent, flirtacious air-conditioning, an exhausted simultaneous translator struggling in our earpieces, we all felt like we’d spent ten days in a bunker.
Albin Skoda played Hitler, and Oskar Werner played an obligatory Good German, perhaps not so much a sop to bruised national sensibilities as a sop to commercial cinema, which always feels more comfortable with a sympathetic character around. I was also dubious about whether Hitler really flooded the Berlin Underground to prevent the Russians reaching him by tube, but according to Wikipedia he may have done just that — the movie definitely inflates the resulting tragedy for dramatic purposes, though. I guess the idea of Hitler deliberately massacring the wounded who were sheltering below ground works as a metaphor for what he did to Germany.
A leisurely dinner and then — carbon lamp projection! Germaine Dulac’s LA PRINCESSE MANDAINE is an elegant slice of exotic comedy, with a very funny camp central performance by either Edmond or Ernest Van Duren (IMDb and the Ritrovato catalogue disagree). It’s got a very slender plot and might not have sustained interest, but the added drama of an ancient projector belching poisonous fumes into the air, illuminated by blasting beams of light, and the resulting smooth, chocolatey picture shimmering on the screen, made up for quite a few deficiencies.
Dulac could be quite cheeky — at the end of his Michael Strogoff-inspired dream, the hero rescues the princess only for her to run off with her maid. “I’ve sold myself down the river for a couple of dykes,” complained Bob Hoskins in MONA LISA, and we were supposed to agree (and not wonder what happened to the girls afterwards). Actually, MONA LISA has one of the worst endings of any otherwise quite-good British film of the eighties. Whereas even my most soporific day in Bologna was a treat.