Europe’s Finest Silent Films

The Europe’s Finest catalogue of films embodies the diversity of European cinema over the last century, from the Icelandic film wave of recent years right back to European silent cinema. It is these that I review in this post.

Growth of the Soil | Gunnar Sommerfeldt | 1921 | Norway | 89 mins | (Not rated by BBFC)growthofthesoil

Recently restored and re-released The Growth of the Soil is a landmark film of Norwegian cinema. Adapting Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize winning novel Gunnar Sommerfeldt (who also stars) utilises both Hamsun’s language (in the intertitles) and his focus on the minutiae of life to craft a gentle and frequently beautiful film.

Isak is a wandering soul who appears, without explanation, in the wilderness of Norway. He explores the area and chooses to settle at the base of a mountain, the first human settler in the area. He toils at the land and slowly makes it hospitable, building himself a makeshift house and selling timber to a far off village. As Isak becomes more settled and successful he longs for companionship but when he asks in town everyone is too scared to join him in that land “where only trolls and evil creatures live”.

Eventually an “unwanted” woman arrives and her and Isak start a family (in an inexplicable moment, Isak seems entirely surprised by the arrival of a baby – as if her pregnancy had gone entirely unnoticed) and the film follows the subsequent years as the family expands, encounters tragedy and challenges. In a scene mocking the ‘civilised’ man a sheriff and bailiff arrive at the farm declaring that the land must be paid for, even though Isak single handedly claimed it from the wild – the sheriff arrives on a sledge wrapped in lavish furs and smoking a elegant pipe; and the contrast with Isak’s frontiersman is extreme.

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It is a story that encapsulates the development of civilisation within a single farmstead – first food and shelter is the priority, then a family, then money and eventually titles and deeds – the bureaucratisation of life, and finally the arrival of industry. Through all of this Isak is adaptable and kind-hearted – giving help where he can and greeting his successes with humility. As a community grows around Isaks’ farm he seems quietly proud of what his hard work has produced.

The film is restored from two surviving, but incomplete copies, one in black and white, the other tinted and it is somewhat jarring at first to see the colour of shots changing randomly. There is also a missing segment, the film’s introduction estimates it might be as much as twenty minutes but, to me at least, the missing footage doesn’t detract from the film.

While there is drama and death and struggle in the film it is presented matter-of-factly, reiterating that these sorts of troubles on the frontier were not exceptional, but everyday problems. In this manner, again, the story of Isak represents the wider life on the frontier.

Bride of Glomdal | Carl Theodor Dreyer | Denmark | 1926 | 115 mins | (Not rated by BBFC)

Reportedly Dreyer was uncharacteristically unprepared for the making of this film: he is said to have read the book upon which it is based on the train to Norway where the film was shot and hardly had the makings of a script when shooting began. The film had to be made as quickly as possible as Dreyer was using theatre actors on their summer break. In this case however the time constraints and unstructured production work in the film’s favour lending a breezy, naturalistic feel to proceedings well suited to the tale of two young lovers trying to win the approval to marry.

Tore returns to his family farm which has been deteriorating as his ageing father has failed to manage it on his own, and promises to revitalise it. He throws himself into the task while courting a childhood friend Berit, the daughter of a rich landowner. He promises he will ask for her hand but only after he has transformed his farm.

However his delay allows time for Gjermund to beat him to it and Berit’s father is all too happy to give permission to wealthy Gjermund. Berit’s feelings are not considered important. However both Gjermund and Berit’s father, Ola, underestimate her free-spiritedness and she runs away, determined to only marry the man she loves, Tore. But the jealous Gjermund will do everything he can to stop them.

Berit is a very independent character and Dreyer’s film shows something of his liberal attitudes – when Berit argues with her father about her own feelings on marriage it is clear that we are supposed to support Berit rather than her cynical father. It is good to see a strong female character in such an early period film when mainstream cinema today still struggles with them.

While the film is certainly melodramatic, there is always one more obstacle preventing Tore and Berit being together; it is created with a lightness of touch and warm sense of humour that ensures the audience’s enjoyment. The finale ups the ante significantly and allows Dreyer to utilise cross-cutting to build the drama as a raging river threatens to separate the couple. It is always interesting to see filmmakers adapting and experimenting with new techniques and although Dreyer was certainly not the first to use cross-cutting he demonstrates a remarkable understanding of how to use it most effectively.

While not one of Dreyer’s most important films it is pleasing and charming drama.

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We also have two other Dreyer silent films available from Europe’s Finest:

Love One Another – A disturbing and grounded take on anti-Semitism in early 20th Century Russia, Dreyer’s adaptation of Aage Madelung’s novel is his only film to directly tackle the treatment of Jewish people though Dreyer himself was a lifelong critic of anti-Semitism.

One Upon A Time - Cunningly recrafted by the Danish Film Institute from the damaged original print, this period drama tells the story of a beautiful princess who rejects, and executes, all of her potential suitors, and the Prince of Denmark who educates her in the ways of common life while disguised as a beggar.

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