Europe's silents speak volumes

June 24, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

If you're a fan of the movies, be sure to check out the six-part "Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood," debuting tonight on Turner Classic Movies.

If you're a fan of history, be sure to check out the six-part "Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood," debuting tonight on Turner Classic Movies.

If you're a fan of a good story, be sure to

Get the idea?

A history of the silent cinema overseas, "Cinema Europe" quickly dispels a number of myths -- not the least of which is the idea that silent movies are either boring, campy melodramas or slapstick comedies.

Heck, with the musical scores that always accompanied them, they weren't even silent.

Written and directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, who have made a career of rescuing the silent cinema from its undeserved obscurity, "Cinema Europe" is a visual splendor.

Parts 1 and 2 air on TCM tonight, from 8 p.m.-9 p.m. and 9 p.m.-10 p.m., with repeats running midnight-1 a.m. and 1 a.m.-2 a.m. The remaining four parts will air, one per night beginning tomorrow, from 8 p.m.-9 p.m., with repeats from 11 p.m.-midnight.

Part 1, "Where It All Began," reminds viewers that the cinema was a European invention. On Oct. 28, 1895, the French Lumiere brothers shone a series of short films on a Paris wall. The result was an immediate sensation (although one skeptic insisted it would never outlast the novelty) that soon had theatergoers jumping out of their seats to avoid film of an oncoming train.

Before World War I, the cinema was dominated by the Italians, with historical epics that impressed even D.W. Griffith (whose "Birth of a Nation" would soon revolutionize the cinema in this country) and French, who gave the world Max Linder, whom Charlie Chaplin would later acknowledge as his inspiration and mentor.

The episode includes clips from dozens of films, most now largely forgotten. The skill, craft and artistry that went into these early films is evident, but what's even clearer is the sense of fun and adventure felt by these early moviemakers: Everything they did was new, nothing was out of bounds, and the results were films remarkable even today.

That sense of the explorer permeates the first four hours. From the beginnings, the series moves beyond WWI and on to the Swiss and Danish filmmakers in tomorrow's "Art's Promised Land" (the extent and quality of the Swedish films, especially, will come as news to American audiences); the Germans in Wednesday's "The Unchained Camera" and the French in Thursday's "The Music of Light."

German silents

The Germans, devastated by war, committed considerable resources to their films -- and it shows. The roster of memorable German silents is especially impressive, including a handful of .. early horror and science-fiction films that still wow audiences: "Nosferatu," with Max Schreck as filmdom's most terrifying vampire; "The Golem," about a statue that comes to life, and Fritz Lang's brilliant "Metropolis," which predates both "1984" and "Brave New World" in its predictions of a de-humanized and mechanistic society.

Where the Germans were expressionistic and perhaps a little inhibiting, the French were more lyrical and exhilarating -- no one more so than Abel Gance, whose 1922 "La Roue" pretty much introduced rapid, quick-cut editing to film (an extraordinary leap forward).

Even that film, however, pales next to his masterpiece, "Napoleon," which had cameras swinging from pendulums suspended from the ceiling, a snowball fight that will make you look for snow on your own clothes, and panoramic battle scenes stretched across three screens.

"Britain: Opportunity Lost," chronicles England's failure to do much with regard to the cinema, partly because it was regarded as a lower-class toy, partly because Hollywood exercised a stranglehold on much of the country's film distribution, partly because English filmmakers simply refused to use their imagination.


Except, that is, for Alfred Hitchcock, whose early work is the proverbial diamond in the rough when compared to the films of his peers.

The series concludes Friday with "End of an Era," which documents the rise of the talkies and the atrophying of the European cinema -- thanks largely to a Nazi Germany that belittled (and often destroyed) anything that could even vaguely be called artistic.

Brownlow and Gill, whose previous work includes the monumental 13-part "Hollywood," a look at the American silent cinema, must love their work. Devoted cinephiles, they've searched the world for the best copies of these old films, often turning up movies long thought lost.

They also are certain to show the films at the proper speed of 18 frames per second -- not the 24 frames per second of sound films. That's how silents were shown for years on TV, which explains why their movements often seemed so herky-jerky. Slowed down to the proper speed, these films are just as realistic and fluid as their sound counterparts.

"Cinema Europe" does more than inform and entertain; it enthralls, which isn't bad considering it celebrates an art form that's supposedly been dead for nearly 70 years.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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