Films That Speak Louder Than Words

The best thing about silent films is that they aren’t only ‘foreign films’, they’re just good films. When I found out that the National Film and Sound Archive was screening a series of silent films for Cinema’s Golden Summer, I was excited but a bit apprehensive. I was ‘ill’ when we watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in class, so the only silent film I can compare this event to is Nosferatu. Despite my lack of knowledge of this era in filmmaking, I dragged a friend along to the screening shown last Thursday night. Celebrating Canberra’s centenary, this was a wonderful opportunity for us to watch rare and great films that the first Canberrans were watching.

Before the screening started we got to see an early example of the use of kinemacolor (one of the first examples of colour film) and a newsreel featuring everything from dancing girls to a wood-chopping competition. These were the people seeing films in 1913, films like Ingeborg Holm which is one of the earliest surviving films of Victor Sjöström’s who, after making films in Hollywood, returned to Sweden to act – most notably in Ingmar Bergman films.

Ingeborg Holm is a Swedish film starring Hilda Borgström as the titular character. It details Ingeborg’s life who, after being widowed, is resigned to life in a poor house while her children are fostered separately. She is driven mad through a series of unpleasant events, culminating in her infant son not recognising her when she visits him. Eventually, her sanity is returned when her elder son returns and shows her a photograph of her in her younger days (I have no qualms about spoiling the plot – you’ve had 100 years to see it after all).

The performances in the film were stunning. This was the beginning of acting for cinema, rather than acting for theatre on film. It was so natural and realistic, these actors could work today. The subtle and skilful acting in the final scene, when Ingeborg’s sanity is returned to her, was the standout moment of the film. There’s no overacting, no theatre.

Although it is Swedish, it is a remarkably easy film to understand – perhaps due to such realistic acting. Although this is partially the case, the main due owed would be to Quentin Turnour – a curator at the NFSA – who translated the films intertitles as they appeared on screen. Though I’ve never had the experience of a live narrator before, it was much more effective than subtitles. Not only did he narrate the film, but he gave a wonderful introduction to the film and to the Golden Summer in general by describing what was happening in cinema at the time. His expertise and passion really set the tone for the night. Turnour was not the only live participant during the evening; the film was accompanied live by Mauro Colombis on the piano.

There was something so magical about having someone play the music live along with the film, and not once did it seem strange nor was it distracting. If there was a promise of live accompaniment for the screening of the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari I may have been more inclined to get out of bed that early Wednesday morning two years ago. Colombis’s performance went so well with the film, the rhythm and tension of his playing was perfect. He was in fact my friend’s favourite part of the whole experience.

The most challenging part of the evening was convincing someone to accompany me, but at the end his only criticism was that the ending was too happy.

The silent film festival is being screened at the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema as part of Cinema’s Golden Summer, running from the 23rd of February to the 9th of March.