Tag Archives: silent film

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.


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.


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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Country Spotlight: Argentina

In a new regular feature I’ll be taking a look at the cinematic output of different countries – looking at the history of their film industry, notable films and film-makers and what titles the Booking Scheme has to offer. Please feel free to make use of this blog, and the others in the series, as programme notes to supplement your screenings. To make this easier a pdf version can be found here. Rather than just concentrating on a single title it can be worthwhile to give your audience an idea of the wider context in which a film exists. Whether you’re programming a season of Argentinian cinema or just a single film I hope this brief overview is both informative and interesting.

History of Film Industry

Much of the early period cinema is lost or forgotten due to poor archiving and preservation, natural and political disasters, and economic and social upheaval. As a result few films remain, but it is certain that Argentina was one of the first countries in Latin America to enter film production. Film-making really took off in the 1930’s, when sound arrived and cinema embraced tango dancing. Genuine film stars arrived such as Tito Lusiardo and Amelia Bence.

Amelia Bence

The first notable film historian was Domingo Di Núbila, who, in the 1960s, produced a highly detailed account of Argentine film production since its beginnings. Núbila was something of a nationalist and celebrated those films which were unmistakably Argentinian and bemoaned the influence of Hollywood. He therefore highlights the “derailment” of Argentine cinema in the early 1940s when US influences triggered a move away from cinema inspired by Argentine culture and towards commercialisation and an imitation of Hollywood’s production system. Further, political embargoes on shipments of film stock led to Argentina’s production declining.

The cover of the magazine produced by Argentina’s Liberation Film Group.

However compared to other Latin American countries like Chile, Argentina had a much larger and well-established film industry by the middle of the 20th century and there was a significant boon in the 60s when film began to be used as a form of social and political expression. However this politicisation of films led to a rejection of the film-making that preceded it, which again detracted from preservation and appreciation of early period cinema. Further this resurgence of cultural and socially motivated cinema didn’t last long. By the 70s political changes drove such films underground and groups such as Cine Liberación risked government repression to make films like El Familiar, an allegorical feature about Latin America’s destiny. By 1976 the disappearance of three film-makers, Gleyzer, Pablo Szir and Enrique Juarez, meant that cinema softened its approach and concentrated on light-hearted topics that would not draw the ire of the censor, and government repression.

Again Argentina’s turbulent political life went through another drastic change in 1983 with the arrival of democracy. As in many other countries the decline of a repressive regime led to new forms of cultural expression, and the slapstick comedy of the late 70s was swiftly replaced by films that took a serious look at the military junta’s campaign of repression, torture and disappearances. This new wave of Argentine cinema continued into the 1990s during which notable films addressed poverty and living conditions and existential angst was evident in many films. Film was being used to ask questions about Argentina’s past in films such as Eduardo Calcagno’s controversial El Censor, a biopic of Paulina Tato a film censor from the 70s, and Marco Bechis’ Garage Olimpo which showed the torture that political dissidents, including the director, were subject to.

Garage Olimpo

This last decade is perhaps most notable for Argentine films breaking out internationally. Nine Queens was phenomenally successful both in Argentina and amongst western film critics; while The Secret In Their Eyes was a surprise Oscar winner in 2009, marking only the second time Argentina had won an Oscar. In 2012 President Kirchner signed a series of decrees that finally categorized film as a cultural industry, allowing the industry to benefit from state funding and tax regulations and was explicitly announced in order to “ensure that Argentine film productions are able to compete in the local market and project themselves abroad”.

Notable films, film-makers and stars (a very short list)


Amalia (1914) – Argentina’s first feature length film, this adaptation of José Mármol’s novel of the same name is notable not just for being the first full length production, but also because it is the first film to address a subject matter than Argentinian cinema returns to frequently: life under dictatorship. Mármol’s novel, adapted by Eugenio Py (a Frenchman acknowledged as the pioneer of film-making in Argentina), was a semi-autobiographical attack on the government of Juan Manuel de Rosas. The film is viewable, albeit untranslated on Youtube.

Mario Soffici – Starting out as an actor in 1931 Soffici soon made the move behind the camera, immediately attracting praise for The Soul of the Accordion (1935). He directed over 40 films throughout his career, several of which were regarded as great films in their time. Prisioneros de la tierra (1939) was his first socially minded work, and was awarded Film of the year by the Municipality of Buenos Aires. His film Rosaura at 10 O’Clock (1958) was an adaptation of the popular novel by Marco Denevi and was Soffici’s third and final entry into the Cannes Film Festival.

Alias Gardelito

Alias Gardelito (1961) –  An example of the ‘new cinema’ that arose in the 50s and 60s this drama charts the struggle of Toribio to live an honest life in the face of extreme poverty. The title refers to the Argentine singer Carlos Gardel, whom Toribio idolises and whose career he wants to emulate. Yet Toribio’s big break doesn’t arrive and he falls further and further into a life of crime. The film concentrates on the effect that poverty has on the psychology of its characters.

The Official Story (1985) – One of Argentina’s most successful films The Official Story played at numerous festivals including Cannes, Toronto and Berlin and was an award winner both in Argentina and at the Academy Awards. An upper-middle class family in Buenos Aires have illegally adopted a girl, Gaby. Alicia begins to wonder what happened to Gaby’s parents when a friend returns from exile and tells her about the disappearances. Gradually Alicia is forced to confront our own ignorance of her country’s crimes and her husband’s complicity with the regime.

Ricardo Darin
Ricardo Darin

Ricardo Darin – Unquestionably Argentina’s biggest star at the moment, Darin has starred in many notable films including the aforementioned Nine Queens (2000) and The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), as well as The Lighthouse (1998) and White Elephant (2012). He has been consistently praised for his versatility as an actor and was awarded the Diamond Konex Award in 2011 as the most important Entertainment personality of the last decade. Due to his growing international profile Darin is to many the face of Argentinian cinema.

Argentinian films on the BFFS Booking Scheme

Here’s a look at just a few of the available titles – we’ve also got The Official Story, Carancho, Born and Bred and many more.

Lion’s Den (2008) – Pablo Trapero is establishing himself as one of Argentina’s most exciting directors with films such as Born and Bred (2006) and Carancho (2010) showing his versatility. Lion’s Den sees him tackle another genre – prison drama, in this case with an off-the-beaten-track twist. Julia, a 25-year old student is (perhaps wrongfully) convicted of murder and is imprisoned. While the film deals with issues of her crime, her possible guilt and ideas of justice and atonement, its concentration is on Julia’s struggle to control the upbringing of her young son, who is born in prison.

Lion’s Den

La Antena (2007) – A surreal homage to silent cinema, this beautiful animation tells the tale of an Argentinian city ruled over by Mr TV. In this land no one can speak as their voices have been stolen by the dictatorial Mr TV; written words float out of their mouths instead. But a mysterious singer, The Voice, has retained the power of speech .When she is kidnapped by Mr TV, an engineer, The Inventor, discovers Mr TV has more disturbing plans in place.

The Peddler (2010) – A delightful and engaging documentary sees the directors following DIY film-maker Daniel Burmeister who turns up at a remote Argentinian village with a bunch of ready to go film scripts and asks permission to make a film there, using the villages as cast and crew. The documentary is a charming insight into both the creative process and the power of film to bring communities together.

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