[Editor's Note: Our coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]
Pina Menichelli is the very ideal of the diva in Il Fuoco (Italy, 1915). Introduced only as an illustrious poetess and countess, she steps out of her chauffeured car in a feathered outfit and hat that makes her look like a bird of prey. And she acts that way too when she meets the young artist Mario (Febo Mari), "the unknown painter." She is inflamed by the power of his commitment and the beauty of his art but love is a very different kind of thing for her, a momentary conflagration of great excitement and heat that quickly burns out. And fire is the appropriate metaphor for a woman whose seduction includes smashing an oil lamp onto a table just to watch the flames burn.
Menichelli, whose contorted poses and curled smiles give her the look of a female Nosferatu in Milan couture, makes Theda Bara look like a pretender. This countess treats seduction like a competition to be won but she really does feed on the physical charge of the affair. She simply burns out so quickly that she has nothing left for her abandoned lover, pretty much a mama's boy whose first step away from maternal protection leaves him crushed, broken.
It's directed by Giovanni Pastrone, whose Cabiria (1914) is one of the landmarks of Italian epic spectacle. He brings the scale down for this film and takes his camera in closer for the more intimate story. The images and costumes are lavish and the performances tend to the operatic, larger than life in every respect, but he stages these scenes to express the internal drama rather than the external spectacle and in one scene offers a rare and subtly striking track in from a medium long shot to medium close of the two lovers, all the more dynamic in a film that otherwise resorts to cutting and the occasional pan to reframe.
And a note on the accompaniment with Stephen Horne on piano, flute and chimes and Jill Tracy (a local SF singer) doing wordless cooing and moaning. It's like an Ennio Morricone score for a giallo: erotic, threatening, haunting, the siren call of a sexual predator who devours and abandons her prey. A perfect evocation of the drama playing out onscreen.
It's actually a misnomer to call Marlene Dietrich a "diva," as her performance is as un-diva-like as you can get. Dietrich maintains the focus by remaining amidst the activity. Even in a film as measured and conducted as The Woman Men Yearn For (Germany, 1929), she gives a performance defined by the smallest gesture and the most subtle of shifts in gaze and expression: a slight drop of the eyes, a tiny parting of the lips, the body dropping with a sigh.
Her entrance is perfection. Henri (Uno Henning) has been married to a rich man's daughter to save the family business and is leaving on his honeymoon by train when a curtain goes up and a woman's face looks out the window. Impassive, forlorn, haunted and resigned to a terrible fate, all of that comes out in Dietrich's expression, which she holds almost interminably until she notices Henri, and her eyes flicker registration, hope, and then nothing when another man closes the curtain. She simply builds on this performance throughout the film, as she implores Henri not to leave her alone with this man, Dr. Karoff (Fritz Kortner) and he leaps headlong from his marriage into this situation he knows nothing about, save the desperation of Stascha (Dietrich) to escape.
This isn't the contorted posing and outsized gestures of Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco, but a quieter, slower, more slow-burn passion: desperation weighed down by resignation, fear swamped by guilt, and flickers of hope extinguished by the obsessive attentions of her jailer of a lover that she clearly does not love, at least not anymore. As pointed out by Eddie Muller in the introduction, she is no femme fatale. He offers us another definition, by way of director Kurt (later Curtis) Bernhardt: 'intregante.' That is, a woman who inspires mystery and intrigue. And that is Dietrich: a woman who has made mistakes but is as much a victim as anyone here.
The film is another beautiful example of late silent era grace and visual drama. Bernhardt's direction incorporates the best of late silent era style: editing montages and crosscutting that recalls Fritz Lang and fluid moving camera that carries us through sets and scenes and characters with a grace and a purpose that would do Murnau proud, yet it's a film that is beholden to neither director. The energy and activity and revelry of the New Year's Eve party dancing around the trio as they warily eye one another—Stascha looking for her moment to escape, Karoff keeping close watch on her—is beautiful counterpoint to their psychodrama of control and obsession and terror.
The Woman Men Yearn For is ultimately a tragedy and Dietrich its compromised tragic heroine, which makes the restraint of her performance all the more effective. She has her moments of feline seductiveness with Henri but those eyes tell us this is less manipulation than desperation. She is almost a ghost here, sparking to life only when the hope of escape seems possible, returning to her fate when her hopes are extinguished. Sternberg would foreground the glow of her sexiness and the lure of her glamor, playing upon the power she knows she holds over men. Here, though the men yearn for her, she is not yet in command of her power, or at least not confident enough to apply it.
The 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival plays July 14-17 at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco. Visit the SFSFF website for more information, schedules, program notes and tickets.
Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and "The Scarecrow Video Guide" and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.