[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]
Silent cinema was uniquely suited to shooting in extreme conditions. Without worries of sound recording, cameras could be taken almost anywhere a person could go, especially in the twenties, as equipment became more portable. But even in the early days of silent cinema, cameras were being hauled all over the world to capture parts of the world most American audiences had never seen and likely never would, except through the cinema eye. It began with the Lumiere “actuality” programs, which took the travel lecture slideshow and transformed them into packages of moving picture postcards and sent them to theaters where everyone could see them. (See Kino’s Lumiere Brothers First Films for a well curated selection of these early travel films.) But that was only a hint at the wonders to come.
That’s a grand introduction to a pair of films that share little more than extreme snowy climes (Antarctica and the wilds of Northern Sweden) and a determination to film in the extreme conditions of said locations, but I use it as a reminder that the silent cinema was far more adventurous in taking cameras to otherwise inhospitable and difficult locations than the subsequent sound era, when the machinery of moviemaking became much more cumbersome. Of course, things changed when lightweight news cameras and, more recently, digital video made it easier to carry cameras into difficult situations, but that was years later. Until then, films like The Blizzard (1923) and The Great White Silence (1924) were the great true-life adventure cinema of the 20th century.
The Great White Silence was completed and released by photographer and cameraman Herbert Ponting in 1924, years after South (1920, documenting the Shackleton expedition), and Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), but the footage itself was shot over a decade before. Ponting was the unit photographer of Captain Scott’s British expedition to the South Pole, a journey that began in 1910 and ended in tragedy. Ponting was a photographer by trade and brought the heavy and cumbersome glass plate system rather than the new film stock, but he also learned to use a movie camera specifically for this project and he brought a documentarian’s eye to the still relatively new format.
Ponting shot his footage in the winter camp, where the party awaited the spring to embark on the long march to the pole. He recorded everything from day-to-day activities to the wildlife of the area (seals, killer whales and, of course, lots and lots of adorable penguins) to what is essentially a dress rehearsal for the actual trek: Scott and his men “perform” pulling sledges, pitching tents, cooking and bedding down for the night for the cameras in advance of the actual events. Ponting never pretends his pre-enactments and illustrations to be documentary or actuality—“We can only imagine what it was like,” read the intertitles that introduce the sequence—but it nonetheless is effective.
The Great White Silence is actually quite upbeat and buoyant until the tragic turn of the return trip, but what is unexpectedly impressive is Ponting’s superb storytelling, especially of an event he was unable to photograph. His beautiful still photographs offer further images that his movie camera was unable to capture and animated maps and stop-motion miniatures, created for this film, chart the journey he was unable to accompany. His titles are eloquent, his slow build of trials, disasters and deaths in the party respectful and affecting and his ultimate tribute to the expedition moving. Ponting’s footage was seen in newsreels and shorts for years before this documentary and used once again to create the 1934 sound documentary 90 Degrees South, which has been in circulation on film, video and DVD for years. But The Great White Silence, the first complete documentary of the event, was largely forgotten. Seen today, it is an impressive documentary (in some ways more sophisticated and authentic than Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, not the least for framing his staged sequences with an acknowledgment) and a riveting document.
The Swedish drama The Blizzard (1923), directed by Mauritz Stiller from a loose adaptation of a Selma Lagerlöf novel, is no documentary. It’s a dramatic saga (it was in fact originally called Gunnar Heddes Saga) with a grand, melodramatic story of a scion of a wealthy family enraptured with the legend of the gypsy musician grandfather whose epic reindeer drive through the wilds made the family fortune. Defying his mother’s wishes, he learns the violin (his grandfather’s instrument, now a kind of family heirloom that his mother despises) and heads off to make his fortune in a similar adventure through the winter wilds.
Stiller made a defining change from the novel, rewriting the family legacy from sheepherding to reindeer, inspired by documentary footage he found of herds of reindeer in Lapland. That shift gives the film a thrilling spectacle in the second act, when the grown Gunnar Hede (Einar Hanson), off to make his way as a professional musician, embarks on a journey much like his grandfather but with a radically different ending. Stiller makes excellent use of dramatic footage of reindeer stampedes through the showy woods to frame the ordeal of Gunnar, dragged for miles behind the lead buck, battered to exhaustion and madness.
The final act brings us back to the manor and a lovely story of a gypsy girl’s dedication and a mother’s love for her mad son, all quite deftly and gently directed by Stiller, but that second act wilderness adventure is as dynamic and dramatic and physical as silent adventure cinema gets. Shot in the snow-covered forests, rocky highlands and frozen lakes of the Swedish wilderness in winter, it is as present and immediate as an adventure documentary, and at times as authentic. While some of the close-ups may have been created in the studio, much more of the film was clearly shot on location and those elemental forces give the film a grandeur and a drama unique to this kind of silent cinema.
Stiller directed two other Lagerlöf adaptations: Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) and Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924), one of the most celebrated Swedish films of the silent era. Both are available stateside on DVD. The Blizzard/Gunnar Heddes Saga is not simply unavailable, it is incomplete. A little over half of the original film exists; recreations of the original title cards fill in missing scenes, or at least suggest what we are missing, though a more thorough description would be significantly more effective. What survives, however, is beautiful and hints at an even greater film that once was.
The Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied both films with scores commissioned for this festival in a partnership between San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Headlands Center for the Arts, where composers Matti Bye and Kristian Holmgren served as artists in residence. Both are quite lovely and effective.
Visit the SFSFF website for more information on the festival which played July 14-17 at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco.
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.