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Film History's Gold Mine
|A frame from Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm|
The Edition Filmmuseum, an initiative of film archives and institutes in German-language countries, began four years ago with a DVD release of, surprisingly, not a German but a Russian classic: Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm (Entuziazm: Simfoniya Donbassa, 1931). Why was this avant-garde documentary on the first Soviet five-year plan (of 1928) chosen as the first title of a new DVD series published by German-language film archives?
The answer reveals something fascinating about film releasing. The main reason was not that Enthusiasm hadn't been published on DVD before, even in Russia (though this alone would have been, by far, reason enough). Obviously, the reason wasn't to earn some money either - Enthusiasm isn't the kind of movie you'd expect to find in the next department store or shopping mall, and film archives in Europe are public institutions that, though they probably would not mind earning some money, also have other, cultural tasks. The main reason had to do with access to the Dziga Vertov collection of the Austrian Film Museum (headed by Alexander Horwath).
This needs to be double-underlined: Film archives which till now were, sadly, known for their reserve regarding the material on their shelves and whose pride was in getting and having something, not showing it around (an attitude sometimes encouraged by unclear copyright issues) - film archives are now starting, with this edition, to make their material available (and not only prints). It's an astonishing, gratifying and welcome change in archive mentality, helped by digital technology - a technology which removes the difference between "original" and "copy" and which no longer knows the notion of an unique specimen.
Number 01 of the Filmmuseum series publishes Vertov's Enthusiasm in its original version (as stored in the archive of Gosfilmofond in Moscow). It also contains the version restored in 1972 by Peter Kubelka, one of the founders of the Austrian Film Museum (who tried in particular to synchronize sound and image). The additional material offers Kubelka's statement about the restoration, along with private recordings of Dziga Vertov (unavailable till now and known, at best, to specialists).
Edition Filmmuseum combines the treasures of the film archives with the knowledge of archivists, curiosity and passion for film history, and a wonderful independence from all fashionable trends. To complete the pleasure, the Filmmuseum series is bilingual: German and English (in Vertov's case with, also, the original Russian, of course). This is true not just of the subtitles, but also of the menus, texts, and most of the additional material. And the DVDs are region-free and can therefore be played all over the world. The publishers obviously have no wish to subjugate the series to the mechanisms of the market but aim at open access everywhere.
If you've seen Erich von Stroheim's Blind Husbands on DVD, you probably saw the version published by "Kino Video" in the US. Blind Husbands was originally released in October 1919. In 1921, a German version came out in Austria (Blind Husbands - Die Rache der Berge [The Revenge of the Mountains]), tinted and with German intertitles. This version, the most complete extant, is the subject of Filmmuseum #03. Plus forty seconds of "Stroheim in Vienna," a comparison of the different versions, photos, and a reprint (as a pdf file) of the Stroheim biography written by Jon Barna and published by the Museum in 1966.
The series represents a cooperation of (so far) ten film archives and the Goethe Institute's headquarters in Munich (under Hans Kohl of the film department, one of the best experts and connoisseurs of German film history). The advantage of this arrangement is the access to the treasures of film history as collected by those archives - not only prints, but also photos, scripts, posters, documents, books. The disadvantage is that the series does not follow a strict program of the kind that would normally be drafted by a chief editor or an editorial board. This disadvantage, however, has a positive aspect. The 49 DVD releases so far do not show a common understanding and canon of "classic cinema," as most other series do. So there's an aspect of surprise and discovery, an invitation to see unknown movies and to re-see known ones - combined with the palpable fun of accessing film history. To run such a series indeed takes the passion, the enthusiasm and even the craziness of film archive directors. You can never guess what they're doing next. The great Henri Langlois (1914-1977), founder of the French film archive, the Cinémathèque française, and the model of a film archivist, would probably have joined Edition Filmmuseum with pleasure and satisfaction, even though German wasn't his language. (What leads to the question if the organizers will continue to restrict the series to German-language archives or will come to a sort of "European Edition," as difficult as this may sound.)
It is difficult to pick one single DVD as a "highlight" of the series, because the whole series is a highlight, a must for everybody seriously interested in cinema. Take for example Curt Goetz (1888-1960). He was a brilliant comedy writer, known to the cinema-going public (in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), and later on to the consumers of TV. Some of his plays were adapted for the big screen. That he himself adapted them is generally unknown: among them was The House in Montevideo (Das Haus in Montevideo) which till now was best known in the 1963 version by Helmut Käutner, with the popular actor Heinz Rühmann in the lead. As its DVD #15, the Edition Filmmuseum released Curt Goetz's version from 1951, with the writer and director himself in the lead, accompanied by the writer and actress (and Goetz's wife) Valerie von Martens. It's the original version, restored, in German language, English-subtitled, region-free (just to remind you), plus an interview with Curt Goetz, the film trailers and other materials. It's a chance to discover and re-evaluate Curt Goetz as filmmaker.
|Richard Oswald's Different from the Others|
|Veit Harlan's Bewildered Youth (The Third Sex)|
The Filmmuseum Munich (headed by Stefan Drössler) presents an early scandal in German film history: a 1919 film on homosexuality. Different from the Others (Anders als die Anderen, #04) by Richard Oswald tells of a homosexual violinist who is being blackmailed and commits suicide. In 1919, the film provoked increasing protest and censorship, and it was finally forbidden in 1920. The Filmmuseum Munich reconstructed and restored the film - which had been considered lost - as far as possible, and added documents about the story of the scandal. Another difficult and contradictory reception was experienced by another film on, roughly, the same subject, homosexuality: Bewildered Youth (Anders als du und ich, #05), made in 1957 by Veit Harlan, the director who has become the most infamous of all Nazi directors, especially because of his anti-Semitic Jew Süss (Jud Süß). In the Germany of the 1950s, a period of restoration and extreme social and political conservatism, the film was censored: the finally released version (Anders als du und ich) differed from the original one (Das dritte Geschlecht [The Third Sex]) - even if homosexuality was spoken of only indirectly and integrated into the story of a mother who tries to pair off her homosexual son. The DVD edition (also by the Filmmuseum Munich) contains the released version and a comparison, scene by scene, with the original film.
A filmmaker who not only deserves but also needs the full attention and support of the Edition Filmmuseum is Alexander Kluge (born 1932). In principle, he finished his cinema career in 1986, after he was unable to find a distributor for his film Miscellaneous News (Vermischte Nachrichten). Alexander Kluge was one of the protagonists of the "Young German Cinema" movement of the 1960s, as a political personality and as a filmmaker who rigorously broke with the traditions of the German cinema of the 1950s (and, of course, earlier), and who tried to find a new and contemporary language (essentially based on his notion of montage). Incredibly, Yesterday Girl (Abschied von gestern - Anita G.), one of the most influential films of the new movement, had never been released on DVD (neither had most of Kluge's other films). The situation has fortunately changed now. The films of Alexander Kluge made for theatrical release are now available on eight two-disc DVDs, "Edition Filmmuseum Collection 2," in original-language versions with (thanks to the Goethe Institute) English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian subtitles. Short stories and texts of Kluge the writer have been added (in German and English). The DVDs are available also in single editions.
After having left the cinema theaters, Kluge continued to make films for television. Instead of an "author's cinema," he made an "author's television." In private TV stations, he conquered permanent "windows," which he filled with an almost inestimable series of mini-films, interviews, experiments, essays. This aspect of his work has remained largely unknown abroad until it was presented in a special event at the Venice Film Festival of 2007. The Goethe Institute and Filmmuseum Munich collected 137 of Kluge's television works on seven two-disc DVDs (Edition Filmmuseum Collection 6).
Meanwhile, Kluge took a further step. Instead of releasing existing films on DVD, he made a film specifically for a DVD release. It's a film on Sergei Eisenstein, Karl Marx, and Das Kapital called Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (News from the Ideological Ancient World), 570 minutes of a filmic essay - unfortunately not published in the Edition Filmmuseum but at the publishing house Suhrkamp's Filmedition and in German language only.
A few other releases. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Kafka adaptation Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse, 1984, #11). Walter Ruttmann's documentary Berlin, Symphony of a City (Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grossstadt, 1927, with the legendary cinematographer Karl Freund and scriptwriter Carl Mayer in the team, #39). The River by Frank Borzage (1929, #36; the DVD includes an erotic sequence censored at the time and three early Westerns made by Borzage in 1915 and 1916). The "Danish Film Classics" include films with Asta Nielsen (The Abyss, The Ballet Dancer, The Black Dream, Towards the Light) and by Carl Theodor Dreyer (Leaves from Satan's Book, Once Upon a Time, The President; a box with three of his best known films - Gertrud, Ordet, and Day of Wrath - had earlier been published by Criterion).
Coming soon: Georg Wilhelm Pabst's The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, one of the most influential films of the German 1920s); Sven Gade's Hamlet of 1920; two films by Boris Barnet, the often underrated Russian/Soviet filmmaker, The Girl with the Hat (Devushka s korobkoy, 1927) and The House on Trubnaya (Dom na Trubnoy, 1928).
Here's the gate to paradise: www.edition-filmmuseum.com (site in English and German). Note: the DVDs aren't cheap: 20 € plus shipping. But they are worth the price.
issue #5 (5.2009)