More myths and facts on Mata Hari on film

•March 11, 2017 • 3 Comments

Mata Hari, die rote Tänzerin. Poster by Joop van den Berg. Courtesy Reclamearsenaal.

In many analogue and digital sources a film entitled Mata Hari/ Die Spionin (Ludwig Wolf 1920/1921), starring Asta Nielsen, is listed as the oldest biopic of the life of Mata Hari aka Lady MacLeod aka Margaretha Zelle. You will find this on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), which in general for German silent cinema is quite unreliable. But one also traces it in the English and Dutch Wikipedia, James Monaco’s The Movie Guide, David Thompson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, James Robert Parish’s Prostitution in Hollywood films, Jerry Vermilye’s More films from the thirties, Georg Seeßlen’s Filmwissen: Thriller: Grundlagen des populären Films and several earlier publications by the same author, Léon Schirmann’s Mata-Hari: autopsie d’une machination, Michael R. Pitts’s The Great Spies Pictures, Valeria Palumbo’s Le figlie di Lilith: vipere, dive, dark ladies e femmes fatales : l’altra ribellione femminile, Rüdiger Dirk and Claudius Sowa’s Paris im Film: Filmografie einer Stadt, and many others. The English Wikipedia even indicates Mata Hari (1920) and Die Spionin (1921) as two separate films, both about Mata Hari.

Nevertheless, my suspicions arose when I could not find the film on the generally quite thorough German films site When I launched a call for more information on the Facebook site of Domitor, the network for researchers dealing with early cinema, my suspicions increased. Joseph Juenger, Artistic Director at Stummfilm-Festival Karlsruhe, asked if I was really sure about this film. He could‘t find a film with the title Die Spionin, neither on the FIAF-CD nor in the 2010 two-volume extensive monography on Asta Nielsen by Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann, nor on Juenger remarked there was only a film with the title Die Rache der Spionin (1921), but the director was Richard Eicherg and Nielsen lacked. I therefore contacted Asta Nielsen expert Heide Schlüpmann, who kindly told me despite her thorough research she never found a film with Nielsen called either Mata Hari or Die Spionin. It just seemed that all the above mentioned authors had just copied each other without bothering to check any original sources. 

O.k. so a Mata Hari film with Asta Nielsen didn’t exist. But where did the rumour come from then? Again, Heide Schlüpmann was very helpful. But first: who was this enigmatic Ludwig Wolff? He was born in 1876 in the Silesian city of Bielitz, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, now the Polish city Bielsko, which merged in 1951 with the city of Biala. Bielitz was the centre of the wool industry within the Austrian Empire. Wolff came from a Jewish family. Between 1900 and 1933 he wrote dozens of popular genre fiction, of which many were filmed by the German film industry between the late 1910s and the early 1930s, such as the Lotte Neumann vehicle Das Schicksal der Carola von Geldern (1919). In the late 1910s and early 1920s Wolff directed some 8 films himself, among which three with Asta Nielsen: Steuermann Holk (1920), Die Tänzerin Navarro (1922) and Der Absturz (1922). After that followed the romantic drama Die Liebe einer Königin (1923), with Henny Porten and Harry Liedtke and based on the notorious affair of the Swedish queen and her physician Struensee. Wolff was also screenwriter and copoducer for this film. After Garragan (1924), a German production starring Hollywood actress Carmel Myers, Wolff quitted screen direction. He would only occasionally collaborate on film scripts in the early sound era.   

Pictures of Die Tänzerin Navarro. Courtesy Danish Film Archive.

From the three mentioned Asta Nielsen films by Wolff, Die Tänzerin Navarro (Ludwig Wolff 1922) proved to have parts of the plot that coincided with the biography of Mata Hari. The Danish written programme booklet of the film gives the most details: The Spanish dancer Carmencita Navarro (Nielsen) has lost one of her children because of the revenge of a Javanese man against her husband, the planter Marcellus Gondriaan (Hans Wassmann). Gondriaan dies by a gunshot as well. With her daughter Navarro flees to her fatherland, where she accepts an engagement in a big vaudeville business. When she enters into an affair with a business friend of her late husband, a certain Mortensen (Ivan Petrovich), she is suddenly suspected of espionage. It even goes that far that she is trialled and condemned to death. But as she is about to be shot, she is saved in the very last minute. That is: mostly she was, in some versions of the film’s print she wasn’t.


Mata Hari aka Margarete Zelle

This is clearly a variation on Mata Hari’s own life, even if with many differences. In 1895 Mata Hari alias Margarethe Zelle married the Dutch army captain Rudolph MacLeod, who, in 1897, took her to live with him in the Dutch East Indies, on Java and other islands. The couple lost their son Norman there, probably of poisoning. Various explanations exist how this happened and why. Some say he was poisoned as revenge for the captain’s brutal behaviour towards the child’s nanny or baboe. In her biography Femme Fatale, love, life and the unknown lies of Mata Hari (2007) Pat Shipman suggests it could have been revenge of a former local mistress of MacLeod or the effect of mercury poisoning when Zelle and her children were taking mercury cures against syphilis spread by MacLeod. In 1902 the couple returned to the Netherlands with their daughter and in 1907 they officially separated. Zelle went to Paris and as of 1905 she became the famous, scandalous Orientalist dancer Mata Hari and created her own exotic pedigree. She became first a Parisian and then a European sensation, performing even in the Scala of Milan and becoming extremely wealthy. During the First World War, her craving for wealth was not appreciated anymore, and she was first by the British, and later by the French, suspected of being a spy for the Germans. Finally, in the wave of the big French army’s mutinies against the war and the French military staff, a scapegoat was searched and found in the person of Mata Hari. Despite any hard proof, in 1917 she was arrested, trialled and executed at the fortress of Vincennes near Paris.

Mata Hari, die rote Tänzerin. Courtesy DIF.

After Die Tänzerin Navarro, others would go deeper in creating films on female spies during the First World War that ware based on Mata Hari’s biography, in the first place Rex Ingram, whose Mare nostrum (Rex Ingram 1926) was a touching drama with Alice Terry as the Mata Hari-like spy Freya Talberg, Antonio Moreno as the Spanish captain who falls for her, and Mme Paquerette as the sturdy Austrian spy Dokter Fedelmann who blackmails Freya into spying. According to Kevin Brownlow Ingram went to great lengths to get all kinds of Mata Hari details right. The execution was shot at the same fortress at Vincennes and with accompaniment of the same horn music played by the same band (24th Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins – “Blue Devils”).  Mare nostrum was e.g. shown during the Rex Ingram retrospective at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, but was also broadcasted on ARTE television. The first full fling biopic of Mata Hari, as far as can be traced is Mata Hari (Friedrich Féher 1927) starring Magda Sonja. The French CNC just restored the film, so this may well be shown in festivals or at the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition. At the time a beautiful Dutch poster for this film was designed by Joop van den Berg.

Mare Nostrum

Mare nostrum

In addition to A Woman Redeemed (Sinclair Hill 1926) with Joan Lockton, a British film on a woman forced into spying, remarkable is The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo 1928) with Garbo, as this was based on a novel by Ludwig Wolff, Der Krieg im Dunkel (War in the Dark, 1915). In the film’s plot Russian spy Tania (Garbo) is successful in her job (the aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca is a Leitmotiv), but does so with disgust. She has an affair with an Austrian colonel  (Conrad Nagel) and helps him against all rules and nationalism. The film was shown in October 2016 as the opening film of the Giornate del cinema muto in Pordenone, with an orchestra led by Carl Davis. The opening scene with Garbo emotionally overflown by the opera scene on stage, while meeting her lover for the first time, closely follows the opening scene in the Italian silent film Tigre reale (Giovanni Pastrone 1916). Curiously enough, the German DVD version of the films carries the title of Wolff’s novel: Der Krieg im Dunkel. Possibly Wollf’s novel Der Krieg im Dunkel played a part in the historiographic confusion over Asta’s Mata as well.

Mysterious Lady

The Mysterious Lady

In conclusion: while prints of Wolff’s films Steuermann Holk, Die Liebe einer Königin, Garragan and Der Absturz have survived, Die Tänzerin Navarro seems a lost film now. However, the Danish Film Archive has published various stills of the film on its website, which at least give an idea. 

Facts and alternative facts on Mata Hari on film

•March 3, 2017 • 4 Comments

real-mata-hari-aurel  real-mata-hari-gaumont-luce-sapphire

Figure 1. 14-18 (Jean Aurel 1963). Courtesy LUCE/EFGG1914. Figure 2. Paris après 3 ans de guerre (Gaumont 1917). Courtesy Gaumont.

Mata Hari was famous for own fabulation of her oriental past and scandalous present. Myth and reality converged in ever changing combinations, which impressed many, but also caused her serious troubles during her notorious trial, leading to her execution by the French as spy for the enemy. However, the afterlife of Mata Hari also seems to have been afflicted by this mythologization. Some myths can be very persisting because we so dearly want to find them or hold on to them. I’d like to show this by two examples. I present the first example in this post.

Since late 2016 I have been involved in the search of filmic materials for the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition, which will open at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, on 14 October this year and will run until 2 April 2018. While still materials of Mata Hari are abundant: gorgeous coloured postcards, studio photos by prominents such as Emilio Sommariva, actuality photos etc., but what lacked were moving images. With a woman who was such a society figure between 1905 and the First World War, one asks himself why Pathé, Gaumont or any other prominent company did not film this woman, whose oriental dances had caused such a stir in Paris and beyond, and who was the mistress of many a prominent figure in politics, finance and culture?

Thus in films on her life or compilation films on the First World War  a clip persisted of a fashionable lady helped in her coat by a doorman. She afterwards steps into a luxurious car with chauffeur and is driven away. This clip, coined as being with Mata Hari, has been used over and again as real footage with Mata Hari. Even the respectable site EFG1914, supported and replenished by various European Film Archives, including the Dutch EYE, holds a compilation film that contains the same clip. It may be well have been the original culprit of the massive reuse and mythologization of ‘real’ film footage with Mata Hari. The compilation film uploaded by LUCE is the Italian version of 14-18 (1963) by French filmmaker Jean Aurel. The commentary states we notice Mata Hari here, helped into a taxi. The image quality was too poor to recognize any person. So where did Aurel did take it from? Could I get a better image quality?

Researching this clip was quite an adventure. I first contacted the CNC (Centre National pour la Cinématographie) near Paris, where Béatrice Paste kindly indicated me the compilation 14-18 by Aurel was a Gaumont production and CNC had recently digitized the film. Paste advised me to contact the Cinémathèque Gaumont. So I contacted curator Manuela Padoan who referred me to Nathalie Sitko, who proved to be an avid documentalist and helpful researcher. In the mean time I searched myself on the site of Pathé-Gaumont-Archives. There I found the compilation documentary Paris après 3 ans de guerre (1917) by Gaumont, which contained the same clip, but now without any indication of Mata Hari. The description on the Gaumont site just said:”Au pied d’un escalier, une femme élégante (bourgeoise) enfile son manteau aidé d’un maître d’hôtel, elle attend son véhicule et monte dans l’automobile.” The film had been uploaded in HD, so the image quality was really good. Still, I had my doubts whether this was really the famous Mata Hari. My doubts proved to be right.

Nathalie Sitko confirmed me that in Paris après 3 ans de guerre there is no indication of Mata Hari. Soon after she wrote me that the woman in the clip is not at all Mata Hari, but really Mademoiselle Luce Saphir of the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. The clip originally comes from a short fashion film by Gaumont dating from 1916:  La mode à Paris. Mademoiselle Luce Saphir, artiste au Theatre du Palais Royal. Title on the film is: “Mode: Mlle Luce Saphir du Palais Royal présente les modèles Paquin, dans un parc parisien.” The full fashion film is visible on the Pathé-Gaumont website (restricted vision). Presumably this actuality was part of a newsreel. Luce Saphir, a rather unknown artist of the French revue and operetta, demonstrates in this clip and additional ones the newest fashion by Paquin in a park in Paris. So instead of witnessing one of the most notorious women of the Parisian Belle Epoque, we are watching a precursor of the nowadays so popular phenomenon of the fashion film. A young and proud woman, standing on a terrace at the foot of outdoor stairs, shows off her clothes and waves to a roofless, upcoming taxi, which holds another woman, apparently a lady friend, whom she greets. A fancy doorman helps her in an elegant coat before she enters the car and drives away. The whole narrative is staged and just an alibi for showing off the woman’s wardrobe. The shot perfectly matches the other shots of this fashion film as visible on the Gaumont website, showing Saphir strolling in the park while displaying her fashionable outfits. It also reminds of other fashion actualities by Gaumont and Pathé in general in the 1910s in which fashionable ladies casually meet in the park and show off, as José Teunissen so well illustrated in her compilation film Mode in Beweging (1992).


Quo vadises in Rome

•November 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Statue of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Villa Borghese, Rome.


Opening of the exhibition.


Edition of the novel with pictures from the 1913 Cines adaptation.

On 13, 14 and 15 November I was in Rome to attend the screening of Enrico Guazzoni’s 1913 version of the film Quo vadis? (Cines 1913) and the conference Quo vadis?: Inspirations, contexts, and reception. On Sunday night, 13 November, we first had the opening of the exhibition “Quo vadis?” la prima opera transmediale. Da caso letterario a fenomeno della cultura di massa, hosted at the Polish Institute, situated in a monumental  Roman Palazzo in Via Vittoria Colonna. The exhibition contains all kinds of paratexts related to the various film adaptations (1901, 1913, 1951 etc.); but of course also highlights the different versions of the novel, each with different illustrations; plus hints to other media appropriating Sienkiewicz’s classic novel, such as theatre and opera. After the opening and various introductions Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? was presented with modern live music by Michele Sganga.

The following two days were filled with many presentations, Mondays at the Casa del Cinema, situated at the Villa Borghese park, and Tuesdays back at the Polish Institute in Prati. We started on Monday with the 1901 Pathé Quo vadis? film, introduced by myself, and a comprehensive, attractive keynote by Maria Wyke, the expert in Antiquity films, but also well aware of all the transmedial ties between films, literature and the arts. While a first section of Polish speakers focused on the pluriform qualities of Sienkiewicz’s novel, related to archeology, ideology, costumes, and original draft and notes in the sidelines, Jon Solomon, Jonathan Stubbs, Monika Wozniak and Anja Bettenworth deepened our insights in the various cinematic adaptations, related to e.g. branding and merchandising, runaway productions, crossnational comparisons, and film versus television. In the night time Martin Winkler gave a challenging keynote, relating the 1951 Quo vadis to e.g. post-war Italy, Riefenstahl, and McCarthyism, before the film itself was screened, in an in Italian dubbed version.

On the second day, we first started with a section on visual arts and opera. I particularly liked Renata Suchowiejko’s speech on the opera by Jean Nouguès and Felix Nowowiejski’s oratorium, illustrated by sound clips. In addition, I presented my own paper on Alma-Tadema, Gérôme and Guazzoni’s Quo vadis?, which well matched the subsequent paper by Jerzy Miziolek on the painter Henryk Siemiradzki and Sienkiewicz.  Next followed a section on popular culture: Raffaele de Berti and Elisabetta Gagetti on book illustrations and postcards, Giuseppe Pucci on comics (including some quite nasty ones), and Katarzyna Biernacka-Licznar on children books. The last section was unfortunately the least interesting for me, on literary connections and reflections. As a film and arts man, I am probably too visually focused. But I also think that even when papers deal with topics related to literature, visuals are essential to keep us focused.

All in all, this was a very interesting conference, and when organizer Monika Wozniak announced she is planning  a publication, I was very interested the texts by others. I can imagine some texts will improve when read instead of being heard. Some were already available by the intriguing Italian publication Quo vadis? Da Caso letterario a fenomeno della cultura di massa (Ponte Sisto, 2016). The conference was well organised, with excellent catering, also after the closing words, and before the projection of the final film, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Quo vadis from 2001. The exhibition will stay open till 5 January 2017. For an announcement in the Italian daily Repubblica, look here. See also the articles in,, For an interview by RAI with organizer Monika Wozniak, look here. Ponte Sisto also did a re-edition of the novel by Sienkiewicz.


Gathering at the Polish Institute


Casa del Cinema


The production of Quo vadis? (Mervyn LeRoy, MGM 1951)

Alma-Tadema: Classical Charm

•September 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment


In one week the exhibition Alma-Tadema. Klassieke verleiding (Classical Charm) will open at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. From the designs by architect Paul Toornend and the first glimpses of the exhibition architecture, I have full confidence this will become a major, much talked about exhibition, not only for the Netherlands, but also for countries nearby such as Germany. Works by Alma-Tadema from all over the world have been included, from little known treasures to world famous titles such as The Roses of Heliogabalus and Silver Favourites. From famous museums, renowned private collectors, and the Fries Museum itself, including its recent acquisition Entrance to a Theatre and its charming Amo te. ama me. The parabole of Tadema’s career, starting in the small Frisian village of Dronrijp, via Antwerp, to his breakthrough, fame and fortune in London, will be well visualised. Houses and interiors are a central theme, not only in the sense of Tadema’s imagined interiors from Roman and Egyptian Antiquity but also the interiors of his own houses, which he designed himself and decorated with works by himself, relatives and close friends. The exhibition highlights Tadema’s thorough research of Antiquity but also his contemporary involvement in design of furniture and of sets and costumes for the stage. Finally, by clips of various films from the 1910s, but also classics such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, the Second Life of Tadema’s work in cinema will be revealed. A prologue to this film and painting section you’ll see in this compilation above: on the levels of citations, deep staging and use of props based on antique furniture there is much to discover in Antiquity films related to Tadema.

Apart from the exhibition, art house Slieker (hosted within the premises of the Fries Museum) will show a full programme of silent and sound films depicting Antiquity , such as the shorts Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (Luigi Maggi 1908), Agrippina (Enrico Guazzoni 1910), Le fils de Locuste (Louis Feuillade 1911) and L’ Orgie romaine (Louis Feuillade 1911). While Feuillade is known for his crime serials like Fantomas, around 1910 he made a whole range of interesting historical films, often beautifully hand-coloured. These short films will be shown with live music (harp, flute, violin) on Friday night 7 October, with an introduction by myself. Other screenings involve the silent Ben-Hur (1925) by Fred Niblo and with Ramon Novarro, the 1951 Quo vadis? by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Peter Ustinov as Nero, The Ten Commandments (DeMille 1956) with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (William Wyler 1959) with Heston and Stephen Boyd, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann 1964) with Boyd and Sophia Loren, Gladiator (Ridley Scott 2000) with Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, Pompeii (Paul W.S. Andersson 2014) with Kit Harington and Kiefer Sutherland, and Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott 2014) with Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. All on the big screen. Moreover, within its Sunday Cinema Concert series the EYE Filmmuseum will show on Sunday 18 December the 1913 version of Quo vadis? by Enrico Guazzoni, with an ensemble led by Martin de Ruiter. He will use a selfmade score based on music written for the opera Quo vadis? (1909) by French composer Jean Nouguès. Again, the film will be introduced by myself.

Fries Museum organizes a series of Saturday lectures by the various curators of this exhibition, so Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Marlies Stoter and myself, plus additional speakers. Topics are e.g. the studio house as laboratory (1/10), Tadema’s immersion of his viewers (8/10), Tadema’s as portrait painter (20/10 and 27/10), his fascination for the East (11/12), and my own topic: Tadema and cinema (26/11). Finally, Prestel will edit a lavish book in three language editions (Dutch, German, English), as the exhibition afterwards will travel to Belvedere Museum (Vienna ) and Leighton House (London). Editors of the book are Peter Trippi and Elizabeth Prettejohn.


Antiquity in Cinema: The First Twenty Years (1897-1916)

•June 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment
Nero Styka

Nero at Baiae (Jan Styka c. 1900)

Antiquity in Cinema: The First Twenty Years (1897-1916). Screenings & Workshop, 30th June and 1st July 2016. Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2016.

The Cinema Ritrovato festival continues its exploration of the irresistible fascination of Antiquity. This time not through the grand Italian features Quo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914), but through the beautiful French experiments that led to them and the ambitious and celebrated American ‘colossal’ Intolerance (1916) that drew from them. We will screen myth and history, Babylon, Greece and Rome, eroticism and death, and a cinematic world full of music, dance and art. Our workshop will ask why is the first ever antiquity film from 1897 about Nero, and why did the wicked emperor appear so often in early cinema? Why does antiquity become so spectacular and how does Intolerance mark a watershed in representations of the past? Do different nations produce different antiquities and how does cinema make antiquity modern? We would be delighted if you would join us in our discussions. NB certain films were purposefully restored for this workshop, such as the oldest film adaptation of Sienkiewicz’ novel Quo Vadis?

Ivo Blom (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam); Raffaele de Berti (Università degli Studi di Milano); David Mayer (University of Manchester); Pantelis Michelakis (University of Bristol); Jon Solomon (University of Illinois); Maria Wyke (University College London).

Thursday 30th June
Screening 1, 17 00 – 20 00 Sala Mastroianni
INTOLERANCE, USA (1916) dir. D. W. Griffith

Friday 1st July
Screening 2, 9 00 – 10 00 Sala Mastroianni
L’ESCLAVE DE PHIDIAS, F (1916) dir. Leonce Perret
IDYLLE CORINTHIENNE, F (1909)  dir. Louis Feuillade

Workshop 1, 10 15 – 11 45 Sala Cervi
with additional film clips & piano accompaniment

Screening 3, 12 00 – 13 00 Sala Mastroianni
QUO VADIS?, F (1901)
NERONE O L’INCENDIO DI ROMA, I (1909) dir. Luigi Maggi
And other early historical films from the Vermorel Lumière collection

Discussion 2, 14 30 -16 00 Sala Cervi
with additional film clips & piano accompaniment

You are all welcome! You can register in advance or ad hoc:
Hotel reservations with special prices at

Cinema Ritrovato 2016 and Alma-Tadema coming up

•April 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment


Néron essayant des poisons sur des esclaves

Neron essayant des poisons sur les esclaves                   (Georges Hathot, Lumière 1897)


The new Cinema Ritrovato festival is coming up. Jacques Becker, the last phase of the Cinema of the Thaw, Japan in Colour, Mario Soldati, The Films of 1916, Buster Keaton, 1896 Lumière , Marie Epstein etc. Too much themes to mention. After a gap in last year I will collaborate once more to a workshop with Maria Wyke and Pantelis Michelakis (and probably Jon Solomon and David Mayer) on Antiquity and Cinema, most probably on Thursday 30 June and Friday 1 July. We’ll have Griffith’s Intolerance of course, but also pre-1900 films on Antiquity, early films on Nero including a newly restored version of the 1901 Quo vadis? by Pathé, and Feuillade’s films La fille de Phidias and Le pretresse de Carthage – to which I am looking forward as I am a fan of Feuillade’s Antiquity films Héliogabale/ L’orgie romaine and Le fils de Locuste, which will probably play a role in the upcoming exhibition Lawrence Alma Tadema. Classic Charm for which I am co-curator for the film section.



Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Entrance to a Theatre (1866), recently bought by Fries Museum, Leeuwarden.


The Tadema exhibition will open at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on or around 1 October this year. It will then move on to the Belvedere museum in Vienna in early Spring 2017, and finally be visible at Leighton House, London, in Summer 2017. Prestel will publish what promises to be a very outstanding and fascinating accompanying publication, including one article by me on Alma-Tadema and film, and curated by my fellow co-curators Peter Trippi and Elizabeth Prettejohn. I am much obliged to have been able to recently talk to Arthur Max and Janty Yates, production designer and costume designer of Sir Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Both were very helpful in realizing in which ways Alma-Tadema has been important for the envisioning of Gladiator and partly Scott’s Exodus as well. In accordance with Fries Museum I also compiled an appetiting film programme, ranging from early cinema to recent films like Gladiator, while I will give a lecture on Alma-Tadema and cinema at Fries Museum on Saturday 26 November. On 18 December I will give an introduction at EYE, Amsterdam, to the showing of the 1913 Quo vadis? by Guazzoni at EYE, which will be a specal Sunday Concert screening with live music conducted by Martin de Ruiter, possibly with the music by Jean Nouguès for his homonymous opera.



Gladiator (Ridley Scott 2000)

Italian Muscle in Germany (in Retrospect)

•October 10, 2015 • 4 Comments
Carlo Aldini as Achilles in Helena

Courtesy Filmmuseum München.

Today I returned from a week of silent films, alternated with many talks with old and new friends and colleagues, initially in a cold and wet and gradually a sunnier Pordenone. The 34th edition of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto was a special edition to me, as I curated the special programme Italian Muscle in Germany, on the German films with the Italian acrobatic and muscular adventure film heroes Luciano Albertini and Carlo Aldini. Unintended, several relations sprang up with other films and programmes, as attending critics also remarked. The opening night film Maciste alpino (Luigi Romano Borgnetto 1916) became a frame of reference to situate and compare Aldini and Albertini, who are often themselves not the go-between between lovers as Maciste mostly is, but are the romantic lovers (sometimes husbands) themselves. The rather course behaviour of Maciste in Maciste alpino, not only explainable because of the context of war propaganda, but also linked to the typology of Maciste (see Jacqueline Reich’s new and intriguing study on Maciste, which was presented by the author in Pordenone). In addition, the many Douglas Fairbanks films in programme in Pordenone, with their focus on superhuman jumps, noble hearts and fast pace rhythm, were not too far off from a late Albertini film like Der Unüberwindliche, indicating that this genre of acrobatic heroes was truly international and had only modifications per type or nation. Instead the shift between silent and sound film was for both Fairbanks in the US and Aldini and Albertini Europe devastating, killing off their types and so their careers. On top, while Aldini was in his thirties when acting in Germany, Albertini was already in his forties. In his last silent films he was already 50. Tragic was the downfall of Albertini when sound set in – alcohol wrecked his body and mind, as is well visible in his first and only sound film Im Kampf mit der Unterwelt. Instead Ernst Verebes, the man who had been his – incredibly funny- sidekick in his last silent film Der Jagd nach der Million – became the protagonist in Im Kampf mit der Unterwelt (of which only two French spoken, unrestored nitrate prints exist, alas). We do hope to show Jagd nach der Million next year in Pordenone, though.


Der Unüberwindliche. Courtesy Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

Italian Muscle in Germany started out Saturday with Nunzio Malasomma’s Mister Radio, for which a newly restored print from the Austrian Filmmuseum was used, which had been preserved by Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna (the shots in tinting & toning were nicely saved). While the plot is quite unimportant, apart form the radio craze of the 1920s, and the acting is not always well, the stunts kept the Pordenone in awe: how can you save your mother dangling on a cliff when you are yourself tied to a tree? A huge applause was the hero’s reward for his last minute rescue by use of the tree and even his own teeth. Also previous stunts flabbergasted the spectators. Mauro Colombis’s piano accompaniment greatly helped in the audience’s emotional identification with the film. On Sunday afternoon, it was the turn for the escapologist Silvio Spaventa (Albertini) and the b&w print of Der Unüberwindliche (It. title Il globo infuocato, Max Obal 1928). It was the treat of the day, not only because of the film but also because of the live music by the Pordenone Zerorchestra, conducted by Günter Buchwald, who had also arranged the music. While a two hour film, thanks to the upbeat music and well-chosen themes, you absolutely forgot time with this swift circus film, with its sensational act, in which the fierce audience reactions on the screen seemed to invite likewise reactions from the Verdi attendants. The avant-garde-like use of text and stroboscopic effects at the start of the film (this must have been the supposed contribution by Oskar Fischinger), but also the funny constant use of the legs of the circus girls made this a clear example of a combination of genre cinema (comedy, crime, adventure) with artistic cinematography (extreme camera angles, uses of close ups, importance of editing for creating meaning). In addition to plain intertitles, the film uses a kind of TV texts during the circus act, explaining the act, and taglines on an outdoors public message board, informing the masses about Spaventa’s arrest. Repeating a strategy from his earlier film Julot der Apache (Joseph Delmont 1921), the massive publicity for Albertini’s character also seems to confirm his own star status. Personally, I thought Rinaldo Rinaldini (Obal 1927), shown on Friday afternoon, was the weakest of the three Albertini films because of its overabundance of intertitles, which especially in the first part of the film tends to irritate. One can see that some scenes are clearly missing while one shot was reduced to a freeze frame. The second half of the film gets better with Albertini’s various stunts inside and outside a huge theatre in Genoa, where several outdoor shots were taken – including a few from the harbour. While in other films Albertini is never shown seminude, here he strips to show his bare chest while performing in the theatre, but stays so in the most part of his flight from the theatre, on to the roof, bending a flag pole, and jumping into a kind of fashion studio. Dutch pianist Daan van den Hurk worked very hard to turn even the most wordy parts of the film in a dashing, dazzling sensation – and well succeeded!

In addition to Albertini, on Thursday morning there was the two-part film Helena (Der Raub der Helena/ Der Fall Trojas, Manfred Noa 1924), masterfully accompanied by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius. To several avid Giornate-goers this was a challenge, as they just had seen four parts of Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables the day before, starting from late afternoon till well after midnight. The pristine digitally restored print of Helena, the wonderful special effects, the chariot races and the sea battle in the first part (shot one to two years before Fred Niblo’s Ben Hur!) and the mass choreography and real-sized sets of Troy and the Greek camp in the second part were outstanding. Albert Steinrück’s shift of tragic and superstitious king Priamus becoming a plotting and cruel tyrant matched the character shifts of Vladimir Gaidarow’s Paris from weak to strong to weak to strong etc. And what to think about Carlo Aldini’s bodybuilder Achilles whose violent and almost hysterical pride gets him into trouble, while his bisexuality is expressed in his inability to choose either Helena or Patroclus. Repeatedly stroking Achilles’ arms and legs, Carl/Karel Lamac’s Patroclus must have created quite a stir in those times, especially to those who didn’t know the Illiad. While I had loved to include one or two adventure films with Aldini too (hopefully next year), Helena meant Aldini’s German and internationally breakthrough, and one understands why, especially when watching the second part of the film. Even if he may have been dressed in suits and tails in later films, spectators would always project his physique as Achilles underneath.

Mister Radio 7

Mister Radio. Courtesy Österreichisches Filmmuseum.

The programme went quite well in written reactions too, as can be read in blogposts by Quinlan (Daria Pomponio), SilentLondon (Pamela Hutchinson), and El Testamento del Doctor Caligari (on Der Unüberwindliche, also a second post on Helena), as well as a large article in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. Finally I was interviewed by TV Sloveno for a cultural programme.