Streaming: Stumfilm – the silence of Danes

Silent film’s place in the streaming realm is a conflicted one: it’s at once ubiquitous and oddly hard to find. Which is to say there’s plenty of it lying around online, often free of charge. The Internet Archive, much praised in this column, is obviously rich in early cinema gems if you can negotiate some circuitous searching, while YouTube is awash in soundless classics and curios alike, albeit in variable states of repair. (At least sound quality is never an issue.)

Netflix has more to offer than you’d expect at first glance. The streaming giant’s back catalogue of classics may have dwindled, yet it’s still the place to find a neat transfer of, for example, trailblazing female film-maker Lois Weber’s landmark abortion drama Where Are My Children?, a fascinating social time capsule that’s also less irrelevant than you’d like it to be a full century after it was made. (It’s just over an hour long: sandwich it between episodes of The Crown in your Netflix queue.) Obviously, Mubi occasionally delivers the silent goods, while the BFI Player remains a go-to spot for early British cinema in particular.

Where are My Children? (1916), directed by Lois Weber.

Where are My Children? (1916), directed by the trailblazing Lois Weber. Photograph: Stumfilm

But dedicated, easily navigable streaming spaces for silent cinema remain a rarity, which makes the Danish Film Institute’s new Stumfilm site a welcome surprise. Recently created as part of an ongoing restoration project over the next four years, it’s a beautifully presented resource, aiming to underline Denmark’s historical position as a leading film industry in the early 20th century. More than 400 films made between 1897 and 1928 will eventually be added to the platform, all smartly restored and digitised; they’ve launched with 40 of them – all free to stream – and it’s an immediate, absorbing education.

A clean, crisp interface (with English and Danish-language options) makes it easy to browse their wares, a mixture encompassing very brief shorts and epic-scale features, many of which may be unfamiliar even to scholars of the era. The star attraction, as it were, is Master of the House, a vintage work by Denmark’s most celebrated auteur, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the austere artist behind Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Arc: a droll feminist comedy.

To say the patriarchy gets smashed in this airy role-reversal farce would be overstating the case, admittedly, but it does get lightly whipped into shape. A demanding, misogynistic family man gets a taste of his own medicine when his strict childhood nanny takes charge, sending his browbeaten wife away on holiday while charging the man of the house with housework and childcare. It’s the kind of story that could easily be made as a banal Hollywood family film, though Dreyer imbues it with a note of piquant social criticism, while his shooting style, staging it mostly as a chamber piece, is bracingly stark. Dreyer completists will also be pleased to find one of his more rarely seen early works: Once Upon a Time, a fairytale romance that doesn’t play by the usual nice rules of the genre.

The Golden Clown (1926)

The Golden Clown (1926).

Other rich finds include August Blom’s Atlantis, a less progressive but lavishly beautiful tale of male grief and romantic renewal, complete with a spectacular ship-sinking sequence that, coming one year after the Titanic disaster, earned criticism (and even a ban in Norway) for its alleged bad taste. Holger-Madsen’s A Trip to Mars, meanwhile, is a deliciously fanciful sci-fi voyage, in which the Martians turn out to be much more tranquil and beautiful than in the alien-invasion movies of later decades, while AW Sandberg’s The Golden Clown, sepia-shot and set melancholically in Paris, is the tears-of-a-clown melodrama to end them all.

The transfers are all immaculate, many with their original piano accompaniment. Furthermore, to extend the site’s academic value, each film’s page is kitted out with additional relevant materials – from vintage film programmes and publicity stills to scripts and critical essays, with more to be added as they’re unearthed. It’s a model resource to other national film industries looking to both modernise and publicise their silent archives: one hopes more will follow suit.

Also new to streaming and DVD

Juliette Binoche in Non-Fiction.

Juliette Binoche in the ‘almost parodically French’ Non-Fiction.

(Curzon Artificial Eye, 15)
Olivier Assayas’s roundelay of romantic dalliances and infidelities in the Paris publishing set, starring Juliette Binoche (above), is among his minor works, and almost parodically French, but has tangy pleasures to offer.

Anna and the Apocalypse
(Second Sight, 15)
Rereleased for December, this endearing Scottish zombie-apocalypse Christmas musical comedy doesn’t skimp on any component of that description. It’s rough at the edges, but you can see it becoming an alternative seasonal standby.

On the Waterfront
(Sony, E)
Elia Kazan’s classic working-class crime drama (1954) gets the Criterion Collection treatment, with a particularly gorgeous package even by their standards. The film, meanwhile, remains as modern, politically pin-sharp and devastating as ever.

Operation Petticoat
(Eureka, U)
The gender politics have aged a bit creakily in Blake Edwards’s 60-year-old submarine farce, but it’s still a spritzy romp, carried by the mutually suave comic energy of Tony Curtis and Cary Grant.


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