by Matt Smith
A crowd of us hardcore cinephiles, archivists and academics–orphanistas in symposium lingo–were packed into the Museum of the Moving Image’s screening room in Astoria last night to kick the 8th biennial Orphan Film Symposium into gear. After general introductions, we came to the two screenings for the evening, each very different, and each some kind of wonderful.
It’s difficult to describe to non-archive enthusiasts or even non-restoration-minded academics what the feeling of seeing some of these films is like, projected on a screen where they were either never meant to see or haven’t been seen in some eighty odd years. An orphan film in most cases is a bit of ephemera, lost either because its production didn’t warrant it the status of an object worth being saved, or because it got lost and has no owner whatsoever. For the uninitiated, it might be staggering to know that we literally have NO clue how many moving image objects exist in the world, and that number is growing ten-fold every day. For people who make these images, be it productions for corporations, advertisements, home videos, personal pornography collections, etc. (just to name a few), I imagine it would be quite striking to learn that the memories, “work” (as opposed to “art”), or otherwise forgotten portions of their lives captured by moving images that these things would be of any interest at all past their initial usefulness.
Dan Streible, who I know from my days as an undergrad at the University of South Carolina, and the co-founder and curator of the Symposium, introduced the film Transformations. This film, produced in 1968 for IBM’s stockholders meeting as an introduction to the company’s CEO. Directed by Ralph Sargent, who was himself an advocate of orphaned and ephemeral films and devoted restorationist and founder of Film Technology Company, the film is a 17 minute journey through the birth of the world as it is today, from beginning to the development of human life. Once it arrives at the human stage, the film becomes a loose essay on the usefulness of ideas and of the wonder of the human imagination, all leading, of course, to the business of IMB: computers; world-changing, modern life-defining computers.
As an industrial short, it serves a very specific purpose and it does it remarkably well. The added-value of Transformations is that its creator was intimately familiar with media theory and with the idea of how it might persuade and engender an audience to a particular concept. It might be useful now to note that this year’s symposium theme is “Made to Persuade,” and that films and presentations will all revolve around the idea of persuasion in all its iterations. Which is how a film like Transformations fits as an introductory screening to not only the conference, but also to a Weimar-era narrative fiction feature newly restored by the German Film Institute (DIF).
Die Hochbahnkatastrophe (The Elevated Train Catastrophe, 1921) is a classic example of the sensationsfilm, which as Tom Gunning explained in his introduction to the film, was an outgrowth of the early film serials of the 1910s and the sensation dramas and novels of the 19th Century. After an introduction by Anke Mebold, a representative from DIF, who explained in great detail the technical aspects of the restoration work (various black-and-white negative printings, labyrinthine processes of putting together different prints and combining footage to create a more complete restoration, and finally the referencing for color tinting as it might have appeared in the film’s original release), the film had what is, as far as anyone can tell, its North American premiere.
The Harry Hill series of films, of which Die Hochbahnkatastrophe is the sixteenth part, follows a master detective as he overcomes the nefarious plots of various criminal masterminds. Written, directed and starring Valy Arnheim as Hill, the film is typical of the low-budget B-movie approach to filmmaking that is often left out of conversations concerning early German and Weimar-era cinema. In its reel-to-reel structure, complete with cliff-hanging moments and stunt work which rounds out the action to keep audiences intrigued enough to await reel changes, the film is enchanting, awe-inspiring and, in one amazing sequence in which Hill, trapped atop a chimney the criminals are about to blow up so he can’t escape, absolutely jaw-dropping.
The restoration work on the film looks amazing, and the film was accompanied live by pianist Dennis James and narrated by actor Harrison M. Beck, somewhat replicating the experience of seeing a film in 1920s in many different countries, Germany included. I personally found it thrilling and thoroughly entertaining, and I hope that with the newly restored version, even more people get a chance to see Die Hochbahnkatastrophe.
For more information about the Orphan Film Symposium, visit its website: Orphan Film Symposium.