Saturday, December 06, 2008
Stefan Drössler presents restored Lola Montez and Loves of a Pharaoh at UW Cinematheque
Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, presented two restorations over the weekend: On Friday night, the German version of Max Ophuls' Lola Montez and, Saturday night, Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 silent Das Weib des Pharao (which translates as "Wife of the Pharaoh" but was released in English as "Loves of a Pharaoh.") The latter was accompanied by another one of David Drazin's marvelous live, improvisatory piano scores.
Drössler prefaced each film with an informative and humorous multimedia presentation about the film, the director and the restoration. And he demonstrated a real flair for the English vernacular when confronted by technical glitches. Some notes on both films:
This 1955 European production starring Martine Carol and Peter Ustinov (and a young Oscar Werner, prefiguring his role as Jules in Jules and Jim) was Max Ophuls' last film -- and his first in color and cinemascope. ("Everything good in Lola happened because of my inexperience with color and cinemascope -- when I looked through the camera's viewfinder, it was as if I'd just been born," he told Rivette and Truffaut in Cahiers.)
A story about a woman who lives by her beauty and in the end is victimized by it, the movie may revel a bit too lovingly in the humiliation of her decline, but it's known in film history for Ophuls' elaborate framing device involving the aging Lola playing herself in a circus while the story unfolds in flashback, Ophuls' innovative use of color, and his trademark tracking shots that evoke the poignance and circularity of time and fate. (The real Lola Montez, born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland in 1821, never ended up in a circus and may have had an even more interesting life than the fictional one. Much of her final decade was spent in the U.S. A reconstruction of her home in Grass valley, CA is a state historic landmark, and she died and was buried in Brooklyn.)
Lola was a European art film made on the scale of an out-of-control Hollywood epic and filmed in three languages. There is no one "authentic" Lola Montez, and there still isn't. As Drössler explained in his entertaining presentation, the different versions posed problems for the German restoration, which had to incorporate film from all three versions. An early resource was Ophuls' son Marcel, who had served as an assistant on the film, but then decamped to the side of the French version, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year and is now showing in the U.S. in limited theatrical release.
Drössler provided lots of production details and photographs. For example, Ophuls built a gigantic circus tent, big enough to seat 2,000 people, but he did not fill the seats with extras but with cardboard cutout photographs of people, interspersed with a few live actors. This cost much more than hiring extras, but the result, when you look at the audience in the background of the circus scenes, is hypnotic. Ophuls used different color schemes for different seasons, shot on different locations, which in one case required him to paint a house red. When the owner objected, Ophuls wrapped the house in red tulle fabric. In another scene, white fabric covered rooftops, mimicking snow rather badly, so Ophuls mad eit a night scene and the illusion worked. More details of his presentation were captured in this blog post when he delivered it earlier San Francisco.
Loves of a Pharoh
Although Drazin's accompaniment made this very enjoyable experience, the 1922 film itself is pretty much of purely historical interest: The brooding Emil Jannings plays a lovestruck Pharaoh who triggers a war and destroys everything when he can't win the love of an escaped slave girl he forces to become his queen. A huge epic, with gigantic sets on the outskirts of Berlin, and a cast of thousands -- including literally 25,000 extras. Special effects have progressed a lot since then, and the film is notable for the laughable stoning scene at the end, in which the victims are stoned to death by what are so obviously rubber rocks bouncing off harmlessly. This was Ernst Lubitsch's last silent before leaving Germany for Hollywood. While it certainly demonstrates his talent for organizing and directing vast film projects, it hardly shows the lightnes of touch we associate with the director of The Shop Around the Corner.
Drössler's presentation was at least as interesting as the film itself, probably more so. He showed slides of the set construction, which included such marvels as a Sphinx about 100 feet high. Journalists and celebrities came from all over the world to visit the set. At the same time, the 25,000 extras were affordable because of massive unemployment and escalating inflation made their labor dirt cheap. At one point they actually went on strike for higher wages and succeeded, because the production could not afford any delay. They continued to be upset about working conditions, and there were fears during the stoning scene that some might use real rocks, and police were stationed to prevent it. Drössler was amusing about the restoration of the movie's red, green and blue tinted sections. It took three years for the digital restorers to get the color tints to perfectly match the nitrate stock. However, the dyes had faded over the years, so Drössler wasn't sure what they accomplished, really.