The return of THE SILENTS

German horror, Buster Keaton and more early Hitchcock are offered in the second Silent Film Festival in Thailand
A WELCOME NEW addition to Bangkok’s non-stop cavalcade of annual speciality movie extravaganzas, the Thai Film Archive’s Silent Film Festival in Thailand is back at the Lido cinemas next week, with rare screenings of classics from the 1910s and ’20s.

Among the highlights this year is the influential German horror “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, the pioneering Russian experimental showcase “Man with a Movie Camera”, Buster Keaton’s stunt-spectacle “Steamboat Bill Jr” and one more early entry from Alfred Hitchcock.

The opener next Wednesday will be “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” from 1920. The quintessential example of surreal German Expressionist cinema, director Robert Wiene’s dark, twisting thriller is about a hypnotist who runs a carnival sideshow and keeps a sleepwalking man in a coffin, and can make the somnambulist do his bidding, including murder. Movie critic Roger Ebert once argued that it was “the first true horror film”.

One of the most famous figures of literature comes to the screen in 1916′s “Sherlock Holmes”. Thought to have been lost, this film from Chicago’s Essanay Studios was discovered last year in mislabelled cans in the Cinematheque Francaise’s collection. It was screened in North America’s biggest silent film showcase, the recently wrapped-up San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which is supporting the Bangkok fest. It stars William Gillette, who was well-known for his stage portrayal of the deductive detective, and is largely credited for the popular image of the sleuth in his deerstalker cap.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr stars in a double-bill that harks back to the days of the Saturday morning matinees, the 1916 westerns “The Half-Breed” and “The Good Bad Man”. Better known for his swashbuckling movies like “The Thief of Baghdad”, “Robin Hood” or “The Mark of Zorro”, Fairbanks also starred in a number of rootin’ tootin’ westerns. In “The Half-Breed”, he’s a mixed-blood Native American in conflict with a local sheriff over a townswoman, while in “The Good Bad Man”, recently restored and presented at last year’s San Francisco fest, he’s a drifter gunslinger who yearns to find out who his parents were.

Another restoration is “Once Upon a Time”, a 1922 effort by Danish film great Carl Theodor Dreyer. A fairy tale about a wilful princess who is tricked by a prince posing as a pauper, about a third of the film has gone missing, but a recently reconstructed version fills in the blanks with still photos and explanatory intertitles.

Anna Mae Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, takes centrestage in “Piccadilly”, which she made in the UK out of frustration with the stereotypical roles she was forced into in the US. From 1929, the romantic drama has Wong as a waitress-turned-dancer at a nightclub. She becomes involved with the club owner and causes a rival dancer to be jealous.

In 1928′s “Steamboat Bill Jr”, silent-film icon Buster Keaton performs one of his most famous stunts, in which an actual, fully weighted building’s facade falls down on top of him, but he escapes harm thanks to a strategically placed window. The deadpan star portrays a young ukulele-strumming hipster who wants to prove himself as a worthy successor to his father, a big burly riverboat captain.

Last year’s inaugural edition of the Silent Film Festival in Thailand offered the bulk of the surviving silent films of Alfred Hitchcock. This year’s selection offers one more, “Blackmail”, a thriller about a Scotland Yard detective and his girlfriend mixed up in an extortion plot. The 1929 UK feature was Hitch’s first “talkie”, however it was originally a silent film, and it’s that version from the British Film Institute that’s screening here.

Another highlight will be “Man with a Movie Camera”, a 1929 Russian feature that is alpha and omega of experimental film. Directed by Dziga Vertov, it introduced dozens of techniques, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, extreme close-ups and stop-motion animation, which are now part of everyday films, TV, music videos and commercials.

More pioneering techniques are demonstrated in the closing film, “The Epic of Everest”. Made in brutally harsh conditions with a hand-cranked camera, it was the official record of the ill-fated 1924 Everest expedition by British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Recently restored by the British Film Institute, the new print reintroduces original coloured tints and tones, including a dramatic blood red sunset over the Himalayas. A one-off event, the charity gala screening will be in Siam Square’s landmark Scala theatre and will benefit earthquake relief in Nepal.

Bringing all the silents to life will be experienced film accompanists Mauro Colombis and Stephen Horne. Colombis, an Australia-based Italian classical pianist, has played for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, the world’s biggest silent film fest, while Britain’s Horne has also played for screenings in Pordenone as well as fests in Telluride, San Francisco, Cannes, Bologna and Berlin.

They will be joined by noted Thai music lecturer and musical-theatre director Dr Anothai Nitibhon.

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