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Catch Abel Gance’s revolutionary silent masterpiece Napoleon on the big screen and on Blu-ray

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

Painstakingly restored by the BFI National Archive and Photoplay’s Kevin Brownlow as part of a 50-year project, Abel Gance’s 1927 five-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, Napoleon, is now screening again accompanied by the longest score ever written for a silent film from composer Carl Davis before heading to Blu-ray, DVD and BFI Player on 21 November.

Originally conceived by Gance as the first of six films about the French military leader, this five-and-a-half-hour epic features full scale historical recreations of episodes from Bonaparte’s personal and political life, that see him overcome fierce rivals and political machinations to seal his imperial destiny. The film is also famed for its groundbreaking technical innovations – including its triptych finale.

The BFI Blu-ray will include the following special features…
• New 2K restoration
The Charm of Dynamite (1968, 51 mins): BBC documentary on Gance’s silent films, narrated by Lindsay Anderson.
Composing Napoleon: An Interview with Carl Davis (2016, 45 mins)
• Feature-length commentary by Paul Cuff
• Digital restoration featurette (2016, 5 mins)
• Gallery
• Alternative single-screen ending
• Individual triptych panel presentations
• Illustrated collector’s booklet

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Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922) | Shockingly weird! The cinematic oddity still illuminates

Haxan (1922)

Since its premiere in 1922, Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s exploration of the role of superstition in medieval minds has caused outrage and protest from both the general public and religious groups. With its graphic visions of devilish seductions, black masses, monstrous births, flying hags, cannibalistic feasts, orgiastic nuns and rampant satanic worship – not to mention its presentation of the clergy as repressed, treacherous and sadistic – it is hardly surprising this genre experiment provoked such a furore upon its initial release, seeing it condemned by various religious authorities and banned outside Sweden for years.

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An imaginative masterpiece and a genuine cinematic oddity, it wasn’t until its re-release in 1941 that Christensen earn belated fame and respect, proof that his pioneering documentary was far ahead of its time. In 1968, the film gained a whole new audience when it was re-released with a William S Burroughs narration and a discordant free jazz score under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. It became a staple of the midnight movie circuit, and a countercultural manifesto for the pot smoking, free loving beatniks, hipsters and rebellious youth of the era who, like witches, felt equally misunderstood by the authorities. Looking at it today only makes you question whether we have advanced any further in our own understandings and dealings of seeing people tortured and imprisoned for their beliefs.

Häxan screens occasionally on Film4 in the UK, using the print that features the score based on the music played at the film’s Danish premiere in Copenhagen on 7 November 1992, arranged and conducted by Gillian Anderson with the Czech Film Orchestra in Prague (June, 2001).

HaxanThe 2013 Tartan DVD release includes both the Burroughs-narrated shorted version and the original film for which two new scores have been created, one by composer Geoff Smith performed on hammered dulcimer and the second offering a dynamic score by UK electronic group, Bronnt Industries Kapital.

 

Faust (1926) | FW Murnau’s silent gift to German cinema’s rich heritage of horror now on Blu-ray

Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

No man can resist evil! The bet is on!
Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings) bets an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) he can corrupt the soul of aging alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekman); and the stakes are the Earth itself. When a plague is unleashed and Faust is unable to find a cure, he rejects both God and science and invokes the aid of Satan. Mephisto appears and makes a pact with Faust: he will restore his youth in exchange for his soul. But its a pact the revitalized Faust wishes he never made after he falls for the innocent charms of Gretchen (Camilla Horn)…

Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

FW Murnau’s silent gift…
1926’s Faust: A German Folktale (Faust, eine deutsche Volkssage) was FW Murnau’s last German film before heading to the US. Featuring stylised photography, set and art direction, and ground-breaking special effects, it came at the pinnacle of the silent era and alongside 1922’s Nosferatu was Murnau’s silent gift to German cinema’s rich heritage of horror.

With screenwriter Hans Kyser, Murnau fused Faust’s script from German folk legend, the works of Goethe and Marlowe and the Charles Gounod opera, to render a highly individual work. And from that much-filmed legend Murnau conjured cinema’s devil incarnate in the form of Emil Jannings’ Mephisto – resplendent in black cloak and sporting a widow’s peak that has been much copied and parodied. Behold him enveloping a whole town in the blackness of his giant cloak, restoring the wizened Faust’s youth in a fiery blaze, or flying over the intricate model town to a lavish wedding feast. It’s wondrous stuff, made all the more so by Timothy Brock’s operatic orchestral score.

Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

Whilst the film was harshly met by critics of the day – calling it a vulgar sentimental love story (and it does lag somewhat during these scenes) – and derided Murnau’s decision in giving the tragedy a happy ending, the film’s compelling imagery is its enduring legacy. Murnau was fortunate in having two of the German film industry’s finest designers on board, Walter Röhrig, who created the iconic cubist sets for Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, and Robert Herlth, as well as Fritz Lang’s favourite cameraman Carl Hoffmann, whose ‘dance of death’ sequence is a showcase for his artistry. Under Murnau’s fastidious eye, the team brought to the silver screen the director’s stylised vision as he wanted it, a battle of light and shadow that mirrors in celluloid the film’s metaphysical themes of good versus evil.

Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

THE RESTORED PRINT
Although numerous editions of the film exist, there were only two original negatives from which all other versions issued. Using the nitrate duplicate negatives printed by UFA in 1926 and an array of international sources, Murnau’s favoured domestic German version has been reconstructed by Filmoteca Espanola from which this newly restored transfer is sourced. It makes this version the closest we will ever get to see the film as the director intended. The Masters of Cinema Series presents the Friedrich-Wilhelm- Murnau-Stiftung restoration for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK in a two-disc dual format release with the following features.

Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

SPECIAL FEATURES
• Newly restored 1080p transfer of the domestic German print (1.33:1 aspect ratio), featuring different takes and much better resolution than the export print
• Original German intertitles and improved optional English subtitles
• Choice of viewing the film with Timothy Brock orchestral score, specially commissioned harp score by Stan Ambrose, or (on Blu-ray only) new piano score by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia
• Audio commentary by film critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn
• Complete export version of the film
The Language of Shadows, 53-min German featurette on the film (Blu-ray only)
• Tony Rayns on Faust – a 20-minute video piece recorded in 2006
• Booklet with essays of the film’s history by Peter Spooner and R Dixon Smith, excerpts from Éric Rohmer’s analysis of the film, and archive prints.

 

The Phantom of the Opera (1929) | Is this the definitive release of the celebrated silent cinema horror classic?

The Phantom of the Opera

BEHOLD THE PHANTOM
In the first-ever screen adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, Lon Chaney, gives his most famous performance as the deformed Erik, a former Devil’s Island escapee who commits murder and mayhem in a bid to turn the woman (Mary Philbin) he is infatuated with, into a star.

phantom of the opera 1925

THE MASTERPIECE OF HORROR THAT SHOCKED CINEMA FOR DECADES!
The 1925 film was a hugely lavish production, with a scaled-down replica of the Paris Opera house being built on a dedicated soundstage (that’s still used today). Despite numerous production problems, the film was a box-office hit that launched the Hollywood gothic style of the 1930s, beginning with Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein, while Chaney’s skull-like make-up was so horrific it made some cinema patrons scream and faint.

With the arrival of sound, Phantom was re-issued, but only fragments now survive. Original prints of the film were also fully tinted, with some sequences in two-colour Technicolor, and a rooftop scene using a special process that enabled the Phantom’s cloak to show red against the blue night sky. This Photoplay restoration re-instates all these effects, and is accompanied by Carl Davis’ celebrated 1996 score which draws heavily on Charles Gounod’s Faust – the opera that is performed in the film. Rent the film now on BFI Player (£3.50).

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THE BFI RELEASE
The UK 3-disc dual format edition includes the following:

• A newly-restored 2k scanned presentation of the tinted and toned 1929 version comprising elements from three sources (the 35mm George Eastman House master positive, a 35mm colour dupe negative of the masked ball made in 1996, and 35mm dupe negative sections made in 1996 from an original 16mm print), new opening and closing titles, and a 5.1 mix of Carl Davis‘s 1996 Channel 4 Silents Series score.

• The 103min 1925 version newly transferred in high definition from the Photoplay Productions 16mm print and digitally remastered, with a newly commissioned piano accompaniment by Ed Bussey.

• Original 1925 trailer (featuring Bussey’s music) and 1929 sound re-issue trailer (featuring recreated soundtrack).

• An edited version of Reel 5 from the lost 1929 sound re-issue (12 mins).

• The ‘man with a lantern’ footage believed to have been shot for non-English speaking territories.

Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces documentary (2000, 86 mins, DVD only).

• Booklet featuring new essays, including extensive notes on the film’s restoration history.

• Channel 4 Silents restoration souvenir programme on PDF.

smallphantomIf you want to know more about the enduring legacy of The Phantom of the Opera, check out the documentary Unmasking the Masterpiece from the folks at The Witch’s Dungeon (who supplied the photos above) over in the US. Click here for more information.

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