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SF Silent Film Festival opens with a bang

by Erin Blackwell

Conrad Veidt in "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). Photo: Courtesy SF Silent Film Festival
Conrad Veidt in "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). Photo: Courtesy SF Silent Film Festival  

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is hands-down the most excellent of the year, even though everyone in the films is dead and there's no possibility of clamoring red-carpet adulation by selfie-obsessed fans. Silent films depict worlds that were often already lost at the time of the films' making, except as they lived on in memory. These films carry a huge cargo of cultural DNA, of aesthetic insights and innovations that yet haunt the living. To submit to the power of the silent film is to be overwhelmed by ghosts and ancestors more beautiful, tragic, magic, diaphanous than any of us otherwise dream of being. Give in to the glamour, May 30-June 3 at the Castro Theatre.

Conrad Veidt (1893-1943): be still, my heart. I used to love to hate him as the evil Nazi in Hollywood's propaganda films of the 1930s and 40s. His tall, lean sinewiness, his cruelty, disdain, and remoteness made him the image of my father. But that's only half his range. To see his pre-Third Reich self revealed in all his trembling Expressionistic glory as a young actor, taking on the most nerve-jangled sleepwalkers stumbling through nightmares, is to realize how much an actor's oeuvre depends on who will cast him in what. He fled Hitler in 1933 to play Nazis in Hollywood. He's a worthy object of study, and nowhere worthier than in the opening-night film.

"The Man Who Laughs" (1928) is instantly breathtaking. The second it starts you know you've travelled to a foreign land where people's hearts are all on their sleeves because you, the audient, have the privileged seat in the drama of their undoing. Yes, the film is theatrical, and its subject is the theater, the theater of life, in which we hide from ourselves and others our true nature, for fear of being outcast. We wear masks, we live double lives, we lie, we betray, all to conceal an incarnation we did not knowingly choose.

Victor Hugo (1802-88) wrote the novel of the same name in 1869, setting his story 200 years earlier, during the reign of James II of England. Don't worry about the remote clamminess of the Stuarts, the aristos are played like low-comedy vaudevillians, like stooges, very American and recognizable. How, though, did director Paul Leni manage to squeeze a 700-page novel into a two-hour movie? By reducing everything to easily imbibed visuals and leaning heavily on his star to convey with his facial muscles in a constant involuntary rictus the Existential Hell of being human.

The sublime collision of Queen Anne's England, Victor Hugo's huge French imagination, Conrad Veidt's grotesque German style, and American melodrama makes for one hell of a cinematic picnic. Veidt plays an aristo whose face was slashed as a boy to give him a perpetual toothy grin. Yes, the Joker, sublime antagonist to Batman, was inspired by this guy. Hugo, who also created the monster Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, is all about seeing past the deformity into the beating heart. We're all deformed, we're all monsters, but some of us bear with dignity the curse of being human. (5/30, 7 p.m., with party following)

As for everything else on the schedule, simply go see as many as you can afford, it's the only way to find out what you like and don't like. More importantly, you'll see all your favorite current genres in their original form. It's all here in black-and-white, with mechanical effects that are always more fun and often more effective than their contemporary budget-bloating corollaries. The sea battles in "Mare Nostrum" (1926) between a German submarine and everything else have the deep poetic resonance of a puppet show. Plus, there's a beautiful spy who seduces a gullible hero, then falls in love with him. (6/2, 10 a.m.)

Don't miss "The Lighthouse Keepers" (1929), because it's set in a lighthouse and in Brittany, where the women wear entrancing lace headdresses. Also, there's a boy with a case of rabies that's not getting better. (5/31, 9:15 p.m.) I'd recommend seeing anything Constance Talmadge is in because she's totally nuts, I mean she's a subtle comic genius who transcends gender, as geniuses will. "Good References" (1920) is about a penniless young woman in New York City. (6/1, 10 a.m.) Inspired by The Mahabharata, "A Throw of Dice" (1929), filmed on location in India, features a supporting cast of camels, elephants, and tigers. (6/3, Noon)

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