• Battling Butler (1926) Directed by Buster Keaton Shown on right: Buster Keaton
  • Inn in Tokyo.
  • Man Who Laughs

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2018

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May 30-June 3, 2018
Castro Theatre, San Francisco

It started in 1996 with three silent films in one day; this year, the now almost-venerable festival will present twenty-three programs over five days (one more day than last year), May 30th to June 3rd.
As always, the festival will take place at San Francisco’s magnificent Castro Theater, where the ticket lines will start early, with some fans dressed in twenties attire. It’s always a scene at the Castro on festival days.
This year’s program includes the well-known (to film fans)–Buster Keaton, Paul Leni, Ernst Lubitsch–as well as the more obscure. Included will be a German version of Arthur Conan Doyles’ “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” films from India, the USSR, Japan (two), and Sweden, as well, of course, American silents by directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.
Where do all these films come from, I wonder–new ones every year?
Festival Artistic Director Anita Monga has some answers.
“There’s a finite number of films, but every year we find something,” she explains. “People are finding films around the world.”
Among the places these rarities are discovered are film archives, which, amazingly, continue to yield unexpected treasures. An example: “No Man’s Gold,” a classic Western, directed by Lewis Seiler and starring Tom Mix! The real Tom Mix! And Tony the Horse. The film was discovered in the Czech film archive; as a result, its intertitles are in Czech. (Don’t worry: English translations will be provided.)
In addition to discoveries in the archives, more and more silent films are being restored, including, recently, by the San Francisco Festival itself. In addition, the festival, the largest outside Pordenone, Italy, was recently invited to join the prestigious FIAF, The International Federation of Film Archives–an unusual honor for a festival.
“We’re showing prints in the right way,” says Anita Monga, “in the right speed, the right aspect ratio, and with live music. But we’re not doctrinaire about it,” she adds. “We don’t do ‘cast in amber.'”
So, what are some of these treasures?
Monga recommends “Fragment of an Empire,” directred by Fridrikh Ermler in the USSR in 1929. A shell-shocked WWI veteran returns to his home, finding both justice and change. Thought lost and missing many of its main scenes, the film was pieced back together from fragments discovered in the Netherlands.
Another Monga recommendation is “Trappola,” an Italian comedy featuring Leda Gys, “Italy’s most-loved diva,” according to the program. The film will be accompanied by newly-discovered footage of Market Street after the 1906 earthquake.
Here are some more recommendations:
The immortal Buster Keaton stars in “Battling Butler,” in which wimpy, rich-kid Keaton goes glamping, meets the girl of his dreams, and faces off in a boxing match against the “Alabama Murderer.” Everything ends happily. Phew!
“Good References” stars comedian Constance Talmadge in search of a job but lacking, of course, good references. The action includes a society party and–again–a boxing match.
Germany’s “People on Sunday,” directed by Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and others–young German film makers who were later to make their mark in Hollywood–is cinéma verité featuring street scenes of everyday people in pre-Nazi era Berlin. People take the train to the country, flirt by the lake, take pictures of each other; others, in the city, go about their businesses being record sellers, taxi drivers, film extras, and so forth.
“No Man’s Gold,” directed by Lewis Seiler, stars Tom Mix, “The first authentic cowboy to become a Hollywood Western star,” according the the program. White hat and all, Tom outwits and outfights the Bad Guys in classic Western style, and of course he wins the girl, Jane (the Czech titles have her renamed Eva!).
Other films I’m looking forward to include: “The Saga of Gösta Berling,” directed by Mauritz Stiller and featuring, in her first starring role….Greta Garbo! The origin of the film is a classic Swedish novel.
Another Scandinavian film is “Master of the House,” directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Unlike his classic “Passion of Joan of Arc,” this film is a comedy.
Two Japanese films: “An Inn in Tokyo” is “poetic masterpiece” by Yasujiro Ozu. “Policeman” is a crime drama directed by Tomu Uchida.
And many more.

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San Francisco ,
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.