The 35mm films are in place, and the University of Colorado Denver music students have their instruments ready. The Denver Silent Film Festival runs tomorrow through Sunday at the King Center on the Auraria campus, with screenings of silent-era classics and some lesser-known gems.
We asked artistic director Howie Movshovitz for his thoughts on what makes the festival's four feature films great.
Wings William A. Wellman, 1927
Howie Movshovitz: There was a good print available, which is not a very sexy reason until you see a crappy print. I have a particular interest in films about WWI. Because WWII films are about victory, but WWI films are about loss. It gives you a feeling of what it was like flying and being in combat, but it also paints a really surprising picture of upper-class people that gets away from stereotype treatments.
It's about two young fighter pilots. One of them is a middle-class guy, the other is a rich kid. And you think the film is going to diss the rich kid, but he comes from a really loving family, and I like that.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Robert Wiene, 1920 HM: It's, I think, the essential and most eccentric example of German Expressionist film-making. It was filmed on a constructed set where there were no true verticals and horizontals, so you can feel the unevenness and get a real sense of these distorted angles. It's a very disturbing film and I love Conrad Veidt, who plays the somnambulist. Last year, for Nosferatu, Davis Sosin and the music students created a musical score in two days, and they're doing that for Caligari this year.
Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison, 1925
HM: I think this is the gem of the festival. Very few people, outside of people who spend their time regularly with silent film, know about it. It's a documentary. It's what's loosely called an expedition film, where Western Europeans and Americans would go on trips to look at the primitive world. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were a couple lunatics who were WWI pilots together, and they were both shot down several times.
In prison, Schoedsack met a woman named Marguerite Harrison, and the three of them got together and went on a horse-drawn cart journey. They were looking for a group called the Bakhtiari, who they find.They followed them on their annual migration which takes them over a river swollen with snowmelt, with 50,000 people and their animals. They cross the river barefoot and then go over a mountain range that goes over 14,000 feet in elevation. It's spectacular; they show the Bakhtiari and it is marvelous.
We're showing it together with A Trip to The Moon, which has been restored by Serge Bromberg. It's really funny and weird, and the color version is great. It's a deeply eccentric film made by Georges Méliès.
Pandora's Box Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929 HM:It's a German film from the '20s, which is the Expressionist period, so you can see some Expressionism in it. The star is Louise Brooks, who had a little bit of fame here. Working with Pabst, I mean, this well of sexual transgression comes out of Louise Brooks, who is an absolutely startling figure on screen. You just don't expect it. I don't think people at the time expected the explosiveness of this performer
Bonus! Four short comedies Easy Street by Charles Chaplin, Cops by Buster Keaton and Mighty Like a Moose and Pass the Gravy by Leo McCarey
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HM: My feeling is they are four of the funniest short films ever made. I love silent comedy, I don't think it gets any better. In silent comedy, people get all sorts of abuse rained down upon then, but what I like about it is that, compared to recent comedy, it wasn't built upon insult and it wasn't built upon making the viewer feel superior. These films sort of tap into basic experience.