A review of the silent film Madame DuBarry (1919) starring Pola Negri.
Director Ernst Lubitsch. PAGU/Ufa
Film review by Jason Day of The Spanish Dancer, the silent film comedy romance starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno.
Director: Eugen Illes
Projektions-AG Union (Unrated)
Writer: Hans Brennert. Camera: Eugen Illes. Sets: Paul Leni.
Pola Negri, Werner Hollmann, Arthur Schroder, Ernst Wendt.
Mania (Negri) is a free-spirited, popular worker at a cigarette factory in WWI Germany. She is selected by the boss to pose for an artist who is making an advertisement poster for them. Whilst there she meets talented, burgeoning opera writer Hans (Schroder) and the two fall in love. But her beauty also attracts the attention of renowned arts patron Morelli (Hollmann) and he ruthlessly pursues her. He propositions her to become his mistress, or else he will destroy Hans’ fledgeling career. Mania reluctantly agrees, on one condition – they spend their first night together only after Hans’ cherished debut is premiered. It’s a decision that leaves her horribly conflicted.
For 90 years, not many people new that a film called Mania (pronounced Mar-nee-ah) even existed. Now available to see for the first time ever in the UK, she elicits in the reviewer an almost manic depressive response.
There is the elation at the discovery of a new silent film. Even more exciting when you find out it’s a complete feature length film, starring one of the biggest stars of this period and was hardly seen outside of the country that produced it.
But for every up there is a down, in life as in the hunt for rare cinematic gems. For a depression soon sinks in when you realise that, despite the awesomely effective restoration employed to exhume her from the ravages of time, the film is itself completely disposable.
And that restoration work must be given special mention, as a stand alone documentary accompanying the film illustrates. This explains, in beautifully succinct detail, the meticulous (and certainly expensive) work put in by the Polish National Film Archive. We see how new life has been breathed into tired and dusty film stock. No easy feat as nitrate film is the most precious of materials to handle, decomposing after a few decades.
The biggest round of applause at Mania’s London premiere at The Barbican may have gone to composer/conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk for his appropriately operatic score, but the technical staff should take a bow for their dedication, persistence and sharp eye for detail.
Back to the film itself, there are two main aspects to applaud; the design and the star. Leni was at this time a designer, but would become a noted and influential director of Expressionist films such as Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary. Here, he uses an array of curtains, veils, painted backdrops and window panes to conjure up an atmosphere of hedonistic opulence and artistic poverty.
The look of film is, in the main, attributable to him.
Cinema during this period was undergoing a series of important changes in terms of editing, acting, lighting and camera angles. Everyone was influencing everyone and early filmmakers were challenging themselves, slowly developing the markers of an wholly unique form of artisitc expression. Mania, however, is a stilted and impotent piece. There are some blessed close-ups of Negri, but these are used more to show her lovely face rather than as a way to tell the story. The film is further hampered by the default, static camerawork and wildly uneven acting of the lesser WWI silent film.
Negri, the main attraction, transcends these limitations with an entrancing performance. Years before she decamped to Hollywood to become, without argument, the most famous Polish film star of all time, she shows how she could effortlessly command centre stage. Her heavy eyelid mood swings, burst of passion and sensual dancing prove not only how versatile and limber she was (she was a trained ballet dancer in real life and believed dance should be central to a performance), but also how gloriously frenzied she could be.