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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

I had originally promised a review of the Criterion disc Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages) for this column, but time pressures have prevented me from screening it.  I'll try to get to it in a future column, but I can't say when that will be.  Buying a new house (a fix'er-up'er), moving, and selling my current dwelling will take up a lot of my free time for the next month or two.  Sorry about that.  I'll still do my best to continue to review the newest silent releases and keep up with the announced titles.

Speaking of new announcements, a small company called Flicker Alley has just released a copy of F.W. Murnau’s Phantom (1922).  The disc is supposedly mastered from the original 35 mm negative.  Being a big fan of Murnau's work, I'm excited about seeing this film.  I'll try to get a hold of a copy for review.

On November 12th All Day Entertainment will be releasing a new collection of silent comedy shorts, American Slapstick.  This set will contain 17 shorts on three discs, all of them never before released on DVD, and some have never been released to the home video market before.  There will be movies by Charley Chase, Snub Pollard, Billy Bevan, Larry Semon, and comedienne Frances Lee, as well as early screen appearances by Harold Lloyd and Stan Laurel.  It should be a great collection.

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, G. W. Pabst's masterpiece Pandora's Box will be released by Criterion in 2006.  Scheduled for release on November 21st, this two disc set will be packed full of extras.  The film will come with three different musical scores, and an audio commentary by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane.  Also included is are two documentaries, (Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998 - 60 minutes) and Lulu in Berlin (1984 - 48 minutes), a rare 1971 interview with Brooks and more.  The discs will also come with a booklet reprinting Kenneth Tynan's essay "The Girl in the Black Helmet" and a chapter from Louise Brooks' memoir discussing her relationship with Pabst.  It should be quite a set.

This month we have a look at two interesting discs; Leni Riefenstahl makes her directorial debut as well as stars in The Blue Light, and then we go back in time 100 years to look at the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 with the aptly titled The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Cinema Centennial.  Next month, with a little luck, I'll have reviews of F. W. Murnau's Phantom and the new comedy collection American Slapstick.

The Blue Light

Where Americans have the western, the Germans have bergfilme.  This genre of film centers around mountain climbing and the hazards associated with the activity, and is almost solely German in nature.  It was very popular in Germany between the wars and launched many careers including Dr. Arnold Fanck who is the director most associated with the genre, and Leni Riefenstahl the one time dancer who became a leading lady and then world famous director.

After appearing in several Fanck pictures, Riefenstahl started directing her own bergfilmes with The Blue Light a move that she also stars in and wrote.  It was this film that entranced Adolph Hitler brought the director to his attention.   Meeting with the leader of the Nazi party, Riefenstahl agreed to make an hour long documentary about the Nazis which was released as Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith).  The following year she filmed the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg.  The film to come out of this rally, Triumph of the Will, is one of the most effective propaganda movies ever set down on film and greatly advanced the Nazi cause.  As impressive as that film is, you can see Riefenstahl's eye for style and scenery in this first film that she directed.

In a small mountain town in Germany, the villagers know that there are valuable gems at the top of the local peak.  Every full moon the top of the mountain gives off a blue light that signals the crystals are there for the taking.  Many of the young man of the village try to climb the peak, and some do bring back small pieces of the gemstone, but none of them are able to make it to the top.  Many die in the attempt, lured by the promise of untold riches.

There is one person who can make it to the top however, a young girl that has been ostracized from the community, Junta (Riefenstahl).  She's called a witch and lives alone in the wild, only coming to town occasionally.  On one trip into town, a merchant sees that Junta's carrying a huge crystal from the mountain.  She refuses to sell her treasure to him and runs away, but this event brings her to the attention of Vigo (Mathias Wieman).  The young man in attracted to the wild, free girl who lives on the mountain and seeks her out and eventually gains her trust.  She shows him the path she uses to get to the treasure, which leads to the film's tragic ending.

This was a good bergfilme.  While it doesn't have as much mountain climbing scenes as some others in the genre, the story was interesting and there was a good amount of drama.  The main attraction of this film however was the glorious cinematography.   Riefenstahl was able to make the mountains impressive and foreboding yet beautiful.  She turns Junta's simple home into a Eden-like setting with abundant berries for her to eat and picturesque waterfalls right outside her door.

The message of the film is also clear and strong without being overpowering.  While Vigo is an intellectual and a member of modern society, he has little in common with the simple Junta.  While the girl has almost nothing and is content with it, Vigo is constantly striving to get more and more.  The barrier between nature and civilization is clear, but the two manage to get over that wall and fall in love.  That turns out not to be enough, and in the end it is clear that Vigo never did understand the woman he loved.

A very impressive early sound movie, it was obviously film silently and then an audio track was added on in post-production.  The dialog is fairly sparse, as are the sound effects.  This movie was also released as a silent film in the US, though it was heavily edited.

The silent version of the movie doesn't play nearly as well as the sound version, but the dialog and sound effects have little to do with that.  The silent edit was cut by about 27 minutes, over a third of the movie, and this really hurts the flow of the narrative, to say the least.  This version of the movie is pretty bad and should only be viewed to see just how badly a film can be mutilated.

The DVD:

Both the sound German version of this film and the silent edit made for export to non-German speaking countries is included on this single sided DVD.  It comes in a standard keepcase.  There is no insert.


The sound version of this film comes with the original German soundtrack in two channel mono.  The quality was fine for an early sound film.   Of course there was little in the way of dynamic range, but the sound was clean with no hum or hiss, and the dialog was strong.

The silent version, on the other hand, sounded pretty bad.  It was presented with an old mono score that consisted mainly of guitar music and was not scene specific.  There was a very loud hum through the entire film too.  Not very impressive.


The video was windowboxed, with an aspect ratio of 1.18:1.  The image was very soft, and a little bright, but otherwise it looked very nice.  Though fine details were blurry the overall picture was clear and there was a good amount of contrast.

The silent version, by contrast, looked pretty poor.  The image was faded, scratchy and dull with little in the way of contrast.  A pretty poor presentation all together.

The video quality of the silent version of this film leaves a lot to be desired.


This disc also comes with an image gallery that collects 18 publicity and production photos from the film.  A nice collection.

Final Thoughts:

This first movie that Leni Riefenstahl directed is a good film and clearly shows the potential that she would nurture.  The scenery is beautiful and the story has a lot of drama.  The audio and video quality of the original version is good, but the silent film leaves a bit to be desired in both categories.  I'd look at the silent edit as a bonus feature rather than a film onto itself.  This was an interesting film that is easy to recommend.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Cinema Centennial

One hundred years ago the city of San Francisco was destroyed.  On the morning of April 18, 1906 an earthquake ripped through the city doing millions of dollars worth of damage.  Worse than the quake itself however, was the fire that followed.  It consumed much of the city and burned out of control for four days.  Out of the city's 410,000 residents, it was estimated that between 225,000 and 300,000 of them were left homeless.  This was one of the largest natural disasters in US history.

Another important aspect of this disaster is that it was the first major tragedy of it kind to be filmed.  While the quake itself wasn't captured on camera, the aftermath certainly was.  A pair of film makers, the Miles Brothers, had set up shop in the City by the Bay and recorded the aftermath of the disaster, the fires and displaced people.  Many of these films documenting this seminal event in San Francisco's history have been collected and released as The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Cinema Centennial, a nice collection that benefits the Niles-Essanay Silent Film Museum.

This collection starts out with a brief origin of the moving pictures and shows some early Edison Kinetiscope reels.  Sandow, the Modern Hercules, Little Egypt, and Ocean Beach and the Cliff House are presented along with the famous early Edwin S. Porter film Life of an American Fireman.

The disc really gets underway with A Trip Down Market Street, a film that the Miles Brothers shot in the center of SF a week before the Earthquake.  In this simple one-reel short, the brothers placed a camera at the front of a trolley and filmed Market Street as it was in 1906.   Viewers seen horse and buggy carriages alongside early automobiles and wireless trolley cars all fighting for room on the crowded streets with pedestrians and peddlers.  It's an interesting look into the past.

The centerpiece of the DVD is The Destruction of San Francisco 1906, a compilation of film, mainly shot by the Miles Brothers, that chronicles the devastation the city experienced.  There are images of entire city blocks where the only clue that buildings used to stand in the space are the still standing chimneys and the huge piles of brick and rubble.  The film was compiled by David Shepard and Blackhawk Films and while there is no narration, the ample intertitles give a lot of background information and explain what the viewers are seeing.  Running about 20 minutes, it is a rare look at a tragic event.

The DVD:

These films come on a DVD-R in a standard keepcase with an insert about the Niles-Essanay Silent Film Museum and other projects that are available.  The disc offers viewers the option of watching the movie with narration between the films, or just the silent films themselves.


The two channel mono audio sounds fine.  The Blackhawk film comes with an organ accompaniment and the other shorts have a piano soundtrack.  These were generally clean and had only a few defects.  While none of these scores were composed specifically for these films, they worked well enough.


The full frame image varies in quality but the picture is generally rough.  There are a lot of scratches and the contrast isn't that great, the blacks are weak, the highlights tend to bloom, and the image is very soft..  Of course, these are very rare films and it's fairly miraculous that they've survived at all.  Don' t let the quality of the picture deter you from considering this disc however.  It is still watchable and likely the only chance you'll have to see this rare footage.


There are no extras on this disc.

Final Thoughts:

All in all this is a very interesting and educational disc as well as an interesting look into the past.  Seeing turn of the century San Francisco before and after the devastating earthquake and fire is quite striking.  The destruction was widespread and almost total, it's amazing that the city was able to rebuild.  The disc is well worth owning, and the proceeds from sales go to the Niles-Essanay Silent Film Museum, an organization that preserves silent films, so you can feel good about buying a copy.  This is an easy DVD to recommend.

Comments?  Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.


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