Words With Friends: The Tribe’s cast communicates entirely through sign language
The Tribe takes no prisoners. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s latest film, set at a boarding school for deaf students, is told with no spoken dialogue, only in sign-language. Specifically Ukrainian sign-language, and just to make sure you’re fully excluded from this tribe from the get-go, there are no subtitles at any point.
The plot finds the new boy in school (Grigoriy Fesenko) swept up into a gang of hoodlums who, perhaps because of their language barrier, have developed their own morality code, a thuggish, brutal, apathetic way of life. Soon our protagonist shows himself to be as tough as the gang needs him to be, and he is put in charge of pimping his female classmates to truckers. Similarly indoctrinated into the tribe’s isolationist, self-righteous ethic, these teen prostitutes seem to delight in the rebellion that these sexual acts provide, and the easy cash that comes with them. When Fesenko’s protagonist falls for one of the girls, played by Yana Novikova, the young romance swiftly becomes dark obsession, and conflict within the group grows.
It’s ambitious storytelling, a new form of silent cinema. But does it work? Well, overall, yes. The gentle soundscape makes the viewer acutely aware of every sound, both innocuous and threatening, so that when violence erupts in the final act, and oh, does it erupt, it’s all the more deafening. Hyperventilated groans of pain become the closest the soundtrack has to musical accompaniment.
In addition to this, the listening viewer also becomes quickly aware of just how much the deaf students are missing. Out drinking stolen alcohol, they are denied the simple pleasure the joy of a popping champagne cork, or the calming liquid crumble-crunch of snow underfoot. In one of the earliest of the film’s several shocks, sounds only audible to us prophesy danger, which creeps forward relentlessly and unacknowledged.
The early scenes of the film in which our protagonist adjust to his new home almost serve as a parody of high school-set films – we understand everything without language because we have been to school ourselves, seen high school movies. There is a synaesthesiac reaction you get from seeing the constant gestures and hand movement that makes you somehow hear dialogue that is not there. It makes all the clever, timely teen wordplay in films like The Breakfast Club, Clueless, or Mean Girls seem oddly unimportant.
But the savage violence that dominates the latter half of the film has less to communicate, and it is here that the film slips. The unrelenting belligerence hits levels of gore worthy of Martin McDonagh, but without the cheeky dark humour. At the screening I attended, the film’s most gruesome, head-in-hands-burying scene, caused one audience member to faint (he came around shortly after), and several more to walk out.
From the outset The Tribe seeks to exclude you, to show you a world you can never be a part of. The first of its exhausting, unflinching long takes, shows a school assembly that we not only cannot hear, but also, separated from it by a glass panel, we are literally cut off from.
Bleak and disturbing, there is some extremely talented filmmaking at work here, but Slaboshpytskiy’s determination to shock and horrify is the film’s undoing in the end. It’s a joyless movie, but an original one, with a good deal to say about language, inclusion, and the follies of youth. It has to be seen to be believed, but should be avoided if you haven’t the stomach, or heart, for it.
Matadorest of them all: Snowhite (Macarena García) in Blancanieves
It may not be fair to say The Artist is solely responsible for the existence of Blancanieves, a Spanish silent retelling of the Snow White tale, but certainly without Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winner this film would never have been released in these parts.
Silent films never actually went away after the ’20s, but for the most part they remained in the realm of the arthouse and the experimental. Like The Artist, Blancanieves is an excellent production that presents a simple story in a manner that modern audiences are no longer accustomed to, but can quickly adapt to.
Set in Seville in the 1920s, Blancanieves retells Snow White with the king a champion bullfighter paralysed in the arena and the evil stepmother his nurse, an ambitious flapper living off her new husband’s fortune.
After her caring grandmother dies, Carmen is sent to live with her father and his wife, where she is locked away in a shed and is put to work as a servant. But she soon learns the truth about her father, the bullfighter, and mother, a beloved flamenco dancer. If this film were any more of a Spanish cliché their daughter would be unemployed right now.
Things take a sudden if expected turn after an assassination attempt on Carmen goes awry and she survives, waking up in the company of a band of travelling bullfighting dwarves. Conveniently amnesiac, this beautiful ‘Snowhite’ shows a remarkably adept skill at battling the calves the dwarfs fight with. They take her in as their star attraction, and soon she is the most talked about, and indeed fairest, person in all the land. A vengeful stepmother is quick to take notice.
The update of the story works rather well, with fashion magazines of the 1920s standing in for a magic mirror and the stepmother’s medical background representing the sorcery of the fairytale. Snow White’s friendship with the animals is here replaced by a cute relationship between the young Carmen and a comic relief rooster. In 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman the film tried to be modern and edgy by having there be eight dwarfs instead of seven – here there are six, but the missing seventh gets referenced in a nice little gag. The climactic confrontation is as macabre as the Disney version’s, while the ending has a unique twist on the fairytale’s famous ending.
Un Chien Andalou – Encarna (Maribel Verdú), our evil queen for tonight’s proceedings
So why a silent film? Well, why not? We all know the story, and the dialogue, perhaps through lazy translation, perhaps through over-familiarity, is easily the film’s weakest point. If anything, there may be too many intertitles explaining what’s going on. Old-timey techniques like circular frames and closing oculus cuts are used sparingly and to good effect. The black and white is crisp if a little too heavy in contrast, and while many of the scenes look like they might have been shot in old Hollywood, the handheld camerawork that intrudes on certain scenes kills the illusion of this being a 1920s film in a way The Artist never suffered from. Film nerds will likely be peeved that while the film is framed in the suitable Academy ratio, the intertitles break out into 16:9, as if desperate to use the whole screen.
The music is infused with a Spanish flavour that energises the film for the most part, with plenty of twanging guitars and flamenco claps. The performances are mostly fine, with a little too much camping in certain cases. Macarena García makes a decent stand-in for Bérénice Bejo as Carmen, but the real charm comes from the young Carmen, played by the very sweet and capable Sofia Oria. The dwarfs all excuse themselves well, although writer/director Pablo Berger’s decision to have their leader, the Doc of the group, play a secondary antagonist to ramp up the drama does not succeed.
A huge dip in energy in the second half of the film (Carmen doesn’t become Snowhite until more than halfway through the film) means Blancanieves overstays its welcome, but the ending almost makes up for it. It’s a terribly pretty film with some fun ideas that stands as further proof that silent cinema is far from dead, even if it has been in a magical slumber for a very long time.
The recent critical and Oscar success of Michel Hazanivicius’s The Artist has gotten people talking about silent movies again, even if, perhaps, it hasn’t got them watching any. Watching The Artist and other silent movies lately, I have developed a fascination with the intertitle, the styles different filmmakers preferred and how they can be used.
Intertitles don’t just fill in the gaps in dialogue, but often in atmosphere. While nowadays a film set in ancient Rome will likely say “Rome 89AD” on the screen near the beginning (proof the intertitle still lives on in some form), traditional intertitles will give us descriptions of sounds, sights (multiple shot set-ups and edits were less readily available in the ’20s) to help us settle into the setting, just as a storyteller will give us seemingly unnecessary details that help conjure up worlds in our imaginations. Nowadays that manner of storytelling is only available if you have Morgan Freeman to narrate your film, and even then it still feels dated (Million Dollar Baby is a prime example).
This list is in no way definitive; I am no expert in silent cinema and these are just my favourites of the intertitles I have come across. I hope yet to come across many more.
10. The Last Laugh (1924) – Deus Ex Intertitle
F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh is perhaps most famous for having one single intertitle. But what an intertitle!
After telling the depressing story of an elderly hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) demoted to washroom attendant and then scorned by his friends and family, the film does an about face and gives him a happy ending. The intertitle descends from on high and brings our hero good fortune – a wealthy relative dies and leaves the hero all his money. It’s all a bit meta really, isn’t it?
9. City Lights (1931) – A visibly happy ending
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Charlie Chaplin’s career, City Lights is one of those romantic comedies where the guy does everything to win the girl, and only succeeds at the last minute.
Chaplin’s Tramp falls for blind flower girl Virginia Cherrill, who mistakenly takes him for a wealthy man. He manages to get her the money she needs for an operation to restore her sight, but when they finally meet, she does not recognise him. In the style of a fairytale romance, it is only when she touches his hand that she realises this down-and-out is the man who changed her life.
“You can see now?” he asks her, and she smiles back and says “Yes, I can see now.” It is the final intertitle of the film.
City Lights was made three years after the talkies had become popular, but Chaplin insisted on keeping the Tramp a silent character in a silent world. The movies, after all, are something that we can all see now. Sound can always wait.
8. Orphans of the Storm (1921) – It’s all about em–pha–sis
I must admit I really love this one. It sums up everything about D.W. Griffith’s neglected French Revolution epic; it sets the time and social mores, is both humorous and romantic, and defines the character of the strong-willed heroine Henriette (Lillian Gish). It also features some excessive underlining and the most unnecessary hyphen-
ation you may ever see.
7. The Artist (2011) – The sound a gun makes
The Artist was a wonderful achievement, but for me nothing sums that up so well as this intertitle. It comes as our hero, washed-up silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), despairs at the death of his career and the mistaken belief that the girl he loves, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is interested in him only as a trophy from a bygone era. As he raises a gun to his mouth, Peppy races recklessly in her car to find him. As the film’s score dies down George, sweating with terror, bites down on the barrel of the gun and BANG! – Peppy crashes into a tree outside.
This audio-visual pun on the two sounds (and yes, there’s a pun in audio-visual there) is perfectly timed and handled. The crash, and by extension the intertitle, interrupt George’s suicide and thus save his life. Similarly, the audience, close to seeing their hero make such a grave and irreversible error, have the tension relieved with a wonderful gag that makes full use of the film’s potential as a silent movie. It is a gag worthy of Chaplin himself.
6. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) – The animation station
Another entry for Murnau, and one of the most famous silent dramas of all, Sunrise is a remarkable genre mashup, infusing romantic drama, thriller and comedy sequences into one incredible tale of 24hrs in the life of a rather ordinary couple. The film opens with a montage to set the scene, letting us know that it is “Summertime… vacation time”. But it’s not just the gorgeously illustrated intertitle that makes this a top pick, but how it dissolves into the shot, and indeed the film, that follows.
Sunrise has plenty more delights in store, including one superbly animated intertitle. In the film, a man from the countryside (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a woman visiting from the city (Margaret Livingston). When he asks how they can be together, she suggests they dispose of his wife (Janet Gaynor), saying: “Couldn’t she get… drowned.” But rather than use an ellipsis or second intertitle, the word drowned materialises on the intertitle after a delay, moments before the entire sentence melts away, or drowns, to expose the wickedness of her suggestion.
The intertitle then dissolves into a fantasy of the man throwing his wife off a boat. You can see the whole spectacular sequence here.
5. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – Remember when people talked like this?
This one really speaks for itself. The Phantom (Lon Chaney) reveals himself as a creature too hideous to post in this article (click here, if you dare!), and then utters this delicious line. I struggle to deal with the fact that nowadays a movie villain could not deliver a line like this without descending into high camp. Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever get the chance to hear this sort of scenery-chewing genius again. Somehow, I blame Aaron Sorkin.
4. Battleship Potemkin(1925) – What a difference a word makes…
Surely the most famous intertitle in all of silent cinema history. The “Suddenly…” that unleashes the forces of the Tsar on the citizens celebrating on the Odessa Steps is the definitive intertitle. It literally breaks apart two sequences with incomparable moods: beforehand high spirits and high jinx after the rebelling sailors seize control of the Potemkin; after, a screaming, hectic, bloody slaughter. Too many words have been written about Eisenstein’s immaculate filmmaking and the carnage that follows. I can only let it speak for itself.
3. Faust (1926) – All you need is liebe
Murnau (again) directed his version of the 19th Century German legend in 1926; his last film before leaving for Hollywood to make Sunrise. An alternative take on the story of Job, Faust is about a man led astray by the devil, in the guise of the demon Mephisto (a wonderfully over-the-top Emil Jannings). Faust (Gösta Ekman) falls victim to Mephisto after the demon bets an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) that he can destroy all the good in a man.
In the end, it seems Mephisto has succeeded. Faust is made miserable by the Devil’s plans and in the end throws himself on a pyre to burn with his beloved. But as Mephisto claims victory, the Archangel tells him he has in fact lost the bet, because of the power of one word. Mephisto demands to know the word, and in a fit of light worthy of the Stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the word “Liebe”, or “Love”, flies straight at the screen, practically punching the audience in the face with its glory!
The Devil learns never again to mess with a guy armed with a lightning-shooting sword and love.
Two summers ago I saw Faust at an outdoor screening, with a live score provided by the endlessly talented 3epkano. It was after midnight when the film drew to its close, and the audience was inebriated on any number of substances. But when that Liebe hit the screen, a cheer rose up from the hundreds present that could have scared away the Devil himself.
Look at that! I mean really look at it. Is that the best word you’ve ever seen written down? What font is that? Times New AWESOME?!
Would it make it better if I told you that the letters making up the word “Moloch” assemble themselves by rocketing in from different sides of the screen? Oh, it would, would it? Well they do.
So here’s the story. Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the pampered son of the ruler of Metropolis, a massive, futuristic city. After seeing a beautiful girl, Maria (Brigitte Helm), he ventures into the city’s underworld where she works in one of several power stations that keep the city above running (it’s all about class, don’t you know). Joh is impressed when he sees a massive machine in operation, but moments later it overloads and begins exploding the men who work on it. Joh is suitably horrified.
To add to his horror, he takes this moment to have a fantasy in which the machine is Moloch, a pagan god from the Old Testament to which children were regularly sacrificed. The machine morphs (through brilliantly handled double exposure) into a fire-breathing monstrosity, chowing down on slaves (workers, get it?).
Cue that remarkable intertitle. To be honest, I’m not sure one exclamation mark will quite do. Now that every character in modern cinema from Sam Gamgee to Darth Vader has ruined the screaming of the “Noooo!”, maybe it’s time we went back to the screamed intertitle. No? Fine then.
Actually, I know I’ve posted this link before, but this scene really needs to be seen to be believed. Enjoy!
1. Nosferatu (1922) – Best. Intertitle. Ever.
Nosferatu’s full title is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, or Nosferatu: A Symphony ofHorror, putting it in the running for best subtitle ever, also. But this example here is the spirit of all intertitling. Let me set the scene.
Dracula, that is to say his non-union German equivalent Count Orlok (Max Schreck), has fallen in love with Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder), the wife of his real-estate agent. An aged, monstrous vampire, with a lethal allergy to Vitamin D, he attempts to reach her by shipping himself from Transylvania to Germany in a coffin full of dirt (a similar trick is later used in the film Three Colours: White). One by one the sailors on the ship fall victim to a terrible plague, brought by the rat servants of Orlok. When only the captain is still alive he chains himself to the wheel determined to make it to port. But Orlok has other ideas.
We see the face of the captain; sheer horror. Fade to black. And then BAM! “The ship of death had a new captain.”
This isn’t exposition. We know it had a new captain, because we just saw the captain die. This is literature. It is dramatic. It is punchy. If it were the last line in a chapter of a book, you would forego eating and sleeping until you read the next chapter. It is the purest demonstration of something that intertitles can do that voice-over narration simply can’t, and that is to romanticise the language which is being used. Morgan Freeman could say those words, but like the ending of War of the Worlds, they could only come out corny. The intertitle disrupts the film to bring you breaking editorialising. An amazing piece of storytelling that cinema has sadly lost.
As a final note, I should point out that not all prints of Nosferatu (and given it’s in the public domain, there are many) use this translation. This version, for example, uses the slightly less punchy “Driven by the fatal breath of the vampire, the vessel moved rapidly towards the Baltic.” Although, in fairness, that’s pretty cool as well.
The news last month that new (or rather old) scenes thought lost from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis have been found in storage in Argentina has got the film world talking about the classic once more. Not to say it ever left the agenda. Since 1927 it has remained one of the most inspiring movies ever made.
I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of it at the Dublin International Film Festival two years back, having spent many years trying to find a chance to watch it but always missing the opportunity. The DIFF’s showing was quite the gala presentation, held in the National Gallery of Ireland with a live and newly composed score by the fantastic 3epkano. Once in a lifetime events don’t come much more impressive than that, especially when you’ve read and heard so much about a film but are only finally becoming acquainted with it for the first time.
Which brings me to the point of this discussion, is Metropolis not perfect enough as it is? That’s not to say that the missing scenes won’t complete it, but is all the hubbub not likely to end in some level of disappointment?
Reading Sight & Sound’s article ‘The Metropolis mystery’, which recounts in exhausting detail the story of how this original copy was rediscovered and identified, one gets that strange feeling which comes from watching a really excellent trailer for a film you’ve been dying to see for some time; can it really live up to the hype?
Metropolis is full of holes. Not many, and not big ones, but they are there. They gnaw away at the overall product. The most complete version that has been available to see to date fills those holes with intertitles describing what the missing scenes were known to contain. The problem is, they never described scenes that seemed particularly exciting. Many of them detailed the continuing adventures of the amusingly named minor character Worker 11811 as he adventured in the city disguised as Freder, the film’s hero. A lot of these scenes sounded very much like the kind of scene that would be removed from the average theatrical release, with just cause.
When you watch the deleted scenes on DVDs, how often do you find yourself not saying: “Oh, I see why that was deleted”? Extended and director’s cuts only rarely add much to a film. For every Blade Runner and Das Boot there’s an Apocalypse Now or Cinema Paradiso to lengthen and confuse, or even worse a Hellboy or Gladiator that adds nothing but fluff. My fear would be that in spite of the hype this definitive cut of Metropolis could be seen to be more like the latter of these cases. The drowning of the workers is already a gripping scene as has been shown to this date, what can more footage really add? Is there an element of the director’s cut of RoboCop here, not knowing when to stop the violence once the point’s been made?
There is no question of whether or not I will hunt down this version. I certainly will once it is restored, scored and hits art house cinemas for the three days that it can survive there once more. I sadly wish however that I could forget the version I have seen before, forget the story I have read of how it was rediscovered in the museum warehouse in Buenos Aires, and appreciate the film as it should be, as a whole, without constantly picking out and analysing the new scenes silently in my mind.
Because none of the new scenes, even those which promise to finally reveal the reason behind the villainous Rotwang’s madness, can compare to those which are already in the film, such as the machine disaster sequence shown above. These are the scenes that have made Metropolis perhaps the most famous silent non-comedy of them all. The rest, in truth, is only filler.