THE ONGOING REDISCOVERY OF THE 1910s
The work of understanding film history continues. For many years, historians considered the 1910s important for only a few events. It was widely known that World War I strangled European production, permitting Hollywood's worldwide dominance. Griffith and Ince were studied as major American producer-directors; silent comedies, particularly those of Chaplin and Sennett, were also praised. Among foreign films, a few by Stiller and Sjöström were considered classics.
The widespread revision of film history that has occurred in recent decades initially concentrated on pre–World War I cinema. Since the 1980s, however, scholars have paid increasing attention to the 1910s. A crucial contribution to this rediscovery has been the annual festival of silent film, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto ("The Days of the Silent Cinema"), held in Pordenone and Sacile, Italy, since 1982. Although the festival screens films from the entire silent period, some of its most dramatic revelations have come during its retrospectives concentrating on the 1910s.
In 1986, an extensive program of pre-1919 Scandinavian films was shown. Among other revelations, this was the occasion for the international discovery of Georg af Klercker (Film History: An Introduction, pp. 64-65). Ironically, af Klercker's departure from Svenska meant that the negatives of his films were not among those lost in the tragic Svenska fire of 1941; Hasselblad kept the negatives in its own vault, and twenty of his twenty-eight films for Hasselblad survive, many in nearly pristine condition.
Other Pordenone programs dealt with Hollywood cinema of the 1910s (1988), prerevolutionary Russian films (1989), and German cinema of the pre-1920 era (1990). Each festival was accompanied by a collection of important essays in Italian and English. See Paolo Cherchi Usai and Lorenzo Codelli, eds., Sulla via di Hollywood 1911–1920 (Pordenone: Edizioni Biblioteca dell'Immagine, 1988); Yuri Tsivian, ed., Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908–1919 (London: British Film Institute, 1989); and Paolo Cherchi Usai and Lorenzo Codelli, eds., Before Caligari: German Cinema, 1895–1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).
A retrospective can transform our view of film artists we think we know well. From 1997 to 2008, Le Giornate de Cinema Muto undertook the ambitious Griffith Project, showing all the available prints of films that he acted in, directed, or produced. Surprisingly, many of Griffith's short films were available only in poor copies, since restoration work had not yet been completed. Still, for the first time scholars could see the less familiar titles alongside the famous ones. The program notes, written by an international team of scholars, occupied ten volumes of The Griffith Project, a series published by the British Film Institute from 1999 to 2008. An eleventh volume contained two plays by Griffith, various other writings, and information on films possibly connected to the director in some way. A twelfth volume, containing a collection of general scholarly essays, completed the series.
A second Italian festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato is held in Bologna each summer, and it too screens many rediscovered and restored films from both the silent and sound eras. In recent years the Bologna festival has shown programs of films from the 1910s starring William S. Hart (2006) and Asta Nielsen (2007), as well as a rediscovered film by Stiller, the 1915 Madame de Thèbes (2007).
Events like Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and Il Cinema Ritrovato show how crucial the preservation and availability of early films are to our knowledge of cinema history. Early synoptic histories were based on the few masterpieces available in film archives. These films were often significant in themselves, but they seldom gave an accurate indication of national cinemas as wholes. Moreover, some important filmmakers have been virtually forgotten. Le Giornate has been crucial in bringing such directors as Georg af Klercker and Evgenii Bauer to historians' attention. Similarly, masterpieces like Die Landstrasse (p. 58) were all but forgotten until a discovery (in this case by the Filmmuseum of the Netherlands) of a single copy. Today, many national archives take the opportunity of Le Giornate to display prints of newly discoveries and restorations, which get circulated to other archives and museums around the world. Undoubtedly some unknown directors and lost films will continue to resurface and modify our view of film history.
Our website, "Observations on film art and Film Art" (davidbordwell.net/blog), contains several entries on the art and craft of 1910s films.