19 November 2017
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
We are at the Barbican this afternoon to see that rarity, a silent film premier. But this isn’t a modern silent, it was a film made in 1929 in what was then Czechoslovakia and most likely now getting its first ever UK screening. The film, Sins of Love (in Czech Hríchy Lásky, but also known variously as Sin of a Beautiful Woman and The Last Mask) was directed by Karel Lamac and is being screened today as part of the 21st Made In Prague festival, with live musical accompaniment by Czech musician and composer Ivan Acher.
Recently restored by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague, we have the added pleasure today of seeing Sins of Love in its 35mm print version, which is always a rare treat in itself. The screening was proceeded by an informative introduction to the film and its director from Renata Clark of the the Czech Centre, London.
But in an annoyingly all to frequent silent film scheduling clash, today’s film here at the Barbican is having to compete with a special screening of Pandora’s Box at the BFI which perhaps accounts for the somewhat disappointing audience turn out.
The film opens in the small theater of a provincial town where actor Ivan Kristen (Josef Rovenský) is preparing to leave in order to take up an appointment with a major theater company in Prague which he believes will bring him greater fame and fortune. His attractive and much younger wife Sonia (Marella Albani) is leaving with him and he promises her that his growing fame will also be a boon for her own acting career.
But in Prague, the theater company is in panic as their leading lady is refusing to take up her role for an impending production of Romeo and Juliet. Theater director Eduard Warren (Gaston Jacquet) has no time to sort out a role for Kristen but when he sees Sonia he is not only instantly attracted to her but he considers her for the part of Juliet. A read-through with Richard Kent (Walter Rilla), the leading man (who is also attracted to Sonia) convinces Warren to offer her the part.
Kristen becomes increasingly agitated with the attention that both Warren and Kent are paying to Sonia. His jealousy is exacerbated when the play is a success and Sonia’s role is rapturously well received, particularly as he is given just a minor role as a sop to keep him quiet. When Sonia tells Kent that her husband wants to return to his provincial theater, taking her with him, Kent persuades Warren to give Kristen a leading role in another play. Warren says that with Kristen out of the way nothing will stand in Kent’s way in seducing Sonia. When Kent replies that he has no such aim, Warren tells him that he (Warren) has just such an intention. However, Kent and Sonia’s growing apparent mutual attraction for each other continues to intensify Kirsten’s jealousy.
In order to get into character for his role in the new play, Kristen visits a rough drinking den frequented by criminals. He picks out one, Ferda Stika (Ladislav H Struna), to model himself on and to furnish him with typical criminal attire. On his opening night, Kirsten’s performance is going well but in the interval he becomes suspicious of the delivery of a letter from Sonia to Kent, fearing that she is planning to leave him. Kent refuses to hand the letter over and a struggle ensues. When Warren orders Kristen back on stage Stika, who has come along to see the play, promises Kristen that he will get the letter for him.
At Kent’s house Stika attempts to steal Sonia’s letter but in the dark he is caught by Kent whom he shoots and wounds before escaping. In a subsequent police chase Stika falls into a river and is believed drowned although no body is recovered. Witnessing the chase, Kristen panics and seeks shelter in a nearby cheap hotel. From the hotel he sees Sonia arrive at Kent’s house. Together she and Kent believe that it is Kristen who attempted to steal the letter and they try to protect him but when news comes that the thief has been drowned Sonia breaks down and the apparent truth of Kristen’s robbery attempt and supposed death comes out.
Now believing herself widowed, Sonia eventually marries Kent while Kristen sinks into alcoholism and destitution. When he reveals to his fellow down-and-outs that he was once married to the now famous Sonia they mock him and he promises to show them the truth. Going to Kent and Sonia’s house he finds Kent alone and they argue. Kent then shows Kristen the letter that Sonia sent him which reveals that she had decided never to leave her husband as she owed him everything. The now distraught Kristen tells Kent that he must never reveal the truth to his wife and, to avoid the returning Sonia, he goes in to an adjoining room where he throws himself off a balcony. With a crowd gathering around the body, Kent tells Sonia that it is just somebody involved in an accident and they drive off together, with the final inter-title posing the question ‘Why is it that the happiness of two people must be brought at the misfortune of others?’
Its always a dangerous thing to apply superlatives to anything, but I really do find it difficult to think of a better silent film drama than Sins of Love. Everything about this film was just so close to perfection, the story, the direction, characterisation of the players, the acting, cinematography, it was just so hard to find fault with any aspect of its production. At the film’s conclusion there was an almost stunned silence as the excellence of what we had just watched sank in, almost a reluctance to break the spell in order to applaud Ivan Acher for his captivating accompaniment.
But should the excellence of Sins of Love come as anything of a surprise? Made in 1929 in the dying days of silent cinema, the Czech film industry at this time was producing films of a quality to rival anything made elsewhere in Europe. Director Gustav Machaty had already shown what could be done in co-operation with German studios, producing such superb dramas as The Kreutzer Sonata (1927) and Erotikon (1929). Karel Lamac (image, right) had been directing films with great success for a decade before he made Sins of Love and his skill and experience certainly shone through here. Scripted by experienced Czech screenwriter Václav Wasserman the story is nicely thought through, the players realistically characterised and the direction stylish, taut and economical, without even the hint of a superfluous scene.
The acting by the entire cast was superlative. Even by the increasingly naturalistic style of the late silent era acting this was grippingly realistic and wholly believable. Josef Rovenský (image, left with L H Struna) was superb as Kristen, a man who’s life and career is suddenly turned upside down, who is consumed by jealousy and despair. Yet when he discovers the truth, there are no melodramatics, just a calm, almost inevitable, realisation that to make amends he has but one option left. Contemporary reviews spoke of Rovensky as ‘the Czech Emil Jannings’, a comparison which on the basis of this performance surely rings true. Born in 1894, Rovensky made both his stage and film début in 1914. By the time he made Sins of Love he had appeared in over 30 films, to both critical and popular acclaim, including a starring role in Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) alongside Louise Brooks (image, right). Having made the transition to sound he looked set for a long career but died suddenly in 1937, aged just 43.
Italian born Marcella Albani (publicity shots left and below right) was equally convincing as Sonia, her loyalties divided between commitment to her husband and a growing affection for Kent. Beginning her film career in Italy, Albani soon moved to Germany where she enjoyed great success, even forming her own production company. By the late 1920s she was a huge star in films made across Europe. Although she continued acting in the sound era her career waned dramatically and her final appearance was in The Emperor of California (aka Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, Dir. Luis Trenka, Ger-Swiss, 1936) which had the distinction of being the first Western made in Nazi Germany. Instead, Albani turned to writing where she had considerable success before her death in 1959.
As for German born Walter Rilla (image, left), he effectively managed to elicit considerable sympathy as Kent. Initially portrayed as something of a serial seducer and the main threat to Kristen and Sonia’s marriage he is subsequently torn between his desire for Sonia, his need to respect her decision and also, later, to protect her husband. During the 1920s, Rilla established himself as one of Germany’s leading character actors. He continued to make films in the sound era but fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for England where he continued his career. He was much in demand during the war years, often playing sinister foreigners, usually Nazis. After the war he returned to Germany where he continued film and TV work almost right up until his death in 1980, aged 86.
Lastly amongst the leading players, French born Gaston Jacquet (image, right) elicited absolutely no sympathy whatsoever as the theater director Warren (in something of a Harvey Weinstein role!!). However, he was extremely convincing in his cold and calculating determination to seduce Sonia. There were, therefore, no tears shed when he got his comeuppance after having been caught out in his shabby supposed phone conversation with her. The eternally suave Jacquet started out in films in 1919 and was a stalwart of French cinema in the early-mid 1920s before moving on to appear in international films. He too got an opportunity to work with Louise Brooks, in Prix de Beaute (Dir. Augusto Genina, Fr, 1930) and he continued to act until his retirement in the late 1950s.
But even beyond the main stars, the ensemble acting was uniformly excellent. Bronislava Livia had an amusing diva-ish role as the star refusing to appear as Juliet as did Ladislav Struna playing the ever so shifty Stika. And in a film notable for its drama and realism there were one or two lovely comedic touches, particularly when Stika guiltily returned the cigarette case he had just stolen from Kristen or when Kent and Warren both turn up at the same to visit Sonia, with identical bunches of flowers. Mention must also be made of the film’s superb lighting and cinematography which produced some breathtaking images, one in particular catching the eye as Kristen walks to the window of his cheap hotel and the beams of light stream in through the window blinds
This was indeed a film drama rather than melodrama, no histrionics, no melodramatics, just people trying to do what they judged to be right in the situation they found themselves in. A contemporary reviewer of the film wrote in Film Journal (Oct 1th 1929) “There are films that emerge completely in silence, one day they are there and, behold, they have the calm self-assurance of the excellent. These are the SINS OF LOVE, to which we only want to think away the ugly, conventional and not even fitting title, as the only dissonance. Everything else is first class. ”
First class indeed!
Finally, a word about the live musical accompaniment for the film from Ivan Acher. This was a combination of composed pre-recorded material featuring in particular the flugelhorn, live-mixed with an improvised electronic score. The result was often an ethereal, almost other-worldly, sound which didn’t necessarily always follow the highs and lows of what was appearing on-screen but which, rather, gave a sense of the of the era and the more overarching tones and themes of the picture. Once I got used to this I thought that it worked well and contributed nicely to the feel of the film. It would also, I think, work equally well as a stand-alone piece of music prompting me to track down more of Ivan Acher’s work.
(NB. Sadly Sins of Love appears unavailable on disc although with the film having been recently restored one will hopefully come soon. There is no sign of it being available to watch on-line.)