Vintage soldier photos with a twist

Due to my move and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, I’ll once again only be posting on Sunday and Monday of this week. To mark Memorial Day, here are some vintage photos of soldiers you may not have seen before.

A U.S. Army medic in WWII takes some time to help civilian children.

A U.S. Army medic (45th Infantry Division) and a captured Wehrmacht medic work together on a wounded Wehrmacht soldier, Anzio, Italy, 6 February 1944

U.S. Army medic treating a wounded Waffen SS soldier, 1944

1 July 1944, U.S. Army medics helping a wounded dog found in the rubble of Carentan, France

Some medics (like my character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov of the Canadian Army) were trained as vets instead of people doctors, so why shouldn’t some human doctors sometimes switch their focus too?

1944, medics’ station

1943, wounded soldiers being evacuated sans ambulance

A Wehrmacht soldier with a soft spot for kittens

A cat hissing at a Wehrmacht soldier

A little boy saying goodbye to his father during WWII

WWI medics helping a wounded dog

He was caught and relieved of his post shortly afterwards, his ultimate fate unknown. It’s hard to believe the Berlin Wall really existed in my own lifetime and that there used to be two Germanys, since there’s been one unified Germany for 75% of my life so far!

Intolerance at 100, Part II (Behind the Scenes)

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Though many people hold Intolerance as one of the finest films of the silent era, and one of the earliest art films, it wasn’t so popular when it was originally released. It bombed so badly, D.W. Griffith’s production corporation faced bankruptcy.

However, contrary to urban legend, the film’s distributor, Triangle Film Corporation, didn’t go bankrupt because of it. Their 1918 bankruptcy was caused by Harry Aiken’s embezzlement.

It cost around $2.5 million to produce this film, $47 million in 2016 figures, making it the most expensive film produced to date. About a third of that was for the Babylonian story. Since most of the costs came out of Griffith’s own pockets, this played a huge role in his financial ruin.

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Initially, only the modern story (called The Mother and the Law) was planned. Then Griffith decided to include three parallel stories. The original director’s cut was about eight hours long.

In process of editing it down to a relatively reasonable length, the Judean and French stories suffered the most. I’d really like to see that original super-long version for comparison, since those two stories are so undeveloped in the final cut.

In 1919, Griffith released The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon (the most richly-developed, compelling stories) as standalones, with some new scenes which are quite different from the 1916 release. It’s too bad he didn’t do the same with the other two stories, so we could see how they looked before all that cutting.

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Intolerance has a huge cast full of stars, much like the original 1925 Ben-Hur. Sadly, most of these actors are completely unheard-of among modern audiences, people like Bobby Harron (who phenomenally plays The Boy), Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Walter Long (always such a wonderful villain, and playing The Musketeer), Constance Talmadge (as both The Mountain Girl and Princess Marguerite of Valois, in her first major roles), and character actor Tully Marshall (as High Priest of Bel-Marduk).

Griffith’s sentimentalism is on full display with a lot of the character names—The Boy, The Dear One, The Rhapsode, The Mountain Girl, The Musketeer, The Friendless One, The Kindly Heart, Brown Eyes, and The Princess Beloved.

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Over the years, Intolerance has built a much greater reputation, and served as an influence on many filmmakers, particularly European and Soviet. In 1923, Buster Keaton parodied it as Three Ages.

Intolerance at 100, Part I (General overview)

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Released 5 September 1916, D.W. Griffith’s 3.5-hour Intolerance was created to counter all the criticism he’d weathered for The Birth of a Nation the previous year. However, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t make it as some nitrate apology letter. The themes and title were intended as a response to critics he felt had been intolerant of him.

This was my 838th silent (out of 1,125 seen to date), and, speaking as someone steeped in silent cinema, this isn’t exactly a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent, or even one of the first 25 or 50. It’s the kind of film you really need a solid grounding in silent cinema to understand, let alone want to sit down and watch.

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This very ambitious film takes the form of four different stories, all woven together by a common theme of intolerance. The stories are intercut more and more frequently as the overall story progresses, to show their commonalities and parallels. Each story has its own color tint.

First, and perhaps most famously, is the story of the fall of Babylon. Next up on the timeline is the story of Jesus, starting with his first miracle at Cana. The third story relates the events surrounding the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. Last is a contemporary story.

Between each shift, The Eternal Motherhood (Lillian Gish) rocks a cradle, symbolizing the passage of time. I’m surprised she wasn’t given a meatier role, since she was Griffith’s favorite leading lady.

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Though it comes last in the overall timeline, we open with the modern story. Miss Mary Jenkins, a wealthy spinster, needs more money to finance her various charities. Her greedy, profits-driven brother cuts her a check, but it soon becomes clear that’s not enough. In response, he institutes a 10% pay cut for his workers, who start a strike. This strike is put down most brutally.

Many former employees move to the big city for new jobs, The Boy and The Dear One’s father among them. Suffering in poverty, The Boy turns to crime out of desperation.

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The Boy and The Dear One meet and begin dating. Since it was a huge scandal for a woman to be caught alone with an unrelated man, they quickly marry. When the Boy tries to quit crime, his boss, The Musketeer, frames him as a thief, and he goes to prison.

And then:

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What a vile pack of old biddies with nothing better to do than to meddle in strangers’ lives!

After The Boy’s release, The Dear One turns to The Musketeer for help in getting her baby back. The Musketeer has an ulterior motive, and tries to rape her. In the ensuing fight, The Musketeer’s girlfriend shoots him and escapes.

The cops come to the tenement, and judge The Boy guilty through circumstantial evidence. Keep in mind, this was before Miranda Rights! The Boy is arrested, sent back to prison, and condemned to the gallows. Can he be saved in time?

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I think it’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with at least the basics of the life of Jesus. This section begins with his first miracle by the wedding at Cana (turning water into wine), then goes through some of the other Biblical events, ending with the Crucifixion.

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Third to be introduced is the French story, which shows the bad blood between Catholics and Huguenots in the time of Charles IX. This story really suffers from cast bloat. So many characters are introduced so quickly, it’s hard to remember who’s whom!

Though the Jesus story is the shortest of the four, it’s actually the French story which feels the most undeveloped. Huge chunks of time also transpire between each segment. When the massacre begins, it’s hard to feel gut-wrenching anguish, since we didn’t get to know these characters at all. This story is just kind of there.

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Finally, we get to the decadent Babylonian story. There are rival factions at work, as well as a storyline about the “incorrigible” Mountain Girl getting punished by being sent to the marriage market so a “good husband” can “tame” her. Belshazzar saves her, but she later gets in trouble again by fighting against Belshazzar’s rival.

Then King Cyrus of Persia moves in with his army, and the fall of Babylon commences.

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Overall, I liked this film a lot better the second time around. It does have weaknesses, and its style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a very important part of film history.

Happy 100th birthday, Homunculus!

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Homunculus, a six-part horror series released from June 1916–January 1917, is a film many silent cinephiles have heard about (particularly with such a memorable title), but which few have actually gotten a chance to see. For many years, it remained exclusively the domain of film history books and pictures, apart from a shoddy-quality print of Part Four.

The print I saw recently is the print most silent cinephiles have seen, a cut-down Italian version which became available several years ago.

Everything changed on 17 August 2014, when a meticulously-restored (albeit work-in-progress), near-complete print of all six parts premièred by the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn.

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Stefan Droßler, director of Filmmuseum München, undertook the most gargantuan task of restoring and reassembling the entire series. Russia’s Gosfilmofond gave him the footage after a lot of negotiating.

There were 27 reels, in quite good condition, from all six parts, but they weren’t exactly in their proper order. In process of copying the footage onto safety stock, everything had been cut and mixed up, and the filmstrips were only sorted by their original tints.

All the intertitles had also been removed, replaced by single frames with the first three words of each missing intertitle scratched on.

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Since no censorship records with the original intertitles had survived, Hr. Droßler had to make entirely new titles. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn those censorship records were destroyed in a bombing raid during WWII, since that’s how a lot of old German and Prussian military records were destroyed.

Hr. Droßler reassembled six hours’ worth of footage and created intertitles with the help of every last speck of material he could find from other archives, photographs, and programs. After the Bonn première and a second showing in München on 4 September 2014, the restoration continued.

In November 2015, MoMA showed the latest version of the restoration.

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The film which premièred by the Bonn film festival ran 196 minutes, at a speed of 25 frames per second. Back in 1916, the average projection speed was about 16–20 FPS, though it varied from 12–22 until it was standardized to 24 FPS in 1926.

The reassembled film is based upon the 1920 reissue, which had summarized all six parts into but three. Thus, there’s probably still material missing from the 1916 original footage. According to those who’ve seen the restoration, it doesn’t feel fragmentary.

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A lot of important horror film motifs come from this granddaddy of horror cinema, like the hunchbacked assistant, the mad scientist’s exuberance upon bringing his creature to life, and the brooding, dark, caped figure. However, since it came out in 1916 Germany, it was only seen in occupied or neutral European countries.

The 1920 reissue didn’t have a much wider reach, since all things German were very unpopular. Many U.S. theatres, for example, refused to play Dr. Caligari that same year, and there were protests and angry letters to newspapers when some theatres did carry it.

At any rate, it did have an undeniable influence upon horror cinema. Not many Americans had the chance to see it, but they were influenced by horror films made by people who had seen it, particularly all the great German Expressionist horror films. It’s a chain reaction, cultural osmosis.

On to the actual film itself!

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The installments are as follows:

The Birth of the Homunculus
The Mysterious Book
The Tragic Love Story of the Homunculus
The Revenge of Homunculus
The Annihilation of Humankind
The End of the Homunculus

Popular Danish actor Olaf Fønss played the title role, and got the highest salary in German film history up till that point. Shooting began in May 1916, and Part One premièred 22 June by Berlin’s Marble House theatre. Parts Two through Five ran over the rest of 1916, and Part Six released January 1917. Each installment was divided into four acts.

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Profs. Ortmann and Hansen are in competition to artificially create human life. The first to succeed is Hansen, with help from his hunchbacked assistant Rodin. Their creation is a baby boy, though historically, a Homunculus referred to a miniature, fully-formed human.

Tragically, Ortmann and his wife lose their newborn baby boy at only a few days old, and Ortmann immediately bring over the Homunculus. After the switch is made, Hansen believes his experiment failed.

Ortmann raises Homunculus as his own son, Richard. The boy grows up normally, but for one major issue: he doesn’t have the ability to love.

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At age 25, Homunculus discovers the truth about his creation, and swears revenge on Hansen, his heart burning with hatred. In spite of his inability to love, he courts and marries Hansen’s daughter Margarete. After their marriage, he lets Hansen in on the secret.

Hansen is horrified, and orders Margarete to leave Homunculus. Margarete, however, loves Homunculus, and saves him when Hansen tries to poison him.

In Part Two, Homunculus befriends a stray dog in North Africa, turns his wrath on Rodin, and miraculously heals a king. The queen and advisors are very suspicious of Homunculus, and once they present evidence of his artificial origins, the king orders him seized. Homunculus escapes the angry mob and vows to kill the next person he meets.

In a scene very reminiscent of The Golem, Homunculus encounters two small children, and he changes his track (at least temporarily).

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Since I’ve only seen a condensed version, I can’t recap the entire thing accurately, but I can say there’s a lot of chaos, destruction, and drama. I can’t wait to see it onscreen or on DVD!

Italy’s first feature film

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I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!

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1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.

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If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.

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The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.

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L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.

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There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.

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It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.