Newly restored and re-released on DVD/ Blu-ray 4th April, 2017
*This review contains spoilers
I’m always excited by the miraculous survival of early films and the international collaborations that make restoration and re-release possible. Sadly we’ve lost an enormous amount of Silent Era film production, but amazingly material is still being discovered, in private collections, archives, vaults and attics. The establishment of global networks and conventions to help bring this scattered material together also makes me eternally hopeful of Silent treasures still out there waiting to be found. The transformation of these fragments through restoration, honouring the vision of the original filmmakers and providing scope for reinterpretation, contribute significantly to how we see the world and ourselves.
The newly restored DVD/ Blu-Ray release of Behind the Door (1919) by Flicker Alley is the result of an inspiring international collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress and the Gosfilmfond (Russian national archive), with a new score composed and performed by one of the world’s leading Silent Film accompanists Stephen Horne. It is a magnificent achievement in the preservation of international film heritage, crafted with care, attention to detail and with humanity as the baseline of musical interpretation. The level of skill from film restorers and the composer in serving the film, creating an emotionally intelligent and multi-layered experience for audiences is extraordinary and heartfelt. Behind the Door will be a surprising discovery for contemporary viewers in terms of how the shocking nature of the story is compassionately nuanced by colour, composition and sound. This isn’t just a post WWI propaganda film or one dimensional shock Horror but something more satisfyingly complex in its original Craft, contemporary restoration and brilliantly insightful musical score.
The restoration of Behind the Door is the blessed sum of surviving elements. An incomplete 35mm print, a roll of outtakes and a small roll of shots from the estate of lead actor Hobart Bosworth preserved by the Library of Congress were brought together with an edited export print conserved by Gosfilmofund, Russia and a copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script loaned by Film Historian Robert Birchard. In the words of restorer Robert Byrne the director’s script was a significant discovery in ensuring “that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence”, providing “a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original colour tinting scheme [was] also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls.” What we can now enjoy is “the most complete version of the film” seen since its original release almost a century ago and I hope that cinemas and festivals will enable audiences worldwide to discover it on the big screen.
In addition to the US feature restored by Robert Byrne, James Cozart, Seth Miller, Lori Raskin and Anne Marie Smatla, the DVD/Blu-ray release also includes the Russian version of the film re-edited and re-titled, documentaries on the restoration and the career of director Irvin Willat by celebrated Film Historian Kevin Brownlow, outtakes, stills and a booklet featuring essays by Film Restorer Robert Byrne, Film Historian Jay Weissburg and composer Stephen Horne. Regardless of your level of interest, there are multiple routes into the story, making, context and preservation of the film that add value to the release and shed light on why restoration is so valuable, vital and relevant in a digital world.
Behind the Door was a revelation to me on multiple levels and I’m sure that it will provide potent inspiration for contemporary artists. It also presents an opportunity for reappraisal of our relationship to early film, our understanding of history, human behaviour and current events. To some extent the film’s reputation precedes the experience of watching it. The expectations of contemporary audiences in terms of what is considered “shocking” , “gruesome” or violent doesn’t prepare viewers for the emotional impact of what is not graphically depicted on screen. When Behind the Door was first released in 1919 it was a box office success and highly praised by critics with favourable comparisons to the work of D.W.Griffith. The sensationalism of the story and the whole notion of Horror, rooted in the traumatic aftermath of WWI transcends the period in which it was made, aided considerably by the contemporary score. Behind the Door and its sensitive restoration demonstrate beautifully that Silent Films aren’t primitive relics or the remnants of a bygone age but a living, breathing Art. The plight of the central character Oscar Krug (played by the wonderfully expressive Hobart Bosworth) as “other” has resonance on many levels, particularly in a rising tide of xenophobia circa 2017.
Jo Taylor’s photography together with the depth and emotional texture of colour tinting, a practice which was widespread at the time, enhances the tone of the film beautifully. In the opening sequence when we witness Krug’s return to the windswept coast of Maine, the hilltop scene is aglow with the pink setting sun, contrasted with the silhouettes of gravestones in deeply immersive indigo. That setting sun/ end of life colouration together with the mercifully tender voice of solo piano frames the character and gently foreshadows the arc of the story about to unfold. Later in the opening sequence the evocation of night in inky ultramarine soothes like the texture of velvet and the glockenspiel aligns with that feeling, introducing an otherworldly sense of a man revisiting the life and love he once had amidst the decaying ruin of his taxidermist shop. The sparing, plucked sound is as fragile and vulnerable as the character we see before and within us. As Krug lights a candle the yellow glow of the interior provides an atmosphere of compassion and remembrance. “Alone, forlorn and forgotten” he sees the handkerchief of his beloved Alice and we feel as he does, in the delicately mysterious melody of the flute, the state of holding on to someone long after they’ve passed. This melody is fluidly expanded by the piano, leading us on “a back trail through the haunted lanes of yesterday”, into Krug’s past, to the town of Bartlett, Maine, 1917. The seamless pacing of the score is perfectly in tune with the emotional gravitas of each scene and integral to our empathy with the central protagonist. Horne’s music renders the character in flesh, blood and consciousness, emerging out of the dire circumstances he finds himself in and becoming a more sympathetic character than we might have imagined.
Although he is a demonised figure, the focus of anti- German propaganda and ultimately a murderer, Krug is also an expression of collective loss and it is the subtle restraint of the music that enables us to feel that underlying truth. This reinterpretation through sound is one of the defining features of the restoration. The scale of mechanised carnage during WWI had never been seen before. Made just one year after the war ended, an entire generation of shattered lives was the reality with mental and physical scars still painfully raw. In this context the film is arguably not shocking at all. It is that psychological perspective and historical hindsight that bring perceptive shifts to the interpretation, illuminated through sound. Krug’s extreme actions feel like a manifestation of the pain, loss and rage so many would have felt at the time. The Horror in this film is lived rather than imagined and I suspect that this, together with the propaganda element helped the film make it past the censors. In killing a German Commander, someone with whom he shares language and ancestry, Krug kills part of himself, in turn becoming the barbaric, brutal, vengeful, cruel and despised figure the townsfolk have cast him as. But surprisingly Oscar Krug is overwhelmingly a figure of grief rather than a monster. In the end love redeems him in being reunited with his beloved wife Alice (played with great conviction and sincerity by Jane Novak). That tempering of judgement towards what could so easily have been a one dimensional villain is expanded by the score. The empathy we feel for Krug almost eclipses his crime because it is effectively given a wider, deeper frame of reference. Krug’s final actions are an expression of the worst that human beings are capable of. Whilst that is anchored to the historical horrors of war, it is also timelessly rooted in the human condition and what fundamentally drives us. The unhinged capacity for vengeance is fatally partnered with love. In early scenes Krug is portrayed as an obsessively passionate man and a true patriot willing to defend himself, his home and his principles with his bare fists if necessary. The fight that ensues is startlingly real as the escalating energy of the mob spirals out of control. The suggestion from the massed townsfolk is that propensity for violence is in Krug’s blood, accompanied by the derogatory label of “Hun”, but the lack of civilization is in the home grown lynch mob who turn on a member of their community as “other” with frightening speed.
Even with the anti-German sentiment of the time, it is hard not to imagine potential identification with the suffering of Oscar Krug and returned survivors of WWI. Although part of the navy rather than serving in the trenches in the story, his shaking hands echo the tremors of shellshock. When we first meet him he is clearly a broken, destitute man engulfed in shadows, as so many were in the aftermath of the Great War. That unspoken Horror becomes the unconscious driver of his revenge for the violation and death of his wife Alice. Surprisingly here in 1919, a largely hidden war crime is depicted. Although certainly used to portray the enemy as sadistic, amoral animals devoid of human empathy, the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Alice is also on some level an acknowledgement of the wartime experiences of generations of women. Sexual violence is a policy and a weapon still being used around the world today that cannot be relegated to history. More often than not the image of the devoted sweetheart/ wife / mother keeping the home fires burning is the one we see, with the suffering of women as casualties of war rarely given screen time. In Behind the Door Alice isn’t simply a passive love interest but a woman who chooses Krug against her father’s wishes and community, follows him to sea and becomes an innocent victim of circumstances beyond her control. We see in her interactions with the suitor her father has chosen that she has made up her own mind about her destiny and future happiness before the madness of war intervenes. Although in 1919 the atrocities of rape, torture and murder in Behind the Door were undoubtedly used as a vehicle for propaganda, for this contemporary viewer the suggestion of violence in being unseen is what powerfully takes hold. We are so accustomed to violence and gore depicted graphically on screen, that visual storytelling placing Horror behind the door for the audience to imagine is stronger and more affecting than anything the director could have shown us. Contemporary directors and screenwriters take note!
Stephen Horne’s score is resoundingly led by the film and its “visceral”, cathartically emotional” core. With characteristic grace and skill he refrains from over the top declarations of drama or pushing obvious, emotive musical buttons. His multi instrumental approach utilising the full expressive range of piano including the inner strings, thumb piano, glockenspiel, accordion and flute, provides scope for multi-layered exploration of the story, the characters and their motivations. Even in highly dramatic scenes his control is enviable with Horror communicated in a haptic way, in the finely scraped inner strings like the glint of light on a scalpel being drawn across the viewer’s skin. Sound isn’t used as a ham fisted statement of rage illustrating action, but as an exchange between the idea, the emotional core of the story and the motivations of human beings portrayed on screen. Equally the tenderness of Krug’s promise to Alice; “after the war we’ll go back to my shop” flowing into a faded rose tinted dream where love, hope and memory are entwined is conveyed by the fragile, ethereal timbre of the flute. What we feel in that moment is the characters’ shared vision and something more vulnerably real than the forced emotion and sonic illustration that dominates mainstream cinema. When interpreted in such a way Silent Film communicates a different way of seeing /being in the world and an expansively innovative creative vision. The re-release of Behind the Door is defined by the inspired alignment of the surviving film, its loving restoration and sensitive score now preserved complete for future generations.
www.silentfilm.org San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF)