|Carlo Aldini (Achilles)|
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in Italian, live music by Günter Buchwald (grand piano etc.) and Frank Bockius (percussions), 8 Oct 2015
Stefan Drössler (GCM catalog and website): "German silent film historians tend to focus on Berlin production companies, mainly Ufa, founded in 1917. Little is known about the second-largest German production company of the 1920s, the Munich-based Emelka, founded in 1919. The more than 100 silent feature films produced by Emelka are more or less forgotten, or lost (the most famous example is Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle). Only very few are known to exist, and just a handful of these have been restored. The most spectacular Emelka productions were two great epic films directed by Manfred Noa, Nathan der Weise (1922) and Helena. Der Untergang Trojas (1924). Both films were box-office hits. They were exported to countries all over the world and re-released several times in different cuts until the early 1930s."
"The shooting of Helena took place from June to November 1923, in and around Munich (Wolfrathshausen, Wörthsee, Steinebach). The international cast included popular actors from the theatre in Munich (Albert Steinrück, Fritz Ulmer, Ferdinand Martini) and Berlin (Carl de Vogt, Adele Sandrock, Albert Bassermann, Hanna Ralph), as well as well-known film actors from Italy (Edy Darclea, Carlo Aldini), Russia (Vladimir Gaidarov), and Czechoslovakia (Karel Lamac). It was a time of inflation, and the German film industry was blooming because the costs of a super-production with hundreds of extras and impressive sets could be covered by a single foreign sale."
"Hans Kyser’s screenplay cleverly adapted Homer’s Iliad for a two-part movie, with a structure similar to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, which was shot at the same time in Berlin: the two parts can be watched separately, and are of different mood."
"Part 1, The Elopement of Helen, shows the dream of Paris, his flight with Helen, Achilles winning a chariot race, Hector’s fight with a lion, and Menelaus leading the Greeks against Troy. "
"Part 2, The Fall of Troy, depicts the endless battle from a perspective obviously inspired by the German experience of the recent Great War: the battlefields are covered with dead bodies, mothers weep for their sons, all the heroes are broken characters, and the film doesn’t end with the destruction of Troy, but with the Greeks plundering the city’s treasures, including prisoners and women."
"The talented director Manfred Noa (1893-1930), whose name was erased from film history by the Nazis because of his Jewish descent, keeps the balance between impressive battle scenes, lavish production design, and beautifully photographed intimate scenes. His work received international praise. After a screening in London in January 1925, Variety’s critic wrote: “There is a tradition here to the fact that should a picture be mediocre everybody concerned is starred, the name of the producing company is printed In large caps and everything possible is done to throw sand in the eyes of critics and exhibitors. But, on the other hand, should the nature be of sterling worth, although of foreign birth, then the system is ‘hush-hush,’ and all are robbed of their legitimate kudos. "
"Helen of Troy, shown at the Palace by Cosmograph, is one of the latter. Of mixed Italian and Teutonic origin, it is a brilliant production in every way. As a spectacle carrying the imprint of truth and realism it would make D. W. Griffith sit up and consider his laurels, while the acting has never been bettered from the anonymous leads to the tiniest small part.”"
"Only fragmentary export prints in different cuts have survived, but no screenplay or German censorship files exist. So the reconstruction of the film became a jigsaw puzzle. Scenes had to be put together shot by shot. In some portions, especially at the very beginning of Part 1, inferior-quality shots had to be used because no better material has survived. Since at least two slightly different camera negatives were used for the foreign versions and since at least one reel with outtakes and alternative shots surfaced, in some cases the restorers had to select the material."
"The restoration of Helena began in 1999, using prints from the Cinémathèque Suisse, the Cineteca Nazionale, the Filmoteca Española, Gosfilmofond, and Filmmuseum München. Late additional material was found at the Bundesarchiv, the Deutsches Filminstitut, and in a private collection. The analogue printing was done at Haghefilm in Amsterdam, and the digital scanning at Alpha-Omega Digital in Munich. The newly created intertitles use the font style of Nathan der Weise, Noa’s previous film for the same production company, with framing design from the Spanish titles because they were similar to the style used in the film’s original programme booklet. The text is based on the foreign titles; the wording is taken from contemporary sources." – Stefan Drössler
AA: This is the best film I have seen about the fall of Troy. Ten years ago at Le Giornate, then in Sacile, we saw a splendid restoration of La caduta di Troia (IT 1911, Giovanni Pastrone and Romano Luigi Borgnetto, 34 min) with impressive vignettes in tableau style. Robert Wise's Helen of Troy (US/IT/FR 1956) is a dependable big budget epic starring Rossana Podestà. Wolgang Petersen's Troy (MT/GB/US 2004) is a turbo-charged re-telling of the epic with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Diane Kruger as Helen.
Somehow in Weimar Germany there was a fruitful atmosphere to film the greatest tales of mankind with huge budgets, and most importantly, with enthusiasm and inspiration. Helena – Der Untergang Trojas belongs to the same league with Manfred Noa's other masterpiece Nathan der Weise (Le Giornate 1997), Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (filmed in Berlin at the same time as Helena was shot in Munich), and F. W. Murnau's Faust.
In the cast and the crew everyone had a fresh memory of the recent WWI which lends a special sense of conviction to scenes of carnage, conflagration and mourning. And profound fatigue in a seemingly never-ending war.
The screenwriter Hans Kyser wrote, besides Helena, also Nathan der Weise (his first screen credit) and Faust. His other screenplays include Manon Lescaut, Grossstadtschmetterling, and the last film adaptation of Der Student von Prag.
Although Homer's Iliad (ca 710 BC) is the most prominent source for the Troyan story, none of the films are based on it. As we know, the Iliad only covers passages from the the ninth year of the Troyan war, starting with the decision of Achilleus to withdraw and ending with Hector's funeral.
I have read the Iliad in Finnish, translated by Otto Manninen in authentic hexameter. It is not a piece of (good) storytelling: it is a grand song epic, a masterpiece of poetry and language which lives as a word treasure. Little details of the action are extended, and main events are covered so fleetingly that they may get lost in all that word magic.
The gods play such a major role that it is hard for a modern reader to relate to the psychology of the protagonists.
Hans Kyser recreates the epic completely, partly with the Iliad as a source, but much more from many other sources of ancient Greek tales relevant to the saga of Helen and the fall of Troy. Hans Kyser and Manfred Noa based their version on characters that we can understand psychologically. Gods have not lost their standing, but they remain much more in the background.
One can think of this film from the viewpoint of Helen, the Queen of Sparta. She is afraid to participate in the feast of Aphrodite because she knows herself too well. But the vain king Menelaus wants her to go, certain of her victory as the most beautiful woman in the world. In the finale Helen saves Menelaus from the arrow of Paris, and Menelaus saves Helen in turn and takes her back to Sparta.
One can think of this film as the story of two bad kings. Besides the vain Menelaus there is Priam, the king of Troy, who ends up sacrificing all his children. The last fatal moment is when Achilles wants to retrieve the wreath of Cythera that belongs to the conqueror of the chariot race of Aphrodite. Priam promises it to him if he comes to the wall of Troy unarmed. But at the same time Priam promises his men that whoever kills Achilles with a poison arrow can have Helen. Paris is a man of honour, but Priam's promise puts him in an impossible position from which there can be no way out. Paris kills Achilles (hitting his heel with the poison arrow) and loses Helen's love forever.
Both kings, especially Priam, are warned, but they do not listen. In Priam's final nightmare there is an affinity with the writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel ("you have been weighed and found wanting", 5:27).
In Wolfgang Petersen's Troy I was amazed at the openly gay character of the love between Achilles and Patroclus. But the same goes already for Manfred Noa's version. There is true tenderness and passion in the male love story; I find Manfred Noa's account even more impressive. The passion and the fury of the death of Patroclus carries the narrative until the death of Achilles.
The crowd scenes, the chariot race, the action in general, the sea war, the sieges, Hector's funeral, and the Troyan horse chapter are marvellous.
There is some stiff acting. The performances of Vladimir Gaidarov and Carlo Aldini are not particularly good. The women are better, and Albert Basserman is impressive as the sage. There is such a compelling drive in the narrative that the weaknesses of casting are not fatal.
We heard an exciting and inspired musical interpretation to the epic by Günter A. Buchwald and Frank Bockius.
A wonderful restoration with a visual quality generally very good, sometimes (as in the beginning) from challenging sources, with fortunate colour choices in toning and tinting.