Saturday, October 05, 2013

Setřelé písmo / [The Missing Letters]

SETŘELÉ PÍSMO (Tajemství staré knihy) [Le lettere mancanti / The Missing Letters; Il mistero dell’antico libro / The Mystery of the Old Book] (Globusfilm, CZ 1921). D: Josef Rovenský; SC: Joe Jenčík, Jan S. Kolár; DP: Otto Heller; C: Anny Ondráková (Enny, la fioraia/a flower-girl), Karel Lamač (Šalda, uno scultore/a sculptor), Josef Rovenský (Randa, uno scultore/a sculptor), Joe Jenčík (Greeman, il truffatore/an international crook), Hana Jenčíková (Olga, la modella/Šalda’s model), Karel Schleichert, Josef Šváb-Malostranský, Josef Košák (professori e membri del museo/professors and museum members), Josef Neuberg, František Tichý, Frank Rose-Růžička (membri della banda di Greeman/ members of Greeman’s gang); release date: 25.2.1921; 35 mm, 1507 m, 73' (18 fps); print source: Národní filmový archiv, Praha. Czech intertitles. E-subtitles in English and Italian. Grand piano: Philip C. Carli. Viewed at Teatro Verdi (Pordenone, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), 5 Oct 2013.

Michal Večeřa: "Setřelé písmo (The Missing Letters) tells the story of a greedy sculptor, Šalda, who is searching for the second part of a medieval manuscript containing instructions for finding a treasure. He confides his plans to his lover Olga, who leaves him when he rejects her as the model for his next statue. To take revenge on Šalda, Olga gangs up with a crook called Greeman, and together they decide to get the manuscript for themselves. In the meanwhile, Šalda engages Randa, a starving sculptor, as his assistant. Randa brings Enny, a poor flower-girl,in as a new model for Šalda’s work. When Šalda finds out that Randa is in love with Enny, he blackmails him into stealing the manuscript."

"The most fascinating aspect of this film is its production history. It contains footage from Palimpsest, a now-lost film made the previous year, which had been financed by Karel Kahlenbacher, the owner of a Prague laundry house, directed by Joe Jenčík, and shot mostly on location. The film was later reworked  by a production company called Globusfilm, and new scenes were shot in studios in Berlin and Vienna. Unfortunately, no evidence about the contents of the first film has survived, so we cannot say exactly which scenes were shot for the second film. However, some clues might be given by the different sharpness  and contrast of certain shots, even within one scene. The cohesion of the film’s fictional world is further disturbed when characters are photographed in front of a black background."

"In general, we can follow two principal tendencies in Czech cinema of the 1910s and early 1920s: staging in a tableau style, and analytical editing inspired by American films of the period. While Setřelé písmo includes many tableaux, these are interrupted by cut-ins, where the camera moves from long shots or full-figure shots to medium shots. This often results in a disruption of continuity – the subsequent shots lack cohesion in the characters’ looks and movement, and violate the 180-degree rule."

"The circumstances of the film’s creation probably also affected the logic of the events depicted. Judging from the fragmentary references of the period, Palimpsest already appeared somewhat chaotic, and even the participation of several of the more progressive filmmakers of the period – Jan S. Kolár, Karel Lamač, and Josef Rovenský – in the reworking of the original could not save the logical coherence of the second picture. We can only guess why the group of villains set out for the country and then return to their hideaway in town, why the gang leader Greeman jumps from the bridge into the river, or how two of the characters find themselves on a rooftop."

"Anny Ondráková was at the very beginning of her career at the time of Setřelé písmo, and she only appears in a supporting role, as the flower-girl Enny. We cannot even be sure if she appeared in Palimpsest in the same role. Whatever the case, her character here is very different from her later roles. She remains entirely passive, controlled by surrounding events. Her passivity is most obvious in the love triangle involving her, Šalda, and Randa. The villain Šalda uses Randa’s feelings for Enny to force him to steal the manuscript. And although  Randa’s feelings affect the development of the action, Enny is not really involved; she stands apart, overshadowed by the other characters."

"While Setřelé písmo appears as a qualitatively very uneven work, we need to remember that it marks the very first collaboration of several remarkable  artists of the inter-war Czechoslovak cinema – Anny Ondráková, Karel Lamač, cinematographer Otto Heller, and director and actor Josef Rovenský." – Michal Večeřa (The GCM Catalog)

AA: Important in the context of Czech film history, mediocre as a work in its own right. Twice I thought about the Blackmail connection: when Anny stands model to the artist, and when we visit the museum and its dome. The palimpsest theme is interesting: the double text, where one text is visible, and the other one hidden. The scene at the café of the artists is funny. The revenge plot is not terribly compelling. Anny Ondra has not yet found herself. She is a bit stiff and absent-minded. The print is often very nice, and the colour is fine. Sometimes there is a duped look.

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