Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Det hemmelighedsfulde X / Sealed Orders

Det hemmelighedsfulde X. The last minute rescue.
Det hemmelighedsfulde X. Happy days before Count Spinelli, the spy, gets to read the sealed orders. Benjamin Christensen himself plays Ltn. van Hauen, and Karen Sandberg his wife.
Det hemmelighedsfulde X. The fatal paper elephant in van Hauen's hand. It has been cut from Count Spinelli's secret letter to Ms. van Hauen. Photos: Det Danske Filminstitut. Click to enlarge.
[L’X misterioso / The Mysterious X] (Dansk Biograf Compagni – DK 1914) D+SC+ED+P: Benjamin Christensen; DP: Emil Dinesen; C: Benjamin Christensen (Lieutenant van Hauen), Karen Sandberg (his wife), Fritz Lamprecht (Rear Admiral van Hauen), Amanda Lund (Jane, the old nanny), Hermann Spiro (Count Spinelli), Svend Rindom (the teacher); DCP, 85' (16 fps); titles: DAN; print source: Danish Film Institute Archive & Cinematheque, Kobenhavn.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with subtitles, grand piano (and bells): Stephen Horne, 7 Oct 2015

Daria Khitrova, Yuri Tsivian: "If the world were a stage (which it unfortunately isn’t) this program note could be started on a melancholy note. While Annus Mirabilis 1913 was frolicking in full view, the villainous 1914 was impatiently standing in the wings. To be fair, however, 1914 brought quite a number of good films, Sealed Orders being among the three best either of us remembers having seen."

"It is a “Teen film” both at its best and at its worst. Not unlike many movies of its time Sealed Orders combines stunning staging and daring treatment of lighting and art design with the most idiotic spy story you ever heard – more idiotic than that of its beautiful Italian forerunner Ma l’amor mio non muore, and almost as idiotic as the real spy scandal from 1913 (Alfred Redl, Austrian officer, Russian spy – Google for more information) on whose notoriety both films capitalize."

"That the story seems utterly laughable to us – as it will doubtlessly seem to you as well – may be our problem, not the film’s. Those born after World War I do not necessarily share the worries and values of pre-war filmgoers less averse than we are to men in uniform and their secret passions. We do not easily buy into army officers choosing between their duty and a beauty, or foreign spies combining must with lust. The code of honor, Renoir reminds us, was the last of illusions lost during WWI; those living in early 1914 or 1913 did believe that an officer in the service of the state would rather kill himself than be (falsely!) accused of selling maps, or face a firing squad rather than call his wife a whore. And it was for those now-extinct filmgoers that Christensen’s or Caserini’s films had been made."

"The reason why we assume people of the pre-war part of 1914 were more open to spy melodramas are the contemporary reactions to Sealed Orders. Those who read Danish must tell us if we are wrong, but the American reviews we unearthed did not find the film preposterous at all. “The story of Sealed Orders is pure melodrama,” Motion Picture News explained. “But it is melodrama of the finest type. Not once in all its six reels is there a false note struck, a situation overdrawn. There is not even an exaggerated gesture which might mar the whole. Throughout it is a wholesome, human story in which every element that appeals is blended and balanced to a nicety.” "

"Re-read this (28 March 1914, p.47) when the film is over. If you do, make sure you also read other praises in the same review – you will agree with those. “Photographically, the production is a marvel. Some of the effects obtained are absolutely unique ...” How true. One of unique things about Christensen is a passion for playing with stereoscopy and flatness: time and again, people on the screen will switch room lamps off and on again, turning their bodies into flat human silhouettes, then silhouettes into full-bodied humans."

"W. Stephen Bush, that crusader for quality pictures with the Moving Picture World, named what he thought was the main merit of Sealed Orders. Photography? “Stereoscopically clear.” The settings? “In a class by themselves.” Acting? Irreproachable. “Fine as these points are,” Bush then adds, “they are but the minor points of merit when compared to the main point of merit: the director. He is a man of inspiration, a masterhead of playing upon the emotional chords, an artist who can do things with and on the screen the likes of which has heretofore been almost unknown. We have had glimpses of them from one of our famous directors, but here we have the full blaze instead of the passing glimpse. The director’s name is Christensen, and depend upon it, you and I and all of us will hear from him as time goes on.”"

"One wonders what Griffith thought had he happened to stumble upon this review, dated 21 March 1914 (p.1654). Yet Bush was right; Sealed Orders was but the first time the world learned the name of Benjamin Christensen. More was bound to follow, and did." – Daria Khitrova, Yuri Tsivian

AA: Revisited Benjamin Christensen's first film which I had not seen in a quarter of a century. As we screened it in our History of the Danish cinema series we were amazed to discover a director who was as far advanced as the young Fritz Lang - five years earlier. Nobody was more advanced at the time than Christensen. He had a genuine and original talent as a visual storyteller.

The complexity of the storytelling and the inventiveness of the visual narration are already there. Mirrors expand space. Silhouettes are displayed excitingly. Light signals on the opposite shore are striking. Christensen belongs to the founding fathers in the use of isolated light spots in dark space; he does already here what John Alton did 30-35 years later. He was one of the original "princes of darkness". The fields of action are multi-layered.

The plot is diabolical as is the fate of the spy-traitor-seducer Count Spinelli in the attic of the windmill as he gets trapped by the door that gets stuck. The economy of Christensen's storytelling is admirable. The close-ups of the door hinge and the dead carrier pigeons have a Langian weight. Not forgetting the elephant-formed cut-out made from Count Spinelli's secret letter to Mrs. Van Hauen.

There is a strange dream sequence by Mrs. Van Hauen with elephants: in her dream she realizes the mystery of the X to mean the wings of the windmill. There is a war, but Mrs. Van Hauen simply runs through the battlefield to the mill to save the crook and elicit his confession to save her husband. There is a last minute rescue for Mr. Van Hauen who is about to be executed for treason at dawn.

The performances are sober. The characters feel empty; I am not moved by them as I am moved by the characters of Griffith.

I do not know when this DCP was made but there is a slight feeling of an early digital master made for a dvd. The difference is great to the beautiful 35 mm print of Hævnens Nat we saw five years ago here in the Il canone rivisitato project.

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