The breadth of programming at the International Film Festival Rotterdam allows something glorious: room for others to build their own domains, unique pockets of how to view cinema and, through it, the world. Sound//vision is one such place, a corridor of exciting, variable programming happening each night in such a way that an attendee could only do that and have a rich, expanded festival experience. There are other pockets of curation in the 2019 program as well: a profile of African-American artist Cauleen Smith (who brought with her a beautiful 16mm restoration of her sprightly, Oakland-set 1998 debut, Drylongso), profiles of directors Charlotte Pryce (which included two lovely live slideshow performances) and Edgar Pêra, and a tantalizing section devoted to spy cinema which adroitly ranges over the mainstream to the arthouse, from Hollywood to the Czech Republic to South Korea, from 1928 to 2018. And then there is the “Laboratory of Unseen Beauty,” a series whose code word, as its curator Olaf Möller described it, was “ruin films”—movies unfinished, abandoned, some picked up by others, some left in a state of incompletion, some never really intended to be shown in a cinema, and all, by dint of them being shown now, are shown as finished films—films finished as unfinished. This state could be “a description of cinema as such,” Möller gleefully noted, and in this laboratory “whatever happens will be interesting.”
This bizarre limbo-state takes on many forms in the retrospective. A paradigmatic example is Thirty Years of Motion Pictures (The March of the Movies), a documentary from 1927 which recounts the short history of the medium up that that point. Originally a clip-based lecture, it was eventually turned into a film that could be toured, but the complete film (or lecture experience) has been historically noted to be three hours long, whereas what remains is only two—it may be missing up to one third of cinema’s history! Other notable gaps include the fact that this film basically only refers to American and Western European cinema and little else, and, more obviously, that its history of film stops in 1927, a history that as long as the medium survives will always be incomplete and partial. Being aware of what’s missing, of the blank spaces that the audience can fill in, points towards the intrinsic “ruin” quality of most documentaries, which, to be shown, always have to halt their investigations. It is also particularly fascinating to see what and who is emphasized: Edison and many other early inventors and alternative cinema machines (the Kinetoscope!), many stars and most unknown by me, Caligari as the example of “film art,” Griffith as one of the few filmmakers named (Méliès another), many different kinds of early color processes (Prizma!), and, for what feels like ages, imagery of the simultaneous technological progression of aviation and film (Paul Virilio would be proud), culminating in a display of naval smoke screen dropped by one plane and filmed by another, creating a curtained oceanic vision out of a science fiction film.
In a program filled with whatsits, the laboratory contained nothing quite as bizarre as His Nibs, a 1921 comedy that absorbed the unreleased material of a nearly (if not totally) complete comedy starring the vaudevillian Chic Sale and presents it as film inside the film. That is: Gregory La Cava, later known as screwball royalty, filmed a framing story about the screening of a film in a small town. The cinema is run by an old codger (the teasingly dubbed nibs of the title), also played by Sale—in fact, the actor plays several different roles in this framing story of the cinema, including a dopey usher, a vaudevillian singer of no talent, a film critic who styles himself as the local censor, and the old female piano accompaniment to the pictures. (The opening credits, suffering heavy celluloid damage, are meant to showcase Sale in each disguise, but due to the poor materials these images have been held in a damaged freeze-frames, which gives the ghastly effect of Sale’s faces degraded and corroded, as if flesh is falling from his skull.) We see much amusing anecdotes in lead-up to the start of the film, including the hostile reception to the terrible vaudevillian, various small-town audience types, as well as a few false starts—such as when a reel of film falls out of the booth and the old man has to hobble down the street to retrieve it! Inside this combination of comedy and, for modern audiences, delightfully particular observations on moviegoing during the era (the projector is hand-cranked by the projectionist!, we get another film: Al Christie’s unreleased A Smart Aleck, which was to be the Chic Sale’s first film, shown inside the movie under the title He Fooled ‘Em All.
This film-within-the-film is a significantly less funny comedy also starring Sale, but it is shown with the title cards cut out by the projectionist because, he says, of rampant occurrences of the audience reading them out loud. Instead, he (Sale as the old man) narrates the picture (starring Sale). As the series curator stated with no exaggeration, this is a “treasure of meta-cinema,” laying a surrealist groundwork followed up more famously in Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924)and something like Hellzapoppin’ (1941). In a combination of taking over the narration and stripping out the dialog, the codger acts as a kind of benshi, interpreting the action as he sees it, and, for example, cutting out a scene of a train journey because “it’s the same in every picture.” His commentary also injects hilarious slang patois into the rather unremarkable He Fooled ‘Em All: a villain’s arrest is described as “City Slicker gets pinched for selling blue sky.” Each cutaway to these title cards also includes a shot of the projectionist cranking the projector, narrating what we’re reading—we’re thus never “in” the original Chic Sale movie, only watching it sardonically with a local audience used to the casual free-flowing shenanigans of their small town cinema. In short, it’s a delight, copping to the absurdity not just of the movies but of the movie-going experience, one in which a sign warns “no flirting is allowed.”
Remarkably, the program featured another silent film survey, but one of even stranger origin and with one of cinema’s most tantalizing loglines: directed by Cinémathèque française co-founder Henri Langlois. Or perhaps, “mixed by” would be a better characterization, as this absolutely unique artifact from 1974 is one massive (near three-hour) edit of French silent cinema from its dawn to 1930. Titled Montage muet français Palais des Congrès, it is, like so much in this series, not exactly a film, only now it has been again projected in a cinema, so there you go. It was originally made by Langlois for a presentation whose origins or motives are unclear, as is the thematic or narrative through-line in the epic, though it is said that when he presented the film Langlois was doing something akin to cutting it together live in the projection booth. It definitely goes chronologically through French cinema, definitely avoids a general historiography and obvious citations, and definitely gravitates towards films shot in Paris, yet none of these touchpoints elucidate exactly what Langlois’s epic essay film was intended for. It was found in the Cinémathèque on the shelves only recently and digitized, embalming what feels like a very specific and quite personal guided tour through cinema, with the guide (Langlois) missing. It plays silently, and it’s up to us, forty years after it was created for a single very specific screening, to make of it what we will. I for one found it one of the most fleet two-and-a-half-hour films I’ve seen, extraordinary and productively perplexing, and delighted in the wide range of movies made in the industrial art’s early years.
Where the hands of the artist were ambient and mysterious in Henri Langlois’s film, it was felt vividly in the startling Polish Holocaust drama Passenger (1963). Begun by Andrzej Munk as a drama about a newly married German woman on a cruise ship who recognizes among the passengers a woman who was a prisoner in Auschwitz when she was an SS group leader at the camp, the director died in a car accident mid-way through production, leaving behind bracing flashbacks to the camps and only still images from the contemporary scenes. A second director, Witold Lesiewicz, boldly finished the drama by transforming its address: First, it opens by acknowledging Munk and his death, showing photos of him and therefore suggesting what follows exists halfway between a compromised but finished film and an essay film about a possible way of adapting the remnants of Munk’s production. We then are presented with the modern-day framing story told in a montage of still images, with the only moving images being that of Auschwitz, a truly radical gesture for the weight and importance of history and memory over the frozen, ambiguous present. We see two different histories, in fact, the more flattering, less guilty one the woman reveals to her husband on the trip, and then what is suggested is the true story, more sadistic and cruel, but whose ultimate violence has been elided because it was never shot. So the film ends with a tone similar to a Twilight Zone episode, accented by the dreamy isolation of the cruise ship, as if by watching the film we have been presented with a disturbing possibility, one somewhat archly suggested may or may not have happened, may or may not be worse than even what we show—and yet the fact that it is a possibility at all is what finally is most terrifying. Lesiewicz does the honorable thing for Munk’s project by suggesting what it could be, by then making it his own, and then by implying that the horrors of the war contains multitudes, a fact that the cinema has the power to help elucidate.
Where Munk’s film was thwarted due to unexpected death, a new film by the Indian filmmaker Gurvinder Singh (Alms for a Blind Horse) was thwarted due to institutional interference. Sea of Lost Time was to be a feature film made by Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, created to highlight the actors and crew from the class that Singh teaches. For this university project he took stories from Gabriel García Márquez as a starting point for the film, which in its best moments has no problem transcending the limitations of its student production to achieve beauty. This is especially true in the haunting love story at its center, where a dead soldier returns to his home town in a dream and reunite with his love. She washes his body and in doing so washes away his wound, and the tender words spoken, glances given, and songs sung in this section ache with the ardor of young love. The two actors here, Anurag Urha and Kritika Pande, the latter whose songs lend a metaphysical tinge to their dreamed love, are exquisite. Alas, for reasons relating to a student protest and strike, the film’s production had to be stopped before it was completed, and while its main story comes to a kind-of conclusion, its side plots two feel like the fragments they are, and the true canvas of the story is only suggested. Yet as with so much of cinema, a whole picture hardly need to be good, or even complete, to be moving, to create an arc of emotion or thought, and Singh adroitly achieves something quite lovely inside his and his students’ film now forever left a ruin.
There is no doubt that Gurvinder Singh would have finished his film if he could. But, in one of the best discoveries in Rotterdam’s laboratory, one director actively decided not to finish his own work: Roberto Rossellini. Le psychodrame is a 1956 documentary experiment made for French television that never aired because Rossellini abandoned the production before its completion. This utterly bizarre and engrossing object was made by Rossellini before the Italian neorealist decisively moved from making his art movies for the cinema to making what are called his didactic films for television, movies which took a rigorously educative and factual mission as their purpose to dramatizing such subjects as Blaise Pascal, Socrates, and the Medicis. This impulse for science and a realization of television’s burgeoning power to reach more people is remarkably already be found over a decade earlier than The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) in Rossellini’s collaboration with pioneering group psychotherapist Jacob Levy Moreno, who runs a psychodrama session live for Rossellini's cameras in an effort to explain and show examples for how the technique can bring out more realistic acting.
After a short introduction by a Centre d'études de radio-télévision host, who solicits an American psychologist to explain the method behind psychodrama—which leads to a completely confused description including obscure drawings—we cut to the experiment, which involves a semi-circle of people, presumably acting students but whose identity or motivation is never clarified, who are encouraged to volunteer troubling situations, from which Moreno and his female colleague then conduct improvisatory psychodramatic sessions. First they have the person choose actors to play other roles in their dramatic dilemma—for example, a scene where the subject desires to convince someone to become politically active—and after observing this play out, Moreno will intercede, re-cast some of the roles, and direct the subject to take different perspectives and even different roles, for example having a man play himself as a child and also his own father, talking to his childhood self. It all appears quite muddled as method, and especially as the structure of the activity being filmed is never explained, it all has a bizarre air of being half-staged, half-spontaneous. (This film in facts bears uncanny similarities to Leigh Ledare’s equally extraordinary group therapy documentary, The Task.) What greater shape or context Rossellini might have provided if he had completed the film we won’t ever know, for he left the production as he indeed not infrequently did with other movies. Despite it having introductory and concluding remarks, Le psychodrame definitely feels unfinished, offering only the bare bones of explanation of what we’re seeing. But even in this state it is a fascinating snapshot of the era capturing the pop culture overlap between the latest psychological methods and those of dramatic acting, and while the Rossellini may not have finished it, Le psychodrame is a very vivid prelude to the career shift that was to follow for the famous Italian auteur.
Le psychodrame was never aired and essentially hasn’t been seen by an audience outside of a few rare retrospective rivals such as this one. This unseen quality is a porous category almost by definition, so much so that other films at the festival could be thought of through this lens of watching what has never (or could never) be watched. For example, in a social care center near the festival was an installation of a video by, or at least about something by, Jean-Luc Godard. Maquette expo (reportage amateur) (2005) is a video tour of a diorama built as a model for a Pompidou exhibition the director had planned, but never realized. The exhibition planned to bring into three-dimensional space the art of montage, the artist’s preferred method of filmmaking, creating a spatial and immersive collage of painting, cinema, text, and furniture into thematic rooms devoted to exploring the intertwining of film, art history, and politics that Godard casually describes for us one by one. While we almost certainly will never see the full expression of this vision (the model seen here and other parts of the plans for the exhibition were exhibited in New York gallery in 2018), getting a personal tour by the filmmaker himself through his own imagined spaces was a treat that in its own way easily stands in for what could have been. An installation actually included in the laboratory of beauty was on the other end of the spectrum: Rather than highlight a project never completed, “Temple of Cinema #1: Sayat Nova Outtakes” is an exhibition showcasing all the additional footage made for a production, in this case unused footage from Sergei Parajanov’s sublime masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (1969). These pieces have been digitally restored and a selection of them were presented in an Armenian church in the city, with multiple screens placed flat as if the audience were browsing illuminated manuscripts on tables. The footage looked fabulous and, due to Parajanov’s style favoring insert shots and tableaux, was nearly as enthralling in its fragmented form as in the organized narrative of the finished picture. In both installations there was the suggestion of an even grander reach for this laboratory of unseen beauty: that while finished films may need a cinema, the ruins of films require no such prescription. Ruins you can discover anywhere.