On Thursday at the Castro Theatre, the screening of one of the most acclaimed epics of the silent era honors the 100th anniversary of the world war that provides the film's backdrop. The 19th annual festival continues through Sunday, closing with Buster Keaton's 1924 “The Navigator,” a tour de force of visual comedy that finds Buster and his girl alone and adrift on an ocean liner.
The 19 movies comprising this year’s festival showcase the breadth and depth of cinema's first golden age and cover a wide range: slapstick comedy, noir, documentary and avant garde. As always, the festival presents them as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, in a beautiful 1920s movie palace, and with live musical accompaniment.
Modern moviegoers may not realize that the silent era represented an age of discovery, innovation and supreme achievement by pioneers working in a new medium. While motion pictures at first were treated as a novelty, they came of age as an art form between 1910 and 1920, growing from brief, flickering diversions into full-scale narratives. In the 1920s, the era's final decade, cinema truly blossomed as it gained in sophistication and artistry.
Along with well-known favorites, the festival is showing relatively obscure gems, including “Under the Lantern,” a 1928 film by German director Gerhard Lamprecht.
Festival artistic director Anita Monga, who didn’t know about Lamprecht until his work recently was restored, says he made social issue films and used real locations in Berlin. She describes “Under the Lantern” as a “beautifully told” story of a girl's descent into prostitution during the Weimar era, when German society was beset by social and economic problems. She adds that a big reason to see the film is the score: "The accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble is extraordinary,” she says.
Suberb musicians are lined up for festival, too. They include the British Film Institute's Stephen Horne, playing his unique blend of piano, flute and accordion; the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra of Colorado, which replicates the small-orchestra sound of mid-size silent-era theaters; and the Matti Bye Ensemble of Sweden, which brings an experimental approach to silent film accompaniment.
Other highlights include a 5 p.m. Friday screening of “The Parson's Widow” (1920) by Carl Th. Dreyer ("One of the great directors of all time," says Monga), and a 2:30 p.m. Sunday showing of “The Girl in Tails” (1926), which Monga describes as "a delightful comedy that has real feminist points to make. I guarantee people will love this film."
IF YOU GO
S.F. Silent Film Festival
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.
When: Thursday through Sunday
Tickets: $15-$20 per show, $225 for pass
Contact: (415) 777-4908, www. silentfilm.org
“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – 7 p.m. Thursday
“Under the Lantern” – 7 p.m. Saturday
“The Navigator” – 9 p.m. Sunday