- Kaleb A. Brown
2022 Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Fantasy of Ruritania
Updated: Jan 1
I can’t quite remember how I discovered silent films. To be perfectly honest, I enjoy the mystery — there’s something decidedly mystical about it. Regardless of the “how,” for the past decade, I’ve been in love with silent cinema. Throughout my high school years, I’d watch several silent movies, focusing on the filmography of my favorite silent film star: Lillian Gish. My interest in silent films would continue into my undergraduate years, to the point where it was noticed by one of my film professors, who encouraged me to apply to become a collegiate at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
It’s no Sundance nor Cannes, but the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to prolificness. Since its inception in 1982, the festival has made a name for itself as the biggest silent film festival in the world and has enjoyed the prestige that’s come with the distinction — in 2007, it was listed by Variety as one of the 50 unmissable film festivals. Whether you’re an academic, an archivist, a critic, or an enthusiast, if you have any interest in silent film, you’ll want to make the trek to Italy. I couldn’t write my letter of interest fast enough and I was over the moon when I was accepted to be a member of the 2019 Collegium, which meant I’d get to attend discussions with experts in various film-related fields.
I loved my time at Pordenone, as it made me appreciate silent films in a way that I never had before. As I watched films in the beautiful Teatro Verdi theater, I felt the communal aspect of watching movies in public. I had only known watching silent films as a private affair, something I did alone in my room in front of a tiny computer screen. The musical accompaniment, whether a solo piano or a full orchestra, enhanced the films to levels I didn’t know possible. Before, I often watched silent films without audio, believing that they weren’t supposed to be watched with any sound. Now, thanks to Pordenone, I always make sure to the silent films I watch have music. The movies themselves were amazing and in a week, I watched more silent films than I had in years. Not to mention, Pordenone itself is an absolutely gorgeous city and with its centuries-old architecture, it’s the perfect locale to watch films from a bygone era. My trip to Pordenone was an amazing experience and I left without any regrets.
Then, the deadline for the paper rolled around.
In a supreme bit of irony, while Pordenone gave me many new tools to appreciate silent movies, I also found myself without the one skill that comes like second nature to me: writing. A requirement of the Collegium is compiling what you learned at the festival into an essay, which is eligible for being chosen for a prize the following year. This sounds fine, but like many college students, I had a lot on my plate. The work doesn’t stop even if you decide to travel to Italy for an admittedly academic excursion, so my free time went into completing my assignments instead of taking notes on the movies I watched. Beyond that, Pordenone is a lot to take in. You’re pretty much watching movies from mid-morning to late at night and they all begin to blur together. When going strictly for leisure, this isn’t an issue. The problem arises when you have to create something of note regarding your experience. You need to have a plan going in and less this, you need to take extensive notes. I did neither. While I was able to cobble up an essay and it’s ultimately fine, it’s not my best work. In the interest of creating something I’m proud of, I decided that, for my 2022 return to Pordenone, I’d write another paper, purely to prove to myself that I could accurately convey how much the festival meant to me.
When the festival’s daily schedule was released in late September, one program in particular caught my attention: Ruritania. This was the genre of Beverly of Graustark (Franklin, 1926), one of the headliners of the 2019 festival. It was a film that stole my heart, so much so that its spine peeks at me from my cabinet as I type. I even wrote reviews of the first two books of its series. The former, Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne even had an adaptation being shown at the festival this year. I was curious to see the genre’s magic now that I’d be able to watch its offerings with a more critical eye and so I devoted myself to attending every Ruritarian film shown. Over a week later, I’m pleased to say that the magic still holds up. What’s more, I can say that I know how the magic works, and interestingly enough, the magic of Ruritania and silent films are largely one and the same, both of them benefiting greatly from the passage of time.
But before we find out what makes Ruritania tick, we have to know what Ruritania even is.
Picture a kingdom in the middle of Europe during the early 20th century. Yes, kingdom, because against all odds, this tiny country has resisted the winds of change. To contemporary readers and viewers, this kingdom would be the picturesque ideal of a bygone era. This isn’t to say things are perfect, however. This kingdom would be rife with danger and political machinations that threaten to tear the very nation apart. That’s where our swashbuckling, dashing hero comes in. Within the royal court, he uses his wits, charm, and strength to save the day and find romance along the way. This is, in short, the Ruritanian romance. While analogs existed prior, the genre and its tropes weren’t codified until Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s so seminal that the very name Ruritania comes from the fictional monarchy in the title. The Prisoner of Zenda brought a deluge of similar works — for a contemporary comparison, think of the explosion of paranormal romance books that followed the success of Stephanie Myers’ Twilight. Even former United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill chased the trend with his novel, Savrola. Ruritania was nothing short of a literary sensation, and a sensation in print meant a sensation on the silver screen.
An important aspect of the genre is political intrigue. That said, it’s an aspect that I found didn't translate well to screen. The level of intrigue these movies are going for typically doesn’t work in silent films. A few Ruritarian films such as The Prisoner of Zenda (Porter, 1913) will begin with a sprawling cast list in their opening credits, boasting more characters than you can keep track of. Normally, through dialogue, you’d get acclimated to the various characters throughout the film and you wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed by the film’s end. This isn’t the case with a silent film, which, even if it's generous with the amount of intertitles it uses, will feature far less dialogue than an equivalent sound film. Simplicity works better for silent films and great care must be taken to execute more complex plots. This care is largely forgone for Ruritarian romance films. The Black Chancellor (Blom, 1912) and On the Steps of the Throne (Colle, 1912) are hard to parse thanks to the machinations that fill the film. The Prisoner of Zenda, a story I assume is simple enough to grasp in book form, is quite dense when you’re using such fewer words to explain what’s going on. All that said, you can’t do without this aspect because its complexity grounds the genre. It helps separate Ruritanian stories from simple fairytales and it's an important contrast to the next, and perhaps most important element of Ruritanian romance, the romance itself.
Romance doesn’t refer to love (though this invariably plays a part), but chivalric romance in which heroic protagonists embark on quests filled with marvels. “Romance” can also be understood as being synonymous with “fantasy,” not of the sword-and-sorcery variety but of being fiction that depicts a world that’s plausible but decidedly whimsical. No matter the definition of romance that you go with, Graustark (Buchowetzski, 1925) is absolutely brimming with it. While the film features politics and court intrigue, they play a decidedly smaller part than in the book its adapted from. Instead, the romance between Grenfall Lorry (Eugene O’Brian) and Yetive, Princess of Graustark (Norma Talmadge) is front and center. The love inspires Grenfall Lorry to travel to a distant land he’s never heard of and later on journey to clear his name and save the woman he loves from an unhappy marriage. The whimsical nature of Ruritania can be seen in the setting — mostly palaces and ballrooms. Its characters are mostly royalty and those who serve them. The opulent gowns and fancy military suits contrast with Lorry’s simpler, albeit still formal attire. It’s not quite Disney, but this still feels like a magical world beyond our own. And of course, our protagonists get to live happily ever after. At times, it’s hard not to get swept up in the opulence and declare Ruritania a fairytale.
Perhaps the best example of this is the aforementioned Beverly of Graustark. While Beverly Calhoun’s (Marion Davies) cousin Oscar (Creighton Hale), is the heir to the throne of Graustark, the young woman herself doesn’t have much experience with the tiny country. Even so, when Oscar is injured in a skiing accident, Beverly agrees to impersonate her cousin in order to attend the coronation in her stead, lest the crown be seized by malevolent actors. What follows is an hour of adventure, filled with comedic subterfuge and a budding romance between Beverly and her dashing bodyguard, Dantan (Antonio Moreno). Much like the other Graustark adaptation, the politics of Graustark and its neighboring countries take a backseat to the rest of the plot, making for a pace that’s breezy and exciting. While there are stakes, nothing’s ever dire and you get the sense that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. In focusing on a light adventure, we’re effectively put in the shoes of Beverly. Like her, we’re enthralled by this brave, new world that’s more regal and exciting than our own. This is best exemplified during the film’s ending, which depicts the coronation in stunning technicolor as our leads have their happily ever after. My jaw fell to the floor once the monochrome gave way to a scene of muted reds and golds. The presence of color is an ingenious way to make the audience feel how special this setting is — a technique famously utilized later in The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939). The magic of a good Ruritarian movie isn’t easy to come by, but when it does hit, it’s sublime.
Unfortunately, the Ruritarian films shown this year didn’t measure up to Beverly of Graustark. This isn’t to say they were bad, they just weren’t quite what I was looking for. I quite enjoyed the comedies, Long Fliv the King (McCarey 1926), Rupert of Hee Haw (Pembroke, 1924), and His Royal Slyness (Roach, 1920), but parodies, by their very nature, aren't earnest enough for emotions other than amusement. One film did get close to reaching Beverly of Graustark’s excellence, however.
Ruritarian stories can be swashbuckling adventures, geopolitical thrillers, or, in the case of Three Weeks (Crosland, 1924), steamy romances.
Three Weeks centers around the Queen of Sardalia (Aileen Pringle) and her unhappy marriage to her hedonistic King (John St. Polis). To get away from the stress of her life, she vacations in Switzerland where she has an affair with a young Englishman, Paul Verdayne (Conrad Nagel) that lasts for a length of time you can probably guess. When the festival catalog described the romance of the movie and the book it's adapted from as “fervid,” I rolled my eyes, but after watching the movie, I have to admit it’s an accurate description. Three Weeks features eroticism that I’d never expect in a silent film. It’s a very evocative movie. “The very devil is in me,” breathes the Queen during the movie’s signature scene where she seductively lays and arches on a tigerskin, stroking the fur. Even the dynamic of the pairing — a man in his early twenties with a woman ten-to-fifteen years his senior — feels like it's pushing the envelope even for today. The set design is nothing short of magnificent — the looming throne room of Sardalia is imposing. Even when we’re not in the Ruritanian kingdom we’re filled with a sense of whimsy. A notable scene takes place at night, the sky beyond the balcony shimmering with the celestial bodies of the moon and stars. The Queen’s white dress contrasts with the darkness. Then there’s the music — the xylophone, the flute, and twinkling, high piano. It sticks with you, puts you in the shoes of Paul; totally bewitched. There’s a reason why both this film and Beverly of Graustark feature prominently in the promotional materials of both the 2022 and 2019 festivals, respectively. They both accurately portray the etherealness of silent film. Though this isn’t to say that everything is sun and rainbows in Three Weeks. The movie opens with a peasant riot and the fantasy of a loving ruler is balanced with the reality of a corrupt king. The movie ultimately ends just as dourly as it begins, with the Queen being murdered by her enraged husband. If Beverly of Graustark is perhaps as idealistic as you can be in a Ruritarian romance, then Three Weeks is the genre near its most pessimistic. Yet it’s still beautiful, still enough to affect me. And this feeling largely owes its existence to the passage of time.
Ruritarian romances were huge until they weren’t. In America, Graustark was the premiere example of the genre, to the point where other Ruritanian countries were sometimes incorrectly called “Graustark.” The series was so big that there was an influx of people who named their newborns “Yetive” after its princess. Yet today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s heard of the series. Westerns were a contemporary genre of film that obviously survived for decades while Ruritanian romance films, at least as a large genre, barely made it out of the silent era.
As far as I can tell, the downfall of the Ruritarian romance coincides with readers and viewers having a harder time believing the genre. It’s important to remember that, at least for the time, Ruritania was whimsical instead of outright fantastical. While the events typically depicted were improbable the genre operated under the guise of plausibility. When the first Ruritarian novels were published, it wasn’t that unbelievable to find a quaint kingdom in the middle of Europe — the stories may as well have been realistic fiction. But as time went on and monarchy slowly but surely lost power in Europe, no amount of political intrigue could ground the genre. Ruritarian romance authors had two options — they could either continue to depict their kingdoms as they would have been envisioned during the birth of the genre, in which their stories would have become less believable, or they could have their kingdoms march alongside time, in which their stories would lose their whimsy. The last of the chronological Graustark books all but states that the Graustark as readers knew it would soon cease to exist. It should be noted that “Ruritania” itself didn’t die so much as evolve, with midcentury Ruritarian nations being members of the Eastern Bloc and stories often dealing with anxieties towards the Nuclear Age by using satire. But the Ruritarian romance, the tales of swashbuckling chivalry? That was unquestionably dead. But the very reason it died back then is the reason why it’s alive in me now.
There’s a comparison to be made between the trajectory of silent films and Ruritarian romance. Both were once prominent, and inescapable. But the passage of time, the evolution of geopolitical realities, and breakthroughs in technology, made them feel obsolete as the public moved on to the next attraction. Now, years past their heyday, enthusiasts are rediscovering them. Like fine wine, age has made their taste even better than before.
Black-and-white films feel old, but in a retro, trendy way. Silent films, meanwhile, feel downright ancient. They’re artifacts of a bygone era and that’s what makes them feel so special, they’re so unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Silent films were once just something you watched, unremarkable in their abundance. But now, they’re something you feel. You appreciate how different they are from films of today. Similarly, when watching a Ruritanian romance movie, the feeling of going to a new world is heightened thanks to the age of the film. Lands that were once whimsical, feel completely fantastical thanks to their distance. When I watch silent films, when I go to Graustark, I’m almost filled with the feeling of anemoia, nostalgia for a time I’ve never known.
The keyword here being “almost.” Ominous, I know, but don’t you worry, we’ll get to that.
For now, just know that Ruritania offers a great view of how newcomers can approach silent films. Part of the collegium’s purpose is to pass a love for silent movies onto the next generation: people like me. Ruritania prompts us to focus on the magic that time brings. What once was a death knell has now breathed life into the genre and medium. When I gawk at the technicolor ending of Beverly of Graustark, when I marvel at the moonlit romance of Three Weeks, I do so because I’m experiencing the beauty of the world before my time. There’s a wealth of magic in these movies, you just have to know where to look.
But this, the glitz and the glamor, is only half the story. In a monochrome movie, where there is brightness and light, there is just as much shadow.