Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler

A six-disc Blu-ray/DVD dual format edition, including films by Alice Guy Blaché, Mabel Normand, Lois Weber, Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, Lotte Reininger, Leni Riefenstahl, Mary Ellen Bute, Madeline Brandeis, Olga Preobrazhenskaia, and Dorothy Arzner, among others. Total running time of 652 min. A Flicker Alley release.

It has only been over the past few decades that systematic attention has begun to be paid to the work of women behind the camera, thanks in part to initiatives like Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project. Many of the problems facing research into female film directors’ works are obvious. Even in countries with advanced film industries, such as the United States and France, women have rarely been allowed to direct films, and those that have done so often have without screen credit. The challenges that female directors have faced in getting assignments and gathering production funds relative to their male peers have often resulted in smaller filmographies that pose challenges to authorial studies. And, because female directors’ bodies of works tend to gain less attention than do those of male auteurs, their output is often less likely to be preserved.

A promotional item for Lois Weber's The Blot (1921). 

Preservation becomes an issue of particular note when discussing films from cinema’s first few decades, a period during which more women worked in industry roles than have ever since. Projects such as The Library of Congress’s ongoing restorations of films directed by Alice Guy Blaché and the distributor Milestone Film & Video’s recent theatrical and home video releases of restored films by Lois Weber are of great importance to film history, especially when considered alongside our relatively easy present-day access to works by Chaplin and Griffith. Both Guy Blaché and Weber—vital film artists whose key works were realized prior to 1925—are additionally represented in Flicker Alley’s recently released Blu-ray/DVD dual-edition box set, Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology.

The set was produced by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and the late American film preservationist David Shepard (who also curated) in collaboration with a number of film archives. It delivers what its title promises: twenty-five films directed by fourteen female artists across four countries, with the earliest title hailing from 1902 and its most recent realized in 1943. The selection is refined and by no means exhaustive from what survives of work made by female filmmakers during these years. For instance, Olga Preobrazhenskaia is represented, but not Esfir Shub; and although two films by Germaine Dulac are included, one has to look elsewhere for The Seashell and the Clergyman (1927).

For this writer, the greatest virtue that the Flicker Alley set offers—in addition to fine transfers of the mainly excellent films—is diversity. Spread across the release are works from genres such as slapstick comedy, social problem drama, avant-garde, animation, and propaganda. Diverse approaches additionally appear within individual genres—for instance, it would be difficult to confuse Lotte Reiniger’s lovingly simple silhouette figures with the dense Pinscreen images designed by Claire Parker and her husband, Alexandre Alexeieff, and challenging indeed to mistake either approach to animation for Mary Ellen Bute’s musical abstractions. The more examples that one watches of what is often called “women’s filmmaking” (including co-directorships with men), the more evident become the difficulties of generalizing its traits.

Lois Weber's The Blot (1921).

Lois Weber and her crew.

In the end, what we are left with is simply cinema. Along these lines, the Flicker Alley release responsibly presents films in the service of an argument that is historical rather than aesthetic in nature. The special features found on the release work together in an essentially contextualizing fashion. The audio commentary provided by Lois Weber scholar Shelley Stamp on Weber’s feature The Blot (1921), an overview booklet essay by Women Film Pioneers Project Manager Kate Saccone, and written annotations found within the discs about each filmmaker (also authored by Saccone) highlight exemplary works in the interest of building a canon.

An evaluation of the release might well do the same. What therefore follow are notes on some of its outstanding films, together with brief comments on their makers.

Alice Guy Blaché worked first in her native France and then in the United States, initially at Gaumont before forming the independent Solax Company. She is known today as the first director of narrative fiction films in the history of cinema. Yet, as the six films of her 350-plus extant films included on the Flicker Alley release make clear, she was a pioneer in film style as well as in narrative structure. These films, made between 1902 and 1912, show an increasingly complex orchestration of depth of space that enables the viewer to appreciate evolving dynamics among sets of characters, particularly moments of alliance and solitude. Her gift for theatrical composition was particularly well suited to the genres of burlesque comedy and of domestic melodrama.

At a time when Méliès and Porter were making fantasy and action films, Guy Blaché realized more intimate yet equally epic appeals to human emotion. This can be seen in works such as La Barricade (1907), a French Revolution-set antiwar film in which a mother proves willing to sacrifice her life for her soldier son, and Making an American Citizen (1912), an ostensibly educational film in which a brutish immigrant to the United States is taught over a series of episodes the necessity of being kind to his wife. The twelve minutes of Falling Leaves (1912) elaborate three dramas: that of a young woman with consumption learning to bravely face death; that of a successful doctor whose strength is put to the test; and that of a naive young child trying to save her older sister through the power of belief.

Alice Guy-Blaché's Falling Leaves (1912).

The rendering of women’s experiences was not a central project for Guy Blaché in the way that it would be for later generations of feminist artists. Female characters and the actresses playing them, however, prove to be memorable in heart-rending fashion throughout her cinema, as do women in films by her American contemporary Lois Weber, represented with three films on the Flicker Alley release. (Guy Blaché, in fact, claimed to have helped Weber obtain her first film industry work at Gaumont.) Weber was the first woman to run her own film studio, and at the same time that Griffith was refining his work with the Gish sisters, she was guiding a number of women to great performances that brought her acclaim.

The one-time missionary made her name as a director of progressive female-driven dramas calling public attention to social issues such as abortion, prostitution, poverty, capital punishment, and welfare reform. The films stay fresh today thanks to Weber’s talent for melding pedagogy with action—her lessons in empathy are always delivered with a visual dynamism that makes their stories both tense and sensitive. A case in point is the short Suspense (1913), starring Weber herself as a country housewife left alone at home with a threatening tramp. A dynamic use of cross-cutting splits the screen into three for the woman, her distant husband, and the advancing villain; the film’s editing rhythms accelerate as the action comes to a head and reminds us forcefully to care for our loved ones.

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914).

Mabel Normand directed a different kind of action and, in fact, often received no directorial credit. During the little over a decade in which she worked in films, Normand was known primarily as a comic actress, even becoming the first film star to receive a pie in the face. Her collaborators included Mack Sennett, Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, and Charles Chaplin, a co-star who she mentored off screen to the point of helping him create the character of the Tramp. The lone Normand title on the Flicker Alley release, Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), offers an unsettling rendition of Chaplin’s Tramp as a lecherous drunk in the character’s first-ever film appearance. In the role of a young woman making continual discoveries about the upsetting state of the hotel where she and the Tramp are separately staying, Normand comes across wonderfully as an artist who should be better remembered by history: wide-eyed, sly, and (even when playing frightened) seemingly always in control of herself.

The three pioneering filmmakers that occupy Disc 1 of the Flicker Alley release—Guy Blaché, Weber, and Normand—worked primarily in short form. Disc 2 goes to three silent-era directors of medium- and feature-length films. While Madeline Brandeis holds much historical interest as a director of children’s films and Olga Preobrazhenskaia (the first female Soviet film director) as one of dramas sympathetic to peasant hardships, the disc’s star is the amazing Germaine Dulac, represented with two titles. As a Surrealist, Impressionist, theorist, and feminist who made her most notable films from the late 1910s into the 1920s, the French Dulac used her medium’s technical advances to explore subjectivity and interiority in the lives of male and female protagonists who feel isolated from society by thoughts that they fearfully hope not to express.

Germaine Dulac's La Cigarette (1919).

Dulac’s first extant film, La Cigarette (1919), tells a century-spanning tale in which the relationship between a middle-aged museum curator and his much younger wife finds echoes in the fate of an ancient Egyptian monarch who killed himself for love; while the film’s classical sensibility comes through the figure of the curator, its modernist sensibility comes through the figure of the wife, who playfully considers how to keep them from falling prey to the same fate. La Cigarette’s beautifully and elegantly structured shape (with occasional indications of psychological fissures) serves the situation of a couple’s members joining together to overcome insecurity, jealousy, and doubt.

The director’s more stylistically broken The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) shows two distant human points growing far apart. This film was recently brilliantly analyzed by Cristina Álvarez Lopez for MUBI Notebook at much greater length than can be given here, so it seems sufficient to say for now that Beudet’s portrait of a woman trapped in a cold marriage is built by Dulac with a variety of dissolves, nightmarish visions, and disturbingly shadowy, fragmented shots to show both parties at fault: the husband, for being a monster, and the wife, for maintaining the cage in which she lives with him.

Dulac’s films represent a crucial juncture in film history. They convey the kinds of straightforward stories and clear emotions commonly associated with narrative films from the silent era while employing myriad experimental techniques of which filmmakers took increasing advantage throughout the first few decades of sound. Disc 3 of the Flicker Alley release, whose films were made during roughly the first fifteen years of sound cinema, gives examples of some artists that did so.

The strongest longer film on the disc is Le Roi des Aulnes (1929, aka The Erl-King), directed by Marie-Louise Iribe, a French auteur of few credits who was one of many examples of actresses that also directed. This tight and simple yet richly atmospheric film adapts Goethe and Schubert’s tale of a father striving desperately to save his son. As parent and child ride through a forest by night, the sick boy fearfully envisions a supernatural being called The Erl-King in pursuit of them. With each of the boy’s exclamations, the father replies that it is only a storm, wind, or blowing leaves. By story’s close, a lesson has been taught—it has been the parent and not the child who has been living in denial, and the drama of acceptance becomes his.

Lotte Reiniger's Papageno (1935).

  Lotte Reiniger at work.

Lotte Reiniger at work.

Lotte Reiniger also worked with fantastical elements throughout a number of films that gained the admiration of figures including Walt Disney and Jean Renoir. The German artist worked primarily with silhouette animation, in which black cut-out paper and cardboard figures move gracefully against white-and-gray backgrounds. Few films are as delightfully accessible as Lotte Reiniger’s are. Even when the films’ stories are set in distant lands and deal with ancient empires, her cleanly organized frames (often filled with carefully spaced plants and animals) and characters’ lightness of motion make the fantastical always seem within reach.

She is known best today for The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the first-ever feature-length animated film. The Flicker Alley release includes three shorter pieces that Reiniger made in the 1930s, shortly before and during her period of migration from Germany. The earliest and longest is Harlequin (1931), which like the other films, works pleasurably with music (in its case, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Baroque compositions). A group of cherubs serenades a group of humans, from whose ranks emerges the titular skinny young countryside man and the lovely girl that he pursues with the aid of beings of various shapes. Delicate flute notes complement the sensation of the film’s characters bouncing in balletic fashion with each step, an artistic technique well suited to its rendering of requited love undaunted by any threat.

The central motive for Reiniger’s departure from Germany was the rise of the Nazi Party, an organization to which filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl never claimed membership but whose chief filmic chronicler she became. It is intriguing to consider that the auteur most responsible for immortalizing the homoerotic ideal of Nazi comportment in films such as Triumph of the Will (1935) was female. Riefenstahl made the short Day of Freedom (1935) after the German Army complained of underrepresentation in Triumph, resulting in a work filled with hard light and shadows cutting across strong male bodies as they proudly ride horses, operate planes, and wield phallic weapons. Flicker Alley provides a version of Day of Freedom with on-screen annotations by history professor Anthony R. Santoro; the images in forceful motion prove to be transfixing without context, and horrifying with them.

Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

The last filmmaker represented in Flicker Alley’s release is someone whose work continues to transfix spectators more than seven decades after its making. And, over a century after her birth, what is there left to say about Maya Deren? She was a poet, dancer, anthropologist, theorist, and social organizer who is commonly known today as the “Mother of the American Avant-Garde.” Although experimental films were made in the United States prior to this Ukrainian immigrant’s endeavors, Deren was the first artist to bring public visibility to them as part of a movement. The notion of movement, in fact, is crucial to her films, which present human psychology taking shape in dancelike motion.

Flicker Alley offers Deren’s best-known film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), with a twist: rather than the Teiji Ito-scored version of the film (completed in 1957) that most commonly circulates, the version found here is silent, in keeping with the original work co-directed by Deren and Alexander Hammid. Silence heightens the clarity of the images of a woman (played by Deren without screen credit) confronting multiple doppelgängers to the point of being driven fatally mad. It is fitting that Deren’s films have influenced a number of filmmakers interested in exploring the self. She shows an in-process search for identity as being a fundamentally personal matter that each artist—male or female—holds the freedom to project.

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Aaron Cutler keeps a website, The Moviegoer, and runs the initiative Mutual Films together with Mariana Shellard.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2