Whitney film festival explores events of 1936

The audience at Whitney Humanities Center was among the first to see shorts that were long considered lost from the annals of avant-garde European filmmaking.

From Thursday to Saturday, the Council of European Studies presented its fifth annual film festival and conference, entitled “1936: Film Fronts,” a compilation of motion pictures from the pre-World War II period. Festival coordinators compiled films from 10 different countries and 13 international archives all centering around the pivotal year 1936.

“The focus is always on a particular year that acts as a flash point in significant ways,” said Richard Suchenski, coordinator of the event. Past conferences have focused on 1945, 1956, 1968 and 1989. But 1936 was selected because it is “the decisive interwar year,” Suchenski said.

The eruption of civil war in Spain, the rise of the Popular Front in France, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the refusal of four gold medals to American athlete Jesse Owens during the Berlin Summer Olympics were some of the events that sparked World War II. This historical backdrop inspired filmmakers to bring politics to the screen.

A diverse array of newsreels, documentaries and feature films in half a dozen languages were shown in the auditorium throughout the course of the conference. The makeshift 1930s theater also screened banned movies and clandestine short films, one of which, “From Lightening to Television,” was shown in North America for the first time.

It all officially began on Thursday at 7:00 p.m., when Steven Pincus, chair of the European Studies Council, gave a five-minute introduction to an event that lasted for two more days. A screening of a 1936 British newsreel followed Pincus’ brief introduction, offering a hyperbolic review of the entire year.

Brigitte Peucker, professor of German Languages and Literatures and Film Studies, then introduced the event’s most commercial film, Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” the story of a frustrated terrorist with a ploy to set off a bomb. Peucker prepared the audience for the movie, based on Joseph Conrad’s “Secret Agent,” ­as she described the fulcrum of the movie as an “abuse of cinematic power.”

The festival presented three different cinematic formats — 35mm, 16mm and DVD — of French communist shorts, Yiddish feature films, a German-Japanese co-production, Soviet newsreels, Spanish civil war documentaries and Italian comedies. Yet it was hard to find a common theme between the varied films. Most could be understood through the lens of pre-World War II Europe, or, as a pamphlet called it, “Wars and Rumors of Wars.”

Still, the organizers of the event had a clear artistic purpose. By showing several shorts by Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger, two abstract filmmakers, the evolution of cinematography as a medium was illustrated through radical experiments with color.

With a crowd of only 25 people at the opening screening in an auditorium that could fit more than 100, the initial turnout was less than expected.

Though the total audience nearly doubled by the end of “Sabotage,” it was difficult to spot an undergraduate amid the graduate students, professors and members of the New Haven community.

Some said they would have attended some screenings if “1936: Film Fronts” had been better advertised.

“I like Hitchcock,” said Jordana Confino ’12, disappointed that she missed the chance to watch what the conference program deemed one of Hitchcock’s “most harrowing studies of the ethics of murder.”

Students in Professor Terri Francis’ class Black American Paris were required to attend Paul Robeson’s “Song of Freedom.”

“Linking my course to the 1936 conference enables a panoramic view on African American performance, whether athletic, musical, literary or cinematic, that occurred in the same year in Europe,” said Professor Francis in an e-mail.

Overall, after the eight months it took the Council of European Studies to produce this year’s film festival, Suchenski said this was the most successful festival organized.

“It was difficult to put all this together,” said Suchenski, “but I think that everyone involved feels very satisfied with the way everything turned out.”

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