‘Educating the eye’ was the name Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), a German art historian and pioneer of museum pedagogy, gave his project for turning students into connoisseurs and art-lovers by the process of looking at art works. For thirty years now coloured silent films have normally been duplicated in colour and shown to audiences – so why a special festival section on this long-familiar aspect?
It is to turn us into connoisseurs of rich colour universe of pre- 1920 film, and of its three main colour systems – black and white, monochrome tinting or toning, and polychrome pochoir colouring – and to school our eyes by watching films coloured by different techniques and reproduced by different methods.
Three restorations using original techniques – Cikáni, The Johnstown Flood (both Národní filmový archiv / Jan Ledecký) and The Chalice of Sorrow (UCLA / Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory) – offer an essential viewing experience. Just like the nitrate originals, these are black-and white positives, developed on black-and-white stock and then tinted and/or toned. It is only with this method that the entire emulsion layer is used for the developing the photographic image. With Desmet restaurations or play-outs of digital scans on to colour stock, on the other hand, both the photographic image and the colours are developed from the emulsion, with negative consequences: the photographic image is weaker, and a true black, white or grey cannot be achieved with colour stock. The change of medium from analog to digital brings new possibilities, but at the cost of new losses in fidelity. Thus every restoration is an interpretation of the original (just as the performance of a musical score is an interpretation), and as connoisseurs and film-lovers we can discern with an educated eye its strengths and weaknesses.
Programme Silent Colours curated by Mariann Lewinsky
Programme The Colours of Sound Films curated by Gian Luca Farinelli