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Friday, February 01, 2013

Herman G. Weinberg, Autumn Fire, 1931

(click here for the Romanian version)

The story surrounding this 15 minute movie is as beautiful as the movie itself. By 1930/1931 Herman G. Weinberg was the manager of a little theatre in Baltimore, an outlet for anything indie and/or avant-garde, be it documentary, art movie, and the like. He fell in love for a young woman who worked as a seat attendant. To gain her heart, Mr. Weinberg decided to make a movie and invited her to play in it. When she saw the footage, Erna Bergman realized the strength of his feelings: only a man deeply in love could have filmed her natural beauty with so much dedication. They got married soon afterwards.

Herman G. Weinberg has been first of all a film critic and historian, known in the movie world for his studies on Stroheim (A pictorial record of his nine films), Sternberg (A critical study of the great film director), and Lubitsch (The Lubitsch touch). I hadn't the chance to read them. What I have read authored by Weinberg was an essay on the footage shot by Eisenstein for ¡Qué viva México! and I must say, it is a fabulous essay. You can read it online (maybe you should firstly watch the movie, you can find it here, together with its story).

Weinberg also prepared the English subtitles for some important European movies (La Grande Illusion, Rome Open City, Accattone, La Strada, among others). All these essays and books, and movies translated by Weinberg, bear witness on an exquisite taste and great knowledge in the realm of cinema masterpieces.

As for the movies created by himself, there have been only two. In 1930 Weinberg worked on City Symphony, that was never released. Eventually he disassembled it and used the footage in his second film, Autumn Fire, created one year later, in 1931.

So, we remain from Herman G. Weinberg with one movie only, but this 15 minute film is a masterpiece. A man, a woman, some untold issue in their past, now they live apart, while longing for each other. Will they ever surpass their present logjam?

The man is played by Willy Hildebrand, a refrigerator salesman that Weinberg met by chance one day and asked whether he wouldn't like to be in a movie. The woman is played by Erna Bergman. It would be their only acting experience, they never played in another film.

She lives some place in the countryside, framed by the clouds on the sky and by a rapid creek carrying maybe her thoughts far away or nowhere. The surrounding nature replicates her hopes and anxieties. Three trees project different feelings of hers. One, an upside-down reflection in wavering water, suggests her aspiration, her desire to reunite with her partner, and her ache that this may not come to fruition, that her hoped-for reconciliation is an illusion. Another, a bare, gnarled tree—this one is no reflection—suggests the fate of her soul should there be no reunion. The third, shot from below, is tall, leafy, alive in the breeze; it suggests the woman’s openness, adaptability—her willingness to bend so as not to break (Dennis Grunes). He lives in a city (that seems to be Baltimore), framed by big ships crammed in the harbor and by skyscrapers in the horizon. Her image and his image are quickly alternated, like juxtaposed, and her country trees send their projections on the shape of his city skyscrapers, on the waves rustle in the harbor: she in her universe of trees and country roads, he in his universe of ships and skyscrapers, both in synch, as each of them actually is dominated all the time by the image of the other one.

There are just a few words in the movie: we see a letter the woman is writing to him at some point. It's a silent movie. Of course, several scores have been proposed, but I think you should watch the movie at least once muting the loudspeaker: you will see that the sound is like contained within the image, that the image provides the impression  of the sound you should hear!

The outcome of the story is positive, and it couldn't have been other way for a man like Weinberg, an artist belonging to the Avant-Garde of the 1920's, imbued with Soviet Constructivism and German Bauhaus, an enthusiast of the technological advances and urban civilization. All that was needed was a railroad and a really very big city (New York, naturally). A train with its powerful steam engine was bridging any two points in the world, whatever remote (to understand the faith Weinberg had in industry, in technology, here is a quote from him, as reported by Robert A. Haller: someone once said that the old steam locomotive was the closest man ever came to devising a machine with the attributes of a human being).  As for the really very big city, for a Constructivist it was like a grandiose symphony, overwhelming any personal issues: in a city like New York (or Moscow, or Berlin, think at the movies of Vertov, of Ruttmann) one couldn't be unhappy, you could live your life only to the fullest! And so, the two lovers from the movie of Weinberg will meet in the end, in the Old Penn Station (here the movie made a slight mistake: in the letter written by the woman, the meeting point was the Grand Central - this if I don't make a confusion between the two terminals).

It was said that Weinberg had been inspired in making this film by Murnau's Sunrise, also by the Soviet Constructivists (quoting from Avant-Garde Film, utilizing a Russian montage style, Weinberg intercuts continually between the two, juxtaposing their environments, identifying the young woman symbolically with nature and the man with the city... their reunion in the train station is accompanied by an orgy of flowing-water images, an obvious reference to Freud). This was natural: the Avant-Garde of the 1920's was after all an international community of independent artists sharing ideas and enthusiasms.

A scene at the beginning of Autumn Fire is seminal: the woman is looking out behind a closed window. What's outside is reflecting in the window, mixing with her image, while the separation of the two worlds is total. World of outside, dynamic, challenging and possibly rewarding, world of inside, static, with no perspective. So close to the outside life, impossible to touch it. A powerful cinematic idea, that would be shared in 1843 by Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren in their Meshes of the Afternoon, in 1956 by Juan Antonio Bardem in his Calle Mayor.

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(Filmele Avangardei)


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