TIFF’s Silent Film Days 2024: Rediscover the true revolutionary space for our times

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Silent film, the ‘new’ vanguard of the anti-capitalist struggle. This is our ground, our site of resistance. Come with me to a place of dreams – and not just any old dreams!

‘What’s the difference?’ you ask, ‘There are plenty of films online. There’s one playing on my mobile as we speak.’ That place, that murmering, fantastical ether, is not the place of dreams; it’s a living nightmare. We hook up, download and receive in parallel, each our own niche offerings tailored to us like a well-fitting suit. ‘And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.’ The stream of differentiated consciousness distils us, compresses us, keeps us in our place, that is, a niche market of one. In this way a billion unique individuals are kept in perfect lockstep, terribly alone, sauntering nowhere like a phalanx of sleepwalkers. Wake up! And dare to dream. At the movies, in a cinema.

Behold the shared sudden onslaught of violence in progress, breaking chaotically across our screen in glorious black and white! It is the meaningless, wretched orphaning of two girls whose fate we will soon follow through the darkest corners of one of the darkest districts of interwar Paris, the eponymous Ménilmontant, the 1926 movie brainchild of Dimitri Kirsanoff. You will not saunter at will through its streets, but you will be there, and you will not be alone.

The cinema is different, and its unique properties can come no clearer to the fore than in that strange curio of forgotten antiquities, the back catalogue of silent films, the precious few we have desperately, lovingly salvaged. Many are lost. Still more are all but forgotten. Their collective remembrance is activated each Spring (though the season itself is conspicuous by its absence hereabouts) by Silent Film Days in Tromsø. Look out, Captains of Industry and their henchmen, the Captains of Consciousness! The Dreamscape is activated again, with the power to set dreams free, and freedom, as you are first to deny, is your mortal enemy.


In the dark commons of the theatre something magical happens. We come together and together we interpret and create. It’s the space in which the author dies, and her work comes to life. That creative engagement, practised by audiences everywhere, is a vital part of any cinematic message, of how in its cinematic reality it is written. This vital organic chain reaction is always there, subtly but palpably, in the shared laughter, for example, which delineates the comic tone and situates the ironical distance of the narrative. The beauty of ‘silent’ film is that it allows us to see or, more precisely, hear this immortal process, this miraculous human dance, so much more clearly.

Take, for example, one match made in heaven – or was it hell? – from this year’s mini-festival: Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan («The Witch») from 1922 meets contemporary crossover-hardcore band, Cult Member. What a programming masterstroke, to draw on Tromsø’s own rich seam of more-or-less satanic metal to give this extraordinary – and extraordinarily dark – film-essay the soundtrack it deserves!

The resulting cross-century synergy shook Verdensteatret to the rafters on Saturday night, and brought Christensen’s grotesque cavalcade of horrors to life as if it had been made yesterday. No, that doesn’t do it justice. This is the shock-and-awe of the audiovisual Now with a capital ‘N.’ The film, with is cultish accomplices, assaulted its audience with all the immediacy of a waking nightmare, scoring its fresh burning images across the retinas of its unwitting spectators.


The film, for a start, is a masterpiece, and a model for a century’s worth of essay-style documentaries that have followed in its wake. The inspired musings of the iconic Mark Cousins come immediately to mind, though his interests lean more to the quirky than the grotesque. Nevertheless, with a similar intellectual curiosity and eye for detail, Christensen digs deep into the core of witchcraft and its attendant hysteria. He takes us to another world, the past as foreign country, to the everyday drudgeries and terrors of mediaeval dogma and superstition.

This was a time routinely terrified by visions of hell and the prospect of the devil walking abroad, threatening to bring catastrophe down upon unsuspecting Christian heads anywhere, anytime. The genius of the film is in the way it visualises and dramatizes that world, and connects it to ‘our own,’ or at least that of the early 20th century, when many faced their own, peculiarly modern anxieties, and these increasingly interrogated and informed by the brand new field of psychoanalysis.

Comparisons can thus be drawn with modern ‘hysteria,’ offering intriguing insights into human suggestibility per se. Was it surprising that God-fearing Christians of mediaeval Europe saw the devil lurking in every corner, and feared at every turn his corruption of the ever patronised and belittled ‘weaker sex?’ We share their suggestibility and shockability ourselves, at any rate, through the miracle of film and music. In one unforgettable scene, there is an abrupt, unsettling moment of silence (that most underrated of audio tools) before the devil springs with evil delight from his hiding place. The treacherous calm before the storm is punctuated by the dreaded horror of his appearance and the cacophonous uproar, which echoes and accentuates our psychic distress. Shock and awe!

«The Girl in Tails».

The treasures harvested from a distant past come thick and fast at Silent Film Days. We dismiss the past so readily as simpler, more primitive times. Such facile ethnocentric ‘presentism’ is quickly disabused by a few samples from the programme. The experimentation, the passion, the sheer art of their craft is at times a veritable wonder to behold. Early filmmakers’ special relationship to the visual, borne of their soundless technology, brought achievements of an intensity and visual narrative power that are probably impossible to replicate with modern multidimensional platforms.

Take, for example, the taut, textless storytelling of Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1926). There are no intertitles to guide us, only the visual narrative itself, a gripping, innovating admixture of disorientating angles, fast cuts and double exposures. These force us to share on an almost bodily level some of the darkest experiences of the troubled denizens of the social margins, in a way Hollywood would later studiously avoid. The film anticipates every supposed modern innovation to be imagined, from the cascading bricolage of the music video to the existential tenor of the French New Wave. This may partly explain why the productive synergy with Trond Jervell’s own style of audio innovation seemed so effortless, a meeting of contemporary souls.

The muscular audiovisual journey of Ménilmontant is in stark contrast to Karin Swanström’s The Girl in Tails (1926), released the same year a few miles further north, testimony to the rich variety of the filmic expression of the era. While the former showed how film could take wing and leave its textual anchors behind, the latter showed conversely how it could be the vehicle of a remarkable textual subtlety and depth. The judicious use of intertitles, combined with an invitation to lipreading and, not least, some extraordinarily powerful acting performances, lent this an almost Shakespearean complexity and gravitas.

The daughter of a wealthy yet financially troubled entrepreneur has no decent party frock in which to attend the ball and so scandalises her small, conservative community with a little early-20th-century cross-dressing. The conflict and ultimately the reconciliation with the elderly matriarch of the Swedish small town is handled with subtlety and sophistication. There are no pantomime villains, only flawed human beings trying their best to make sense of social dynamics that may seem to leave them like so much obsolete detritus in its wake.

The beauty and pathos of the story bely the supposed limitations of the silent screen. The speech of the elderly schoolmaster to the stubborn matriarch, calling her to make her peace with the forces of change before it is too late, at any rate for her, resonates as clearly as any dramatic pronouncement to be heard on some earthly stage. All this was aided and abetted by a musical performance as exuberant as the image-making itself. Mie Bergh seemed to capture the defiant spirit of the charismatic protagonist of the story, Katia Kock, played by Magda Holm, and channel it into musical form.

By some strange coincidence I spent most of the day, before hitching my wagon to Häxan, at a symposium of the Tromsø art community, about how to self-organise and constitute an egalitarian, free thinking vehicle for human self-expression and community, a kind of ‘Dream Academy.’ As Universities continue to implode under the weight of a neoliberal agenda as woefully ignorant as it is remorseless, it has never been more important to take matters into our own hands, to self-organise our mutual education and emancipation. Only then will we find a way to come together and become more than the sum of the worker-consumer parts we are continually and slavishly designated, whether at the behest of algorithm or so-called University.

For our meagre designations are given us by the most destructive social system ever devised by humankind. As the planet continues to choke in its death grip, we had better rebuild – without delay – our dream academy from the ground up. And what better ground than the ‘cinematic commons?’ We could do a lot worse than come together with the living cinematic remains of a few notable kindred spirits, here in the ghostly, life-affirming audiovisual exuberance of Tromsø’s Silent Film Days.

As we say in the city of my birth, Wolverhampton, ‘Out of darkness cometh light!’ The cinema at its best is a place of memory, imagination, and new beginnings. Here we can channel the spirit of ‘never silent’ film.

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