Film Scouts Diaries

1999 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Diary #3

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic - Wednesday, July 8, 1999

At last year's Karlovy Vary festival, there was quite a hoopla that we didn't quite understand the reason for, but what the hell, it was an afternoon party and a party is a party. So we all dressed up (mostly in black) and headed for the theater right on the Canal, halfway between the Thermal Hotel (the Festival's headquarters) and the Pupp Palace (the Stars' HQ).

Quite a sight - spell that s.i.t.e. The theater is an architectural gem, with Austro-Hungarian curlicues and what-have-yous. As often happens, it was crumbling down for lack of renovation funds. Culture, as you know, does not rank very high in a nation's budget. Well, funds were found and we were actually visiting the site right after the walls had been redone and repainted (yes, we had to send our black garb to the cleaners but so what?)

The theater is now completely renovated and the work is just as splendid as Disney's for the New Amsterdam Theater in New York. As you walk in, you're thrown back in time, you feel you're in one of those luscious romances where young Romy Schneider as soon-to-be empress Elizabeth walks up the imperial steps toward impressively handsome Karl-Heinz Böhm while a million violins playing some Strauss-ersatz. (Don't forget Vienna, Ludwig's Bavaria and Mayerling are just a few hours away by car).

A couple of days ago, the theater was illuminated for an event - and no one wanted to miss it. Speared by its president, French director Yves Boisset, the jury changed its entire schedule to attend. The occasion was the screening of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Der Schatz ("The Treasure") - in a fully restored, newly minted color print, with original music played by a live orchestra.

Along with F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst was one of the "greats" of German cinema of the 1920s and 1930s (read The Haunted Screen, Lotte Eisner's masterpiece on German Expressionism...if you find it.). Pabst went on to work with Garbo and Dietrich and make such historical works as Three-Penny Opera, Joyless Street and Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks. Made at the end of 1922 in Berlin's UFA studio and premiered in February 1923, The Treasure was Pabst's directorial debut; it had never shown in its original version since the beginning of the "talkies". The Berlin Film Archive had a shortened version (black-and-white with English intertitles). The German Film Institute had another version, longer and better kept. But then a complete copy of the movie was discovered in the Prague Film Archive (with the original colorings), it served as a basis for the restoration work, which was done in collaboration with the Cinémathèque Royale of Brussels, ZDF/Arte and the KirchGruppe of Munich. They deserve to be mentioned because they all did a great job.

The story is almost as dark as Erich von Stroheim's Greed. It pitches a master foundryman, his wife and his assistant who live in an ancient bell foundry in Slovenia, against his daughter and a young goldsmith, Arno, come to the foundry to work on the new bell which is to replace the town's bell destroyed by the Turks in 1694. According to the legend, the Turks left a treasure the central pillar of the building, as it turns out. The film is less about finding the treasure than in the different characters' attitudes toward finding the treasure and, more importantly, what happens after the treasure is found. One doesn't recall ever seeing such brute force at work for evil and such raw lust for money. Except, perhaps, on Zasu Pitt's face in von Stroheim's Greed.

The original score was written by Max Deutsch, a disciple of Arnold Schönberg. It is no easy music, no "chewing-gum for the ears", as they say. It does more than just accompany the storyline. Structured in movements (five), it amplifies, at times shapes, the moods, the atmosphere, the characters - much as color does - and it comments on the pictorial language of the film itself. It is considered the first complete symphony ever written for film. It had also virtually vanished since 1923. It was found, transcribed, and magnificently performed by the Czech Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frank Strobel.

"Jesus!," commented a juror coming out of this second world-premiere, as it were. "I'd never realized how much we'd lost in terms of film language. Comparing to today's movies, including mine, it's like we've been reduced to trying to write the Great American Novel with 500 words max."

After that, no one wanted to go see another movie. So after the party, we headed for the Thermal's swimming pool for a quick Becherovka and called it a night. Some of us went to Hell - that's the disco at the Thermal - and partied with the devils.

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