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Silent Wonders

The Niles International Silent Film Festival celebrates a bygone cinematic age

By Richard von Busack

THIS WEEKEND sees some very adventurous programming at the film museum in Niles, a small town miraculously preserved from the sprawl of Fremont. The festival commemorates Niles' years as a silent-film capital when Essanay Studios was located here, and Charlie Chaplin was a resident (the last scene of his iconic The Tramp was shot in these still undeveloped hills).

Nov. 2, 8pm: The Italian Straw Hat (1927). A hungry horse causes a peck of trouble for a bridegroom. René Clair's farce is one of the pioneering films of the age of screwball comedy. It is billed with Blood and Bosh (1913) and The Impossible Voyage (1905), George Méliès' 20-minute epic. Set the controls for the heart of the sun: a party of French explorers head for outer space. Their vehicles include 300mph jet car, and a dirigible-carried steam engine that uses the Jungfrau as a ramp to obtain escape velocity. Withstanding the incredible temperatures of the sun's interior—a whopping 3,000 degrees—they return from an ordeal that surpasses even such epic journeys as Captain Spaulding's expedition to Africa. Greg Pane at the piano.

Nov. 3, noon: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). Walter Ruttman's famous collage-documentary of a day in the life of the German capitol. Also Drifters (1927). "Drifters is about the sea and about fisherman, and there is not a Piccadilly actor in the piece"—documentary pioneer John Grierson. This key early documentary on the North Sea fishing industry was the second half of the bill on the American debut of Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin. Judy Rosenberg at the piano. Nov 3, 3:15pm: The Lodger (1927). Is the upstairs renter Jack the Ripper? That's for Alfred Hitchcock to know and you to find out. Also: Ueberfall (a.k.a. Accident and Police Report: Assault) (1929), Ernö Metzner's story of an apparently cursed gold coin.

Nov. 3, 7:30pm: Spies (1928), playing with a selection of German experimental shorts. This almost ludicrously action-packed silent is one of Fritz Lang's least-revived films. Why? Possibly it's because the motivation is pared down, and we never find out how the wheelchair-bound, chain-smoking arch-villain Haghi (the Lenin look-alike Rudolf Klein-Rogge) can be both monarch of the underworld and an important banker. Haghi has another identity as well, and secret agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) has to find that out, if it kills him. Haghi almost does, using train wrecks, poison gas and the ever-popular deadly beautiful woman (Gerda Maurus).

Nov. 4, 1pm: Master of the House (1925). An unusual film from Carl Dreyer: a kind of domestic comedy about the education of a short-tempered, tyrannical husband by his wife and maid. Also: the short A House Divided (1912). Bruce Loeb at the piano. Nov. 4; 4pm: Mother (1926) by Vsevolod Pudovkin. This adaptation of Maxim Gorky's novel about the 1905 Russian revolution is one of the masterpieces of cinema editing. With animated shorts by the brilliantly bizarre Wladyslaw Starewicz. Molly Axtman at the piano.

Movie Times THE NILES INTERNATIONAL SILENT FILM FESTIVAL plays Nov. 2–4 at the Lincoln Theater, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, 37417 Niles Blvd., Fremont. See for details.

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