Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

Spain’s Pablo Berger — who has taught film at Princeton, Yale and the Sorbonne — says his films all have three things in common: emotion, humor and surprise. So it was much to his dismay that after toiling away for years on his Snow White-inspired movie, “Blancanieves,” which he wrote in 2004, he received a text message from industry bigwig Simone de Santiago who had just emerged from an early screening of “The Artist” at Cannes. That sleeper hit, which would go on to sweep the Oscars, just happens to share three things with Berger’s: it was shot in b&w with subtitles, its audio narrative is driven by orchestral music, and it’s a tribute to silent films.

At the time, Berger was one week from shooting his movie, set in the world of bullfighting in ’20s Spain. “The whole element of surprise had been erased after years of work,” Berger recalls. “So I was shocked; I was mad; I thought, ‘This is insane.’ But the next day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘This is OK, it’s great, it’s a success and I just have to ride the wave.’ ”

Berger points out that “The Artist” didn’t help him from a financing standpoint, something he had achieved over the course of eight years, but he acknowledges that it’s helped secure international distribution. ” ‘The Artist’ was a hit and has broken all the prejudice against black-and-white silent movies,” he says.

Berger, who lives in Madrid and was raised in Bilbao, says the seed for his love of ’20s-era cinema was planted when was in his late teens and saw Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” with a live orchestra at the San Sebastian Film Festival. It was the first time he had seen a silent film on the bigscreen.

“That was like cinematographic ecstasy,” Berger says. “I felt things I had never felt before. I don’t think I was breathing throughout the whole projection of the film. Some people call it the Stendhal syndrome — beautiful images with the beautiful music all combined was like a bomb.”

Berger has been able to approximate that experience with his own film, which was presented at both Liceo, the opera house in Barcelona, and at the Zarzuela Theater in Madrid, with Roman Gottwald, who orchestrated Alfonso de Vilallonga’s original score, conducting a live orchestra.

“It was magical,” says Berger. “A dream come true.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
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