American director-producer-screenwriter King Vidor (1894-1982), whose long and notable career parallels the history of Hollywood filmmaking, is the subject of a 35-film retrospective at the Berlinale, curated by Rainer Rother, artistic director of the Deutsche Kinematek and head of the Retrospective program. The films, chosen from five decades, will be screened in the best extant copies. Rother notes, “We are able to present very good 35mm prints of most of the films; given the developments in the industry, that most likely won’t be possible too often anymore.” Screenings will take place at CinemaxX 8 and at Zeughauskino, which is part of the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Select silent works will feature live piano accompaniment.
After several retrospectives centering on films from specific time periods or genres, or illuminating the history of aesthetic and technical innovations, Rother felt it was a good time to dedicate a retrospective to a director again. Why Vidor? “King Vidor is part of ‘generation film,’ meaning the generation that was born at almost the same time as what Ricciotto Canudo called the ‘seventh art,’ and matured alongside it,” he says. “That generation determined how cinema developed across several key upheavals — they made the transition from short one-and-two-reelers to feature films, and mastered the challenges of sound and of color.”
With personal projects such as “The Big Parade” and “The Crowd,” and studio assignments such as “Northwest Passage,” “Duel in the Sun” and “Ruby Gentry,” among others, Vidor is definitely a director worth (re)discovering. Part of that is because of the variety of his work. He explored vastly different genres — Westerns, melodramas, period films, comedies, even a biblical epic. Rother notes, “The way Vidor directed was, as Martin Scorsese says, markedly dynamic; he took the emotionalism of his characters to the very limits of what seemed possible in Hollywood. All that made him extraordinarily productive and for us today, a fascinating director.”
Rother also points out how Vidor sharpens our awareness of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Americans. “The film ‘Street Scene’ is anchored by the diverse backgrounds of the building residents, and ‘An American Romance’ tells the story of a Czech immigrant making it in America, without a hint of cliché,” he says. “Vidor’s first sound film, ‘Hallelujah,’ was also the first studio film to be shot with an all-black cast. And in ‘Japanese War Bride,’ he specifically addresses the subject of racism directed at Japanese-Americans.”
Some of the titles are very rare and required months to source decent prints. “ ‘Japanese War Bride,’ ‘So Red the Rose’ and ‘The Champ’ are amongst them. Even some of his late studio productions in Technicolor are not easy to find,” he says. “In a few cases, we were able to find a partner for a digital restoration of a film.” The Library of Congress is restoring Vidor’s first Western, “The Sky Pilot,” and will work on “Hallelujah” in collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Following the presentation in Berlin, the retrospective will travel to archives in Munich, Nuremberg, Zurich and New York.
In addition to the specially commissioned bilingual publication “King Vidor,” the retrospective will be accompanied by a host of special sidebar events. The authors and editors of the book, Lisa Gotto, Bert Rebhandl, Françoise Zamour and Karin Herbst-Messlinger, will discuss Vidor’s work during a panel. In addition, Vidor expert Catherine Berge will introduce two essay films by Vidor: “Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics” (1964), in which Vidor explores the relationship between mind and matter, and the documentary “Metaphor: King Vidor Meets with Andrew Wyeth” (1980), in which the director engages in dialogue with the American painter.