Suddenly appearing in Florence, an evil seductress causes Cesare, the city's ruler, and his son to both fall madly in love with her. The son, killing his father before an order to torture ...
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Suddenly appearing in Florence, an evil seductress causes Cesare, the city's ruler, and his son to both fall madly in love with her. The son, killing his father before an order to torture the woman can be carried out, then turns the city's churches into dens of sexual debauchery. Acts of evil and corruption continue unabated until the arrival of Death, who brings with her a horrible plague which she is about to loose upon the city.Written by
Doug Sederberg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
One of the usual ways Weimar cinema is written about is as a product of a country devastated by war, inflation and, ultimately, Nazis, but there are surely worthy research topics for the effects of the 1918 Influenza pandemic on the film industry. Not only Germany, either--there seems a surprising dearth of film scholarship (and, perhaps, historical writing in general, but I know less about that) in regards to that misnomer "Spanish flu." Most film books I've read on the time period don't even mention it (recently double checking the indexes of some of my library, I found nothing), and those that do tend only to mention theatre closings. Historian Richard Koszarski, for one, corrects in an article for "Film History" his own error of omission in his addition on the era to the otherwise thorough "History of the American Cinema" series. A thread has emerged on the subject at Nitrateville, a website of message boards devoted to silent and classic cinema. Anyways, I bring this up because "The Plague in Florence," while about a past epidemic, was made during a time of another plague, and, of course, in 2020, I'm reviewing it as still another pandemic rages. I doubt this is a coincidence.
A striking conflation in the film, I suspect, is found in the dead. In recently learning more about the Influenza pandemic, it seems unusual in how it largely killed young, otherwise healthy people and also for how symptoms reportedly would strike them suddenly. Just about the only contemporary film I've seen on the subject, a public-information picture, "Dr. Wise on Influenza" (1919), indeed, depicts a young man abruptly collapsing in public from the flu. "The Plague in Florence" nominally concerns the Black Death, the plague. The bodies in the streets and even the vision of rivers of bodies here may be attributed to this historic bacterial disease. The most commonly attributed symptom of plague, however, are the buboes (hence, "bubonic" plague), the inflamed lymph nodes scarring bodies. That isn't seen here; characters are simply infected and collapse. They tend to be young and otherwise healthy, too. We don't see the so-called Council of Elders succumb in such a way.
Also interesting is how the plague infects the political dynamics in the picture. In the film, there's a, let's say, war between the lovers of orgies and repressive fanatics, some of the latter of who are quite rapacious themselves. The free-love republicans come to power, but then the Pestilence comes to upend this political, religious and sexual situation. Sounds of its time in the tumultuous Weimar Republic for a costume drama, or Kostümfilme, as the revisionist German film history books in my collection dismiss it. Such past historical interpretations seem as though they'll be challenged, though, if they haven't yet been, especially in light of the current pandemic. Silent-film enthusiast Fritzi Kramer, of the Movies Silently website, has already written a good review of "The Plague in Florence." For the U.S., Koszarski and others have mentioned how cinema closures likely aided Adolph Zukor's plans to vertically integrate Paramount--leading to the system that would dominate Hollywood for decades. (Likewise, today, we've at least seen a hastening of the upsurge of streaming and the market share of China's theatrical market.)
As historically interesting as all of this is--following a thread through three pandemics--until I'm able to see a nice print and restoration of a 1919 silent film by way of Blu-ray on a large TV screen in my own home, none of this is to say that "The Plague in Florence" isn't a flawed and, even for its day, dated picture. The reason it's available at all, in a collection of his silent works from Kino, is that Fritz Lang, early in his career, is credited as scenarist. Directing was Otto Rippert, otherwise seemingly only known for another rather obscure, but conceptually-intriguing silent film, "Homunculus," a Frankenstein-esque serial from 1916. Part of the problem is that Lang's scenario is meandering. The Black Death doesn't arrive until an hour and 20 minutes in, and, then, more than a loose resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," it largely serves as obscene evangelizing; or, as a couple title card puts it, "The stones begin to speak. And nature revolts against the lovemaking that is abhorrent to nature." The scenario also seems to shift the protagonist between three characters in a lackluster love triangle, one an unfortunate siren trope of a woman who's blamed for the lust of the men who chase after her, one a dandy dressed in the usual flamboyant fashion one imagines of a Florentine man of the Medieval and Renaissance times and the other a grave monk prostrating himself beside a crucifixion idol before constructing his own cross.
The so-called orgies, too, that the monk at first laments, are hardly more than kissing-and-hugging parties of lounging about to music. Had Germany not imported the Babylon sequences from D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) by then or what? I wasn't expecting "Caligula" (1979), but even by 1910s standards, these supposed orgies are tame. This is some of the worst timing I've seen of party planning, too: in one scene, the woman is saved from being almost raped and so decides it's a good time for a festival and, later, as soon as the plague enters, they decide to throw a masquerade ball! Rather undermines the city's closed-wall quarantine, one would think.
It doesn't help, either, that the acting is dated in the stilted fashion before the likes of, say, Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford or, across the Atlantic, Asta Nielsen and Pola Negri offered more naturalistic or, at least, cinematically, as opposed to theatrically, intended performances. There are a lot of broad gestures--raising of arms and whatnot--in this one. To be fair, such acting does correspond to an often distant camera, and, in that respect, there is some admittedly fine work done in deep stagings, including interiors divided into up to three planes to accentuate the extreme depth of field and crowded long views of enormous sets. Yet, these tableau stagings seem dated by 1919, when classical continuity cinema had already emerged, including in Germany as Ernst Lubitsch's "Madame DuBarry" (1919) will attest. Overall, the crosscutting and scene dissection--particularly for interiors--is relatively scant here. Maurice Tourneur was already editing conversations into over-the-shoulder shot/reverse shots in "Victory" (1919); meanwhile, the camera sits in the same place here for entire or almost entire scenes and returns to the same seat for scenes in the same locations, such as that pathetic fight scene where one guy appears to faint from flexing his own muscles as the other guy merely holds his shoulders and arms.
Nevertheless, and even though the moralizing of the picture is self-defeating, the notion itself of lovers battling the Church is amusing. The vision scene of the "place of lost souls," including that river of corpses, a dragon and other weird stuff, is a highlight, and it reminds me of a Georges Méliès féerie, where a fairy godmother type--replaced here, then, by the monk--would often guide the hero with such fantastic spectacle of stage and trick effects. Earlier, there's a torture scene. Ultimately, it's the plague that interests most here, though, especially in 1919 amid another pandemic... especially now in 2020.
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