TCM Festival Highlight: Bill Morrison’s ‘let me come in’ Reimagines a Lost German Silent Film
Upon its release in 1928, the New York Times called the German silent film Pawns of Passion “a dull piece of cinematography.” Would that the same critic were still alive today, to see what Bill Morrison has conjured from its remains.
Morrison is a singular American filmmaker (Decasia, Dawson City: Frozen Time), but is as much a certain sort of multimedia artist and conceptualist. The concept? He takes mostly obscure, archival celluloid material, reworks it and sets it to contemporary musical composition. He’s previously collaborated with the considerable likes of Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Bill Frisell and Kronos Quartet. And here he reimagines directors Wiktor Biegański and Carmine Gallone’s obscure curiosity about a Russian ballerina (played by Olga Chekova) who is rescued from herself by a young French artist. Its IMDB page states directly, “This film is believed lost.”
Yet it was not actually completely lost, with Morrison having found what was left of it in a Pennsylvania barn in 2012. He took the significantly damaged footage, referring to it as “imagery that seems to be pulled from a state of semi-consciousness, asleep but dreaming,” and incorporated it into his latest film, titled let me come in – which is a hypnotic, almost meditative work of visual and aural fascination. It will have its virtual premiere at this week’s TCM Classic Film Festival.
The new film opens, fittingly, with dancer Ala Suminska being escorted into the Paris atelier of Harry Frank (Hans Stüwe), looking woozy, and close to defeat. Separated from her young son during the Russian Revolution, she has inexplicably trekked across Europe in an attempt to find him, and ultimately attempts suicide, only to be saved by the artist. The reworking of the damaged celluloid, wildly swelling and flickering, looks something like the X-Ray of a person who has just swallowed hot lava. But it is also visually captivating, haunting even, and might very well be radiating with visceral metaphors, possibly to be revealed on repeated viewings.
It’s set to a striking new musical piece by Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang (co-founder of the contemporary classical collective Bang on a Can), a sort of bluesy-spiritual work, yet with an impassioned operatic vocal performance rising soprano Angel Blue. The lyrics, in effect, become the new story: “I sleep, but my heart is awake / I slept, but my mind was awake / I was asleep, but dreaming.”
“It’s a rumination on love and the borderline separating two souls,” Morrison explains, “seemingly from the precipice of consciousness. When I heard Angel Blue’s incredible interpretation, my mind immediately recalled the ambiguous tension in this scene from Pawns of Passion. Left to rot in a barn, and then scanned and archived again for another eight years on my own personal hard drive, it has found a new life through David’s words and music, and Angel Blue’s voice.”
Co-presented by the Los Angeles Opera, let me come in will screen as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, Thursday, May 6 through Sunday, May 9, at two virtual venues: the TCM network and the Classics Curated by TCM Hub on HBO Max.