A silent movie star is reborn: Pola Negri’s lost Mania is found

The rediscovery and restoration of silent film Mania: The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker gives modern audiences the chance to be mesmerised by the melodrama of its Polish star…..

The tragedy of silent cinema is that we have so little of it. Of all the films made in the silent era, no more than 20% are extant, and even fewer of those are available to be seen by the public. But happily, that isn’t the end of the story. Those missing reels have not all been burned, re-used or left to rot. New discoveries are being made all the time, and each lost film that is returned to the fold has something to teach us about cinema at the beginning of the last century – and the best of them are a delight to watch as well.
Mania: The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker is one such film. Made in the legendary Ufa studios in Berlin by director Eugen Illés in 1918, it has never been seen since its release. Mania – which is nothing to do with madness but the heroine’s name – wasn’t lost after all; a copy turned up in a Czech film collection. The Polish Film Archive has now repaired and digitally restored it, and presented it as a “re-premiere” in Warsaw on Sunday night, accompanied by the Wroclaw Chamber Orchestra.
Mania is a gem, a tightly plotted melodrama of the kind they really don’t make any more, but the real value of the film lies in its leading lady – Pola Negri, the first of many silent stars to be plucked from the European film industry and transplanted to Hollywood. Negri’s Paramount years are Hollywood legend: marketed as a diva, “all slink and mink”, she was said to walk her pet tiger up and down Sunset Boulevard when she wasn’t feuding with the studio’s other queen bee, Gloria Swanson. And then there were the romances with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino – marvellous gossip-column fodder, but when she was said to have flung herself, swooning, on the coffin at Valentino’s funeral, it was clear she was too highly strung ever to be America’s sweetheart.
So how did Negri catch Hollywood’s eye in the first place? The films that got her noticed were those she made at Ufa in her late teens and early 20s – including Mania. We’re familiar with her wildcat roles in Ernst Lubitsch’s Berlin movies: mesmerised by Emil Jannings in The Eyes of the Mummy (1918); nibbling on her lover’s heart in The Mountain Cat (1921); or wiggling her way into the sheikh’s harem in Sumurun (1920). These are wonderful performances, using her dance-trained hips and her wickedly expressive face to its best advantage. But Mania is very different – a vehicle for Negri’s softer, romantic side.
It’s an old-fashioned story, for sure, subtitled a “dramatisches-poem” and split into five acts. Effervescent Mania is chosen out of all the girls in the cigarette factory to model for a poster and she falls for the painter’s best friend, Hans, in a wonderfully subversive scene. Mania is physically incapable of holding her pose; she almost teeters off her chair while making lustful eyes at Hans, dropping the cigarette from her jaw. But while her love inspires Hans to complete his opera, her good looks inspire his wealthy villainous patron Morelli to make her a thoroughly indecent proposal, too. Mania is forced to make a choice between her own virtue and her lover’s career – and it soon becomes apparent that she will be damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.
But if the men in her life don’t appreciate Mania, the camera certainly does. Negri is lavished with close-ups, an extravagant wardrobe and a sympathetic, tragic role as a woman devoted to music and her one true love. She’s fantastic in the part, too, lively and sensuous in the early scenes (sucking her fingers after passing someone an overflowing glass of champagne; giggling gleefully when she sees her portrait for the first time), but with a haunted look in her saucer eyes as the film’s tragic climax looms.
Those staggering, eye-rolling moments may grate for a modern audience, but the melodramatic tone is leavened by a cluster of minor characters: velvet-jacketed bohemian types who loiter voyeuristically in cafes and parlours, nudging each other in the ribs and masking clumsy exits when things get nasty. And while Werner Hollman is rather stuffy and boo-hiss as Morelli, Arthur Schröder is fabulously camp as Mania’s wimpy, tetchy composer-boyfriend.
The restoration work means that Mania: History of a Cigarette Factory Worker is now a print of sparkling quality, with the original colour-tinting preserved (some scenes are violet, others amber), and has a new score by Polish composer Jerzy Maksymiuk. Influenced by romantic ballads, it enhances Mania’s old-school sentiment – and builds to a thunderous finale. Mania has turned out to be the model of how to save, and celebrate, the lost films of cinema’s most exciting, pioneering era.
• Mania screens with its new orchestral score at the Barbican Centre in London on 13 October. For more information, visit maniafilm.pl

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