| Daniel Lawrence Aufmann |
Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, January 28 to Sunday, January 30. For more information, see the program notes at the bottom of this post. For tickets, scroll to the bottom of this page or visit trylon.org.
What images spring to mind when you think about silent cinema? Perhaps Charlie Chaplin sliding around in his cabin in The Gold Rush (1925), or waddling off into the sunset in Modern Times (1936). Or maybe Brigitte Helm’s dynamic performance as the angelic Maria and her vampish robotic doppelgänger in Metropolis (1927), or the massacre on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925). And of course, who could forget Filibus, the cross-dressing lesbian master thief, descending from the sky to commit daring robberies before escaping in a zeppelin manned by a crew of loyal male subordinates.
Wait, what? That last one can’t be real, can it? Well, yes. Yes it can.
Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate has only recently been rediscovered and restored by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, and is finally receiving the love and acclaim it so richly deserves. Made in Italy in 1915, Filibus stars Valeria Creti as its title character, an energetic master thief engaged in a battle of wits with the steadfast and––let’s be honest––slightly boring detective Kutt-Hendy. Throughout the film, Filibus commits several daring robberies (for which she attempts to frame Kutt-Hendy), cases her targets in the guise of a rich baroness, and even disguises herself as a man in order to romance Kutt-Hendy’s sister. Clearly, Filibus stands out, for all the right reasons–especially when we look at it alongside the more well-known works of silent Italian cinema, most of which are grand historical epics or tearful melodramas centered on swooning divas. However, what might be the most remarkable thing about Filibus is that, within the landscape of 1910s cinema, it’s not quite as unusual as it sounds.
The 1910s were, in a few words, a wild ride, especially for the movies. And importantly for our story, women were at the forefront of cinema on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, female comedians like Sarah Duhamel and Lea Giunchi (and numerous others, as showcased by the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray set Cinema’s First Nasty Women) made prolific short comedies that pushed the boundaries of gender performance and of what was possible in terms of the cinematic art form itself. Films like the recently restored French comedy La pile électrique de Léontine (Léontine’s Battery, 1910), in which a young woman steals a battery and then spends the rest of the day electrocuting people in hilarious ways, are wildly innovative in both their use of film technology and their liberatingly chaotic portrayal of femininity. And in America, as the suffrage movement gained steam in the 1910s, adventurous action heroines, known as the “serial queens,” became some of the biggest stars in cinema as people returned to theaters week after week to watch them perform death-defying physical feats, unaided by nets, wires, or even stunt doubles. Many of these stunts boggle the mind even today, with Helen Gibson’s automobile fistfight with a sexual predator while speeding down a mountain road in The Open Track (1915) offering a particularly spectacular (and socially relevant) example.
I mention these two groups of performers–female comedians in Europe and female action heroes in America–because they provide crucial context for appreciating Filibus, which also takes its cues from Louis Feuillade’s male-led crime serial Fantômas (1913). Indeed, several scenes quote (almost verbatim) from Feuillade’s sensational serial. But Filibus’ joie de vivre, her puckish sense of humor, and relentless battle against social authority resonate more vividly with the short films made by Italian comedian Lea Giunchi, who shares Filibus’ love for disguise and subterfuge. Whether she is masquerading as an automaton to stop her lover from being forced to marry another woman in Lea bambola (Lea as a Doll, 1913), or evading her overbearing parents in order to go skating with her friends in Lea sui pattini (Lea on Rollerskates, 1911), Giunchi frequently performs some kind of disguise or trick in her films, and Filibus wholeheartedly embraces Giunchi’s spirit of mischief. The film’s choice of a woman thief, however, evokes the American serial queen Grace Cunard, who, in 1914, created and starred as the similarly puckish master thief Lady Raffles, and continued to make films about female criminals well into the late 1910s. Cunard may even have been inspired by Filibus in making The Purple Mask (1917), a 16-part serial in which she plays a disguised master thief who commands a gang of obedient male henchmen and frequently travels by airplane. While we cannot be sure if Cunard even saw Filibus, which may never have been released in the United States, the parallels are nevertheless striking–cross-dressing, queer, aviatrix banditry was in the air!
These parallels are not only fascinating but historically significant. They change the way we remember silent film history. As film historian David Bordwell recently observed, the 1910s are an underappreciated decade as far as cinema is concerned. Much of canonical film history, if it deals with the 1910s at all, briefly waxes rhapsodic about the well-known films of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin before moving on to the 1920s as if no other worthwhile cinema was produced between the nickelodeon era and the end of World War I. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The 1910s were a time when creativity ran wild and free. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that anyone could make movies (film industries were still largely closed off to people of color, especially in the United States), it is true that film industries worldwide were considerably more open to women than they were in the 1920s and beyond. The ongoing Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University has identified hundreds of women who worked behind the camera in silent film industries worldwide, and continues to make new and fascinating discoveries. It was a time when filmmakers could devise weirder, more creative, and indeed, more political films than they could get away with under the commercially-minded studio systems of the 1920s onward. And Filibus is a perfect example of this exuberant creativity.
As unique as it is, Filibus shares many defining characteristics with other 1910s films: it’s fast-paced, feminist, wildly (sometimes outlandishly) inventive, and, tragically, not nearly as well-remembered as it deserves to be. Its recent rediscovery, therefore, is not only a gift to cinema fans, but also a reminder of how much more remains to be discovered. Although a massive portion of silent films (anywhere from 60-95%, depending on who you ask) has been lost due to the ravages of time and the intentional destruction of prints, new discoveries and restorations remind us that one thing is never lost: hope! But to realize that hope, we need to look beyond the established canons of silent film and seek out a greater understanding of what’s actually out there. Filibus is an amazing film that fully deserves all the attention it can get. That it is not completely one-of-a-kind is all the more reason to celebrate it. A truly enjoyable film with an irrepressible spirit of feminist liberation, Filibus serves as a valuable reminder that no matter how much we think we know about cinema, there’s always something new waiting for us to discover.
 David Bordwell, “Thrills and Melodrama from the 1910s,” Observations on Film Art (blog). January 19, 2022. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2022/01/19/thrills-and-melodrama-from-the-1910s/
Edited by Maggie Hennefeld and Michelle Baroody
These screenings are made possible by the University of Minnesota’s Imagine Fund as part of the Twin Cities Silent Film Project, organized by Maggie Hennefeld, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. With live piano accompaniment by Katie Condon and a video introduction by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi (EYE Film Museum).