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Leaders in the silent era of film

Times Staff Writer

ONE of the most intriguing programs in the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s International Preservation series is tonight’s presentation of three early Scandinavian silents.

In 1910, Denmark’s cinema arguably was the most sophisticated in the world, in no small measure because of Asta Nielsen, an actress with amazing naturalness and an equally impressive intensity. Urban Gad’s “The Abyss” (1910) ends up as melodramatic as many a lesser silent but is a vignette beautifully told, about a young woman (Nielsen) who abruptly dumps her fiance, a vicar’s son, for a handsome traveling circus cowboy she has just laid eyes on. Disaster unsurprisingly awaits, as her new guy has a roving eye. But her showbiz life with him is so vital and her passion for him so great that, well, maybe it was all worth it. Nielsen and her lover perform a tango that is astonishingly erotic and boldly suggestive, especially for 1910.

Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjostrom emerged as two of Sweden’s greatest pioneer directors, and Stiller’s “The Avenger” (1915) and Sjostrom’s “Kiss of Death” (1916) offer glimpses of what was soon to come -- although Sjostrom had already directed “Ingeborg Holm” (1913), which film critic Andrew Sarris suspects may be the movies’ first masterpiece.

“The Avenger,” about a pregnant Jewish woman’s rejection by her Gentile lover and its consequences to the next generation, is strongly steeped in the coincidental and the didactic. It is far removed from the sophisticated fare that would make Stiller a rival to Lubitsch -- yet the story must have been exceptionally close to his heart.

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“Kiss of Death” is a clever if farfetched mystery that turns upon one man’s exact likeness to another. That allows the husky Sjostrom, who played the elderly professor in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” 40 years later, to take on dual roles. It is a light divertissement among the director’s generally serious fare, which included “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Wind.”

Fish and footsteps

The ninth annual DocuWeek Theatrical Documentary Showcase will present 12 features and three shorts Friday through next Thursday at the ArcLight, with each film screened daily on a rotating schedule.

Of special note is Hubert Sauper’s “Darwin’s Nightmare,” which tells how the Nile perch, introduced into Tanzania’s Lake Victoria in the 1960s, has rendered all other species there virtually extinct. The perch has become a profitable export but has left devastation.

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The fishing industry has provided jobs, yet many drawn to derelict lakeside communities barely survive. The population is wracked by AIDS, pollution and an epidemic of glue-sniffing. Along the way, Sauper receives confirmation of what he suspected from the start: that the Russian pilots flying out tons of perch every day are flying in arms for various wars.

“Darwin’s Nightmare” becomes an indictment of globalization, with Tanzania swept over by famine while its people cannot afford the perch. The final irony, according to the film, is that the perch has destroyed the ecology of Lake Victoria, and if its oxygen supply continues to dwindle, it will die too.

Also screening as part of DocuWeek is “Ballets Russes.” When filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine learned that the first official reunion of the Ballets Russes dancers would take place in June 2000 in New Orleans, they seized the opportunity to interview 40 alumni, ranging in age from late 60s to 90s. The film that resulted traces the turbulent history and enduring influence of the Ballets Russes, which, after founder Sergei Diaghilev’s death in 1929, split into the competing Original Ballet Russe and the longer-lasting Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Through extraordinary archival footage, Geller and Goldfine frame the reminiscences of the dancers with clips of them performing in their prime. It is a vital group that remains active teaching and performing in character parts. They are candid about clashes of temperament and ego but have a keen appreciation of each other’s artistry. Above all, they are grateful for living exciting, creative lives.

Geller and Goldfine were especially fortunate to interview Dame Alicia Markova, exuberant Nathalie Krassovska, fiery Mia Slavenska and unpretentious Tatiana Riabouchinska. The film’s star is Frederic Franklin, who with Alexandra Danilova formed a celebrated 20-year dancing partnership -- and who sets Ballets Russes choreographies the world over. He’s a perceptive raconteur and representative of many alumni striving to pass on their heritage.

*

Screenings

UCLA International Preservation series

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* “The Abyss,” “The Avenger” and “Kiss of Death”: 7:30 tonight

Where: Melnitz Hall, James Bridges Theater, UCLA campus

Info: (310) 206-FILM; www.cinema.ucla.edu

DocuWeek Theatrical Documentary Showcase

* “Darwin’s Nightmare”: 9:45 p.m. Friday; check schedule for repeats.

* “Ballets Russes”: 12:30 p.m. Friday; check schedule for repeats.

Where: ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

Info: (323) 464-4226; www.documentary.org

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