pretend to shoot and stab me quick before you kiss!
by Douglas Messerli
Urban Gad (screenwriter and director) Zapatas Bande (Zapata’s Gang) / 1914
Danish director Urban Gad’s 1914 German-produced film is a rarity in early silent film-making. With its hand-tinted frames—blue, yellow, red, and brown—Gad’s leading lady, his wife, the silent film star Asta Nielsen joins up with a band of fellow Danish and German actors (Fred Immler, Hans Lanser-Rudolf, Carl Dibbern, Max Agerty, Ernst Körner, and others) to portray members of a Scandinavian film company, Nordland, transported to northern Italy where they hope to make a movie about the real Zapata’s roadside gang of robbers.
Despite warnings that Zapata’s gang may be in the neighborhood, Countess Bellafiore decides to accompany her daughter Elena on an outing that very day. And it is their coach that comes around the bend at the very moment the actors await for the hired extras to appear.
While the film has been shooting, as we might have feared, the real Zapata gang has made their way to the glen where the actors have left their clothes, gathering them up and whisking them away. When the actors return after their shoot they find no sign of their clothes nor, evidently, any method of returning to their hotel. When they try to make their way to a nearby village to find new clothing and a mode of transportation back to the city, the villagers, perceiving them as the Zapata gang, greet them with volleys of gun fire, and they are forced to retreat.
Since the actors have gone missing, their manager, fearful that they might have been abducted by Zapata’s bandits, calls in the gendarmes to search for them, and they too now are scouting the wilds to which the actors have been forced to retire. After a cold, sleepless night in open fields, Nielsen suggests that they have no alternative if they want to eat but to themselves become bandits, robbing chickens and other produce from the local inhabitants.
Any viewer can perceive where this marvelous 42-minute film is heading. Already, like the several early works, such as those portraying scenes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Charles Chaplin’s Behind the Screen, silent filmmakers were beginning to recognize that since their moving pictures were so closely related to photography and the depiction of “real” life that cinema narrative was inherently related to issues of the relationship of art and reality. There was the potential, writers, directors, and actors quickly perceived, that what was put on celluloid might be easily confused with everyday life experiences, that the characters actors created on film might simply be misunderstood as representations of real-life beings. And that obfuscation of identity could easily spill over to a confusion between desire and sex equally, since the stories the films represented were like dreams of desire representing as they often did figures of great sexual appeal.
It is while rummaging for food that Nielsen accidentally re-encounters Elena, who is absolutely delighted to find her hero has entered her bedroom while she slept. Just to make it safe for her once again to lose her heart—a prelude one might imagine to losing her virginity—she demands that the bandit once more take out her/his gun, aiming it at her. Accordingly, she hugs and kisses her hero, while Nielsen attempts to explain to her in pigeon-Italian that what she and her gang most need at the moment is not love but food.
Elena quickly brings back a large basket of bread and other food stuffs, but will release it to Nielsen only if she promises that she may also join the gang.
Almost immediately upon meeting up with another of the actor’s gang, Elena demands that he take out his sword to protect her from being ravaged by Nielsen, a scenario he rather confusingly plays out, permitting her to go with him while still allowing Nielsen to take the girl in hand and lead her to the others.
It’s evident that this apparently bi-sexual young girl—perhaps the first such figure introduced to cinema—can permit herself to be seduced only through violence, perhaps another filmmaking first given its sado-masochist implications. The film gets even stranger when, as they join up with the gang, Nielsen demands they change costumes, she dressing in Elena’s gown while Elena becomes Nielsen’s cinematic version of a bandit.
To confuse matters more, finding her daughter gone, Countess Bellafiore also summons the police who go on search of her daughter, believing she too has been kidnapped by the Zapata group, bringing the final tally of those out to capture the actor bandits, accordingly, to two sets of police authorities, to say nothing of the “real” gang itself.
Fortunately, dressed in civilian attire, Nielsen makes her way to the Scandinavian consul, the only man who might be able to understand her now complex story in its original language (one might also interpret this work to be about the problem of translation given that the Danish speaking Gad and Nielsen were working on a German-language film company in Italy) convincing him to follow her into the wilds to settle the situation just as the various forces have descended upon the gay of players to do them in.
The movie actors and their crews quickly pack up and return home with no film in the can, but with, so the movie tells us, a great many “new experiences” which we might describe as insights into the minds and hearts of their fellow beings.
Los Angeles, May 11, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).