Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restored

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Lokke Heiss

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Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restored

PostFri Apr 14, 2017 11:47 pm

Tonka of the Gallows - An Unearthed Treasure.

I don't like to say a film has been 'rediscovered,' it always makes me wonder who found the film in the first place and then who lost it. So let's just say the Czech Archive has just unearthed a treasure of a film. The name of this treasure is Tonka of the Gallows, and it screened last night at MoMA as part of a month's program of Czech films.

In the beginning of the film we see city girl Tonka (played by an amazing Ita Rina) traveling by train back to her childhood home in the country, and the contrasts between city and country life are clearly marked, making comparisons between this film and Sunrise inevitable. Soon though, Tonka returns to the city and when we learn she has been able to earn a living only by being a prostitute, the film starts to become darker and more complex.

Things get very dark indeed for Tonka, when - from an act of pity - she volunteers to spend a night with a condemned man in his jail cell before his execution the next morning. Although her night with the man is one spent in innocent tenderness, as she allows him to relive his happy days as a child, to the rest of the world she is a now a 'hanged man's widow' - a pariah to be shunned and avoided. Tonka has become a 'fallen angel,' cursed by her act of kindness, an act which threatens any chance she has of happiness.

All the acting in this film is superb, but especially wonderful is Ita Rina as Tonka, who is completely convincing as the woman who no matter how hard she tries, can never shake off or destroy the pure heart that is deep inside of her. She gives one of the greatest silent film performances I have ever seen, and if you need just one reason to seek out this film, it is to see her in this part.

But there are many other reasons. The art direction combines social realism with many elements of expressionism: the characters in this film are trapped by social convention, some are trapped by prison walls, but mostly, the characters are trapped by jagged lines, jiggles, and figures of darkness that spring up and surround them, cutting them off from escape and freedom, sometimes even prophetically displaying themselves on the walls and on their faces, like the dark hand of fate, symbolically forecasting their futures. This movie is a nightmarish wonderland of shadows.

And finally, in a thematic way, these shadows of confusion and concealment extend into the narrative itself - as a bruised and beaten Tonka sings for her supper to a crowd in the bar - they yell that all they want is to hear about her night of passion with the hanged man. The crowd care nothing about what really happened, and they don't care about her, they just care about what they already believe. The myth has become fact and Tonka must live in the myth or die. It's a cruel lesson to learn, and a lesson that seems more timely than ever.
"You can't top pigs with pigs."

Walt Disney, responding to someone who asked him why he didn't immediately do a sequel to The Three Little Pigs
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Jess McGrath

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Re: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restore

PostThu Apr 20, 2017 8:49 am

I'm planning to catch this one on Saturday night at MOMA, as it sounds fantastic.

One question for clarification: is the film silent or sound?
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Saint-Just

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Re: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restore

PostFri Apr 21, 2017 3:09 pm

I have the DVD of this but haven't given it a look yet.
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goldenband

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Re: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restore

PostFri Apr 21, 2017 7:47 pm

This sounds amazing -- thanks for bringing it to my/our attention.
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Saint-Just

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Re: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restore

PostSat Apr 22, 2017 6:41 am

I gave this a look last night and was blown away - I can only concur with everything Lokke Heiss said.
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Mike Gebert

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Re: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restore

PostSat Apr 22, 2017 9:40 am

So there's a version from a TV broadcast on Dailymotion, which is decent, and there's a DVD on Amazon with a cover which suggests dupe-- is that the one anyone who's bought it has, or did you buy it directly from a Czech source (with English titles)?
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Danny Burk

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Re: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) - a great film, just restore

PostSat Apr 22, 2017 11:47 am

Mike Gebert wrote:So there's a version from a TV broadcast on Dailymotion, which is decent, and there's a DVD on Amazon with a cover which suggests dupe-- is that the one anyone who's bought it has, or did you buy it directly from a Czech source (with English titles)?


I ordered the Amazon version this morning, which comes from a Czech seller.

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