Out of the Archive, Into the Spotlight: MoMA, Columbia University Silent Film Showcase Honors Women Artists

Celine Ipek
December 06, 2023

The silent film opens on a young fair-haired boy in a collared jacket sitting on a low wooden bench. In his hands he holds a novel called Zew morza—Polish for The Call of the Sea and the same as the film's title. The boy, Stach, grows up to serve as an officer on a merchant ship, designing innovations in shipbuilding and falling in love with his childhood friend before becoming ensnared in a gang of smugglers. 

Rendered in lush cinematography, the film features Polish intertitles and English subtitles. It was produced by Maria Hirszbein in 1927—and was recently featured at a special film festival held by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), “After Alice, Beyond Lois: Mining the Archive with the Women Film Pioneers Project.” 

Held from October 25 to November 10, 2023, the screenings commemorate the tenth anniversary of Columbia University Libraries’ Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), a digital publication and film archival resource committed to preserving the history of women filmmakers during the Silent Film Era. Hirszbein’s The Call of the Sea was one of the many selected films written, produced, directed, edited, photographed, colored, and titled by women during the silent era. The MoMA series unites animation, experimental and independent cinema, documentaries, and commercial fiction from Japan, China, Tunisia, Argentina, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, the USSR (now Russia and Georgia), England, Scotland, and the United States, spotlighting the pivotal contributions of women in the early days of cinema while underscoring cross-national thematic links. 

Organized by Film and Media Studies graduate Kate Saccone ’13, project manager of the WFPP, the series also includes Brides of the Frontier (1943), the only surviving film directed by Japanese filmmaker Tazuko Sakane; Las Naciones de América (1927), a film presumed lost until 2021, made by Argentinian documentary filmmaker Renée Oro; and Adam a Eva (1922), a cross-dressing comedy scripted by Czech actress Suzanne Marwille. A number of the films have undergone digital restoration: stabilization, color and density correction, and removal of scratches and some warping. Drawn from diverse international archives, the features were accompanied by piano arrangements performed by musicians such as Amanda Cattel and Makia Matsumura.  

The “After Alice, Beyond Lois” screening series is a display of the WFPP’s commitment to showcasing the wide scope of creative work produced by women in the early days of filmmaking—women who enriched the cinematic landscape for years afterward. By highlighting the restored brilliance of these films, the series served as a tribute to the depth of behind-the-scenes contributions made by women while broadening access to the enduring legacies of artists both well-known and lesser-known.

The WFPP was first founded 20 years ago by Film and Media Studies Professor Jane M. Gaines. Centering women’s global involvements at all levels of film production, the WFPP has highlighted female film pioneers such as Frederica Sagor Maas, who enrolled in Columbia University in 1917 before relocating to Hollywood to create screenplays. Maas co-wrote the 1925 film The Plastic Age, which starred renowned actress Clara Bow. Recently, Columbia College alumnus Dwight Cleveland ’82 supported a Film and Media Studies fellowship in Maas’s honor, supporting Columbia University School of the Arts students in conducting historical research on women artists from the 20th century silent film industry. The scholarship cultivates and encourages students’ abilities to preserve the work of female filmmakers, making possible the future expansion of archival resources and exhibits.