The movie opens with the camera already moving, traveling on a railroad car, with the title and director credit. Then the mug of the director, facing the camera, though looking just beyond us, blinking through a reverie, superimposed on crisscrossed lines of the railroad tracks behind him. A few credits, and then suddenly the action – a railroad crash, filmed with complex editing like Griffith’s but faster, more intense, because this is the modern world. We are far removed from Griffith’s now-ancient scenes of country life. And we can tell its the modern world not just from the editing but from the filth. Everything is grimy. Interiors, exteriors, people, emotions. A man falls in love with his adopted daughter, all the time seeing the horror unfold within his heart. He becomes jealous of his son’s easy playfulness with her – of course he is in love with her too. And his boss is also in love with her, and in a position to make demands of her body to him.
This is the modern world, as symbolized by the wheel. The wheel is a combination of the circle and the cross. The spinning circle of Dr Mabuse is no longer about chaos but torture. The wheel of Saṃsāra. The breaking wheel. These wheels are iron, bathed in steam and smoke, driving faster and faster through the countryside. As the locomotive progressively gained speed through the 19th and 20th centuries, this movie makes great use of velocity. As the drama heats up, the editing becomes faster, and then faster, and then, when you don’t think it can, it gets even faster, until the shots are only single frames, undetectable in themselves, in an orgasm of terror.
Of the main characters here – the worker, the woman, the artist, the capitalist, each plays a role, but none is spared from the relentless turning of the wheel. The war is over, yes, but the torture continues. Gance was spared from the war only by his poor health, and this movie was made as his lover was dying of tuberculosis – that disease seen by Romantics as endemic to the hated new industrial era. Even though the characters fantasize about the Middle Ages, as the Romantics did, it is not Modernity, or even Industrial Capitalism that has trapped, bound, and tortured these people. Rather this suffering is the human condition itself. We are all to be broken on the wheel.
Kramer, Steven Philip and James Michael Welsh. Abel Gance. Twayne Publishers, 1978.