34. Napoléon

Napoleon
April 7, 1927
Gaumont
Directed by Abel Gance

No, that’s not a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Let me explain.

This movie, running five hours long, relying heavily on French patriotism, and playing loose with history, was not easy to watch. Even without considering the triple-screen climax, Napoleon is not a movie that translates well to video. But just after the intermission, there is a fascinating moment of enunciation worth discussing.

The term “enunciation” refers to the moment in a narrative when the author of the work steps in and makes his presence known. This can be either through a stylistic device, signifying mark, or in a film, by the literal presence of the director on the screen.

Sometimes the enunciating act will simply remind the viewer that the film is not simply the product of her own dreaming libido,  but is actually a product of someone else’s imagination. Another effect can be to privilege one particular point of view within the story by identifying it with the point of view of the author.

Now remember that by “author”, I do not necessarily mean the literal person of the usually male director, who is in this case Abel Gance. A director himself has limited control over a million-dollar film-making enterprise, but neverless the concept of “author” is constructed for the viewer. This “author” is understood in the moment of enunciation when the idea is put into the viewer’s mind that she is watching a tale told by a distinct voice, by a creator who acts like a character both in and outside his own movie.

In this film, director Abel Gance takes the form of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who is the youngest, most radical revolutionary in France. He originally fancied himself an author, but after his first book failed to have any literary impact, he decided to be the author of a nation instead. Now at the beginning of the second half of the movie, Maximilien Robespierre has taken control of the Committee of Public Safety and with that, the entire Republic. He accomplished this by executing the rival Hebertists, and Saint-Just has played the role of executioner.

We zip through the Terror and arrive at the final day before the Thermidorian Reaction: July 27, 1794. Instead of focusing on Robespierre’s last stand, which would be expected in a movie about the Revolution, we instead hear Saint-Just’s final impassioned speech, where he defends the Terror as the next necessary step in the Revolution and denounces anyone who would stand in the way of revolutionary progress.

By delivering Saint-Just’s speech, Gance makes himself the great villain who has thrown the Revolution into a chaos. Napoleon will need to swoop in and restore order without losing what has been gained by removing the monarch and creating a Republic. He enters his narrative to personally set up his main character with a conflict to solve.

But Gance’s speech is also directed to the viewer, for Gance is himself an artistic Saint-Just. For him cinema is the revolution of art which promises to change the way people saw, felt, and lived. As in 1794, the Revolution had only gotten started but was already facing  ruin. In early 1927 the Age of Sound was making its inexorable march toward the border. Gance gave his epic Napoleon everything he had, as he watched his ability to fulfill the promise of artistic genius sliced by the guillotine of commerce. In his Thermidor speech, he makes his defense of the Revolution directly to his audience, knowing it is his final chance. Because though Gance would continue to make movies for forty more years, and even complete one more segment of the Napoleon story, 1959’s Austerlitz, none of these movies would make good on the avant-garde promise of La Roue or Napoléon. The vision would remain unfulfilled, because the Revolution was over.

 

33. Metropolis

MetropolisJanuary 10, 1927
UFA
Directed by Fritz Lang

By 1926 there was only film industry that could pose a remote challenge to Hollywood, and that was Germany’s UFA. But even they could no longer keep up. They decided to throw in all of their chips on one big production. The next Fritz Lang/Thea von Harbou film was to be an American-size spectacle with the sophistication of European culture. For most of a year, an enormous crew labored under excruciating conditions and spent over 1,000,000 of the stable new Marks.

The result was a complete failure. The movie was too long, the characters’ motives were incoherent, and for an audience that had so recently been stirred by Bronenosets Potyomkin, the politics were laughable. UFA would not be given a second chance. They went into receivership and had to accept humiliating terms of defeat that meant they would never challenge American hegemony again.

By the time Siegfried Kracauer wrote his bold history of Weimar cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, Metropolis was assigned to the second tier of German movies. Metropolis made its great comeback in a drastically cut version circulated in the Video Age of the 1970s and 1980s.

The 2010 restoration presents a more coherent story, but this hardly matters, because Metropolis is so overwhelming in its diversity of images that the events of the story come at us like a dream. Each scene is so startling that we barely remember the previous one: the city with its tramlines crossing the spaces between skyscrapers; the gardens crowded by beautiful women in diaphanous gowns; the terrible power plant itself (das Kraftwerk) with its transformation into the all-devouring mouth of Moloch (the image that filled Allen Ginsberg with prophetic horror); the office (those suits!); and most of all, the laboratory.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Rotwang in his laboratory. Dr. Faustus had a study filled with books, a feudal laboratory, and stage adaptations of Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jeckyll explored the physical possibilities of a wealthy disturbed genius given a room of his own. But Rotwang is the first example of the modern archetype of the mad scientist, living in a feudal-style hut between the high-rises, that leads into a a vast multi-room chamber filled with scientific equipment.

This is the first science fiction film in the story since #1, and we will not see another one for the rest of the Silent Age. In 1927 science fiction was a marginal genre. Many dreams of the future have been published, but only in the past year has Amazing Stories began  publishing monthly issues of technological fantasies.  This may be hard to imagine now, thirty years after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revealed science fiction as the essential genre of cinema, and perhaps the essential genre of modern storytelling. To ask a young person today to describe science fiction is to ask a fish to describe water.

Metropolis, with its visions of that medium revealing its essence. For the first time, a director with enough genius and tyranny has combined forces with a crew with enough talent and willingness to work and been given a budget colossal enough to make the project possible. But here it is. For the first time in the modern world, where man must learn to share the world with machines, the story has been told. The fish learn about water.

32. The General

The GeneralDecember 22, 1926
United Artists
Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

In Seven Chances he was a man who couldn’t stop running. At first no one would talk to him, but as soon as he figured out what to do, no one would leave him alone. They were all after him. Every woman in the town, along with rocks of every size. The mechanisms of the entire world, animate and inanimate, all on his tail, and all he wanted was to find his place.

Well actually, he already has his little place, what he wants is more than that. Unlike Chaplin’s tramp, Keaton plays characters who have a place in society, but are determined to move up. Ascend the social hierarchy. Work the system. But working the social system is always more complicated than it looks, as more and more elements are drawn into the struggle, until our aspiring hero must contend with mastering the physical world itself.

In the General, where his beloved woman, played by Marion Mack, is kidnapped by a band of enemy soldiers hijacking his beloved steam locomotive engine, the mastery needed is speed. He must chase down, overtake, and win back his own engine (and lady). Though many of the death-courting stunts Buster plays on the tracks were thought of on the fly, the movie is perfectly symmetrical. He makes a series of mishaps while chasing the General north (to the left of the screen), and then perfectly executes the same actions escaping south (to the right). At the top and center of this cannonball arc is the moment when he must break his woman free from the Union headquarters. At this single moment of rest, he observes the woman through the cigarhole of the tablecloth. It’s a clear allusion to a camera’s aperture that simulates the cinematic gaze. Through the tablecloth hole, she is all he can can see, and he sees her while remaining unobserved. In this moment, her worth is made so clear and powerful that he can do nothing else but make every effort possible to get her back.

He does, and his daring success wins him the love of his woman and an army commission. He has found his place as a soldier, which is to say his function. For in the Newtonian world of mechanics that provides the ontological mythology of Capitalism, it is not what a something is that matters, only what it does. A man is the sum of his actions. This question of the value of man is the principal difference between Chaplin and Keaton. Charlie’s ethical position is rooted in the Catholic belief in the inherent value of a human despite his deplorable condition. His successes result from accidents and dei ex machinis. Buster is never given that grace. He must always remain industrious, propel himself forward, never at rest.

And it goes for his woman as well. For there was more than physical beauty in that image he stole from under the dining room table. Once rescued, it is she that removes the pin allowing the engine to detach from the train and escape the camp, and she who sets a rope trap that delays the pursuing train for a few seconds. And because it’s comedy, he takes it too far. Tasked with stoking the furnace, she rejects the ugly log with a hole in it and replaces it with dainty sliver. Buster throttles her for a second before remembering himself, and gives her a kiss instead. Their domestic harmony is assured.

31. Faust

Faust final

October 14, 1926
UFA
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Dr. Faustus was a real person who lived in the early 16th century, and he really did study the occult. In the decades after his death, in a climate of widespread witch-hunts and Lutheran terror, tales about his magical powers and associations with the Devil became legend. Christopher Marlowe’s play was the principal literary source for Goethe, who infused his 1808 play Faust, eine Tragödie with profound philosophical investigations. Goethe’s Faust turns to magic because he has spent his life in a quest for knowledge that has brought him nothing but alienation.

While there’s not a lot of philosophical conversation in the movie, there are plenty of cues to philosophical reflection in the viewer. Created as an expensive prestige picture, the movie is very slow, and you really need to relax and let it unfold at its own pace for it to be watchable. But as long as you don’t lose the story, there are spaces in the luminous sequences to get lost in contemplation of your own life. The themes are all heavy. Death. Aging. The religious path versus the world. The worth of knowledge, of beauty, of sex.

One of the joys of this film is its earthy depiction of a pre-industrial village culture, which here express the full joy and sorrow of being alive. The Easter Parade mirrored by a Burning at the Stake. A visit to the hedge-witch and then a visit to the ale-house. And most of all, the thrall of children’s play that mirrors the adult chase of courtship. Watching adults and children chase each other around, we are reminded of Alan Watts’ comment that Hide and Seek is the proper model for understanding reality. Hide and Seek is the fundamental human activity – it’s a game played in every culture, and infants begin to understand the world through games of peekaboo.

And this movie, this life, is one game of hide and seek. We chase each other, the devil chases us, and we chase him back. We chase after God. We chase after ourselves. The holy spirit is everywhere, but has hidden itself. Because we can’t see it, we pretend it’s not really there. We pretend that we’re not one with God, that isolation and damnation are possible, that we have ruined the lives that were given to us and that we are lost souls. We make believe that we are damned. And we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve gotten quite good at it. For a hundred lives we seek. And when we find ourselves, when we find God, what is there to do but allow him to hide himself once more, and begin the search again.

Each time you close your eyes for longer, and he hides further away. And you look and look, and think, well maybe this time he did it. He really went away for good. It’s been so long since he was last here. Did it really happen? Am I inventing the memory? I’m alone here, and I always will be, and my body is failing me and I am rapidly approaching death. Forget these foolish notions of God and universal connection. Surely the Earth and power over it is the only thing. After all, you’re on your own, aren’t you? Better make a decision while you still can.

30. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

Abenteuer.pngJuly 1926
UFA
Directed by Lotte Reiniger

According to Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, photography is a medium whose magic is conjured by the camera’s ability to turn an object of our affection into an image by a mechanical process, as if the very hand of God has saved our beloved from annihilation by capturing her in permanent and holy form. What the Egyptians did with mummies in tombs, the photographer does with photosensitive film.

The cinema director takes these holy images and sets them into motion.

But now we have arrived at a movie that does not conform to this holy Bazinian sense. While this movie is a set of moving photographs, these are photographs of drawings – objects fashioned by a human hand that represent imagined things.

If we don’t think about the fundamental shift here, it’s because animation has now come to define the essential features of cinema today.  In its most immediate form, the cinema exists today as Netflix, a continuous stream of moving images which are for the most part not depictions of real events from the past, but pictures painted on to the screen. Computer-generated imagery has replaced Bazinian photography.

By 1926, animation had been used not just for making primitive cartoons, but also for making avant-garde films, shown in the context of modern art exhibitions. In the days when it wasn’t obvious that cinema would be used to make narratives out of moving photographs, these were both significant genres. Avant-garde cinema, one could say, was the expression of the various paths abandoned when cinema chose the Birth of a Nation as its model.

To my eyes, the most fascinating avant-garde filmmaker of the 1920’s is Walter Ruttmann, who composed a series of Lichtspiel films, where tinted shapes and pattern wash over the screen in dynamic movements of color and energy. The pleasure of these movies is in seeing the actual film – the actual colored light, as if watching an abstract painting where the colors can’t stop swirling and jutting about. As the Lichtspiel series progresses, the shading becomes more sophisticated – the colors gradually change, and the colors begin to flash in visual rhythms. The shapes that form now develop a symbolic power in addition to their rhythmic geometry. There is no human narrative for the brain to interpret, the movie is strictly for the eye to experience the pleasure of looking. To watch the Lichtspiel is to relearn how to look.

Ruttman was Lotte Reiniger’s principal collaborator on Achmed, and while he’s responsible for some of the most alluring visual effects – the hypnotic backgrounds – this is Reiniger’s film. I’ve written before on how women’s role in film history has not just been forgotten but deliberately erased. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed has found a strange space in the intersection of children’s culture, folk culture, and avant-garde culture where a woman can direct a masterpiece, a film that depicts events that are not really happening, yet are still real images that we can see. The film made at this crossroads was so undeniably great that it could no longer be forgotten or written off, although it has been watched and discussed less than most of the neighboring movies of this story. Achmed does not fit easily into any category we could attempt to assign to it. Many of her innovations were lately credited to the cultural glutton Walt Disney, whose movies as of 1926 are not even worth talking about here. The glowing print that we have today seems to have been saved, not by happy accident, but by a magical charm of protection. It would be quite appropriate if after a calamitous 21st century sends us into a dark age, this were the only silent film to survive.

29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Goskino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Stachka demonstrated the power of revolutionary cinema by showing the effect workers can have when they organize. Yes, the strike itself ended in annihilation, but it was punctuated by a final command, addressed directly to the audience: Remember, proletarians!

Sergei Eisenstein and his comrades gave them little time to forget. Within a year’s time Bronenosets Potyomkin brought the cinema into its next dialectical stage, demonstrating what can happen when proletarian power is joined by military power. We saw in the German Revolution how the military, which normally operates as the repressive apparatus of state power, has within its organization its own version of proletarian industrial workers, namely sailors. In 1905, when the Russians were being obliterated by the Japanese, a non-Western industrial upstart, the sailors of the ship Potemkin decided to join the revolution their were hearing rumors about and stage a mutiny. The events of this mutiny, largely fictionalized to suit the needs of cinematic narrative, were depicted here as part of a 20-year celebration of the Revolution of 1905.

The film wasn’t a big hit in the Soviet Union, but news spread, and it scared the shit out of foreign governments. Industrial nations were experiencing worker unrest of their own, and it was a very real possibility that they would see their own Bolshevik moment in the months ahead. To those in power, this movie was a manual of how to stage a real revolution. Britain and France banned all public showings. The German censorship office made substantial cuts, including the entirety of the most-famous pram sequence, but ultimately approved the censored version (military personnel were still prohibited from seeing it).

The movie premiered in Berlin two days before Mayday and was an overwhelming critical success. Douglas Fairbanks declared it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Bertolt Brecht composed a poem about it. Potyomkin was a bold display of the power of revolutionary political art and an example of the potential for superior cinema in a socialist economy.

The power of a movie that presented all filmmaking under the capitalist mode of production with an artistic challenge presents modern viewers with a different challenge. Potyomkin is almost exclusively watched as a technical exercise. The emotional centerpiece, the famous Odessa Steps sequence, which exploded onto the Berlin screen as a consummate vision of war-as-chaos, has been so institutionalized and academized by countless shot by shot analyses that it can be hard to feel anything when watching it. John Waters, that master of screen chaos, recalls a screening of the Odessa Steps as the moment he decided film school was unnecessary bullshit.

Is it possible to see in this movie with its original revolutionary thrill? Possible for it to excite us with its picture of a new way to live, showing us what is greatest and most important in life, and filling us with solidarity and the courage to defend our brothers and sisters against the dread force of Capital?

Sound may be the key that unlocks this silent film.

Eisenstein himself saw his masterpiece as a sound film. All of his montage tricks, gross or subtle, were to be matched in unison or counterpoint by similar moves in the soundtrack. But the versions I’ve seen on video use those standard orchestra or piano scores that tend to make silent movies a dull, academic experience. A Film 101 class to fall asleep in. A great silent movie is timeless, but the soundtrack is usually not. Many composers and ensembles have re-scored Potemkin, and you should never pass up the opportunity to see it this way. For those playing the home game, I can personally recommend the Pet Shop Boys version, which as of this writing is available here in what is apparently a fan edit. Chris and Neil’s synthesizer melodies soar in solidarity as the skiffs meeting the battleship and sing an understated dirge during the great Steps scene. As the tension of the final showdown mounts, they go into full Hi-NRG. We are your brothers! As we move into our own version of 1926, prospects for World Revolution are once again starting to look up.

28. The Big Parade

The Big Parade vlcsnap-2015-12-27-15h15m58s192.pngNovember 5, 1925
MGM
Directed by King Vidor

The Big Parade is the second war movie in this story, following The Birth of a Nation, and is the only movie in the Silent Age as financially successful. Its budget of $380,000 cost MGM a third as much as Greed and a tenth as much as Ben-Hur, but outstripped both those movies in profit and proved the major triumph the movie factory needed. Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had created something that, for an initial investment, would make money forever. No one could deny they were both geniuses.

The best scene in the movie is at the beginning of the second half. After spending the first half billeted in a French village and making life bearable for themselves, they are called to the front. After being transported by truck and strafed by enemy planes, they begin the real “big parade” – no proud march but a cautious tread through a forest with corpses on the ground, snipers in the trees, and machine gunners in remote trenches. As suspenseful as it is, the violence always happens at what seems to be an appropriate place and time. The shots and cuts are as even and rhythmic as the steps in a parade. There’s no sense of chaos, or even confusion. Slim dies only after executing a risky maneuver and in general acting like his life is already forfeit. Jim is wounded only after cursing the leaders and making the fateful decision to go after his friend.

As the first title reminds us, this was a movie made with the full support of the U.S. military. The footage filmed from airplanes with the land below in sparkling clarity must have inspired countless viewers to want to be a pilot. But this isn’t the militaristic propaganda of Top Gun. This is a movie about soldiers suffering and dying for a vague cause of “patriotism” that they obviously don’t understand.

But even as we see the senseless suffering, this is not really an anti-war film. War is hell, but there are opportunities for heroism. If not political heroism where one suffers for a country or cause, then at least where one can do good for his comrade. He can save his brother and even sacrifice for his brother. Actually, war provides the ideal situation for a man to show just how far he will go for his brothers. In his foxhole, Jim offers a cigarette to his German victim and refuses to kill him – focusing the entire conflict onto a relation between two humans. And at the end of the scene, it is the heroic action and sacrifice of Jim, Bull, and Slim that allows the Allies to advance through several lines, reproducing on a micro level the vital contribution of the United States to the end of the stalemate on the Western Front.

In The Big Parade, the individual is all. We see the war through the experience of the soldier, but we have no idea about the politics, or even the cause they are fighting for. We know it’s patriotism, sure, but why exactly are we fighting the Germans? Perhaps Mayer and Thalberg, whom we can’t deny are geniuses, saw no need to explain this to an audience only seven years into peacetime.

As of Christmas 1925, the all-powerful United States was in the middle of a fantastic boom period. Americans were content to follow President Calvin Coolidge without becoming too interested in politics. The major political dispute other than the six-year old Prohibition was the Scopes Monkey Trial, where the erstwhile tribune of the people William Jennings Bryan was reduced to a doddering fool defending the inerrancy of Bible stories against modern science. Aside from the booze question and the Bible question, Americans were politically disengaged. The Big Parade was a movie for a public that was ready to revisit the horrors of war and heroism war summons in men, but suspicious of the decadent Europe that had necessitated it, and not ready to think about the current events that might threaten its ugly return.