940 (81). La roue / The Wheel (1922, Abel Gance)

screened  Wednesday October 29 2008 on Flicker Alley DVD in Weehawken, NJ TSPDT rank # IMDb Wiki

Abel Gance was celebrated by his countrymen as France's answer to D.W. Griffith; one quality the two directors abundantly share is ego.  Griffith's imprint of every intertitle with his monograph can barely compete with the opening shot of La roue, in which the stony visage of its director looms over footage of speeding railway tracks, rendering him more of a captain of industry than a cinematic visionary. Such bombast may account for the initial seven-plus hour length of this magnum opus, in which Gance uses the Oedipal melodrama between a railway conductor, his son and his step-daughter to illustrate the cycle of life, from destructive desire to transformative love.  Even in its present 4 plus hour cut, it can be an uneven slog at times, as Gance lingers on moments until they creak with significance. But there's no denying his all-embracing ambition in bringing as many forms of cinema as he can conceive: from grimy working class realism to cliffhanger action to costumed fantasia interludes to moments of avant garde abstraction. On a shot by shot basis, there are few films that seem as visually diverse, certainly not from this period.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of La roue on the TSPDT 1000:

Andrew Zwobada, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) John Boorman, Sight & Sound (2002) Pierre Billon, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Movieline, 100 Greatest Foreign Films (1996) Premiere, Centenary List (19??) Various Critics, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

"There is cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso."- Jean Cocteau

Rapid editing exists in an embryonic state in the gigantic work of Griffith. To Gance goes the honor of having so perfected this method that he deserves to be considered its inspired inventor. La roue is still the formidable cinematic monument in whose shadow all French cinematic art lives and breathes.

- Jean Epstein, from "For a New Avant Garde", January 1925

In rare moments scattered among various films, one has been able to have the confused feeling that there must be the truth. With La roue Gance has completely achieved cinematographic fact. Visual fragments collaborate closely with the actor and the drama, reinforce them, sustain them, instead of dissipating their effect, thanks to its masterful composition. Gance is a precursor and a fulfillment at the same time. His drama is going to mark an epoch in the history of cinema. His relationship is first of all a technical one. He absorbs objects and actors; he never submits to means that ought not to be confused with the desired end. In that above all his superiority over the American contribution resides. The latter, picturesque and theatrical in quality, in bondage to some talented stars, will fade as the actors fade. The art of La roue will remain, armed with its new technique, and it will dominate cinematographic art in the present and in the future.

- Ferdinand Leger, "La Roue: Its Plastic Quality," December 1922

Poetry has expected everything from film; let's acknowledge that it hasn't always been disappointed. Often the scenario has been magnificent and the actors wonderful. We've been indebted to them for profound emotions. Yet, while poetry has freed itself from all rules and fetters, the cinema still remains bound by a rigid and strictly common logic. Despite a number of endeavors, the screen still has not given us a chance to see a scenario unfold emancipated from human laws. Dreams there especially are perverted; none operate with the incomparable magic that is their charm. None, that is, when the filmmaker is served only by his memories.

Is the public which is thirsting for such manifestations so restricted? That should not be so. Here an educational effort might prove interesting. In any case, it is discouraging to see foolish sums of money swallowed up for imbecilic popularizations like La Roue and not to have any money at all available to tempt the desire of those whose freedom of mind is great enough to allow full license to the filmmaker. The cinema has nothing yet equivalent in audacity to the Ballets russes, nothing naturally as free as Couleurs du temps and Les Mamelles de Tiresias in the theater.

- Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, from "Le Reve et le cinema," 1923

La Roue began as a simple melodramatic tale, but in the course of six months scripting and a year's location shooting, the project took on quite a new dimension. In the central figure of Sisif, Gance seems to have struggled to create an amalgam of Oedipus, Sisyphus, and Lear. Meanwhile portions of the film that were eventually cut apparently developed a social satire of such ferocity that the railway unions demanded its excision. The most expensive film as yet made in France, its production was again delayed when the death of Gance's wife caused him to abandon work and take a five-month trip to the United States.

Like his previous work, La Roue had been conceived and shot in the pre-1914 style of French cinema, which was based on a conception of film as a series of long takes, each containing a significant section of the action, rather than as a succession of scenes made up of intercut shots of different lengths, taken from varying distances. But in Hollywood, where he met D.W. Griffith, Gance came into contact with the new American style of editing. Upon his return to France, Gance spent a whole year reediting his film. On its release in 1923 La Roue proved to be one of the stunning films of the decade. Even in its shortened version—comprising a prologue and four parts—the film had a combined running time of nearly eight hours.

- Roy Armes, Film Reference.com

Rene Clair on La roue

La roue is the archetype of the film that is Romantic in spirit. Just as in a Romantic drama, you will find in M. Abel Gance's film improbable situations, a superficial psychology, a constant attempt to achieve visual effects - and verbal effects as well - and you will find extraordinary lyrical passages and inspired moments of movement, one could even say, the sublime and the grotesque.

Given a drama so obviously "thought out," so carefully stuffed with literary ideas and ambitions, it is tempting to debate these with the author. No need to bother. If a screenplay ought to be merely a pretext, here it is a cumbersome pretext, sometimes annoying, rarely necessary, but in any case not deserving of lengthy consideration. It is hardly unusual that, like most filmmakers, M. Gance has made a mistake as a screenplay writer, even if the mistake is more serious at times than we are accustomed to. If we were asked to judge M. Gance by the psychological intentions he expresses on the screen and by the titles to write, I have to admit that my judgment would not be in his favor. But right now we are concerned with cinema.

As I see it, the real subject of the film is not its odd story, but a train, tracks, signals, puffs of steam, a mountain, snow, clouds. From these great visual themes that dominate his film, M. Gance has drawn splendid sequences. We had, of course, seen trains before moving along tracks at a velocity heightened by the obliging movie camera; but we had not been completely absorbed - orchestra, seats, auditorium, and everything around us - by the screen as if by a whirlpool. "That's only a feeling," you will tell me. Maybe. But we had not gone there to think. To see and feel is enough. Fifty years from now you can talk to me again about the cinema of ideas. This unforgettable passage is not the only one that testifies to M. Gance's talents. The catastrophe at the beginning of the film, the first accident Sisif tries to cause, the ascent of the cable car into the mountains, the death of Elie, the bringing down of his body, the circular dance of the mountaineers, and that grandiose ending amidst veils of cloud: those are sublime lyrical compositions that owe nothing to the other arts. Seeing them, we forget the quotations from Kipling, Aeschylus, and Abel Gance throughout the film, which tend to discourage us. And we start to hope.

Oh, if M. Abel Gance woudl only give up making locomotives say yes and no, lending a railroad engineer the thoughts of a hero of antiquity, and quoting his favorite authors! If he were willing to create a pure documentary, since he knows how to give life to a machine part, a hand, a branch, a wisp of smoke! If only he were willing to contribute in that way to the creation of the Film that can barely be glimpsed today!

Oh, if he were willing to give up literature and place his trust in the cinema!

- from "Les Films du mois: La Roue," published in Theatre et Commedia illustre, March 1923. Reprinted in Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism. Published by Princeton University Press, 1993

Other comments

Even in its more widely distributed three hour version, the film feels slow and drawn out, and it is mainly Gance’s innovative techniques (most notably the rapid cutting in the racing train sequences) which keeps the film interesting.

- James Travers, FilmsdeFrance.com

Gance had achieved a major critical and commercial success with his 1919 antiwar film,“J’Accuse,” which ran a relatively modest three hours. His financial backer, Charles Pathé, was prepared to follow his director on another extravagant project, this time inspired by the 19th-century social epics of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, and reflecting in equal measure Hugo’s dense, multigenerational plotting and Zola’s theories of biological predetermination. The result was a story that applied themes of incest and alcoholism to a sweeping narrative covering several decades and moving from the dark, grimy railroad yards of Nice to the blindingly white vistas of Mont Blanc.

The poet and future filmmaker Jean Cocteau spoke for many of his contemporaries when he said, “There is cinema before and after ‘La Roue,’ as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

Today that reaction is hard to comprehend. The psychology of the central relationships seems crudely deterministic: Sisif and Elie are crushed by their incestuous impulses as if by asteroids dropping from the sky, and once stricken, they are powerless to resist, staggering along like zombies. The performances Gance draws from his actors leave little room for nuance. As Sisif, Séverin-Mars (who died of a heart attack before the film was released) seems constantly to be begging for audience sympathy with his watery eyes and furrowed brow; as Norma, Ms. Close (a popular English actress who was the mother of Ronald Neame, the director of “The Poseidon Adventure”) is a standard gamine of the period, frisking with her pet goat.

But “La Roue” still fascinates as a grab bag of experimental techniques, which do not all belong in the same movie, but which clearly dazzled audiences of the time with the formal possibilities of this still relatively new medium. Circular forms, drawn from the title image, appear with maddening regularity: in the charging wheels of Sisif’s locomotive, the faces of ominously ticking clocks, the ring dance of a band of happy peasants.

Gance here develops the accelerating editing style that he would push further in “Napoléon”: a train wreck is built from a shot 10 frames in length, followed by a shot of nine frames, working all the way down to a single, subliminal flash. And he imposes poetic metaphors, as when an overhead shot of a slow-moving train dissolves into an image of a snail, and back again. Gance allowed his actors to walk out of focus as they approached the camera (here, to suggest inebriation); Sisif’s increasing blindness is portrayed by images taken through distorting glass and by iris effects that slowly close down on the actor’s face, isolating him in a field of darkness.

In his creative frenzy Gance frequently mixes tonal and emotional registers and points of view. Some of the trick shots look down on the characters, passing editorial judgments from the director’s perspective; others are meant to portray the characters’ inner turmoil. As in “Napoléon,” his style is ecstatic and impressionistic at one moment, stiffly academic at another.

Perhaps some of the initial enthusiasm for “La Roue” was generated by the sense of absolute freedom — from all current standards of narrative structure and formal coherence — that Gance projects with practically every sequence. It would be for future generations of filmmakers, including Cocteau himself, to balance that freedom with a sense of discipline and restraint, shaping unbridled effusion into poetic expression.

- Dave Kehr, The New York Times

Gance was both a classicist and a great film innovator, and La Roue is told in a blazingly brilliant style that blends stunning compositions and passionate acting with brilliantly accelerated editing techniques (in the action scenes), pounding volcanic cutting rhythms that went even further than Griffith’s and obviously were another major inspiration on Eisenstein and the Russians. La Roue, whose main admirers included the young Akira Kurosawa, is a cinematic masterpiece that we have never before seen with such power and complexity. It rends the emotions, drenches the eyes and quickens the heart.

- Michael Wilmington, The Daily Page

Gance was... a restless, relentless re-inventor of cinema, and his best films can play like a mad scientist's laboratory at full crank, filthy with inexplicable angles, double exposures, impossibly moving cameras, crazed speed montages ("La Roue"'s came before Eisenstein), etc. "La Roue" is a massive, tragic melodrama, but it's also a high-gear modernist landmark, and its restoration and DVD release is an event; probably due to its length, Gance's movie was never released in the U.S., and it's remained one of the most elusive and rarest of monumental silent classics.

- Michael Atkinson, IFC

There really is no other director like Gance. He draws upon the full range of graphic effects, from irises to dramatic masking, double exposures to composites, and unleashes his arsenal within the first few minutes. But his technical mastery is in the service of the story, and he transforms the story of La Roue into an emotional epic. He is a master conductor who plays scenes like symphonies of feelings, continuing long past the narrative point has been established to express the emotional intensity of the characters and situations, and to add moments of pure grace to the mighty drama.

- Sean Axmaker

La Roue is a powerful drama of life among the railroad workers, rich in psychological characterization and symbolic imagery. To dramatize his story of a railroad mechanic’s tortured love for his adopted daughter, Gance elaborated his use of masking and superimposition and perfected his fast cutting into the rapid montage that would soon be adopted by Russian and Japanese silent filmmakers for whom La Roue was a seminal influence. Complex in its thematics, the film’s images animate machines and the forces of nature with a life and spirit of their own while the wheel ("la roue") of the film’s title becomes a metaphor for life itself. Gance’s remarkable symbolism is exemplified in the film’s conclusion: as the old railway mechanic dies quietly and painlessly in his mountain chalet, his daughter joins the local villagers outside in the snow in a circular farandole dance, a dance in which nature itself, in the form of clouds, participates. Shot entirely on location at the railroad yards in Nice and in the Alps, La Roue remains a work of extraordinary beauty and depth. Jean Cocteau said of the film, "There is the cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso," while Akira Kurosawa stated, "The first film that really impressed me was La Roue."

William M. Drew

The scenes of the engines pumping out vast billows of smoke and the flashing rails racing toward the horizon benefit from unalterable realism. In one of the best moments, Sisif, his thoughts roiled with guilt and desire, runs ahead of a pursuing locomotive at night, trapped in the pitiless glare of the headlight. Throughout, Gance uses a wide variety of vignetting techniques to concentrate our attention on the characters; more than once, the actors are isolated in tiny circles of light in the midst of a black screen, as though viewed through a microscope. Gance works his title metaphor hard: the wheel is the wheel of the locomotive and the endless round of suffering that is human life. In the moments of greatest physical and psychological stress, the rapid-fire, staccato editing reaches the point of cutting in images frame by frame. But Gance also knew how to slow down-the last scene of the first half circles slowly around the distraught Sisif as he stands in the center of the railroad roundhouse and pivots to look at the locomotive bays. It is his farewell to a world he can never see again.

- Michael S. Gant, Metroactive

Watching La roue is a heightened experience. It's definitely a silent movie in some of its acting style, but Gance's progressive direction does much more than simply record the action. The interior décor of Sisif's house is forever changing, with Elie working on his special violin varnish and Sisif constructing models of his inventions; the lighting effects through the windows are carefully observed, with trains passing and the time of day changing. Gance's close-ups are more organic to the action. He doesn't use then standard 'cameo' vignettes, and often frames faces in extreme angles with dramatic lighting.

Gance uses visual effects to express psychological concepts. When Sisif has his fortune told, a view of trains are superimposed into the palm of his hand. Norma's face appears reflected in windows and hovers in space when the men in the story think of her. We know that Sisif's obsession with the young girl has gone too far when he can't erase her phantom image, even after drawing a curtain over a window.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

La RoueMore crucial to La Roue's expressive force are Burel's long takes, fashioned by Gance into a slow pulse of magisterial image. If this were a symphony, it might be by Brahms, as the film yields an adagio of unutterable grief late in its second part. Sisif, now totally blind, has fashioned a large wooden cross that he must plant high on a mountain precipice, the scene of a senseless death the year before. Shot outdoors in very low light, the sight of the aged Sisif dragging the cross up a snowy slope is one of the great images of silent cinema.

- Gordon Thomas, Bright Lights Film Journal

Gance called La Roue (a.k.a. The Wheel) his "black and white" epic, setting the first half in the railroad yards (black) and the second half in the snowy mountains (white). Gance's visual inventiveness comes through in almost every shot, specifically in his unique editing, which sometimes repeats shots, and sometimes uses rapid-fire cutting to increase tension or excitement. When Sisif tries to crash his own train by increasing the speed, the film's rhythm builds to an intense frenzy. And when Sisif begins losing his vision, Gance responds by slowly fading the image up to pure white. This level of technical achievement was fairly rare for 1923, with perhaps the exception of Erich von Stroheim's work in America. Even D.W. Griffith didn't dare to turn such a wretched melodrama into an epic; he needed epic material to justify a film's size and length.

- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

La Roue opens with the most impressive depiction of machinery that I have seen to date, incorporating the dramatic violence of the locomotive into its own accelerated montage strategies - rapid editing, stark juxtapositions of light and darkness, and frequent alternations between close-ups, long shots and medium shots - producing a self-destructive aesthetic whose logical conclusion is the disastrous crash that sets the narrative events in play. In another context, these might seem melodramatic - an orphaned baby is rescued by a train driver and brought up by him and his son, both of whom fall in love with her, and both of whom, for that very reason, are afraid to reveal her true origins. But there's a mythological tone at work that tends to preclude melodrama, clearest in the slightly unreal location of the action - a kind of no-man's land between two rail junctions, more suited to a signal-box than a family home. This gives the locomotives the omniscient, ambivalent status of gods, capriciously (and often literally) directing events without having any vested interest in them, or comprehensibility to them. In the same way, the characters are almost entirely robbed of interiority, mechanised and mythologised to the point where they exist as mere impulse and action, disempowered everymen for an industrial age. Strangely, the third act departs from this topos, replacing it with a mountainous backdrop which is evocative if ultimately misplaced, producing a more predictably melodramatic conclusion.

- Billy Stevenson, A Film Canon

In the DVD liner notes, the claim is made that La roue invented the cross-dissolve; I am not certain that it was the first film released with that technique, but its long production time might well mean that Gance and his cameramen (Dissolves had to be done in-camera back then! The mind reels) came up with the idea before anybody else. Think about that for a second: the dissolve from one scene to another is such a familiar trick that some of us find it to be cheap and tasteless - maybe that's just me - but in 1922, it was brand new. Admittedly, some of the film's most impressive technical leaps are even less interesting to the modern viewer: the use of shocking, bold colors for the tinted scenes is unlike anything I've ever seen, and I cannot think of another movie with such a mature and elaborate system of iris shots (the "pinhole camera" frame) in any other film, but these are both techniques that were essentially dead after the coming of sound. I might also point out that, filming in the studio but also in Nice and at the peak of Mount Blanc, this is one of the earliest and probably the most ambitious of all location shoots in film history, beating John Ford's mythic The Iron Horse to the punch by two years.

- Antagony and Ecstasy

The railway forms more than just the backdrop to La roue—trains play an important role by continually driving the story forward. The imagery is tremendously powerful, and the story-line, with its twists and turns, is well adapted to the medium of film. I believe that even today, La roue is the most memorable railway film ever made.

- Jiro Hanyu, "Railways in Film," the Japan Railway & Transport Review

Dennis Grunes

Dennis Schwartz

Bob Ham, DVD Corner

Deeper readings

The idea of the symphonic was in fact to have an immense importance in French attempts to establish an aesthetics of film. The definition of cinema as "the music of light," attributed to Gance but also claimed by several others, including Emile Vuillermoz and Elie Faure, became an accepted term in writings about film in the early 1920s. And for all its neat oversimplifications, Henri Langlois' description of Germaine Dulac remains a pertinent characterisation of a dominant impressionist tendency: "she sees music, she thinks music, she always considers film not as a fresco but as a symphony of images in which each shot, through its tonality and length, has the same value as a sound. She plays on montage as she would play the piano." As long as one doesn't eliminate poetry and dance, this view could be applied to most of the French avant-garde, from Leger to Rene Clair, Jean Epstein, and Blaise Cendrars. What they all have in common is their reference to Gance as point of origin, especially to La roue, which seemed to prove that cinema even in a proletarian setting and addressed to a popular audience was an art for the future. It had elevated cinema incontrovertibly to the status and dignity of music. This may seem to be an argument in favour of the "musical analogy," and indeed Gance continued to insist through to the late 1920s that cinema had to equate itself with music, to become a visual orchestra, performing symphonies in time and space. But music was not simply an analogy, it was, as La roue further exemplifies, a determinant of the image, providing a basis for tonality, movement within the frame and cutting between frames, even though in this instance the "source" of the music is not present in the image.

From its conception, La roue was mapped out in terms of musical metaphors. It was to be a symphony in black and white, or, more precisely, a "white symphony following on from a black symphony." A first part set in the soot and smoke of marshalling yards and railway engines, a second set high up in the Alps - contrasting worlds made for the cinema. Much later Gance described the film as a poem in which each image counts, like a note in music, echoing Langlois' comments on Dulac. But as in La dixieme symphonie, music had a definite function within the film. His project, she declared in a 1920 interview, was "to paint a visual opera," to establish a direct relationship between the vibrations of sound and light, to unite photography and Rachmaninov. Like La dixieme symphonie it was a melodrama, not the "cathedral of light" he aspired to construct but a film that would be understood by a popular audience and which would at the same time have universal significance. The hero is an engine driver called Sisif (Sisyphus), but within this proletarian actualisation of myth, music takes on a new function. It isn't something that is composed and performed within a narrative from which it then escapes. Music and image are conceived together.

This attempt to construct a visual equivalent of sound provoked one of the great pitched battles in film history. La roue was either an outrage, a bombastic, overblown and overlong piece of triviality, or the first cinematic oeuvre that demonstrated what the new art might become.

- Richard Abel, from Silent Film. Published by Rutgers University Press, 1996. Pages 35-36.

The central opposition of Clair's analysis, between "thinking" (literature) and "feeling" (cinema, reveals a profound misunderstanding of - or hostility to - Gance's project. To try to separate out the purely cinematic virtues of La roue from the director's moral messages is, finally, to misread him and make his work radically less interesting and compelling than it can be when read more sympathetically. At his best, Gance was a visionary filmmaker who made no distinction between ideas and feelings. The cinematographic experiments in his works can only fully be understood as expressions, and affective explications, of his philosophical positions. The wheel of the title (explicitly identified in the film's beginning as an instrument of torture, and implicitly identified with locomotives) represents human existence...

Commentators such as Rene Clair (and, more recently, Richard Abel) who reject Gance's visionary, philosophical project must inevitably view La roue as a mass of contradictions, a work which combines the supposedly antithetical elements of "pure cinema," literary and philosophical quotations, melodrama, a certain social realism, and so on. But it was the very heart of Gance's life project to overcome contradictions. A huge number of disparate elements are to be found in his films because he put them there deliberately, so that his work could become the site of their reconciliation. Perhaps he did not always succeed, indeepd perhaps he never did, but there is no doubt that his was a conscious and in its own way sophisticated endeavor, and not the naive, almost embarrassing primitivism it is sometimes made out to be. Currently available versions of La Roue probably seem clumsy and contradictory because too much has been cut from them. Gance structure his film as a poetic visual text, based on extensive formal repetition which figures his character's plight. The wheel, its complementary motif the cross, blackness, whiteness, hands, impressions of speed or slowness, and many other elements are repeated, varied, and combined in different ways. To understand the film, to allow the necessary, and for many viewers difficult, suspension of (philosophical) disbelief, we will have to see it in a version as close as possible to its original proportions.

- Alan Larson Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Published by Harvard University Press, 1992. Pages 90-91

Abel Gance's La roue is often placed beside Greed in advancing the thesis that the silent film was gradually refined into a realist medium. There are major similarities in the thematic entanglements in the two films - in their grubby, lower-class atmosphere and the sexual tension among the central characters - but Gance's interests are distinct from Von Stroheim's. In Von Stroheim's films the cutting does not fragment the compositions but highlights their most dramatic, psychologically symbolic features. Gance favors a far more furious pace: his camerawork continually upsets the permanence of his settings to expose the dynamic, disparate action and the characters' emotional instability. In La Roue, and more so in Napoleon, Gance's kinetic camera is distinguished from the fast-paced style of the American comedy film and from Griffith's epics - as well as from the historical dialectic of the Russian cinema - by seeking out the numerous dramatic details of his chaotic reality. Sets like the father's home in La Roue or the assembly in Napoleon are not presented in rigid, formal terms but as a means of emphasizing the interaction of conflicting social forces and human emotions. The psychological validity of La Roue derives from Gance's sudden editing permutations, which seem to explode on the screen with all the forcefulness of the train the father drives; it is a complex and ultimately confusing framework. Gance's experimentation with a variety of camera angles and the different speeds at which various sequences play overwhelm the viewer's hold on reality. He is exploring a theme similar to the one in Greed, human obsessions and how they are defined through a myriad of cinematic techniques.

- Aaron Sultanik, from Film, a Modern Art. Published by Associated University Presses, 1986. Page 108.

About the Flicker Alley DVD

The virtually simultaneous appearance of restored, two-disc editions of Abel Gance’s 1923 blockbuster from Flicker Alley in the US and Marcel L’Herbier’s no less oversized L’argent (1929) in France highlights the unusual proximity of avant-garde and mainstream filmmaking in France during the 20s. (Two other interesting common points: both are derived from Zola novels, albeit unofficially in the case of the Gance film, which is said to derive in part from La bête humaine; and both DVDs include a contemporary “making of” documentary—in the case of La roue, a short film by Gance’s friend and collaborator Blaise Cendrars.) Since I’m already writing about L’argent for the online Moving Image Source, I’ll focus here on the Gance, beautifully outfitted with Fernand Léger’s original poster for the film on the box and a symphonic Robert Israel score inside. Seven-and-a-half hours long on its first release, La roue (The Wheel) has been restored to only four-and-a-half hours here, but this is still the longest version to have appeared anywhere since 1923, and the clarity of the images is exceptional. (My only regret is that the original French intertitles aren’t included, even optionally—an ironic turn of events for a film that apparently never even opened in North America.) Based on what I’ve seen so far, the wild eclecticism of Gance’s rapid montage and superimpositions is a triumph of sustained intensity, and the film may well qualify as the ultimate train movie; in her fascinating book Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (1997), Lynne Kirby understandably devotes more than 20 pages to it.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Cinema-scope

Music makes all the difference in a film like this, and it's easy to imagine how the experience might be rendered tedious if not for [Robert] Israel's score. With funding from Turner Classic Movies (which aired the restored film in late April), the assignment called for roughly 4½ hours of musical accompaniment, with Israel drawing from nothing more than the brief prelude composer Arthur Honegger wrote for the film's original release. The rest of the score, like nearly three hours of the film itself, has been lost to the ages.

Building upon earlier compositions of his own to evoke the energy of Gance's work, Israel delivers far more than background music. His score begins with the bombastic energy of the opening train wreck, but mellows out as the film progresses. When Gance shifts gears to the mountains, the music helps smooth the transition, echoing each character's theme in a softer, more romantic context. It's important to remember that silent films were never silent. Without a score of this caliber, contemporary audiences would find it virtually impossible to appreciate Gance's achievement.

- Bruce Calvert, Nitrateville

Our first look at the disc reveals an excellent full-frame video transfer that has chiefly utilized a 35mm master positive of the common 12-reel version of the film, supplemented with a 35mm eight-reel print of the Russian release version, and two incomplete color-tinted 35mm nitrate prints of a longer French version of the film. Two short scenes are presented from a 9.5mm reduction print — the only known footage to survive of these scenes. Some sections of the source prints are marred with the expected amount of dust, speckling, emulsion scratches and processing artifacts. This edition, produced by Eric Lange, David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino, with support from Turner Classic Movies, represents the most-complete version of La roue to be seen since the 1920s.

Easily one of the three most-important DVD releases of 2008, we enthusiastically recommend this edition of La roue.

-Silent Era.com

Video: La Roue is a full-frame presentation, and given the age and scope of the picture, the DVD producers have done a tremendous job resurrecting it. Notes that come with the booklet in this release detail how this version was cobbled together using a variety of sources, and though the print is not perfect, it's clear they went out of their way to use the best material for each scene. There is some noticeable wear and tear, usually seen as surface scratches and sometimes spots and burns in the film, but these problems are usually minimal and the image quality is always clear. Very rare scenes have tremendous damage, and even they are still perfectly watchable. Surprisingly, the picture never gets jumpy, and even splices are clean. Undoubtedly, the people involved gave their every attention to making this the best it could be.

The picture is black-and-white, but tinted with various changing colors, as well. It's only by some weird coincidence that all of my screengrabs are the standard gray.

Sound: One stereo sound mix is available, featuring the new score by Robert Israel. Israel uses a full orchestra, as well as the occasional integrated sound effect, and the audio is excellent, using the different speakers to give the work a large atmosphere. It's a good score, never overbearing even as it enhances the onscreen action.

New English title cards were produced for this edition, and they also include some effects, like the delayed appearance of a closing line of a sentence to add drama. There are also occasional passages that appear over the top of the scene like subtitles, and if written words appear as part of the props, such as a letter, there are smooth fades from the French text to English translations. All of the text is easy to read, staying on screen for the right amount of time to allow proper digestion.

Extras: Only a couple of extras here, this two-disc set is mostly movie. The one that surprised me the most was "Autour De La Roue," a period behind-the-scenes documentary that collects over eight-minutes of on-set footage, put together like its own silent movie with explanatory title cards. It's rather fascinating to see a 1920s movie production at work, including shooting on location and with the big trains.

The original press book is also presented as a video feature, with the pages automatically turning after a couple of seconds. The text is in French and given without translation.

Inside the DVD case, which has a hinged tray to accommodate both discs, is a sixteen-page booklet with an essay on the history of the film by William M. Drew and notes from composer Robert Israel.

- Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk

About Abel Gance

IMDb Wiki

Abel Gance was a giant of cinema art, a genius whose artistic courage and humanist vision created masterpieces that inspired many other directors, from his silent film contemporaries in the 1920s to the French Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 1960s. The failure of much of the critical establishment in the 20th century to fully recognize or appreciate Gance’s artistry, a tragic oversight which succeeding generations will surely rectify, was perhaps the inevitable consequence of the director’s prescient conception of his medium. Constantly experimenting with new techniques to express his view of life on screen, Gance expanded the possibilities of film as an art beyond any of his contemporaries. Yet, while devising dazzling technical innovations to achieve what he called "the music of light," he never lost sight of humanity, inspiring his players to give intense and vital performances in narratives whose sweep embraced both epic grandeur and lyric tenderness. Gance’s vision was at once romantic and realistic, larger than life in its heroic and mystical dimensions, yet sensitive to historical documentation and location shooting, incorporating the details of actuality. His much-misunderstood conception of the heroic, a direct challenge to skeptics and naysayers, paid tribute to the aspirations of the human spirit for transcendence. For Gance, the hero was not a manifestation of elitism based on traditional views of group and caste, but rather an individual of tremendous creativity and insight whose tragedy resulted both from the fierce opposition of an entrenched establishment and the reality of his own human limitations. Invariably a man of the people voicing the need for radical change, the Gance protagonist was ultimately isolated from mass society because of his failure to adapt to its fundamental conservatism which is in constant tension with its simultaneous yearning for revolutionary transformation. Expressing these conflicts in his work, Abel Gance created films that are unique and timeless in their dynamic portrayal of the triumphs and dilemmas of humanity in its search for the ideal.

- William M. Drew

Abel Gance is universally recognized as one of the greatest directors in history. Often compared with Erich von Stroheim for his talent, extravagence, imagination and ego, his experiments in camera movement, editing, and cinematography exceeded anything being done by his contemporaries and redefined the parameters of film discourse. But he often provoked animosity promoting his own genius and aggravated producers by running over budget on ever-expanding projects. Finally, like von Stroheim, the advent of sound prevented Gance from realizing his ambitions.

La Roue's (1922) story concerns a railroad engineer named Sisif (combining Sisyphus, Oedipus and Lear), the incestuous passion he shared with his son for his adopted daughter, and his desperate attempts to repress that passion. Like Gance's previous work, La Roue was unabashedly melodramatic and pompous, the title referring to train wheels, the wheel of fortune and a Victor Hugo quote which preceded the story. But the level of technical daring was so breathtaking that Jean Epstein called La Roue "the formidable cinematic monument in whose shadow all French cinematic art lives and believes." Gance spent six months on the script and an entire year shooting on location. Then came tragedy: Gance's wife died of tuberculosis the day he finished shooting. He mourned in the US where he met D.W. Griffith at the New York premiere ofJ'accuse!. Griffith was so impressed he invited Gance to his studio. As a result of this encounter, Gance spent an additional year reediting La Roue. Filled with contradictions, it also contains sensational climaxes and truly lyrical moments. Among the innovations: rhetorical figuring; dramatic lighting effects; sophisticated editing used for inserts, flashbacks, and parallel action; and dazzling rhythmic montage so extraordinary that when Russian directors Eisenstein and Pudovkin visited France they thanked Gance for having taught them editing.

For years Gance has been undervalued because he focused his attention on style rather than narrative, because of his predilection for melodramas, and because of the deplorable state of available prints. His work is often pretentious, lacks rigor and represents the antithesis of narrative modernity. But thanks in large part to Brownlow (along with Francis Coppola and others), Napoleon and Gance's reputation have been restored to their proper places in film history. Having taken film further technologically and esthetically than any of his contemporaries, Gance has finally been recognized as the major figure in French film of the 1920s.

- Turner Classic Movies

939 (80). Varieté aka Variety aka Vaudeville (1925, E.A. Dupont)

screened Thursday October 30 2008 on NYFA VHS in Astoria NY TSPDT rank #827 IMDb

One of the seminal works of silent cinema, this love-triangle melodrama among vaudeville acrobats was lauded by no less than the likes of Jean Mitry and Gilles Deleuze for infusing German expressionism into the norms of classical film grammar (i.e. shot/reverse shot and subjective-objective cinematography). Historical importance aside, it's a conventional affair with a cheap salvation ending, graced with excellent performances by Emil Jannings (a hard sell as a 250 lb. acrobat, but fun to watch for his strenuous conviction) and proto-vamp Lya de Putti as his cheating wife. Dupont would apply his considerable talents to a more interesting script with 1929's Piccadilly, but the innovative lensing of the immortal Karl Freund, especially during the thrilling acrobatic sequences, keeps the mise-en-scene lively. Imagine having never seen a shot fly through the air before and you can get a sense of what audiences, critics and subjective lens film theorists went crazy about.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Variety on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Alexander Korda, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Campbell Dixon, Sight & Sound (1952) Carol Reed, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Connery Chappell, Sight & Sound (1952) David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Willi Forst, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Well guess what - you can watch Variety in its entirety on YouTube! And it appears to be the original European cut (see explanation and significance as follows):

When American audiences were permitted to see German filmmaker E.A. Dupont's silent masterpiece Variety, it was the story of a carnival concessionaire (Emil Jannings), his alluring wife (Lya de Putti), and the handsome acrobat (Warwick Ward) who comes between them. Feeling doubly impotent because he himself had been a famous aerialist before suffering a crippling accident, Jannings fantasizes about killing his rival -- and, finally, does so. After serving a long prison term, Jannings is released by a compassionate warden, who feels as though the poor cuckold has suffered enough. This, again, is what Americans saw. In the original European version of Variety, which ran nearly twice as long as the U.S. print, Jannings deserts his wife (Maly Delschaft) when de Putti enters the scene. Moreover, he never marries de Putti, meaning that his only hold over her when Ward steals her away is an emotional one. Dupont had fashioned an ironic tale of a man suffering betrayal after having himself betrayed. The American censors wouldn't swallow that, nor would they pass the charming domestic scene wherein Jannings helps de Putti disrobe, unless the prologue involving Delschaft was chopped out and de Putti was transformed from mistress to wife. Though this sort of bowdlerization might seem like an artistic outrage, the American version of Variety is in fact superior to the original, especially in terms of pace; what seemed interminable in the German version zips along at an entertaining clip in the revised print.

~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

The strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows is at the Rialto. It is a German film known as "Variety" and was produced by the Ufa concern in Berlin about a year ago under the direction of E. A. Dupont. In this picture there is a marvelous wealth of detail; the lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art. While there may be some speculation concerning the appeal of this striking piece of work, because use of the tragic climax of the actual story, there is no doubt regarding its merit. Scene after scene unlocks a flood of thoughts, and although the nature of the principal characters is far from pleasing; the glimpses one obtains are so true to life that they are not repellent.

Emil Jannings, who is best remembered for his acting in "The Last Laugh" and "Passion," fills the principal rôle. He is theatric at times, but his performance is a masterly one. He is not alone in this feature, and it may be a matter of opinion as to whether Lya de Putti and Warwick Ward, an English actor, are not even better than Mr. Jannings in their portrayals. Certainly Jannings has the least conventional rôle and more to tell by his expressions. However, Miss de Putti and Mr. Ward give an extraordinarily brilliant account of themselves and they rise to the occasion in episodes that are by no means easy to handle

This is a production which not only shows the way in which a story should be unfurled, but impresses one with the magic of the camera in picturing effects, such as the torrent of thoughts rushing through a maddened mind, and the views of the audience from the eyes of a hurtling trapeze performer.

- Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, June 28, 1926

This 1925 film remains the textbook example of German expressionism with its moody lighting, intimations of decadence, and fluid, subjective camera work (by the great Karl Freund). Yet the blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art. Expressionism needed the taste and insight of a Murnau to be transformed from a manner to a style; this film, untransformed, is the work of the negligible E.A. Dupont. Emil Jannings, the standard-bearer of German masochism, stars as a trapeze artist betrayed by his mistress (Lya De Putti) for his younger partner (Warwick Ward).

- Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Dupont's most celebrated film (it was one of the most famous films in the world in 1925) unfolds in a long series of flashbacks from a prison straight out of a Van Gogh painting: prisoner No 28 (Jannings, with his back to the camera more often than not) is granted remission, and in return tells the story of his crime to the governor. The story itself is a banal triangle melodrama: a trapeze duo in the Berlin music-hall becomes a trio, and the lady switches gentlemen, driving the cuckold to murder his rival. The treatment, though, is something else again. Impressionistic lighting, lingering expressionist imagery, and giddily mobile camerawork are all pushed to unprecedented extremes, like Murnau on speed. Hard to take it too seriously, but the bravura style and Lya de Putti's coquettish performance remain as impressive as ever.

- Time Out

The plot of "Varieté" is a rather trite and conventional melodrama of heated passion and seething jealousy. However, this has always been popular subject matter with audiences. In Dupont's hands, the film became an immediate success, and it won rave notices throughout Europe. It was a tremendous hit in New York City where it did a sensational business for over six weeks. Many cites in the United States were shocked by the film's immorality, and Paramount deleted the first two reels (twenty minutes) entirely. The subsequent viewers in the other parts of the United States saw the censored version that was missing the opening scenes where the owner of the carnival meets the new dancer, deserts his family and moves to Berlin with his new girlfriend. The American sanitized version has him and his girlfriend as man and wife. Even in its censored version it retained its power and went on to become "the Best Picture Of The Year." This film was also listed on the N.Y. Times "Top 10 Films of 1926."

Variety (film reviews), June 30, 1926, states, "Opened at the Rialto, New York, June 27, for a run limited to six weeks, running time 92 minutes. "Variety" is a corking picture, made anywhere as it has been much in Germany. It has variety, so much, so many an American director may be only to eager to watch it the second time . . ."

"Varieté" was directed by Ewald Andre Dupont (E.A. Dupont), and the cast included Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, Maly Delschaft, Warwick Ward, and Georg John. The screen adaptation of the novel was done by Dupont who once had been the manager of a vaudeville theater and was acquainted with carnival atmosphere. The film was also notable for its unconventional impressionistic use of swirling light and movement and spectacular camera effects. It was a tremendous success, stylistically influential, and brought Dupont to the attention of Hollywood, where, rather sadly, he ended up making mostly B-movies.

- John DeBartolo, SilentsAreGolden.com

Profile by Diana Savage

Article in Spanish by Antonio Belmonte in Pasion Silente

Deeper readings

It was not until The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924) and, in particular, Variety that the subjective image passed into the language of the cinema, when the "objective-subjective" or "onlooker-lookd upon" equation became identified with shot-reverse-shot, both being used more and more extensively...

This method of narration, constantly opposing - or juxtaposing - the objective and the subjective, or, to be more exact, the descriptive and analytic images, has been the one most frequently in use since it was first established in Variety.

- Jean Mitry, translated by Christopher King. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Published by Indiana University Press, 1999. Pages 207, 214.  Also see pages 345-346 for a brilliant examination of subjectively expressive framing in one sequence from the film.

It is significant that Variete embraces the most up-to-date technologies in its presentation of this spectacle; for in the 1920s, the measure of a groundbreaking variety act lay in its use of technological innovation. As Michael Esser explains, for the filming of the scenes in which the camera follows the artists as they fly through the air on trapezes, a camera was strapped to trapezes opposite the actors in order to capture the movement and path of the acrobatics. Similarly, it was necessary to install many more lights than was usual in the Wintergarten to achieve the play of light that mimics the actors' vertiginous movements through the air, and the rich star-filled sky of the cupola. To photograph a potential fall of Artinelli later in the narrative, the spotlight and camera running at slow speed were lowered by a cable; thus, when projected, the motion of the falling body would be fast. As Esser explains, Variete served as a vehicle for all of Ufa's high-production values and aesthetic trademarks, including a rhapsodic display of the moving camera and a rich, drmaatic use of lights and lighting: "The moving camera, shadow-rich, dramatic light, the star quality of Emil Jannings, the erotic radiance of Lya de Putti, the rich, detailed architecture, the exotic fairground and, the finishing touch of German sentimentality" are all in the interests of publicizingUfa's production potential. Notwithstanding the important role played by the studio in the produciton of Variete, it is also significant that Karl Freund was the cameraman, and was thus involved in the lighting compositions and constructions for the film. As in hiscollaboration with Paul Wegener on Der Golem, Freund used the material of the story to experiment further with the possibilities of his medium. These sophisticated technical strategies, in particular the use of light and lighting to mimic the movement of bodies through the air, are among the innovations of Variete. In this film, it is not only the camera, but also the potential movement of electrical light that creates a new, modern form of variety entertainment. These explorations of artificial light, in their marriage with the film camera, articulate the uniqueness and fascination of the film for contemporary audiences. As in the historical examples, when Boss, Bertha-Maria, and Artinelli perform in the Berlin Wintergarten, the excitement, energy and precision of their performance is reiterated in the most vanguard of technologies: through the conjunction of light, lighting, and camera...

...Seen in its entirety, then, Variete sustains this tension between the moral decadence of modern industrial life and a celebration for the technological phenomena - such as cinema and variety shows - that produce it. This is not to say that through this irresolution Variete equivocates either its critique or its celebratino of a technologically inflected mass entertainment. On the contrary, the conflict adds a vibrancy and complexity to the film that makes it neither simply radical nor reactionary. By creating narrative tensions through eruptions of technological spectacle, Variety represents the Janus-faces advance to a technologically inflected modern Germany. On the one hand, the advent of such spectacular entertainment was genuinely thrilling to its audiences. On the other hand, such wonders disturbed preexisting value systems, namely, a moral universe underwritten by family and sexual fidelity. Thus, in Variete we see an outstanding example of the German silent film's tendency to displace the mystical search for transcendental knowledge through representations of light onto an exploration of conflicts in the moral fabric of the secular, historical world.

- Frances Guerin, A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany, Published by U of Minnesota Press, 2005. Pages 204-205, 215

While the film celebrates the modernity of its own camera and editing techniques, it remains very ambivalent about the urban modernity, upward mobility, “Americanism,” and destabilization of traditional gender identities it so sensationally depicts. Variety, despite all its citation – and mobilization – of the forms of mass spectacle and entertainment associated with Weimar modernity, remains an “art film.” The German “art cinema” of the 1920s is characterized on the one hand by a certain aesthetic conservatism that reflects the ambivalence about film and mass culture on the part of intellectuals so well documented in Anton Kaes’s Kino-Debatte (“Debate About the Cinema”). On the other hand, the art cinema often manifests a political conservatism typical of large German industries during the 1920s, including the film industry, which was becoming ever more concentrated throughout the decade. By “political conservatism” I mean the generally anti-democratic, class-based hierarchical elitism characteristic of the dominant social gropus in the Weimar Republic. Hence the rather cynical (and strategic) contradiction of producing films ambivalent about mass culture and modernity that were themselves stunning spectacles made with all the technical expertise money could buy…

The German “art cinema” began around 1912 and is often called an Autorenkino, or “cinema of authors/auteurs”. By the 1920s, the German art film was only one of many products – and strategies – of a large, commercial film industry. It was certainly nothing very similar to the concept of a low-budget Autorenkino with oppositional ambitions that we associate with the “new German Cinema” of the 1970s. Certainly for Variety it is a debatable term, at least if the director Dupont is supposed to be the film’s “author”; the producer Pommer and the cinematographer Karl Freund were both arguably much more important for the film. Pommer intended Variety to capitalize on the mobile-camera techniques Freund ahd developed in The Last Laugh, the film Pommer wanted to use Freund again to film Variety, but for the director he chose Dupont over Murnau, apparently because he felst that the latter was unsuited to directing a melodrama so focused on (heterosexual) sex. It was also Pommer who persuaded Dupont to film the story in the new dynamic visual style that he wanted to market.

For although The Last Laugh had been a critical success, and while it had wowed and intimidated Hollywood with its technical virtuosity, it had not been an overwhelming box office hit. Proving Pommer’s calculations right, Variety did become such a hit, both in Germany and the United States. Early on German critics aw it as the film the German film industry had long awaited, one that could compete with American cinema; the German trade journal Kintematograph asserted that the film was sure to conquer “even the aloof Americans”… Variety was for a long time the one great success Ufa managed to achieve in the United States…

Although Kracauer writes about the film’s “realism,” neither the film’s rather generic melodramatic plot nor the dizzying effects of its camera work and editing for the trapeze sequences appear to today’s sensibilities to be especially “realistic.” Kracauer is right, however: in 1925 Variety was famous precisely for its realism. This reputation had much to do with its impressive “documentary” shots of Berlin and Hamburg: for example, the carnival in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district, and in Berlin the Friedrichstrasse railway station, certain street scenes, and the interior shots of the Wintergarten. Shooting on location was still relatively rare in the German art film, which was famous primarily for its carefully constructed studio sets that could be illuminated so precisely and expressively. In this way Variety is clearly related to New Objectivity and associated trends of the middle and later 1920s in German film, photography, theater, literature, and painting. In which the attempt to move toward a documentary approach was noted.

…As Kracauer wrote in Die Angestellten (“The White Collar Employees,” 1929), the secret of New Objectivity was precisely that behind its modern façade, something very sentimental was often lurking. For all Variety’s modern technical virtuosity, the film is not merely sentimental, but very conservative in its critique of aspects of modernity. It participates in the cynical strategy of dressing its conservative message in the most modern of forms – given its commercial success, one might say that it is one of the most successful examples of the strategy. For the evil that destroys the good-natured family man, Boss, is clearly connected to his desire to be a star of the trapeze again – to be at the center of the spotlight of mass entertainment, the beneficiary of the appetite of the modern masses for spectacle and distraction…

The film’s cynical ambivalence about its own project creates a distance between narrative and spectacle that is reflexive. Its technical virtuosity is typical of New Objective fetishization of technology, and its use of a lurid, sensational melodramatic plot mirrors the move in New Objectivity toward more accessible narratives and toward an apparent embrace of mass culture. The film’s most famous cinematic techniques involve the use of mobile camera from subjective points of view, most impressively in the dizzying shots of the acrobats high above the audience in the Wintergarten, and these techniques tend to foreground themselves through a virtuoisity in excess of the needs of the plot. In addition, the film’s own constructions of looking are foregrounded, thematized quite explicitly – even melodramatically – in a collage of eyes that is intercut with shots of Boss on the trapeze at his most conflicted moment, as he is indeed being watched by everyone in the huge hall. It can be argued that even the melodramatic narrative itself reflects on the institution of the cinema (although perhaps unintentionally so): the protagonist’s precipitous rise from his origins as a “vulgar” carnival performer to a performer in a glamorous hall in which the upper classes ogle him is a trajectory that parallels the rise of cinema itself from despised lower-class entertainment to a more bourgeois one. But the comment on cinema is in that case quite negative, for it becomes a part of a topsy-turvy world of glittering mass celebrity that is marked as clearly dangerous and destabilizing.

… Although my emphasis here on reactionary, anti-democratic attitudes in the film would seem to align my reading with Kracauer’s overall verdict on Weimar cinema, I would like to stress where I differ with him: Kracauer (at least in his famous postwar book From Caligari to Hitler) has more or less the same take on “male retrogression” / “decadence”/”degeneracy” as the right wing in the Wiemar Republic did, namely, that it is bad, one of the serious flaws in Weimar culture. Variety sends a very clear – and anti-modern – message about modernity, democracy, and popular culture; linked to these targets is also another target: the emerging fluidity of gendered and sexual identities that many of us celebrate now (and rightfully so). Variety is in tune with elite opinion in Weimar when it demonizes that fluidity as “degenerate.” But perhaps this film’s fascinated obsession with that fluidity is ultimately of more interest than the strident attempt to make its disapproval clear.

- Richard W. McCormick. Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and "New Objectivity". Published by Macmillan, 2001. Pages 73, 74, 75, 78, 79, 86t

About E.A. Dupont


German director E. A. Dupont was involved in his country's movie industry almost before there was an industry; as early as 1911, Dupont was Germany's foremost film critic. He began directing in 1917, with his first major commercial success, The Ancient Law, coming along six years later. In 1925, Dupont directed the influential German sex-triangle melodrama Variety, which still retains its classic status seventy years later, even in the heavily edited and severely reshaped version prepared for American release (in which, among many other alterations, the hero's mistress was transformed into his wife). On the strength of Variety, Dupont was signed by Hollywood's Universal studios; but only one Universal film, the saccharine Love Me and the World is Mine (1927), would be completed before Dupont headed for England. In 1929, he directed the Anglo/German epic Atlantic, a retelling of the Titanic tragedy significant only as the first European all-talkie. Dupont returned to the States in 1933, where he was assigned a dispiriting progression of "B"-pictures and programmers. Unhappy with the lack of opportunities afforded him in Hollywood, Dupont became a talent agent in 1940, a profession he pursued for nine years. Back in the director's chair for a strange melodrama titled The Scarf (1949), which he also wrote, Dupont resumed his directing career in the '50s once more with such results as 1955's The Neanderthal Man. Just before his death in 1956, E. A. Dupont wrote and directed The Magic Fire, a biopic of composer Richard Wagner.

- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Some directors are able to maintain a steady flow of talent in all their work. Others, like E.A. Dupont, are remembered for one outstanding moment in their career. Variété, or Vaudeville as it is also known, was one of the most exciting films to come from Germany in the 1920s. Dupont made many other good films, but his career as a whole is a rather tragic one. This was partly due to personal deficiencies and partly due to circumstances over which he had no control. Some European directors flourished in Hollywood; Dupont was not one of them.

Dupont worked outside the then-current German expressionist style, being more human and realistic in his approach to filmmaking. This was evident in his tour de force Variété, a tale of jealousy and death amongst trapeze artists. Its powerful realism, visual fluidity, and daring techniques, coupled with the superb performances of Jannings, Lya de Putti, and Warwick Ward, made it stand out in a year rich with achievement. The virtuoso camerawork of Karl Freund contributed not merely to the spatial and temporal aspects of the film but in the revelation of motive and thought. The uninhibited sensuality depicted by the film led to censorship problems in many countries. Inevitably, Dupont went to Hollywood, where he directed a not entirely successful Love Me and the World Is Mine for Universal. In 1928 he made two stylish films in England: Moulin Rouge, which exploited the sensual charms of Olga Tschechowa, and Piccadilly, with Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong (Charles Laughton made his film debut in a small role).

With the coming of sound, Atlantic, made in German and English, proved a considerable version of the Titanic story. But the two British sound films that followed suffered from weak acting that belied the striking sets. With Salto Mortale, made in Germany in 1931 and featuring Anna Sten and Adolph Wohlbruch, Dupont returned to the scene of his earlier Variété. Two more films were made in Germany before he found himself a Jewish refugee in Hollywood. Here his career was uneven. Factory-produced B pictures gave him no scope for his talents.

Dupont was dismissed for slapping a Dead End Kid who was mocking his foreign accent. This humiliating experience played havoc with his morose and withdrawn personality. He became a film publicist, a talent agent, and wrote some scripts. He returned in 1951 to direct The Scarf, a film of some merit for United Artists. Dupont also dabbled in television. He wrote the script for a film on Richard Wagner that was directed by his former protege William Dieterle in 1956. In December of the same year he died of cancer in Los Angeles. A sad case. Sad too to see the name of his great photographer Karl Freund on the credits of I Love Lucy.

—Liam O'Leary, Film Reference.com

Another biography by Thomas Staedeli Focus on Dupont's years in Britain at BFI Screenonline

About Lya de Putti

Lya de Putti was born in 1899 in Hungary to wealthy parents, her mother a former countess, and her father a Baron and a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. She began as a dancer in vaudeville and eventually became a ballet dancer in Berlin. She starred in many of the films produced by the German UFA company playing vamp roles. She went to Hollywood in 1926 where she starred in several films and died at the beginning of the sound era.

- John DeBartolo, SilentsAreGolden.com

Detailed biography by Thomas Staedeli

Lya de Putti has a MySpace page

About Emil Jannings

Emil Jannings ran away from home at the age of sixteen to become a sailor. After serving as an assistant cook he returned to Germany and became a professional actor on the stage. When he made his screen debut in 1914, he was an established and well-known stage actor. "Varieté" was made after his appearance in Murnau's "The Last Laugh" (UFA, 1924), and he was acclaimed as the world's greatest actor. His international reputation won him a Paramount contract in 1927. His thick German accent ended his American career with the coming of sound. He immediately went back to Germany to continue making films during the Nazi regime. He died in 1950.

- John DeBartolo, SilentsAreGolden.com

One of the great pleasures of film-going in the mid-1920s was to see the latest film starring the well-known German actor Emil Jannings. Of all the theater people who lent their talents to the new

medium, he was arguably the greatest. In the 1920s he created a gallery of historical characters as well as people of his own time. Just after World War I, German films were not welcomed in the Allied countries, a fact advertised by numerous distribution companies. One of the first films to break this embargo was Ernst Lubitsch's Madame DuBarry. Made in 1919 by an industry remarkable for its technical skills and the high artistic quality of its product, it was not released in the United States and western Europe until years later. Jannings portrayed Louis XV of France, making an impact that was to continue through his career.

Jannings furthered his popularity and status by making a number of films with the actress Henny Porten and the director Dmitri Buchowetzki. By 1924 he had established a worldwide reputation as a great actor. He starred with Conrad Veidt and Elisabeth Bergner in Paul Czinner's Nju and as the jealous trapeze artist in E. A. Dupont's Variété. His association with F. W. Murnau lead to the three masterpieces which will be his monument: Der letzte Mann, Tartuffe, and Faust. In Der letzte Mann he gave what most consider his greatest performance as an old hotel porter too weak for his job, who is reduced to working in the basement lavatories. His smug Tartuffe was full of subtle nuance, while his Mephistopheles was played with a slightly humorous cynicism that still suggested the blazing anarchy underneath. Even with an ego as great as his talent, Jannings subordinated himself to the disciplines of his art.

No finer tribute could be paid him than that from his old director, Josef von Sternberg: "Jannings had every right to the universal praise that was his for many years, and his position in the history of the motion picture is secure, not only as a superlative performer but also as a source of inspiration for the writers and directors of his time. This in my opinion is the highest compliment within the scope of an actor to earn."

About Karl Freund

Profile on International Encyclopedia of Cinematographers

During a career that lasted nearly 50 years, cinematographer Karl Freund contributed his artfully innovative camerawork to more than 100 German and American films, including the classic Metropolis and the solid Key Largo. Unfortunately, superlative examples of filmmaking are not the sole entries in Freund's filmography. Numerous forgettable or already forgotten comedies, romances, and musicals are also present, a perhaps inevitable consequence of Freund's long career. Symptomatic of his commitment to perfection was his refusal to discriminate a "programmer" from a masterpiece, which provided many of the films he lit and shot with their only noteworthy feature: excellent cinematography.

In the 1920s Freund worked at Ufa, Germany's great government-supported film studio, where he collaborated with Murnau, Lang, and others on a number of the films that collectively created the golden age of the German cinema, films such as Murnau's Der letzte Mann and E.A. Dupont's Variety. For the revolutionary Der letzte Mann, the camera became both narrator and character, relating and interpreting the story of the demoted doorman so lucidly that title cards were superfluous. Freund and scriptwriter Carl Mayer enriched the simple plot of Murnau's film with artistically purposeful camera movement and lighting that set the expressionistic sobriety of the film proper against the high-key clarity of its controversial epilogue.

—Nancy Jane Johnston, Film Reference.com

About Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft)

Pommer, who had won an international success with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), gave his directors a large degree of freedom, preferring to concentrate on increasing Ufa's export business by guaranteeing a cinema of quality, which would be saleable abroad. As a result, Ufa directors produced some of the greatest films of the era, including Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1923–24), Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau,1924), Varieté (Jealousy, E. A. Dupont, 1925), Ein Walzertraum (The Waltz Dream, Ludwig Berger, 1925), and Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul, G. W. Pabst, 1926). This was accomplished by hiring Germany's best directors, expanding the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin to become the most modern facility in Europe, and bringing together a team of technicians, art directors, and cameramen who were encouraged to experiment. Among the innovators were cameramen Karl Freund (1890–1969) and Fritz Arno Wagner (1891–1958). The giant studio sets, innovative lighting designs, optical tricks (Schüfftan process), and daring camera movements in the films of Murnau, Lang, and Dupont would not have been possible without an atmosphere Kreimeier has described as that of a medieval "Bauhütte" (cathedral builders' guild). Unlike American studio stars, Germany's best known actors, including Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), Emil Jannings (1884–1950), Werner Krauss (1884–1959), and Brigitte Helm (1906–1996), were never contractually bound to the company, each working only intermittently for Ufa.
- Jan-Christopher Horak