Broken Blossoms (1919)

D.W. Griffith | 1hr 30min

Four years after D.W. Griffith’s racially-charged The Birth of a Nation, and three years after Intolerance’s doubling down, he finally came out with an apology – but even in Broken Blossoms he can’t help but fall prey to using a few racial slurs and a distasteful display of yellowface. This romantic drama is as much an expression of Griffith’s simplistic ideologies as anything else he has made, clumsy navigating contemporary issues of race while boiling conflicts of good and evil down into archetypes that stretch back to the roots of human storytelling. At the same time, it is in these fables where he is at his most powerful as a filmmaker, offering compassion to Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan in Broken Blossoms and depicting his interracial romance with Londoner Lucy Burrows as a pure, wholesome love. Though he is an established master of monumental epics, Griffith drastically dials his scope and scale right back in this silent tragedy, and in doing so he crafts his most affectingly intimate film to date.

Still, this does not mean that there are no elaborate sets to be found in Broken Blossoms at all. The Chinese architecture of Cheng’s hometown is handsomely mounted in gardens, temples, and busy streets, tinted with a light purple hue that stands out against the duller colours of London. There, shadows stretch down alleyways, brick walls arch over bumpy streets, and rickety wooden buildings line the river that Lucy waddles along after receiving a beating from her bigoted father, Battling Burrows. Meanwhile, Cheng is only finding adversity and prejudice in this city, with his idealistic mission of spreading Buddhism to England becoming little more than a lost dream in the haze of crowded opium dens. It is no Intolerance, but Griffith’s eye for detail in his sets brings both warmth and melancholy to his characters’ journeys, especially when Lucy finds refuge in a small, warm room tucked away above the streets – Cheng’s home.

A solid contrast between the Chinese and British sets – refined, traditional architecture versus the industrial wood and brick of London.

There is something welcoming about the clutter of items spread across this sanctuary, giving it a homely feel. As tender affection sparks between the two outsiders, Griffith’s close-ups draw us into even more intimate frames, proving once again why he is a true pioneer of the artform beyond his largescale set pieces and editing. It is in these shots where the sweetness of both Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess’ performances sink in, gazing at each other with adoring, awestruck expressions. These parallel stories of hardship in London meet at an unlikely point of understanding, and though there is nothing physically consummated between them, Griffith’s melodramatic intertitles pour out saccharine, romantic expressions all the same.

“O lily flowers and plum blossoms! O silver streams and dim-starred skies!”

You can’t trace the evolution of close-ups in cinema without starting at D.W. Griffith. It is certainly a strength of both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but he explores the technique here in Broken Blossoms even more thoroughly.

The happiness that Lucy has only previously faked with two fingers pushing up a forced smile now comes entirely organically. Unfortunately, such bliss is short-lived. As news of her whereabouts gets back to her father and his anger rises, so too does Griffith’s parallel editing pick up as well, intercutting between the peace of Cheng’s shop and Battling’s violent boxing match, hyping himself up for what he has resolved is outright war. In the early years of cinema, Griffith alone possessed this kind of raw, cinematic energy that could vigorously alternate between scenes like a tennis match and, in this instance, implicitly foreshadow an impending demise.

From here, the terror of an oncoming fury only intensifies, with Griffith turning his close-ups away from expressions of romance and towards Battling’s menacing, wide-eyed face of bushy eyebrows and gritted teeth. Like a merciless monster, he steadily approaches the camera, just slightly off-centre in the frame. In a reverse shot, Gish’s fearful eyes are all we can see within the single strip of light across her face, and all the while Griffith keeps intercutting the scene with Cheng obliviously running errands on the street below.

The close-ups grow even more sophisticated as the narrative’s pace picks up as well – the fierce intimidation of Battling Burrows up against his daughter’s terror, illuminated with a single strip of light.

It is a momentum which is impressively kept up for quite a while, as Battling whisks his daughter back home and Cheng comes chasing after them, though not quite fast enough to catch up. Locking herself in a closet to escape her father’s rage, Lucy lets out demonic screams like a victim in a horror film, and within the camera’s tight framing, we are right there with her. It is said that not even Griffith was prepared for Gish’s writhing, shaking, and howling in this scene, which afterwards left a silence on set broken only by him uttering “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that?”.

Lillian Gish might as well be cinema’s first scream queen in this scene, flailing and shrieking inside the closet.

Cheng may be too late to save his love, but not to seek heartbroken revenge on her killer. This is tragedy through and through, right to the end of his own life which he takes with a knife to the chest, though not before taking Lucy’s body back home to China, where the philosophy of kindness that he preaches flourishes more than it ever did in London. In the final appearance of one especially strong motif, Griffith weaves back in the same shot which has connected Cheng at key points in his life back to his homeland and faith – a priest ringing a temple bell, with an ancient pagoda towering in the background. As he passes away, he rings his own tiny version, like an echo resonating with spiritual reverence. This may be a simple, familiar fable of ill-fated lovers, though such eloquent visual poetry refreshes these archetypes through crisp close-ups and propulsive editing, inviting the sort of intimacy that Griffith alone realised in these early years of cinema was uniquely suited to this young, nascent artform.

Griffith returns to this shot three times in Broken Blossoms, and the final one comes with Cheng’s tragic death. Beautiful form in this constant link back to China.

One Week is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.


Intolerance (1916)

D.W. Griffith | 3hr 17min

Intolerance is not quite the apology for The Birth of a Nation that it is often considered to be, especially given that within it D.W. Griffith is ironically framing prejudice as an evil force that was levelled against his own racist ideologies. Without the extratextual background though, his targets appear just vague enough that interpretations could sway either way. Between the two masterpieces, there is no real solid defence of him as a sociologist, philosopher, or prudent intellectual of any kind, and yet as a filmmaker composing fables of historical magnitude that could only ever be represented on a cinematic canvas, a select few directors have ever matched him in grandeur and coordination. Peter Jackson, David Lean, Abel Gance, Francis Ford Coppola, Christopher Nolan, and James Cameron are among those bold visionaries to take on pieces of his genius, and while The Birth of a Nation is where it all started, Intolerance may be the even more technically refined and ambitiously executed accomplishment. In wrapping up four parallel narratives stretching from ancient Babylon to the present day, cycles of human redemption and transgression are masterfully painted out with joy and sorrow, and in the middle of it all sits “The Eternal Mother” – a maternal figure gently rocking a cradle to the ceaseless rhythms of time.

Lillian Gish as the Eternal Mother, a strong motif carried through Intolerance as a single, unifying thread in its complex tapestry.

Around the Mother, history swirls and pulses to an accelerating beat, framing her as a stable, ageless centre upon which everything else pivots. She is a key formal marker of Intolerance, and is played by Lillian Gish no less, following on from her breakout role in The Birth of a Nation and preceding her fruitful period of stardom in the 1920s. Her presence in this tapestry of narrative threads carries archetypal significance as a nurturer of humanity, and while she is initially used to segment each individual narrative, eventually Griffith weaves in her cutaways so seamlessly that she no longer stands merely as a bookmark, but rather a meaningful piece of the overall structure.

From there, the groundwork is set for an entire collection of character archetypes defined by their straightforward names. In the modern-day storyline, a romance blossoms between the Boy and the Dear One, both of whom must contend with criminals, capitalists, and leaders of the puritanical “Uplifter” movement to live a happy life. The “Man of Men, the greatest enemy of intolerance” embodied by Jesus Christ comes next, whose final weeks of life becomes Griffith’s focus here. Though leading the shortest of the four threads, Christ, like the Eternal Mother, is an instantly recognisable emblem of righteousness, sacrifice, and salvation, through which each other subplot connects to a transcendent spiritualism. The storyline of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots by the Catholic monarchs in 16th century Paris is comparably abbreviated in its length, and again religion is depicted as a socially dominant force which fuels what Griffith labels a “hotbed of intolerance.” The sweet, innocent Brown Eyes is the primary victim in this strand, meeting a grisly fate at the hands of a soldier on the day of her wedding, while her fiancé, rushing to save her, meets a similar tragic fate.

Accomplished production design across the streets of Renaissance Paris and 1910s America, starting small but impressive before we reach the huge set pieces.

And finally, there is the fall of Babylon, spurred on by the conflict between devotees of rival gods Bel-Marduk and Ishtar, and within which Griffith crafts set pieces that make other epic films look like chamber dramas by comparison. It isn’t enough for him to simply build giant, detailed sets with ornately carved city gates, colossal city walls shrinking people to the size of insects, and magnificent stone idols of worship overlooking them all. Nor is it enough for him to perfect the art of the establishing shot, setting the camera back far enough to capture thousands of extras moving in formations down giant steps or through gaping arches. Here, in what may be the film’s single greatest sequence, Griffith plants his camera on a crane and swoops it from high up above the ancient court down to the ground, directing us through the magnificent scenery to narrow in on its occupants. Within Babylon, our primary character is the headstrong Mountain Girl, who pledges her allegiance to Prince Belshazzar upon being freed from the marriage market, and later becomes her civilisation’s would-be saviour in a race against time to warn everyone of Cyrus the Great’s surprise attack.

The largest set of Hollywood’s silent era, one of the greatest crane shots in film history, and simply an astonishing feat of filmmaking in its pure composition.
Beyond the great feast of Babylon, this narrative strand is filled with colossal sets, from the towering city walls to its ornately detailed gates.

Before Babylon’s devastating downfall in Intolerance’s climactic finale though, Griffith stages another mammoth battle scene leading into the film’s intermission, which sees Belshazzar pull off a rousing victory over his enemy. While the parallel cutting between storylines is indeed a major strength of Intolerance, here Griffith wisely chooses not to let it interrupt the vigorous flow he builds in his action editing. The tactical progression of each attack within this conflict carries the scale, suspense, and coordination of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings, of which this is a precursor, expertly keeping track of individual characters within the spectacular chaos. From Mountain Girl’s high vantage point, she fires off arrows into Cyrus’ army far below. Down on the ground, soldiers viciously bite into each other’s necks, impale enemies with spears, and cleanly slice off their heads. Within Babylon’s temple, priests fall at the feet of their gods, praying to be saved. And through it all, Griffith inserts long shots of the city walls, his frames filled with fire, smoke, catapults, and battering rams, flinging assaults back and forth between both sides. From the one-on-one combats to the toppling siege towers that crash forcefully to the ground, the stunt work is simply incredible, like a thousand Buster Keaton gags strung together with significantly less humour and a great deal more violence.

A feat of action editing and choreography, setting the stage for The Lord of the Rings in its scale, scope, and thrilling coordination.

Within the context of all four stories, this is intolerance writ on the largest scale film can capture, and there may indeed be a greater number of shots in the film depicting crowds filling out Jerusalem’s streets, Parisian palaces, worker strikes, and brimming court trials than any depicting named characters. Griffith is not one to let the personal stakes disappear within the cacophony of humanity’s self-destruction though, as it is in the personal struggles of innocents trying to live quiet lives that his stories are centred in a recognisable heartache. The Musketeer’s attempted rape of the Dear One, the struggle that ends up framing the Boy for murder, and his eventual death sentence piles the misfortune up in one long string of injustices, and Griffith’s in-scene editing moves briskly through each new development with lively indignation. With comparisons being drawn between the Uplifters and the Pharisees of the biblical era early on, Griffith lays foundations for further connections between narrative threads, intercutting the Uplifters’ unjust seizure of the Dear One’s baby with the scene of Christ speaking warmly to Jerusalem’s children.

The seizure of the Dear One’s baby juxtaposed with Christ speaking to the children of Jerusalem. Powerful form in Griffith’s editing.
Griffith is more known for his long shots, but he is just as much an innovator of the close-up, here softening his camera’s focus on the Dear One as she wrestles with her husband’s death sentence.

Astonishing displays of detailed mise-en-scène are consistently built in the halls of power across the ages, where monarchs, priests, and business owners exert great authority over the lives of common people, determining who lives and dies based on petty disputes and broken allegiances. It is particularly those who wield religion as a weapon who are often the most insidious of them all, as is plainly evident in the Babylonian, biblical, and Parisian settings, but which is even there in the subjugation of the Dear One. When the Dear One’s father unjustly demands she pray for forgiveness, a sculpted icon of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus reminds us of his pure message of grace, which each storyline otherwise sees corrupted by self-righteous believers.

The ancient Babylonian palace, the royal court of King Charles IX, the ball at Miss Jenkins’ manor – the depth of field, staging, and elaborate production design echoes across the halls of power through the ages.

Through all these strands weaving around each other and gradually merging into a singular story of historical prejudice, Griffith steadily maintains a finely orchestrated display of parallel editing for over three hours, demonstrating a level of stamina that calls to mind similar accomplishments in Battleship Potemkin and more recently, Dunkirk. As the final act approaches and several violent actions of injustice loom over our four sets of character though, he just keeps on stepping up the pacing and exchanges, choreographing an accelerating sequence of intercutting that surpasses anything even from The Birth of a Nation. The fall of Babylon, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the crucifixion of Christ, and the hanging of the Boy are all imminent, and the lead-up to each sees epic battles for the soul of humanity ring out across time like a stone rolling down a hill, picking up speed and knocking down others until it spirals into a devastating avalanche.

It begins quite simply with the Boy’s death sentence being drawn directly next to Pontius Pilate’s sentencing of Christ and the subsequent procession to Calvary, seeing two innocents bearing the sins of others. Just as the three crosses stand tall up on the hill outside of Jerusalem, the gallows set menacingly squares up to the camera, and much like the dash of the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation to rescue Elsie Stoneman, here Griffith cuts between the prison and the Dear One’s frantic rush to deliver the evidence of her husband’s innocence. Meanwhile, Mountain Girl is also racing back to the city of Babylon to warn Prince Belshazzar of Cyrus’ oncoming attack with the camera aggressively rolling alongside her, the Royal House of Valois sends out its soldiers to slaughter the Protestant Huguenots of Paris, and the Eternal Mother keeps rocking her cradle, each narrative and symbolic counterpoint supporting each other’s progression as they collide in spectacular fashion. The complex interplay of Griffith’s editing goes beyond the four-pronged structure, but even within individual story threads he cuts between multiple characters spread across locations, chasing each other down in chariots, cars, and trains to beat the last few sands of time trickling away.

A collision of narrative threads unfolding through Griffith’s remarkable parallel editing, as each one rushes towards its conclusion with haste and suspense.

With intertitles growing scarcer, Griffith fires off each shot with greater velocity and dexterity, building and sustaining suspense across the final forty minutes until, one by one, the final dominoes of each narrative thread topple over. “Intolerance, burning and slaying” reign across scenes of Mountain Girl being shot with arrows, Brown Eyes’ death by sword, and Christ dying up on the cross, and with this symphonic tragedy echoing across millennia, our expectations are set for the culmination of the Boy’s execution. For better or worse, Griffith is a sentimentalist at heart who cannot bear letting such a dour conclusion have the final say on humanity’s great potential, as in the very last seconds before the Boy’s hanging, the Dear One arrives with the Governor, carrying evidence of her husband’s innocence. Violent hatred may slaughter entire cities and even the son of God, and yet in the tiny pockets of society where lovers push on, Griffith formally earns this tiny shred of justice dealt out to the characters who ironically hold the least power out of anyone in this entire ensemble.

Intolerance is ultimately not a film about characters though, but rather about those large, overarching humanistic values which we can aspire to embody in even the darkest times, hoping that another era will eventually emerge that will see compassion conquer cruelty. Not the sort of director to let his massive canvas go to waste even in the closing minutes, Griffith delivers one last giant set piece of a battlefield, superimposing heavens in the skies far above, and shedding light upon the soldiers laying down their weapons. It is a grand experiment in narrative structure he conducts here, and not one to be taken for granted or downplayed for its maudlin idealism. Within the intricate harmonies of layered plot strands and the trailblazing pioneer’s staggering formal ambition, Intolerance demonstrates the immense potential of this young, nascent art form, and sets a cinematic standard of epic filmmaking that has rarely been surpassed.

Heavens opening up above a battlefield, shining peace down across humanity.

Intolerance is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D.W. Griffith | 3hr 13min

On a purely technical and artistic level, it would be wrong to label The Birth of a Nation as anything less than one of the most accomplished films of the silent era. As a cultural and historical artefact however, it is a hateful, destructive piece of discriminatory propaganda that displays some of the most insidious use of blackface in film history, glorifies hate crimes as heroic acts, and inspired the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. From the film’s perspective, the Civil War crippled the rights of the Southern states, and the Reconstruction era was one long disaster that tore the nation apart. To call it reflective of the era’s politics is only true insofar that Hollywood’s early film industry was dominated by white people who were fine with letting it be released, and that there was indeed a desire for a race war lying dormant within white America, waiting for any excuse to leap into action. At the same time though, it did not go unchallenged by many civil rights groups. Protests outside theatres were overwhelming, and the backlash led to the first film directed by an African American filmmaker, Within Our Gates, which was a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s hateful politics.

If The Birth of a Nation was simply a racist film lacking the artistic backbone of parallel editing, epic set pieces, and astonishing innovations, then it would not be nearly as present and discussed in our culture today from any angle at all, and would have simply faded into the annals of history with so many other problematic films. But with directors like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino rightfully targeting it in their films today, and the cinematic techniques that Griffith developed still echoing through modern day movies, it is evidently not going away, and should not be left unaddressed lest we forget and fail to learn from America’s ugly history.

Epic set pieces glorifying the Ku Klux Klan – heinous, ugly politics.

As such, The Birth of a Nation also poses perhaps the greatest challenge of all for anyone wishing to evaluate film from as purely a formalistic standpoint as possible. Roger Ebert was not wrong in calling it “a great film that argues for evil”, as although it does not inspire or convince any right-thinking person to consider its ethos on any serious level, the sheer mastery of the artform and cinematic language lets it stand on a level that, divorced from its influence or any claims to being the first of its kind, is simply jaw-dropping on its own individual merits. Through the hundred or so years that feature narrative films have existed, The Birth of a Nation may indeed be the singularly most abhorrent work to hit such ambitiously artistic heights

The weight of The Birth of a Nation’s scale can be felt primarily in two ways – the editing which reveals key narrative developments taking place simultaneously across multiple locations, and the staging of set pieces that build out urban and rural environments with spectacular numbers of extras, stretching all the way through the camera’s depth of field. Both start relatively modestly, with a celebration in the South manifesting in a ballroom of dancing couples, energised by Griffith’s camera dollying through the crowd. Meanwhile, wild festivities around a bonfire are concurrently taking place in the streets outside, washing the frame in an invigorating red tint that distinguishes itself from the more civil affair taking place indoors. The insertion of shots revealing the young and elderly members of society sleeping back home do not go amiss, as it is the stories of these families which are just as important to Griffith as the action.

A dollying camera in a ball, and red-tinted film in the streets outside – Griffith drenches his film with lavish style.

It is about fifty minutes in that the smooth shift from small, individual perspectives to the staggeringly large war effort proves to be particularly impressive in its sheer economy. A tight iris on a woman and her children weeping with concern for the departure of their men is intimate in its framing, but then Griffith pans his camera to the right over a cliff edge where we see tiny troops in the distance riding to war on horseback. Suddenly, the iris expands, and the full scene is revealed in all its grandeur, with hundreds of soldiers moving away into the hills. Without so much as a cut, Griffith’s visual and narrative scope grows immensely, right before leading us into the burning of Atlanta which sees a return of that red tinting, now taking on the significance of bloodshed and fire. As smoke fills the air and friends from the North and South tragically die holding each other, Griffith paints the destruction out with chaotic collages, superimposing multiple images across the frame and sending silhouettes of extras running in terror through the carnage. And then, among all this devastation, he keeps cutting back to those melancholy, blue-tinted scenes of soldiers leaving home, unaware of what is waiting for them down the road.

Narrative economy rendered through a single camera pan and expanded iris.
Scenes of bloodshed built on fast-paced editing and super-imposed collages.

The rise of young Confederate soldier Ben Cameron as he leads a final charge at the Siege of Petersburg is captured with extraordinary ferocity, as once again Griffith lifts his camera off its static tripod to whisk it through the air, tracking the newly dubbed “Little Colonel” towards enemy lines. Strategy is important to the form of Griffith’s plotting here, as in carefully setting up the layout, goal, and stakes of planned missions, he lays the groundwork for an impeccable coordination of suspense and climactic release, propelled by its swift, muscular editing. Even in the heat of battle, Griffith still does not lose sight of these soldiers’ loved ones, intercutting the action with shots of families back home praying, reminding us of the widespread ramifications of violent conflict.

The Siege of St Petersburg is the first proper war scene of the film, and is executed flawlessly in its ambitious scale and cutaways.

As The Birth of a Nation moves into the downfall of the Confederacy and aftermath, Griffith’s focus shifts to representations of history on a broader level, and for all his attempts at creating authentic facsimiles of real locations, the film still stands more as a document of the 1910s than an objective depiction of events. Still, this isn’t to say it lacks detail or specificity, as the recreation of Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s shooting makes for a grand, decorated set piece, with establishing shots laying out its geography before the tension builds up in a gradually accelerating montage. As we cut between John Wilkes Booth’s advance, Lincoln sitting unaware, his equally oblivious bodyguard, the play onstage, and Ben Cameron’s own observation of these events from elsewhere in the audience, the editing culminates in a devastating murder, marking the end of the government’s conciliatory war policy, and replacing it with what Griffith deems a gross shift in the America’s attempt to unite the nation.

Another fine piece of editing at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, bouncing around Ford’s Theatre in the suspenseful build up.

There sits the climactic end of The Birth of a Nation’s first act, and the point in which its relatively vague alliance to the Confederacy begins to escalate to unambiguously derogatory depictions of African Americans as slovenly, perverted, and treacherous people. The introductory Act 2 intertitle provides little justification for what follows.

“This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.”

Here, Griffith’s attempts at historicity devolve into cartoonish represents of some imagined past where white Americans were the true victims. It starts with Silas Lynch, a malicious, mixed-race protégé of a Northern politician, being voted in as South Carolinian lieutenant governor in a badly rigged election that sees white people intimidated away from voting. The first U.S. legislature to have a Black majority thus takes power, and in the assembly room Griffith dissolves from an empty grid of desks and tables to an environment of chaos and heinous racial stereotypes.

Leading into the “riot in Master’s Hall” with a long dissolve like a before and after picture.

Cinematic talents have rarely been put to more vile use as they are here, as in one smaller set piece that sees freedman Gus chase Ben’s sister, Flora, through a forest, it is again the energetic editing which takes over and drives the scene forward. Interspersed throughout the action are wide shots of the dense wilderness with trees crowding the frame, and as the characters reach the top of a cliff, Griffith plants his camera at its base, gazing up at the drop from a low angle steep enough to make your head spin. Flora’s fatal leap is the final trigger for the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to take action against Black people. Scenes that venerate their rituals are chillingly cultlike in their presentation, and now as they hunt down and brutally lynch Gus, one wonders how any of this could ever be interpreted as valiant.

The forest and cliff setting an intimidating environment for Gus’ chase of Flora.

Though the Civil War is over, Griffith now depicts a new battle between races raging in Griffith’s depiction of American Reconstruction, and continues to showcase his mastery over narrative in evenly balancing several plot threads weaving around each other. Even within quieter scenes devoid of action, his use of cutaways to break up his astounding long shots keep it from ever being so stage-bound as to become flat. The Birth of a Nation may carry colossal weight in its scale, but it never lumbers, and especially with a star in the making like Lillian Gish playing the role of Elsie Stoneman, Ben’s Northern love interest, it remains consistently gripping, for better and for worse.

It is ultimately Elsie’s kidnapping and Silas Lynch’s attempted forced marriage with her which motivates the enormous final thirty minutes for which the film is most infamous. A significant part of this obviously has to do with the sickening image of hooded Ku Klux Klan members riding to her rescue like white knights, quashing the uprising of their enemies in one final, monumental battle. On a political level, it is this scene which has been repeatedly drawn on to underscore the film’s moral atrocity, reprehensibly turning this white supremacist hate group into heroes, and suggesting that they successfully united the North and South “in common defense of their Aryan birthright.”

Griffith filling the frame with a huge number of extras preparing to ride into battle, before launching into the infamous final thirty minutes of The Birth of a Nation.

However regrettable that it is, this scene is also the one which stands as the film’s finest technical achievement. As formerly Confederate soldiers assemble for their mission, Griffith stages hundreds of extras in a line stretching into the distance, blowing up the spectacle to a level that few films have practically topped since. The finely orchestrated editing that follows essentially sets a timer in the narrative thread of Elsie’s impending marriage to Silas, intercutting its development against the red-tinted advance of the Klan riding to her rescue, street riots taking place outside, and a siege on Ben’s family hiding out in their home, all happening in the same instance. The movement of each set piece along parallel trajectories is strengthened by their remarkable coordination, each one supporting the others and rising to synchronised climaxes in a manner which fully recognises the unique potential of cinema as a truly dynamic artform. It is here that we also observe the foundations of the Soviet montage movement which would emerge a decade later, as well as the rapid-fire style of editing that Abel Gance would further revolutionise in his epic silent films La Roue and Napoleon.

A climax unlike anything that had coming before, intercutting between multiple locations. Technically flawless, even while the subject of Griffith’s hero worship is nauseating.

The place that The Birth of a Nation occupies in history is a strange paradox in both its extreme artistic highs and ethical lows, though within a stylistic and formal assessment that seeks to separate cinematic elements from moral judgement, however justified, it is also a masterpiece. With his ambitiously envisioned and astonishingly executed narrative structure, Griffith singlehandedly defines feature filmmaking here, naturally building out the artform from the short films of Georges Melies and the Lumiere brothers. That he also so finely manipulates these elements for such hideous purposes is impossible to ignore, as he unintentionally exposes a depravity baked into the history of nationalistic mythologising, offering inherent bias towards those voices that dictate it. Perhaps then it is fitting that such a provocative, unscrupulous film claiming to offer a definitive interpretation of American history is the father of virtually every other movie to follow it. After all, what is cinema if not an ongoing conflict between reality and flawed artists trying to explore it?

Super-imposed images of Christ over scenes of Paradise – Ben and Elsie dreaming of their future together.

The Birth of a Nation is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

Napoleon (1927)

Abel Gance | 5hr 33min

Before there were unspoken rules about how long big-budget movie spectacles should be, there was Napoleon, the last great epic of the silent era running at an extravagant 5 and a half hours. In terms of pure length, this was actually a step down for Abel Gance, whose drama La Roue from 1923 ran for 7 and a half hours. He was a filmmaker following in the fresh footsteps of D. W. Griffith, innovating the sort of editing and camera techniques that keep a project as weighty as this light on its feet, fizzling with a radical passion that sends French leader Napoleon Bonaparte plummeting to the brink of failure, before pulling him up again to the heights of historical glory. Additionally, Gance takes a great deal of narrative inspiration from Victor Hugo, weaving an eloquent literary voice through his intertitle narration, and detailing accounts of French revolutionary history with a similarly intellectual and patriotic fascination.

Authenticity is particularly important to Gance in unfolding the story of Napoleon, as he inserts his own voice into the film to announce that those lines of dialogue marked as “Historical” are authentic to reliable records, and proclaiming as we move to Corsica that all of the following scenes were shot on location where the real events occurred. “I would like to be my own posterity, to witness what a poet would have me think, feel, and say,” presages Napoleon in an opening epigraph, and evidently Gance views himself as that modern day poet to do justice to his story.

A simple shot of Napoleon standing before an empty theatre asks for a gigantic set from Gance, and he delivers in its visual construction.

He doesn’t waste time either in setting up his main character as a stubborn yet strategically minded outsider, opening on a wintery field of young boys at a military school warring against each other in a snowball fight. From within a trench, Napoleon uses the reflection of his belt buckle to look over the edge before rushing forward and engaging with the enemy in close combat. Very quickly, battle breaks out, and this tiny model of war reveals the wise, courageous leader that up until now has lain dormant inside the young boy.

Napoleon’s excited ambition in this sequence is only matched by Gance’s fervent filmmaking, rapidly firing between static close-ups of his subject’s calm, controlled face and the surrounding chaos, where a camera has been strapped to the operator’s chest to simulate a handheld effect. Given the size and weight of film equipment in the 1920s, this on its own a pioneering technical move from Gance. In blending its movement with zealous montage editing, and then leading into multiple exposure shots of Napoleon’s visage over the snowball fight though, it is the immediate, visceral impact of these combined techniques which hits us before anything else, landing us right in the middle of a battle where only one boy is in total control.

Young Napoleon’s face super-imposed over a chaotic snowball fight, giving orders and enacting intelligent strategies.

From this point on, Gance just keeps on finding new mounts for his camera, using these creative positions to craft the sort of shots that bring us right into the action rather than keeping us at a distance from it. From rocking sailboats, charging horses, and even cannons we watch skirmishes and disasters unfold, often sharing the same points-of-view as Napoleon himself. It is that handheld effect which returns most frequently though, not just in battles but even amid meetings at the National Assembly and the Club of Cordeliers, where he delivers a rousing speech to a crowd of young revolutionaries. Gance plays these scenes like a symphony, rushing his camera through cheering masses, building this patriotic excitement upon the musical underscore of La Marseillaise as it is composed within the story, and finally accelerating the sequence’s rhythmic editing towards grand images of French victory.

If it moves, then Gance will fix his camera to it – horses, boats, and people, anything to get shots as dynamic and exciting as these.

Right from his early days as a young political hopeful, Napoleon’s obstinate courage and inspiring words remain the running character thread through all his greatest victories and trials, leading him to go so far as to confront a crowd of Corsican men and women who consider him a traitor for his incendiary anti-British sentiment. “If you could understand the dreams that fire my soul, you would follow me!” he passionately declares, momentarily subduing their contempt. Then as he races away on horseback, the shock subsides, and he is followed by an army of counter-revolutionaries looking to claim the bounty on his head. Once again, Gance makes us part of the chase as he tracks his camera along with the horses, though in wide insert shots that frame their silhouettes against low horizons, he also adds splashes of pictorial beauty into this dash for freedom. When Napoleon finally reaches a small boat on a shoreline, he hoists his stolen French flag up as a sail to catch the wind, literalising it a symbol of liberty.

A thrilling chase across landscapes and horizons, and Gance takes the time to frame it perfectly when he isn’t running his camera alongside his actors.

There is seemingly no ceiling to Gance’s majestic storytelling ambition, as when stormy weather strikes we find his camera fixed to this boat, being tossed around on the surface of this dark ocean. Meanwhile, back at the National Assembly in Paris, the Jacobin movement against the monarchy is splintering between the moderate Girondists and the more radical Montagnards. The display of parallel editing here is simply among the best ever put to film, accelerating in frenzied rhythms as one man’s struggle against nature is set against a political calamity, offering even greater weight to both. Guillotines and eagles are superimposed on top of incensed anti-monarchists calling for executions, all while waves crash across the crowd in a furious tempest. Handheld camerawork is no longer enough on its own to capture the raw agitation of this environment, and so Gance attaches his camera to a large pendulum and swings it in long strokes above the assembly, forwards and backwards, as if to make us seasick.

The camera swings low over the crowd on a pendulum, and guillotines manifest over the top, as violence and anger take over.

The colours that Gance incorporates through tinting his film also run up against each other in this sequence, as he briskly cuts between the melancholy blue of the ocean and sepia yellow of the National Assembly, visually distinguishing between the corresponding struggles. Such vibrant hues as these permeate much of the film, washing scenes of deep personal reflection in purple as the French leader wistfully ponders his future at an ocean shore, and in an angry red as mob violence takes over the streets of Paris. In this way, Napoleon also strives to understand its central subject on an intimate level as well, transcending its sweeping historicity to uncover the emotional core of the French leader.

One of the best uses of tinting in film, always informing the emotion and tension of the scene.

No doubt that Albert Diudonné deserves a great deal credit for this, carrying the weight of the biopic in his performance through scenes of both sincere fervour and quiet contemplation. Especially when the film approaches its final act, Gance begins to turn towards Napoleon’s personal relationships with those he loved and those whose love he never returned. For Violine, the daughter of an old friend, he is an unattainable icon of worship, represented in her bedroom as a small shrine. Draped in a white veil like a young bride, she imagines his figure as a shadow against her wall, present but intangible. Meanwhile he pictures the face of the woman he does love, Josephine, over a globe, leaning in to kiss the location where she manifests – right on top of Paris, no less. The vision of an empty theatre being filled with the ghosts of old mentors and deceased revolutionaries manifests in a similar manner through a skilful use of multiple exposure, and in doing so Gance finds a consistency in Napoleon’s attitudes towards love and patriotism. To him, they are one and the same, and by openly expressing one, he ardently demonstrates the other.

Napoleon’s shadow on the wall, becoming an ethereal figure of unrequited love.
The deceased revolutionaries of Napoleon’s past returning as ghosts to offer guidance.

It is in this amalgamation of love and patriotism that we keep finding the beating heart of this grand historical tale, with Gance echoing in his filmmaking the same enthusiastically eccentric attitude with which the French leader approached warfare. As such, scenes of violent conflict become the canvas upon which his avant-garde experiments are unleashed in full force. Mosaics of individual shots that make up a small-scale pillow fight and three-way split screens which wedge Napoleon between images of war capture the sort of layered martial chaos which has rarely been translated to film so succinctly.

Superb shots of Napoleon on battlefields, set up as a commanding, authoritative figure by Gance’s camerawork and Diudonné’s impassioned performance.

Nothing can prepare us though for the magnificent final act, taking us into the heart of the Battle of Montenotte through the widest aspect ratio ever committed to film – a staggering 4:1, achieved by placing three cameras side-by-side to capture a triptych of images. Gance is singular in his vision and unmatched when it comes to capturing such a tremendous scope within a single shot, fitting an astounding number of extras into his frame as military preparations commence. From atop a mountain, Napoleon delivers one last stirring speech, motivating the French spirit of revolution before launching into a march and battle that sweep across epic terrains and three-way split screens. All at once, kaleidoscopic landscapes, heroic marches, cheering Parisians, maps of Italy, spinning globes, Napoleon’s stoic face, and dreamy visions of his wife visually harmonise like polyphonic orchestrations composed by a cinematic maestro.

An aspect ratio of 4:1 that has never been seen since, moving between ultra-wide landscape shots and patterned triptychs depicting different parts of the battle.

And then, in the final minute as Gance hurtles towards the finish line, an explosion of colour erupts – blue, white, and red tinting, each take up a third of the ultra-widescreen and turning his triptych into a French flag marking Napoleon’s tremendous victory for his nation. This level of epic filmmaking is simply remarkable, punctuating every key beat in this sprawling narrative with a flourish of artistic splendour wholly unique to Gance’s own trailblazing intuitions, and delivering a defining piece of silent cinema that is all too difficult to find these days. More than just developing and passing on a language of visual storytelling, Napoleon pioneered techniques that have not been touched since, carving out its own strange yet fascinating corner of film history that it inhabits alone.

A jaw-dropping final minute as the triptych becomes a French flag via film tinting, marking a tremendous victory for the Revolution.

Napoleon is not currently streaming in Australia.

Les Vampires (1915)

Louis Feuillade | 10 chapters (15 – 59min)

The mysterious and deadly misdeeds committed by criminal gang The Vampires often defy real-world logic. This isn’t to say that Les Vampires is a supernatural film as its name might suggest, but Louis Feuillade plays up the pulpy sensationalism of their plots, weapons, and characterisations to magnificent lengths, stretching our suspension of disbelief with the kind of tensely staged sequences that Alfred Hitchcock would innovate years later through avant-garde camerawork and editing. Les Vampires is far from being cinematically bland, but in praising Feuillade’s work, it is his accomplishment of narrative construction which must take precedence above its technical aspects. Though there are frequent diversions to side characters who build out this shady world of Parisian journalists, thieves, and aristocrats, not a single one of them is wasted, as each one inhabits their own compelling archetype within this grand tale of good and evil.

Of course, it is the immortal character of Irma Vep who stands tall above the rest of this fascinating ensemble. Silent film actress Musidora puts in what might very well be the first great performance committed to a feature film as the main muse of The Vampires, remaining a consistent member while their leaders keep being killed and replaced. She adopts disguises easily, stalking those she has been sent to spy on with a sullen expression and dark shadows under her eyes, or otherwise prowling across rooftops in black head-to-toe body suits. When our leading man, Phillipe, comes across her name on a cabaret poster, Feuillade animates the letters to rearrange into an appropriate anagram – “Vampire”. She may not be the head of this crime organisation, but she is undoubtedly the greatest embodiment of its frightening malevolence.

Musidora masterfully plays the full range of Irma Vep’s wickedness, her facial expressions and physical presence leaping off the screen.
The Vampires scale buildings and prowl across rooftops in black body suits, like walking masses of negative space.

Along with Irma Vep, Feuillade maintains a steady, core ensemble of characters responsible for driving much of this story over its ten chapters. Newspaper journalist Phillipe starts as a relative unknown in the Parisian crime underworld, but as he gains fame for exposing a number of Vampires and foiling their plots, he and his loved ones become targets. His right-hand man, Mazamette, largely serves as playful comic relief, though he too carries his own plot function as a double agent, using his inside knowledge of The Vampires to assist Phillipe, and eventually becoming a wealthy philanthropist upon winning a bounty. When Moreno enters in Chapter 4, ‘The Specter’, his presence is a complication in the midst of this clear-cut fight between law and crime, effectively making enemies of both The Vampires and Phillipe as a thief, con artist, and hypnotist.

Mazamette works well as comic relief, not over-used and serving his own function within the plot.

Collectively, these characters exist in an exaggerated world of crime not unlike those found in serial novels from around the same era. With chapter titles like ‘The Severed Head’ and ‘Dead Man’s Escape’, Feuillade places The Vampires’ exploits at the centre of each episode, playing right into the delightfully macabre mysteries that just keep on provoking our intrigue. Secret passageways, cunning disguises, hypnotised servants, and cryptic ciphers make up Les Vampires’ winding plot, though the gang’s most titillating plans frequently involve some elaborate use of poison, whether it is infused into an ink that brings death within seconds, or a sleeping gas being fed into a ballroom of aristocrats.

One of Feuillade’s greatest scenes, and by far The Vampires’ greatest exploit, putting an entire room of wealthy men and women to sleep so they may rob them of their valuables.

The final man to take the title of the Grand Vampire is the mastermind behind many of these clandestine schemes, and is known simply as “Venomous” for his skill with deadly poisons. As a chemist, he evidently comes from a background of privilege and education much like the other Grand Vampires before him. Given that the organisation’s members seem to infiltrate all sections of society, its reach often seems impossible to overcome, as with the fall of one leader there is always a new one rising up to take their place.

In many ways, Feuillade sets a standard of storytelling here that later crime movie directors like Fritz Lang and David Fincher would take inspiration from in even greater movies than this. On a technical level, the silent filmmaker lags a little behind his contemporary D. W. Griffith, whose development of cinematic language exceeds Feuillade’s dominant decision to set the camera back in wides and let scenes play out naturally. Still, the epic length of Les Vampires does allow for some flourishes of style that don’t go amiss, most notably in the design of The Vampires themselves who appear as walking masses of negative space in their tight, black costumes. In a balletic dramatisation of their illegal activities, Phillipe’s fiancée, Marfa, dons a similar outfit, though with a theatrical pair of bat wings sewn in she casts a far more elegant figure than those skulking criminals she is depicting.

Sharp compositions outlining The Vampires as intimidating silhouettes.

Elsewhere, Feuillade creatively uses a blue tint to simulate a day-for-night wash across his settings, even flicking it on and off as Phillipe does the same with a bedside lamp. A three-way split screen is later used to portray a phone call, the middle column of which is taken up by a river dividing both sides of the frame, and in one scene that sees Irma Vep infiltrate Phillipe’s household as a maid, Feuillade skilfully cuts away to a small desk mirror to catch her discreetly poisoning his drink.

Inspired used of a three-way split screen during a phone call, dividing both parties down the middle with a river.
A deft cutaway to Phillipe’s point of view, catching Irma Vep poisoning his drink via a mirror on his desk.

There is little though that tops the direction of one particular sequence in Chapter 9, ‘The Poisoner’, which sees Feuillade lead an exhilarating car chase into a fight set atop a moving train, briefly turning Phillipe into an unlikely action hero with Venomous as his evil adversary. As Les Vampires progresses towards its epic conclusion, its scale increases as well, using real Parisian streets and buildings as the grounds for the final confrontation. While Phillipe takes a page out of The Vampires’ playbook and climbs the exterior of their hideout to set a trap, the police prepare a raid that sends large numbers of extras climbing over walls in a spectacular, climactic pay-off.

A brilliant, action-packed sequence, tracking the camera along with Irma Vep’s car as it makes a getaway, and then planting it on top of this moving train as Phillipe chases Venomous.

Much like their supernatural namesakes, it often seems that this crime organisation will keep rejuvenating itself for as long as its evil essence, Irma Vep, stays alive. It is somewhat fitting that she is not killed by either of our leads, but rather by Jane, Phillipe’s wife, in a rare moment that she lets her guard down, thereby bringing about the unsalvageable downfall of her gang. Such is the strength of Les Vampires’ classical archetypes that we can intuit much larger stakes and ideas from their narrative treatment, economically using just a few symbolic characters to construct an entire Parisian landscape of lawbreakers and justice seekers. With over one hundred years distance from Les Vampires, it is clear that its narrative strength has not faded, much of this being thanks to Feuillade’s thrilling direction keeping it alive as one of the most finely-crafted crime films of cinema history.

The streets and rooftops of Paris making for impressive cityscapes – absolutely revolutionary location shooting in 1915.

Les Vampires is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton | 19min

The wedding bells that open One Week have a “sweet sound but a sour echo”, and those reverberations continue to ring out through the following struggles between Buster Keaton’s deadpan groom and his wife. Together they aspire to build a new house and life for themselves from scratch, though the instructions they are given have been tampered with. One of the bride’s old, rejected suitors interferes, changing the numbers on the packing crates so that the finished product turns out more like a bizarre carnival attraction than a liveable home. As it turns out, marriage is not a one-size-fits-all package. It is only when this absurd monstrosity is razed to the ground that these young lovers can discover the sweet, simple authenticity in their relationship.

With such an eccentric piece of architecture to bounce his bold stunts and physical gags off, Buster Keaton constructs a brilliantly creative silent comedy in 19 minutes that would set a standard for his feature films to follow. Corners stick out at peculiar angles, walls flip and rotate, floors sag, and doors open up into thin air, creating a funhouse of sorts that sends Keaton his co-star, Sybil Seely, flying across great distances at dangerously high speeds and odd trajectories.

Keaton milks this architectural oddity for all its comedic value, flipping this wall and then letting it topple over directly on top of him.

In the toppling wall that lands a window perfectly around Keaton and the hurricane that complicates his ordeal, One Week often looks to be a rehearsal for his work in Steamboat Bill Jr., though the genius in his execution remains inventively singular all the same. Traces of formal experimentation even manifest in one scene in which he playfully covers the lens with his hand to conceal Seely’s nudity, recognising the unique comedic potential of cinematic form by pushing it beyond the vaudeville stage and directly inviting the audience into its world.

Hilariously inventive in the early days of film, creating visual gags unique to the form of cinema.

It is just as much the framing of his gags as it is his staging that is integral to Keaton’s comedy, as his neutral wide shots maintain the same deadpan demeanour as his stoic facial expressions. This is the visual foundation for many of his set pieces, though it is in the tension of his final scene which sees the house wind up on the path of an oncoming train that the impact of his intelligent camera placement is fully revealed. Keaton recognises that in the precise moment the train misses, his audience is doubting his commitment to the magnificent gag – it would be a level of ambitious destruction on a different level to anything else he has done up until now. And then, just as we let our guard down, a train from the other side of the tracks suddenly appears and demolishes the house in one swift motion. It is the power of this perfectly placed wide shot that makes all the difference between suspense and surprise, keeping the second train outside the frame until it delivers its crushing blow. A short film it may be, but with its architectural inventiveness, creative framing, and dedication to boundary-pushing gags, One Week possesses the same comedic genius as any of Keaton’s features.

One of the great stunts of the silent era, immaculately executed by the camera angle and Keaton’s wild dedication to the spectacle.

One Week is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger | 1hr 5min

In five years time, the oldest surviving feature-length animated film will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, and yet The Adventures of Prince Achmed has not aged a day. We likely wouldn’t be finding contemporary mainstream studios like Pixar creating the sort of minimalistic shadow-puppet designs that Lotte Reiniger has crafted here. But if a group of people were to be surveyed on what decade they thought this was made in just by looking at its imagery, their answers would likely be scattered all through the last century.

After the titular Prince Achmed is tricked by an evil magician into flying away to a distant land, he resolves to make his way back home with the help of a friendly witch, while rescuing the beautiful fairy, Pari Banu, from the demons of her island. Though rooted in Middle Eastern folklore of the One Thousand and One Nights, these characters all fulfill archetypes that have stretched back millennia. Even when we take an aside from the main plot to hear a poor tailor named Aladdin tell his own tale, these same archetypes manifest once again – a dashing hero, a beautiful love interest, a helpful magical being, right down to the same wicked sorcerer who similarly damned Achmed to a hole in the ground. It isn’t great narrative form to drop this entirely separate story in the middle of a larger one and let it dominate such a significant portion of this relatively short film, but there is at least that mirroring of characters between the two which strengthens its roots in traditional storytelling conventions.

Beautiful colour tinting defining each new setting.

Reiniger’s stylish animation is the real show here though, particularly in the detailed shapes of her character designs. The thin, spindly fingers of the sorcerer always seem to be clutching hungrily at some treasure, or threatening a victim whom his gangly, gnarled outline intimidatingly looms over. He exists in stark visual contrast to the sharp quills and dumpy shape of his arch-enemy, the Witch of the Flaming Mountain, who appears as a far more affable figure with her bulbous proportions. In a climactic confrontation between the two they morph themselves into all sorts of creatures, throwing fireballs back and forth, and the intangibility of their shadowy consistency lends itself well to these incorporeal feats of magic.

Beyond the characters, this is also a story that spans many locations stretching across West and East Asia, with each new setting providing its own remarkable backdrop. From the ferns and fronds enclosing an icy blue lake on the fictional island of Wak-Wak, to the latticework and curved, symmetrical architecture of an orange-filtered China, we are never lost in this world, especially with the attractive colour tinting to distinguish between sections of Achmed’s journey. Even beyond it being ground-breaking for all the “firsts” Reiniger achieves, The Adventures of Prince Achmed would end up in the top ten of any year simply because of its astoundingly imaginative work in fashioning an entire narrative out of shadows.

Minimalist in design, but still strikingly beautiful in its staging.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is in the public domain and available to watch for free on streaming sites such as YouTube.

La Roue (1923)

Abel Gance | 6hr 58min

How odd it is that Abel Gance, this intellectual, pioneering filmmaker, has become so forgotten over the decades. One would have to assume that the reason for this is because of how lengthy his most famous films are, and how difficult it is to find any copies of them. La Roue may not have anywhere near the reputation of Napoleon, but it is surely an incredible achievement of epic storytelling in silent film, miles ahead of what so many others were attempting to do with this new medium in 1923.

Gance is clearly well-read when it comes to the classics, drawing on quotes from such towering literary figures as Sophocles, Rudyard Kipling, and D’Annunzio to ground La Roue in archetypes and symbols. The biggest influence is evident though in the structure of the meta-narrative, which tells the story of a father who adopts an orphan girl, and then follows their relationship into her adulthood. Save for some key deviations, this is the skeleton of Les Miserables, and indeed Gance stated that he wished to be known as “the Victor Hugo of the screen.”

An epic tale of family and love across decades of these characters’ lives – Victor Hugo aspirations.

Though he is not part of the Soviet montage movement taking place around the same time, Gance displays a keen awareness over the power of intercutting, montage, and rhythm in his editing. The opening train crash is a thrilling explosion of images – two trains colliding, passengers crawling out windows, plumes of smoke rising over the chaos, a third train heading towards the wreckage, and among it all, the red-tinted hand of a small girl reaching out of the rubble. Later montages build to rapid-fire climaxes, in which images are thrown at us so quickly that our only response is to merge them into a singular, frantic emotional response. But here, Gance lets us breathe – our protagonist, a railroad engineer by the name of Sisif, successfully saves the day, and takes in a young girl, Norma, whose mother died in the accident.

This is two years before Sergei Eisenstein revolutionised montage editing with Battleship Potemkin – Gance’s magnificent opening set piece of the train crash has all the tension, pace, and action of the famous Odessa Steps sequence.

This half hour of setup is merely the prologue. What follows is a story in four parts, the first of which jumps forward approximately twenty years in the lives of this father and daughter. Sisif also has a biological son, Elie, who believes alongside Norma that the two are siblings. When Sisif develops uncomfortable feelings towards his surrogate daughter, this once beautiful family starts to fall apart, and she is eventually married off to a wealthy aristocrat, Hersan.

It is important to note how inventive Gance is with his camera movement here, four years before F.W. Murnau’s huge innovation in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Gance isn’t rigging up any complex systems for his tracking shots, but instead he makes the most of the vehicles available to him, planting the camera on top of trains, cars, and boats. The effect is dynamic, framing characters in static foregrounds while their backgrounds speed by, and at other times simply letting the beauty of his moving landscapes dominate our attention. At one point Gance captures a sunset across a lake, and in tinting the film with a rich tangerine colour he lets us soak in its warm hues.

La Roue reaches its visual peak at the arrival of Part 3, which sees a dejected, ailing Sisif retreat to the French alps with Elie. Though Gance’s compositions of trains and railways in the first half are attractive, they don’t touch the mountainous vistas that we get here. The snow-capped peaks shrouded in clouds rise up as backdrops to Sisif’s new reclusive life, through which he relearns humility and fatherly love. But we don’t forget the terror of the mountains too easily, as its harsh, unforgiving nature proves to be the literal downfall of Elie. For all its healing beauty, opening old wounds in this environment can have devastating consequences.

Wonderful mountainscapes all through the second half of La Roue.

Gance is always sure to make the avant-garde choice at the most impactful moments, as Sisif’s mournful ride home on his cable car is represented by negative film, with flashes of Elie’s broken body interspersed throughout. His grief and shame bleeds through every single stylistic choice, especially in the use of double exposure to reveal the tangibility of his perverse obsession over Norma. When he stands outside her bedroom door at night, he can almost see through to its other side. When she disappears from his life, a phantasmic memory of her playing manifests over an empty swing set. This technique effectively represents the imprint of Sisif’s mind on reality, illuminating a hunger for what he knows he can never have.

It isn’t an easy narrative to sit through, but Gance is right alongside us in realising just how uncomfortable this father-daughter relationship is. Both Sisif and Elie recognise that their adoration of Norma is closer to an “infection” than love, and the literary passages that appear in intertitles especially hammer home the twisted nature of Sisif’s inner conflict.

“You look at her and you smile. And as you smile, an atrocious thought comes to mind, against which your entire being shudders with repugnance.” D’Annunzio

Avant-garde uses of multiple exposure.

It is the tangle of relationships between Sisif, Norma, Elie, and Hersan that propel all 7 hours of this, and although there is certainly excess narrative here that could be cut out, it isn’t nearly as much as one would expect from looking at the run time. It is hard to imagine which specific plot points might be missing from the shorter versions, though some individual scenes would benefit from some trimming.

What gives La Roue such excellent form even more than its narrative is its central metaphor, right there in the title – the Wheel. It is a rare scene that doesn’t recall this motif, as Gance is sure to consistently evoke its symbolism in literary passages, cutaways to train wheels, and even in the subtle use of iris shots to frame circular objects. The Wheel represents the natural rhythms of life, spinning for all eternity, seeing new generations grow up and replace the older ones.

Not exactly subtle, but a formally robust motif – the ever-spinning wheel of life.

As a railroad engineer, Sisif is literally responsible for keeping the Wheel moving, and yet his latent lust after Norma is a subconscious attempt to buck it. He strongly associates his daughter with his train, and his destruction of it coincides with his decision to cut off Norma completely. But even at Sisif’s lowest, the Wheel keeps turning, as we see in each chapter break.

“And it is said that they themselves cannot free themselves of the Wheel.” Rudyard Kipling

It is only when the natural father-daughter relationship between Sisif and Norma is restored in all its purity that they allow themselves to be swept back up in life’s natural motions. High up in the French alps, Norma joins in the “Dance of the Wheel” at a festival, spinning around in a circle with the rest of the villagers. A now-blind Sisif sits in front of a window in his house, picturing the celebration taking place outside his home. While Norma is prolonging these cycles, Sisif quietly passes away, stepping off the circular journey that brought him so much pain and joy.

Though he is experimenting with a relatively new art form, Abel Gance’s absolute devotion to paying tribute to his literary idols endows La Roue with a great deal of historical weight. It is a thrilling, disturbing, and moving piece of epic cinematic poetry, drawing on the works of great writers to craft a narrative with as much to say about life, obsession, guilt, love, and death as any of its influences. It stands incredibly tall as a breath-taking example of what silent film can achieve, especially when the shackles of conventional filmmaking are broken to make way for experimental editing, camera movement, and visual compositions.

As Sisif passes away, Norma joins the Dance of the Wheel.

La Roue is currently unavailable to watch in Australia.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Robert Wiene | 1hr 15min | Spoiler Warning

For what becomes such a violently expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari opens rather softly with the introduction of Francis, our narrator, sitting in a garden. We observe as a woman dressed in white glides by like an ethereal spectre, mysteriously vacant in her expression. He tells us that this is Jane, his lover, and from there he unravels the tragic tale which bound them together. 

Suddenly, we find ourselves flashing back to a warped, sinister village sitting upon a sloping hill, its buildings and streets made up of dark, twisted shapes and shadows splashed all across its scenery. Still in the early days of cinema, Wiene takes inspiration from George Méliès himself in his breath-taking matte paintings, while simultaneously lifting the artistic use of such backdrops to a whole new level in their gothic imagery. One may convince themselves that this use of painted backgrounds brings a certain flatness to these shots, and yet they would quickly find themselves lost for words when they witness characters move from the foreground to the background of the cluttered mise-en-scène, revealing the true depth of such images. At the town fair where spinning carousels jut out at strange angles and oddballs congregate to share their eccentric acts, Wiene creates the look of a demented, Edvard Munch-like painting brought horrifically to life.

Maddening production design, always looking as if it is on the brink of collapse.
Painted shadows and warped proportions, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a nightmare manifested.

It is also at this carnival where Francis first encounters the mysterious travelling showman Dr Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist – that is, a sleepwalking man who is under his master’s control. Inspired by the story of an 18th-century mystic who used a somnambulist to commit murders, the asylum director turned madman absorbs himself in his newfound power, and begins using Cesare to carry out his own homicides. 

Tim Burton would pick up on this terrifying character design and keep running with it many decades later.

Or at least, so it would seem, as in one final twist we discover that Francis’ first-person recount is not as reliable as we initially suspected, with him being an asylum inmate who has incorporated his fellow patients into his tale. His imagined lover, Jane, is a deluded patient, and Cesare, the murderous somnambulist, is a quiet, gentle man. As it turns out, Dr Caligari is indeed an asylum director, and yet even he is far from the evil villain Francis perceives him to be. On this final note of ambiguity, Wiene leaves us to ponder what sort of terrors Francis has experienced that have given birth to such distorted refractions of reality. 

In his structure of flashbacks within flashbacks, Wiene filters reality through the eyes of madness, letting the narrative grow a little more unhinged with each progressive jump until, at its deepest point, we reach Dr Caligari’s immersion into a European legend. The film is deeply concerned with the tales we tell ourselves to make sense of our environment, but on a broader scope it is looking into the grand narratives that cultures pass down to make sense of their own national identities. In repurposing the tradition of sharing legends, Wiene didactically frightens viewers away from the evil actions carried out by those wielding immense psychological power, rather than inspiring them with tales of heroism and bravery.

Werner Krauss is frighteningly unhinged as the madman Dr. Caligari, delivering one of the great performances of the silent era.

As a Jewish filmmaker who struggled with the oppression of a government looking to gag its boundary-pushing artists, and who would flee Nazi Germany little over a decade later, Wiene’s cinematic rebellion is evident, and yet there is also a reflection of his own nightmarish disorientation here. From the clerk who sits in an unusually high, Dr Seuss-like chair, to the heavy, dark makeup dabbed around Cesare’s tired eyes, everything about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari appears a few dream layers removed from reality. There are sick, twisted minds somewhere polluting the goodness of Francis’ world, but in Wiene’s delirious evocation of such invasive, omnipresent evil, he forces upon us the most unsettling horror of all: the uncertainty of where this evil truly comes from, and the disturbing consideration that it may come from within.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau | 1hr 34min

Nosferatu isn’t as loaded with disturbing expressionist images as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but it’s the slow-burn narrative tension along with F.W. Murnau’s astounding silhouette and shadow work that puts it up among the best of the silent era. Max Schreck plays the titular vampire as a freakish rat-like creature, a true silent gothic monster to rival the madman Dr Caligari. Gaunt-faced, wide-eyed, hunched over, his mere profile strikes a terrifying image that has persisted in our collective consciousness for almost a century.

Shadows and dreams are woven through the narrative as a motif, both visually and as a device to describe the being himself.

“Beware that his shadow does not engulf you like a daemonic nightmare.”

Gaunt-faced, wide-eyed, hunched over. Max Schreck delivers a grotesque, physical performance, and Nosferatu is just as much an accomplishment for him as it is for Murnau.

Throughout the film we see people sleepwalking, having surreal visions, and going mad, painting Nosferatu out as a monster who doesn’t just threaten his victims physically but psychologically as well. He is the “daemonic nightmare” that they all fear, exerting control over the minds of others like a lurking threat finally rising from some repressed trauma. Though he sleeps his eyes remain open, constantly alert. He is not at the mercy of his subconscious like the rest of us – he is the subconscious. Shadows and nightmares are thus tied together, not just as places where Nosferatu dwells, but where the very fear of what he represents spreads.

Though he brings death in his wake like the traditional Dracula story, Nosferatu himself takes on more animalistic than corpse-like qualities. Heavy-handed metaphors abound in these comparisons, though the lack of subtlety only reinforces the overwhelmingly pervasive fear that seems to spread like an infectious sickness. Indeed, Nosferatu brings pestilence with him, both through the diseased rats which seem to materialise wherever he goes and through his penchant for blood-sucking.

We step outside the narrative at times to join scientists in their study of vampirism, drawing similarities to carnivorous predators like the Venus fly trap or microscopic organisms which are “transparent and ethereal, little more than a phantom.” Knock observes a spider at one point, wrapping an insect in its web to be devoured later, considering its own vampiristic qualities. Yet even as these comparisons to the plant and animal kingdoms are made, Nosferatu still isn’t accepted among them. At the mere mention of his name, hyenas and horses run for the hills. He is a depraved mutation of humanity, both part of the natural order and an abomination to it.

This then brings us back to his representation of the human subconscious – something that is entirely natural, yet widely feared for what disturbing terrors it may be hiding. The tension as his ship docks in the harbour is on another level, as this repressed “other” is nearing our main heroes. Upon discovering Ellen he is intent upon claiming her as his victim, his shadow creeping up staircases and around corners, eventually being cast across her own figure. His clawed hand leads in front of him, and upon reaching her chest it crushes her heart. The darkness, the repressed subconscious, the mental sickness, whatever it is, has finally come to claim our innocent heroine.

No discussion of Nosferatu is complete without mentioning this terrifying shot. The peak of German Expressionism, and an immortal image.

If the shadow is the subconscious, then light must be the conscious mind, and by shining it upon the shadow the threat disappears. Nosferatu is only powerful when hidden in the darkness, and by bringing him into the daylight where he can be seen for what he is, he is finally defeated.

“Obliterated by the triumphant rays of the living sun, the Great Death came to an end, and the shadow of the deathbird was gone…”

Much like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu thus becomes a tale of repressed depravity and its bubbling to the surface of society, feeding off people’s fear and destroying them in the process. Only by confronting the fear directly and without inhibition can humanity stand some chance against their own hidden evils. Some sequences of Nosferatu appear somewhat goofy by modern standards, but those aren’t what stick in the end. It is the stark shadows, the warped, pale face, and the deformed shape of Nosferatu’s being that persists, planting itself in our own subconscious and growing like some mutated carnivorous plant.

Poetic archetypes and justice. Darkness personified, defeated by the light.

Nosferatu is in the public domain and available on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.