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.

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.