gyIuPd5E.jpg-large.jpegBy far the most striking film I have seen in the last year was the restoration of Abel Gance’s epic 1927 Napoleon. Running at just over five-and-a-half hours (although in early screenings the film apparently ran to around nine hours), it is an example of the level of exuberant formal experimentation and stylistic refinement achieved by European directors before the introduction of synchronised sound film in the late 1920s forced filmmakers to adopt a far less dynamic aesthetic. Given its date, the film has a somewhat troubling political message. It is a stirringly nationalistic account of French history that reveres Napoleon as not just a brilliant military strategist, but a charismatic saviour of the nation who embodies the spirit of the Revolution (and Albert Dieudonne’s fascinating performance as Napoleon is suitably intense). In the present moment when fascism, nationalism and xenophobia are once again on the rise across Europe, and populist demagogues are becoming increasingly powerful, the re-released film takes on a new and disturbing urgency.

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However, the most arresting and celebrated aspect of the film is its frenetic, varied style, which includes multiple exposures, super-fast montage editing, rich tinting, split-screen effects, and an extraordinary final battle sequence that expands to fill three screens, an innovative device that Gance termed ‘polyvision’. It remains breathtakingly spectacular, even when viewed alongside contemporary blockbuster effects movies. Throughout the film the camera is wildly mobile as Gance mounts it on sledges, horses, carts, cars, boats, pulleys and a pendulum, and even, with ironic aptness, a guillotine. This is no stylistically conservative heritage film, offering us picturesque, static views of the past; History, in Gance’s film, is depicted as an interval of dynamic, chaotic exciting instability and violence. At one point, while shooting an uprising in Corsica for the first part of the film, in order to produce a further variation on the mobile shot, the film-makers also used a bicycle as a dolly, with the camera-man sitting astride the bicycle and facing backwards, the camera strapped to the frame for stability while crew members pushed him along the street in front of the rampaging crowd.

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Gance is not alone in experimenting with the thrilling narrative possibilities of camera mobility. Cinema in the 1920s is full of examples of films that explore the medium’s capacity to produce the illusion of physical movement. Gance’s German counterpart, Friedrich Murnau, for example, was preoccupied with achieving what he termed the ‘unchained camera effect’, working with camera operator Karl Freund to develop new techniques that would allow the camera to plunge and soar freely. As historian Lotte Eisner records, this experimentation culminated with his 1924 film The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)  in which ‘the camera was taken from the trolley and put on a crane, or attached to Freund’s chest while he rode a bicycle, and so on’ (Eisner 1973: 75). However, the theme of this current project is the exploration of the historical relationship between the socially and culturally revolutionary technologies of the film camera and the bicycle, and so it couldn’t be more appropriate that they intersect so directly, albeit briefly, in the production of Gance’s singular revolutionary film.

Reference:

Lotte H. Eisner (1973) Murnau (London: Secker and Warburg)

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