French cinema in the 1920’s was an experimental cauldron fueled by a desire to elevate film into the art world. A priority was also established to combat the influx of films from the United States. The economy of post war France was poor and France was hit again at the end of the 1920’s by the Great Depression. The period still saw incredible advancement through poetic realism, impressionism, and surrealism. The experimental ambition of the many filmmakers of the day helped push film in new directions and with new purpose.
Post War Economy
The oldest film studios and production companies, Gaumont and Société Pathé Frères, or Pathé!, saw immense rise in the early part of the preceding decade followed by a quick shift at the end of the decade. These production companies were impacted by the war effort in the late 1910’s. World War I had a significant impact on the film industry in France, resulting in less capital for film production, less filmmakers and stars, and a smaller audience. Significant measures were taken to rebuild France after the war and by 1925 many of those efforts were completed. The period of stability was sandwiched in between the rebuilding period of the war and the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s.
Films were still being made though and followed the same trend as around the world. Films were getting longer and by the end of the 1920’s the invent of sound films would take over. The United States film industry filled the gap created from World War I. The influx was so great that France installed an import quota of 1:7; meaning for every seven foreign films imported to France, one French film was to be produced and shown in French Cinemas.1
Impressionism and Early Avant-garde Filmmaking
Early film saw extensive experimentation throughout the early years. Filmmakers from various backgrounds and from around the world contributed to the evolving craft of early film making. In the beginning, films were typically not much more than stage plays that had the ability to use any setting as the background. Experimentation resulted in the use of filters, double exposures, unique camera placement and movement through scenes, unique locations, the ability to use close-ups and focus in a way that could not be done on stage.
With all of that said, film was generally not accepted as art form or regarded in the same way as theater, especially to more high brow audiences. By the 1920’s, this began to shift. More filmmakers were having success with films that focused less on fluid narratives and commercial conventions. In France, some of these filmmakers were part of the dadaist or surrealist movements and used concepts from their movement as a framework for their films.
Before Surrealism took off in the late 1920’s, filmmakers were finding success with impressionism. These films transitioned away from conventional commercial structures, like those seen in the United States, and instead focused on a more emotional agenda. Filmmakers like Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, and Marcel L’Herbier were a few filmmakers that found success with this structure. Their editing style was faster and more disjointed than contemporary conventions, but not to the extreme of surrealism. The narratives in impressionism were still structured in a manner that maintained clarity. The experimentation was still bound by a cohesive end product.
Others pushed more against the contemporary conventions of filmmaking and that of the impressionists. Filmmakers like René Clair, Germain Dulac, and Luis Buñuel took the odd and disjointed to new heights. Examples of these films are: Entr’acte (1924), La Coquille et le clergyman (1928), and Un Chien Andalou (1929). Their form and structure were stripped of convention and replaced with non-sequitur and jarring editing, with Un Chien Andalou as an extreme example.
I found it difficult to identify stars of 1920’s French Cinema. The individuals below are simply a couple that I came across that had performances that stood out. The only performer that I repeatedly came across was Pierre Batcheff, who happened to be in many of the prominent films of the decade. Many directors were making a name for themselves and they were easier to find than specific actors. This is significantly different than the stardom surrounding both actors and directors in the United States.
Batcheff was born in China and of Russian descent. His family settled in Switzerland when World War I broke out and he began to act in order to bring in money. He moved to Paris in 1921 to become a theater actor and by 1923 he entered the film industry. He worked with prominent and impressionist and surrealist filmmakers like, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier, Abel Gance, and Luis Buñuel, to name a few.
His most memorable roles are likely as General Hoche in Abel Gances’ 1927 epic, Napoléon, and in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s avant-garde film, Un Chien Andalou.
He quickly rose in popularity throughout the 1920’s as part of the shift from leading men being in their forties, to the new generation, jeanues premiers. The new generation would feature the athletic built romantic style character to the film lead instead of the melancholy.2
Unfortunately, Batcheff struggled with drugs and died in 1932 of an overdose. His death came just one day before he was set to sign a contract to produce and direct his first film, Amour…Amour…
Germaine Lebas (a.k.a. Nadia Sibirskaïa)
Nadia’s stardom was likely at its height in the 1930’s. However, I really enjoyed her performance in the 1926 short film Menilmontant. Her husband, Dimitri Kirsanoff, directed many of her early films. Their films were avant-garde and typically focused on love, sorrow, and anguish.
Catelain’s story is closely linked with that of director Marcel L’Herbier. Catelain starred in L’Herbier’s early films, Le Torrent, L’Homme du large, El Dorado, Don Juan et Faust, L’Inhumaine, and Le Vertige.
Catelain was another member of the new generation of French film actors, jeanes premier, along side Pierre Batcheff. His success carried him into and through the 1920’s. He even made the switch to sound films in the 1930’s.
Directors & Filmmakers
Filmmakers at this time were generally in three main categories: conventional narrative structure, impressionist, or surrealist. The more traditional filmmakers were Jacques Feyder and Jean Vigo. Although they also stepped into the emerging counterculture of impressionism. The primary impressionist filmmakers, however, were Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier, and Louis Delluc. The filmmakers that took impressionism further, into surrealist avant-garde territory were, René Clair, Germain Dulac, Marcel Duchamp, Luis Buñuel, and Jean Renoir, to name a few.
All of these filmmakers created films that had a clear difference in style from films made in the United States. They all trended towards incorporating emotion into more than just acting behind a traditional narrative. Their films as a whole became one organism telling a story.
Alice Guy-Blaché was a film making pioneer. She was the first female director, with her film La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of Cabbages) in 1896. Blaché is also credited as one of the first to create a film with a narrative.
She started in the industry by working for a camera manufacturing company that would later be acquired and converted into Gaumont. Gaumont became one of the first film production companies and is currently the oldest.
Alice did not direct many films in the 1920’s, however, she was an integral part of Gaumont and involved in over 700 films in her career.
Abel Gance was a major figure in early French film and a part of the French Impressionism class of filmmakers. His films tended to be epics and noteworthy for their innovative camera work and editing. The grand scale of his films was highlighted by unique and dynamic camera shots that captured the gravitas of large scenes and energy of fast paced scenes. Examples include, his ability to incorporate tracking shots, hand-held, POV, shots, even swinging cameras on ropes like a pendulum. This combined with thoughtful and at times extremely fast editing, made the films stand out amongst other contemporary films.
Abel Gance made a big splash with his 1919 film, J’Accuse. A film made famous for its anti war focus and driven by Gance’s personal experience and loss in the war.
La Roue (1923)
Gance’s next film, La Roue, or The Wheel, came out in 1923. The film follows Norma, an orphan (Ivy Close), who is picked up as a child by railroad engineer, Sisif (Séverin-Mars) and raised as his daughter. Sisif raises Norma alongside his son, Elie (Gabriel de Gravone). The plot turns into a tragic love story.
Many features of La Roue are characteristic of what would become common place in Gance’s films. The wide landscape shots, careful use of light & contrast, and dynamic camera work and editing.
La Roue was a revolutionary film at the time for the technical innovations from Gance, notably his editing. In the scene below it is easy to see how the fast editing heightens the suspense and emotional intensity behind the scene. It would have been more common for the camera to stay on Elie and Norma only and for longer periods of time before cutting back and forth, even in a scene of this nature. Gance takes the intensity to a new level in the way in which he edited this scene.
Abel Gance’s next feature film was Napoléon, released in 1927. Considered by some to be one of the greatest films of the silent era. At over five hours long, Napoléon takes us on a journey through the life of Napoleon Bonaparte from childhood to Emperor of France. It begins by taking us to the military school where Napoléon fights for respect and cuts his teeth in the playground snowball battleground. The film continues through Napoléon’s story through the lens of national propaganda.
Gance applied his existing techniques behind the camera and in the editing room in the making of Napoléon. He created memorable scenes where the camera moves through the scene in a three dimensional manner. A-typical to the static or simple tracking shots of contemporary filmmaking. Several point of view (POV) shots are used to allow the camera to take the place of Napoléon as he moves through a scene. In another memorable scene, a power struggle within the National Assembly is superimposed over a shot of Napoléon’s boat battling a storm in the ocean. Gance accomplished this by tying cameras to ropes and swinging them through the National Assembly set.
The placement and movement of the camera was not the only innovation that Gance brought to Napoléon. The final act of Napoléon features “polyvision”, a term coined by French film critic Émile Vuillermoz specifically for Napoléon. Gance set up three projectors, positioned in such a way that they could display his grand scale army. The sequences are a mixture of montage and an attempt to make the scene wider. People and horses move through one side of the frame on one projector and into frame for the adjacent projector. While not seamless, it is incredible to see a shot like this work.
Napoléon – Triptych sequence
Gance’s influence on contemporary filmmakers was significant. Although, with the advent of sound, silent films came to an abrupt halt and Napoléon marked the end of silent film epics. Gance did not have a smooth transition into the world of sound film, making the 1920’s Gance’s most prosperous decade.
Epstein’s story begins in Warsaw, where he was born in 1897. He moved to Switzerland in 1908 and spent his youth there until moving on to medical school in Lyon, France. In 1921, Epstein published La poésie d’aujourd’hui, a literary examination of contemporary French poetic modernism.
Epstein began to rise in fame after the release of La poésie d’aujourd’hui. His involvement in filmmaking began when moved to Paris. Epstein, like many other French filmmakers of the time, made films that challenged the styles of traditional commercial films that were coming out of the United States. The films they made focused more on film as an art form and less on capturing a conventional narrative. photogénie was the term that Epstein used to help define this general concept. This term was not invented by Epstein, however he was a prominent developer of its definition as it related to film.
The translation of photogénie is photogenic. By definition, someone who looks attractive in photographs or in film. French Impressionists appropriated the term to describe their framework of filmmaking. Photogénie then became a method of crafting a film with meaning and purpose. Robert Farmer describes this elloquently,
Photogénie is a complex theoretical concept that works in a number of ways. At its heart, photogénie seeks the essence of cinema. It is an argument for the importance of cinematic specificity, and we can mark out two ways in which the concept operates: the cultural and the aesthetic. In the cultural sense it proposes to legitimise the medium of film, arguing that film can transcend its photochemical/mechanical base, and, in the right hands, become art.
Within this cultural sense it also offers ways of marking out those filmmakers who are artists from those who are not, prefiguring the later politique des auteurs division between auteurs and metteurs-en-scène. In addition to dividing filmmakers, photogénie also divides audiences, separating those who can see and appreciate the art of film from those who cannot. In the aesthetic sense we see photogénie variously associated with transformation, expression, the close-up, movement, temporality, rhythm, and the augmentation of the senses.3
La Chute de la Masion Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) – 1928
Epstein’s most renowned and noteworthy film is La Chute de la Masion Usher. A film based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. A gothic horror story that Epstein altered to film, with the help of Luis Buñuel.
The film follows a man, Allan, who is summoned to accompany is friend, Rodrick Usher, in his mansion. Upon arrival, Allan discovers that the mansion is surrounded by marshes that appear to be entrenched in a curse that clouds the land. He also discovers that Rodrick is obsessed with painting his dying wife, Madeline. Madeline then dies shortly after Allan’s arrival. Upon her death, Madeline is taken to the crypt for burial. Her funeral procession is captured through a sequence comprised of slow tracking shots, superimposed shots, close ups, and quick editing. Rodrick falls apart after the death of Madeline, however, she is not dead. Madeline is able to free herself from the grave and return to the mansion. As she returns to Rodrick, a storm begins to assault the mansion until the house falls.
Epstein crafted a film that stands with other horror films as Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. Epstein currated an aesthetic that excellently captures Poe’s atmosphere and mood. The landscape shots are misty and ethereal, the varying shot distances and constantly moving camera position create a disorienting and general uneasiness that all contribute to that aesthetic.
Before Bunuel’s famous collaboration with surrealist, Salvador Dali, that resulted in Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel studied under Jean Epstein. Like Epstein, Luis Buñuel was not interested in making films that conformed to conventional form. He preferred films that prioritized the visual experience of the film over the plot. In 1926, he began to learn under Jean Epstein. He would work on two projects with Epstein, Mauprat and La Chute de la Masion Usher. He would go his separate ways after La Chute de la Masion Usher and push the boundaries beyond French Impressionists into the land of surrealism.
Luis Buñuel teamed up with Salvador Dali to create the famously unusual surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalou. The film is purposefully devoid of continuity and narrative. That in and of itself made it unusual for the time, however, it also starred Pierre Batcheff. Batcheff was at the height of his career when he starred in this film and one of France’s top movie stars.
The film has become well known for disturbing sequences involving bugs and a young woman getting her eye cut open. However, there are more scenes than those that stand out. A few more examples are, someone getting hit by a car and a young man sexually assaulting a young woman. In the latter, the woman becomes cornered by the young man in her apartment. However, the man is slowed down once he picks up two ropes that are attached to grand pianos that are carrying dead donkeys and two priests. The film is essentially a series of non-sequiturs that could possibly be connected by general themes like lust, anxiety, desire, etc… Although, the amount of effort that went in to making sequences this unexpected and outlandish could also suggest that they went out of their way to ensure there was no common thread.
The film is commonly regarded as the first surrealist film. However, others consider Germaine Dulac’s, La Coquille et le clergyman (1928) to be the first. Her film was overshadowed by the release of and response to Un Chien Andalou.
Jacques Feyder, a belgium born actor turned director, achieved great success with his style categorized as poetic realism. He began working for Gaumont before World War I, but was enlisted and faught in the war. When he came back, he established himself quickly established himself with films like: L’Atlantide (1921), Crainquebille (1922), and Visages d’enfants (1923/25).
L’Atlantide was noteworthy due to his insistence that the film be made on location. The unprecedented costs, of over 2 million francs, made this a risky endeavor. However, the film was a huge success. It would be the first of many adaptations of Pierre Benoit’s novel of the same name.
Feyder’s career took a short detour when he took a job for Vita Films in 1923. He did not have as much success in the Vienna based film company and moved back to France. He finished out the 1920’s in France with Gribiche (1926), Carmen (1926), Thérèse Raquin (1928), and Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). His continued success with these films landed him a job at MGM. By the end of 1929, Feyder was in the US and directing Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929).
Germain Dulac’s career began as a writer for, La Fronde. She was exposed to the film industry by friend and actor, Stacia Napierkowska. Germain Dulac became interested i the industry after traveling with Napierkowska through Italy.
Upon her return she decided to start her own film company, D.H. Films, with fellow writer Irène Hillel-Erlanger. The duo went on to make several films with Dulac as the director and Erlanger as the writer.
In 1920, Dulac teamed up with Louis Delluc to make Fête espagnole (1920). A lost film that is credited as a major impressionist film. A few years later she would release La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923). A film that follows a lonely wife in a loveless marriage. Her husband habitually jokes about shooting himself while acting it out with an unloaded gun. She attempts to set himself up to kill himself by loading the gun. However, he jokingly shoots at her with the live rounds. He misses and they “reconcile”, a resolution that seems to resonate with the husband and not the wife.
La Coquille et Le Clergyman (1928)
Dulac’s pre-surrealism film, La Coquille et Le Clergyman, is one of, if not the, first surrealist French film. It was overshadowed at the time by Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. The disjointed narrative, dream-like sequences, slow motion, and unrelated sequences spliced together, unusual imagery, all fit the mold of surrealist film.
The film loosely follows a priests lustful desires for a general’s wife. The film takes the form of vignettes of emotional states or actions being taken by the priest. The sequences either represent or follow his desires to strangle the general, imagining the wife, following them, or pondering his own emotional state.
La Coquille et Le Clergyman does not have the vivid imagery that Un Chien Andalou exhibits, i.e. a man pulling grand piano’s with dead donkeys, but does have the raw expression of emotion translated to film.
Marcel L’Herbier was a part of the impressionist filmmakers of 1920’s France. He, like the other impressionists, prioritized the emotion behind the story over the story itself. This led to an editing style that wove scene transitions and atmospheric shots together into the narrative. Examples of these transitions are: dissolves, shots that spin into the next one, cross fades, etc…
L’Herbier saw almost immediate success after returning from the war front. Some of these early films were, Le Carnaval des vérités (1920), L’Homme du large (1920), El Dorado (1921), and Don Juan et Faust (1922). His films resonated with French audiences and made him a fan favorite after three years of making films.
L’Herbier started his own film company, Cinégraphic, in 1922. This was primarily driven by his film Don Juan et Faust going over budget and causing Gaumont to push back on production. His first project under his new company was Resurrection (1923). However, he contracted typhoid and the film was left unfinished.
L’Herbier’s bout of Typhoid resulted in his first film under his new company going unfinished. A year later he was approached by Georgette Leblanc-Maeterlinck, a popular opera singer, to collaborate on a film together. That film would ultimately turn into L’Inhumaine.
L’erbier’s goal was to work with several members of the art world, including architects, clothing designers, dancers, and others, to create a multilayered collaboration. The result did not hit the mark with contemporary audiences and L’Inhumaine was a commercial failure upon its release. While the film was not a commercial success, it did still inject innovation into the film world. Not only was the collaboration novel, but L’Herbier’s experimental style resulted in an ending that undoubtedly influenced Fritz Lang and his film Metropolis.
Louis Delluc was an early impressionist filmmaker with roots in screenwriting and in literary and film criticism. He was married to film actress, Ève Francis, and collaborated with other impressionsist filmmakers like Jean Epstein and Germaine Dulac.
Delluc made seven films from 1920 – 1924, before contracting pneumonia and dying only weeks later. His seven films were: Fumée noire (1920), Le Silence (1920), Le Chemin d’Ernoa (1920), Fièvre (1921), Le Tonnerre (1921), La Femme de nulle part (1922), and L’Inondation (1924).
Delluc’s films primarily incorporated love triangles, memories of lost love, and loneliness. His films appeared to get progressively more impressionistic with each film. However, I was only able to find footage a few of his films.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) is one of the most noteworthy films to come out of France in the 1920’s. The film’s creator, Carl Theodor Dreyer, was, however, not French. The Danish filmmaker left Denmark for France and his first French product was La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
The film has become remembered for its extreme close-ups, intense emotional performance from lead actress, Maria Falconetti, and memorializing the recent sainthood of Joan of Arc. The film was a critical success, however it did not do well at the box office and the resulting failure halted Dreyer’s film career for years.
1 – L’Estrange Fawcett: Die Welt des Films. Amalthea-Verlag, Zürich, Leipzig, Wien 1928, p. 149 (German translation of Fawcett’s book of 1928: Film, Facts and Forecasts)
2 – Powrie, Phil, and Rebillard Éric. Pierre Batcheff and Stardom in 1920s French Cinema. Edinburgh University Press, 2009.