Audrey Kupferberg: L’Argent And Fragment Of An Empire
Two films from the late 1920s, the end of the silent era – which is considered by many to be the height of silent filmmaking -- have been restored and now are available for home viewing through streaming, DVD, and Blu-ray. The finest of silent films constitute a poetry branch of motion pictures. The artfulness of these films takes its audience beyond storytelling. By the mid-late 1920s, moving camerawork – the unchained cameras – provided thrilling moments of drama, confusion, automotive and technological activity, modernity, and even inner workings of mental and emotional processes. Editing is fast-moving and clever.
L’Argent, a French film from 1928, was produced and directed by Marcel L‘Herbier. While not a lot is mentioned about L’Herbier these days, he certainly had his day, and was and possibly still is considered by historians to be one of the greatest directors working in France in the 1920s through the ‘40s. L’Argent means “money,” and this movie tells a story that could be set in 2019. It introduces us to bankers and investors who place money before all human values. These people are greedy and lust for all they desire through the belief that a person can buy anything and anyone with money.
The story of L’Argent may tell a 21st century tale, but it actually is based on a work by Emile Zola. The original story told of greed and lust in the 1860s, but the filmmakers felt that its properties suited the events and values of the 1920s. Briefly, it is the story of a millionaire who has made a bad investment. In order to make back his money, he deceives a heroic flyer into undertaking a risky endeavor, and then seduces this man’s weak-minded young wife.
The international cast of L’Argent is dazzling. Those who are fans of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis will recognize Brigitte Helm as the Baroness. In the Lang sci-fi classic, Helm plays the robot woman. Here, just one year later, she raves once again with a crazed catlike look in her eyes and overly zealous body movements. It’s an over-the-top performance that borders on ludicrous at times. The other cast member from Metropolis is Alfred Abel, a much-respected actor known for his understated performances. French actor Pierre Alcover has the most screen time, and he is quite good.
One of my favorite French actors of the 20th Century, Jules Berry, slips in and out of this film. He is best remembered for his role as a villain in Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange and as the devil in Marcel Carne’s Les Visiteurs du Soir. On our honeymoon, while in Paris, Rob and I spotted a week-long Jules Berry film festival at a Left Bank theater, and we were hooked! Who needs to visit the Eiffel Tower when you could sit through film after film of this fabulous character actor, even with no English subtitles?
L’Argent has quite a powerful message for today’s audiences. Lobster Films and Flicker Alley have restored and released this film with first-rate extras.
Flicker Alley as well as Eyefilmmuseum, Gosfilmofund, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are responsible for the digital restoration and release of Fragment of An Empire, a film by Soviet director Fridrikh Ermler, a shtetl Jew who, after the Russian Revolution, was able to become one of the USSR’s most political filmmakers. This is Ermler’s only film known outside of Russia. It’s a blend of Soviet realism and montage and method acting. The lead actor is Fiodor Nikitin, considered by critics to be the best actor in the USSR during the 1920s. He plays a shell-shocked soldier of the Revolution who has amnesia. Ten years later, he regains his memory and heads back to his hometown of St. Petersburg.
Fragment of an Empire is important not so much for the story it tells, but for the manner in which Ermler presents the story. This is stylized 1920s Soviet filmmaking at its creative best.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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