CINEMA & THE RELIGION OF ART
The first truth involves knowing that there isn’t one.
The second truth involves creating one.
The third truth involves blindly accepting that which you create.
And Art starts there!
(Gance 1930: 86)
Abel Gance (1889 – 1981) was responsible for some of the most thrillingly outlandish films of the silent era. The combined lengths of J’accuse! (1919) and La Roue (1922) amounted to thirteen hours of screen time, whilst the longest version of Napoléon, vu par Abel Gance (1927) lasted nine hours. Gance’s dubious achievement of having far exceeded both proscribed budget and contracted length for these films was offset by their extraordinary success during the 1920s. European cinema could produce nothing to match the international popularity of J’accuse, the revolutionary formal experimentation of La Roue was recognized as a pivotal moment in the development of filmic language, and even those who baulked at the titanic scale of Napoléon couldn’t fail to applaud the power of its technical invention and visual imagination. Though severe restrictions were placed on Gance’s creativity after his disastrous first sound film, La Fin du Monde (1930), he never ceased to develop grandiose projects – forever retaining his obsession with the role of cinema in human progress. In this article, I will argue that the driving force behind Gance’s art came from his religious faith in the primacy of the cinematic experience for collective transformation. I aim to explore the social ambition behind Gance’s artistic ideology and its expression in his major film projects from the 1910s through to the 1940s.
‘La musique de la lumière’: towards a new visual language
After his nascent years as a writer for the theatre, Gance became involved with the film industry as an actor and scenarist around 1910 and directed his first film two years later. He was immediately spellbound by cinema and declared that it would become a new international ‘faith’ (Gance 1912: 10). Gance’s religious enthusiasm for filmmaking was the culmination of the artistic ambitions he had nurtured throughout his youth. He had long believed that the ideal art-form would be a kind of ‘mad, emerald lie’ that was so ‘vertiginously captivating and seductive’ it would triumph over demonstrable fact to become a more convincing truth (1930: 35-6). In order to transcend the cultural limitations of written language and speak ‘directly with the human spirit’ (1930: 145), a new medium was needed to fulfil this revelatory purpose. Influenced as much by ancient mysticism as by modern science, Gance thought that light itself was the solution: a ‘living’, alchemical substance that could be mobilized to form a universal language. As light was the very basis of the cinematographic process, Gance placed immense faith in film’s spiritual potential. In great works of cinema, there must be ‘[the power of] a sun in every frame’ (Gance 1973).
Inspired by Richard Wagner’s vision of ‘total art’ as an immersive, communal experience, a new wave of writers and artists like Ricciotto Canudo, Elie Faure, and Gance, hailed the ‘seventh art’ as the ultimate expressive medium. If Wagnerian music-drama announced the ‘Art of the Future’ in the nineteenth-century, cinema was to be ‘the second stage’ of its realization in the twentieth – reaching out to mass audiences in a way that opera never could (1930: 73). Films were to be ‘the music of light’ (Gance 1923: 11) – their exploration of time and space enabled an entirely new way of viewing reality. Cinematography provided an aesthetic equality to everything on the screen – rendering inanimate objects animate, giving a voice to material and immaterial facets of the world. This was an expression of the life of space itself, a proliferation of perspective enhanced by the international accessibility of silent cinema. The images produced by film assumed a spiritual value beyond their representational origins, able to articulate metaphysical truths that literature and the plastic arts could not. Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche had each argued that art (particularly music) enabled a transcendence of the self: ‘state and society, the gulfs separating man from man, make way for an overwhelming sense of unity that goes back to the very heart of nature’ (Nietzsche  2003: 39). Hugely influenced by the work of these figures, Gance developed the formal techniques of film (superimposition, split-screen, rapid montage) for this synthesis of multiple subjective viewpoints. Culturally-determined individuality might be transcended on the single, unitive canvas of the screen.
In this conception, the cinematic experience was not only uniquely animist, but sublime. ‘Every absolute sensation is religious’, Gance wrote. ‘Beauty is religion; art is religion.’ Viewers should ‘feel the living presence of film’s light and sound with the utmost intensity, beauty, and power’ (Gance 1936: 9). Cinemas were ‘cathedrals of light’ (1930: 72), the site of spiritual sustenance. In the future, Gance envisioned that huge stadium-theatres would project holographic imagery to produce the most all-encompassing illusion possible – transmitting their emotive message to tens of thousands of spectators at a time (Gance 1929a: 289-90). Through such means, he believed films could bring about a new spiritual world-awakening through the ‘transmutation of universal pessimism’, overriding the ‘negative intuition of worn-out instincts’ (1930: 81, 87). With prophetic fervour, Gance proclaimed: ‘Verily, the Time of the Image has come!’ (Gance 1927: 83)
The role of art in transforming society is a major theme within many of Gance’s films. The central sequence of La Dixième Symphonie (1918) is a performance of a symphony by the composer Enric Damor. Within the diegesis of the film, his listeners are transfixed by the music; at its climax, they see Damor physically transform into Beethoven, his idol. Beyond the diegesis of the film, Gance’s cinematic audience is given a (representational) visualization of the (abstract) music – an entrancing series of tableaux in which a dancer appears superimposed over a series of landscapes, the frame continually reshaped with ornamental, hand-tinted masks. That Damor’s miraculous ‘tenth symphony’ is also the name of Gance’s film reveals the shared ambition of musical/visual transformation – the intense reaction of the on-screen audience is exactly that which Gance desired for his off-screen viewers.
The lead character of Ecce Homo, a film Gance left unfinished in 1918, is Novalic – a prophet whose message of love and equality is ignored by the materialist populace. Driven mad by frustration, he is nursed back to health by his disciple and eventually resumes his mission. Ecce Homo was to have ended with Novalic renouncing written language; instead, he will use cinema as ‘a new language of the eyes’ to preach universal fraternity (Gance 1919). Gance was using this exact concept in the formal expression of his next film, J’accuse. Here, the pacifist poet Jean Diaz’s ‘light-filled verses’ are depicted on screen entirely through pictorial devices. These elaborate sequences are filled with dazzling location photography, multiple superimpositions, painted title designs, and subtle colour tinting and toning. Throughout J’accuse, written text is made into hieroglyphics or entirely visualized; the artist’s work is rendered purely cinematic to achieve its maximum effect.
In La Roue, Gance developed his expressive techniques even further. Originally nearly nine hours long, this film was a revelation to audiences and critics for its formal invention and sheer cinematographic beauty – combining high art with popular melodrama (see Cuff 2011). The plot centres on engine-driver Sisif, who is in love with his adopted daughter Norma. Sisif’s son Elie believes Norma is his real sister, but is also unconsciously in love with her. Oedipal guilt and jealousy dissemble relationships between father and son, father and daughter, son and daughter. This family drama carries an immense philosophical weight through Gance’s central metaphor of the wheel: the unending cycle of creation and destruction, life and death. Visually, this symbol is central to the film’s network of leitmotifs: the wheel appears as part of vast metal trains, in the shape of signals, amid domestic decorations, in the film’s title designs, in the iris masks which frame the close-ups of characters’ faces. The protagonists are continually entrapped within the film’s visual patterns as they are in its thematic cycles of desire and despair. As well as the extraordinary lyricism of its imagery, La Roue conveys its meaning through a huge variety of literary quotations (D’Annunzio, Baudelaire, Cendrars, Claudel, Hugo, Kipling, Poe, Sophocles); visual and textual meaning are compounded to produce an emotively absorbing experience for the viewer. The film’s human story becomes inseparable from the physical environments in which it unfolds: from the claustrophobic, soot-covered railyards of the first half to the majestic space of the mountains in the second. Gance’s symbolic language ties his huge swathes of celluloid into a coherent whole – the film possesses a pantheistic totality of expression, combining the diegetic viewpoint of characters, their environment, and the omnipresence of the filmmaker’s narrative voice.
This expressive capacity is also found in La Roue’s montage. When Norma is about to marry a manipulative official of the railway company, Sisif decides to crash the train on which she and he are travelling. As he recklessly accelerates towards disaster, the cutting becomes quicker and quicker – combining interior shots of Sisif, Norma, and the engine cabin with exterior shots of railway lines, the smoke-stack, signals, and the blurred landscape. Sisif’s anger pulses through the rhythmic acceleration of shots, gathering the viewer into its frenzied momentum until the montage climaxes in a fractured burst of a dozen images within the space of one second. In such sequences, Gance breaks down cinematic continuity into its fundamental units, fragmenting and reassembling his celluloid into abstract paroxysms of light and shadow.
In the film’s final scenes, when father and stepdaughter are finally reunited in a spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, the climactic violence of the earlier rapid-cutting is transformed into the harmonious rhythm of a slow montage. As Norma joins in a communal dance, circling across the snowy expanse of a mountain plateau, Sisif watches from his cabin window. As he dies, the last breath from his pipe forms a circle of smoke which gently dissolves into the air. This last appearance of the wheel is the most perfect visual representation of the release from physical existence – the endlessly material incarnation of the wheel throughout the film is transformed into a final image of immateriality. Gance cuts between Norma and Sisif – once more absorbing his characters in the rhythmic and visual motif of the wheel, but now both figures accept their place in the cycle of existence. One of the film’s final shots returns us to its opening close-up of moving train wheels, but now the image is visually reversed: appearing in negative, it dissolves out over the cloud-strewn peaks. The audience has not only been emotionally involved with the gradual development of character and narrative, but engaged by the kinetic sensation of Gance’s montage. In La Roue’s Buddhistic final sequence, the feeling of visual and rhythmic release is as moving as anything Gance ever created – at the film’s triumphant premiere in 1922, the audience demanded that the final two reels were shown again as an encore.
In Napoléon, the use of montage carries a greater sense of national (and international) community-making. Before he embarked on his grandest film, Gance declared: ‘The spectator has so far been passive… I want to make him an actor. He must no longer simply watch: he must participate in the action and then his critical powers will be stifled in favour of his emotions’ (Gance 1925: 1). As with so many of Gance’s prophet-figures, the essential property that Bonaparte possesses is also the essential cinematic property: illumination. Gance’s screenplays repeatedly describe how his heroes ‘radiate’ energy and are ‘radioactive’ with light. The transmission of this metaphorical power appears in very literal fashion in many films. Set in a commandeered church, the Cordeliers sequence of Napoléon depicts a huge crowd whipped into an ecstatic fervour by the singing of the ‘Marseillaise’. When Rouget de Lisle electrifies the assembly with his first rendition, sunlight bursts into the hall; this moment is made even more striking by the fact that the film switches from black-and-white to gold tinting. As Danton and the crowd join in a triumphant chorus, the sequence finishes in a lightning-quick montage of close-ups (one frame per shot) that blur into a single, pulsing face of the multitude. At the end of the sequence, the living figure of the Marseillaise is superimposed over this chorus, as well as a blazing flame – a motif which will itself be visually united with Bonaparte later in the film. Art’s transformation of the crowd into enthusiastic agents of communal change, so brilliantly evoked in this scene, was an ideal whose practical realization Gance doggedly (and forlornly) pursued for the rest of his career.
Though the sequences of rapid cutting in Napoléon (the climaxes of the snow-fight, Cordeliers, and Tenth August sequences) are the culmination of Gance’s experimentation with editing, his most ambitious technique is undoubtedly Polyvision. In the last scenes of Napoléon, Bonaparte is leading his army into Italy, inspiring the spread of the Revolution into Europe. For this sequence, Gance positioned three cameras side-by-side, filming a continuous panorama that must be shown in cinemas by three synchronized projectors on a triple-screen. This stunning invention impresses not simply through the sheer scale and scope of its images (at 3.99:1, Gance’s Polyvision is nearly twice as modern 2.35:1 widescreen). For many scenes, Gance uses three separate images, one on each screen – intercutting between past, present, and future. He believed that this orchestration of lateral montage could bestow ‘the gift of ubiquity’ on vast audiences: opening up an apparent ‘fourth dimension’ to transcend our notions of normal time/space so that we ‘find ourselves everywhere and in everything in the same fraction of a second’. This communal, animist experience would restore faith in ‘miracles’ to a disillusioned modern society: ‘Cinema… is moving towards these great spectacles where the spirit of peoples will be forged on the anvil of collective art’ (Gance 1954: 5-6, 9).
As with La Roue, the final sequence of Napoléon draws upon imagery from the rest of the film. Our emotional engagement with its symbolic motifs is perhaps best exemplified by the figure of Bonaparte’s eagle. This eagle is both abstract and literal, symbol and character. We first see the bird as the young Bonaparte’s pet at school in Brienne. The child is superimposed over the animal: the fierce, isolated nature of one is incarnated in the other. As the eagle is the future symbol of his Empire, it is also a fatalist foreshadowing of the young Bonaparte’s destiny. The eagle is seen again throughout the film – its appearances no longer logically plausible, but thematically determined. From being a literal character, it becomes an increasingly metaphorical motif. The bird is often seen at the end of sequences, its symbolic role marking out the gradual fulfilment of Bonaparte’s destiny. When the eagle reappears in the finale, it is first seen as a shadow on the ground, ‘conducting’ the soldiers forward; finally, we see it in an extreme close-up, its body stretching across all three screens. If the end of La Roue is characterized by an immense sense of catharsis, the end of Napoléon is one of overwhelming elation. When seen live, especially with the tremendous score by Carl Davis that accompanies Kevin Brownlow’s restoration, this is a moment of pure cinematic joy. Widescreen cinema was born for this image – the eagle becomes an embodiment of the expanded frame, a literalization of flight and the elation of release. It occupies all three frames, tangibly ready to burst out of the triple screen, as if cinema has yet further boundaries to break.
‘Les Evangiles de la lumière’: internationalizing cinema
Though the most artistically successful film of Gance’s career, Napoléon was a commercial failure because of the demands its extreme length (originally nine hours) and format (two Polyvision sequences) made on theatres. Angered by the attitude of his distributors (whom he had sued after they completely re-edited his film), Gance set about giving his vision of cinema a more secure and independent economic basis. Napoléon had been one of an increasing number of European super-productions to share actors, technicians, and finance from a range of international sources. In 1927-8, Gance planned to group together various European production companies to form a film syndicate under the name of ‘Occident’. This was to be the first step of a further set of worldwide groups that would form an ‘International Film Society’. As he explained: ‘Cinema, fruit of western science, belongs to the whole world; every race and every religion has the right and the duty… to use film as a means of exploring the depths of their existence. World cinema does not yet exist. We want to create it’ (Gance 1928a). The chief project for this association was Les Grands Initiés, a series of films that would cover the lives of prophets across various world religions. Millions of spectators could experience films ‘of the most profound religious nature’ and the series would form ‘a new gospel for the eyes’ (Gance 1928-9). As part of this mammoth undertaking, Gance commissioned a huge survey to compile statistical and psychological information on religions across the world, hoping to predict the effect his series might have on diverse populations.
The culmination of these plans came when Gance proposed the creation of a ‘Cinematographic Section’ of the League of Nations (LN). In May 1928, he sent the organization’s secretariat an extraordinarily detailed document, arguing that cinema and radio were crucial to the expansion of the LN’s power and influence as a peace-keeping force (Gance 1928b). This film wing would organize the production and distribution of a new wave of international cinema, whose ultimate purpose was to end all forms of global conflict. Documentary and fiction films would promote pacifist solutions to socio-political divisions through a ‘union of images’ – Gance even suggested that a double-screen be used to offer a literal visual representation of opposing cases in theatres. Whilst a cinematic encyclopaedia of single-reel films would be distributed to schools and churches, synchronized radio and film conferences could propagate educational and international dialogue – obtaining ‘the real presence of the LN throughout the world’ (1928b). Just as the LN was beginning construction of its new headquarters (the Palais des Nations in Geneva), so Gance wanted to build a huge new film theatre on the Champs Élysées in Paris – a cinematic equivalent of Wagner’s Bayreuth at the heart of Europe.
Another major target of Gance’s proposal was to end commercial and political interference in filmmaking: ‘As the League of Nations defends peace, work, health, children, she will defend cinema. Those who are opposed to the progress of film as art and as a channel of universal conscience are its two enemies: governments and industry’. A specialist bureau would exercise legal power to guarantee the complete artistic independence of every filmmaker, ensuring the ‘progressive abolition of censorship’ (1928b). Gance believed that cinema was sacred – commercialism was akin to blasphemy (Gance 1936: 9). This conflict between creative individual and industrial pressure is a recurrent theme in his films. In La Roue, Sisif’s inventions in La Roue are under the eye of the exploitative railway authorities; in the sound version of J’accuse (1938), Diaz’s pacifist invention is used for warmongering by a capitalist villain.
Though Gance could find neither the financial backing nor the political support to achieve his huge ambitions, La Fin du Monde (1930) would be his own filmic response to the need for world peace. Though the film was taken out of his hands and butchered by its distributors, the surviving work remains the most potent example of Gance’s idealism. The film depicts the efforts of two brothers, Jean and Martial Novalic, to fight the machinations of the devilish plutocrat Schomburg in the face of global catastrophe – a comet heading straight for the Earth. Humanity must shed its reliance on material wealth and the divisive dogma of nation and religion; in the wake of destruction, mankind can rebuild society on new values. Gance believed La Fin du Monde would raise cinema to ‘the height of a pulpit, a code, or a sacred text’ (Gance 1929b). His original choice of music (stated in the screenplay, but not present in surviving prints) included several passages from Wagner’s opera Parsifal (1882), a work itself intended as a demonstration that theatre would ‘supersede the Church as the purveyor of the most profound of all metaphysical insights’ (Magee 2000: 285). As Parsifal was ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspeil’, designed for the ‘consecration of the stage’, so Gance’s film would mark the consecration of the screen.
La Fin du Monde begins with a scene in which Jean Novalic (played by Gance himself) is acting in a Passion play, but the Christian iconography of crucifixion is being deployed by a profoundly heterogeneous ideology. Jean reads a variety of texts (Lenin, Nietzsche, Plato, Spinoza, Washington), just as Gance’s screenplay quotes from the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud and numerous literary sources. Similarly, the Christian symbols in Parsifal actually express a Buddhistic conception of renunciation and forgiveness. (Wagner’s unrealized project Die Sieger, 1856-8, was to have been an explicitly Buddhist opera in which characters’ destinies were followed through their successive reincarnations.) It was the role of art ‘to save the spirit of religion’ from its followers’ mistaken faith in the literal truth of mythic symbols (Wagner  1895-9, VI: 213) – such a belief explains the appropriation of religious motifs from multiple cultures in the work of Wagner and Gance.
The purpose of this symbolic conflation was social and spiritual universalism – to overcome factionalism and recognize shared values. Internationalism was the political equivalent of religious ecumenicism, hence Bonaparte’s call for the demolition of all national borders and the creation of a ‘Universal Republic’ in Napoléon – a political reality achieved at the end of La Fin du Monde. In the latter film, Jean regards himself as beyond all social and cultural divisions: ‘I represent no party, no religion… I simply repeat to you the most beautiful words ever spoken on this Earth: “Love one another”’ (Gance 1929c). Just as Victor Hugo went about ‘un-nailing Christ from Christianity’ (Hugo  1947-52, II: 247), Gance aimed to strip religious dogma from spiritual truth – reclaiming Jesus’ universal significance. The alternate title for Les Grands Initiés was ‘Les Evangiles de la lumière’: specific theological terms are replaced with the overarching metaphor of enlightenment. These ‘initiates’ (Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Krishna, Buddha) may be leaders of religion, but their combined purpose is far greater than their individual lives – Gance wanted to transcend multiple ideas through cinema.
This desire for a new kind of spiritual belief emerged from the moral crisis of the Great War. In 1918, Gance made Ecce Homo to ‘try and give a god back to mankind’ (Gance 1976) – as if the Almighty were a casualty of the war. The final sequence of the silent J’accuse heavily implies a lapse in faith, just as later films show the need for human leadership to inspire social evolution. Diaz witnesses the war dead rise from their graves and they follow him back to their home village to confront the living. As a result of this experience, he loses his mind. Returning home, he destroys his pacifist poetry in a fit of rage. Before he collapses and dies, Diaz goes to the window and violently denounces the Sun: ‘You lit-up this appalling saga, / Silent, placid, unhesitant, / Your ghastly face and amputated tongue, / A sadist on your azure balcony, / Icily watching to the bitter end!’ Given the spiritual centrality of light to Gance’s philosophy, this accusation is surely an indictment of divine indifference. After we are given a last glimpse of the setting Sun, a title-card appears with the word ‘Fin’ imposed over a painted design of the crucified Christ – a final image of human suffering, the son sacrificed by his father. (It is worth noting that Diaz, Bonaparte, and the Novalics are all fatherless prophets – children of the ultimate absent parent: God himself.) If the central concern of J’accuse is the lack of an ultimate authority to prevent war, Gance’s subsequent involvement with the LN shows his desire for a new source of internationalist power in the world: human agency was to make up for the lack of divine intervention.
Whilst these artistic projects lay dormant, Europe saw the rise of fascism and the inevitable course towards a second world war. In response, Gance released another version of J’accuse in 1938. Once more he begged for peace, this time by resurrecting the horrifying images of the last conflict. As the Novalic in Ecce Homo uses cinema to preach and the Jean Novalic in La Fin du Monde records his pacifist message in films and audio recordings, the two Jean Diaz characters of 1919 and 1938 are doubles for the filmmaker: the prophet invokes a visionary experience. Just as it cinematizes Diaz’s poetry, the 1919 J’accuse climaxes with an act of visual invocation: the ‘Return of the Dead’ sequence is elaborately illustrated through numerous superimposition, masks, and painted title-designs. In the 1938 J’accuse, Diaz is made a more literal agent in this process of the soldiers’ resurrection. His character is a scientist rather than a poet and in the film’s finale he deliberately summons the dead from Douaumont cemetery. Diaz becomes another surrogate filmmaker – aiming to convince the world through the supernatural power of imagery.
In this sequence, both on-screen and off-screen spectators experience the raising of the dead as a mass hallucination. We see Diaz calling upon the massed rows of crosses, which eventually dissolve and become the bodies of the fallen. They rise and begin to march towards us. Diaz’s calls become a voiceover: ‘Fill your eyes with this horror!’ he exclaims, as Gance cuts to extreme close-ups of disfigured veterans – the ‘gueules cassées’. This confrontation with the horrific legacy of war, the literal human face of suffering, is supremely moving. Diaz’s address is no longer diegetic, no longer to the terrified men and women of Douaumont within the film; his words unite with Gance’s imagery to confront us – to confront the viewers of today as it did those of 1938. By abandoning the pretence of a self-contained filmic world, J’accuse reaches out to bring its resurrection to every theatre and every nation in which it was shown. Gance and his producer emphasized that cinema was ‘an instrument whose distribution is the best placed to serve the eternal cause of Peace’: the age of mechanical reproduction enabled the worldwide promulgation of a film’s spiritual message. They wanted J’accuse ‘to force the viewer to remember and to reflect’ on the tragedy of war (Renault-Decker 1938 cited in Icart 1983: 302). Gance announced that his film was ‘an act of faith’ and openly accused those whose fealty lay with nationalism and political extremes rather than with the higher calling of European fraternity (Gance 1938).
Inevitably, however, Gance couldn’t produce a cinematic experience so emotively persuasive that it convinced international audiences of the necessity for peace. A year after the film’s release, Europe was at war. Just as he couldn’t get Mussolini to show Napoléon uncensored in fascist Italy, so he failed to get J’accuse viewed by Hitler or Goebbels and released in Nazi Germany. Though Gance mobilized his friendship with Gabriele D’Annunzio and Leni Riefenstahl in these countries, their artistic clout was no guarantee of political influence. Even within France, J’accuse was severely reduced in length by its distributors. Reasoning with producers proved as difficult as persuading dictators.
During the first years of the Cold War arms race, Gance worked on yet another call for peace: La Divine Tragédie (1947-51). Though the film was never made, its completed screenplay is a perfect illustration of Gance’s continuing obsession with the role of cinema in human destiny. La Divine Tragédie starts with a nuclear holocaust, after which humanity’s survivors gather in ‘the Valley of Fear’. The crowd encounters a prophet who retells the life of Christ, projecting the story on a screen made from a Turin Shroud-like garment. The film cuts between modern and ancient history; as Christ is crucified, a crisis of doubt among the survivors is overcome by faith in united purpose – the prophet finally leads them to a safe refuge over the mountain. Given historians’ speculation about the Turin Shroud being the product of a kind of early photographic process, it is fascinating to note its role in Gance’s screenplay as an embodiment of the power of the image. Where Christ failed in the past, the image of Christ would succeed in the present. Gance called the Passion ‘the only possible ideographic symbol of deliverance’, believing it would ‘begin again [Christ’s] voyage of redemption’ in the age of modern man (Gance 1949: 34). As Jesus was ‘the king of kings’, so Gance proclaimed that La Divine Tragédie would be ‘the film of films’ (Gance 1948-9). Having so often failed to convince producers, populace, or politicians with the importance of cinema’s power, La Divine Tragédie depicts the perfect captive audience – forced by the prophet-filmmaker to receive a message of fraternity in order to pass into earthly paradise.
* * *
In order to reshape ourselves and our world, Gance saw enthusiasm as humanity’s greatest asset and film as the best means of its mobilization. Cinema was ‘a machine for resurrecting heroes’ (Gance 1939: 5) – a method of reconnecting modern audiences with the climactic moments and figures of the past. Its communicative power revealed the seventh art to be the true conduit of enlightenment, not religion. As a force for change, every church was compromised by its followers’ linguistic distortion of universal truths: Christ’s reliance on words was a source for profound regret (1930: 69). Adherence to orthodoxies encouraged schism and barred access to universal truths; only art’s synthesis of divergent positions could achieve international understanding. Gance professed: ‘True Divinity lies not with God, but with Faith’ (1930: 36). Belief in art is preferable to faith in God – art relies upon human agency and creativity, not godly intervention or proscription. Gance’s films do not proselytize on behalf of specific political or religious positions: enthusiasm was an end in itself, a form of secular faith forged by cinema. Prophets like Bonaparte, Diaz, and Novalic are depicted as those who can inspire the crowd by summoning visionary images: they are cinematic agents in human evolution.
Gance’s description of Jean Novalic is very much a self-portrait: ‘he knows one cannot see politics clearly from one side of the barricade, but that things must be seen from above in order to fully understand their significance’ (1929b). The filmmaker’s conflation of symbols and viewpoints has often been regarded as evidence of incoherence, but this intellectual context actually provides a crucial guide to interpret his body of work. His films’ heaving amalgam of thematic ideas and formal devices is precisely what makes them so fascinating and so unique. Their ideological heterogeneity may seem (at least superficially) paradoxical or vague, but it is also what frees them from the limitations of a single perspective.
Of all his work, Napoléon is the greatest advocate for Gance’s cinema of enthusiasm. The omnipotent nature of its narrative voice and its unparalleled assembly of stylistic invention form a hallucinatory evocation of history and an all-immersive cinematic experience. Nietzsche wrote: ‘I consider every word behind which there does not stand… a challenge to action to have been written in vain’ (Nietzsche  1999: 184). For Gance, cinema was a means of motivating people to change the world for the better. The very open-endedness of Napoléon – the general on the brink of his glorious career – gives audiences the perfect lift, a sense of possibility and potential. The film opens up an imaginative space that gives spectators the desire to create, to change, to complete – a supremely inspirational effect. Gance believed that once viewers were given a glimpse of an ideal world, they would be inspired to improve reality: ‘I wanted the audience to come out of the theatre amazed victims, completely won over; emerging from paradise to find, alas, the hell of the street. That is the cinema!’ (Gance  1978: 167)
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–––– (1928b), ‘La Section Cinématographique de la Société des Nations. Rapport sur l’utilité d’organiser et d’élargir l’influence de la Société des Nations à l’aide du cinéma et de la radiophonie’ [typescript]. BnF, 4°-COL-36/810.
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–––– (1929b), ‘Schéma dramatique de la Fin du Monde, vue par Abel Gance’ [typescript with manuscript additions], 25 March. BiFi, GANCE103-B42.
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