NAPOLEON BY ABEL GANCE
"Photography can strip from the world that spiritual dust and grime with which our eyes have covered it."
— André Bazin
"Those who live, live off the dead"
— Antonin Artaud
French filmmaker Abel Gance’s (1889-1981) Napoléon (Napoléon vu par Abel Gance) from 1927 is an epic of breathtaking dimensions—grand visuals, experimental cinematic technology, and captivating storytelling.
The 5 ½ hour long silent spectacle recants the early years of Napoléon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonné), accompanying the young boy from his time at the military college at Brienne, his early suffering at the hands of his classmates (which would inform his later megalomania and eponymously branded psychological complex), his imprisonment by the leader of the Revolution Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële) and subsequent release, his infatuation with the beautiful Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès), his later empress, and his first successes as military leader in the Revolution, culminating in a military coup in which he would lead an invasion of Italy.
Conceived as first part of an unprecedented genre-defining six-part project, Napoléon was to kick off the complex story of this iconic historical figure’s tribulations, which were to end with his exile on the island of Saint Helena and his death in 1809. The series was, however, never to be realized due to unrealistic costs and organizational complexity, to tragic dismay of such recent cinematic visionaries as Francis Ford Coppola, who has been active in the restoration efforts of Gance’s film.
Employing an experimental filming process in which Gance captured his scenes as a cinematic triptych with three synchronized cameras, the filmmaker managed to create a magnum opus that despite being a silent film is anything but, illuminating the silver screen with a cacophonous intensity that now—90 years later—is only rarely matched by a handful of auteurs.
Text by Clemens Finkelstein | S/TUDIO