on 30 January 2009
First of all, the 5-star rating applies to both the film itself as well as the 2-disc set by Eureka! which has quite an impressive, thick booklet with many photographs from the film with extensive notes, and many surprising bonus features on the supplement disc. And "L'Argent" certainly deserves this first-class treatment because it stands out as one of the world's finest films from the late silent era (being the late 1920s) and would even surpass most modern films in many aspects of cinematography. "L'Argent" equals silent classics like "Metropolis", "Sunrise" and other French classics such as "La Roue" and "Napoleon", but just as each of these films has its own style and characteristics, so does "L'Argent" under the direction of French director, Marcel L'Herbier.
L'Herbier utilized what was at that time new and innovative camera techniques and angles which still impress viewers today because they are part of a visual art form, namely that of the silent film telling a story with images; and a few subtitles when necessary. The story is easily understood because it could be taken right out of today's headlines, and the concept of greed and power are universal and even timeless in this modern age. Based on Emile Zola's novel set several decades earlier, L'Herbier decided to place the story in contemporary times, showing the hustle and bustle at the Paris Stock Exchange with striking and breathtaking angles, camera movements and editing, along with many other exciting scenes from the year 1928. For me, "L'Argent" is both an historic visual document, showing the life and mentality of people in the late 1920s, and a powerful human story conveying the message of how money has power: power to corrupt, enslave, manipulate, control and destroy.
The actors were well chosen and suit their roles perfectly. German actors from "Metropolis" fame, Alfred Abel and Brigitte Helm, play unforgettable characters alongside prominent French stars who portray business tycoons riding the highs and lows of the share market to their own advantage, while others become pawns and victims of the lust for wealth and power. It is a good story made even more brilliant with lavish and unusual sets, artistic imagery and a very high standard of `glossy style'. The effort and cost involved in such a grand production are revealed in an extraordinary 40-minute "making of..." documentary on the supplement disc, "About L'Argent" - which was one of the first of its kind, and is surely a most valuable item for film historians especially, but also fascinating for the general viewer and admirer of early cinema. Another lengthy documentary is about L'Herbier and his work, and other varied and shorter film footage related to "L'Argent" make up the bonus disc features and help to appreciate the high artistic qualities of the film. Anyone looking for artistic style in films should see "L'Argent", and those who value the high quality of late 1920s silent films will not be disappointed either.
on 19 June 2011
This film is not to be mistaken for the film of the same title by Robert Bresson, which was inspired by a Tolstoy novel.
I hadn't seen the work of the french director L'Herbier before, but since I am interested in pioneer (silent period) european cinema, thought it worth a watch. This film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least being the obviously lavish production values financed by a huge budget. Technically it is a masterwork and features a very mobile camera. Eisenstein used editing (montage) to generate movement in his films - here, a lot of the movement is generated by single shots taken from a very dynamic camera.
The plot is a 'modern' adaptation of Emile Zola's 1891 novel of the same name and has some echoes for today's money markets in the way the chief protagonist, Saccard, played by french actor Pierre Alcover, massages the money markets and dupes others in order to get himself out of financial trouble. The film features Brigit Helm, fresh from her role of Maria in Metropolis. Whilst the film makes Saccard out to be a 'baddie' I found myself sympathetic towards him. The love interest is not Baronne Sandorf played by Brigit Helm but Line Hamelin played by french actress, Marie Glory, the wife of Saccard's business 'partner' Jacques Hamelin. Saccard arranges for Jacques Hamelin to fly to South America in search of oil, thereby boosting the market share of his bank and giving him an opportunity to seduce Line for whom he has very deep passionate feelings. Whilst Saccard is the master manipulator, the real 'puppet master' is his rival in finance, Gunderman played by Alfred Abel who finally brings about his downfall.
It's not too difficult to understand why this film was picked up by the producers of the Master of Cinema series - there are very interesting extras with the DVDs for thise who wish to explore the work further.
on 30 June 2015
This is yet another outstanding Masters of Cinema release of a barely-known masterpiece of the silent era – Marcel L’Herbier’s 1928 adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1891 novel L’Argent (Money). “Who is L’Herbier?” we might ask. Together with Abel Gance, he was one of the key French film makers from the 1920s. In a career stretching from 1918 to 1975 he made 48 features and 8 drama documentaries for TV. He was also a prolific writer (penning over 500 articles for magazines and newspapers), a TV producer (of over 200 documentaries), a proselytizer on film and a successful administrator. He founded l’IDHEC (l’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques), France’s leading film school which he headed for 25 years. He went on to direct the Cinémathèque Française (1941-44) before he was replaced by Henri Langlois. Well known in France, L’Herbier and his films are a blank everywhere else and to my knowledge, this release of L’Argent is the only one available to buy with English titles. His best film (according to the director), let’s hope that this DVD will lead to future releases of legendary ‘lost’ classics such as El Dorado (1921), L’Inhumaine (1924) and Feu Mathias Pascal (1925).
MoC do a remarkable job here presenting the 165 minute epic in a beautifully clean b/w (ie; non-tinted) print (aspect ratio 1.33:1). Some inevitable wear and tear on the image is noticeable from time to time, and it is sometimes impossible to distinguish whether the ‘soft focus’ is meant or not, L’Herbier being famously innovative in experimenting with the deliberate smudging of imagery. However there is no doubt that this transfer is the best we are ever likely to see on DVD. The Jean-François Zygel improvised piano soundtrack is offered in both Dolby 2.0 and 5.1. Clear and hugely sensitive to the narrative in hand, the accompaniment adds enormously to the total experience. The packaging is exceptionally generous as per usual from this source, a second DVD containing valuable extras. First and foremost there’s Jean Dréville’s 40 minute ‘making of’ documentary Autour de L’Argent (About L’Argent) which is an excellent little film in its own right. The first of its kind ever made, it contains footage of L’Herbier in action and evidence of the precarious ways Jules Krüger's camera was moved throughout the film (towed on trolleys, suspended on a swing, dropped from high ceilings, etc) to achieve L’Argent’s radical visual virtuosity. Then there is a 54 minute 2007 documentary profile of L’Herbier which provides fascinating information (and clips from ‘lost’ films), screen tests of the various actors, footage of Brigitte Helm arriving in Paris by train and a demonstration of L’Herbier’s sound techniques. With the DVDs comes a 78 page book with an excellent Richard Abel 1990 essay, production photos and extracts from interviews and contemporary reviews. All in all this is an excellent package which shines a great deal of light on a neglected area of French silent film. Lovers of silent films should not hesitate to investigate.
What follows is a thematic review in which spoilers are inevitable.
The focus of Zola's novel is, in L'Herbier's words, on "the struggle of life against money. Money, Zola says, is 'the dung on which life thrives.'" Following the novel quite closely, but with certain key changes, the film depicts the clash between the heads of two powerful investment banks on the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange). Dominating the film from virtually first frame to last is Nicolas Saccard (an out-sized bull-dog-like Pierre Alcover) whose Banque Universelle (the BU) is endangered by the machinations of the unnamed bank headed by Alphonse Gunderman (the slender and sinisterly aristocratic Alfred Abel). Almost pushed by Gunderman into bankruptcy at the film's outset, Saccard seizes the chance to score a fortune by exploiting the aviator and national hero Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor) who will fly from France to Guyana (the longest and fastest ever trans-Atlantic crossing) where he will drill for oil. A fantastic speculation, Saccard takes advantage of the rumor of Hamelin's crash (which only he knows is false) by buying all the shares in the company when the price hits rock bottom. Saccard's Achilles heel is Line Hamelin (the fresh and innocent Mary Glory) who he tries to seduce in her husband Jacque's absence. At first dazzled by the riches dangled in front of her by Saccard, she is eventually revolted by him. Her naivety makes her easy meat for Gunderman to use against his adversary with the help of the speculator (and Saccard's old mistress) Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm) who urges her to report Saccard's insider trading to the police. When Hamelin's stewardship of the oil business in Guyana falters, Gunderman (having bought up most of the company's stock) sees his chance and sells everything thereby ruining Saccard completely.
Bedded within the traditional arc of the rise and fall narrative concerning two competing 'Masters of the Universe' are four main conflicts, three coming down complete from Zola and one added on by L'Herbier. First, there is a social conflict between the old money of Gunderman and the nouveaux riche as exemplified by Saccard. Often paralleled with the statue of Napoleon on his desk (Napoleon is perhaps France's greatest example of a poor man made good), Saccard is vulgar, devious, impulsive and immoral. Pug-like and venal he only cares about money and will tread on everyone else to get it. Such brash upward mobility is contrasted with the aloof, aristocratic patrician-like air of Gunderman (eating his boiled eggs, fondling his toy Pekinese dogs) who represents the status quo. He has no intention at all of changing things for the likes of Saccard. He seems to be a traditional gentleman, but his civilized airs mask his own venality. He is as ruthless as Saccard and to get what he wants he uses the 'innocent' Hamelin couple just as much as Saccard does. Behind this social conflict of course lies class warfare. Clearly, Gunderman represents the moneyed aristocracy. The mise-en-scène of his bank and his apartment emphasize his palatial upper class lifestyle which contrasts with Saccard's also opulent (but much more functional and more obviously business-concerned) surroundings. Significantly, Gunderman uses a Countess (a fellow aristocrat) to manipulate both Saccard and the Hamelins while he is referred to as 'master of all' by everyone. Saccard by contrast is the common working class oik-made-good courtesy of a shrewd business brain and unscrupulous wheeler-dealing. Gunderman says at one point that such ruthless speculation should be done away with and we are invited to see him as a kind of morality-cleansing agent in the way he manipulates Saccard's downfall. Actually he is nothing of the kind. He is simply protecting his own (maintaining his upper class position) in everything he does. His own speculation proves to be the most destructive as the BU crumples before his power. Coursing deep beneath the social and class conflicts is a nasty current of anti-Semitism. Zola's Saccard is a raving anti-Semite obsessed with ridding the Bourse of the Jewish stranglehold exacted by the likes of Gunderman. Richard Abel in his article points out that the model of Gunderman was most probably Baron James de Rothschild. An aristocratic Jew, he stands for the Old World view on society (remember Judaism is older than Christianity) which of course conflicts with the New World view of Catholicism as represented by Saccard. Rothschild epitomizes all three fronts on which the war between the two bankers is waged in L'Herbier's film.
All three conflicts itemized above come down from Zola and need no further embellishment from L'Herbier. They all exist in the film quite obviously, but without having to be emphasized. The film's depiction of the workings of the Bourse as being a metaphor for France is spelled out at the beginning at the first meeting in which Caledonian Oil shares are mooted for flotation. Chairman of the exchange ('Chairman of straw' says the intertitle) is a certain Baron De France. With a name like that we can instantly take the film's central message that we should write large the various conflicts embodied within the Gunderman/Saccard axis as mirroring the reality of France at the time. France may have had its political leaders, but the guys really in control were the Gundermans and the Saccards who ran the economy and kept everyone in business. Zola wrote L’Argent in 1891, but set it in 1868 to indict the corrupt French banking milieu of the Second Empire. The collapse of the real life Union Générale (1878-1885) was the inspiration for the collapse of Saccard’s BU in Zola’s book. L’Herbier goes further and updates the action from 1868 to 1928 with the collapse of the Second Empire of the past echoed in the collapse of the economy that was about to take place worldwide on the eve of the Great Depression. Other minor changes broaden the film’s sense of a 1928 state of the nation address. Saccard’s scheme involves oil fields in Guyana (as opposed to mines in Palestine) to echo the then fashionable imperialism. Jacques Hamelin is changed from a simple engineer to a Charles Lindbergh-type national hero to take on board modern technology and the idea of modern industrialization breeding greed and corruption. The character of Line is much changed as well. She is now married to Hamelin as opposed to being his sister and is presented as a greedy materialist. These changes make Saccard’s seduction all the more immoral, and Line all the less innocent as her naïve materialism opens her up to exploitation by others.
The updating of the action enables L’Herbier to take on board a fourth conflict in the narrative, namely between France and her great rival Germany. Historically France usually comes off second best to Germany. There was the embarrassment of the Franco-Prussian War on which Zola's novel finishes and then WWI which was particularly humiliating, the French having been militarily outclassed. On L’Argent two German actors (Abel and Helm) came straight from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to play virtually the same type-cast roles. Looking exactly as if they are continuing the Old World Prussian Junker tradition, between them they succeed in bringing down the French once again in the course of the narrative. This in turn echoes the real life situation of the French film industry at the time. By the late 1920s French companies were relying on German co-productions and both Abel and Helm were cast as an agreement with the film's German backers. L’Herbier would have linked this with his whole rationale for making the film in the first place, that film-makers are tied completely to the moneymen because making films is so expensive. Being a slave to money is one of the main themes of the film and I think we can see Jacques Hamelin’s lonely alienation and ineffectual heroism in the pursuit of his poetic dream (to fly) being a doppelgänger for the artistic director L’Herbier himself, tied as he also was to the money of others as he attempted his own cinematic flights of fantasy. The way Hamelin and his wife (L’Herbier and his film perhaps) are opened for use and abuse supplies the film’s beating human heart, because of course Hamelin is a national hero (even saluting the flag at one point to Zygel playing the Marsellaise) and represents the poetic ideal (as embodied in the tricolour) that people would like France to be. But of course speculators like Gunderman and Saccard (or indeed Jean Sapène, one of the film’s co-producers with whom L’Herbier fought) will always be an ever-present necessity in a capitalist society. Money is indeed “the dung on which life thrives.”
The film’s narrative is split into two distinct halves, the first charting the rise in Saccard’s fortunes as preparations for Hamelin’s flight gather momentum. Tension is built uncannily, culminating in the take-off and the celebratory party held at BU overlooking a lit up Place de l’Opéra in Paris. With the aid of spectacular montage in the editing the technical achievements here are staggering. This film is justly celebrated for its revolutionary mise-en-scène. Lazare Meerson and André Barsacq constructed huge sets at the Studios Francoeur – the banks of both Saccard and Gunderman (the former cluttered and business-like, the latter vast and palatial with an emphasis on vertical and horizontal lines), the Hamelin apartment with its view over the rooftops of Paris, the huge room for Saccard’s party with its rows of organ pipes making up the back wall and its swimming pool with dancing floor. Sets are designed deliberately to convey psychological complexities at play in the script. An early scene has Gunderman playing chess. The floors of his offices are also giant black and white squares on which characters are moved seemingly by Gunderman himself as he plots and connives to get what he wants. Especially amazing is a circular room which conveys the man’s infinite power over the world’s oil with its 360' map going around the wall. The camera circles around one of his minions who is dwarfed by the spectacle, the black and white flooring telling us his master has him exactly where he wants. Sandorf’s two-level apartment is another masterpiece of this kind of psychological suggestion. Saccard sits there while his ex-mistress circles him like a spider spinning her web around him. When she says she is allies with Gunderman we are not surprised at all as the straight lines of the huge set have already announced the fact in addition to the baccarat game going on in the background (reflected on the ceiling) as Saccard launches his impotent attack. Just as Sandorf catches Saccard in her web so Gunderman has caught Sandorf in the biggest web of all – the absolute control of money. Gunderman appears rarely in the film, but his presence is felt in virtually every scene through scrupulous control of mise-en-scène combined with fabulous editing and cameras which are forever on the prowl.
Most impressive of all is the use that the actual Bourse is put to. Given to L’Herbier for three days during the Pentecost holiday he flooded the place with extras and cameras. Adopting a radical mixture of camera set-ups from unusual positions both high and low, a feeling of radical modernity flows through the film. One low angle shot captures the traders on the floor, their hands gesticulating wildly in the air in the foreground while behind them high above the old ceiling of the Bourse is captured in perfect focus. Another marvelous shot, this time from a high angle has Saccard entering a room to close in on his prey, Line standing in the window watching the people in the square celebrate her husband's successful flight. The feeling of a fragile butterfly being ensnared within the net cast by the powers of her financial master couldn't be more concentrated as his advances on her are intercut with scenes of spectators jubilantly celebrating outside. The final ingredient in L'Herbier's visual presentation is the extremely mobile camera deployed throughout. Scene after scene sees the camera towed, pushed, pulled, placed on moving platforms, swung on a trapeze and even dropped spinning from the height of the Bourse ceiling onto the ant-like brokers milling around below. The most celebrated sequence has the camera move through the air looking directly down on the traders seemingly ants milling around dung. L'Herbier intercuts this with Hamelin's plane taking off in a radical montage sequence which demonstrates the link between the activities of the Bourse and artistic endeavor. One is forever ensnared with the other, Hamelin's (and L'Herbier's) pretense at anything otherwise a mere delusion.
L'Argent is clearly a sophisticated film of exceptional interest. As Abel points out, just as Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928) are the acme of big-budget French historical reconstruction silent films of the time so L'Argent represents the peak of the modern studio spectacular, but for me it isn't without its faults. First and foremost of these is the absence of any sympathetic characters. Saccard and Gunderman are both selfish money-grabbers and represent all that is base in the human condition while the Hamelins are way too naïve to be completely sympathetic. Both are also selfishly obsessed with their dreams – Line with material wealth and Jacques with his aviation. Zola's novel encompasses many more characters and demonstrates the effects of money (of not having it) on members of the working class who we never see in L'Herbier's film. The focus on the super-rich (Saccard, Gunderman, Sandorf) and the not quite so rich (the Hamelins) makes the film overall somewhat grey and monolithic. This may well be the point, but watching a 165 minute film with no characters we can empathize with is a tough ask. Saccard is at the center of virtually every scene and it is disturbing that he comes off as probably the most sympathetic character, simply because we understand him more. Secondly, the film appears to criticize the very thing that made it possible in the first place. For 'the most expensive French film ever made' to attack the evils of money strikes me as hypocrisy despite L'Herbier's droll acknowledgement of the fact in interview. If L'Herbier really wanted to attack the evils of capitalism he shouldn't have gone for the spectacular in quite such a grand fashion. And yet, it is this 'grand fashion' that really enables this film to truly grip the imagination. Despite its flaws it's still a superb achievement which deserves to be seen and treasured.