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July 11, 2023

The End of the World


La Fin du Monde
Abel Gance - 1931
Kino Classics BD Region A

Abel Gance's reputation as a filmmaker is primarily based on one film, his 1927 Napoleon. It seems less than coincidental that this epic would appear in that brief period just before sound was introduced, when silent films hit their artistic peak. End of the World was Gance's follow-up to Napoleon. As such, it is a record of a filmmaker undone by artistic ambition and the havoc caused with the demand of using new technology.

Even the people involved with the restoration of The End of the World are not shy about discussing the film's various problems. What was originally a three hour work was cut down by almost half. I am not sure if a longer running time would have made the narrative more logical, but there is some choppiness that makes the identification of some of the characters and their relationship to each other unclear. Basically, an actor, Jean, is love with Genevieve. Being financial impoverished, marriage is out of the question. Jean's brother, Martial, is a scientist who retreats from society to his observatory. For some reason, Martial is the only person who notices that a comet is on a direct course to hit earth. Jean, first introduced as Jesus in a production of the Passion Play, entreats Martial to encourage the world's citizens to be part of a Universal Republic prior to being carted off to an asylum. Meanwhile, a wealthy investor, Schomburg, has his eyes on Genevieve. The rest of the world comes to realize that Martial was correct about the comet which among other things creates panic in the financial markets. As if there were not other things more important, Martial and his financial partner, Werster, are to be arrested for manipulating the stock market. Gance spends so much time on questions of the human condition that the spectacle of the earth's destruction is almost like an afterthought.

The film does begin with one great visual gag. The first scene appears to be a recreation of Jesus crucified, surrounded by his followers and Roman soldiers. Several shots later, it is revealed that what we have been watching is a stage production. Abel Gance did not play the part of an actor playing Jesus, but probably would claim he was portraying Jesus. As noted in the accompanying documentary, Gance thought himself a peer with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. Unlike Griffith, Gance managed to maintain a career well into the 1960s, though without the prestige and artistic control he had in the silent era. The End of the World carries with it both the strengths and weaknesses of Gance's silent era filmmaking, the use of flash editing and subliminal cuts versus the decidedly melodramatic acting.

I am not sure if the sound system was chosen by Gance or was imposed by the Gaumont studio as it bears the studio name. What is certain is that of the early rival sound systems prior to its standardization, the sound system used also undermined the production. This Danish sound system recorded sound on a separate roll of film that had to be run at 32 frames per second, when it worked at all. Unlike even many other films of the era, there is substantial use of non-diegetic music.

Those with a more casual interest in film may be befuddled by The End of the World. The more serious film scholar will find plenty to unpack here. The blu-ray is sourced from a 2021 2K restoration. While discussing Gance in relationship primarily with his more successful J'Accuse (1938), film historian Stephen Harvey neatly summed up Gance and his films: "Perhaps in quest of parallels to his own frustrated ambitions, Mr. Gance's sympathies were more engaged by films concerning heroic male visionaries, besieged by the small-mindedness of the world surrounding them."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 11, 2023 07:23 AM