Having already pronounced Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) to be the finest silent DVD release of the year, it looks the upcoming new release from the same company, Flicker Alley, may occupy a close second place. In May they are releasing a 2-DVD set of Abel Gance’s bravura La Roue (1923). Here’s the blurb to explain the film’s importance to the history of cinematic expression:
Never before released in the United States, this monumental French film is one of the most extraordinary achievements in the whole history of cinema. Written and directed by Abel Gance (Napoleon, J’Accuse), three years in production, and for its time unprecedented in length and complexity of emotion, La Roue pushed the frontiers of film art beyond all previous efforts. Said Gance, “Cinema endows man with a new sense. It is the music of light. He listens with his eyes.”
Taken to its bare bones, the story deals with Sisif, a locomotive engineer who saves Norma, an infant girl, from a train wreck and raises her as his adopted daughter. Norma thinks Sisif’s son Elie is her brother, and when the two fall in love, she leaves to marry a virtual stranger. Sisif is also obsessed with her and the plot elaborates this triangular relationship. German director G.W. Pabst, an ardent admirer of La Roue, was encouraged by Gance’s example to undertake his own remarkable explorations of human psychology in such silent films as Secrets of a Soul, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.
Yet La Roue is even more remarkable for its cinematic accomplishment than for its story. The film was taken almost entirely on location. Sets were built along the railroad tracks in the yard at St. Roch, near Nice, and at an elevation of 13,000 feet on Mount Blanc. Gance pioneered a dazzlingly innovative style of rapid montage that revolutionized filmmaking around the world, especially in the works of Eisenstein and his contemporaries in the Soviet Union. Almost every sequence was experimental; as his cinematographer, L-H Burel recalled, “I’d never come to the end of it if I were to list all the tests we did, all the special effects I invented, and all the innovations we launched.” Like Intolerance and Citizen Kane, La Roue became a source book of cinematic invention that reverberated in countless other classic films over the decades. It was hailed by artists and intellectuals, who recognized it as a stunning advance in modern art. Said Akira Kurosawa, “The first film that really impressed me was La Roue.”
This new restoration with a running time of nearly four and a half hours, accompanied by Robert Israel’s symphonic score, is the fullest presentation of La Roue to reach the public since 1923. It at last allows audiences today to experience the amazing, poetic vision that Abel Gance brought to the world. The DVD also includes a short film that provides a vivid documentary record of the great work in production, along with a booklet containing an outstanding essay by William M. Drew on the history and impact of La Roue, and comments by Robert Israel on the score.
Though not on sale yet, there’s a pre-release offer of $31.95 (normal price $39.95), with orders shipped on or just before 6 May.