It is hard for film buffs today to see silent cinema as a modern art. What strikes us nowadays is the immense debt that DW Griffith owes to Victorian fiction, that FW Murnau owes to Romantic painting, that Fritz Lang (and this is true even in Metropolis) owes to ancient German myth. How strange and wonderful then, to see a silent film that owes no debt to anything or anybody, that sums up the notion of ‘modernity’ in a way no work of art had done before – and precious few have done ever since. Eighty years on from its catastrophic release, Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 masterpiece L’Inhumaine remains the first, perhaps the only, totally modern film.
Most famous, of course, are the sets. A Cubist and Art Deco fantasy world designed by the artist Fernand Leger. Whether it’s the salon of seductive chanteuse Claire Lescot (Georgette Leblanc) – a dining table afloat on an indoor pool, servants hidden by perpetually smiling masks -or the laboratory of visionary inventor Einar Norsen (Jacque Catelain) -vast and potentially lethal electronic gadgets, assistants in black leather fetish gear – we have entered a world where the past might never have existed, where the future can only be a continuation of now.
Just as striking, though, is L’Inhumaine’s ‘emotional modernism’. While so much silent film acting makes us laugh at its melodramatic excess, Claire and her circle of admirers underplay their emotions as coolly as the high-fashion zombies in Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais. (A fervent admirer of L’Herbier, Resnais has acknowledged the influence of L’Inhumaine on his own work, though he insists that “its ambition is more impressive than its achievement.”) Leblanc and Catelain make a gorgeously impassive pair of lovers. Hieratic icons for an age whose one true god is the Image. –IMDb
Marcel L’Herbier is unquestionably one of the most important figures in the history of French cinema. His contribution is not restricted to the films he directed, many of which are widely recognised as genuine masterpieces. He also worked actively to promote cinema as an art form in its own right, helping to ensure that France maintained its position of eminence in a medium which was becoming increasingly dominated by the Americans. Moreover, his films and his writings have inspired successive generations of filmmakers, many of whom went on to become just as influential in French cinema.
L’Herbier was born in Paris is 1888. Having studied law at the Sorbonne, he was drawn to literature (particularly the works of Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche) and he decided to pursue a career as a writer. He published his first novel, “In the Garden of Secret Games”, in 1914. He wrote a stage play “L’Enfantement du mort, miracle en pourpre, noir et or”, an anti-war piece which was not performed until… read more
L’inhumaine is Marcel L’Herbier’s ultimate triumph of design over narrative, drama, logic, and life and death.
Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine screens tonight as part of the film series running in conjunction with Cinema Across Media: The 1920s, the First