Crack!– the starting pistol fires. Gance caused much consternation among his cast by firing a live revolver past Albert Dieudonné’s ear to begin each shoot. That intensity is a microcosm of the Faustian dynamism that characterises Gance’s epic. To take the shoot literally, in ironic fatalism, in triumphant mania– such was Gance’s attitude in the middle stages of the twenties.
In 1919 Gance released J’accuse…! a scathing and fatalistic critique of the first world war– a brother war, an absurdist war, a war of European capitulation– and so it is interesting that, almost a decade later, he would create its thematic counterpoise– perhaps even its resolution: a celebration of the heroism of militarism shorn of the fetishism of war. Militarism and warmongering are distinct, and it was the tradition of enlightened militarism, which Napoleon inherited from Frederick the Great, that Gance was celebrating; the sublimity of war before industrial death.
After the artistic success of J’accuse…! and other works in the early 1920s, Gance won the freedom to create a biography of the greatest European: Napoleon. Originally Gance had intended to create a six part biography spanning a Wagnerian forty hours of film. The film itself is an extraordinary vision, smothered in the crib in some ways. Due to production problems, the Wall Street Crash, and a somewhat tepid response to his film from the mass ranks of bourgeoisie, only part one of Napoleon (1927) was released. The film still runs for about six hours with intermissions, which grants it the status of epic despite its incompleteness.
Gance’s influence in European cinema was monumental, inspiring not only much of French New Wave cinema but the greats of NAZI and Soviet cinema, and classic Hollywood directors like Kubrick. Gance believed that the camera should be liberated, so that the audience were no longer mere spectators– producing extraordinary scenes where he runs around with the camera, straps it to a horse and lets it gallop off, swings it from high wires, dives into the sea with it to see “what one wave looks like to another” and so on. This visceral artistic attitude, particularly in relation to the subject of Napoleon is similar to that of Thomas Carlyle. The harshness and biblical severity of Carlyle’s prose– broken, with extensive uses of the dash– create a living text. When we read Carlyle’s French Revolution we feel as though we are a part of it. Gance’s cinematic representation of the French Revolution was Carlyle’s text transliterated into film. When Napoleon is escaping Corsica– alone, on a dingy, using the tricolour as a sail– and the scene cuts between the seas and the purge of the Girondins, we are no longer mere spectators– the two eccentric artists above grab us by the collar and hurl us into the tumult of the revolutionary vortex.
Gance’s quasi-demonic energy, frenetic cutting, and intense close shots were first explored in his 1924 film, La Roue, which prefigured much of the techniques later adopted by Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The scenes of the French revolution in Napoleon so influenced Eisenstein’s October (1928), that in the year following the its release he– along with Pudovkin, Aleksandrov, and the rest of them– travelled to Paris to personally thank Gance for teaching them everything they knew.
The film also inspired Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Riefenstahl’s obsession with movement, attaching the camera to tracks on the ground and so on, were all innovations of Gance– despite the insistence of some that this was from Eisenstein. The presence of Gance is plain in the famous shot of the shadow of Hitler’s plane advancing across the city below. That symbolism of German destiny was a direct imitation of the shadow of Napoleon’s eagle, which lead the French legions into Italy during the closing scenes of Napoleon. Such a clear gesture to Gance reveals the primacy of his influence on her.
Given the film was created in 1927, the temptation to compare Napoleon to Stalin, which some STEEL-Cameralists are inclined to do today, did not affect Gance. Both Stalin and Napoleon consolidated their respective revolutions with nationalist militarism, but unlike Stalin, Napoleon was a man of dynamism, of perpetual movement.
Napoleon‘s militaristic dynamism is too much for many doughy moderns, and accusations of fascism are bandied about. There are rumours that Napoleon was based upon Mussolini and Italian Fascism, but Gance was clearly not a fascist. Napoleon succumbed to the same fate as Lang’s Metropolis (1927), being appropriated by fascists as propaganda, as nearly all Nietzschean feeling was distorted and vulgarised by that government.
The National Socialists would later appropriate many other great European works while not understanding their essences. The German Musical laws of that government described Beethoven’s music as the apotheosis of German morality. The nazis were clearly unaware of the irony that both the 3rd and 5th symphonies were hagiographies to the French Revolution, and that the 9th was a testament to pantheism and esoteric transfiguration. Beethoven wrote the 9th Symphony with Plutarch’s quote beside him: “I am all that has been and is and shall be; no mortal has ever lifted my veil,” which was engraved on the statue of Isis. The 9th Symphony was not a political testament as the 5th, nor was it an ironic or scatological parody of ideology, as the normally insightful Zizek claims– now, reader, Zizek’s attempts to defend Bach from his reactionary defenders, to resurrect both Bach-the-modernist, and the Romantic materialism of Schumann, are all admirable things. I respect and share most of the man’s aesthetic tastes; however, despite these consensuses, if we are to meet, I will hit him over the head with a stick for such a vulgar misinterpretation the Turkish march in the fourth movement of the 9th. It is the march of the spirit, and a counterpoise to the march of the French Revolutionaries in the third movement of the 5th. It is not a parody of the political, a mere mockery of his own march in the 5th, rather, the 9th’s march is the spiritual, even masonic counterpoise to the political march of the 5th. Unlike the finale of the latter which is the true political brotherhood of man, the finale of the 9th is the Rending of the Veil, a spiritual awareness that rises and converges upon the sublime.– the 9th symphony was instead a work of Romantic spiritualism, of Goethean holism, revealing the “open secret” of the universe. The dual aesthetic crimes of the National Socialists; appropriating European music for their own Prussian ends, and destroying the Vienna Philharmonic; were far more heinous and repugnant than their humanitarian crimes. We are not permitted to remember the former, and not permitted to forget the latter, because once we overcome the distortions of Europeanism by that government, Europeans, and white people more generally, will again rise to Promethean greatness, which is partly contained in Napoleon. The above trajectory is abhorrent to certain peoples, and so Europeans are not given the conceptual space with which to overstep these historical events of seventy to eighty years ago.
The original score to the film was written by Arthur Honegger, a member of the French musical collective ‘Les Six’ who had worked with Gance before on previous films such as La Roue; however, perhaps the most famous member of ‘Les Six’ was Poulenc, who incidentally quoted Beethoven’s Eroica in the third movement of his trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. Honegger’s score can still be found online, though that score is, in my estimation, inferior to Davis’ improvement upon it.
The Carl Davis score in the new Blu-ray edition of Napoleon mainly employs: Beethoven’s Eroica, and Coriolan overture; and Mozart’s 25th Symphony, infused with other compositions by Haydn and Mozart, with Davis’ own theme soaring above them. The theme Davis composed has an exceptional resemblance to the romanticism of Strauss or Wagner because it is essentially an operatic theme. Davis’ theme (or even leitmotif) is titled in the credits as The Eagle of Destiny. That is a Nietzschean theme which evokes the soaring horns of late romanticism, but which contains a concealed twinge of classicism found in the incipient Romanticism contemporaneous to Napoleon’s own life. The original theme is necessary because silent cinema, and particularly European cinema of that time, groped towards the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Grand landscapes and visual dramas were accompanied by entire symphony orchestras, and many directors of the time such as Gance, or D. W. Griffith who has fallen down the memory hole somewhat, were approaching a total artistic synthesis. It was not possible to quote such a theme from the music of Napoleon’s own time.
The triumphant theme also contains a reticent melancholy, the lonely trumpeter announces the theme of destiny because Prometheus is a lone hero. The theme is the destiny of one man, Napoleon, who would stain the silence of history with the artistic creation of his own life. The Straussian theme gestures towards Also Spake Zarathustra, and the intent is to cast Napoleon as the Nietzschean ubermensch.
Davis’ score is masterful, and captures the spirit of Napoleon as the archetype of Romanticism. Napoleon travelled with Goethe’s literature, and wrote numerous romantic treatises himself. On meeting Goethe, Napoleon revealed that he had read Werther no less than seven times, and allegedly showed Goethe some of his own fiction– I’m sure Goethe’s lasting impression of Napoleon was of the quality of the man over the quality of his fiction– for Napoleon was a romantic artist whose subject was war and peace.
The military genius, which grants Napoleon a position beside Hannibal and Alexander is explored in Gance’s film. The opening scene shows the child Napoleon at the military academy of Brienne, engaged in a snowball fight. This is historically fictionalised, but its structural primacy in the film was a tool of foreshadowing. Not only is the footage here to be recycled in the battle of Toulon, but the two antagonists– who are alarmingly Semitic for modern viewers– Philippeaux, and Peccaduc, were two boys who were supposed to become the future antagonists of Napoleon in later films. The later films were never made and so many of the obvious seeds Gance planted in the film are left unresolved. Given the biographical nature of the film, the seeds Gance planted can be reaped by the educated man’s own knowledge of history, and so an immediate resolution can be achieved. Yes, the geography master’s columbo trick of saying ‘ah yes, and one more thing, the island we have not yet considered, Napoleon, are you watching, yes? audience ready, yes? ST. HELENA’ is on the nose, and yes it can fall into brief lapses of melodrama; however, we can still admire the many other subtle thematic and historical cues Gance prepared for us, which only fully reveal themselves on the second or third viewing.
Napoleon is bullied in school for being a Corsican– the “Italians aren’t white” meme was alive and kicking it seems. The boy Napoleon’s only consolation is his pet eagle, which is hidden away in an abandoned garret. The Eagle is his destiny, and the young Napoleon finds consolation in the intensity of his own vision. Philippeaux and Peccaduc release the Eagle.
When Napoleon discovers his Eagle is missing he explodes into desperate rage, and interrogates his peers in the common sleeping-quarters. He condemns the boys’ collective silence and inflicts collective punishment. Napoleon’s vengeful fury is unrelenting, and he attacks all of the boys at once– a microcosm of his later military exploits against the arrogant European monarchies. The world is denying him his destiny, and so he must overcome the world– Nietzsche’s shadow looms over the scene.
Napoleon is roundly beaten by his schoolmaster and thrown out into the snow, where he lays on an old artillery cannon– yes, yes, reader, I know your nose is broken, but to enjoy this film you must enjoy its iridescent symbolism, and its expressionist caricature– The scene is mirrored when he sleeps on the drum at the battle of Toulon. While Napoleon cries in isolation and destitution, his eagle returns to him. Davis’ strings sweep into Beethovean climax, and the brass section shimmers with the theme of destiny. Napoleons tears of anguish transfigure into tears of joy and consolation in the presence of his destiny, symbolised by the Eagle. When Napoleon is friendless, alone, and being attacked on all sides, his one consolation is his destiny. It is one of the few scenes in cinema that stirs me to sublime trembling, it is perhaps one of my favourite scenes in cinema. The heraldic prelude of the film concludes with the Eagle of implacable will, the starchild Napoleon, and Nietzschean fanfare. From then the film unfolds into such a multitude of vistas and creative ideas, so that for me to grasp them I would need to at least write an opusculus, but it could be infused into a larger work– however this is all beyond the scope of this hasty article.
Gance moves us to the brooding revolutionary crowd. La Marseillaise is sung for the first time, and is taught to the revolutionaries. Davis incorporated Gossac’s first printed score in his interpretation of the hymn, which is infused into the rest of the film as a motif. It is in this stage of the film that we are introduced to the three titans of the revolution: Robespierre, with his black glasses and Mafiosi scowl, and the burly Danton who stamps around the willowy Marat as some kind of demonic aberration. The shot to Robespierre is extraordinary on first viewing, and caused me to fall into bemused laugher. In Gance’s expressionist caricature he shows the modernism of the revolution, its bohemianism, and its harshness.
A contemporary parallel to the above would be The Nouvelle Droite. The French New Right (GRECE) is one of the most interesting rightist intellectual developments of the post-war European Right. The New Right– not to be conflated with its vulgar namesake, and the pseudo-conservatism of the Thatcher years– is an attenuated sublimation of many of the ideas that were cardinal, and essential to Europeans throughout their history. I find both a modernist severity, and a classicism in the French New Right. They are adorned, both explicitly and implicitly, with a panoply of themes that have unified and broken though into the present.
Gance, while not a reactionary, and certainly not a fascist, although he flirted with what would now be considered as fascistic or quasi-fascistic themes, did reveal glimmers of conservatism in the pauses for breath which punctuate his film. The figure of Josephine, for instance, is represented as Napoleon’s projection of his own majesty– and Gance unspools that reactionary semiotic using those techniques that have been lost, or at least attenuated with the death of silent cinema.
Gance’s conservatism, or at least progressive reticence, is revealed in Napoleon’s reaction to the French Revolution as he experienced it. When revolutionary mobs are marching outside Napoleon’s apartment, and the flames of mob fury pierce the night– as barbs of revolutionary terror– Napoleon’s response is despair rather than exultation. In a visceral scene where the mob hang a man from his balcony, Napoleon looks between the taut rope, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and his pistol. After a series of rapid cuts he breaks down in laughter, which gives way to a resigned melancholy.
Napoleon was a man forged in the fires of Danton’s revolution, but was both at once its completion and its reactionary antithesis. He was to proclaim “I am the revolution!” and there is a striking scene in Gance’s film where Napoleon is addressing the empty council chamber. The ghosts of the revolution materialise to anoint Napoleon as the protector of the revolution– which also reveals a twinge of conservatism in Gance; the belief that after revolution comes consolidation.
So while Napoleon is not an explicitly political film, it is meta-political. Napoleon’s sublime vision, his Eagle of destiny, the heroic striving of Davis’ score, and the classical harshness of Beethoven’s Coriolan, all peer out in contemporary rightist thinking. Indeed, Faye’s intellectual subject of occidental man is shorn from the same granite as Gance’s Napoleon, almost a century later.
The essential characteristic of Napoleon is dynamism– a restlessness which tormented those of Napoleon’s time, Gance’s time, and now too our own. The static Napoleon-as-Emperor of Bondarchuk or Ingres is a stain on history, one which time will soon scrub out. Gance’s vision of Napoleon is that of David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, and the heroic subject of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony– he is a Nietzschean: young, gaunt, and dynamic, with eyes full of passionate intensity. We’ve lost our dynamism as a people, and if things are to change in this century we must recover it.
Upon the destruction of the French fleet during the Siege of Toulon, the British Navy manoeuvred around Napoleon’s rear, encircling him. Through the furies of cannon and blood Napoleon commanded his men to turnabout the guns to face the British. A man cried out, “We cannot; it is impossible!” to which Napoleon answered– “Impossible is not French!”
I urge all Europeans today– seek out this film, if only to shake off some of your own imagined ‘impossibilities.’