A railroad operator, Sisif, saves a young child, Norma, from the wreckage of a train crash. He raises the orphan girl alongside his biological son, Elie. The children grow up believing that they are related by blood. Both Sisif and Elie fall in love with Norma. Sisif reveals his feelings for Norma and the secret of her provenance to Monsieur de Hersan, a wealthy company engineer. Hersan blackmails Sisif in exchange for Norma’s hand in marriage. Norma marries Hersan and Sisif tries to kill himself. After an accident that leaves him partially blind, Sisif moves from Nice to Mont Blanc where he operates the funicular railway. Hersan and Elie fight for Norma and both men die. Norma moves in with Sisif and he dies peacefully at home.
The mythology of Abel Gance’s epic film, La Roue (The Wheel), includes a short declaration from Jean Cocteau: ‘There is cinema before and after La Roue, as there is painting before and after Picasso’. This claim has been read, almost without exception, as an affirmation of Gance’s unique film and cinematic talent (Abel 1983; Brownlow 1992; Cuff 2011). The comparison of Gance with Picasso also underscores the modernist, mechanical style that characterises the film. Indeed, La Roue depicts multiple train crashes and domestic conflicts through cinematographic collisions and visual ruptures. Gance tears both a family and a film apart, cobbling them back together in motley, unfamiliar ways. But critics have overlooked the joke in Cocteau’s judgment, the double meaning drawn from the symbol at the centre of Gance’s film: the wheel of life and modernity that turns, thoughtlessly, relentlessly, crushing any individuals in its path. In this reading of Cocteau (and Gance), there is cinema before and after La Roue, but the film does not make any difference. Cinema continues to turn, with or without it, before and after it. One cannot say whether Cocteau intended his assessment of Gance to be so playfully ambiguous, though the avant-garde experimented with word games, slips of the tongue, and uncanny doublings in the 1910s and 20s. One can, however, make the case for both readings of La Roue.
By nearly every measure, La Roue is an extraordinary cinematic work, visually and narratively divided into two expansive halves: ‘the symphony in black’, shot on location along the railroads of Nice, and ‘the symphony in white’, shot amid the spectacular snow-capped peaks of Mont Blanc. A melodramatic plot joins these distinct geographic sites together and guides its protagonist, Sisif (Séverin-Mars), from a life of drudgery, despair, and incestuous desire to (Oedipal) blindness, salvation, and, at last, his peaceful death 14,000 feet above the life he used to know. Despite the film’s attention to the industrial and transport technologies that rationalised and accelerated the rhythms of labour and leisure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, La Roue is a film that stretches out and takes its time, that wanders and seemingly gets lost in a string of improbable tragedies. Indeed, the film meanders unpredictably and inefficiently between Nice and Mont Blanc, gathering multiple train crashes, suicide attempts, fantasies, and deaths (by gunshot and mountain’s edge) along the way.
Production of La Roue lasted more than two years and far exceeded the limits of Gance’s original contract with Pathé (Cuff 2011: 224). The film premiered in Paris in 1922 with a running time of almost nine hours. It took three days to screen the entire film. It was projected on consecutive Thursdays at the Gaumont Palace theatre to a sold-out audience of 6,000 spectators (Abel 1983: 26). The colossal size of Gance’s film owes, in part, to his theory of cinema. In a 1912 essay, ‘The Sixth Art’, Gance defines cinema as a combinatory practice, a synthesis of the arts that surpasses them all:
“Let the cinema be naturally grandiose and human [ … ]. Let it not be theatrical, especially, but allegorical, symbolic. To plumb the depths of each civilization and construct the glorious scenario that sums it up, embracing all the cycles of all the epochs [ … ] – that is one of my highest dreams.” (Gance 1983: 66–7)
One can detect this dream in the unusual shape and structure of La Roue. The film brings together a dense network of mythological, religious, poetic, literary, and visual signs, many of which enter the film by way of direct quotation. The film opens with an epigraph from Victor Hugo – ‘Creation is a great wheel which cannot move without crushing someone!’ – and intersperses reflections on the nature of life, loss, and mortality from a diverse set of sources: Sophocles, Pascal, Chamfort, Baudelaire, Kipling, Zola, Cendrars. The list goes on. Each voice interrupts the narrative, what Gance might describe as the ‘theatrical’ layer, and reminds spectators of the larger allegorical stakes of these lives spent along the railway.
The unwieldy, fragmentary quality of La Roue can also be read against the personal melodramas that circumscribed the film’s production. Gance wrote and revised the script as he went, and as the health of his fiancée, Ida Danis, demanded. Danis was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly before filming began. The abrupt narrative shift from black to white, from Nice to Mont Blanc, was born out of an abrupt shift in Danis’s health. Gance moved production (and the narrative) to help her ailing lungs. Production time expanded as Gance’s attention drifted elsewhere. Danis died on the very last day of shooting, April 9, 1921, and Gance dedicated the film to her memory. The lead actor, Séverin-Mars, also died of illness shortly after completing the film. These twin tragedies offer an alternative framework for understanding the film’s sprawling narrative structure, as well as its allegorical engagement with cycles of shadow and light, death and resurrection. That is, the narrative took on the shape of actual tragedies unfolding beyond the frame and its allegory of the unforgiving wheel is shot through with the specificity of real, individual loss.
For Gance, the distinct power of cinema lies not only in its ability to bring together diverse creative practices, but also to set them in motion. On the cinematic screen, ‘characters descend from their frames’ and ‘the wings of the Victory of Samothrace actually quiver’ (Gance 1983: 66). Almost all forms of cinema mobilise characters and objects that the literary and plastic arts once petrified. However, La Roue exceeds this order of mobility. Gance layers movement upon movement within each shot and experiments with the rhythms constructed out of the spaces between them. The film assembles an incredible range of techniques – mobile cinematography, multiple superimpositions, rapid montage, textual animations, and special effects – each of which contributes to a kind of hyperactive visual dynamism. In one of the film’s first scenes, the camera captures a single line of track from the back of a moving locomotive. The track splits and diverges, curves and eventually returns to the form of a single iron rail. This image is a very literal representation of the railroad, of its speeding trains and tracks. But it is also a figure for speed itself, for the (cinematic and industrial) machines that produce new ways of moving and seeing. The mountains of Mont Blanc are similarly abstracted, transformed from the crystalline shapes of on-location shooting to a blur of white, a figure of emptiness or renewal. One finds here, too, a counterbalance to the theatrical and referential tendencies of the ‘sixth art’. The movements of La Roue momentarily transform the diegetic world beyond all recognition.
More than a collage of artistic practices, La Roue is a great, tottering paean to the European avant garde of the 1920s and 30s. The film’s oscillations between theatrical and allegorical expressions, between narrativity and abstraction, and between the patterns of human existence and the movements of machines betray a disparate set of cinematic impulses and influences. Indeed, French film scholar Richard Abel argues that La Roue is a ‘paradoxical’ film, torn between ‘several competing theories of film then emerging in France’ (Abel 1983: 29). For Abel, Gance inherits his commitment to on-location shooting from a school of realism developed by Louis Delluc and André Antoine; he develops his graphic and rhythmic sensibilities alongside ‘pure’ film theorists like Fernand Léger; and he constructs his story within the paradigms of French social realism (29–30). But one must also look beyond the boundaries of France to see the breadth of Gance’s aesthetic genealogy. La Roue borrows from the formal experiments with line, shape, and movement that define the cinema of Walter Ruttman, Hans Richter, and Viking Eggeling (among others). The film’s montage sequences, as well as its obsessive return to the wheels of modern life and the cycles of twentieth-century labour echo Dziga Vertov’s 1922 Kino-Pravda series. One can also trace a line from La Roue to the burgeoning ‘city symphony’ genre and, in particular, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921). The latter premiered during the production of La Roue and, not unlike Gance’s film, interspersed its images with the words of Walt Whitman.
The promiscuity and proportions that made La Roue such an exceptional cinematic event equally made it an unreproducible (and perhaps undesirable) production model, a nearly unexportable product, and a very difficult film to both restore and study. Three months after the film’s premiere in Paris, Gance began tinkering with the size and 460 La Roue/The Wheel (1923) shape of La Roue for its general release. Multiple iterations of the film followed, each with a slightly different length, combination of shots, and plot structure. Gance routinely remade his films in post-production. Both J’accuse (1919) and Napoleon (1927) underwent a similar set of reductions and re-releases. According to Paul Cuff, who inventories the many versions of La Roue in his history of the film’s restoration:
“The premiere version was 10,730 metres long, approaching nine hours in length, and divided into a prologue and six ‘chapters’. The six-chapter version was subsequently distributed in many provincial areas, but Gance created a slightly shortened version [9,200m] for the Parisian general release in February 1923. [ … ] Gance planned that the six-part version would be the standard edition shown within France and that a shorter [4,200m] version would be the standard export version. In fact, the 9,200m version was to be more widely seen in metropolitan France than the premiere version, and most foreign countries didn’t even receive the two-part, 4,200m version. The film never achieved an American release.” (2011: 224)
These various iterations of La Roue circulated throughout the 1920s; some versions were still in theatres when Gance’s next film, Napoleon, premiered (Cuff, 225). The ‘original’ film, however, has not survived and the version available to contemporary scholars (without access to archival prints) represents just one of the many ‘copies’ that circulated after its première and, of course, just one of the many possible restoration projects. Lobster Films completed the restoration work of this particular version in 2008. The film’s running time is just four and a half hours. In Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, he refers to both Abel Gance and Séverin-Mars and dismisses their views of cinema as ‘insensitive’ and ‘forced’. Benjamin argues that both figures mistake film for the kind of artistic practices that the moving image forcefully opposes, if it does not completely annihilate them. He writes:
“It is instructive to note how their [Gance and Séverin-Mars] desire to class the film among the ‘arts’ forces these theoreticians to read ritual elements into it – with a striking lack of discretion. Yet when these speculations were published, films like L’Opinion publique and The Gold Rush had already appeared. This, however, did not keep Abel Gance from adducing hieroglyphs for purposes of comparison, nor Séverin-Mars from speaking of the film as one might speak of paintings by Fra Angelico.” (Benjamin 2003: 258–9)
For Benjamin, cinema does not extend or compound the auratic qualities of art. It diminishes the singularity of the original work in an endless and indistinguishable set of copies produced automatically by machines. As a film object, however, La Roue troubles the model of mass reproduction that Benjamin has in mind. It also, remarkably, opposes the very images of modern, industrial labour (gears turning, trains colliding, bodies suffering, etc.) that dominate the film’s diegesis. La Roue is a staggeringly excessive, personal, and manifold film. In other words: it is much closer to the autographic arts than Benjamin allows. The title refers not to an original and its copies, but to multiple originals, each one as idiosyncratic as the next. Returning to the claim from Cocteau with which this essay began, there is no ‘before and after’ La Roue, because there is no one version of the film, no single moment that marks its history. La Roue also fails to change the course of the cinematic arts precisely because it deviates so considerably from them. Instead, the wheels of cinema continued to turn and rolled right past La Roue.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Films Abel Gance. Producers: Abel Gance and Charles Pathé. Director: Abel Gance. Screenwriter: Abel Gance. Assistant: Blaise Cendrars. Cinematographers: Gaston Brun, Léonce-Henri Burel, Marc Bujard and Maurice Duverger. Editors: Abel Gance and Marguerite Beaugé. Original Music: Arthur Honegger. Cast: Séverin-Mars (Sisif), Ivy Close (Norma), Gabriel de Gravone (Elie), Pierre Magnie (Jacques de Hersan).]
Richard Abel, ‘Abel Gance’s Other Neglected Masterwork: La Roue’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1983, pp. 26–41.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, in Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (eds), Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938–1940, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 251–83.
Kevin Brownlow, ‘Abel Gance’, in The Parade’s Gone By, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992.
Paul Cuff, ‘Interpretation and Restoration: Abel Gance’s La Roue’, Film History, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2011, pp. 223–41.
Abel Gance, ‘The Era of the Image Has Arrived!’ in Mary Lea Bandy (ed.), Rediscovering French Cinema, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1983 , pp. 53–4.
Abel Gance, ‘A Sixth Art’, in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907–1939, volume I, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988 , pp. 66–7.
Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1997.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.