PRINT November 1987


The sounds of silents. And, of course, Charlie Chaplin. From a new edition of the writings of Sergei Eisenstein.

Edited and translated by Richard Taylor, Eisenstein, Selected Works. Volume I: Writings, 1922–34 will be published in December by Indiana University Press, Bloomington, and the British Film Institute, London, at 352 pages, with 20 black-and-white illustrations. The following prepublication excerpt, written by Eisenstein and Sergei Yutkevich, is the text of an essay entitled “The Eighth Art. On Expressionism, America and, of course, Chaplin.”

A CHAPTER FROM A STORY: "At the end of the Great War an improbable thing happened. The Festive Parnassus of the seven classical muses who were officially in session was invaded by a long-legged man with a rapid, somewhat surprisingly erratic gait, shaking his curly head of hair and the bowler perched on top of it and invariably waving a cane which he did not hesitate to poke under the nose of one of the respected muses. He took a jump and flopped down into the chairman's seat. Then, making a very funny face and tugging at the black whiskers above his upper lip, he shouted (with difficulty, because he was obviously unaccustomed to speaking in such brilliant company) a strange phrase that amazed the inhabitants of Parnassus:


That is how, unnoticed by the inhabitants of the RSFSR [the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic], the transformation of the poor old “bioscope” into a powerful art was accomplished and the genius of Charlie Chaplin took the eighth seat in the Council of the Muses.

That is already past history and, since we do not like archeological excavations, we shall, now that we have brought this remarkable fact to the attention of citizens, pass on to the present day. In France, which is the country that is now richest in theoretical research in cinema, Claude Blanchard has raised the question of “synchronism” or sound in cinema. Analyzing this problem, he writes:

Many people have spoken recently about a new application of synchronized sound to cinema. It is an extremely interesting problem, though by no means a new one, as we can demonstrate. People who visited the darkened halls in 1905–6 will of course remember the primitive imitation sounds that invariably accompanied the showing of a film (the crashing of the waves, the roar of an engine, the sound of breaking crockery, etc. etc.).

As for me I can vividly recall an unforgettable film in the Dufahel cinema in which a schoolboy appeared smoking a gigantic cigar and he suddenly disappeared from the screen. This was followed by sounds that left you in no doubt as to the sad state of his digestive tract. These imitation sounds were soon abandoned because of their technical imperfection. The engineer who had charge of the sound had at his disposition equipment that was unreliable and imperfect and as a result he was deprived of the opportunity of effecting a complete coordination between his sound and what was happening on the screen, i.e. to produce synchronism.

“The illusion did not work!”

In France there have still not been any practical achievements in this field and the only thing that Claude Blanchard can point to is the case of the Swedish film The Phantom Carriage that is accompanied by a successful combination of bells and percussion instruments. This made a powerful impression on Blanchard but the replacement of the engineer of 1905 by the band-leader of 1922 is not an achievement from the point of view of perfecting the technique of synchronism.

As far as the invention of highly complex technical apparatuses capable of combining sound, music and film is concerned, a series of extremely interesting experiments has recently been carried out by Charles de la Commune, the inventor of new synchronous equipment. Claude Blanchard, who was present at the demonstration of his successes in this field, foresees in the expansion of what has been achieved the creation of a “powerful dramatic or comic atmosphere (rejoice, Tairov!) but only, of course, within the limits of the necessary musical stylization.”

It is embarrassing to read of this kind of attitude to sound on the part of his contemporary and fellow-countryman, A. Tanneret, a critic living in a country that has already had a “jazz band” for two years. The question inevitably arises: does the final resolution of this problem in the proper direction lie with that same long-suffering RSFSR that has, in Meyerhold's words, taken upon itself the role of mouthpiece for the new theatrical (and now also cinematic) theories?

We see that the word “illusion,” so frequently repeated in the respected critic’s circle, has done a great deal of harm to the real work of French cinema.

The majority of recent films suffer from this affliction that we have now overcome. Even Louis Delluc, the prominent theoretician of contemporary cinema and author of a fine monograph on Chaplin and a book on Photogeny, was unable to resist the corrupting influence of naturalism in his films The Woman from Nowhere and Fever. Finally, in America, where it would seem that the perfect models for the new Eccentric cinema should originate, the temptations of “illusion” have not yet been overcome.

In his article on American cinema the Frenchman Galtier Boissière writes:

The Americans have taken scenery and trompe l’oeil to the height of perfection. The smallest studio in Los Angeles doesn't think twice before building a whole suburb of New York, a facsimile of the Avenue de l’Opéra, a Chinese quarter, the slums of Rio, mosques, Hindu temples, and so on. If you follow with consuming interest the thrilling round-up in the dubious back-alleys of the suburbs of San Francisco you may not even suspect that all this is taking place among buildings made of papier mâché which have only the one façade. And when a samurai disembowels himself in a Japanese garden you would never guess that this quaint little garden with the miniature trees is only ten square meters large—precisely the size that the camera lens can take in.

It is, of course, difficult for us, as we have departed from the Meiningen approach, to assess the degree to which the French and Americans have submitted to illustration but, if the constructions that Boissière writes about are built like Polenova's saccharine Jerusalem, a toy Paris of Catherine de’Medici, a cardboard Babylon of Balthazar or a badly glued Golgotha (photographed simply from a scale model in the well-known film Intolerance in the production by the American director Griffith) then we do not congratulate those refined critics who laughed at Father Sergius, the only Russian film to have reached America, and said it was “impossible to sit through to the end.” Films of that kind, which also flourish in Europe (Marcel L’Herbier's Don Juan and Faust, Louis Delluc's The Woman from Nowhere, Zoë Fuller's Lily of Life and the majority of the Swedish films now running in Paris), ought to provoke laughter but not, of course, because people moved from “daylight” in a garden to “twilight” in a drawing room or because the lighting in a cell does not change when a candle is carried from one corner to another—the reasons why the American cinema entrepreneurs who saw Father Sergius in Berlin did not buy it for New York.

As a counterbalance to this naturalistic tendency in Western cinema a new tendency, which we might christen “stylized,” has emerged in Germany. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed in six acts by Robert Wiene from a script by Carl Meyer and Hans Janowitz, is the first experiment in Expressionist montage carried out by the artists Rodstadt and Arpke.

On the subject of “stylized” cinema we should also mention the “animated film” defended by Hugues Boffe in his reports of the latest successes of the artists Matras and Boucher in bringing colors and the principles of shading into the techniques of animated film.

Lastly, the third and most powerful trend in cinema, which originates in America and offers new opportunities for genuine Eccentrism: the detective adventure comedy film has produced a whole series of wonderful actors, whom Léon Moussinac has contrasted with the most remarkable actors of the French theater. These are the fearless cowboy, Rio Jim, the “chevalier sans peur et sans reproche” of the American prairies, Mary Pickford, the ideal Anglo-Saxon woman, the heroine of improbable adventure films, Douglas the sportsman and optimist, Hayakawa the Japanese man, Fatty Arbuckle in his check trousers, the doltish but amusing Dudul and above all, of course, the incomparable Charlie Chaplin!

The craze everywhere is for Chaplin—Charlie! The newspapers enthuse, “Charlie goes for a walk. . . Charlie on his bike. . . Charlie on skates. . . Charlie with Millerant. . . Charlie in love. . . Charlie the drunkard.” That is the title of an article by the Frenchman Dreuse in which he poses the question of the difference between two views of the world in connection with Charlie.

Everyone is aware of the enormous influence that cinema now exerts on all the other arts. A number of French artists have reflected the images of contemporary cinema in their works: Fernand Léger, Picasso, Georges LeNain, Auberlot. Louis Latapie has produced a series of beautiful posters for the foyer of the cinema in Grenelle in which he portrays Chaplin in his films and Rio Jim.

Thus the “happy infant” (as Ilya Ehrenburg called it) grows bigger and prettier and the directors, artists, poets and technicians of the whole world who are interested in the victory of the new art must devote all their efforts to ensuring that their favorite infant does not fall into the obliging clutches of a “heliotrope auntie” and the sanctimonious watchdogs of morality.