PRINT February 2016


Jean Epstein, Coeur fidèle (The Faithful Heart), 1923, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 84 minutes. Marie (Gina Manès).

1921 WAS AN ANNUS MIRABILIS for Jean Epstein (1897–1953). Born in Warsaw and raised in Switzerland, the twenty-four-year-old former medical student had his first book—an ambitious study of French poetic modernism grandly titled La poésie d’aujourd’hui, un nouvel état d’intelligence (Today’s Poetry: A New Mind-Set)—published by a prestigious vanguard press, Éditions de la Sirène. Its positive reception made him a rising star in the Parisian avant-garde arts scene, and literary luminaries as different as André Gide and Max Jacob expressed disappointment that the hitherto unknown author had not included analyses of their works alongside those by Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Louis Aragon, and the young critic’s mentor, the peripatetic Swiss writer Blaise Cendrars. This taste of intellectual celebrity and a promised job at La Sirène encouraged Epstein to move to the French capital, where the range of his acquaintances expanded rapidly. Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier welcomed him to L’Esprit Nouveau, the new international journal they coedited; over the coming months, his articles on poetry and poetics, the latest scientific research, a recent Viennese import called psychoanalysis, current movies, and even kabbalistic mysticism would appear in its pages. In the next couple of years, moreover, other intellectual magazines in France and Western Europe requested contributions from him, and translations of his texts brought Epstein’s distinctive reflections on literature and the other arts to audiences as far away as Soviet Russia and the United States.

But if literary criticism and a predilection for intellectual debate had been his initial calling cards, pointing toward a career as a man of letters, Epstein was even more passionate about the medium some in France were beginning to call the Seventh Art. Epstein was a member of the first generation—Béla Balázs, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Lev Kuleshov (born, respectively, in 1884, 1893, 1896, 1898, and 1899) were among his principal peers—to have grown up entranced by moving pictures. As these future filmmakers and film theorists approached maturity at the end of World War I, each began to speculate about the ways in which the new mass medium’s artistic possibilities might be capable of transforming in unique, and indeed utopian, ways the world of shattered political systems, class conflict, war, and mass death that they had inherited. For them, cinema was the art of the present, the camera’s eye a unique tool for seeing the world anew, and the manifold new film techniques a way of reshaping the experience and consciousness of the masses.

Epstein, in fact, had already devoted a perceptive chapter to the cinema’s influence on modern letters in La poésie d’aujourd’hui, and the book itself was predicated on an analysis of modern social dynamics that made cinema an important new art form. Even before 1921 was over, La Sirène released Epstein’s strikingly designed second book—what the French call a plaquette—titled Bonjour cinéma. Only a few dozen pages long, it comprised three brashly opinionated, poetically formulated essays, simple verses, and evocative illustrations that succinctly evoked and pushed beyond more than ten years of existing theoretical speculation about the movies in France. Epstein’s very individual formulations, moreover, anticipated some of the most fruitful thinking about the cinema’s appeal and promise—ideas that would become major themes in European filmmakers’ and critics’ writing about the cinema during the next decade. In Paris, his cinematic prescriptions (he championed the use of close-ups to avoid narrational intertitles, endorsed rhythmic editing and bravura camera movements, and shunned static shots and histrionic performance styles) were instantly endorsed by many on the cutting edge of French film production. The industry’s old guard resisted, and the ensuing controversy pushed Epstein into the French cultural limelight for the second time in a year. He would remain in the cinematic fray for much of the 1920s, as he charted his own course through the various isms, industry factions, and art movements making competing claims on cinema while bidding for broader cultural recognition. Epstein fit into none of the diverse camps that emerged. He did not champion—indeed, he dismissed—the prospect of a formalistic cinéma pur espoused by such filmmakers as Henri Chomette, Viking Eggeling, and his friend Fernand Léger; nor was he a Dadaist or Surrealist like Man Ray or Luis Buñuel (who would serve as assistant director on two of Epstein’s films). And he was certainly no cheerleader for standard industry practices. He was an independent who took his own ideas seriously; modified over time, made more complex, reconfigured to encompass wider realms of cultural ramification, the theories he first sketched as a young belle lettriste would serve as touchstones informing both his filmmaking and his theoretical commentaries over the course of a three-decade career.

His new Parisian contacts and a dose of good luck propelled Epstein into film production with astonishing speed in 1922, but his thinking about the possibilities of the film medium crystallized before he had even begun to make his first movie. His early writings were elliptically but cogently rooted in principles that may be broadly characterized as modernist. He summarized this core conviction in a lecture just two years after the publication of Bonjour cinéma:

For every art builds its forbidden city, its own exclusive domain, autonomous, specific, and hostile to anything that does not belong. Astonishing to relate, literature must first and foremost be literary; the theater, theatrical; painting, pictorial; and the cinema, cinematic. Painting today is freeing itself from many of its representational and narrative concerns. . . . What one might call the high art of painting seeks to be no more than painting, in other words color taking on life. And any literature worthy of the name turns its back on those twists and turns of plot which lead to the detective’s discovery of the lost treasure. Literature seeks only to be literary. . . . Similarly, the cinema should avoid dealings, which can only be unfortunate, with historical, educational, novelistic, moral or immoral, geographical or documentary subjects. The cinema must seek to become, gradually and in the end uniquely, cinematic; to employ, in other words, only photogenic elements. Photogénie is the purest expression of cinema.1

Like Louis Delluc, the leading French film critic in the 1910s and early ’20s, who had been the first to claim photogénie as the foundation of cinema’s appeal, Epstein made only halfhearted efforts to define the term with any precision. It remained mysteriously opaque, open-ended, an intuited aspiration. His attempts at specifying its essence were in any case less important than his enumeration of certain strategies that could supposedly produce it and thereby augment a film’s emotional power. A photogenic—that is, a truly cinematic cinema—could virtually dispense with narrative. “Exposition is illogical,” Epstein wrote:

What happens snares us like a wolf trap. The denouement, the unraveling of the plot, can be nothing more than a transition from knot to knot. So that there are no great changes in emotional heights. The drama is as continuous as life. . . . So why tell stories, narratives which always assume a chronology, sequential events, a gradation in facts and feelings? . . . There are no stories. There have never been stories. There are only situations, having neither head nor tail; without beginning, middle, or end, no right side or wrong side . . . without limits in past or future, they are the present.2

However, once employed by the famous Pathé studios, as he was almost immediately after the success of his first film, a commemoration of Louis Pasteur (Pasteur [1922]), Epstein was forced to work in the shadow of his own radical ideas. Inevitably, he was forced into compromises: Producers obliged him to accept scriptwriters’ scenarios reminiscent of the types of “sub-literature” he spurned. Some of the more strenuous advocates of pure cinema regarded such concessions as a kind of betrayal. Epstein, who aspired to make movies for the masses, tried to make the best of his difficult situation by fashioning plots that could be used to maximum cinematic effect. His first film for Pathé, for example, was an adaptation in 1923 of Balzac’s short story “L’auberge rouge” (The Red Inn), whose intricate plot involves complex flashbacks amid growing suspicions that ultimately lead to the unmasking of a criminal. Compared with many routine productions of the day, such a plot knowingly echoed sophisticated literary models Epstein admired. This modernist fragmentation of narrative, with its smooth shifts between past and present and its observation in close-up of the nuanced expressions on characters’ faces, reached a high point in the fractured, multipart storytelling of one of his superbly edited, deeply ambiguous masterpieces, La glace à trois faces (The Three-Sided Mirror, 1927), based on a Paul Morand story. Its “denouement, the unraveling of the plot,” was “nothing more than a transition from knot to knot.”

In other films, Epstein reduced his story line to a skeletal melodrama, the better to highlight the impact of certain film techniques. Such is the case with his celebrated Coeur fidèle (The Faithful Heart, 1923), whose scenario, he claimed, was written in a single night. He contrived a spare, banal triangular romance, initially set in a French port bar, which echoed Louis Delluc’s film Fièvre (Fever, 1921) even as it anticipated the locales and melancholy moods of French “poetic realist” films of the 1930s. The simple story becomes a mere pretext for a number of sequences in which Epstein attempted to realize some of the most ambitious imaginative projects he had forecast in Bonjour cinéma. Most famous is one in a fête foraine, or traveling carnival. “I yearn for a drama aboard a merry-go-round,” Epstein had written, “or more modern still, on airplanes. The fair below and its surroundings would be progressively confounded.”3 He achieved this goal by including a scene in which the villain takes the rather abject heroine he wants to seduce on an airplane ride at a fairground. The director perched a camera precariously on a seat in front of the lecherous Petit Paul and the hapless Marie to take two-shots and close-ups of them as they whirled through space, and intercut these with blurred, possibly subjective footage of the surroundings whizzing by. The lengthy scene is among the most exhilarating Epstein ever fashioned. Lauded by progressive filmmakers in France, it was often excerpted and shown at art salons and ciné-club gatherings; it also became quite well known abroad.4

Coeur fidèle illustrated that an emphasis on sheer sensations of speed and motion could supplant, at least temporarily, a plot’s twists and turns. That is because, Epstein insisted, photogénie depended on movement; static shots were anticinematic. As he stated in “Grossissement” (Magnification), the lead essay in Bonjour cinéma:

The landscape may represent a state of mind. It is above all a state. A state of rest. . . . But “the landscape’s dance” is photogenic. Through the window of a train or a ship’s porthole, the world acquires a new, specifically cinematic vivacity. A road is a road but the ground which flees under the four beating hearts of an automobile’s belly transports me. The Oberland and Semmering tunnels swallow me up, and my head, bursting through the roof, hits against their vaults. Seasickness is decidedly pleasant. I’m on board the plummeting airplane. My knees bend. This area remains to be exploited.5

Jean Epstein, Coeur fidèle (The Faithful Heart), 1923, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 84 minutes. Marie (Gina Manès) and Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële).

Like many of his peers, Epstein—who took delight in driving fast cars—sought opportunities to take shots from inside a racing automobile, as he did in La glace à trois faces to re-create the feelings of thrust and vertiginous speed that express the antihero’s sense of freedom from romantic attachments. Moving cars appear in several of Epstein’s other films, including Le double amour (Double Love, 1925) and L’homme à l’Hispano (The Man with the Hispano-Suiza, 1932). But he was also capable of downshifting to slower rhythms, as in La belle Nivernaise (The Beauty from Nivernais, 1923), which luxuriated in lengthy panning shots taken from a barge floating down canals in the French provinces.

Epstein was always particularly alert to shaping a film’s overall rhythm. In L’auberge rouge, he asked the performers to slow down their movements to lend weight to the evolving psychological drama. Later in the decade, he famously made use of actual slow motion in his adaptation of two Edgar Allan Poe stories, under the title La chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928), which remains his best-known work.6 Such a technique was especially effective when filming close-ups of faces or important objects. “The close-up is the soul of cinema,” he wrote in “Magnification.” Close-ups transported viewers to a more intimate arena, where, as he put it, the drama became “anatomical,” inviting the viewers’ greater analytic scrutiny as well as their absorption in the images as their experience of time palpably slowed. Such was the case in Usher, as slow motion augmented the intensity of Roderick and Madeline Usher’s facial expressions, conveying their mysteriously painful, neurotic relationship. Epstein would continue to use slow (as well as reverse) motion in many of his later films, either to subtly underscore the human drama—this is especially true of the films he made in Brittany, such as Finis Terrae (1929) and his penultimate film, Le tempestaire (The Storm Tamer, 1947)—or to refashion the very identity of the objects he filmed, like the waves he momentarily froze into sculptural objects in Mor’vran (The Sea of Ravens, 1930).

On the other hand, Epstein commended the use of close-ups that were brief and involved motion, whether that of the subject or that of the camera recording it, as they lent themselves readily to the fashioning of rhythmic montage sequences. He dreamed of seeing “a dance shot successively from the four cardinal directions,” as he mused in “Magnification”: “Then, with strokes of a pan shot or of a turning foot, the room as it is seen by the dancing couple. An intelligent découpage will reconstitute the double life of the dance by linking together the viewpoints of the spectator and the dancer, objective and subjective, if I may say so.”7 In Le lion des Mogols (1924), a movie made for Les Films Albatros with the famous Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine in the starring role, Epstein finally realized the dance he had imagined. The film’s convoluted plot could not have been to the director’s liking, but an extended dance sequence permitted spectators a temporary release from the story’s contrivances.

Perhaps Epstein’s most striking idea, as original as it can be confusing, involved his conceptualization of the camera and, more generally, of the whole panoply of available cinematic strategies. In his 1921 essay “Le sens I bis” (The Senses I [b]), also from Bonjour cinéma, he wrote:

People talked of nature seen through a temperament, or of temperament seen through nature. But now there is a lens, a diaphragm, a dark room, an optical system. The artist is reduced to pressing a button. . . . The Bell and Howell is a metal brain, standardized, manufactured, marketed in thousands of copies, which transforms the world outside it into art. The Bell and Howell is an artist, and only behind it are there other artists: director and cameraman.8

For Epstein, the camera and its related techniques were not simply tools to create art as paintbrushes were for painters. Rather, the camera’s “metal brain” was an instrument of revelation; like a telescope or a microscope, it provided access to realms of insight and knowledge beyond normal human ken. By recording images at extended intervals, it could convey the gestural grace of a growing flower or the poetry of forming crystals; the camera animated what it filmed, endowed phenomena with souls by bringing them to life as transformed entities displaying, as Epstein put it, novel moral personae. His thought was rooted in an epistemophilia that mesmerized him from his earliest encounters with the medium he devoted his life to. The camera could be a microscope of time as well and served him as a philosopher’s stone. In two of his later books—L’intelligence d’une machine (The Intelligence of a Machine, 1946) and Le cinéma du diable (The Devil’s Cinema, 1947)—he applies the lessons of quantum mechanics to a metaphysics of the moving image and probes what he believed to be the revolutionary conceptual implications and dilemmas unleashed by cinema.9

In her theoretical magnum opus of 1946, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, the vanguard American filmmaker Maya Deren reports having received a copy of The Intelligence of a Machine: “I have not yet read it, but the approach implied in the title and the poetic, inspired tone of the style in which Mr. Epstein writes of a subject usually treated in pedestrian, historical terms leads me to believe that it is at least interesting reading for those who share, with me, a profound respect for the magical complexities of the film instrument.”10 Deren never articulated the precise ways in which she found his book compelling, but that she found in its author a kindred spirit is clear enough. Sadly, the leading film critic and film theorist in postwar France—respectively, André Bazin and Jean Mitry—either ignored or rejected Epstein’s philosophical ruminations on the cinema. In the United States, he was virtually invisible in film culture for two decades after his death. His theoretical writings also remained almost entirely unknown to the generation of English-speaking film scholars being trained in the fledgling film-studies programs of the 1960s; those who could read Epstein in French, for their part, didn’t probe deeply into his writings. In any case, the abstractness of his concerns was out of step with the pragmatic aspirations of the first auteurist critics, and by the ’70s, many of the freshly trained Ph.D.s preferred to pursue the novel theoretical approaches afforded by structuralism, semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and feminism in an effort to extract contemporary meanings from the movies. Epstein’s conceptualization of the cinematic apparatus as a kind of world-structuring device, for example, was overlooked even during the ’70s vogue for “apparatus theory” in film departments.

Already by the time of his death in 1953, Epstein’s films were rarely shown in France, and despite a partial retrospective of his films at New York’s Anthology Film Archives in 1971, only his Poe film could be readily seen in the US, because it was distributed by the Museum of Modern Art. Epstein’s star, once so bright, had almost utterly waned. His reputation had descended into that tunnel which the director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois (who with Epstein’s sister, Marie, would become the principal guardian of Epstein’s legacy), had posited as the fate of most filmmakers.

It took more than a quarter century for Epstein to emerge. His reputation began to recover only after a trickle of scholarly studies of his early film theory and silent films were published in the 1980s.11 Even then, his manifold achievements in both written and cinematic forms were not given the critical attention long accorded his peers’ works. It was not until the late ’90s that he began to receive the recognition he was due, and scholarly attention has accelerated since the opening of his personal archive in the first years of the new century. The availability of a large cache of his notes, scripts, letters, and unpublished texts, including one bearing surprising revelations about his homosexuality,12 has spawned a rising count of critical evaluations and scholarly conferences devoted to his work.13 Plans for a multivolume edition of his writings, which promises to include previously unpublished works, are moving forward, and the Cinémathèque Française’s restorations of a number of his important films have recently become available on DVD, including a substantial box set put out by Potemkine in France. The stage has thus been set for a major reconsideration of Epstein’s place in film history.

If the trajectory of his career must unfortunately be described as a descending arc, Epstein nevertheless was able to make more than forty films of varying lengths in an array of genres for companies small and large over the course of thirty years. Some of his movies are disappointingly conventional, yet in almost every one there are moments when his creative intelligence shines through. And the best of his films, particularly some of those made in the ’20s and early ’30s, are spectacular artistic successes: Coeur fidèle, La glace à trois faces, La chute de la maison Usher, Finis Terrae, and Le tempestaire are important, innovative works that can stand comparison with any produced by his contemporaries. Major filmmakers such as René Clair, Jean Renoir, Jean Grémillon, Eisenstein, Robert Flaherty, and Luchino Visconti have testified to the profound impact Epstein’s films and ideas had on their own work.

Epstein’s achievements remain resonant and engaging today. That is why the current traveling retrospective of many of his most celebrated films is so welcome. The opportunity to see most of Epstein’s best (as well as, admittedly, some of his lesser) works in 35-mm prints projected on a big screen promises to encourage wider public and critical engagement with this still-underappreciated cineaste. Epstein’s time may finally have come.

Organized by Kathy Geritz of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the traveling retrospective “Young Oceans of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein” is playing at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA, through Mar. 5; travels to the Pacific Film Archive, Mar. 4–Apr. 10; TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto, dates TBD.

Stuart Liebman is professor emeritus of media studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.


1. Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” trans. Tom Milne, in French Film Theory and Criticism: 1907–1939, ed. Richard Abel, vol. 1, 1907–1929 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 314. First delivered as a lecture at the Salon d’Automne in November 1923, the text appeared in print as “De quelques conditions de la photogénie” in Cinéa-Ciné pour Tous, no. 19 (August 15, 1924): 6–8.

2. Jean Epstein, “The Senses I (b),” trans. Tom Milne, in Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism, 242.

3. Jean Epstein, “Magnification,” trans. Stuart Liebman, in Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism, 237.

4. The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg later took this sequence to the USSR, where, despite criticisms of the film’s lack of class consciousness, it received respectful attention, and the French ambassador Paul Claudel introduced the film in Japan.

5. Epstein, “Magnification,” 237.

6. The two stories are “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Oval Portrait.”

7. Epstein, “Magnification,” 237.

8. Epstein, “The Senses I (b),” 244.

9. Christophe Wall-Romana recently translated L’intelligence d’une machine into English as The Intelligence of a Machine (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014).

10. Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (Yonkers, NY: Alicat Book Shop Press, 1946), 47–48.

11. Stuart Liebman, “Jean Epstein’s Early Film Theory, 1920–1922” (doctoral dissertation, New York University, 1980); Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915–1929 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism.

12. Jean Epstein, Ganymède, essai sur l’éthique homosexuelle masculine, in Écrits complets, vol. 3, eds. Nicole Brenez, Joël Daire, and Cyril Neyrat (Paris: Independencia Éditions, 2014).

13. Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul, eds. Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012); Christophe Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2013); Joël Daire, Jean Epstein: Une vie pour le cinéma (Grandvilliers, France: La Tour Verte, 2014).