(3/10) This 1931 apocalypse film from French experimental mastermind of the silent era, Abel Gance, is a turkey of epic proportions. A heavy-handed religious moral tale from a director who fails to cope with the restrictions of sound films, and an all too obvious script that fails to surprise or engage the viewer.
End of the World (La fin du monde). 1931, France. Directed by Abel Gance. Written by Abel Gance, Jean Boyer, André Lang. Based on novel by Camille Flammarion. Starring: Abel Gance, Victor Francen, Colette Darfeuil, Jeanne Brindau, Samson Fainsilber. Produced by K. Ivanoff. IMDb score: 6.2. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
French director Abel Gance lamented that the world never got to see the full scope of his epic vision. At over three hours in length, backers thought the film was waaaay too long, so they took control and edited out almost half of the film, landing it at a much less demanding length of 1 hour and 45 minutes. The American distributor was even less caring about the auteur’s vision, and truncated the already truncated film into a standard exploitation length of 54 minutes, and replaced almost all dialogue with title cards. After seeing the pretentious moralist turkey that is La fin du monde in an 89 minute version, one is left with two possibilities.
1. A grand vision from one of France´s most lauded directors of the silent era has been slaughtered in the name of easy viewing.
2. 54 minutes would really have been quite sufficient for this badly produced and naive religious parable.
Either way, I can only review this film for what it is, and not for what it might have been.
The main synopsis is this: A scientist discovers a comet is heading towards Earth. A ruthless stock broker manipulates the public’s fears and hopes by first taking advantage of the stock plummet that the rumours create by buying cheap, after which he and the rest of the economic elite deny the coming cataclysm, thus making millions when the market recovers. The world’s millionaires meet the end of the world with a grand orgy of wine and women, but they all perish. Salvation comes in form of the Christian church, and the moral men and women who preach peace and love survive to build a better world. There is also a triangle drama about the hero and the villain being in love with the same girl. Now, if you are an avid reader of the blog, this may seem familiar. In fact, it is the exact plot of the Danish director August Blom’s film Verdens Undergang (The End of the World, review), made in 1916. The reason for the similarities is not that Gance copied Blom (he started developing the project in 1913) – but that both films are based on the novel La Fin du Monde (Omega: The Last Days of the Earth, 1894) by French author and astronomer Camille Flammarion. Blom didn’t credit Flammarion, though.
Both directors added their own material to the story, and subsequently substracted others. Blom’s film centres the story around two couples: one vain and greedy, one moral and content. Gance’s film has an elaborate love circle involving five or six different people. Blom’s film includes a long subplot iconcerning a socialist worker’s uprising in a mining village, Gance’s revolution is lead by the scientist who discovers the comet and starts preaching a pacifist world world government based on Christian faith. Blom’s film introduces a travelling preacher as one of the heroes, while Gance adds a modern prophetic Jesus figure, played by the director himself.
Abel Gance was never an easy director for the producers. His background was in theatre, where he was fond of making several hours long historic epics. One of his early films, Le Folie du docteur Tube (1915) was a surreal comedy where he and his cameraman experimented with warped mirrors. The producers refused to show it. He then made a whole host of more commercial films, where he nonetheless experimented wildly with camera angles, hand held camera, split screens, low angle shots, tracking shots, etc, quickly making himself a name as one of the pioneers of French cinema. In 1919 he released the film that would make him a household name in Europe, the silent masterpiece J’accuse. It was an anti-war film combined with a romantic drama. J’accuse was lauded for its use of subtle lighting and mobile camera, and most notably for a scene at the end depicting the return of a host of dead soldiers. For the shot he used 2 000 real soldiers that had recently returned from the battlefield at Verdun. The film also contains actual footage from World War One.
His next big hit was with La Roue in 1921, a tragic love drama incorporating similar complicated love mazes that Gance later employed in End of the World. The only problem was that his original edit of the film was a whopping 9 hours long. After a stern suggstion from the producers, he edited it down to two and a half hours. In the film he perfected the use of rapid cutting and scene montages that he would become legendary for. The film Abel Gance is perhaps most known for is the silent epic Napoleon (1935), tracing the ruler’s early life through the revolution and to the invasion of Italy. This was the ultimate masterpiece of Gance’s directorial vision, and along with the aforementioned directional methods, he also pioneered a revolutionary wide-screen method called Polyvision, using three different cameras. Ever the man to think in a grand scale, he envisioned this expensive and expansive project as only the first part in a six-part series about Napoleon Bonaparte. The first film was six hours long. But again, it was edited down for release. Gance then realised he was never going to get the money to complete all six films, and abandoned the project.
End of the World was Gance’s first talkie, and after all the revolutionary work he had done with his silent films, one would expect something of an electric and eclectic piece of art when this visionary included sound into the mix. And the film starts promisingly enough. In the opening shots we get a Christian choir lamenting with Roman soldiers occupying a yard. The camera then shows Jesus Christ on a cross, a crown of thorns upon his head and blood oozing from his scalp. This is a condemning, bitter Christ. The soldiers taunt him, women weep for him. The choir fills our ears. Then the camera starts moving backwards and we see that this is in fact a theatre stage showing The Passion of the Christ. Cut to the audience. Cut back to the burning eyes of Jesus. Back to the audience. A slick man in an expensive suits smugly smiles. He looks at a girl on stage. Back to the girl. She is blonde and beutiful and she clings to Jesus’ side. Back to Jesus. Back to the smug man nudging his older partner with his elbow, commenting on the girl. Back to the girl. Back to the suffering Jesus.
Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets. The first part of the film focuses on the man playing Jesus – an actor and poet, who gets wrongly accused for rape, and then bashed on the head. This clubbing causes him to see visions of the end of the world, and he starts prophesying a new world order built on an international unity of peace and love. Incidentally he is in love with the girl in the play, who is the daughter of the man who is with the rich man at the theatre, who also happens to fall in love with the girl, although he already has a girlfriend. Incidentally the Jesus-prophet also happens to have a brother, who happens to be the scientist who discovers the comet, who also happens to be in love with the girl in the play. He also happens to be the person that the Jesus-prophet figure happens to foresee as the leader of this future society. The Jesus-figure also happens to be played (extremely melodramatically and quite poorly) by Abel Gance himself. He also just happens to have a bunch of white pigeons hanging around his bed from where he is making his prophecies. Seriously. One sits on his belly during a whole scene, apparently picking seeds from his blanket. The authorities promptly remove him to the loony bin (Jesus, not the pigeon), and they should have taken the whole picture with them.
After this follows a rather pointless romantic drama, and a rather pointless cat-and-mouse game between the evil capitalists and the god-fearing, moral defenders of peace, morality, love and co-operation. The whole thing ends with a long shot of the capitalist orgy, which is intervened – seriously – by a whole horde of robed monks who just happen to be there when fire and brimstone starts hailing down. The scientist at what looks like a precursor the the UN assembly delivers a fiery speech and sets up the new world order of peace, to the backdrop of superimposed disaster and destruction, after which we get superimposed heads of world leaders enthusiastically accepting the new world order. Resounding music. A boy crawls out of the rubble. A new day is dawning. The dramatic music cues. We see a giant picture of the cross. A women with teary eyes looks towards the heavens. An African boy in a hut smiles as he looks at a statue of Mary and Jesus. A mother embraces her child. The End.
Let me see if I got it straight? Greed is bad. God is good. That it? OK, just wanted to make sure, the concept was a bit hazy.
It is possible that this was supposed to be a highly metaphoric and symbolic film, perhaps jolting the melodrama with ironic editing etc. But the problem is that for a long period of time we see none of the camera- and editorial experimenting that Gance was so famous for. This may very well be because of the problems that many filmmakers had in the early stages of sound – namely that the sound recording equipment was unwieldy, which made things like moving the camera difficult. On the other hand, directors like Rouben Mamoulian and James Whale overcame those problems beautifully in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, both made the same year. Apart from the beginning and the end this film is actually dully directed, filmed and edited. At places it almost looks like a serial. None of the sets are particularly interesting, neither is the acting. It is too obvious from the first twenty minutes where all this is going. The bad guys are simply just too bad and the good guys just too good. The moral is stuffed down our throats with giant ladles from the first minutes of the film until the last. I can only surmise that somewhere, at some point, something went horribly, horribly wrong. Whether it was the judgement of Gance or the producers we shall probably never know.
As I watched this film I was really afraid that my sometimes strong feelings about organised religion was getting in the way of my viewing experience, but the religious metaphor isn’t the problem in itself: I didn’t really have any qualms about the heavy Christian imagery of August Blom’s version of the story. Neither does it bother me in for example Metropolis (1927, review), where it is beautifully integrated in the story. It’s just that La fin du monde doesn’t feel like a film as much as it feels like a religious sermon of the very worst kind, literally a fire-and-brimstone warning from a pulpet for people to succumb to Jesus Christ or burn in hellfire. Then I was afraid there was a language barrier, that there was something in this movie I just didn’t get: I haven’t found the 89 minute version in English, so I’ve watched one dubbed to Russian, and another one with Spanish subtitles. I speak some Russian and I can understand some basic French and Spanish, so my impression was that I could follow the proceedings fairly well. However, I thought to myself that I must be missing something – how else can I feel that something Abel Gance has made is such utter rubbish? But, fortunately for my own sanity, I found that I wasn’t the only one who thought this film was a turd. Even when it was released, End of the World was a complete flop both commercially and critically, and more or less ruined Gance’s career.
Later critics have, to my relief, come to the same conclusion as I have. The French blog L’Oeil sur L’Ecran writes: “Alas, despite all the genius he showed in his silent film productions, Abel Gance does not manage to master the spoken word in his first production: the acting is terribly theatrical. In addition, the screenplay displays an almost childish naivety and becomes muddled with with romance and the attempt to create a modern Christ.” Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes: “Even at its full 1931 release length, La fin du monde is a delirious misfire.” He continues: “The problem is a naïve, emotional script that rushes from one sensational or miraculous scene to another like a Biblical epic by Cecil B. De Mille. […] Gance’s daring passion play scene fumbles his real point, that the church audience couldn’t care less about religion.” Douglas Messerli at Hyperallergic regognises the film’s faults, but is prepared to cut it some slack: “despite the fact that the acting and plot both are, at moments, nearly unbearable to watch — End of the World is a fascinating piece of filmmaking. […] The real wonderment of this film, however, is its cinematic experimentation. If one can forget the bad acting, overlook the clumsy cuts that leave the story in mid-action, and blink through some of the overblown aspects of the narrative, such as the comparisons drawn between the scientist-savior Marial (sic) Novalic and Jesus Christ, it is still possible to be highly entertained by the cinematic brilliance of Gance’s End of the World, a work far ahead of its time.”
Gance continued to make moderately successful films up until WWII, but was never again given the same kind of artistic and budgetal freedom as before. Most of his work was standard commercially viable fare. After the war he had problems getting funding for his projects and was more or less forgotten by the broad European audience, when the memories of the masterpieces of the silent film era started fading away. He enjoyed a slight revival in the late fifties and sixties when French new wave directors started heralding him as a forgotten genius. Gance didn’t retire from the business until 1971. In 1979 film historian Kevin Brownlow had pieced together a five hour version of the old masterpiece Napoleon from different surviving prints, and screened it at the Telluride Film Festival, with the 89-year old Gance in attendance, which again made a younger audience aware of the film and the director. He died two years later, having experienced a last period of fame and recognition. La Fin du Monde is not among his greater works, though, and has even been labelled as the worst film of his career.
End of the World (La Fin du Monde). 1931, France. Directed by Abel Gance. Written by Abel Gance, Jean Boyer, André Lang. Based on novel by Camille Flammarion. Starring: Abel Gance, Victor Francen, Colette Darfeuil, Jeanne Brindau, Samson Fainsilber, Sylvie Gance, Jean d’Yd. Cinematography: Roger Hubert, Nicolas Rudakov, Jule Kruger. Produced by K. Ivanoff for L’Ecran d’Art.