Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Histoire des treize: La Duchesse de Langeais
DE 1927
regia/dir: Paul Czinner.
scen: Paul Czinner, dal romanzo di/based on a novel by Honoré de Balzac (La Duchesse de Langeais, 1833-34).
photog: Arpad Viragh, Adolf Schlasy.
scg/des: Hermann Warm, Ferdinand Bellan.
cost: Ilse Fehling.
stills: Walter Lichtenstein.
cast: Elisabeth Bergner (duchessa/Duchess de Langeais), Hans Rehmann (marchese/Marquis de Montriveau), Agnes Esterhazy (contessa/Countess Serezy), Paul Otto (marchese/Marquis de Ronquerolles), Elza Temáry (contessa/Countess Fontaine), Nicolai Wassiljeff (il giovane principe/the young prince), Olga Engl (la vecchia principessa/the old princess), Arthur Kraußneck (vice reggente/Vice-regent de Pamier), Else Heller (badessa/abbess), Leopold von Ledebur (duca di/Duke de Navarra), Jaro Fürth (duca di/Duke de Grandlieu), Hans Conrady (monaco/monk), Karl Platen (domestico/servant).
prod: Elisabeth Bergner-Film, per/for Phoebus-Film AG, Berlin.
v.c./censor date: 3.1.1927.
uscita/rel: 24.1.1927.
copia/copy: 35 mm, 2433 m (orig. 2697 m), 106′ (20 fps); did./titles: FRA.
fonte/source: Cinémathèque française, Paris.
    Not released in Finland.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM).
    Grand piano: Günter Buchwald.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (Honoré de Balzac), 10 Oct 2018

Jay Weissberg (GCM): "La Duchesse de Langeais forms part of a trilogy of novels that Balzac grouped under the title “Histoire des treize”, loosely connected by recurring characters, The Thirteen, who form a masonic cabal operating among the highest levels of Parisian society. The lure of Antoinette de Langeais, headstrong, seductive, and tragically fallible, proved irresistible for both screenwriters and actresses, and Paul Czinner surely saw it as an ideal vehicle for Elisabeth Bergner, one of Germany’s most important theatre stars as well as his life-partner (they married in 1933). When shooting began in 1926 he would have known that comparisons would be made with Frank Lloyd’s 1922 version The Eternal Flame, given that Bergner and that film’s star, Norma Talmadge, were considered two of the greatest dramatic actresses of the era. Czinner, unlike Flame’s screenwriter Frances Marion, deviated far less from the novel, to the relief of French critics who had praised Talmadge’s performance but were dismissive of the American need for happy endings. (Curiously, Carmine Gallone’s lost 1917 version, La storia dei tredici, adapted by Lucio D’Ambra and starring Lyda Borelli, likewise eliminated the downbeat finale – fancy that, a Borelli film with a happy ending!)"

"Also unlike the Lloyd version, Czinner didn’t bother to include the Duchess’s husband as a protagonist; for Balzac, Antoinette’s unhappy marriage with an absent spouse was a catalyst for her flirtations, but Restoration France was not 1920s Hollywood (though it was arguably closer in spirit to Weimar Germany), and the Duchess’s refusal to indulge in a consummated sexual liaison comes from a far more psychologically complex place than mere morals. Unsurprisingly given the film’s title, Liebe, Czinner develops the contrasts between Antoinette’s calculated coquetries at the start and her desperate, all-consuming love after the Marquis de Montriveau (Hans Rehmann) teaches her a lesson, allowing Bergner a range of emotions more celebrated by critics on the film’s original release than in subsequent discussions of the film. Liebe remains one of the least appreciated of the Czinner-Bergner collaborations, though when viewed through a Balzac lens the film is ripe for re-evaluation. Reviews in Germany were ecstatic, with most newspapers commentating on the prolonged ovation during the opening, when Bergner wasn’t allowed to leave the stage. The Berliner Morgenpost’s critique is a representative example: “A melancholy variant on an eternal melody, with compellingly beautiful images and a shattering main performance…much remains unforgettable….”"

"French reviews following Pax-Film’s release in March 1928, as Histoire des treize, were almost as glowing, with most writers celebrating Czinner’s adherence to the original narrative: “Of all the films drawn from Balzac until now, Histoire des treize is the only one that conveys in its smallest details the atmosphere of his novels… Not the slightest error, nor any fault of good taste, mars this beautiful reimagining, so clearly evocative of the Restoration.” (Le Gaulois, 13 August 1928) Henry Poulaille, in his article “Balzac au cinéma” (Cinéma, 15 March 1928), echoed those words, with an important coda: “We may add that this lovely film comes at the right time. It is a respectful nod by one of the young masters of the universal language that is Cinema, to the great Balzac, his senior, who also, with his pen, addressed the universe.”"

"Germaine Dermoz, Lyda Borelli, Norma Talmadge, Elisabeth Bergner: it’s quite a roster. But the most famous cinematic incarnation of the Duchess of Langeais never got beyond the planning phase: Greta Garbo, directed by Max Ophuls. Just imagine." Jay Weissberg (GCM)

AA: To Jay Weissberg's listing above of film adaptations of Honoré de Balzac's novel La Duchesse de Langeais let's also add the latest one, Jacques Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache, starring Jeanne Balibar. The Rivette connection is relevant because of the importance of Histoire des treize for his oeuvre in general, especially Out 1. My favourite sequence in it is of Éric Rohmer as "le balzacien" giving a lecture to Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) on the Histoire des treize.

Out 1. The Balzac specialist (Éric Rohmer) gives a lecture to Colin about Histoire des Treize.

Before their exile Paul Czinner and Elisabeth Bergner collaborated in a series of seven wonderful Kammerspiel films (Nju, Der Geiger von Florenz, Liebe, Doña Juana, Fräulein Else, Ariane, and Der träumende Mund / Mélo). Czinner belongs to the cinema's greatest directors of women, and this series is their key achievement, comparable with Ingmar Bergman's cycle of films starring Liv Ullmann, "his Stradivarius". Also bringing to mind other great collaborations such as: Lillian Gish / D. W. Griffith – Ingrid Bergman / Roberto Rossellini – Monica Vitti / Michelangelo Antonioni – and Anna Karina / Jean-Luc Godard.

The Bergner-Czinner range was great from Shakespearean androgyny to Schnitzlerian studies of female sexuality. They elevated and transcended conventions of melodrama in triangle dramas such as Nju and Mélo (both tell the same story: could Henri Bernstein's play have been inspired by Nju?). Elisabeth Bergner's performances were all about nuance. Their work is a key instance of le théâtre intime conveyed cinematically. It would be easy to imagine their producing a perfect film adaptation of Ibsen, Strindberg, or Chekhov.

I had never seen Liebe before, nor have I read Balzac's novel which has never been translated into Finnish. The love story is twisted, but not in the implausible way of John M. Stahl melodramas many of which we have been seeing this week. There is a conviction of authenticity in Balzac's story, which, as an introductory title announces, is representative about noblewomen of the faubourg Saint-Germain during Restoration. They are rich heiresses convinced of their superior standing.

The Thirteen of the original novel do not appear by that name in this film adaptation, but the gang is all here. They prove fatal in turning back the clock and preventing the Marquis's appointment with the Duchess. He is not credited, but is it not Anton Walbrook / Adolf Wohlbrück as the very man who turns back the clock?

In the finale they help the Marquis intrude the monastery where he has found the Duchess now as Sister Thérèse. They are determined to abduct her, only to find her as a corpse in her cellule.

They play with love, they suffer with love, they burn with love, she dies by love, he withers by love. Elisabeth Bergner's performance is a masterpiece of silent pantomime. From abundance the film proceeds towards austerity. Not without longueurs: this feature film is somewhat prolonged in contrast to the starter, the Les Films d'Art version which managed to squeeze the plot into eight minutes.

The melody of the soul was played sensitively by Günter Buchwald.

A modest and duped visual quality in a presumably rare print which it was a great privilege to experience in this presentation.

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