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The Silent Musicality of Dimitri Kirsanoff

Ménilmotant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

EssayPart of Issue #13: So This Is Silence

Searching for Interwar Poetry

The 1920s was a time of cinematic vanguards: both at the level of artistic experimentation and industrial development. Movements previously tied to the fine arts expanded into the medium of film, consolidating movie-making as a means of profit and, in doing so, creating an industry. To give one obvious example, the Expressionism of the Weimar Republic developed in tandem with the rise of modern Hollywood. Even this characterization doesn’t touch on the technical innovation that would redefine film: the advent of synchronized sound recording, which led to the cinema of the 1930s and, with it, the definitive end of silent cinema as a production standard worldwide.

Such developments were, sadly, inevitable. Since its birth, the art of film and its industry have been oriented around a pursuit of technological innovation. The first forays into recording sound with image, and presenting it in synchrony, came as early as the 1890s when the Cinemacrophonograph exhibited to Parisian audiences. It was only a matter of time before similar technologies became sophisticated enough to make the mass production of sound features both technically and financially viable. Moreover, these experiments — just like the many attempts at recording natural colors in film — gained the approval of a global audience that had grown accustomed to cinema as a dependable source of new ideas, unprecedented sights, and, eventually, sounds.

The 1920s was caught between wars, when cinema came of age as entertainment and artistic expression, receiving attention from critics and academics alike. Theoretical explorations of the medium started to gain traction. In the Soviet Union, montage theory exalted formalism as a critical force within filmmaking, viewing the collision of independent shots as the womb of a cinematic idea. In this conception of the art, editing, through its ability to create meaning, is the true heart of cinema. The interaction between shots, rather than the individual merits of each image, sits at the center of the medium.

Such dialectical approaches to the form may resonate with mechanical coldness, but their central ideas are difficult to contradict. Whether or not filmmakers followed Soviet montage theory, cutting as cinema’s defining gesture is easy to discern throughout 1920s cinema. One must acknowledge those filmmakers who repudiated the (over)use of writing within filmmaking. Intertitles function as a crutch, a verbal articulation of ideas that circumvents the specificities of the seventh art. Vsevolod Pudovkin found them inadequate, while F.W. Murnau actively tried to avoid them in projects such as The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924), perhaps the best-known Kammerspielfilm [chamber drama]. Though not unified in stated intention, these directors’ choices implicitly defend a purer cinema, one of absolute images and rhythms, of an audiovisual form existing above textual content.

Whether connected to the writings of Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, or the theatrical tradition of Max Reinhardt, cinema untethered from on-screen text evolved beyond Soviet agitprop and German romantic film. Perusing the state of the world in the 1920s, one’s searching gaze might be drawn to Parisian hovels of invention, specifically the poetic explorations of French Impressionism. Though France’s place in film history is unshakeable, some movements of the medium are more celebrated than others. In the context of the 1920s, it is easier to learn about the Surrealists, the Romantics, the poetic realists, the makers of epics, and those who delighted in social satires, than it is to gather information on the French Impressionists. Indeed, the debate still goes on about the validity of the “first avant-garde” as a film movement altogether.

My attention is focused on the search for poetry in French Impressionist cinema, during an interwar paradigm of constant change, ghosts of violence and augurs of cataclysm. Jean Epstein (who defended intertitles vehemently), Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier, and Louis Delluc may not have shared a unified manifesto. Nonetheless, their cinema is linked by similar objectives: the pursuit of subjectivity in narrative film, the lyricism of the moving image, and the advent of photogénie. Here, the camera’s subject, the mechanical act of capturing it, and the filmmaker come together in a phenomenon of defamiliarization, nearly derealization. Material reality ceases to exist within the cinematic apparatus, for what remains is the inherent poetry of cinema: a revelation, a miracle. Epstein stated that thanks to “the notion of photogénie, cinema as an art form is born.”

There is no objectivity in cinema. Yet French Impressionist cinema doesn’t seek to understand filmmaking as objective. Instead, the glistening images and photogénie bring into relief the sustained musical characteristics of its mode and form. This quality extends beyond the thought of Léon Moussinac, who argued that cinegraphic composition obeys the secret laws of musical composition. In a written poem, phrasing, structure and punctuation set the rhythms, parameters, and measures by which the reader understands the ideas at hand. In cinema, editing has that role. In that sense, no matter how different Impressionism may seem to Soviet Montage theory, a formalistic similarity exists in both, in the cinematic precepts each exemplifies and follows.

The collision of images in the Soviet mode produces the clear-cut engineering of complex meaning, yet this method doesn’t appear in most French Impressionist films. Consider the psychological thorniness that defines Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (La Souriante Madame Beudet, 1923), how the character’s diverging perceptions of the same object — a gun — are critical to the film’s uncertain conclusions. Think of the disquiet produced by cutting between dialogue and architectonic surroundings in Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher, 1928). Such collisions of human and spatial pictures indicate inner darkness, something immaterially rotten and poetically ambiguous that sinks into the audience long before his Poe adaptation discloses the root of its evil.

Compared to their Soviet colleagues, these French auteurs appear closely interested in tone and evocative sensation. If an idea is produced by a specific cut, it comes in tandem with a dozen more, a hazy mist of multiple possibilities that refuse to cohere into a closed truth. It’s the staccato of declared information in political prose contrasted with the sound of a spoken poem. The best French Impressionist cinema of the 1920s sings a song of cinematic ambiguities — music without sound played by an orchestra made of cameras rather than traditional instruments. Among the French Impressionists, none made more melodious silence than Dimitri Kirsanoff.

Ménilmotant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dimitri Kirsanoff: An Estonian in Paris

Concrete facts about Kirsanoff are hard to verify. Different accounts describe the man as Russian or Estonian, as a cellist turned film poet, and as an émigré on the run from his aristocratic past in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Recent discoveries point towards a reason for this misinformation — Kirsanoff himself. Upon his move to Paris in 1919, the artist changed his identity, abandoning the name Markus David Kaplan. Upon marriage, he influenced his bride to change her name, further muddying the barrier between fact and personal fiction. And yet, some information can be confirmed through official documentation. In Tartu, Estonia, 1899, Kirsanoff was born into a family of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. He died 58 years later in Paris, France, the country where he shot all his films.

Kirsanoff was interested in music, specifically cello, which he played at movie houses during his early years in Paris. Moving in cinephile circles — which included his future wife and leading lady Nadia Sibirskaïa — the Estonian expat tried his hand at filmmaking. In one of the few articles he wrote, Kirsanoff reflected on the matter of photogénie. According to him, cinema opens new dimensions to us as both artists and spectators. There’s a great mystery to this power, he argued, but one must acknowledge that what the camera perceives and the projector exhibits is necessarily different. As envisioned by Kirsanoff, cinema is more connected to a notion of music than either strict mimesis or dramaturgy. His cinema is an indulgent expression, elevating something as simple as a documentary-like recording of a cresting wave to the heights of primordial myth, composing romantic drama out of light and rhythm.

Though his films center on subjectivity, human emotion isn’t only tied to the human shape. Consider how Jeune fille au jardin (1936) juxtaposes Clotilde Sakaroff’s dancing with projections of running water and flower-covered trees; or how The Fountain of Arethusa (La fontaine d’Aréthuse, 1936) visualizes shimmering walls of sound in the interplay of naked bodies and a bucolic landscape. In such ways, Kirsanoff suggests the human impression of individual realities by making his films into mindscapes and sentiments that inflame the picture’s very soul rather than something to be depicted by observed performance. Indeed, natural scenery and city vistas are the most significant sources of emotional signifiers in the director’s 1920s output and later short films. A cobbled street weeps much more effectively than any face. And yet, one shouldn’t interpret Kirsanoff’s silent oeuvre as a series of dehumanized dramas. Instead, he finds humanity in the camera’s gaze and, more importantly, in how editing serves as a simulacrum for thoughts and the process of feeling.

Though often counted among the French Impressionists, Kirsanoff didn’t classify himself as an impressionist, nor did he categorize his cinema within the precepts of specific schools or styles. Instead, such understandings of his oeuvre stem from retrospective appraisals of the moment in film history and the particularities of a given work. If French Impressionist auteurs are mostly unknown — even tragically unheralded — Kirsanoff might be the most unjustly forgotten of them all. While his most famous silent creations have been canonized by certain institutions like New York’s Anthology Film Archives, the overall breadth of the director’s oeuvre is hard to locate, and critical considerations are rarer than should be expected.

While acknowledging Kirsanoff’s obscurity, consider that, upon the 1929 release of Autumn Mists (Brumes d’automne), journalist and critic Marcel Lapierre argued that the director’s films “have to be counted among the most powerful and sincere works of cinema.” These conditions, where greatness holds hands with non-recognition, are especially galling when one finds that Kirsanoff’s earliest cinematic effort, The Irony of Fate (L’Ironie du Destin, 1921), is believed to be the first French feature-length film without intertitles. Unfortunately, it is now considered lost. Shorter works are available, though, including material made post-1920s that still explores a non-narrative mode of filmmaking — see the watery abstraction of The Cradles (Les berceaux, 1935), for instance.

His career continued till 1957, encompassing developments in sound cinema and German melodrama. Some writers, such as Dudley Andrew, have characterized Kirsanoff’s output as a triumph of art over industry. But from the mid-1930s, the avant-gardist became part of the French film industry, assimilated into its mainstream sensibilities and production models.

Later works like The Hotshot (Le cranêur, 1950) explore the possibilities of the crime picture in postwar France, carefully sidestepping most iconoclastic transgressions. The immersive subjectivity of his silent output became a type of quiet elegance, a wildness tamed but not without merit. For a celluloid poet who made songs out of waves and sonnets from sparkling rivers, a mid-century French noir seems like a negation of Kirsanoff’s erstwhile inspiration. However, certain elements persist. The story structures are more conventional but there remains a love for memory as a storytelling device, as well as tonal contrasts that recall his first steps into a silent narrative. The materiality of Paris never disappears from his cinema, whether this is due to his clear artistic vision or budgetary constraints. His camera is forever poetic, mixing the immediacy of our world with the unreality of film artifice. His cuts may have lessened in boldness, but they still produced their own kind of silent music: the murder mystery creates a melody independent from Marc Lanjean’s mellow score and Marina Vlady’s lilting cadence.

Of course, no film of Dimitri Kirsanoff ever sang more beautifully than his silent Ménilmontant (1926).

Ménilmotant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

Ménilmontant: A Symphony of Cuts

Originally released in 1926, Ménilmontant is a testament to Kirsanoff’s artistry, his vision, and, indeed, the musicality of his cinema. At 38 minutes, it lives in a limbo between feature and short, too diminutive for the former category and too expansive for the latter. Earlier versions had additional footage, now lost, so it is not unreasonable to suppose it was always meant to be a feature. Kirsanoff directed, wrote, produced, edited and photographed this hard-to-categorize picture in Paris, though the start of its narrative happens outside the cityscape.

For such a melodious tone poem, Ménilmontant begins with an explosion of cascading shots. Deep in the country, two sisters see their bucolic idyll violated by homicide. It is perhaps the most beautifully photographed axe murder in cinema history. These introductory salvos prepare the audience for a shocking affair, one made up of sharp contrasts, so razor-like they draw blood. There is a danse macabre of innocence and iniquity, a waltz of antagonistic symbols and signifiers. Lace curtains float like fairy wings, a blade descends on its victim, the curtains come down, pastoral beauty shattered by a screaming face, sunlight cut through by the murderous act, children playing and parents dying – what a rollercoaster! What a hallucination! What a sound this montage suggests: one spiky, manic, deranged.

Kirsanoff jumps on the traumatized visage of the orphaned daughter, looking upon her parent’s bloody corpse. Each cut is a shriek, coming closer to its bugged-out eyes until they no longer serve as indicators of emotion. More is needed: a landscape made of earth and sky instead of flesh and tears. Notice how Kirsanoff moves from extreme close-up to a road of leafless trees. Here are the orphaned girls, though their faces don’t reveal themselves. Instead, the encroaching close-ups are destabilized by oblique melancholy. It arises from the relationship between the person and the surrounding space, between shapes and gradations of gray — human feeling in post-verbal terms.

The cut changes the visual dynamics and serves as a contrast, but the absence of sound and faces make the natural world into the fountain from which subjective emotion might spring. There’s no crystalline idea adjacent to the editing strategy; no political purpose made evident by the image collision. Instead, we find an inchoate tone and a wealth of possibility in its place. Though intertitles never manifest themselves, this indicates no preference for economical visual storytelling. In fact, there’s little in the way of mechanical precision in Kirsanoff’s magnum opus, characterized by erratic rhythms that portray an explosive incident in a flash and then prolong a placid observation past narrative justification.

Specific actions are summarily glimpsed while others become objects of dissection. The same gesture may be viewed from an assortment of angles, where virtual repetition allows for a sense of lingering unpredictability. Time is the subject of Kirsanoff’s most outlandish experiments, transfigured by bold editing patterns that shatter life until it can be rearranged in symphonic excess. Each image — often shots molded by anti-naturalistic lighting and sharp angles — functions as a note in the composition. But the cuts are what give these images sound, whether through melody or cacophony. Some techniques even produce countermelodies. See how a naked woman floats over wet cobblestones. One shot is a chiaroscuro painting of flesh and shadow. The other is a hand-held frenzy, seeing the street through a somersault of electric nerves. Combine the two images through fades and dissolves, and you create a harmonious relation: the strident equilibrium of a nervous violin beneath a wave of ponderous cellos.

Consequently, a meandering melodrama about two sisters set apart by city life and a romantic triangle becomes an opera without voice. The materiality with which the city is rendered leads one to think of the movie as a city symphony while the negotiated moods are like a mournful hymn. Oliver Fahle highlighted Ménilmontant‘s extraordinary crystallization of Paris, calling it “one of the most beautiful city portrayals in film history.” He was right. What’s more, the director moves against strict symbology and closed metaphor, peppering details of city life: from trickling water on sidewalks to wandering street cats. These images offer the benefit of texture, tone and timbre. If the mind is a diffuse assault on our senses, the city is a barrage of visceral authenticity.

Abstract montage works against a linear reading of the film, avoiding clarity of meaning to create something sensorial. As Parisian streets and dark alleys melt away in consecutive double-exposures, the city and the body are made one, with the urbane juxtapositions suggesting a slow wail of grief and sorrow. The city is seen through a palimpsest of subjectivities, showing the metropolis as an extension of character psychology. It is an example of the camera’s power to infer a negative poetic capability, one that rejects reason and embraces doubt. Still, this essay tries to distance the mechanical engineering of Soviet montage theory from Kirsanoff’s impressionist poetry.

One scene in Ménilmontant is like a jazz riff on the exemplary Kuleshov effect: a human face looks, followed by a cut to food, signifying the meaning of hunger in the film. Downtrodden and destitute, Nadia Sibirskaïa plays the younger sister in a moment of despair transcended, both emotional and physical. Her hunger is violent, and, as she regards an old man sitting by her side, the camera and her eyes focus on a crust of bread between his fingers. The eyes and the object, a cut that births definite meaning, showing the ravenous want of a dying waif. Here, too, the human face supersedes the power of formalism, singing through a cyclone of changing expressions, a plastic kaleidoscope of human misery abated by resilience and mysterious hope. Still, despite this, the sounds of Kirsanoff’s Impressionism and Soviet theoretical exercises remain acutely different.

One difference concerns individual subjectivity, the other an objective lesson for and about the masses. These points take us to a point previously avoided: the open-ended structure and ambiguous morality in the versions of Ménilmontant that survive. There’s little resolution in Kirsanoff’s heightened melodrama and fewer didactic judgments. One finds ambivalent and nebulous character intentions in the film. It’s the impersonal personality of a symphony whose final meaning is infinite and exists only within the perception of each spectator. Ménilmontant is thus a melodious reticence, playing itself out into oblivion — it is as mysterious as the raw emotions it contains and elicits.

Dirk Hoyer described how Kirsanoff’s post-Ménilmontant works showcase the stifling influence of studio-based filmmaking. The author summarizes the noticeable decline in the director’s inventive nature by stating he was “silenced for sound reasons.” Indeed, while I have pointed out how some of Kirsanoff’s later films exemplify the melodiousness of his silent work, one finds it hard to deny that his cinema thrived in the absence of sound. He wrote obstinately that the basis of the seventh art will always be the silent film. As this issue is focused on silence in cinema, it’s fair to say Kirsanoff wasn’t wrong — the purely visual aspects of film continue to be explored, studied and celebrated in the absence of sound. Step into a dark room with a bright wall showing Ménilmontant and you will experience how this often-forgotten filmmaker composes an opera without so much as a whisper.