In the decadent Paramount Theatre, attending Napoleon feels like an act of history. The audience is finely dressed in vests and hats and some use umbrellas as canes -- one audience member even dons a stylish bicorne hat, which she pairs with a double-breasted coat and heels. Buzzing, attendees saunter in early to hear the orchestra tune in that cacophony that precedes the grand opening of the curtain. The titles win applause, and though clapping for a film can often feel arbitrary, here at the Paramount -- it is inspired.
Napoleon, the 1927 film by French silent film master Abel Gance, has never been shown in its entirety. Reconstructed by Gance scholar Kevin Brownlow and presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, this five and a half hour version will likely be the closest we will ever get to see the film as the director intended. The Oakland East Bay Symphony provides a marvelous accompaniment under the direction of Carl Davis, who wrote the score for a series of screenings in 1981. The synched three-projection finale of Napoleon is exceedingly rare. When Gance innovated this technique (later called Polyvision), he believed it to be the future of cinema. His experiential approach, placing the audience within the grandiose landscape of Napoleon's Italian campaign, makes this production a true live event.
The film opens on a Champagne hillside at Napoleon's military school. Headmasters huddle around snowy windows and overlook a grave snowball fight. The warring boys are well-entrenched in forts, dressed in full Revolutionary uniforms. Ten versus forty reads the title card. Napoleon, played ruthlessly by the young Vladimir Roudenko, displays iconic fortitude. Amidst an onslaught of snow, he is unmoved while directing his nine child-soldiers. He uses a mirrored belt buckle to survey the battlefield. The camera follows along with the pounding of a timpani drum. These boyhood squabbles are not a metaphor -- aside from being historical, they are also Gance's first battle scene.
As boy or man, Napoleon is never seen outside of military uniform. He wears tight white trousers, leather boots, and a dark jacket that flares out in a 'V'. His hat rarely leaves his head, giving his silhouette the shape of an erect hammerhead shark. He is centered and aloof through the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and imprisonment for espionage. Every character in this film is set to counter Napoleon. In a brilliant performance of Napoleon, Albert Dieudonné meets their ignorance, indifference, and malice with proud obstinacy. While aristocrats are dragged to the guillotine, he remains bent over a map, planning his empire.
Gance's closely examined characters provide the film's strongest moments. He leans toward surrealism, often layering symbols over his characters, such as fire, waves, a spinning globe, or in Napoleon's case, the head of a chirping eagle, an imposition later picked up by the Italian photographer Wanda Wulz. The majority of the film is tinted with color dyes: blood red for the scenes of the Revolution, lavender for memories, blue for night marches, auburn for the homeland of Corsica. And there are great innovations for the camera: the point-of-view zooms by, strapped to a sled, bicycle or swing, or follows Napoleon's entourage along jaunting horseback rides.
But this is mostly a classical picture. Napoleon is on the hero's journey. His troops are ragged and underfed with ribs painted onto their bare chests. They persevere, injected with enthusiasm by Napoleon's piercing eyes and his incantatory speech. Napoleon is descried as the true leader of France amidst patriotic imagery (his escape from the island of Corsica is staged on a boat with the French flag as his sail). The frame is continually packed with action and the theme of the Marseillaise repeats. Battle scenes are composed as a painting by Delacroix -- soldiers expiring in the lower frame while others tread on into battle anew. They march to the swelling beat of field-drums like in a propaganda film by Riefenstahl.
Enrapt, the audience rises with giddiness. By second intermission, almost everyone is drinking wine. A woman and a man energetically hum the Marseillaise, and by dinner break, the obsession with Napoleon seems palpable. Two women gush by the art-deco columns: "...those dark eyes and that dark hat!"
When the curtains open for the final act and Gance extends his palette to three screens, the audience howls wildly. This is the moment we've all been waiting for, and Gance delivers. Everyone seems to be leaning forward on their seats as the orchestra echoes the triumphal theme of Napoleon's victories. Addressing the browbeaten army, Napoleon's striking features fill the center screen while sublime silver clouds pass over a white sky on the two screens to his sides. This is the moment Napoleon becomes epic. He promises that those traveling Europe will one day encounter "a common fatherland." Trumpets trill and chimes ring out. The cuts accelerate, the camera movements hasten, and what we see next is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful layering sequences to ever be caught on film. It is not to be missed.
Napoleon plays at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on March 31 and April 1, 2012. For tickets and information visit silentfilm.org.