Motion pictures get made in a tensile tradeoff between art and commerce, expression and resources, creator and investor, and most elementally both on-set and behind-the-scenes, between director and producer. Someone pushes, someone pulls. To make her first films, Alice Guy promised boss Leon Gaumont that her office duties at the Comptoire général de photographie would be complete before she rolled the cameras. Biograph preferred to let its major moneymaker D.W. Griffith go rather than allow him to branch out into feature-length projects. Universal’s boy wonder Irving Thalberg took the million-dollar footage of Foolish Wives away from Stroheim and, in a later stroke of incredible bad timing, took over at MGM just in time to wrest control of Greed. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis brought Germany’s largest studio to its financial knees. There is no shortage of examples, but Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent is particularly worthy of note: a condemnation of the free market gods and the French director’s most expensive film.
One of the original members of French cinema’s avant-garde, L’Herbier had already attempted to translate his artisanal sensibilities into commercial fare, and was familiar with the required compromises. For his 1923 Art Deco showcase, L’Inhumaine, he cast Georgette Leblanc in the lead over a younger actress because she came with 130,000-Franc pledge by financier Otto Kahn. That amount, as Stuart Klawans points out in his 1999 book Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order, was half the film’s proposed budget 1.
L’Argent followed five years later and is L’Herbier’s silent-era swan song. Designed to compete with the superproductions coming out of both the United States and Germany, it cost five million Francs. It is crammed with state-of-the-art techniques, a big-name international cast, fifteen hundred extras, and was shot by France’s highest paid cameraman at the time, Jules Krüger. With so much invested, tensions escalated between the director and head of Cinéromans and L’Herbier’s coproduction partner, Jean Sapène. The relationship descended into at least one shoving match that we know of.
Based on Émile Zola’s novel about stock market speculation in the mid-1800s, L’Argent is an explicit jab at shady financiers. The unscrupulous Saccard (say it like a swear word) makes a bad bet, loses both his standing and his mistress, and tries to recoup it all by backing an aviator with a daredevil plan to cross the Atlantic to exploit raw materials in the New World. In the film’s most telling scene, Saccard seeks support from Gundermann, whose word is gold but who has another set of plans. Saccard knows perception is everything in this gambler’s game, so he returns for one last handshake, which can be seen across the expansive chessboard floor where others await their audience.
L’Herbier shot for three days inside the Paris Bourse and made use of a dozen cameramen flying on pulleys and dollies, as well as an unmanned camera that descended and revolved to capture the stock exchange in full frenzy. As the pilot embarks on his trans-Atlantic flight, action on the stock market floor intensifies in a montage of Eisensteinian proportions: the influence of the symbolic Soviets is evident in other juxtapositions, like the intercutting of the fat cat Saccard with a desktop statue of Napoleon on horseback and, later, a rhinoceros statuette. Awaiting news of the aviator’s progress, spectators swarm at the Place de l’Opera, lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Other expensive set pieces include the lobby of Banque Universelle and its platoon of typing secretaries, and Gundermann’s hidden antechamber – a round globe room shot with a handheld camera as well as from a bird’s-eye perspective. Then there’s the Art Deco aesthetics that frame the film’s female schemer, Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm): at one point she is encased in gold-lamé, and slinks and slithers like a snake to save her own stockholdings. We can’t be sure if it’s a seduction or an assault.
The press saw the full two-hundred minutes of the original cut of L’Argent in December 1928, but by the time it premiered in January the film had lost thirty in a re-edit by Sapène. According to film historian Richard Abel, even the intervention by Société des Auteurs and some Paris film critics could not soften Sapène, and the producer’s cut was released in April 1929.2 Abel reports that L’Argent did well at the box office, but it split critics: Jean Mitry wrote that it the “ultimate expression of vanity in the midst of falsehood,” 3 while Georges Sadoul, impressed by the perpetual motion camerawork, called it “a romantic intrigue, in luxurious modern decors … where portable cameras enacted a kind of ritual dance….” 4
Such divided opinion recalls a more recent portrayal of the One Percent’s depravity and another dazzling display of an auteur’s style, Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which tackles our generation’s greedheads, revealing their cloistered, entitled world. The similarities between the two films – right down to the repulsive fetishizing of women – induces a similar queasiness. But both keep hammering their central lesson, which is never heeded. When Saccard screams via intertitle in L’Argent that the pilot’s derring-do is only possible because of money, it echoes down the decades in Jordan Belfort’s saltier, “You can save the fucking spotted owl with money.” Until the boom busts, that is.
Even in its abridged form, as Abel notes, L’Argent did well. It would have seemed prescient when Black Tuesday came a few months later, putting an end to all such extravagance, if not for the nearly simultaneous replacement of silent art by sound. L’Argent was forgotten until it was reconstructed in the 1970s, and it received a proper restoration in the 1990s. L’Herbier’s career went on uninterrupted, although on a smaller scale. The moneymen and the almighty manna that fuelled his cinema continued to irk him. After making his first talkie – L’Enfant de l’amour in 1930 – he lashed out about having to adjust the storyline for releases in three different languages to meet foreign demand. “One should not make three versions of a film when it is difficult enough to make one. But that was the idiotic effect of money.” 5
L’Argent (1928, France, 1965)
Prod Co: Cinégraphic and Ciné-Mondial Dir: Marcel L’Herbier Scr: Marcel L’Herbier adapted from Émile Zola novel Phot: Jules Krüger Ed: Oscar Rosander Sets: Lazare Meerson and André Barsacq
Cast: Pierre Alcover, Marie Glory, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Henry Victor, Pierre Juvenet, Yvette Guilbert, Antonin Artaud, Jules Berry, Alexandre Mihalesco, Raymond Rouleau, and Albert Mayer as the prison guard.
- Stuart Klawans, Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order, (Continuum, 2000), p.81. ↩
- Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave (1915–1929) (Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 513. ↩
- Quoted in Abel, p. 514. ↩
- Quoted in Abel, p. 514. ↩
- Charles Drazin, The Faber Book of French Cinema, (Faber and Faber, 2011), Kindle edition: Location 1245. ↩