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In Memoriam Of Dimitri Kirsanov, A Neglected Master
Walter S. Michel
Film Culture, No. 15, 1957, pp. 3-5
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A great artist and man is gone. Almost unknown in this country and forgotten in Europe, Dimitri Kirsanov was a poet who chose the cinema as his medium of expression and gave us, with Ménilmontant, Brumes d'automne and Rapt, three of the most beautiful and intelligent films in the history of the cinema. He is neglected, partly because his films are poetry and do not fit the usual categories, partly because only one of them is easily accessible.
An admirer of his Ménilmontant, the only one of his films I had had an opportunity to see, I contacted Kirsanov in Paris two years ago. Incredulous that anyone should be interested in his films, he agreed to a meeting with Lotte Eisner and myself. This was followed by another, and later by a screening of some of his recent short films. It was soon evident that here was a man of modesty, simplicity, and integrity. He seemed young and energetic. He talked of making a film in Spain if plans, for once, worked out. News of his death came as a shock.
Kirsanov had come to Paris in 1919 and studied the cello at the Conservatory, acting as a stage extra and playing in an orchestra at night. His realization that "le cinéma est un langage" (quotations throughout the article are his own words) was sparked about 1921 by the Swedish film La montre brisée. During the next two or three years he made his first two films: L'ironie du destin (1922-3), of which no copy exists, and Ménilmontant (1924), circulated by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. "Knowing nothing" about the technique of film-making, he hired an old cameraman, Léonce Crouen, then out of a job. Crouen shot only the beginning of Ménilmontant, "everything which is in two dimensions." Then Kirsanov "took the camera off the tripod" and "shot the rest" himself.
On Ménilmontant, as he was always to do, Kirsanov worked alone. He stated definitely that he had not been in contact with either the French "avantgarde" or the Russian émigrés, with both of whom he is often associated. "Isolated then as now," making his elaborate dissolves and montages in the camera itself, he invented for Ménilmontant independently most of the techniques which were being developed at the same time, or later, by others better financed and more publicized.
Ménilmontant was followed, in 1926, by Brumes d'automne ("put together according to musical formulae"), shown recently at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and in 1933 by Rapt (based on the novel "La séparation des races" by C.F. Ramuz), also fortunately extant.
Ménilmontant and Brumes d'automne had been brilliant, original, and mature, "independent" works. Rapt, one of the finest of all sound films, was the extension of these achievements into a full-length feature production with sound. One would think that with the release of such a film a rich career would have been opened to its creator. On the contrary, in the twenty-four years between Rapt and his death early this year, Kirsanov never again had the opportunity of directing a major film with any appreciable freedom. Thus has the cinema, stepchild of the arts, treated its masters ever since Greed.
Of the films which he did make during these years — most of them short, low-budget productions — he showed me the three he liked best: Arrière saison, Mort d'un cerf and Deux amis. These fairly recent films increase one's astonishment at the neglect of this fine artist, for all are accomplished and important and could be an inspiration to independent film-makers; but they are neither shown at festivals nor circulated by archives.
Of the other films he made during this period, he was highly critical. Quartier sans soleil (1939) he called "very uneven, but interesting in parts"; three small musical films, which came next, "gentil, pas plus"; Franco du port, "a gangster film, vulgar." The last was a partly commercial film, as were the two following: Faits divers à Paris and Morte moisson (1949), both made with some government assistance and containing some interesting scenes which, it appears, he was permitted to write himself. Also included in his criticism was the early Sables (1926) which he condemned unsparingly as "mauvais, puérile, stupide: joli" and considers not his own film ("an imbecile wrote the story").
One feature-length film directed by Kirsanov after Rapt was Le craneur, a well-made thriller released in 1955. Stating that this was his first really commercial film, "made with cold reason, calculated for commercial success," he would not allow that there was anything good about it. When I pointed out a part which I had liked, he shrugged it off, quite impatiently, with a "c'est facile."
So ended the career of a great master.
In these conversations, Mlle. Eisner and I were the ones to be upset by the extent of his neglect. He himself was clearly no longer concerned — if he ever had been — with questions of recognition. All his thinking and energy seemed directed only toward the one end: creation. I think he would have gone anywhere on earth to make a film.
It is impossible to assess the achievement of Dimitri Kirsanov unless the use of the film medium as a poetic vehicle is properly appreciated. All extraneous considerations, those of sociological, political, or slice-of-life variety, must be forgotten. Kirsanov's films can be understood only in terms of themes and counter-themes, built up visually by artifice, i.e. by non-naturalistic means, using image, design, and metaphor. The camera, with all its possibilities and limitations, is supreme, but it is exploited only in so far as the adumbrations of the theme require and permit. The "story" is of the simplest nature, usually banal, a framework merely, but one which accommodates itself to the conception presented.
A study of Kirsanov's work from such a non-narrative point of view is scheduled for future publication. In the present article, only a few introductory remarks on each of his most important films can be given.
Ménilmontant already exhibits in full maturity Kirsanov's ability as a photographer and editor. Cuts range in length from one frame (violence scenes) to over 600 frames (pan down from hotel window to dark door where the camera stops while the couple enters; pan back up to window, now lighted, where the camera stops briefly; pan down again to door where the camera stops while a newcomer arrives); motion within the frame may be so fast that it is blurred (violence scenes), or it may be completely still (successive stills when Sibirskaia sees the dead body of her father); lighting traverses the full range from dazzling to black; the camera may be stationary, or it may veer on top of a bus or swing over cobblestones.
But always the technique complements the image and mood. Always, theme and execution are matched. Nothing is "experimental," recherché, or "avantgarde." Kirsanov gives us a perfect rendering of poetic themes in a visual medium.
This is seen in its most obvious form in Brumes d'automne, a film of a single mood conveyed through shots of rain and mist, through reflections in pools of the saturated earth, and by the measured stateliness of movement. Distorted autumn landscapes anticipate many of the gratuitous flourishes of later "experimental" filmmakers, but here they are poetically justified as seen through the tears of Nadia Sibirskaia.
One of the most brilliant of cameramen and directors, Kirsanov is also one of the few film-makers who used sound creatively. This is clear from Rapt, with its triple counterpoint of visual, music and stylized natural sound. The techniques used in this film are described in the articles by Honegger and Hoerée in "Revue Musicale," December 1934 (still some of the best writing on the subject of sound in film). A treatment of disorder and violence, Rapt has an abduction from an Alpine village and the consequent feud as its setting. It is characteristic of Kirsanov's method that the whole development is already summarized in the first few shots: in a tranquil setting with two men beside a stream, all in long shot, one of the men suddenly beats the water, splashing the other and disturbing the pastoral music. Playfulness supersedes stillness, in preparation for violence. The very last impression of the film is also reinforced by sound: the braying laughter of the village idiot over chords of music swelling to the finale. Rapt is a film of such magnificence that it must be classed as one of the three or four best sound films made. It would be flawless, but for the unaccountable intrusion in a few places of that affliction of the sound film, an excess of dialogue.
The same criticism may also be made of Deux amis, based on the story of Maupassant. Though a fine achievement in acting and atmosphere, this is essentially a dialogue film.
Arrière saison and Mort d'un cerf are a return to the perfect collaboration between sound and image found in Rapt, only on the lesser scale necessitated by the more modest means then at the disposal of the director.
In Arrière saison (1952), a woman leaves the lonely, boring life with her husband, a woodcutter, but returns on the following day. The mood is reminiscent of Brumes d'automne. The sound track consists entirely of music, except for one brief interval: when the woman returns, the music is cut off abruptly and we hear the axes and shouts of the woodcutters in the distance. As she enters the house, the music resumes.
Mort d'un cerf, a commissioned film, transforms the conventional events of a stag hunt into satire by witty use of cutting, sound, and silence. Some impressions of old prints of deer hunting lend a measure almost of elegance to the proceedings in the early scenes, although the arrival of the hunters by car is ominous. The ending shows the pack and hunters in full pursuit, accompanied by a crescendo of the music and hunting horns. Suddenly and abruptly, the music is cut off: the stag is seen standing still, surrounded by yelping dogs. In thudding anticlimax, the stag, standing thus at bay, is felled by rifle shots. The music resumes, the hunting horns building up to a great victory shout. Ladies munch sandwiches, the hunt is over.
While most of Kirsanov's films are at present extremely difficult of access, they could easily be made available to all those interested. One may hope that this opportunity will not be lost and that, as the finest tribute to a great director, his major oeuvre will be restored to circulation.
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