For this review we decided to try something a little different. The genesis of this blog came from spirited discussions and arguments Stan and I had about various films on Facebook, and I thought trying to capture some of the spirit of that would make for an interesting post. We both watched Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith’s film about the French Revolution, at the same time and discussed it by chat afterward. This is an edited transcript of that chat.
Stanley Rogouski: Orphans of the Storm is Birth of a Nation without the racism. Both films have the same reactionary politics. If Orphans of the Storm doesn’t sentimentalize the aristocratic old order the way Birth of a Nation does, it expresses the same fear of democracy. Here, the vindictive lower classes of Paris replace the freed slaves, and lust for revenge replaces lust for white women, but the narrative is essentially the same. History is seen through the eyes of a vulnerable young woman. She is menaced by the demons let loose by revolution, and, in the end, has to be rescued by a strong resurgence of patriarchy, the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation, Danton in Orphans of the Storm.
Daniel Levine: That’s absolutely true, though what struck me about the film was how blatantly the film states it’s propaganda in favor of a certain agenda specific to its time period. Orphans displays all the characteristics endemic to the historical period film-it isn’t history, history to it is a malleable thing that only exists as something to be allegorically twisted to represent the period in which the film made. This trait puts the vast majority of historical period films into the position of being reactionary either intentionally or not because it has to assume history is repeating itself ad nauseum and has no room for anything as dynamic and teleological as Hegel let alone Marx.
Stanley Rogouski: Whether Griffith’s ludicrous history of the French Revolution comes from his lack of formal education or an ideological commitment to the post- Wilson “red scare” in 1921 is an interesting question in and of itself, but there’s no question it has little to do with reality. There was no conflict between the “good liberal” Georges Danton and the “bad radical” Maximilien Robespierre. Danton didn’t restore democracy after the downfall of the Jacobins. He was guillotined. Robespierre was guillotined a few months later. And what about Napoleon? Griffith writes him out of history altogether. Obviously, as you point out, Orphans of the Storm has little to do with the French Revolution. Why not just call Robespierre“Lenin” and just call Danton “the United State of America?” But I don’t see Griffith making a historical drama. Rather, he’s making an aesthetic drama. Griffith, for all of his racism, was a genuine poet. “Good” in a D.W. Griffith film means “beautiful”and “evil” means “ugly.” One thing I was struck by was the extraordinary beauty of Lilian Gish and Joseph Schildkraut on their way to the guillotine. There’s a natural,” genetic order in Griffith’s universe. A happy ending means putting this natural order back in power. You’d might was well invoke the “great chain of being” that motivated Shakespeare.
Daniel Levine: I think the fact Griffith sees this need to reprocess historical events into easy, borderline Manichean dualities is interesting because that sets the tone for historical melodrama in almost everything that came after. McLuhan says in the first mini-essay of The Mechanical Bride that the newspaper is “our 1001 Arabian Nights”, pinpointing this need to digest events in simplistic, mythical expressions of eternal forces and questions. The cinema does a lot to reinforce this. How much more would the average moviegoer in 1921 actually know about the French Revolution than what was in this film? Griffith’s sense of history is one of recurrence and parallels, not of contrasts and distinctions. That’s implied with little subtlety in Orphans but his earlier film Intolerance is entirely built on this premise.
Stanley Rogouski: I’m not exactly sure how much the average (American) movie goer in 1921 would have known about the French Revolution. I’m assuming much less than he would have known about the United States Civil War. Parallels? Yes. There are parallels in Orphans of the Storm, but they are subordinated to the poetic ethic of good/beauty and evil/ugliness. Henriette, Lilian Gish, is of low birth. Louise, Dorothy Gish, Louise is the daughter of an aristocrat. The Chevalier de Vaudrey is an aristocrat. Pierre Frochard is a commoner. But they’re both good. When de Vaudrey’s family rejects his marriage to Henriette, we immediately think they’re nuts because, in the natural order of things, they belong together. I think you’re probably right about how American cinema sees history as melodrama. Even Spielberg’s Lincoln sees the Civil War as a struggle between “good and evil, even though in his case, it’s conducted within the democratic process. The war itself doesn’t seem to enter into it. In fact, he wants to keep his son out of the army to work on lobbying congress. Compare any American filmmaker to Sergei Eisenstein. Battleship Potemkin sees history as a process. There’s no final victory of good over evil. There’s the birth of a revolutionary consciousness. I’m also struck how few beautiful people there are in Eisenstein’s films compared to Griffith’s.
Daniel Levine: Without Lillian Gish I’m not sure any of Griffith’s films would work. In the final guillotine sequence it actually works to undercut the suspense because we know that if Griffith decapitated Lillian Gish he would’ve had angry mobs like the ones in Paris after him.
And how about that final 50 minutes or so, that’s some quality vintage riot porn. And notice when the people are dancing it immediately cuts to a shot of cheesecake, an early perpetuation of the American cinematic technique of Puritan disgust at sexuality expressed by wallowing in it.
Stylistically the film is fascinating because, without dialogue there’s no reason for shot-reverse shot sequences and none appear. The technique of expressing interiority and first person perspectives isn’t gotten by entering into the person’s literal field of vision like in Hitchcock but in intimate sensual portraiture; the soul is accessed through a visual reduction of the person to their eyes and lips. Especially Gish. And Gish’s character, Henriette, is the only character allowed throughout the action to respond to anything or have subtle feelings about the action.
Everyone else is shot in long shots, the set becomes a stage and the body language frequently verges on that of vaudeville. The shots of poverty and the androgyny of the emaciated early on were incredible though. Almost reminiscent of Walker Evans. He ruins it though by showing poverty as inherently just a problem of the rich being stingy. Classic reactionary understanding.
Stanley Rogouski: Is it Lillian Gish or the way Griffith films her? I think the point, at the end of Orphans of the Storm, is not so much “will she live or will she die” but the contrast between the nobility (as manifested by her physical beauty) of Henriette and de Vaudrey and the squalid desire for revenge of the Paris mob. Historically it’s absurd. Once again, the fall of the Jacobins didn’t lead to a restoration of democracy. It led to a military dictatorship under Napoleon. But does it work on an aesthetic level? Is a revolution betrayed by its politics or by its abandonment of ores and the embrace of Thanatos, whether Thanatos is defined as “blacks wanting to rape white women” or “French peasants wanting to behead good aristocrats.” Haven’t you met people with whom you largely agree on most issues politically but about whom you’ve thought “Jesus. If that guy ever got any real power we’d all be screwed?”