Tag Archives: silent film

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

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Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

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Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

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The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

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Picture Credits: British Film Institute

Metropolis (1927): Death and the Megamachine

In his seminal work Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford, a pioneer in the field of urban studies, developed the concept large, hierarchical organizations which he would eventually call “megamachines.” Since the megamachine, which he defines as a machine using humans as its components, has its origins in ancient Egypt and the construction of the pyramids, it predates the Industrial Revolution by several millennia. For Mumford, the clock, a piece of machinery whose product is seconds and minutes, and not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the industrial age. What’s more, time, not the police, or the army, is the most important method by which societal control is maintained. The elites, who are not subject to the strict regimentation they use on their wage slaves, live in gated communities apart from the miserable quarters of the working class.

“In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.”

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, 1961)

If you are familiar with German Expressionism, Lewis Mumford’s theories about the megamachine, suburbia, and the industrial revolution might seem familiar. This is not to say that Fritz Lang read Lewis Mumford’s writings, or even knew that he existed, before he released his legendary, yet often misunderstood film Metropolis. Indeed, Technics and Civilization would not even be published until 1934. Yet Lang, who was born in 1890, and Mumford, who was born in 1895, were almost exact contemporaries. The American social theorist and the German filmmaker were both distressed by the alienation of people from the natural world, and the production of vast wealth that seemed to lead only to human misery. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust were over a decade away, yet both men realized that advances in technology were by no means guaranteed to usher in a Utopian civilization. On the contrary, without advances in moral philosophy and social justice, they were likely to bring vast human suffering, and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. Above all, Lang’s film and Mumford’s book both seem to work from one, central, poetic conceit.

Mechanization equals death.

Metropolis begins with the image of a machine. Pistons move up and down in their cylinders. Belts and gears turn cranks. There is the illusion of great industrial might. Yet, in reality, it’s basically a Rube Goldberg device, hundreds, thousands, probably millions of strokes being used to do little more than turn the hands on a giant clock, the megamachine working primarily to maintain its own existence. A whistle blows. Two gates open. Through the door on the right, a group of workers enters the building. Through the door on the left, a second group exits, presumably to go home, although, throughout the film, we never get to see the inside of a working-class apartment. The men are identical, dressed in drab, dark-grey jumpsuits. They move together, in unison, their heads lowered, their arms at their side. They have no individuality for they are, in fact, components of the megamachine that is the city of Metropolis.

Groups of men stripped of their individual identity, are perhaps, the film’s strongest recurring image. We will see these robotic labor gangs again, not only in the futuristic city of Metropolis, but in ancient Mesopotamia, at the dawn of history. Fritz Lang then moves from the “satanic mills” of the poor, to use Blake’s term, to the pleasure palaces of the rich. We find ourselves in a grandiose stadium so evocative of the Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will that it’s hard to believe Albert Speer didn’t use it as the model for the Nazi parade grounds at Nuremberg. Here the children of the privileged, all dressed in white, move freely and easily, stretching, sunning themselves, running along a track, and, at night, cavorting with high-class party girls at the Yoshiwara Club, a nightspot modeled after the red-light district in early 17th century Tokyo.

It is at the Yoshiwara Club where Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis, meets Maria, a wholesome-looking young woman played by Brigitte Helm. “Wholesome” is a better word than “angelic” because she’s real, and physical. Maria is the negation of the decadent, unhealthy lust of the Yoshiwara Club, emerging out of nowhere, surrounded by a group of children. “These are your brothers,” she says to Freder, who is instantly smitten, and transformed.

The next day Freder descends into the megamachine. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a machine only as reliable as its weakest moving part, then Metropolis has a fatal vulnerability, the faceless, oppressed masses Joh Fredersen relies upon to keep the great city running for the benefit of its ruling class. What the young Freder sees in the bowls of the megamachine is exactly what Lewis Mumford saw in the 1960s, the clock as the “key-machine of the industrial age.” Nowhere in Metropolis do we ever see the great industrial machine actually make anything. There are cars, but no assembly lines. There are skyscrapers, great sports palaces, and even housing projects for the working-class, but no construction sites. The only product that Metropolis seems to manufacture is repression.

Fritz Lang has, in fact, seen far into the future. He has imagined what New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco would eventually become, not, productive, industrial cities like Twentieth Century Detroit or the Paris of the Second Empire, but financial and administrative centers full of blood sucking parasites. Lang has often been criticized for the trope that, in an industrial civilization, the workers are the muscle, the ruling-class the brains, and Christian love the heart, but he was describing a historical reality, not an ideal. My computer was designed by rich Americans, but it was put together by Chinese proletarians who labor in gigantic work-camps like Foxconn, and get paid less than fast food workers get paid in the United States.

The only work Freder observes in the bowls of the megamachine is a man turning the hands of a giant clock. We wonder. The pistons, cylinders, belts and cranks we saw in the film’s opening, were they tools, or parts of a machine? What is the difference between a machine, and a tool? In the world of Metropolis, is there any difference at all? The man breaks down, exhausted at the end of a 10-hour shift. The machine is thrown out of rhythm. There’s an explosion. A cloud of steam envelopes a group of workers, burning them beyond recognition. Time breaks down. The past, the present, and the future collapse down onto one another. Freder has a vision. He is no longer in Metropolis, but in Biblical Canaan, no longer watching a giant clock in a future city, but human sacrifice, the alter of “Moloch.” In the 1950s, in his poem Howl, Alan Ginsberg, in the 1950s, had a similar vision about the true nature of industrial civilization.

“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

Howl and Other Poems (1956)

Freder, having seen the bowls of the megamachine, now intends to confront his father, the “brain” of the great city. He gets into his chauffeur driven car, and goes to The New Tower of Babel, the tallest building in Metropolis, the administrative and financial center of the city that is the administrative and financial center of Fritz Lang’s futuristic world. He does not get what he wants from his father, empathy, a change of heart, the promise to make things better. He does get what everybody who understands the nature of the “1%” expects from Joh Freder, cold-hearted indifference, and more repression. The elder man, not concerned about the welfare of the workers of Metropolis, but certainly worried about making the machines on “run on time,” fires Josaphat, his executive assistant, scapegoating a mere clerk for flaws that are built into the system itself. Then he orders “The Thin Man,” a gigantic, menacing enforcer played by Fritz Rasp, to spy on his own son.

Having failed to convince his father to right the injustices of the great city of Metropolis, Freder becomes a revolutionary. After descending back into the heart of the megamachine, he sees a worker named “Georgy” struggling with the hands of the great clock at the center of the “heart machine,” and relieves him. What’s more, the two men change identities. Georgy becomes the golden child of privilege. Freder joins the proletariat. More specifically, while Georgy discovers the ladies of the Yoshiwara Club, Freder searches for Maria, who’s a leader of Metropolis’ working-class. While Maria is certainly not a Marxist, Metropolis is not the fascist movie some critics have accused it of being. Rather, Maria, like Lewis Mumford, understands the history of civilization, and the repression of the working-class, not within the dialectical framework of Marx and Hegel, but as the history of the megamachine. Maria’s talk, or rather, since she speaks in front of a group of crosses, her sermon makes the connection between The New Tower of Babel, and the old. Like Metropolis, the original Tower of Babel was built on the backs of an oppressed, regimented work-force, men stripped of their individual, and turned into parts of a great machine. In the Bible, the sin that brought down the Tower of Babel was pride. In Maria’s speech, it’s the urge to dominate other men, the will to power.

If the love between Maria and Freder represents liberation, Joh Fredersen is the embodiment of the will to power. Any threat, even the idea of his own son’s happiness that threatens his control of Metropolis must be destroyed, so he seeks out Rotwang, a mad scientist in the tradition of Doctor Frankenstein. Rotwang and Joh Fredersen have a past. Having once loved the same woman, they have been rivals. Joh Fredersen thinks the rivalry is over, but Rotwang, he lives in a tiny, desolate house apart from the elite of Metropolis, still has a monumental statue of “Hel,” Freder’s mother, who had left the scientist for the lord of the city, and who had died in childbirth. Their plan, to kidnap Maria, and reconstruct her in the image of their lost love, is as revealing as it is evil. Joh Fredersen and Rotwang have sick hearts. They are once noble souls who have been corrupted by having loved, and having lost. Rotwang, who plans to take revenge on Fredersen, and Fredersen, who plans to destroy his own son, have become the satanic mirror images of what they once were.

Rotwang’s plans for Maria, however, go beyond remaking her image. Up until now, there have been no true machines in Metropolis, just tools, human and mechanical. After he kidnaps Maria, pursuing her through the catacombs underneath Metropolis, a blood curdling chase scene that reveals the connections between mechanization and death, Rotwang takes Maria back to his laboratory. There he transforms her into the first genuine machine, a robot that embodies the values of the megamachine in one, human-sized individual. Rotwang’s experiment not only means Maria’s metaphorical death. It means the final victory of the ruling class of Metropolis over the workers. While unspoken, the outcome is inevitable. Joh Fredersen has conquered human nature. He has become God. Humans, on the other hand, have been reduced to human capital, compliant, soulless automatons.

The climax and conclusion of Metropolis are a good example of why it’s so difficult to interpret a work of art outside its historical context. On the surface, Joh Fredersen’s plan to have the robot Maria inflame the workers of Metropolis with a base lust seems against his interest. The workers are already beaten and compliant. The real Maria was preaching Christian love, not Bolshevik revolution. Why stir the masses up to rebellion when they’re already lying on their backs? But Metropolis was released in 1927. Fritz Lang had already scene the apocalypse of the First World War, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into tyranny, the battles between red guards and Freikorps in the streets of every major German city, and Mussolini’s coup in Italy. Lang and Mumford both understood that chaos, disorder, is not necessarily the friend of the working-class, or the enemy of the established order. Rather, the working-class benefits when the people as a whole are filled with the spirit of love and Eros. The ruling-class benefits when they gave way to Thanatos, the death-wish. If Metropolis eventually falls apart, it’s mainly because Lang tried to graft a happy ending onto a movie that draws out the grim future that was coming for Germany, and the world. Fritz Lang lost his artistic nerve when he had Rotwang imprison Maria instead of flat out killing her. To be more accurate, he lost his artistic nerve when he allowed her to live on after the mad scientist’s demonic experiment so obviously did kill her.

Fritz Lang, like Lewis Mumford, stared into the abyss of a society ruled by the megamachine. Unlike Mumford, he blinked. Rarely however, has a sociological concept been so vividly, and dramatically realized on screen.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) The Fall of a Nation (1916)

D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece has long haunted film critics and historians. The first “blockbuster,” it’s the most important, and until Gone With the Wind in 1939, the highest-grossing film in the history of American cinema. Yet it’s also an evil work of racist propaganda that helped spur on the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. As Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote, the worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how good it is.

The first thing to keep in mind about the release of Birth of a Nation is that 1915 was exactly the same historical distance from 1865 as 2013 was from 1963. For Americans in 1915, the United States Civil War was their Kennedy assassination, and their War in Vietnam. The second thing is that, in September of 1914, the French had just fought the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne, a holocaust that produced a casualty rate 10 times the one that the Battle of Gettysburg did. What’s more, even though the Imperial German Army had been stopped short of Paris, the Germans still occupied the richest, and most industrialized part of France, and would continue to do so for 4 more years. It was only a matter of time before the American ruling class, who had extensive financial interests in Western Europe, would intervene. This brings us to the third, and final thing to realize when you watch Birth of a Nation. The people of the United States in 1915, with its huge population of German and Irish Americans, and with a burgeoning socialist movement, had no real desire to ride to the rescue of France, and of the British Empire. President Wilson not only had to jail socialists like Eugene Debs. He had to employ a lavishly funded campaign of propaganda led by advertising industry pioneers like George Creel, Walter Lippman, and Edward Bernays, before he could finally send the American people off to war.

As Ken Burns points out in his documentary The Civil War, the United States Civil War, along with the Franco-Prussian War, were the first two wars in history to be extensively photographed. In the 1870s and 1880s, there had in fact been so many glass plates showing portraits of soldiers, and the images of the dead, that many of them had simply been destroyed, used to build greenhouses. But while Americans had been looking at photographs for decades, motion pictures were still relatively new, and startling. An early showing of The Arrival of a Train, for example, a film by the Lumière brothers that had been released in 1895, had so terrified audiences that they had literally jumped out of their seats and tried to run out of the theater. The Birth of a Nation was the moment when all those tens of thousands of still photographs of the Battle of Gettysburg and Antietam, Grant’s Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg started to move, when their memories of the United States Civil War came alive. Many Civil War veterans were still alive in 1915. The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, had included a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge, in which survivors of Pickett’s Charge, had participated. Griffith’s film brought Civil War veterans and their families back to their youth, put them up on screen in the form of Lilian Gish, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, and Raoul Walsh. It was, as Woodrow Wilson was reported to have said, “like history written in lightning.”

“And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” Wilson had added. Therein lies the problem. In 1915, Birth of a Nation may have looked a lot like history being written in lightening, but very little of it was true. As W. E. B. Du Bois would later point out in his seminal work of history Black Reconstruction in America, the same Radical Reconstruction” that appalled historians like William Dunning and filmmakers like D. W. Griffith was an experiment in radical democracy as important as the Paris Commune, the promise of a socialist revolution. In 1915, the liberation of the black race in the American South, if remembered, would set a dangerous example for the American working-class, which included millions of as of yet unassimilated immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. While the promise of Radical Reconstruction, which had been effectively defeated in the disputed Presidential Election 1876, when the Republican Party agreed to end military occupation of the South in exchange for the White House, it wasn’t enough. Every memory of Radical Reconstruction and Abolitionism had to be expunged from history, wiped off the face of the earth as surely as Leon Trotsky had been airbrushed out of photographs in Stalinist Russia.

So D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation, a film where the oppressed black working-class are rapists and murderers, and the blood sucking rich their victims.

Birth of a Nation opens in 1861. The grown children of two families, the southern Camerons, and the northern Stonemans, meet at the Cameron plantation in South Carolina. That Doctor Cameron is a doddery old man in his 60s and Austin Stoneman a vigorous man in his 40s is propaganda so subtle even people who deplore Birth of a Nation for its racism barely notice it.  Austin Stoneman, a rising politician loosely modeled on Thaddeus Stevens, the fiery anti-slavery Congressman from Pennsylvania, also has a bi-racial maid. In another brilliant propagandistic lie, Griffith includes a scene where she gets “uppity” with Senator Charles Sumner. In the film, Sumner is offended that a bi-racial woman would refuse to pick up his hat. In reality, Sumner was not only as much of an abolitionist as Stevens, he was suffering from traumatic brain injury. In 1856, he had been beaten to within an inch of his life by the pro-slavery Southern congressman Preston Brooks, in the Senate itself, an assault that was later reputed to have inspired John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre. The historical Sumner was one of the leaders of Radical Reconstruction. He fought for the Emancipation Proclamation. He voted to impeach Andrew Johnson. He organized Freedman’s Bureaus. In spite of his stupid idea to require a literacy test for voting rights, he was, to use the modern term, a “white ally” of black people. In Birth of a Nation, he’s portrayed as just another “moderate” who gets angry that a biracial woman won’t defer to his “white privilege.”

The real head of the Cameron family is not the doddery old “Doctor Cameron,” who never seems to see any patients, but Ben Cameron, a young man in his 20s, who becomes friends with Phil Stoneman, the son of Austin Stoneman, and another “moderate.” When Ben Cameron, who would be later help found the Ku Klux Klan, finds a photo of Elsie Stoneman, Phil’s sister played by Lilian Gish, he falls so in love with her he steals it, and carries it with him through all four years of the Civil War. Vile racist propagandist though he was, D.W. Griffith not only knew how to write romantic melodrama like a great poet, he wrote it in “flashes of lightening,” to use Wilson’s phrase. When “Colonel” Ben Cameron is wounded in the Appomattox Campaign, and sent to a Union Army hospital, he meets Elsie Stoneman in the flesh. Unlike “Doctor” Cameron, Elsie Stoneman actually helps treat wounded soldiers. What Griffith has done is exactly what Chris Marker would later do in his haunting short film La Jetée. He has made a still-photograph move. He has conjured life out of an 4 year-old-image, realized the dreams of hundreds of thousands of Americans who, in 1915, had been looking at photographs of the Civil War for decades.

The racist propaganda of the second half of The Birth of a Nation has, of course, been widely deplored by historians of the left, and even of the right. Rarely, however, does anyone point out exactly why D. W. Griffith was so obsessed with the idea of miscegenation.

In Brian De Palma’s brutal gangster film Scarface, the Cuban immigrant Tony Montana, played by the Italian American actor Al Pacino, remarks that “in America first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.” The image of the WASP Michelle Pfeiffer, for Tony Montana, therefore, becomes a symbol of “The American Dream.” Similarly, for Griffith’s sex-crazed “mulatto” politician Silas Lynch, and the would-be rapist “Gus,” the white vagina is more than just a warm hole to stick your dick inside. Elsie Stoneman’s vagina, and Lilian Gish’s image, are exactly what Daisy Buchanan’s voice would later become in The Great Gatsby, “money.”

Does anyone think that The Birth of a Nation would have made money if someone other than Lilian Gish had played Elsie Stoneman?

But D.W. Griffith’s agenda is very different from Brian De Palma’s. For De Palma the goal was just that, Elsie Stoneman’s vagina and Daisy Buchanan’s voice, money. Brian De Palma wanted to make money off a vulgar shock-fest, but he also wanted to have it both ways, to fool himself into thinking he was “criticizing” vulgar American capitalism in the form of the grotesque immigrant Tony Montana even as he was practicing vulgar American capitalism by giving us Tony Montana. Black people weren’t impressed by De Palma’s double dealing. They took him at his word. The image of Tony Montana is all over the hip hop world. He’s a hero.

For D.W. Griffith, on the other hand, the goal is a lot more sinister than just profit, and the comforting illusion of making politically relevant art. By casting black men as rapists, he can also erase the real history of Radical Reconstruction. The things black people actually wanted in 1865, freedom from slavery, the right to vote, economic opportunity, their rights as Americans, 40 acres and a mule, are reduced to a simple animalistic urge to rape. History is reduced, not only to biology, but to a travesty of biology, the pseudo-scientific racism so popular in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The assassination of Lincoln is portrayed, not as a white supremacist’s murder of the President who ended slavery, but almost as a coup by Austin Stoneman and the Radical Republicans. Nowhere in The Birth of a Nation does Griffith mention Andrew Johnson, the man who actually did become President in 1865, a southerner who was far more conservative and anti-black than Lincoln.

What’s more, The Birth of a Nation not only erases the history of Radical Reconstruction. It erases the history of feminism. An important part of the Abolitionist Movement was the early feminist movement. Black women and white women working together played almost as important a role in ending slavery as the Union Army. In Birth of a Nation, however, sisterhood is not powerful. Lydia Brown, Austin Stoneman’s “mulatto” housemaid helps Silas Lynch bind and gag Elsie Stoneman in preparation for her forced marriage to a man she hates. Lydia Hamilton Smith, the real “Lydia Brown,” an employee, and probably lover of the white Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, would have been horrified at the idea. Here she acts just like another drunken high-school football player from Steubenville, Ohio. Griffith was more than just a racist. He was a propagandist trying, and largely succeeding, to rewrite history.

In 1916, Thomas Dixon, the author of The Klansman, the novel on which the screenplay for The Birth of a Nation is based, would go on to to film a “sequel” to Birth of a Nation called The Fall of a Nation. The Fall of a Nation, now a lost film, but summarized in the New York Times review of that year, was the first “Red Dawn,” a fantasy about an imaginary German occupation of the United States.

How the Germans could have invaded the United States in 1916 when they were under blockade by the British navy is a question I doubt Dixon ever answered. But The Fall of a Nation does show that there is a direct line between pro-Ku-Klux-Klan historians like William Dunning, and the white supremacist Woodrow Wilson’s campaign of propaganda to get the United States into the First World War. While it’s unlikely that Dixon portrayed the occupying German army in The Fall of a Nation in the same way Griffith played black Americans in The Birth of a Nation, images of German soldiers as sex-crazed rapists were common in the British and American war propaganda of the time.

By 1920, therefore, not only had D.W. Griffith completed the destruction of the memories of Radical Reconstruction, he had fired some of the most effective shots in the first “Red Scare.” Fascist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion would later be (sometimes violently) repudiated in the 1920s. Prohibition, which was largely a club with which the nativist WASP majority could beat Southern and Eastern Europeans over the head, was repealed in the 1930s. But black Americans in the south would not get the vote until the 1960s and the image of the out of control black rapist lives on in the corporate media. From the NYC newspapers lies about “wolf packs” in the 1980s to the racist white police officer Darren Wilson’s self-serving justifications for the murder of Michael Brown to Donald Trump’s libel of Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” the images that D. W. Griffith used in The Birth of a Nation still play an effect role in preventing solidarity between blacks and whites. Griffith did not invent them, but he did use them to weaponize early Hollywood in the service of the ruling class. American cinema has been poorer ever since.

One only has to look at the Soviet Union, to the films of the great director Sergei Eisenstein, to realize what we missed out on.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Most people remember D.W. Griffith, if they remember him at all, as the director of the film that helped give rise to the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. The, vile racist depiction of blacks in Birth of a Nation is still shocking. Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Sturmer, was hanged at Nuremberg for inciting German Christians to kill Jews. Griffith deserved no less. A successful communist revolution in the United States in 1917 would have rightfully left D.W. Griffith dangling at the end of a rope.

Yet there was another side to the first great American cinematic artist. While it’s probably a stretch to call D.W. Griffith a “feminist,” it’s impossible to ignore that Griffith hated the oppression of women. Even in the loathsome birth of a Nation, Griffith put the problem of rape at the center of the narrative. These days, the liberal standup comedian Louis C.K. is considered an enlightened male feminist for arguing that the most dangerous thing in the world for a woman is to go on a date with a man. Griffith may not have been particularly liberal or particularly enlightened, but he probably believed the same thing.

Broken Blossoms, made 4 years after Birth of a Nation, isn’t a lost or forgotten movie. It’s on Youtube in its entirety. You should go watch it now. But its racial attitudes are such a dramatic departure from Birth of a Nation its difficult to believe the two films were made by the same director. Try to imagine the ministry of Nazi propaganda putting out a film about a North American Indian trying to rescue a German girl from her brutish, blue-eyed, Aryan father and you’ll get the idea. Astonishingly, the director of Birth of a Nation also made the first important interracial romance in the history of American cinema.

Broken Blossoms is, of course, problematic. The Asian hero is played by a white actor. California’s anti-miscegenation laws would have made casting a Chinese actor impossible anyway. The relationship is chaste and platonic. The doomed quality of their romance has been copied in many subsequent films, and is anything but progressive. But still, Broken Blossoms gives us an Asian hero and a white villain, the “yellow man” taking the place of Birth of a Nation’s chivalrous klansmen, and the English “Battling Burrows” replacing the mulatto Gus as the menace to delicate femininity. Indeed, the idea of an Asian hero trying, and failing, to save a 15 year old white girl from being raped and murdered by her father might even indicate that Griffith believed European civilization had grown “incestuous,” and needed an infusion of “new blood.”

Even in its faded, yellowed film stock, Broken Blossoms is still an aesthetic marvel, the 23-year-old Lilian Gish’s portrayal of “the girl” one of the great performances in silent film. As the movie opens, we are in an unnamed Chinese City, probably Shanghai. The “yellow man,” a Buddhist monk played by Richard Bartlemess is tall, gentle, handsome, the perfect romantic hero. After witnessing a brawl by some British sailors, he decides to go to the west to “introduce the brutish Anglo Saxon to the ways of the Buddha.” A few years later, the “yellow man” is a shopkeeper in Limehouse, a dark, seedy neighborhood on the east end of London. His youthful dreams are gone, the title card informs us.

While Shanghai was portrayed as lively and colorful, Limehouse is a vision of hell, Blake’s dark satanic city. “The Girl”  is a Blakean innocent, a little lamb among the tigers, and we know, as soon as we see her, that her life is going to be a short one. Too beautiful for the world she lives in, she spends her days slaving away for her brutish father, a bare knuckled prize fighter named “Battling Burrows.” One day, after undergoing a horrific beating, she runs into the street, eventually finding  herself in the yellow man’s shop, where she passes out on the floor. The yellow man immediately sees that this is why he came to the west, that this poor abused girl is the poetic ideal he has been seeking all his life. He nurses her back to health, and, over the course of the film, introduces her to “civilization,” to an ancient culture that values her yearnings for beauty and gentleness.

The ending of Broken Blossoms is brutal and heart wrenching. A friend of Battling Burrows rats “the girl” out to her father. He bursts into the yellow man’s shop, and, while her protector is out, drags her home, and he whips her to death in a jealous, spasm of racist anger. A “chink” had defiled his daughter. The hero, the yellow man, sick with grief, manages to pull himself together long enough to shoot the murderer dead, the hail of bullets he pumps into the savage, brutish, almost subhuman white man the only orgasmic release possible. He then builds a Buddhist shrine to his dead Platonic lover before slitting his own throat.

I would guess the transformation of D.W. Griffith’s racial attitudes have a lot to do with the First World War. Birth of a Nation was filmed in 1915. Broken Blossoms was filmed in 1919, shortly after European civilization had slit its own throat on the bed of The Somme and the Battle of Verdun. A war more horrible than the United States Civil War had turned all of old Europe into the killing fields of Northern Virginia. China, by contrast, was far off, a Buddhist version of the old south, an ancient, hierarchical civilization that remained outside of the brutish industrial civilization that had given the United States Gettysburg and Cold Harbor, and France Ypres and Paschendale. If there could be no poetry after the 20 million dead in the trenches of Western Europe, a few lovely blossoms remained, perhaps, in Shanghai and Beijing, in the Forbidden City and at the White Horse Temple.

The Chinese man in Broken Blossoms has about as much to do with real Asians as the rapist blacks in Birth of a Nation with real black people. Both were projections of Griffith’s  sense of his own duality onto  the idea of race, the blacks the “dark” side he wanted to restrain, the “yellow man” the civilized restraint he wanted to cultivate. Indeed, while Richard Barthelmess, the white actor who plays “the yellow man,” is a white man with the coarser side of his masculinity refined away, Battling Burrows is the Anglo Saxon at his most brutish, the thinning hairline, the thick brows, the heavy jaw, and the bulging eyes, almost a parody of Caucasian ugliness. Is this the way a Japanese or Chinese aristocrat would have seen an Englishman in the year 1900? In any event, the beefy, red meat eating Burrows is a far cry from the heroic “Little Colonel” of Birth of a Nation. Working class whites, for Griffith, are barely any better than blacks. If women are vulnerable children, men, without the restraints of birth and class, are no better than animals.

Perhaps Griffith, in the end, is more snob than racist, a pioneer creating the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but also a romantic reactionary looking backward with nostalgia at the world that died in 1865 and then again in 1917. Hollywood would eventually improve on the concept. The feisty Scarlet O’Hara would replace the fragile “girl.” But the concept would remain the same. Women are our better angels. They have to be protected against masculine desire lest we all fall into barbarism and animal sexuality, the edifice of civilization gone with the wind.