The rediscovery of the human face


Fritz Lang wrote the following in October 1926 as part of a rousing defense of German Expressionist cinema (The Future of the Feature Film in Germany), “The first important gift for which we have film to thank was, in a certain sense, the rediscovery of the human face. Film has revealed to us the human face with unexampled clarity in its tragic as well as grotesque, threatening as well as blessed expression. The second gift is that of visual empathy: in the purest sense the expressionistic representation of thought processes.” The rediscovery of the human face. What does that mean? Did we once know the human face and forget it? Or simply grow used to it? The way a painter, after sitting for too long at a canvas, can no longer quite perceive what he or she is painting and has to leave the room and come back to it to even see it again. When did we first discover the human face? Was it during the age of Flemish Renaissance portraiture or Ancient Greek sculpture? The stone heads of Bayon, the Giants of Monte Prama, the Warrior of Hirschlanden, ‘Ain Ghazal or the Moravian ivory woman? Or earlier carvings and sketches now buried? At what point did we lose it?

The line seemed nonsensical or, at least, raised more questions than answers until I watched Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, which you can watch in full below (I’d suggest watching with the sound down if you’re not into post-rock meanderings). After this, I understood precisely what Fritz Lang meant yet could not, and cannot still, capture it in words. It is simply there in the film and in the face of its lead actress Rosa Falconetti. There have been artists (Vermeer and Caravaggio for instance) who anticipated cinema masterfully in their paintings, there have been writers and playwrights who did likewise. There are film directors (Hitchcock was one) who make brilliant films that nevertheless could exist in some other form, as a Breughel-type panorama, a book or a play. Translation is treason and some things would be lost or gained in the process but a decent forgery could be attempted from one art-form into another. Then there are the directors for whom no translation could be made, for whom there is a fundamentally-cinematic magic (or ‘language’ as my friend Chris Kelly calls it) that is so unique, so deep and fragile that it would collapse in on itself upon conversion, an art that can only exist in the rivers and pools of light that come from the projector in the artificial night of a picture-house. Magic is a poor word for it, as is poetry. It lies beyond the limits of language and we would sully it by reaching for vague, shoddy labels like ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystic’. It’s no accident that the person who came closest to articulating it was arguably its greatest proponent in film – Andrei Tarkovsky, whose book Sculpting in Time is the most honourable and least inarticulate attempt to permeate that barrier between word and light. You could argue whether it’s there (and where) in the films of Herzog, Klimov, Malick, Vertov, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Cocteau, Deren, Lynch, Bresson, Pasolini, Davies, Tarr, Buñuel and all those directors who’ve shown us what Hollwood might be in parallel universes. I don’t know a great deal about film, and even less of its mechanics, but for me it’s not just present in the films of Tarkovsky, Chris Marker and Bergman, it is their films. And it’s there in Lang and Dreyer and the face, that face, of Falconetti, just a human face but one infinitely more gripping than any special effect or computer-generated imagery, a face that contains worlds. You’ll know exactly what Lang meant when you see it.

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4 Responses to The rediscovery of the human face

  1. Oh, I wonder if the discovery of the human face again through film is because of the voyeurism coupled with the perceived proximity? When in life can you truly observe a person’s joy or sorrow framed as such without reacting? It’s all so fleeting and humans are so intensely private, never would you stare at someones tears for so long without trying to stop them or embrace them, but here we must linger and we have time for the face to resonate, especially if the artist/actor/painter has done their job well. Funnily enough this video reminds me a bit of early Sinéad O’Connor in Troy or Nothing Compares to You, what a face.

    • that’s so true about the Sinéad O’Connor video, be interesting to know if the director had seen Dreyer’s film. and I agree she has a mesmerising beauty to her.
      the proximity aspect is fascinating, I hadn’t thought about it being the first time you could focus on the human face in such close-up but I think you’re right. there’s something about the gaze of another person that’s penetrating or intimidating and almost always initiates a reaction. and while people aren’t entirely unguarded towards a camera lens, it can capture something particularly in terms of distance that the human eye cannot. it sneaks under some kind of barrier.

  2. Jeff says:

    Lang’s comments are hardly surprising if you think about what a close-up projected on a large screen would have felt like to audiences at the time. The pace of film would have been slow, and coupled with the silence, the affect was probably something doomed to last the short time it takes to become familiar. The director’s task here is to reach into a strangeness in their images that can resist absorption into technique-iness. Tarkovsky already came to mind as I read your piece. His isolation of figures in chiaroscuro particularly, such as the prof in the bar at the start of Stalker, and the long monologue in Sacrifice. But did film rediscover the face, or did it set out a context for us to sit still and concentrate on something with a framing and pace (and other viewing aspects such as Jennifer’s suggestion of proximity) that’s outside our control?

    • yeah Tarkovsky was in my head too. context is everything really and it’s amazing to me how many film-makers (or maybe its producers) don’t trust themselves and the audience enough to really exploit the fact they have their attention. to manipulate what they can do with time and space the way Tarkovsky did. i’m not saying anyone could or should be a Tarkovsky or Dreyer but it would be nice to see more try. there’s a magic and teleportation in it when it’s done right. Bela Tarr springs to mind, hit and miss as he is.

      i love reading about the early days of cinema and the audience reactions, a time when the gap between film and reality seemed more permeable. i’m not entirely convinced this happened but I like the story that when the bandit fires his gun towards the camera in The Great Train Robbery (1903) members of the audience ducked. it reminds me of that great scene in Primo Levi’s The Truce where after surviving Auschwitz he and his fellow exiles are shown a film and react by shouting and throwing things at the villain. you realise the Ancient Greeks were right about attempts at catharsis if not its effectiveness.

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