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.