2 November 2009 | JoeytheBrit
I always feel sort of obliged to be impressed by films like this: made by Marcel L'Herbier, one of the giants of French silent cinema from a book by Zola, filmed on a grand scale that gives it an air of Importance (with a capital I), you really feel as though it would be sacrilegious to say anything but good things about it. But, to be brutally honest, this tale of lust and betrayal among financial high-fliers is a bit of a plod. It's not helped by the fact that its running time is a gargantuan three hours. It must have been difficult to make a film like this, where much of the 'action' relates to financial shenanigans, without the luxury of sound, which may be why L'Herbier felt it necessary to take so long to tell his tale, but maybe it would have been better to have waited until he could have made use of sound.
Pierre Alcover who plays Saccard, the treacherous financier who falls for the hapless heroine whose pilot lover has conveniently flown to Equatorial Guinea to drill for oil, is quite good, but Brigitte Helm, the comely object of his affections is just awful. She's the kind of actress who would overact when pretending to be asleep, and when she is on the brink of suicide she wanders into Saccard's office and stumbles around as if wounded by a sniper's bullet. Saccard looks like the manipulative weasel that he is. He fancies himself as a Napoleon of the financial world but, like Napoleon, he bites off more than he can chew when he locks horns with the urbane Gundermann.
The film does have some saving graces. L'Herbier's use of the camera is sublime, and gives the bored viewer something to concentrate on when the sluggish pace gets too much. Perhaps that is why he chose to film as a silent – the use of sound, while making the story easier to convey, would have restrained the camera and robbed the film of what vitality it possesses. The film does a good job of illustrating the corrupting influence of money, only over-emphasising its message on the rare occasion. As the character's become more depraved and self-absorbed their surroundings become more opulent, their clothes more refined, and it is clear that they are becoming prisoners of their possessions. There's also a great last scene – but you have to wait an unrealistically long time to get to it.