Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 23 April 1888. Education: Lycée Voltaire, Sainte-Marie de Monceau; University of Paris. Military Service: Served with Service Auxiliaire, 1914–17, and with Section Cinématographique de l'Armée, 1917–18. Career: Scriptwriter, from 1917; directed first film, Rose-France, 1918; organized Cinégraphic production company, 1922; secretary general of Association des Auteurs de Films, 1929; co-founder, Cinémathèque Française, 1936; co-founder (1937) then president, Syndicat des Techniciens, from 1938; founder and president of Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC), French film school, 1943; president of Comité de Défense du Cinéma Français, 1947; producer
for television, 1952–62. Awards: Commandeur de Légion d'Honneur et des Arts et Lettres. Died: 26 November 1979.
Films as Director:
Phantasmes (+ sc) (incomplete); Rose-France (+ sc)
Le Bercail (+ sc); Le Carnaval des vérités (+ sc)
L'Homme du large (+ sc); Villa Destin (+ sc)
El Dorado (+ sc); Prométhée . . . banquier
Don Juan et Faust (+ sc)
Résurrection (+ sc) (incomplete)
L'Inhumaine (The New Enchantment) (+ co-sc)
Feu Mathias Pascal (The Late Mathias Pascal) (+ sc)
Le Vertige (+ sc)
Le Diable au coeur (L'Ex-Voto) (+ sc)
Nuits de Prince (+ sc)
L'Argent (+ sc); L'Enfant de l'amour (+ sc)
La Femme d'une nuit (La donna d'una notte) (+ sc); LaMystère de la chambre jaune (+ sc)
Le Parfum de la dame en noir (+ sc)
L'Epervier (Les Amoureux; Bird of Prey) (+ sc)
Le Scandale; L'Aventurier (+ sc); Le Bonheur (+ sc)
La Route impériale (+ sc); Veille d'armes (Sacrifice d'honneur) (+ co-sc)
Les Hommes nouveux (+ sc); La Porte du large (The GreatTemptation) (+ sc); Nuits de feu (The Living Corpse) (+ co-sc)
La Citadelle du silence (The Citadel of Silence) (+ sc); Forfaiture (+ sc)
La Tragédie impériale (Rasputin) (+ sc); Adrienne Lecouvreur; Terre de feu; La Brigade sauvage (Savage Brigade) (completed by J. Dreville)
Entente cordiale; Children's Corner (short); La Mode rêvée (short) (+ sc)
La Comédie du bonheur (+ sc)
Histoire de rire (Foolish Husbands)
La Nuit fantastique; L'Honorable Catherine
La Vie de Bohême
Au petit bonheur
L'Affaire du collier de la Reine (The Queen's Necklace)
La Révoltée (Stolen Affections) (+ sc)
Les Derniers Jours de Pompéi (The Last Days of Pompeii) (+ co-sc)
Le Pére de mademoiselle (co-d)
Hommage à Debussy (short)
Le Cinéma du diable (anthology film)
Le Torrent (Hervil) (sc); Bouclette (L'Ange de minuit) (Mercanton and Hervil) (sc)
Le Martyre de l'Obèse (Chenal) (supervisor)
La Bataille (Farkas) (supervisor)
Terra di fuoco (Ferroni) (Italian version of Terre de feu) (supervisor)
Le Loup des Malveneur (Radot) (supervisor)
Une Grande Fille tout simple (Manuel) (supervisor)
By L'HERBIER: books—
Au jardin des jeux secrets, Paris, 1914.
L'Enfantement du mort, Paris, 1917.
Intelligence du cinématographe (anthology), Paris, 1947 (revised 1977).
La Tête qui tourne, Paris, 1979.
By L'HERBIER: articles—
Interview, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 202, 1968.
Interview with J. Fieschi and others, in Cinématographe (Paris), no. 40, 1978.
"Un Cinéaste . . . ," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 January 1980.
Interview, in Cinémagazine, reprinted in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 October 1981.
On L'HERBIER: books—
Jaque-Catelain présente Marcel L'Herbier, Paris, 1950.
Burch, Noël, Marcel L'Herbier, Paris, 1973.
Hommage à Marcel L'Herbier en cinq films de l'art muet, brochure for retrospective, Paris, 1975.
Brossard, Jean-Pierre, editor, Marcel L'Herbier et son temps, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 1980.
Canosa, Michele, Marcel L'Herbier, Parma, 1985.
On L'HERBIER: articles—
"The Big Screens," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1955.
Roud, Richard, "Memories of Resnais," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1969.
Blumer, R.H., "The Camera as Snowball: France 1918–1927," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Spring 1970.
Article on five films of L'Herbier, in Ecran (Paris), no. 43, 1976.
"L'Herbier Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 June 1978.
Trosa, S., "Archeologie du cinéma," in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1978.
Obituary, in New York Times, 28 November 1979.
Fieschi, J., "Marcel L'Herbier," in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1979.
Obituary, in Image et Son (Paris), January 1980.
Milani, R., "Il cinema di Marcel L'Herbier," in Filmcritica (Montepoulciano), vol. 37, no. 364, May 1986.
"Marcel L'Herbier," in Film Dope (London), September 1986.
* * *
Marcel L'Herbier was one of the most prominent members of the French 1920s avant-garde. His direct involvement with filmmaking extended into the 1950s and he made important contributions to the organization of the industry, to the foundation of the film school, the IDHEC, and to early television drama.
Like so many of his generation L'Herbier turned to cinema after an early enthusiasm for literature and the theatre, and in his case it was Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat with Sessue Hayakawa that opened his eyes to the unrealized potential of the new medium. He came to prominence in the years 1919–22 with a series of films made for Léon Gaumont's "Pax" series. Among the half-dozen films made for Gaumont, two at least stand out as artistic and commercial successes: L'Homme du large, a melodrama shot partly on location on the Brittany coast, where the director's interest in visual effects and symbolism is very apparent; and El Dorado, a Spanish drama in which L'Herbier's use of cinema to convey the mental and psychological states of characters finds perfect expression. El Dorado achieved a success to match that of Gance's La Roue the following year.
Difficulties with Gaumont over the production of the ambitious Don Juan et Faust led L'Herbier to set up his own company, Cinégraphic, in 1922. He was able to assist the debuts of young filmmakers such as Jaque Catelain and Claude Autant-Lara as well as produce the last film of Louis Delluc, L'Inondation. His own films were made largely in co-production and ranged widely in style and approach. The celebrated but controversial L'Inhumaine, partly financed by its star the singer Georgette Leblanc, aimed to offer a mosaic of the decorative modern art of 1925, with sets produced by four very individual designers, including Fernand Léger and Robert Mallet-Stevens. In total contrast, Feu Matthias Pascal was essentially an experiment with complex narrative structures, co-produced with the Albatros company which had been set up by Russian exiles and starring the great silent actor, Ivan Mosjoukine. L'Herbier's eclectic approach and love of juxtapositions are very apparent in these films, together with his immense visual refinement. After a couple of commercial works he made his silent masterpiece, an updating of Zola's L'Argent, in 1929. Inspired by the scope of Gance's Napoléon, L'Herbier created a strikingly modern work marked by its opulent, oversized sets and a complex, multi-camera shooting style.
L'Herbier was in no way hostile to the coming of sound, but despite a pair of interesting adaptations of comic thrillers by Gaston Leroux, Le Mystére de la chambre jaune and Le Parfum de la dame en noir, L'Herbier was largely reduced to the role of efficient but uninspired adaptor of stage plays in the 1930s. During the occupation years L'Herbier again came to prominence with his delicately handled, dreamlike La Nuit fantastique, but his subsequent work, which included a spectacular version of Les Derniers Jours de Pompei in 1948, attracted little critical favor. In more recent years, however, L'Herbier's reputation has benefitted from the revival of interest in the experimental aspects of French 1920s cinema. Though to some extent overshadowed by the towering figure of Abel Gance, L'Herbier emerges as a figure of considerable interest. In particular the work of the critic and theorist Noël Burch has emphasized the modernity of the approach to shooting and to narrative construction displayed in his ambitious L'Argent. There seems little doubt that French 1920s cinema offers a rich and largely unexplored area for future film studies and that L'Herbier's reputation can only benefit from fresh investigation of his varied 1920s oeuvre.