Autour de La Fin du Monde: silent film about a sound film hampered by lack of … sound

Abel Gance and Eugène Deslaw, “Autour de La Fin du Monde” (1930)

I had heard that there was a French science fiction film “La Fin du Monde” made by Abel Gance in 1931 and looked for it on Youtube.com. Unfortunately I didn’t find it but what I did find was a silent 18-minute documentary made by Eugène Deslaw on the making and shooting of the film. The documentary is notable for the methods Deslaw uses to observe the director and his crew at work and how various scenes were prepared and shot.

Understandably, being silent, the film features no interviews with anyone on or off the set: it’s done almost completely from the viewpoint of an unseen observer who has stumbled in onto the set and might be watching in wonder and astonishment at the comings and goings of people and what they do. The film opens with a spectacular circular panning of the camera focusing on actors facing it that speeds up until the whole shot is a wild whir. The scene abruptly cuts to a camera operator spinning around on his stand. Sometimes the camera comes in very close to scrutinise the equipment: meter readings, switches being turned on and off, pointers on gauges wavering between two extreme points. Are we looking at scenes from the film being made or are we looking at the actual filming? In this way, Deslaw blurs the boundary between the film being made and his own film. The camera also views the film from the height of a child (there is a shot of a pair of legs crossing a floor) and from above people’s heads.

The film was France’s first talking film and there is a scene of a beautiful woman facing the camera and singing or chanting. There is also a shot of a man declaiming loudly in front of the camera against a background of lights and the lights flashing and the camera deliberately shaking and making the image unfocused. Sometimes the camera appears to be participating in the actual film-making itself, as when it pauses on two lovers arguing and making up, and the woman listening in on them; later the camera follows the crew on a crane and looks down on a small crowd looking up at it.

Although the documentary is described as experimental, I don’t find it as experimental or inventive as the work of Gance and Deslaw’s contemporary Jean Vigo. Vigo’s work had real flair and this documentary, though it uses panning, whole-scene shots, close-ups and different points of view, can appear pedestrian in parts. There is one scene in the last minute of the film in which an image of a face appears beneath an image of a machine in close-up.

Until the film in its entirety is found and released on DVD or uploaded to Youtube.com, this documentary is the best source we have of the film. I know nothing more of the film having seen the documentary than I did before but as an exercise in making a film about a film and playing with audience’s expectations, Deslaw’s portrait is good but not very outstanding. The decision not to include a soundtrack is unusual, as the subject itself has one, and certainly doesn’t help me understand “La Fin du Monde”.

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