“The close-up modifies the drama by the impact of proximity. Pain is within reach. If I stretch out my arm I touch you, and that is intimacy. I can count the eyelashes of this suffering.”
— Jean Epstein,
Epstein was born in Warsaw into a Jewish family. When his father died in 1908, the family relocated to Switzerland, where he attended secondary school. He attended university in Lyon, France, and received a medical degree. At Lyon, he met the pioneer filmmaker Auguste Lumière. Influenced by the works of American directors Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith, Epstein and Lumière founded a film journal, Le promenoir, in 1920. The next year, Epstein publishedBonjour cinema, a treatise on poetry, photography and the nature of the relatively new artistic medium of film. The positive response to his early films such as Pasteur, the biography of scientist Louis Pasteur, allowed Epstein to set up his own production company, Les Films Jean Epstein. In a short time, he produced a number of diverse films, including The Fall of the House of Usherand La glace à trois faces. However, with the advent of sound technology, Epstein's experimental works fell out of favor, and he relocated to Brittany, where he made short films and documentaries. At the beginning of World War II, Epstein and his sister were captured by the Gestapo, but they were not deported. Unable to make films because of the German occupation in France, Epstein worked for the Red Cross and honed his writing skills. In 1947, he returned to Brittany, where he finished his career with several critically acclaimed films, most notably Le tempestaire, the tale of a French fisherman. Although Epstein continued to write, he ceased filmmaking shortly thereafter. In 1953, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Jean Epstein was an important figure in the school of filmmaking variously called “French Impressionism”, the “narrative avant-garde”, the “first cinematic avant-garde”, and the “pre-war French school”. This school flourished in France between 1919 and 1929, and the filmmakers (and filmmaker/theorists) most strongly associated with it were Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier and Abel Gance.
As well as directing around forty films, Epstein was also a film theorist, and it is this aspect of his work that is of central interest to us here, because the key to understanding Epstein lies with his idea of photogénie. Photogénie is a complex theoretical concept that works in a number of ways. At its heart, photogénie seeks the essence of cinema. It is an argument for the importance of cinematic specificity, and we can mark out two ways in which the concept operates: the cultural and the aesthetic. In the cultural sense it proposes to legitimise the medium of film, arguing that film can transcend its photochemical/mechanical base, and, in the right hands, become art. Within this cultural sense it also offers ways of marking out those filmmakers who are artists from those who are not, prefiguring the later politique des auteurs division between auteurs and metteurs-en-scène. In addition to dividing filmmakers,photogénie also divides audiences, separating those who can see and appreciate the art of film from those who cannot. In the aesthetic sense we see photogénie variously associated with transformation, expression, the close-up, movement, temporality, rhythm, and the augmentation of the senses. This multiplicity of aesthetic associations exists because of something that has gone almost entirely unnoticed in Epstein’s work, the assertion that there is not one photogénie, but many, some of which have yet to be discovered. The other major part of Epstein’s work onphotogénie that has been overlooked is the idea that has photogénie as an aural aspect, phonogénie.
To fully grasp the idea of photogénie it is important to move away from the idea that it is something that exists inthe film. Depending on our perspective, photogénie is either an approach to filmmaking, or it is a way of thinking about film. It is perceptible in the filmmaker’s attitude towards the medium, and our understanding of the medium. Photogénie does not literally exist in the film, except in a metaphorical way designed to encourage us to take a more active part in the cinematic experience and to gaze more deeply at the screen. It is the intention here to present as clearly as possible Epstein’s theory of photogénie, in order to deepen our enjoyment and understanding of his films, and to allow us to appreciate him fully as a great, and very modern director.