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One of the great masterpieces of the silent film era, Napoléon by Abel Gance (1st period), the result of an immense restoration effort in which The Yugoslav Film Archive contributed, opened the Cannes Classics last night.

The process of reconstructing the original seven-hour film split into two parts, took a long time, and many sources were used, making the tale of the restoration of this classic interesting enough to be a film unto itself.

“We are pleased that the Yugoslav Film Archive played a role in restoring Abel Gance’s Napoléon, an event of great importance in the field of contemporary film archival science. In addition to having undeniable importance for French culture and being an epic subject, this film has made a significant step forward in using film language and technical innovations, and in this regard, Napoléon represents the pinnacle of silent film development”, said the director of The Yugoslav Film Archive, Jugoslav Pantelić.

With the development of sound, reels of this film were scattered around the world, with some being lost or destroyed. The film was then changed several times, with 22 different versions created.

Claude Lelouch and Francis Ford Coppola, the esteemed silent historian Kevin Brownlow, Costa-Gavras, President of the Cinémathèque française, and others were captivated by Abel Gance’s film in the 1980s. The original version, called the Grande Version, has not been shown since 1927.

The reels were discovered in the Toulouse Cinematheque, the French Cinematheque, CNC, and Cinematheques de Corse and French experts also visited film archives throughout Europe, including the Yugoslav Film Archive. During that time, they examined our nitrate copy of the film and found that it was one of the most comprehensive versions; it had approximately seven minutes that weren’t in the copies found in other archives. In 2018, the Yugoslav Film Archive sent a nitrate copy and a negative of this film to France, and earlier mentioned seven minutes were subsequently incorporated into the final version of the restored film.

“In 2001, while watching a 333-minute copy of the legendary film Napoléon by Abel Gance in Pordenone, which was the result of decades of planning and obsession on the part of film historian and British director Kevin Brownlow, I thought I was witnessing the ultimate achievement of the silent film and the final, most faithful version. But today, thanks to a fifteen-year search by George Mourier and his team, we have a miracle. To make the joy greater, the Yugoslav Film Archive also participated with its unique seven minutes, which is why we will be the ones to receive our digital copy as a key participant in the project and our audience will also have the opportunity to see this legendary film”, said the head of the Film Archive of the Yugoslav Film Archive, Aleksandar Saša Erdeljanović.

Apart from Serbia, reels came from New York, Denmark, Italy, and Luxemburg. George Mourier and his team conducted a frame-by-frame analysis, and they examined 100 kilometers of film, and during this process, they consulted Abel Gance’s editing notes and his correspondence with the editor, which were discovered at the National Library of France.

The technical innovations of the film Napoléon are countless: as David Cook stated in his History of Narrative Film, “from beginning to end Gance storms the audience with the entire arsenal of silent film techniques, and the effect is impressive.”

In addition to using a widescreen (Polyvision), which increases the width of the picture by three times, the free movement of the camera is a significant procedure that will only become standard film practice several decades later.

In some scenes, the camera was mounted on the back of a moving horse, attached to a moving pendulum, tied to a ball, thrown into the air to simulate the flight of a cannonball, and thrown into the sea in a waterproof box from cliffs.

Abel Gance was part of the avant-garde French impressionist cinema movement, but he preferred historical themes and drew inspiration from David Griffith’s narrative style. Next to Napoléon, his most significant film is The Wheel (1922-1923).