Warsaw, 25 March 1897.
Collège Francais, Villa Saint-Jean, Fribourg; Ecole Centrale,
Lyons, degree in medicine, 1916.
Met Auguste Lumière, 1916; founder of revue,
, 1920; hired as editor by Editions de la Sirène, 1921; directed
, for Jean Benoit-Levy, 1922; signed to Pathé, 1923; joined
Alexandre Kamenska's Films Albatros, 1924; set up Les Films Jean
Epstein, 1926; with sister, scenarist Marie Epstein, captured by Gestapo,
saved from deportation through intervention of friends and Red Cross,
early 1940s; taught at IDHEC after the war.
Of cerebral hemorrhage, in Paris, 3 April 1953.
Films as Director:
Pasteur ; Les Vendanges
L'Auberge rouge (+ sc); Coeur fidèle (+ sc); La Montagne infidèle ; La Belle Nivernaise (+ sc)
Le Lion des Mogols (+ adaptation); L'Affiche ; La Goutte de sang (Mariaud) (uncredited d)
Le Double Amour ; Les Aventures de Robert Macaire
Mauprat (+ pr); Au pays de George Sand (+ pr)
Six et demi onze (+ pr); La Glace a trois faces (+ pr)
La Chute de la maison Usher (+ pr)
Finis terrae (+ sc); Sa Tête (+ sc)
Le Pas de la mule (+ pr)
Mor-Vran ( La Mer des corbeaux ) (+ pr); Notre-Dame de Paris (+ pr); La Chanson des peupliers (+ pr); Le Cor (+ pr)
L'Or des mers (+ sc); Les Berceaux (+ pr); La Villanelle des Rubans (+ pr); Le Vieux Chaland (+ pr)
L'Homme a l'Hispano (+ sc, pr); La Chatelaine du Liban (+ sc, pr)
Chanson d'armor (+ pr, adaptation); La Vie d'un grand journal (+ pr)
Coeur de Gueux (+ pr, adaptation); La Bretagne (+ pr); La Bourgogne (+ pr)
Vive la vie (+ pr); La Femme du bout de monde (+ pr, sc)
Les Batisseurs (+ pr); Eau vive (+ pr, sc)
Arteres de France (+ pr); La Charrette fantôme (Duvivier) (d superimpositions and special photographic effects)
Le Tempestaire (+ pr, sc)
Les Feux de la mer (+ pr); La Bataille de l'eau lourde ( Kampen om tungtvannet ) (Marin and Vibe-Muller) (d prologue)
Le Tonnerre (Delluc) (asst d)
By EPSTEIN: books—
Bonjour cinéma , Paris, 1921.
La Poésie d'aujourd'hui—Un nouvel état d'intelligence , Paris, 1921.
La Lyrosophie , Paris, 1922.
Le Cinématographe vu de l'Etna , Paris, 1926.
L'Or des mers , Valois, 1932.
Les Recteurs et la sirène , Paris, 1934.
Photogénie de l'impondérable , Paris, 1935.
L'Intelligence d'une machine , Paris, 1946.
Le Cinéma du diable , Paris, 1947.
Esprit de cinéma , Paris, 1955.
Ecrits sur le cinéma , Paris, 1974–75.
By EPSTEIN: articles—
"Jean Epstein nous parle de ses projets et du film parlant," interview with Pierre Leprohon, in Pour vous (Paris), 17 October 1929.
Article in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1953.
On EPSTEIN: books—
Gawrak, Zbigniew, Jan Epstein , Warsaw, 1962.
Leprohon, Pierre, Jean Epstein , Paris, 1964.
On EPSTEIN: articles—
Leprohon, Pierre, "Un Poète de l'image," in Cinémonde (Paris), 28 February 1929.
Wunscher, Catherine, "Jean Epstein," in Sight and Sound (London), October/December 1953.
"Epstein Issue" of Cinemages (New York), edited by Gideon Bachmann, vol. 2, 1955.
Toussenot, R., "Souvenirs en l'honneur de Jean Epstein," in L'Age Nouveau (Paris), October 1956.
Haudiquet, Philippe, "Epstein," in Anthologie du Cinéma , vol. 2, Paris, 1967.
"Jean Epstein," in Film Dope (London), March 1978.
"Jean Epstein," in Travelling (Lausanne), Summer 1979.
"Cinema Rising: Epstein in the Twenties," special section in Afterimage (Rochester), no. 10, 1981.
"Cine-mystique," in Millenium Film Journal (New York), Fall 1981/Winter 1982.
"A propos de Jean Epstein," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), October 1983.
Magny, J., "1896–1930. Premiers Écrits: Canudo, Delluc, Epstein, Dulac," in Cinémaction (Paris), no. 60, July 1991.
Kessler, F., "Fotogenie en fysionomie," in Versus (Netherlands), vol. 1, 1991.
* * *
Jean Epstein belongs to the generation of 1920s French filmmakers who were drawn to the cinema by the impact of the Hollywood productions of Griffith, Chaplin, and Ince. Gifted with a precocious intelligence, Epstein was one of a number of these filmmakers who had previously been interested in literature. He had already published books on literature, philosophy, and the cinema when he made his debut as a filmmaker with a documentary on Pasteur in 1922 at the age of only twenty-five. Three fictional features in the following year, including Coeur fidèle , which contains virtuoso passages to rank with the work of Gance and L'Herbier, put him in the forefront of French avant-garde filmmaking.
The four films Epstein made during 1925–26 for the Albatros company run by the Russian emigré Alexandre Kamenka include two, L'Affiche and Le Double Amour , from scripts by Jean's sister Marie Epstein. The spectacular Le Lion des Mogols , which featured a preposterous script by its star, the great actor Ivan Mosjoukine, was followed by Les Aventures de Robert Macaire , an adaptation of the play parodied by Fredéric Lemaître in Carné's Les Enfants du paradis. None of these are generally considered to be among Epstein's best work, but they established him as a director after the controversies which had surrounded the showings of Coeur fidèle , and enabled him to set up his own production company in 1926.
The films which Epstein both produced and directed are varied. He began with two films in which his own artistic aspirations were balanced by the demands of commercial popularity: an adaption of George Sand's novel Mauprat , which had formed part of his childhood reading; and Six et demi onze , again from a script by his sister. But the last two films of Les Films Jean Epstein were resolutely independent works. The short feature La Glace à trois faces is remarkable for its formal pattern, which looks forward to experiments in narrative structure of a kind that were still striking to audiences thirty years later when Alain Resnais made Hiroshima mon amour. Even more accomplished in terms of acting and setting, and as intriguing in terms of narrative, is Epstein's atmospheric evocation of the dark world of Edgar Allan Poe, La Chute de la maison Usher. This tale of love, art, and madness is told in a marvellously controlled style which makes extensive use of slow motion and multiple superimposition. Just as the hero refuses to accept the division of life and death and, through the effort of will, summons back the woman he has killed through devotion to his art, so too Epstein's film creates a universe where castle and forest, interior and exterior interpenetrate.
After this masterly evocation of a world of northern imagination, a film that can rank with Dreyer's Vampyr and serves as a reminder of Epstein's part-Polish ancestry, the director largely withdrew from the world of Parisian film production. With only occasional forays into commercial filmmaking, Epstein devoted much of his efforts from the silent Finis terrae in 1929 to the short Le Tempestaire in 1947 to a masterly series of semi-documentary evocations of the Breton countryside and seascape.
Epstein is a complex and uncompromising figure whose filmmaking was accompanied by a constant theoretical concern with his chosen medium. If the central concept of his 1930s writing— La photogénie —remains not merely undefined but undefinable, and he makes recourse to notions of a magical or mystical essence of cinema that are unfortunately typical of the period, his theoretical work nonetheless remains of great interest. The republication of his complete works, Ecrits sur le cinéma , in 1974–75, demonstrated the modernity and continuing interest of his explorations of key aspects of the relationship between the spectator and the screen.