LYON, France — This coming Saturday and Sunday, the Lumière Festival will turn back the clock nearly one hundred years as the festival premieres a new completed reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1923 masterpiece “La Roue” (“The Wheel”) that restores the classic to its original 7.5 hour length.
Consisting of a prologue and four movements, “La Roue” will screen at the 1,800-seat Auditorium of Lyon over the course of two days, with the backing of conductor Franck Strobel and the National Orchestra Lyon.
The French and Swiss Cinemateques, alongside Pathé and The Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, undertook the significant venture, which was a labor of love for Foundation president Sophie Seydoux.
“I’ve had the idea for more than seven years,” says Seydoux. “’La Roue’ is one of the most legendary silent films in Pathé’s catalogue, but no version of the initial 1923 version has ever been seen again.”
“After that first 1923 screening, Abel Gance cut out several hours and re-worked the film several times over for the next 15 years,” explains Seydoux. “He would cut directly on the negative to make his different versions, making a four-hour version and a serialized version, among others. Naturally, my dream was to recreate his original vision of “La Roue” that premiered in February 1923 at the Gaumont Palace [in Paris].”
Doing so required a bit of work. Film restorer François Ede had to mix and match negatives culled from French, Swiss, American and Czech film libraries, and struck gold with 49 reels of original rushes his team had digitized in Bologna. Working from the original script, the newly digitized rushes, and other archival materials, Ede and his team could reconstruct scenes that had been cut for nearly a century.
On that front, a list of musical cues assembled by Gaumont Palace’s lead conductor Paul Fosse proved singularly useful. Prepared for the film’s 1923 premiere, the document drew on over 100 pieces of contemporary music from 57 composers, listing them in the order in which they would be played.
The document thus acted as a road map for the restoration, a Rosetta stone for tone and pace of every reconstructed scene. “It was the backbone of this entire project, allowing us to reconstruct the film so that the images matched the music that was already set,” adds Seydoux, listing composers Darius Milhaud, Claude Debussy and Guy Ropartz as some key players.
The reconstruction premiered in Berlin this past September. After Lyon, it will play similar cine-concerts in Bologna and Paris. Arte and ZDF will came on early, and will begin broadcasting the film in late October and early November, while later this year, Pathé will release a prestige box set that includes additional documentaries about the restoration and a book by François Ede.
Still, Seydoux still thinks the reconstruction is best experienced live. “I took some friends to see it Berlin [where the entire film played over the course of one marathon day],” she notes. “They were wary to spend nine hours inside an opera house, and almost had a melt down when I proposed it to them, but they walked out astonished. They had experienced something never seen before.”