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Born in Paris, Marcel L'Herbier studied at the Stanislas high school, then attended Law School and La Sorbonne. After graduating from the school of High Social Studies and from law school, he turned to literature and poetry. He was passionate about Wilde, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Nietzsche, and Barrès. His first book "In the Garden of Secret Games" was published in 1914.

In 1917, he published the play: "Giving Birth to the Dead, Miracle in purple, black and gold", an aesthetic revolt against war. It was staged in 1919 at the Theatre Edouard VII, directed by the author, and by Art & Action (a free theater group led by Edouard Autant and Louise Lara, parents of Claude Autant-Lara, the filmmaker), with, among others, Eve Francis, a famous tragedian and muse of Paul Claudel. L'Herbier was also a music lover; a great admirer of Debussy, he composed several scores.

Marcel L'Herbier (1924)

In film department of the Army's where he was drafted during the war, he was struck by the film medium seeing the terrible images brought back from the front. He wrote several screenplays before making his directing debut in 1918 with Phantasms, a film never finished for military reasons. A few months later, he directed Rose-France, an excessive and disturbing poem, filmed in the form of a weird symbolist collage. In this movie he started to experiment with special effects and celebrated the young actor Jaque Catelain, an expressive beauty, a true Dorian Gray, whose presence would mark almost all of his silent films. His mastery of the medium earned him a two-year contract at the Gaumont Film Company. The twenties turned out to be his most fascinating creative period. Of his thirteen silent feature films, none recaptures the themes or structures of the previous ones.

The Gaumont Pax serials, from 1919 to 1922, started his exalted exploration of infinite ways of film expression. Dramas (The Fold, 1919, based on Henry Bernstein's work, stars an eighty-year-old woman with a both fragile and voluntary grace: Marcelle Pradot, future bride of Marcel L'Hebier and actress of many of his silent films, whom Louis Delluc later dubbed the "Infante" of French cinema; The Carnival of Truths, 1919, a fascinating game of masks; The Man from the Open Sea, 1920, a captivating "marine" inspired by Balzac; El Dorado, 1921, a purified melodrama shot in Andalousia, in particular in the magic Alhambra of Granada), pastiches of comedy (Villa Destin, 1920, a parody of an American serial, with fake magicians, innocent "ingenues", detectives, bandits and allusions to Oscar Wilde), historic and fantastic evocations (Don Juan and Faust, 1922, a weird film mixing ultra-modern cubism and reminiscences of great Spanish painters, also shot in Spain). The screenplays responded to the commercial criteria of the time. However, the acting (tragedian Suzanne Després in The Carnival of Truths, 1919, Eve Francis in El Dorado, 1921) and the personal treatment of the subject often helped avoid conventions. L'Herbier, a young idealistic filmmaker, like Louis Delluc or Germaine Dulac, contributed to the construction of modern film language in perhaps the most captivating way. In 1920, The Man from the Open Sea struck critics and spectators alike by the strength of the poetic evocation of its images. The following year, El Dorado was a triumph.

Jaque Catelain and Georgette Leblanc in The Inhuman
Pierre Alcover and Brigitte Helm in Money.

In 1922, Marcel L'Herbier created his own production company, Cinégraphic. Although it was a generally poor laboratory, it managed to produce the first films of young artists: Jaque Catelain (The Merchant of Pleasure, 1922; The Gallery of the Monsters, 1924, with Kiki of Montparnasse), Claude Autant-Lara (News Items, 1924, an experimental short film with the incandescent Antonin Artaud), Jean Dréville (About "Money", 1928, an outstanding documentary on the shooting of a great film at the end of the silent era). He also helped ailing Louis Delluc direct his last film, The Flood, 1924. L'Herbier himself then directed The Inhuman, an ambitious avant-garde project, using illustrious collaborators like Alberto Cavalcanti, Claude Autant-Lara, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Fernand Léger for the sets, Darius Milhaud for the music, Paul Poiret for the costumes… The frenetic sequence of short editing, in which the sounds respond to the violent colors (simple stains of primary colors inserted in the film) is a machine-like symphony leading to pure cinema. After the more narrative lyricism of The Late Mathias Pascal (1925, adapted from Pirandello), with great Ivan Mosjoukine, L'Herbier rediscovered the Art-Deco drama. Mallet-Stevens and Pierre Chareau, surrounded by many other artists like Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Jean Lurçat, Marie Laurencin, created the sets of Dizziness, an intriguing plastic and visual variation. The following year, The Devil in the Heart, shot mostly in Honfleur (Normandy), further develops the symbolism of water, which was dear to the author. His use of the surreal luminosity of the new panchromatic film glorifies the coast of Normandy.

A swan song of silent art, "Money", adapted from Zola (1928), is the synthesis of ten years of fervent research. The film is a beacon of modernity, an oversized hymn to music of light, where everything is rhythm, movement, and a fantastic spiral of financial manipulations. Even today, the subject is astonishingly relevant.

For his first talkie, The Child of Love (1929-30), Marcel L'Herbier managed to achieve true technical excellence, in spite of the inadequacy of the sound equipment. But the production cost of feature films had considerably increased, and the temptation of lucrative "talking and singing" filmed theater marked the end of many avant-garde experiments. Nevertheless, L'Herbier did not stop working; he relentlessly directed very diverse genres until 1953.

In his many remarkable films, he often developed his favorite theme, illusion, "comedy of life". For example, the astonishing Perfume of the Lady in Black (1931), with monumental stylized sets, which come directly from the silent picture esthetic, uses the possibilities of sound to perfect the mystery imagined by Gaston Leroux. Happiness (1934), a melodrama, with an outstanding cast (Gaby Morlay, Charles Boyer, Michel Simon, Jaque Catelain). Nights of Fire (1937), adapted from "The Living Cadaver" by Tolstoï. The Citadel of Silence (1937), a drama with then very contemporary echoes, featuring the touching Annabella. The Imperial Tragedy or the end of Rasputin (1938), dominated by the star Harry Baur, then Adrienne Lecouvreur (1938) and Entente Cordiale (1939) in a series baptized by L'Herbier "filmed chronicles" - this last film harking back to idyllic Franco-British relations during the reign of Edward VII, and intending to recreate an entente cordiale between France and England, in order to face the menace of Hitler. The Comedy of Happiness (1940), a rare and inspired film, is a sur-realistic work in which Michel Simon tries to bring happiness to others, featuring Micheline Presle, Ramon Novarro, Louis Jourdan, and Jacqueline Delubac. The Fantastic Night (1942), an unusual daydream; The Bohemian Life (1943), where Puccini meets Murger; The Honorable Catherine (1943), a loony comedy with a surprising Edwige Feuillère, in a role we are not used to seeing her in. The Case of the Queen's Necklace (1946), a lively and entertaining "filmed chronicle" benefits from Viviane Romance's delightful acting.

Marcelle Chantal in The Imperial Tragedy.

In 1933, L'Herbier introduced the princess Nathalie Paley to the screen, as a fascinating character of enigmatic beauty, in The Sparrow Hawk. He would work with her again in The New Men in 1936, before she went off to Hollywood to try her luck.

As early as 1910, Marcel L'Herbier began to write articles and pamphlets, investigating the deep nature of cinema, by claiming its hybrid and innovative status, and defending the dynamic and inventive nature of French cinema. This activity would be intimately linked to his practice as filmmaker. He would fight for recognition of the status of the filmmaker as creator (long before the New Wave !) and for the rights of all the people who work in film; in 1937, he co-founded the CGT, a union of technicians. In 1943-44, he created the IDHEC, this now mythical film school, which he would preside over for twenty-five years. The IDHEC has shaped many young filmmakers from all over the world, including Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, Costa-Gavras, Claude Sautet, Patrice Leconte, etc… After the war, he presided over the important Committee in Defense of French Cinema. Marcel L'Herbier also defended cinema by publishing "Intelligence of the Cinematograph", in 1946, an anthology of rare texts. In 1953, he pioneered the cinema section of daily "Le Monde". He wrote more than 500 articles for various newspapers and periodicals, from 1913 (with a review of Faust with the Loïe Fuller Ballets, in "L'Illustration") to the seventies.

At the beginning of the fifties, he was one of the pioneers of cultural programs for now generalized television. For this new medium he produced, from 1952 to 1961, 220 programs with the double goal of showing classic films and creating a new language for television. He, for example, adapted The Princess of Clèves, and directed Adrienne Mesurat in an adaptation from Julien Green, Zamore from Georges Neveux, The False Confessions (with Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault), and The Bed's Sky from Colette. He also produced television series in both Switzerland and Luxembourg.

The professional functions of Marcel L'Herbier included: President, then President of honor of the Association of films Authors (AAF), General Secretary, then President of the Union of Technicians of Cinematographic Production (1937-1945), President of the Television Programs Committee (1958-1961), and Delegate to the Superior Council of the French Radio Television. At the end of his long career, Marcel L'Herbier published his memoirs under the title "The Head that shoots/turns" (La Tête qui tourne) (Ed. Belfond) in 1978, a year before his death. Marcel L'Herbier had dedicated his life to the art of moving pictures, to the cinematograph, this "new age of humanity".



  • The Torrent (Le Torrent) directed by Louis Mercanton and René Hervil, 1917 - Production: Eclipse
  • Bouclette (The Midnight Angel) directed by Mercanton and Hervil, 1917

Directing Credits 

Silent Films :

  • El Dorado (1921)
    Dizziness (1926)
    Phantasms (Phantasmes), 1918
  • Rose-France, 1918
  • The Fold (Le Bercail), 1919
  • The Carnival of Truths (Le Carnaval des vérités), 1920
  • The Man from the Open Sea (L'Homme du large), 1920
  • Villa Destin, 1920
  • Prometheus … Banker (Prométhée … Banquier), 1921 - Medium length film
  • El Dorado, 1921
  • Don Juan and Faust (Don Juan et Faust), 1922
  • Resurrection (Résurrection), 1922 - Unfinished film
  • The Inhuman (L'Inhumaine), 1923-24
  • The Late Mathias Pascal (Feu Mathias Pascal), 1925
  • Dizziness (Le Vertige), 1926
  • The Devil in the Heart (Le Diable au cœur), 1927
  • Nights of Princes (Nuits de Princes), 1928-29
  • Money (L'Argent), 1928

Talking films:

  • The Child of Love (L'Enfant de l'Amour), 1929-30
  • The Mystery of the Yellow Bedroom (Le Mystère de la chambre jaune), 1930
  • The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Le Parfum de la dame en noir), 1931
  • The Sparrow Hawk (L'Epervier), 1933
  • Scandal (Le Scandale), 1934
  • The Adventurer (L'Aventurier), 1934
  • Happiness (Le Bonheur), 1934
  • The Imperial Road (La Route impériale), 1935
  • The Vigil of Arms (Veille d'armes), 1935
  • The New Men (Les Hommes nouveaux), 1936
  • The Door of the Open Sea (La Porte du large), 1936
  • Nights of Fire (Nuits de Feu), 1936
  • The Citadel of Silence (La Citadelle du silence), 1937
  • Abuse (Forfaiture), 1937
  • The Imperial Tragedy (La Tragédie Impériale), 1938
  • Adrienne Lecouvreur, 1938
  • Land of Fire (Terre de feu), 1938
  • The Wild Brigade (La Brigade sauvage), 1938
  • Children's corner, 1938 - Short film, "Cinephony" on the music of Debussy
  • Cordial agreement (Entente cordiale), 1939
  • Dreamt Fashion (La Mode rêvée), 1939 - Short film The Comedy of Happiness (La Comédie du bonheur), 1940
  • Just for laughs (Histoire de rire), 1941
  • The Fantastic Night (La Nuit fantastique), 1942
  • The Honorable Catherine (1942)
    The Honorable Catherine (L'Honorable Catherine), 1942
  • The Bohemian Life (La vie de bohème), 1943
  • Haphazardly (Au petit bonheur), 1945
  • The Case of the Queen's Necklace (L'Affaire du collier de la Reine), 1946
  • The Rebellious Girl (La Révoltée), 1947
  • The Last Days in Pompeï (Les Derniers jours de Pompéï), 1948
  • The Father of Mademoiselle (Le Père de Mademoiselle), 1953

Television films :

  • Adrienne Mesurat, 1953
  • Zamore, 1954
  • The Game of Love and Chance (Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard), 1954
  • The False Confessions (Les Fausses confidences), 1955
  • The Bed's Sky (Le Ciel de lit), 1955

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