Monday 12 June 1995
When not totally ignored by film history, Marie Epstein has been overshadowed by her three male collaborators, the directors Jean Epstein (her brother) and Jean Benoit-Levy, and Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinematheque Francaise. Marie and Jean Epstein came to Paris from Poland, via Switzerland and Lyons, in 1921; both were passionate about the cinema and they joined the vital French avant-garde movement. Marie was assistant director and acted in Jean's Coeur fidele (1923), one of the key films of the time, and she wrote scripts for some of his other films, such as L'Affiche (1925). Her principal work, however, was with Benoit-Levy, especially the seven feature films on which they collaborated at every stage of writing and directing, starting with Le Coeur de Paris (1931).
La Maternelle, their second film, adapted from a populist novel of the time by Leon Frapie, is one of the best early French sound films. It is an extraordinary combination of social propaganda for state nursery education, naturalism and lyricism. Epstein spent time in Paris nursery schools as preparation for the shooting, and this shows in the vivacious performances by the children in the film. La Maternelle also stars a powerful yet touching Madeleine Renaud as the schoolteacher Rose. Whereas Jean Vigo's Zero de conduite (1934) is usually considered the last word on the French education system, La Maternelle is a useful corrective, showing school as an instrument of social liberation rather than repression.
Epstein and Benoit-Levy's work consistently focused on popular milieux and the young, as in Altitude 3200 (1938), as well as, unusually for the period, women - La Maternelle and La Mort du cygne (a ballet drama made in 1937) centre on young girls and their relationship to mother figures; Helene (1936), the film in which Madeleine Renaud met Jean-Louis Barrault for the first time, also includes one of the most "feminist" characters one can find in the cinema of the time (a female medical student - Renaud - who manages to graduate, have an illegitimate child and seduce her professor all at the same time). If Epstein and Benoit-Levy's social agenda was instrumental in developing these themes, Epstein clearly inflected them towards a feminine perspective, the object of an important study by the American feminist writer Sandy Flitterman-Lewis.
As Jews, Epstein and her brother were arrested by the Gestapo in February 1944, but thanks to the Red Cross (for which both worked) and friends in the film milieu, they avoided deportation. After the war, apart from a documentary on atomic energy in 1953, Epstein devoted herself to restoring silent films at the Cinematheque, including some of her brother's and Abel Gance's Napoleon.
Marie Epstein was active more or less until the end of her life. When I interviewed her in her Paris flat in 1989, I found a charming and excessively modest woman who, while accurately documenting her own considerable achievements, always insisted on acknowledging the work of her brother and of Benoit- Levy (who on the other hand allocates Marie exactly one footnote in his memoirs). The interview was connected to a retrospective of her work which took place at the Creteil International Women's Film Festival in Paris in 1991, to which, characteristically, she was too embarrassed to come, though I learnt later that she had telephoned all her friends and told them to go and see the films.
She was certainly vindicated by the enthusiastic reception they were given.
Marie-Antonine Epstein, film-maker: born Warsaw 1899; died Paris 24 April 1995.
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