OBITUARIES:Marie Epstein

Marie Epstein was one of the least-known French film-makers, yet one who deserves a reappraisal, if only on account of the remarkable La Maternelle (1933), one of the most beautiful French films of the 1930s.

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.

Ginette Vincendeau

Marie-Antonine Epstein, film-maker: born Warsaw 1899; died Paris 24 April 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis