When one of the most significant works in the development of the film form is given a Blu-ray release from a trusted distributor, you buy it. Simple as that. The Jazz Singer (1927), A Trip to the Moon (1902), or even Breathless (1960). These works are the places where the language of cinema was first spoken, and such cinematic landmarks as these deserve a spot in every true film lovers’ collection. Now, thanks to the Cohen Film Collection, we can add film pioneer D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance, to our shelves—a film studied at great length by cinema’s early Russian innovators, Sergei Eisenstein in particular.
As Eisenstein wrote of the film, Intolerance is not without its shortcomings, but in its sheer scope and ambition, Griffith’s exploration of man’s inhumanity is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Griffith, already then responsible for the greatest developments in cinematic storytelling, challenged the notion of narrative in film by telling four stories simultaneously—four stories linked only by their central thematic focus on intolerance. But these aren’t just stories of characters in modern times. They relate (1) the tale of a working man wrongly accused of a crime in 1910s, (2) Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees and Rome, (3) the effects of the massacre of the 16th-century French Huguenots, and (4) the conquest of Babylon by Persia. All four tales develop and climax in tandem through cross-cutting, and it’s truly incredible to behold, especially when you realize that no expense was spared in production design whatsoever.
Each story is an entire film in its own right, so much so in fact that two were actually released as separate films in 1919 (Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon). Unfortunately, this was done by Griffith not as part of another narrative experiment, but to recoup some of the cost of Intolerance’s failure. And fail it did at the box office upon its initial release, for no doubt audiences weren’t prepared for such an experiment as this. Only later, as so many other great films have done (It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), for example) did Intolerance gain the notoriety it deserved. This is not to say that the film is always a pleasure to watch. For one, Griffith’s incessant hand-holding of the audience as he makes the thematic connections between scenes for us in the intertitles tends to grate on me. But then I tell myself that this it’s really but an example of Griffith’s recognition that audiences were indeed not prepared to process that work which he was crafting.
Still, Intolerance is a cinematic spectacle of the highest order in spite of any faults, one deserving of our admiration. And admire it you will when you see Intolerance in Cohen’s 2K restoration as presented on the distributor’s Blu-ray release of the film, which is characterized by a clarity of image far beyond that which you’d expect to find in the transfer of a film as old as this. It’s remarkable to say the least, and it deserves a spot in your collection. By way of special features, the release also includes Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon in their entirety, a 2013 featurette with film historian Kevin Brownlow, and the re-release trailer, as well as a booklet featuring essays by Cineaste magazine editor Richard Porton and historian William M. Drew.