In 1926, a film magazine asked the distinguished German novelist Thomas Mann what his favorite movie was. He answered: Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey. “That may seem an evasive answer,” Mann explained, since the book was, well, a book. However, for him, wordless novels—or romans en images (“novels in pictures”), as Masereel called them—were a hybrid format. Passionate Journey fused “the aristocratic spirit of art” with “the democratic spirit of the cinema.” And whereas movies “are usually nothing but pure sensation,” Mann felt that Masereel had taken the intellectual and spiritual impulses of medieval book illustrators and developed them “into a stimulating and entertaining movie.”
Others, too, noted the similarities between wordless novels and silent film, and for some, books were the more versatile medium. Illustrators could vary the shape and size of each image, and unlike moviegoers, readers were free to control the story’s pace, pause whenever they wanted to, and flip back and forth. Books also left more room for personal interpretation, since silent movies used text (intertitles) to explain the action and music to set the mood.
Cinematic techniques, nevertheless, made a strong impression on illustrators and helped them take the woodcut into new territory. The characters depicted in wordless books mimic the exaggerated expressions and gestures of silent film actors, and in The City, Masereel zooms in and out like a camera operator. More than a dozen scenes in Lynd Ward’s 1932 wordless novel Wild Pilgrimage are printed in orange rather than black, imitating film tinting, which early cinematographers used to signal a mood or establish time of day, and several such books have section headings which correspond roughly to intertitles (Giacomo Patri employed the same techniques in White Collar). It is also noteworthy that in describing his process for conceptualizing pictorial narratives, Ward used phrases like “inner movie machine” and “a tiny motion picture projected inside the cranium.”
There were several attempts to create an animated version of Ward’s Gods’ Man, but none ever materialized. The only wordless novel to be successfully converted into film was Masereel’s L’Idée (The Idea). It was the work of Austro-Hungarian filmmaker Berthold Bartosch. Thomas Mann’s son, writer Klaus Mann, was among those who previewed the film privately in January 1932. He praised it, but in general, critics have had mixed opinions about its quality. Some scholars consider L’Idée to be the first animated film on a serious topic. In 1934, a musical soundtrack written by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger was added to it. It is thought to be the first use of electronic music in film.