Monthly Archives: March 2015

Fondation Pathé & Die Stadt uhne Juden

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In the last days, I attended two film screenings at the magnificent Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris. This foundation is dedicated to the conservation and exposition of the rich patrimony of the major French film company Pathé. Behind a façade sculptured by Auguste Rodin, the foundation occupies a superb building by Italian architect Renzo Piano (the co-architect of the Centre Pompidou). The images speak for themselves:

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pathepathe fondationWhereas the upper floors are reserved for research and archival purposes, the first floor offers a permanent exposition on the history (1896 until the 1970s) of Pathé camera devises, accompanied by some of the oldest film posters in the Pathé collection.

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The lower floors are dedicated to temporary expositions (currently on the remarkable history of the Société des Cinéromans) and, most importantly, to the screening of silent films. Indeed, this (perfectly equipped) movie theater’s program (2 or 3 screenings every day) is entirely focused on showing the 9000 silent films from the Pathé collection and other silent films. Moreover, every single screening has live piano accompaniment! Only in Paris…

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Nikolaus Wostry introducing Die Stadt ohne Juden

Last Saturday, I went to a ‘kids program’ with early shorts full of humoristic cinematographic tricks at the Pathé foundation. Tonight, I attended a special screening (in the framework of the l’Europe autour de l’Europe festival) of the Austrian 1924 film Die Stadt ohne Juden by Hans Karl Bresslauer. The film  was presented by Nikolaus Wostry, the conservator of the Austrian Film Archive, who offered some useful historical context to this frighteningly prophetic film on a city/country deciding to ban all jews. Although the film offers a critical assessment of the growing antisemitism in the then contemporary Austrian society, its humoristic elements are for obvious reasons more difficult to appreciate for a contemporary audience. Die Stadt ohne Juden is one of the only (surviving) Austrian films in the expressionist mode (cf. the rocking camera use to suggest drunkenness and the film’s ending, a direct homage to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), but some of the film’s aesthetic characteristics remain unclear. For example, are the (stunningly beautiful) freeze frames used in the beginning of the film, right after the third act and at the end of the film original, or are they part of the awkward (some images are simply duplicated!) restauration work in the early 1990s? Luckily, Wostry revealed that a second version of the film was recently found, including some extra scenes, which might provide insight into the original film version. As he promised – half ashamed – that it would be the last time that the old version has been shown, we may rightly hope for a new restoration of this remarkable film!

Publication on film policy, adaptations and national identity

The latest issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television has been published. It includes my article Film policy, national identity and period adaptations in Flanders during the 1970s and 1980s (read it here). This article builds further on a previous publication about the general history of government support for Flemish film adaptations of literary works since the mid-1960s until the early 2000s. The new article provides an in-depth examination of film support policy towards ‘period adaptations,’ or period films based on the Flemish literary patrimony, during the 1970s and 1980s. Examples of these often highly prestigious and popular films are:

  • Mira (1971, Fons Raedemakers), based on the work of Stijn Streuvels
  • Rolande met de Bles/Chronicle of a Passion (1972, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Herman Teirlinck
  • De Loteling/The Conscript (1973, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Hendrik Conscience
  • Pallieter (1975, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Felix Timmermans
  • Dood van een non/Death of a Nun (1975, Paul Collet & Pierre Drouot), based on the work of Maria Rosseels
  • De Witte van Sichem/Whitey from Sichem (1980, Robbe De Hert), based on the work of Ernest Claes
  • Brugge die Stille/Bruges-la-Morte (1981, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Georges Rodenbach
  • De Vlaschaard/The Flaxfield (1983, Jan Gruyaert), based on the work of Stijn Streuvels
  • De Leeuw van Vlaanderen/The Lion of Flanders (1984, Hugo Claus), based on the work of Hendrik Conscience
  • Het Gezin Van Paemel/The Van Paemel Family (1986, Paul Cammermans), based on the work of Cyriel Buysse
  • Boerenpsalm/Peasant Psalm (1989, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Felix Timmermans
De Loteling/The Conscript (1973)

De Loteling/The Conscript (1973)

Through the use of hitherto unavailable archival documents and interviews, this article makes a revisionist contribution to Flemish and Belgian film history. It nuances the widespread argument that these adaptations were, due to their Flemish ideological potential, actively and straightforwardly stimulated and supported by Flemish film policy actors. Contrary to common assumptions, there was a difficult and very complex film support process behind the allocation of official support for period adaptation projects, involving a variety of actors with often conflicting interests and agencies. While the final decision-making power rested with the Minister of Culture, its advice organ, the film commission, was for the most part responsible for the shape of the pursued film policy. The film commission’s cultural and literary attitude, partly embedded in its members’ Flemish cultural emancipatory beliefs, regularly advanced government support for period adaptation projects. This literary attitude also had an impact on the adaptations’ attempted fidelity to the source work, which is but one illustration of the often far-reaching textual implications of a contextual factor such as film policy.

Until the early 1980s, the film commission’s underlying cultural pro-Flemishness was often accompanied by a critical and culturally more ‘progressive’ attitude, resulting in the rejection of romantic and folkloristic period adaptations. When examining why several of the projects that the film commission criticized as ‘folkloristic’ or ‘traditional’ eventually did receive government support, the impact of more external factors such as the perseverance and strategic skills of particular producers (e.g. Jan Van Raemdonck) and the involvement of the Flemish public broadcaster (both in the film commission and in particular film projects) should also be taken into account. At the same time, one should be aware that the film commission’s actions were always the result of a negotiation between the frequently inconsistent opinions of its different members. Moreover, throughout the examined period, the commission’s policy evolved, experiencing a particular change in the early 1980s, when the Liberals took over the Ministry of Culture after an uninterrupted period of Christian Democratic dominion over the ministry. Although the possible size of the audience had always played a considerable role in the attribution of support to period adaptation projects, the newly appointed film commission openly emphasized this commercial factor more strongly. At the same time, cultural motivations were preserved and were now connected more straightforwardly to a pro-Flemish attitude in the commission’s decision-making process.

The study shows how an official film support process can have an impact on the general shape of a film industry, the development of a particular film production and on the final film texts. The state, by means of its film policy, is an essential factor that should be taken into consideration when studying both individual film projects and groups of films, especially in regions where official film support is vital for the very existence of a film industry. Consistent with other recent analyses that emphasize the role of the state in shaping a particular film industry, this study shows that such an approach gives insight into and at the same time further complicates the relation between cinema and the national question.

Longing for politics and dreams: on Jean-Marie Straub’s Kommunisten

At 81, living legend Jean-Marie Straub recently presented his new feature film Kommunisten at the Cinémathèque française in Paris. Kommunisten opens with the most elementary manifestation of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of maximum opacity in cinema: a completely black image. This image is held for several minutes and is accompanied by Auferstanden aus Ruinen, former East Germany’s national anthem. The prologue of the film thus clearly illustrates what Straub himself puts forward as the film’s two main goals. The first goal is to make a film about communism, or to make communist art. In Straub’s vision, this implies a strong and direct political message, which is offered throughout the film by literally citing politically engaged texts from various authors (André Malraux, Elio Vittorini, Mahmoud Hussein, Franco Fortini and Friedrich Hölderlin). The second goal is to strive towards a cinema that enables the spectator to dream, in contrast with the dominant overtly explicit cinema that blocks dreaming (such as, dixit Straub, the virtuosity of Orson Welles’ The stranger (1946)). By suggesting the action rather than showing it, Straub invites the spectator to let his imagination work, to dream and to search autonomously for meaning. This is further emphasized by adopting a radical minimalist and often reserved film style including minimalist settings, long, immobile or repetitive takes, direct sound and the reading out loud of (long) text fragments. During his introduction to the film, Straub mumbled Il sogno di una cosa, il sogno di una cosa… (the title of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first novel), thereby dropping a hint that the symbiosis of the two mentioned goals can be found in an 1843 letter of Karl Marx to his friend Arnold Ruge, in which he writes that “the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.” For Straub, the communist dream is today more topical than ever.

Jean-Marie Straub at the presentation of 'Kommunisten' at the Cinémathèque française

Jean-Marie Straub at the presentation of Kommunisten at the Cinémathèque française

The two described cinematic strategies (the literal use of politically inspired texts and a particular, austere film style) are very reminiscent of most of Straub’s filmography (which he largely shares with his wife Danièle Huillet). This should not come as a surprise: five of the film’s six components are fragments from earlier films he made. Only the first – and longest – part, ‘Le temps du mépris’, is newly filmed material. ‘Le temps du mépris’ is based on French writer and politician André Malraux’s novel of the same name and shows the interrogation of two communists. The two men are filmed frontally with a stable camera, as they’re standing before a bare wall that catches their shadows; mise-en-scène, sound, cinematography and editing are almost completely stripped. At the end of the interrogation, there is talk about torture, but it isn’t shown. Instead, the black image reappears for some time, after which we see a balcony, with one of the two men standing next to a sitting woman. They are filmed from the back and the woman starts the conversation: “Comment c’était? – Terrible!” This may sound very much in line with the well-known ‘Straub & Huillet signature’, but by putting so much emphasis on this radical film style, I felt it loses some of the subtlety that was present in earlier films.

Still from 'Le temps du mépris'

Still from ‘Le temps du mépris’

The second part of the film, ‘L’espoir’, is a fragment of Operai, contadini (2001), in which three actors stand in a forest and read a text of the Italian communist writer Elio Vittorini. In ‘Le peuple’, a fragment of Trop tôt/trop tard (1982), an endless stream of people leaves and enters a factory, partially accompanied by a text by the Egyptian author duo Mahmoud Hussein. This is Straub’s version of the Lumière brothers’ La sortie de l’usine (1895) – at the same time referring to the beginning of cinema, the resemblance between the early Lumière film style and Straub’s film style, and to a key feature in communist criticism. The fourth part, ‘Les Apuanes’, is a fragment of Fortini / Cani (1976) and shows a repetition of topographic, nearly 360° panning shots of the Apuan Alps region, while a text by the Italian Marxist writer Franco Fortini recounts the Nazi cruelties in France and Italy. In ‘L’utopie communiste’, a short fragment of Der Tod des Empedokles (1987), a text of the German Romantic writer Friedrich Hölderlin is cited – communism as poetry according to Straub.

Still from 'Nouveau monde'

Still from ‘Nouveau monde’

Together the various parts form a select history of the 20th century, which is closed by a sixth part called ‘Nouveau monde’, a fragment of Schwarze Sünde (1989). It shows a beautiful, lyrical image of Danièle Huillet sitting on a slope, expressing profound feelings of expectancy and insecurity at the same time. Then, abruptly, she turns her head (to another, new place? to the future?) and asks: “Neue Welt?”By ending the film at this point, Straub pays an ultimate tribute to his partner in work and life who died in 2006. Such a personal note is very uncommon in Straub’s filmography. At the same time, however, this ambiguous image of Huillet – full of melancholy and hope – is perfectly interwoven with Straub’s goals: to approach a communist dream.

This blogpost has first appeared on the blog of Photogénie, the great cinephilic blog/journal/website of the Vlaamse Dienst voor Filmcultuur (Flemish Service for Film Culture). A Dutch version of this article has appeared in the Vlaams Marxistisch Tijdschrift, you can read it here.