Archive for the 'Historical Re-enactments' Category

Joan of Arc

Jeanne d’Arc, 1900, 10m19s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 264-275

At the age of thirteen, while tending sheep, Joan of Arc is visited by Saints Catherine and Margaret, and then by Saint Michael, who orders her to free France from the English yoke and to lead the Dauphin to the French throne. She returns home in a trance-like state, but won’t cross the threshold. Her uncle tries to persuade her to stay in her native village, but she refuses and runs off. She reaches the fortified city of Vaucouleurs, and persuades the guard to admit her. She finds the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, enjoying a wild party with his friends. Joan tries to convince him of her plan, and though he initially rubbishes the idea (and has to be restrained from throwing her out), but Joan persuades him to give her his sword and entrust his army to her. Orléans is freed from the English oppressor, and Joan leads a huge army through the town. On 17 July 1429, in the cathedral of Rheims, King Charles VII is blessed by Archbishop Regnault. Joan and her army try to break in to the castle of Compiègne. After a pitched battle, Joan is captured by the English. Her followers try to scale the castle, but to no avail. Joan awakes in a cell, where she has another visitation from Saint Michael, this time flanked by Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. The jailer orders her to accompany him. On 15 March 1431, Joan is put on trial, with the indictment read by Bishop Pierre Cauchon. He orders her to sign a retraction of her claim to have heard voices. She refuses and throws the quill on the floor. In the market square at Rouen, a pyre is constructed, with a sign reading ‘Relapsed Heretic’. Flanked by Cauchon and his allies, Joan is tied to the post and burned. A soldier adds fuel to the fire, and falls to the ground, overwhelmed both by the smoke and by the magnitude of what he has contributed to. But Joan has ascended to heaven.

Despite being made as early as 1900, Georges Méliès’ Joan of Arc was in fact the second adaptation of the legend: Georges Hatot’s The Execution of Joan of Arc (Execution de Jeanne d’Arc) was made in 1897. However, with its ten-minute running time and eleven separate scenes, Méliès’ film was undoubtedly the first to attempt an overview of the entire saga, from the teenage Joan hearing voices to her military triumphs, capture and execution. In fact, when compared with the earlier multi-sequence The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) and Cinderella (Cendrillon, 1899), the narrative of Joan of Arc is noticeably more coherent, with just one digression to a scene not featuring Joan (the blessing of Charles VII).

The title role was played by one Mademoiselle Calvière, with Méliès regular Jeanne d’Alcy as her mother, and Méliès himself in multiple roles. As with Méliès’ other longer-form films, there are a reasonable number of extras, though the primary justification for an otherwise interminable march-past through Orléans seems to be so that Méliès can convince us that he really had a cast of thousands at his disposal. In actual fact, his performers would exit the shot at the right of the screen, and would quickly dash behind the backdrop to reappear again on the left.

Other effects are more sophisticated, and are dotted throughout the film. The appearances of the various angels in the opening scene were achieved by a combination of dissolve and superimposition - not that much earlier, he’d have been forced to use a much cruder jump-cut. Saint Michael is sporting an animated halo, presumably a mechanical effect being cranked by an invisible underling. Later, Joan’s army lays siege to the castle of Compiègne (clearly visible as a painted backdrop, since it wobbles when a ladder is placed against it) before being captured and burned at the stake, an effect achieved by releasing lots of smoke and stencil-tinting the print so that it looks as though it’s glowing with unbearable heat. Finally, a gloriously kitschy conclusion in Heaven echoes the similar apotheosis that concluded Cinderella (1899).

But Joan of Arc also proved that Méliès was becoming increasingly sophisticated as a metteur en scène. In terms of film grammar, he’s still conceiving his film as a series of lengthy tableaux shot from a fixed camera position and mostly separated by dissolves, but the blocking and compositions make effective use of the frame (particularly in the festivities in Robert de Baudricourt’s castle, the siege of Compiègne and Joan’s trial and execution), and once the march through Orléans and the blessing of Charles VII have finished, the film moves at one hell of a lick. Presumably Méliès could rely on his audience’s familiarity with the story to get away with not providing too much background information, but even without prior knowledge it’s much clearer what’s going on here than was the case with the Dreyfus films. Other directors, notably Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), Robert Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) and Jacques Rivette (Jeanne la Pucelle, 1993), would probe far more deeply into the legend, but Méliès’ film deserves credit for being the first serious effort, and one that ranges rather wider than its director’s reputation as a trick-film specialist might suggest.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off in dreadful condition, with the whole of the first scene marred by severe damage. However, things quickly improve, and much of the rest of the film looks ravishing, augmented by the stencil colours. This is the first of a handful of Méliès titles to feature a soundtrack narration, delivered in heavily accented French by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg. The decision to record it in English triggered knee-jerk complaints from purists, though in actual fact this is Méliès’ original text, written in English to make his films more accessible to the international marketplace. (His films on the Dreyfus Affair would certainly have benefited from something similar). The narration is accompanied by an electronic score from Brian Benison, which makes frequent use of a martial mode as Joan’s military victories pile up.

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Posted on 13th June 2008
Under: Mechanical Props, Historical Re-enactments, Superimposition, 1900, Dreams | 1 Comment »

The Court Martial at Rennes

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Le Conseil de guerre en séance à Rennes, 1899, 2m11s
Star Film Catalogue No. 214-215

12 August 1899. The court martial of Alfred Dreyfus at the Lycée in Rennes. The sergeant of the court strides up and makes an announcement. Colonel Jouast and the other judges arrive and take their seats, along with Maître Labori, Commandier Cordier and Adjutant Coupois. Dreyfus is then brought in, and Jouaust questions him. General Mercier, the first witness, enters, salutes the judges, and mimes that he’d like a seat. One is brought, and a debate ensues, which becomes heated to the point when Mercier leaps up and begins gesticulating. When he sits down, Dreyfus rises and makes a protest.

This double-length instalment of Georges Méliès’s series The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) is now effectively the climax, as successive episodes are now lost. Sadly, it’s actually more of an anticlimax, largely because it requires far more footnotes than the other films, and if the viewer isn’t already aware of the various participants in the court-martial, the end result will probably be largely meaningless. That said, Méliès’s audience of the time would certainly have known what was going on.

The first half of the film is largely ceremonial, as we watch the judges and lawyers filing in, including Dreyfus’s defence counsel Maître Labori. This film is actually set a couple of days before the assassination attempt depicted in The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Attentat contre maître Labori, 1899). Auguste Mercier (1833-1921), the witness who dominates the film’s second half, was in many ways the ringleader of the ‘Antidreyfusard’ faction, and his statement to the court lasted more than four hours. The film concludes with Dreyfus trying to challenge him - in vain, as it turned out, as the judges found in Mercier’s favour. As the highest-ranking military officer in the courtroom, Mercier effortlessly dominated the proceedings, and it was said that the presiding judge, Colonel Albert Jouast, was simply obeying his orders.

In terms of staging, this makes use of the same backdrop as that featured in Méliès’ previous film, The Fight of Reporters (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Bagarre entre journalistes, 1899), though the blocking of the actors is much more sedate, reverting to Méliès’ usual approach of arranging people in lines on different planes. The judges sit in the background, with Mercier and Dreyfus dominating the mid-point of the screen, and another line of people along the right-hand side, distracting attention from the set’s artificiality. In the absence of intertitles, we can tell little about the exact content of the speeches and altercations, though Méliès does deftly convey the impression of time passing when he has Mercier asking for a chair before launching into his epic denunciation.

On September 9, just under a month after the events depicted in this film, Dreyfus was found guilty by five votes to two, and duly sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Presumably the final film in Méliès’ cycle, the now-lost Dreyfus Leaving the Lycée on His Way to Prison (Dreyfus allant du lycée à la prison), depicted the immediate aftermath of the verdict. However, such was the outcry that by September 19th, French President Émile Loubet (1838-1929) issued a pardon - though it wouldn’t be until 1906 that Dreyfus was formally cleared of all the original charges. Méliès wouldn’t have been aware of this, of course, and since he began shooting his Dreyfus series in August 1899, there’s every possibility that they were finished before the announcement of the Presidential pardon, leaving Dreyfus in legal limbo.

Flicker Alley’s untinted print is generally in excellent condition, with damage kept to a minimum and the only other blemishes consisting of occasional exposure fluctuations. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is surprisingly Bachian in its contrapuntal interweaving of two themes, though this is entirely appropriate to the subject at hand.

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Posted on 6th June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

The Fight of Reporters

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Bagarre entre journalistes, 1899, 1m08s
Star Film Catalogue No. 213

Rennes, August 1899. Various journalists take their seats in the courtroom at the second court-martial of Arthur Dreyfus. Though the atmosphere is cordial at first, Arthur Meyer of the ‘Gaulois’ starts an argument with Madame Séverine of the ‘Fonde’. She leaps to her feet, and so do most of the other journalists, triggering a pitched battle with many laying about them with their sticks. Many participants flee when the gendarmes get involved, and the remaining reporters are subsequently expelled.

This instalment in Georges Méliès’s series The Dreyfus Affair illustrates a key aspect of the saga that’s been ignored by the films thus far: the passionate side-taking by various parties into ‘Dreyfusard’ and ‘Antidreyfusard’ camps. The press was extensively involved, most notably when the novelist Émile Zola published his front-page tract ‘J’accuse!’ in the inaugural 13 January 1898 issue of L’Aurore - an act that sent shockwaves through French society and forced him to flee to England for a time. Long before then, journalists had indulged in much spreading of rumour and counter-rumour, which reached a peak in 1899 during Alfred Dreyfus’s second court-martial that summer.

The two identifiable figures in the mêlée depicted here are Arthur Meyer (1844-1924), the Jewish-born but nonetheless virulently anti-Semitic editor of ‘Le Gaulois’ (he would convert to Catholicism a couple of years later) and Caroline Rémy (1855-1929), popularly known as ‘Séverine’, one of the most vocal of the pro-Dreyfus supporters and the first female journalist in France to earn a living exclusively from her writing.

However, their altercation quickly spills over into all-out group violence, whose most immediately noteworthy point is that its visual treatment lacks Méliès’ usual careful staging that arranges the actors in clearly-defined planes. Here, it looks like a straightforward fight, and when it’s broken up, the various characters walk (or are bundled) towards and past the camera instead of exiting to the left or right. The result is much more three-dimensional and less “theatrical” than Méliès’ other films - of all the films in the Dreyfus cycle, this is the one that most closely resembles genuine actuality footage, the size of the cast and the amount of foreground action making it much less obvious that the backdrop is still a painted flat.

Flicker Alley’s untinted print starts with the usual chemical damage, and there are also some quite severe exposure fluctuations, frame jitter and even mild warping - though the image is sharp and clear enough underneath. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is surprisingly low-key given the impassioned verbal and visual assaults depicted on screen, though this is in line with his other accompaniments to this series.

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Posted on 5th June 2008
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The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Attentat contre maître Labori, 1899, 1m01s
Star Film Catalogue No. 212

Rennes, 14 August 1899. Maître Labori (Alfred Dreyfus’s lawyer), Colonel Picquart (the man who unmasked the real forger), M. Gast (Mayor of Rennes) and an unidentified woman are walking near a bridge. They stop for a chat, and the woman leaves. A man creeps up behind them, behaving suspiciously, but although the trio notice him, they don’t think anything of it. They turn to walk across the bridge, whereupon the man draws a gun and shoots Labori twice in the back. He runs off, pursued by Labori’s companions. Labori lies on the ground in agony, trying and failing to attract the attention of two passers-by - but a third comes to his assistance, and calls for help.

As with Suicide of Colonel Henry (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Suicide du Colonel Henry, 1899), this latest instalment of Georges Méliès’s Dreyfus Affair serial temporarily moves away from Dreyfus himself to focus on one of the supporting characters - in this case his lawyer, Maître Fernand Labori (1860-1917), who had already been depicted in the previous film, Dreyfus Meets His Wife At Rennes (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes, 1899).

However, his appearance here is in altogether more dramatic circumstances, since Méliès reconstructs an assassination attempt that befell Labori in real life on 14 August 1899, a week after Dreyfus’s second trial had commenced. However, the wounds proved superficial, and Labori was back in action by the 22nd. No less a figure than Marcel Proust claimed that the attempt on Labori’s life gave him an increased moral stature, since it proved that he was prepared to shed blood for the cause. One of Labori’s two companions is Georges Picquart (1854-1914), a crucial figure in the Dreyfus saga since it was he who first unmasked the real author of the ‘bordereau’, the incriminating document depicted in Dreyfus Court Martial - Arrest Of Dreyfus (L’Affaire Dreyfus, La dictée du bordereau, 1899).

In terms of mise en scène, the film’s action is played out against a backdrop of the bridge at Rennes, with another painted flat to the left creating a side alley for the would-be assassin to escape down. As in Landing Of Dreyfus At Quiberon (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899), Méliès is keen to establish at least a sense of realism, with various passers-by crossing the frame at regular intervals. The assailant himself, with his theatrically furtive, quasi-Groucho Marx stoop, is straight out of a comic strip caricature, but he’s on screen relatively briefly. There is a plausible rumour that Méliès himself is playing Labori.

The film then turns to an intriguing coda, taking up almost a third of the running time, whereby two passers-by completely ignore Labori as he’s writhing in agony on the ground. There’s a passing possibility that this might be deliberate (Labori would have been an extremely well known figure in Rennes by this stage of the trial), though it’s more likely that they simply don’t want to be involved. However, the third - dressed altogether more raffishly and with long hair and a beard - more than makes up for this by sounding the alarm.

Aside from some forgivable damage (mild blotching and scratching), this is one of the better prints in Flicker Alley’s Dreyfus cycle, resolving so much fine detail that it’s all too easy to see the join between the painted backdrop and the studio floor. Eric Beheim’s electronic score begins in chirpy early-morning mode before becoming more agitated during and after the assassination attempt, though it eschews overt nudging in a particular direction.

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Posted on 4th June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | 1 Comment »

Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes, 1899, 1m05s
Star Film Catalogue No. 211

In the military prison at Rennes, Alfred Dreyfus is seated at a table poring over books. A guard enters and salutes him, indicating that there are people outside. Dreyfus asks him to show them in. His lawyers Edgar Demange and Fernand Labori enter and are greeted by Dreyfus prior to the three of them taking seats around the table. Dreyfus points out something in the book he was reading earlier, which leads to an animated conversation. He has just got up to show them another document when the guard re-enters to say that he has another visitor. It is his wife Lucie, and her friend Madame Havet. Clearly overwhelmed with emotion, the reunited couple embrace, prior to Dreyfus sitting on the bed with his head in his hands.

Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes is the second of two films (the first being Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon/L’Affaire Dreyfus, Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899)describing the events of the night of 30 June-1 July 1899, during which Dreyfus was transferred from Devil’s Island to the far more salubrious military prison in the city of Rennes, Brittany, northwest France. There, he was initially reunited with his legal team, Edgar Demange (1841-1925) and Fernand Labori (1860-1917), the latter the subject of the next film in Méliès’s Dreyfus cycle, The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Attentat contre maître Labori, 1899). Finally, his wife Lucie (1869-1945) joins them, and the couple have an emotional reunion - rendered more so by Dreyfus’s evident despair at the end, as he knows the encounter will be all too brief. (Neither he nor Méliès would have known this at the time, but he was still seven years away from freedom).

Instead of the special effects-fuelled fireworks of the previous film, the focus here is on a realistic presentation of Dreyfus’s emotional state - in many ways an expansion of the two previous films about Dreyfus incarcerated, Devil’s Island - Within The Palisade (L’Affaire Dreyfus, A l’ile du diable) and Dreyfus Put In Irons (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Mise aux fers de Dreyfus, both 1899). The New York Times, in an article dated 2 July 1899 (i.e. the following day), described the encounter as follows: “The meeting between the long-parted husband and wife can better be imagined than described. Naturally, it was most touching. Both Dreyfus and his wife were deeply affected. They remained long clasped in each other’s arms, tears and smiles intermingling with tender endearments.”

So far so touching, but it went on to say: “Mme. Dreyfus issued from the prison in a state of collapse. She found her husband much aged, with beard and hair whitened, and body shrunk and stooped. She said Dreyfus knew nothing of the events of the past two years.” Presumably, French newspaper accounts proceeded on near-identical lines, because it seems clear that Méliès is trying to convey this impression in the final seconds of the film, when Dreyfus retreats into a world of his own and Lucie can offer no more than a comforting caress.

Aside from some chemical blotching at the beginning and intermittent damage thereafter, the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, with plenty of fine detail - enough to appreciate that the roles have been casts with sufficient care to ensure a certain physical resemblance to their models. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is considerably less doom-haunted than has been the case with the earlier Dreyfus soundtracks, starting off in a stately mode for the conversation with the lawyers before becoming altogether sweeter-toned when Lucie Dreyfus enters.

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Posted on 3rd June 2008
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Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899, 0m56s
Star Film Catalogue No. 210

At Quiberon harbour, a military detachment waits beside a boat. They move into formation as the sailors emerge. One hands over some documents to the officer in charge, who inspects and approves them with a signature. Alfred Dreyfus then emerges from the boat and climbs ashore. He is surrounded by soldiers, who march him away.

This film reconstructs events that took place on the night of 1 July 1899, when Alfred Dreyfus was transported from Devil’s Island to the bay of Quiberon on the south-west coast of Brittany in the ship ‘Sfax’. Severe storms prevented the landing from taking place for several hours, but Dreyfus was eventually ferried to shore in a small boat and landed at 1.30am. Chief of Detectives Monsieur Viguie, and Commissary of Police Monsieur Hennion led a large group of gendarmes and police inspectors (watched by a crowd of spectators), who took responsibility for transporting Dreyfus to the military prison in Rennes. (His arrival there is depicted by Méliès’ subsequent film, Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes/Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes, 1899).

However, the factual basis of the film is far less interesting than Méliès’ staging of it. The artificiality of the scene is obvious from the start, since the painted backdrop features clearly immobile clouds and people in the far distance, while the water in the harbour doesn’t move. However, Méliès uses a number of special-effects techniques to try to create the impression of genuine actuality footage.

The first is the boat from which Dreyfus emerges. While the other ships in the harbour are clearly painted, the two in the foreground are more sophisticated props. Although their sails are painted on, they rocks back and forth with the movement of the water, as do the men on board the first boat: it is likely that the actors were standing on some kind of seesaw arrangement out of the camera’s range. Méliès was a practical man of the theatre long before he got involved in film, and effects like these would have been very common in stage productions.

More intriguing, and certainly more immediately cinematic, are the various superimpositions that Méliès uses to denote a brewing storm. These start with brief flashes of lightning, followed by more sustained shots of storm clouds, and finally the heavens open while the actors react with appropriate discomfort (although it is likely that they remained bone-dry throughout). When they march Dreyfus away, it’s clear that Méliès had to end the film when he did, as they’re about to walk straight into the backdrop.

A film like this, with its blatantly artificial atmosphere, would have been anathema to most of the key documentary pioneers. Many decades later, Ken Russell got into trouble with the BBC’s Huw Wheldon for proposing to use an actor in a 1961 documentary on the composer Sergei Prokofiev, a battle that took Russell some years to win because Wheldon felt that this approach was fundamentally dishonest. By contrast, Méliès had the advantage of being answerable only to himself, and of course the whole notion of a documentary as distinct from a fictional drama had yet to be established (as had the term ‘documentary’, which wouldn’t be coined for over two decades). Paradoxically, though, this is simultaneously the most “realistic” film of the Dreyfus series in terms of its interplay of its characters with the background elements, but also the most artificial in terms of the means that Méliès resorts to in order to create the desired impression.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off quite contrasty, though this quickly improves, and for the most part the levels of detail are satisfyingly high. There’s a fair bit of surface damage, though this has the serendipitous side-effect of intensifying the effect of the storm. Eric Beheim’s electronic score hints at the turbulent weather from its opening rumblings, though remains more atmospheric than dramatic - appropriately, given the lack of any obvious dramatic substance to work with.

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Posted on 2nd June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, Superimposition, 1899 | No Comments »

Suicide of Colonel Henry

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Suicide du Colonel Henry, 1899, 1m05s
Star Film Catalogue No. 209

In a prison cell, Colonel Joseph Henry paces up and down before sitting at the table to write a letter. He seals and addresses it, then walks over to the bed. Halfway there, he turns round and retrieves a cut-throat razor from a leather bag on the floor. He opens it, then puts it down on the table. After a brief hesitation, he picks it up again, walks over to the bed and slits his throat. He slumps against the bed and then falls on the floor, blood soaking through his shirt. A guard opens the door, sees the scene and summons two colleagues. They examine the body while the first guard finds the letter.

With The Suicide of Colonel Henry, the fourth film in Georges Méliès’ cycle The Dreyfus Affair (or possibly fifth, depending on the positioning of the now-lost The Disgrace/La Dégradation), we come to the first that doesn’t feature Alfred Dreyfus as the protagonist. After depicting his arrest and two aspects of his incarceration on Devil’s Island, Méliès now turns his attention to Colonel Joseph Henry (1846-1898), one of the most prominent of the so-called ‘Antidreyfusards’, not least because he is believed to have forged the documents that secured Dreyfus’s arrest in the first place. However, Henry was caught committing further forgeries in an attempt to incriminate Colonel Picquart, the man who correctly established Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy as the German spy who was actually guilty of the crime for which Dreyfus had been falsely convicted. Henry confessed, and was imprisoned in the Mont Valérien fort on 30 August 1898. The following morning, he was found dead with his throat cut, a presumed suicide.

Méliès assumes that his audience would have known all about the Henry affair (his death occurred only a year or so before the film was made), and so instead of bothering with a preamble he cuts straight to the chase, imagining the last minute of Henry’s life as it plays out in real time. Throughout, he is clearly suffering agonies of indecision, pacing up and down, hesitating and changing his mind - so much so that when he abruptly slits his own throat seemingly partway through another hesitation, it’s a genuinely shocking moment. Although Méliès had featured knockabout slapstick violence in such films as The Adventures of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898) and The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898), that was deliberately exaggerated and jokey. By contrast, his treatment of Colonel Henry’s suicide is startlingly realistic, especially once the blood starts soaking through his white shirt.

Both this film and its immediate successor, Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon (Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899), raise interesting questions concerning the definition of “realism”. Stephen Bottomore’s article ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’ (Sight & Sound, Autumn 1984) quotes a piece in Photographic News dated 8 December 1899 discussed the subject of Dreyfus-related reconstructions (Pathé had also jumped on the bandwagon), asking “But where is this new kind of photo-faking to stop?” Although clearly staged (as ever, the “set” is a painted backdrop), Méliès was much more concerned with realism than he had been in the past, even though he was paradoxically compelled to make use of special effects (a gory throat-slitting, a superimposed storm) to ensure that the filmed version was as close to the real-life events as possible - or at least to the popular impression. In this, his Dreyfus films are a precursor of Eisenstein’s October (1927), another reconstruction that’s often “quoted” by documentaries as though the footage was authentic.

This is one of the better prints in Flicker Alley’s Dreyfus cycle - despite occasional chemical damage and other surface blemishes, and some exposure fluctuations towards the end, the underlying image is very sharp and detailed, the better to appreciate the nuances of the performance of the anonymous actor playing Henry. Eric Beheim’s electronic score has a greater sense of building towards a climax than his other Dreyfus soundtracks, with a military drumroll being introduced at the actual moment of Henry’s death.

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Posted on 1st June 2008
Under: Horror, Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

Dreyfus Put In Irons

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Mise aux fers de Dreyfus, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 208

1896. In a hut in the Devil’s Island stockade, Alfred Dreyfus is sleeping. Two guards walk in, one holding a lantern and some leg-irons. The other wakes him, and produces a written order, which he reads aloud. Dreyfus is clearly distressed by its contents, and pleads for mercy. However, the guards hold him down on his bed, fit metal bands round his ankles, attach them to the leg-irons and fix the latter to the bed. The guards quickly check the contents of the room and leave.

Dreyfus Put In Irons is, in effect, the second half of a diptych that began with Devil’s Island - Within the Palisade (L’Affaire Dreyfus, L’Île du Diable, 1899), the two films from Georges Méliès’ eleven-film The Dreyfus Affair series that specifically cover his incarceration in the French Guyana prison. While the earlier film showed his psychological torment (denied all but the most basic of human contact, as the guards are barred from speaking to him), this depicts rather more physical discomfort.

The film is clearly set within the same stockade depicted in the previous film, as the same distinctive outer wall made from pointed whitewashed wooden planks is visible through the rear window. However, this time we’re in Dreyfus’ cell, reasonably spacious but otherwise spartan in both décor and amenities: a bowl, a bucket and a jug. Even these will shortly be out of reach, as soldiers clap him in leg-irons that fasten him to the bed, performing the task with a matter-of-factness that underlines the fact that they’re only obeying (written) orders.

Curiously, one of the soldiers has been given a lot of business to do with the lantern - he’s constantly holding it up with the apparent intention of revealing important details. However, the ambient light in the cell is more than adequate, and the lantern doesn’t appear to be emitting any of its own: presumably the insensitive film stock of the time would not have been capable of registering a genuinely lantern-lit scene. So while this is arguably both a technical and a dramatic flaw (the soldiers’ gestures suggest an altogether more crepuscular environment), it’s a forgivable one under the circumstances.

While the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD displays the usual blend of surface and chemical damage, the underlying image is so sharp and clear that this is very easy to tune out. Eric Beheim’s electronic score consists of a slow descent, paralleling Dreyfus’s darkening mood as the guards make it clear that there’s no room for clemency.

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Posted on 31st May 2008
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Devil’s Island - Within the Palisade

L’Affaire Dreyfus, L’Île du Diable, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 207

Alfred Dreyfus, clad in white suit and helmet, paces up and down in a small prison stockade. He eventually sits down to read a book, but dashes it to the ground in frustration before holding his head in his hands. A guard enters and hands him a letter. Dreyfus attempts to engage him in conversation, but without success. After the guard leaves, Dreyfus reads the letter, but it does nothing to alleviate the gloom.

The second film in Georges Méliès’ series about the so-called Dreyfus Affair (following Dreyfus Court Martial - Arrest of Dreyfus/L’Affaire Dreyfus, La Dictée du Bordereau, 1899) is set in the notorious Devil’s Island prison, to which the former artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus had been sentenced to life following his conviction by a military tribunal on the back of dubious evidence. The Star Film catalogue entries suggest that this film was intended to be screened immediately after its predecessor, though there is a strong possibility that the now-lost film The Disgrace (La Dégradation, 1899) depicted the key event between arrest and incarceration, namely the “cashiering” ceremony, where Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his status, his epaulettes and decorations torn off and his sword broken in front of him.

The narrative content of Devil’s Island - Within the Palisade is far simpler than its predecessor - in essence, Dreyfus, now imprisoned in the French Guyanan penal colony, receives a letter - but it marks an important advance not just on the earlier film but also anything else in Méliès’ surviving pre-1899 catalogue in that he’s striving for a genuinely emotional effect without the aid of either special effects or crude melodrama (the exaggerated gestures of the anonymous ironworker playing Dreyfus can be forgiven). The audience at the time would undoubtedly have been more than familiar with the story, so the lack of any contextual detail beyond the title is understandable.

If there was any lingering doubt about Méliès’ sympathies for Dreyfus, it should be definitively dismissed here, as the clear purpose of this film and the next, Dreyfus Put in Irons (Mise aux fers de Dreyfus, 1899), is to highlight his plight by showing both his psychological and physical discomfort. Here, he tries to engage the guard in conversation, but is rebuffed, not because the guard is instinctively unsociable but because he’s been ordered not to talk to him. He has a book and a letter (presumably from his wife), but they provide scant compensation. That all this is conveyed without the aid of a single special effect or narrative contrivance shows how far Méliès had come in terms of pure mise en scène.

To emphasise this, two additional touches contribute to the overall effect. Firstly, the set (or backdrop) has been painted using Méliès’ usual foreshortened perspective, which here has the side-effect of intensifying the sense of being hemmed in (the backdrop, lighting and Dreyfus’s white suite all contribute to the impression of scorching heat). Secondly, the guard delivering the letter is walking with the aid of a stick, suggesting that he has either been invalided out of more conventional military duties or has sustained an injury in the course of his work at the prison.

Aside from some chemical blotches that become less damaging but which never entirely disappear, the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, effectively conveying the harshness of the lighting but with enough of a contrast range to show plenty of fine detail. Eric Beheim’s electronic score continues the pattern set in the previous film of opting for subtle atmospheric sketching instead of trying to artificially boost the drama.

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Posted on 30th May 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

Dreyfus Court Martial - Arrest of Dreyfus

L’Affaire Dreyfus, La Dictée du Bordereau, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 206

France, late 1894. After consulting with colleagues, French Army officer Mercier du Paty de Clam orders an underling to bring Captain Dreyfus to him. Dreyfus enters and salutes, and du Paty de Clam orders him to sit down at the table. He takes out a piece of paper and dictates names to Dreyfus, who writes them down. When he has finished, du Paty de Clam accuses Dreyfus of being the author of the ‘bordereau’, the list of military secrets from which he was dictating. Dreyfus denies it. Du Paty de Clam indicates the revolver on the table, and turns his back. Dreyfus refuses to commit suicide. Du Paty de Clam’s colleagues escort him out of the office.

The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) was neither Georges Méliès’ first historical reconstruction (The Surrender at Tournavos/La Prise de Tournavos was made in 1897) nor his first multi-film narrative - Divers at Work on the Wreck of the ‘Maine’ (Visite sous-marine du Maine, 1898) was originally one of several films about the ‘Maine’ disaster. However, his Dreyfus cycle was by far his most ambitious attempt at telling a story across several films, and although they were listed separately in his Star Film catalogue (exhibitors were encouraged to book the episodes they found most appealing), they effectively add up to a 13-minute mini-epic and could easily be screened in that form.

The cycle originally comprised eleven productions (one double-length, hence twelve catalogue numbers), and was listed in Méliès’ catalogue as follows:

The last two are missing believed lost, but the first nine are included in Flicker Alley’s set. The order is broadly chronological, though it is assumed that The Disgrace (assumed to be an account of Dreyfus’s ritual dismissal between his arrest and incarceration) should be screened second.

Equally significantly, the cycle saw Méliès tackling not merely a topical news story but possibly the most controversial one of its day. The Dreyfus Affair had begun in late 1894, when French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was arrested and charged with treason - the sole ‘evidence’ being a list of military secrets allegedly in his handwriting (this is the ‘bordereau’ referred to in the film’s French title). Dreyfus was Jewish, and it was later widely assumed that anti-Semitism was a key factor in his treatment. In January 1895, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the notorious prison on Devil’s Island in French Guyana. It was a contentious issue from the start, but the real scandal broke when the distinguished novelist Émile Zola wrote an open letter to the French President entitled ‘J’accuse!’, published on the front page of the 13 January 1898 edition of the newspaper L’Aurore. This sent shockwaves through the French establishment, and Dreyfus was subjected to a fresh court-martial in the summer of 1899, an event that was comprehensively covered by the French and international media, and which inspired Méliès to make his films.

He began work on the cycle in August 1899, while the court-martial was still under way. Extremely uncharacteristically for Méliès, his primary concern was accuracy. Dreyfus himself was played by an unknown ironworker who bore a strong physical resemblance, and while the sets were the usual painted backdrops, they were the product of considerable research that may well have included a reconnaissance mission to the actual trial. Méliès made little secret of his pro-Dreyfus views, which are clear from his treatment of the disgraced captain as a tragic figure. Accordingly, the films were almost as controversial as the events that inspired them, with screenings leading to fights between Dreyfus supporters and detractors. Finally, the French government banned the films altogether, in an act that is believed to be the cinema’s first instance of political censorship - compounded by a subsequent ban on any films tackling the Dreyfus case, which wasn’t lifted until 1950. (I am hugely indebted to Stephen Bottomore’s article ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’, published in the Autumn 1984 issue of Sight & Sound, for much of the foregoing)

The first film in the Dreyfus cycle started as Méliès meant to go on, presenting a sober, largely unsensationalised account of the initial investigation. This was conducted by French Army officer Mercier du Paty de Clam (1853-1916), later accused of being one of the key conspirators behind the plot to frame Dreyfus. Dreyfus is summoned to his office and du Paty de Clam asks him to take down a document, which turns out to be the notorious ‘bordereau’ (the film’s original French title translates as “the dictation of the ‘bordereau’”). Du Paty de Clam claims that the handwriting is a perfect match and - in the film’s one lurch into melodrama - signals to Dreyfus that he should commit suicide. Dreyfus proudly refuses to do so, and sets in train what may well be the cinema’s first genuine serial. To coin a phrase that Méliès himself eschews, To Be Continued…

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD begins with chemical decomposition so severe that it almost resembles a deliberate vignette effect, and, while this clears up quite quickly, the rest of the print is marred by near-constant surface damage, chemical blotches and exposure fluctuations, though there’s still enough fine detail visible to make the film perfectly watchable. Eric Beheim’s electronic score consists of a series of descending motifs, a musical approach that will crop up again in later films in the cycle that suggests the trajectory of Dreyfus’s career and reputation.

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Posted on 29th May 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

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