Archive for the '1899' Category

The Mysterious Knight

Le Chevalier mystère, 1899, 1m34s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 226-227

A knight draws a picture of a man’s head in chalk. He then plucks the head out of the blackboard, and balances it on top of a bottle on a table. The head comes to life and looks around, watching as the knight crawls under the table. The knight removes a mounted sword from the wall, and impales the head on it. The head seems unperturbed, and strikes up a conversation with the knight. The knight removes the head from the sword and replaces it on the bottle while he erects a tripod. He then places the head on the tripod, wraps a cloth round its legs, and removes it to reveal the head has grown a body. The knight parades his new friend around the room, before shaking a fan at him and making him slowly disappear. He then makes him reappear on the table, helps him onto his feet, makes his body disappear, and replaces the head on the blackboard, where it reverts to the original chalk drawing. The knight begins to wipe the blackboard.

After the elaborate multi-shot narratives of The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) and Cinderella (Cendrillon, 1899), The Mysterious Knight is something of a step backwards, at least in terms of cinematic ambition. However, while clearly modelled on such earlier trick films as The Adventures of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898) and The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), in that it too relies on the notion of a head being detached from its body while remaining alive, it has enough original touches to distinguish it from its predecessors.

We have already seen a chalk drawing coming to life in The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898), though the effect here is much more elaborate, with the bearded protagonist literally plucking his drawing of a head out of the blackboard. Unsurprisingly, it comes to life when prompted - but there then follows something entirely new, when he produces a large sword and impales the head on it. The potential unpleasantness of this moment (it’s certainly one of the most violent images in a Méliès film to date) is offset by the head’s blithe lack of concern, striking up a cheerful conversation with his impaler. As with The Four Troublesome Heads, the joins are certainly visible (you can clearly see the black-clad body of the actor playing the ‘head’), but this doesn’t detract from the overall technical achievement.

When the knight later mounts the head on a tripod, Méliès is harking back to a similar effect in The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898), though when he banishes the head and its newly-formed body, the fade-out is entirely new (at least in Méliès’ surviving work). This seems to have been achieved via a well-timed jump-cut (the flourishing of a fan distracting the viewer’s attention), and then a combination of a superimposed image being faded to black - because the underlying image remains constant, this creates the impression of the man literally dissolving into the ether. It is worth noting the way both the knight and the man seem to acknowledge the audience before this stunt is pulled, since it would have been impossible to pull this off on stage (at least not with the knight not just holding but prodding the man’s arm to establish that it isn’t some kind of Pepper’s Ghost-style trick with mirrors).

There are some marked exposure fluctuations at the beginning of the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD, and a nasty vertical gouge that spoils the first head-related special effect. The image overall is quite contrasty and grainy, but not enough to muffle fine detail. Eric Beheim’s electronic score makes use of tinkling bell effects to enhance the effect of a well-rehearsed stage performance.

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Posted on 8th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Superimposition, 1899 | No Comments »

Cinderella

Cendrillon, 1899, 5m41s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 219-224

In the kitchen, Cinderella pleads with her sisters to let her go to the ball with them, but she is rebuffed. She sits in a chair and weeps. The cauldron turns into her fairy godmother, who asks her to open a rat-trap. Cinderella does so, and a rat emerges. The fairy godmother touches it with her wand, and it’s transformed first into a giant-sized rat, and then into a human footman. Two more rats emerge, and are given similar treatment. The fairy godmother asks Cinderella to place a large pumpkin on the table, which is transformed into a carriage. Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a gorgeous dress, and the footmen help her into the carriage prior to mounting it themselves. As they leave, the fairy godmother indicates the clock, prior to sinking through the floor. At the ball, a dance is in progress when Cinderella enters, kissing the King’s hand and captivating the Prince, who gladly dances with her. Suddenly, Old Father Time leaps into the centre of the dance floor to remind Cinderella of the time. But it is too late: she changes back into her original rags. Her sisters laugh at her, and she runs away in shame. The Prince picks up one of her slippers and runs after her, but to no avail. The dance recommences. Cinderella enters her bedroom, sits at her table and sobs unconsolably. Her freestanding clock sidles up to her and Father Time re-emerges, complete with four female assistants. Father Time himself turns into a woman, and the quintet rock from side to side, each holding a clock face showing midnight. They are then transformed into large ornate clocks that jump up and down as though taunting Cinderella. They turn back into the five women, who form themselves into a group and turn into a much larger clock face, with Father Time in the middle. It vanishes, and Cinderella’s sisters appear. They order her to answer the door. The Prince enters, holding the abandoned slipper. He tries it on each of the sisters’ feet, but it doesn’t fit. He goes over to Cinderella, ignoring their taunting, and slips it onto her foot - it’s a perfect fit. The fairy godmother appears and transforms her rags back into her earlier finery. The Prince takes her hand and leads her out. Cinderella’s sisters protest, but can do nothing. A crowd gathers to watch a marching band heralding the approach of Cinderella and the Prince - she is now wearing a wedding dress. A long retinue follows them into the church. A group of boys and girls is prevented from entering, but stays outside to dance in formation with the help of a violinist. A ballerina performs an elaborate pirouette. The Prince, Cinderella and their followers strike a pose.

Almost immediately after the eleven-film The Dreyfus Affair cycle (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899), which presented the story of late nineteenth-century France’s most notorious scandal as eleven separate tableaux (of which nine survive), Georges Méliès made an even more ambitious film that adapted Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale into a series of sequences that, unlike the Dreyfus films, were clearly designed to be presented together - since Méliès devised various elaborate transitions between shots.

Twenty sequences are listed:

  1. Cinderella in the kitchen.
  2. The fairy.
  3. The transformation of the rat.
  4. The pumpkin changes to a carriage.
  5. The Ball at the King’s Palace.
  6. The hour of midnight.
  7. Cinderella’s bedroom.
  8. The dance of the clocks.
  9. The Prince and the slipper.
  10. Cinderella’s godmother.
  11. The Prince and Cinderella.
  12. The arrival at the church.
  13. The Wedding.
  14. Cinderella’s sisters.
  15. The King.
  16. The nuptial cortège.
  17. The Bride’s Ballet.
  18. The Celestial Spherics
  19. The Transformation.
  20. The Triumph of Cinderella.

However, it should be noted that many of these are combined into one shot (for instance, 1 to 4 inclusive), so the final film isn’t quite as narratively advanced as the list implies. That said, it was still amazingly sophisticated for 1899, especially in its scene transitions. Three of them - between 4/5, 6/7 and 11/12 - are linked by dissolves, achieved by closing the lens aperture, rewinding the film, and opening the aperture again, and it is generally believed that these are the first dissolves in film history. The final transition, which is apparently given its own entry as ‘The Transformation’, is more visually elaborate, as the background and side flats are removed to let the dancers blend seamlessly into a tableau involving the Prince, Cinderella and her retinue, but much more redolent of a stage production. (Although this is believed to be the first film adaptation of the Cinderella story, it had long been a popular stage favourite).

The film also appears to be a conscious synthesis and summation of everything that Méliès had developed to date, both theatrically and cinematographically. The first scene (or tableaux 1-4), in which Cinderella’s fortunes are transformed by her fairy godmother consists of a familiar sequence of Méliès’s jump-cut special effects, albeit with two distinct stages - so a small rat is transformed into a bigger rat before reaching its final form as a footman. The second scene (tableaux 5-6) is initially more straightforward, consisting of Cinderella wooing the Prince via a dance - but the surprise entry of a man with a long white beard, presumably meant to be Old Father Time towards the end promises to ring some changes on otherwise familiar material.

This promise is fulfilled in the next scene (tableaux 7-8), which begins with the film’s second dance number - though unlike the sedate court dances, these are complex routines involving Father Time, four female assistants and a great many clocks, with jump-cuts facilitating various mid-dance transformations (Father Time turns into a woman at one point) complex dance routine involving not just Father Time but four female assistants (he occasionally transforms himself into a fifth), culminating in an extraordinary image of a giant clock face with Father Time suspended in the middle - this has distinct echoes of the gigantic devouring moon in The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898).

There is then a very abrupt cut to the scene (tableaux 9-11) of the Prince and the slipper which, like the scene at the ball, is staged entirely straight. This is, as it turns out, the film’s final scene that has a primarily narrative purpose, as the rest of the film is given over to the most elaborate dance routine of all. After a lengthy procession into the church (tableaux 12-16), eight dancers are left outside, and begin to perform with the aid of a violinist (tableau 17). A ballerina enters and dominates the action (tableau 18) - and finally (tableaux 19-20) the backdrop is lifted, revealing Cinderella, the Prince and the members of their cortège in formation, blending seamlessly with the dancers in the foreground. The film has now definitively shifted from theatre to ballet - the final tableau being an authentic apotheosis, representing the Triumph of Cinderella, framed as though she was a successor to Marianne, France’s national emblem. (Although Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet wouldn’t be written for another four decades, there had already been several balletic adaptations of Perrault’s story dating back to the early 19th century, plus of course Rossini’s 1817 opera La Cenerentola).

Clearly sourced from more than one print, Flicker Alley’s presentation of Cinderella incorporates a very brief segment of stencil-tinted colour as the fairy godmother makes her first appearance. The colours aside, the condition of the print is generally fairly poor, and improves noticeably when the image cuts to a slightly sepia-tinted black and white - there’s still a fair bit of surface damage, but the definition is altogether sharper, and this quality is generally maintained to the end. Donald Sosin’s score mostly consists of solo piano, though there are interpolated electronic harp effects at key moments, such as the fairy godmother’s appearance.

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Posted on 7th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Literary Adaptations, Fairytales | No Comments »

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
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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
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

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 »

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