Early & Silent Film

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La Fille de Delft, Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on August 14, 2014

Kate and Jeff [upper left]

Kate and Jeff [upper left]

This film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in the programme of  ‘About 100 years ago 1914’. I first saw it in the Il Cinema Ritrovato 1995 retrospective of its director Alfred Machin. Happily we again had a black and white 35mm print from the Cinémathéque Royale de Belgique [the original release had also included a colour version]. And there was a lyrical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Note its English-language title is the non-literal A Tragedy in the Clouds [and a spoiler].

The film is set in Holland and makes extensive use of windmills, something of a Machin motif. The first part of the film centres on two childhood sweethearts, Kate and Jeff.  Kate is the daughter of a miller and Jeff is a shepherd boy. The young actors, presumably non-professionals, offer delightful performances with a rather naïve ambience. There is a village fete with a competition for the best-turned out flower cart – all pulled by dogs. Kate wins the prize, a flower in a pot. This is followed a by a celebratory dance: Kate and Jeff are spotted by an impresario who is taken with their performance.

Then the story turns darker. Kate’s father is killed when the mill is struck by lightning. After the funeral and mourning period Kate is recruited by the impresario to the Coliseum Dance School. As she leaves she gives Jeff the potted flower. At the dance school Kate causes, at first scorn, then admiration for her ethnic style of dance.

The film moves on and Kate is now a famous dancer and star. She returns to her hometown to perform. Jeff, now a man, calls at the theatre to see Kate. But she is taken up with her affluent admirers. There is a notable shot as Kate looks down through a window at Jeff outside and below: and then screws up his letter.

Later Kate is taken on a balloon trip by an admirer. Then a storm arrives with thunder and lighting. The balloon is truck by lightning, catches fire and falls to the ground. Kate is blinded in the accident. Deserted by her admirers, she returns to the village and her mother’s house. A title sums up the conclusion: “Love felt by simple people overcomes the hardest trials.”

The later part of the film is more melodramatic than the opening sequences. And the storm sequence uses some fine aerial shots but also relies on matte shots and effects. But over the film has a natural air, something Machin achieves in his fictional features as well as his documentaries.

The recurring motifs and tropes are noticeable. The mill, establishing both a region but also a dramatic situation – aerial machines – and a happy use of animals that develops throughout his career. Eric de Kuyper comments on the film and its motifs:

“But when it comes to windmills, Machin seems to say, things are different. Windmills aren’t like tulips, which spread across the earth in the opening sequences of La fille de Delft, to show audiences that we are in Holland. There are plenty of picturesque windmills in La fille de Delft (see p. 126) but their repeated appearance throughout the film strikes a mocking, jarring note when compared with the windmill that is struck by lightning and which leads to the death of the miller Petrus at the outset of the film. (The shot in which the miller is shown deep in thought in the twilight in front of the mill seems to prefigure the curse on the windmill. This same device of the windmill’s silhouette against a twilight sky is also used in Le moulin maudit. So Machin gives us no pretty sunsets, only twilights!)”.

(Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker, Cinémathéque Royale de Belgique, 1995). Le moulin maudit is a melodrama from 1909 involving revenge and tragic deaths. It was filmed with stencil colour like Maudite soit la guerre.


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