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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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Maudite soit la Guerre / [Damn the War!], Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on July 10, 2014

Maudite soit la guerre still

This was a film programmed in ‘Lay Down Your Arms! Pacifism and War 1914 – 1918’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. A restored version of the same film was shown as part of a retrospective of the director Alfred Machin at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Before then Machin was an almost forgotten film pioneer who worked in the Belgium, Dutch and French film industries. That year we enjoyed some thirty films directed by Machin, from shorts to full-length features. Between 1908 and 1931 Machin directed, and often scripted, a wide variety of films that fell into many different genres and into both fictional features and documentaries. Eric de Kuyper produced a bi-lingual study of Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker [French and English], that was published by he Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique together with the Cineteca del Commune di Bologna, (1995).

Maudite soit le Guerre is an anti-war melodrama. Whilst the plot does not identify the countries involved the characters’ names, dress and setting suggest Belgium/France versus Germany. Adolph (Baert) comes to train as an aviator and becomes friendly with Sigismond and his family, and romantically involved with his sister Lidia (La Berni). Then war breaks out and the friends find themselves on opposing sides in the conflict. Predictably they arrive at the same spot on a battlefield – an old windmill. Both die, but the film continues to the point where Lidia learns of the death of Adolph. The films end in a fairly downbeat manner.

Mariann Lewinsky, who programmed the 1914 series at the Festival, commented that in Machin’s films windmills often accompany death – as in this film. There was another example in La Fille de Delft (A Tragedy in the Clouds) a film directed by Machin in 1914. We also had an earlier example of the destruction of a windmill, where the mise en scène crossed over strikingly with Maudite …..

When I saw the film in 1995 it was restored to a 35 mm print, including the Pathé stencil colours, and the tinting and toning. It was the lustrous colours in particular that I remembered from then.

Nicola Mazzanti comments in the Festival Catalogue

… the chromatic composition of Maudite soit la guerre is constructed around the leitmotiv of two pastels, understated colours, the pink of the geraniums in the girl’s villa and the variations of brown (from terra die siena to ochre) of the uniforms and the battlefield, with the reds of the explosions providing the counterpoint.

For 2014 more digital work was done to ‘bring back the subtlety of those unbelievable pinks and browns’. Memory is not always reliable, but the DCP projected in the Piazza Maggiore looked rather as I remembered the 35 mm print. Unfortunately it did not run as smoothly as the celluloid. After about 40 minutes, as we started the final camera reel, the DCP ‘stuck’! The audience sat there uncertain. Gabriel Thibaudeau at the piano, who provided a fine accompaniment and who was approaching his climatic flourish, appeared stunned. Alas that was it for the evening. When I inquired later in the week it seemed that the digital box was still ‘stuck’. We may enjoy a repeat screening next year – can we revert to 35mm?

Fortunately I did have a fairly good memory from the 1995 screening. There is a scene where Lidia recognises a medallion given to Adolph. This was followed by a dream sequence, which had the finest use of colours in the whole film. And the ending is in a Convent. The film does develop as powerful anti-war stance, though it fails [as do most anti-war films] to address the actual circumstances of the 1914 conflict: [that is imperialist rivalry not events in Sarajevo].

I suppose the only positive aspect of a digital version is that it will probably circulate more widely. This is definitely a film to see when the opportunity arises. And Machin’s other works are also worth looking out for.


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