Germaine Dulac (1882 - 1942)

L'invitation au voyage (1927)

Born Germaine Saisset-Schneider in 1882, the film director we know as Germaine Dulac came to prominence in the 1920s, alongside Louis Delluc, as director of a series of feature films, the best-known of which is La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Mme Beudet, 1923). Her controversial collaboration with Antonin Artaud, La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928) led to a row with the Surrealists. Towards the end of the 1920s, she turned to abstract and theoretical subjects, and much of her known writing is about film theory. Dulac was an influential film critic, an energetic promoter of the cine-club movement in France, a prolific lecturer and speaker, and author of hundreds of reviews and articles. After the coming of sound, she made no further fiction features, and in the 1930s, formed a small company France-Actualités, associated with Gaumont but editorially independent, to make newsreels and documentaries (1932-5). After suffering a stroke in the mid-1930s, she did little active directing, but was closely involved with Popular Front cultural groups in 1936, acting as an adviser on several films. Having become increasingly immobile, she died in 1942 in obscurity, during the German Occupation.

Well-known in her time, both as creator and enabler, always well-regarded by film specialists, she was however in need of rediscovery when feminist film historians in recent years began to explore the work of the very few women directors active before 1939. The most extensive work from this perspective has been done by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis (To desire differently, Urbana, 1990), an essential source on the feature films. A collection of Dulac's writings was also recently issued in France (P. Hillairet, ed., Ecrits sur le cinéma, Paris, 1994). Marie-Anne Malleville, her constant companion from the time of her divorce from Albert Dulac in 1920, donated all Germaine Dulac's papers to BiFi, and it is from these papers that her less well-known work on newsreels can be reconstructed.

The team she headed at France-Actualités made and sold to distributors, including its patron Gaumont, a weekly compilation of about twenty minutes made up of short news items. In the 1930s, cinema programmes usually consisted of a short film, and a newsreel, before the "big film". News theatres offering non-stop newsreels and cartoons were just opening. About five companies, including Pathé, Eclair etc., competed for contracts. A typical newsreel programme from the archives of France-Actualités, for 2 March 1934, ran for 20-30 minutes as follows :

1. Belgium: accession of King Leopold

2. Lake Placid bobsleigh competition

3. 'Paris-humour': a taxi-driver's strike, using a puppet

4. Maiden voyage of the Normandie

5. The mysterious death of local councillor in Dijon*

6. General review of the army garrison in Algiers

7. Children's string band in Montmartre

8. Police work: how laboratories help trace criminals

9. Film awards at Harry's Bar, Venice

10. Two air force planes collide in mid-air

11. Funeral of victims after a street riot

12. Saint-Malo fisherman's religious procession

* (This item, an early piece of investigative journalism, ended in a lawsuit from a local notable whose house was recognizably filmed in the item.)4

One could construct a cultural history of 1930s France using these iconographical clues, but this kind of compilation was not "the news" as we would understand it today. Since it was designed to be shown around France over a period of weeks, there would be no point in "warming up" the main political events of the day. It concentrated on ceremonies, features, and what are known in France as faits divers, those small news items which project ordinary people into the headlines. Nevertheless one can discern in this apparent compilation of trivia a deliberately contructed orchestration, moving from the light-hearted through to the more serious items, with the thought-provoking juxtapositions which became the trademark of Dulac's newsreels. It was a technical challenge to make something significant from this genre: each item consisted of about 30 or 40 metres of film, about one and a half minutes on screen. Sound, commentary and image had to combine to make a point quickly (cf. M. Huret, Ciné-Actualités, Paris, 1984, for the history of the French newsreel).

Dulac wrote several articles about newsreels. She set out from a minimalist position, arguing that even the blandest of them captured the authentic flavour of contemporary reality -- a boring official occasion from a few years ago would enable you to notice that hairstyles had changed for instance. Because they were free from commercial pressures they could bring out "the universally human social and authentic visual features of cinema". She acknowledged that newsreels, including her own, while not subject to official censorship, were to some extent self-censored; that they were often bland, not sharply angled politically; and that they were as a rule trivial. But within the confines of the genre, she tried to do something different, as critics (alerted by her name on the credits) were quick to notice, if not always seeing the point : "She seems to want to give her newsreel a musical and 'visualist' tendency, which we cannot fully appreciate... It is far from boring" (Cinématographie française, 1 October 1932). "This company is curious: it has intelligent cameramen and editors, who have a sure touch. But it seems to concentrate on tiny events, never the great ones -- why?"

Some critics appreciated what she was trying to do. Pointing out that most newsreels had truly awful commentaries, hectoring and bland at once, one reviewer remarked:

it is a pleasure to announce the real effort made by a young company France-Actualité, run by Germaine Dulac: the camerawork, the sound and the commentary all show that at France-Actualité [sic], everyone knows his trade... [Her work is ] characterized by variety... sometimes humorous, sometimes with a bitter note, or touched with emotion. [She] juxtaposes complementary images. Here is a tea party thrown for children of higher civil servants by the President, and here is one given by the Salvation Army for homeless children. No superfluous commentary: the spectator has to work out the philosophy from what he sees on screen. ... In one item, the unveiling of a plaque in memory of a writer, she stayed after the official opening and asked local residents about him, getting very funny answers [nobody had ever heard of him]. On other occasions she filmed two lovers after a suicide pact and a body being pulled out of the Seine.

Dulac herself referred to her newsreels in what one might describe as classic humanist mode. They were obviously a departure both from her psychological full-length features of the early 1920s and from the formal and theoretical shorts she had made later: "If only you knew how much constant contact with ordinary people, living their lives, suffering, working, loving normally can change the perspective of a film director used to facing more or less fictional characters. In a filmed report, all is real, not deformed by the imagination or theoretical reasoning." She clearly saw this work as enabling her to escape from the constraints of the plot, even when doing "stories". As a marginal art form, newsreels could paradoxically be seen to have a degree of artistic freedom. Ironically however (see article on budget below), financial pressure put an end to this phase of her production. Employing several people, she was going over budget while the parent company was facing serious financial crisis. France-Actualités was wound up and at about the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, Dulac suffered a stroke.

The articles here may surprise those familiar with Dulac's other work. There is a direct simplicity of approach which seems almost naive to us now, used as we are to the distortions and biases which have marked filming the news for television. It helps to remember that Dulac was above all a visual film-maker, whose best work was in the silent era. When she insists the camera cannot lie, she is thinking of the images on the screen, and specifically remarks that "of course" commentaries can be superimposed to give misleading information. She was also writing in the somewhat optimistic atmosphere of the Popular Front, and with a clearly pedagogical and historical approach. One can hardly argue with her point that if only cinema had been invented a hundred years earlier, even the most naively-filmed images of the French Revolution would give us invaluable historical evidence.