A New Belgian Film

Histoire de détective by Charles Dekeukeleire

(1) Histoire de détective (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1929)

I must admit a special fondness for any film conceived and realised by a Belgian.

The isolated efforts of young cinematographers full of faith in their art and of sturdy courage, have made me feel that the criticism with which their work has been received is not infrequently either harsh or unjust, for the reason that the critics, misinterpreting their functions, allow themselves to be guided by considerations of sentiment or of publicity.

A Belgian work deserves to be studied with as much impartiality and penetration as no matter what foreign masterpiece and particularly is it necessary to take into consideration the modest technical and pecuniary resources at the command of the few Belgian producers.

In the domain of intelligence and sensibility I consider my young compatriot Charles Dekeukeleire the best of those Belgians who have not so far experienced the attraction of foreign studios, who work at home and combine, when producing their films, all the functions that elsewhere are distributed amongst an hierarchy of technicians and functionaries.

Dekeukeleire is a self-made man of the cinema; slowly, laboriously, he has acquired the solid experience that to-day qualifies him to give us a complete film of a new cinematic form and equilibrium, far surpassing his two early efforts Combat de boxe and Impatience, short-length films one of which was a study of visual rhythm and the other an essay in technique.

In regard to his Histoire de détective I dare to be both hopeful and enthusiastic. Hopeful as to the form, which is new and conceived in a way that will at first sight appear absurd to all those not well-versed in cinematics, but that is to my mind the beginning of a new manner. The author’s great merit is his break with a tradition he finds outmoded and his discovery of a new method of expression. I am enthusiastic with regard to certain fragments of this film wherein are mingled the freshness of a sentimental naivety and a rhythmic treatment of the image that expresses the author’s temperament in a vigorous, sane, constructive manner.

It is for this reason that I find specially pleasing the less perfect passages of the film, those in which the image is too sharply accentuated, to the detriment of poetry, and the handling of certain images which stand out with an astonishing photographic precision, luminously spiritual: as for example the scene of apples in movement and of melting iron.

I have said that Dekeukeleire represents a new visual expressiveness. I would call it “subjective dynamism.” Cinematography is the art of capturing the synthesis of movement, but it is not sufficient to place oneself outside the field of action and register on the film the moving elements of reality. This is the method of current productions, the cameraman being satisfied with merely recording life as it passes, himself remaining either motionless or at any rate indifferent to the manifestations he is witnessing. He must give his lens, the eye of the camera, both intelligence and movement.

The registering apparatus itself becomes a living organ, moving and reacting psychologically. For the spectacle of a world which hitherto was nothing but an animated photograph, dependent for its interest upon form and the movement of figures, is substituted the impression received by the cameraman himself: the result being achieved by the synthesis of two distinct movements, the one that of his own interior life and the other that of external life, modified, designed, transformed in the direction of his psychic impression of it.

This film will be contested because it reverses the normal attitude of the spectator. He may no longer be an indifferent observer, sharing or not sharing the proffered joys and sorrows. He is, as it were, flung violently into the mêlée. His eye is held by the screen and he is left unsupported by the artificial logic that has been established for everyday use and for the purpose of facilitating understanding and establishing pleasure. There are no love-scenes to be observed with the tranquillity of one accustomed to examine detail through opera-glasses. The elements that make for rational thought are sown within the whirlwind of sentiments and disordered ideas. And these images, rising from the subconscious, succeed each other in a disorder that is often much more significant than are the most logically-ordered intellectual processes.

Nothing is more delicate than this essentially mobile way of registering facts that are themselves subject to movement, and particularly in this film, subjective from beginning to end where the mobility of the apparatus is the result of a psychological state of impatience, the febrile inquietude of a passionate search for the author’s own personality.

The weak point in the work is the use of an insufficient means for the realisation of a complete, too exclusive idea. The extreme rapidity of the images caught in rhythm with the author’s movement demands from the apparatus a technical virtuosity that science has not so far achieved. Of this the author is aware, for one of the numerous subtitles, all, by the way, extremely well drawn up, begs the spectator to excuse the momentary imperfection of the image at the instant when the leading character finds himself caught in the movement of a crowd.

Our compatriot has been well-advised in selecting an extremely simple scenario. Such a choice is essential to the success of a film of this kind.

In general an uniform subjectivity is, I think, successfully to be presented only in short reels, in sketches. A complete work calls for moments of arrest, breathing-spaces during which the spectator may recover himself.

Continuous effort of eye and mind is fatiguing. In representation, as in thought, a certain quietude is essential.

Histoire de détective is conceived in a fever of enthusiasm and sincerity sometimes usurping the place of mastery and control.

Dekeukeleire has nevertheless demonstrated that research, intelligent curiosity, ensures not a mere succès d’estime but the certainty of having gloriously contributed to the best development and to the perfection of the art of cinematography.

Image from Histoire de détective (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1929)

This text was originally published in Close Up, 1930.

With special thanks to Sophie Cauvin.

On 26 February, Bozar, Avila and Sabzian present a unique cinema concert. Pianist Seppe Gebruers will accompany Charles Dekeukeleire's avant-garde masterpiece Histoire de détective (1929) live on two grand pianos.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande ` des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.