Seuls: Eric de Kuyper #2 – Shanghai Express
Wed 15 Mar 2023, 19:30
Cinema RITCS, Brussels
PART OF Seuls. Singular Moments in Belgian Film History
Film, Talk
  • Followed by a conversation with Gerard-Jan Claes and Eric de Kuyper

Eric de Kuyper (b. 1942) has worked and continues to work in many different areas of (Belgian) cinema. He worked as a producer for BRT [Belgian Radio and Television], where he hosted, for example, De Andere Film. He is a filmmaker and worked as a co-screenwriter for several of Chantal Akerman’s films. He was a film theorist and essayist and deputy director of Eye, the Dutch film museum, and he has written numerous articles and essays on film, opera, dance and media. Between 1982 and 1992, together with Emile Poppe, he was the editor of the Dutch-language film magazine Versus. Over the course of three nights, Sabzian and Eric de Kuyper will highlight his rich career as part of the Belgian-cinema-dedicated series Seuls.

On this second film night at Cinema RITCS, we take a closer look at De Kuypers activities as a film critic. He started his film-critical activities in the 1960s at the monthly magazine Streven. In the following decades, he would publish texts in many Dutch-language magazines (Kunst & Cultuur, Skrien and Film en Televisie), but also in French magazines such as Cinémathèque and Trafic. Between 1982 and 1992, together with Emile Poppe, he self-published the film magazine Versus. 

In 1966, De Kuyper wrote a long essay for Streven on the films of Josef von Sternberg, a Austrian filmmaker who would build a prolific career in the United States from the 1930s onwards. The collaboration between Von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich was one of the most enduring in Hollywood cinema. They successfully made the transition from the silent to the sound era and created a series of films together that expressed an unbridled ecstasy in the filmmaking process itself. Characterised by striking lighting design, meticulous art design and dynamic camerawork, these sensual films redefined the cinema of the time, the ambiguous characters turning Dietrich-the-actor into an icon. Shanghai Express (1932) is their third American collaboration. De Kuyper characterises Von Sternberg as a “paradoxical filmmaker”, who seemed to submit to each and every Hollywood cliché while managing to unmask it at the same time. De Kuyper will introduce the film, and the film will be followed by a discussion on De Kuyper’s work as a film critic. In the coming weeks, Sabzian will republish a number of striking texts from his remarkable oeuvre, with a new commentary by De Kuyper.

Eric de Kuyper

Eric de Kuyper (b. 1942, Belgium) graduated from the Brussels film school RITCS in 1966. Between 1965 and 1977 he worked as a producer for the BRT, where he hosted, for example, De Andere Film. His filmography includes Casta Diva (1982), Naughty Boys (1984), A Strange Love Affair (1985), Pink Ulysses (1990) – all screened at the Venice Film Festival – and most recently My Life as an Actor (2015). De Kuyper was also a co-screenwriter for several of Chantal Akerman’s films.

In addition, de Kuyper works as a film theorist and essayist. In the 1970s, he studied in Paris, with the philosopher/semiotician Roland Barthes and the linguist/semiotician Algirdas Greimas, among others. He founded the department of film and performance arts at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. His book Filmische hartstochten (1984) is a study of love in Hollywood cinema.

The autobiographical Aan zee (1988) was his literary debut, followed by a quick succession of books based on his youth in Brussels and numerous stays with his family in Ostend.

Until 1992, de Kuyper was deputy director of Eye, the Dutch film museum. He wrote numerous articles and essays on film, opera, dance and media (in Dutch as well as French magazines such as Cinémathèque and Trafic). Between 1982 and 1992, together with Emile Poppe, he was the editor of film magazine Versus.

For the Operadagen Rotterdam he made silent films accompany live performances of works by Schumann (Genoveva, 2010), Debussy (L’enfant prodigue, 2010) and Berlioz (Les nuits d’eté, 2011). For CINEMATEK in Brussels, he set up projects on early silent films (De verbeelding in context) and worked with De Nederlandse Opera and conductor Hartmut Haenchen on the accompaniment of Die Stahlwerke bei Poldihütte. He also put together a programme for Bozar on Eric Satie, John Cage, James Ensor and early silent films.

Shanghai Express

A notorious woman rides a train through a dangerous situation with a British captain she loved.


“More action oriented than the other Dietrich-Sternberg films, this 1932 production is nevertheless one of the most elegantly styled. The setting, a broken-down train commandeered by revolutionaries on its way to Shanghai, becomes a maze of soft shadows and shifting textures, through which the characters wander in a philosophical quest for something – anything – solid.”

Dave Kehr1


“The Chinese Civil War serves as the backdrop for this 1932 von Sternberg agent-thriller, but it’s the titular express train bound for Shanghai that will represent the main stage; viewed from more than seventy years in the future, the parallax is still dizzying. A sensual and threatening interplay between light, shadow, and layer upon layer of gauze circumfixes as ever the great director’s gaze, the focal object of which is none other than the incomparable Marlene Dietrich.”

Craig Keller2


“Never the same object of perception from one moment to the next, the face extracts the communication of affects from a fluid and unpredictable collusion with masses of shadow and planes of light. It appears and gives itself up to the difference between appearance and thruth through these transactions with disparate concrete spaces. shot from above with her head thrown back as Captain Harvey leans down to kiss her on the open-air platform at the end of the train, Shanghai Lily is almost unrecognizable: Dietrich’s face is less a point of continuity in the film than a site of experimentation. 

In examining various approaches to the close-up, Gilles Deleuze speaks of “Sternberg’s anti-Expressionism” and “light’s adventure with white”: 

“It is transparent, translucent or white space that has just been defined. Such a space retains the power to reflect light, but it also gains another power which is that of refracting, by diverting the rays which cross it. The face which remains in this space thus reflects a part of the light, but refracts another part of it. From being reflexive, it becomes intensive. Here there is something unique in the history of the close-up. The classical close-up ensures a partial reflection in so far as the face looks in a direction different from that of the camera, and thus forces the spectator to rebound on the surface of the screen. (...)
But Sternberg seems to have been alone in doubling the partial reflection of a refraction, thanks to the translucent or white milieu that he was able to construct. (...) The close-ups of Shanghai Express form an extraordinary series of variations at the edges.”

James Phillips3


“De pralerige en kitscherige Hollywoodse decoratie uit de jaren dertig heeft von Sternberg op zo'n grandioos wansmakelijke wijze uitgebeeld (zoals een Busby Berkeley het deed in zijn musicals uit dezelfde periode), hij heeft ze zo opgeblazen, dat hij ze meteen ook transcendeerde en aan het stijlloze stijl verleende. Alle kostuums - zowel de Russische kostuums aan het hof van Catharina de Grote (The Scarlet Empress), als de romeinse toga's (I, Claudius), de Spaanse (The Devil is a Woman), de Chinese (Shanghaï Express, Shanghaï Gesture) of de Weense toiletten (Dishonored) - vertonen éénzelfde aspect. Ook de muziek - von Sternberg ‘gebruikt’ heel veel klassieke thema’s - heeft steeds dezelfde kenmerken van pseudo-grootsheid en pseudo-ernst. Overal wordt de ‘artifex’ zichtbaar, alles krijgt ’n niet te miskennen sternbergiaanse toets.”

Erik de Kuyper4

  • 1. Dave Kehr, “Shanghai Express”, Chicagoreader, October 1985.
  • 2. Craig Keller, “Shanghai Express”, Cinemasparagus, January 2007.
  • 3. James Phillips, Sternberg and Dietrich: The Phenomenology of Spectacle, (Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 39.
  • 4. Eric de Kuyper, “Josef von Sternberg,” Streven, 1 (1966), 265-6.