If you were to ask yourself what your most captivating or first encounter with the Internet was, you would – I think – find it hard to respond. What was it like again?
For my post-war generation, the phenomenon of “film” was something like that. You were born with film, you lived with it, you lived in it. Along with the radio and the newspaper, film was the mass medium that accompanied your everyday life. But the radio and the newspaper were “local” affairs. Film was, as one would say now, global.
In fact, we were still living in continuation of pre-war times. The universe was changing very quickly, television taking the place of radio, newspapers and film.
Hence the fact that friends such as Dirk Lauwaert and of course Chantal Akerman (who was even younger) had a different film history. Five years... and you had a different generation! For them, this Passage request would have been less difficult to answer than it is for me (us!). For how do you describe the network you are living in? Or lived in. Through recounting, while still forgetting a lot.
So: in all those buildings I saw in my Brussels surroundings – “cinemas” they were called – “films” were shown. I realised this when I stepped outside after my first film experience, Dumbo (1941).1 There were quite a few cinemas, and therefore a continuous flow of films. That was just after the war.
During her weekly visits, my aunt would tell about her “film of the week”. Snippets of dialogue and all. Mentioning the stars, too. This was my first introduction to Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, Myrna Lloy, Katherine Hepburn... Male stars were never mentioned.
At the entrance to the film theatre you would see photographs; you could only see the film itself inside. In colour? The photographs were black and white. Could the film possibly be in colour? Sometimes they were coloured-in black-and-white photographs. You noticed right away. Which was no guarantee that the film itself would be in colour.
The many small posters were, indeed, in colour. A French title printed large, a Dutch translation below. Somewhere in between, if need be, the original English title. Some cafés plastered their windows with them, offering a nice overview of all the films showing in the neighbourhood that week.
Dumbo was called a “Disney”. Like bottled milk was called “Stassano”. Every so often, the children were allowed to go to a Disney film. After Dumbo, Pinocchio (1940) made its way. For weeks on end, it was announced in Le Soir, a different aunt’s daily newspaper, in the form of a daily cartoon. The story ended just before the film was released in theatres. The cartoon was in black and white, whereas a Disney was always in colour, wasn’t it? Anyway, it was better than nothing.
A good many American films, such as the Disneys, weren’t released until after the war!
A single film from during the Occupation period was re-released: Der Baron von Munchhausen (1943).
Also in black and white, but this time as a kind of photo-novel, was the “film of the week” in the magazine Libelle: a dozen photographs on a single page, with some commentary or snippets of dialogue. In Ciné-Revue, too, there were re-narrated films, with quite a bit more text. But that magazine you could only leaf through at the hairdresser.
So many scattered announcements, promises, expectations...
And all those trailers at a film screening. Films I would never be able to watch. Later, I realised that there were people whose profession it was to watch all the films. Yes, allez! How to become someone like that?
Anyone at school who had “really” seen a film would recount it. Those who had been to Zorro or The Three Musketeers, brought the action to our playtime. I was always best friends with schoolmates who watched a lot of films and could recount them well. Both Georges and, later during my adolescence, Christian were a bit like stars, weren’t they? On Mondays, Christian recounted to me the film he had seen at the Rex in Antwerp, a film I still had to wait quite a long time to watch at some Antwerp neighbourhood cinema.
Every week, a large page in La Libre Belgique was dedicated to thorough and solid reviews of all the new films. On a second page was the complete list of Brussels cinemas, and next to it in short paragraphs a summary of the original review. I cut out the short reviews and glued them in a notebook. I owe it to La Libre Belgique that I was able to “fish out” The Night of the Hunter (1955) in an obscure cinema in the harbour. And the unsung The Subterraneans (1960), too. La Libre’s excellent reviewers wrote anonymously. Their names were not mentioned.
Later, when I came to write for this newspaper myself – not about film – as “our correspondent”, I suffered the same fate.
In the late 1950s, you could listen to a cinephile programme on RTB (then called INR, the first channel, as there was no third channel back then) on Saturday afternoons. Gérard Valet, Dimitri Balachoff and Henri Roanne made L’Amour du Cinéma. For about an hour, the soundtrack of a film was broadcast, occasionally interrupted by a short commentary in order to better place the visual via the voice. When it came to French films, that was a bonus. For American films such as The Left Handed Gun (1958), you had to make do with the dubbed version.
My aunt also shared her experiences of the Écran du Séminaire des Arts screenings at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. (CINEMATEK did not exist yet.) One film she had seen there was very old and unusual: something with a dog? “A dog, like Lassie?” “No.” She couldn’t really recount the film very well, though it had been very special. I discovered that it must have been Un chien andalou (1929) by leafing through Georges Sadoul’s Histoire générale du cinéma. My older brother had saved up to buy the one-volume version of this film bible and had it bound in red faux leather.
There were so many films! Well, of course my mother would sometimes talk about films she had seen before the war, when films were silent and real orchestras provided the music. In Sadoul’s book, the sparse pages with illustrations had to display the “masterpieces”. At least, that is what Sadoul claimed, who had apparently seen all those films. The pictures (two per page, on both sides) did not convince me. Except for one: Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (1928). When I finally watched the film, many years later, I was disappointed. To this day, I have trouble with this Joan of Arc, even though Dreyer is among my favourite filmmakers. My brother enthused over Citizen Kane (1941), which he went to see a few times. “A masterpiece,” he said. And The Lady from Shangai (1947) also managed to charm him.
Film, at a time when there was no television, did not only live on the screen in the theatre. Film lived all the time, its many fragments and images colouring and flooding everyday life. It lived in conversations that – about novels read as well – filled me as a child with frustration and longing. All too often I had to make do with mere snippets.
As an adolescent, I would soon practise reviewing.
- 1. Like all Hollywood productions, only released in Belgium after the war.
Image: Belgian poster for Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1947)