Dulac, Germaine (1882–1942)

views updated

Dulac, Germaine (1882–1942)

French feminist journalist and pioneering director-producer whose silent films and theoretical writings were seminal in early avant-garde cinema. Name

variations: Charlotte Elisabeth Germaine Dulac. Pronunciation: zher-MEN du-LOCK. Born Charlotte Elisabeth Germaine Saisset-Schneider on November 17, 1882, in Amiens, France; died in July 1942, in Paris; daughter of cavalry Captain Pierre-Maurice Saisset-Schneider and Madeleine-Claire Waymel; married Marie-Louis Albert Dulac (a novelist), in 1905 (divorced 1920).

First worked as a journalist (1909–13), then turned to cinema; directed 26 films (1915–29), supervising the production of two more; produced and directed newsreels (1929–40); named an officer of the Legion of Honor.

Filmography as director:

Les Soeurs ennemis (1915); Geo le mystérieux (1916); Vénus victrix (1916); Dans l'ouragan de la vie (1916); Ames de fous (1917); Le Bonheur des autres (1918); La Fête espagñole (1919); La Cigarette (1919); Malencontre (1920); La Belle Dame sans merci (1920); La Mort du soleil (1921); Werther (unfinished; 1922); La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923); Gossette (1923); Le Diable dans la ville (1924); Ame d'artiste (1925); La Folie des vaillants (1925); Antoinette Sabrier (1926); La Coquille et le clergyman (1927); L'Invitation au voyage (1927); Le Cinéma au service de l'histoire (1927); La Princesse Mandane (1928); Disque 927 (1928); Thèmes et variations (1928); Germination d'un haricot (1928); Etude cinématographique sur une arabesque (1929). Films supervised: Mon Paris (1928); Le Picador (1932).

Cinema historian Charles Ford maintained that "Germaine Dulac… must be considered the first among a leading group of theorists who largely defined the essence, and specified the means and limits, of the silent film." Indeed, her preeminent position in the early history of European cinema appears unassailed. Along with her countrywoman Alice Guy-Blaché , she was only the second woman film director, an exceedingly rare vocation for the time, particularly for her gender. She was also the first to make a personal imprint on the medium, given her key position in the impressionistic school of cinematography. Her decisive role stemmed not only from her writings and films within the French avantgarde, especially during the 1930s and early 1940s, when she functioned as a major cinema critic and theorist in the area of film esthetics, but also from her untiring efforts, as president of the Fédération des Ciné-Clubs de France, to popularize the new medium. During the height of her productive period, from 1920 to 1929, Dulac directed at least one film per year, later turning to the production of newsreels. Very little in her background would have suggested such an exotic career.

If I didn't make films, I would go into politics. Yes, I have become even more feminist since the last elections, since I saw the famous posters, you know the ones, where France, Serbia, and Romania are colored black, as the only countries where we don't vote. Women must vote. Write that.

—Germaine Dulac, in Ciné-Miroir (1925)

Germaine Dulac was born on November 17, 1882, at 16, rue Dufour, in the northern French town of Amiens, known for its important banking center and its beautiful 13th-century Gothic cathedral. The period was one of intense nationalism and of international rivalry propelled forward on the wings of colonial aspirations, engendered by the doctrine of social Darwinism and the "New Imperialism." All through the 1880s and 1890s, France acquired colony after colony in Africa and Southeast Asia, founding a new empire to rival that of her arch-foe, Britain. In Europe, her shameful loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, in 1871, still smarted, and many looked forward to revenge. On the home front, the country prospered as its economy expanded under the impact of the second industrial revolution, while politically, the nation became fragmented by a polarization of the major parties, and a rising socialist force. Such was the climate of Germaine Dulac's France.

Germaine's mother Madeleine-Claire Waymel stemmed from a middle-class family, composed mainly of career soldiers and industrialists. The career of her father, Pierre-Maurice Saisset-Schneider, as a captain of cavalry in the Second Army Corps largely determined the restless nature of her childhood, with its constant moving about. Typically, six months out of the year were spent in Paris, the rest either in Saint-Étienne or Compiègne (site of the 1918 armistice and the 1940 French capitulation to Germany), where Captain Saisset-Schneider served in garrison. This could not fail to create problems for Germaine's education, since she yearned to pursue serious studies and cultivate herself in the process. Finally, a solution was found, and Germaine moved to Paris permanently, where she lived with her grandmother in the rue Taitbout, subsequently devoting most of her time to the study of art, song, and music—especially Wagnerian opera—and, of course, photography. The artistic nature of her studies, in particular her love of music (Dulac was a gifted musician), were to have a profound influence on her later choice of themes, style as director, and theory of cinema.

In 1905, Germaine Saisset-Schneider married Marie-Louis Albert Dulac , whom sources variously describe as an agricultural engineer, novelist, or "littérateur." Immediately manifesting her later well-known independent spirit, she embarked on a career in journalism. By 1920, her marriage had ended in divorce.

Dulac began working for the feminist newspaper La Française in 1909, first as a journalist, later as an editor, staying on until 1913. Initially doing biographical sketches and writing up inter-views with famous women, one of her first assignments was to interrogate the fashionable poet and "Muse of the Republic," the beautiful and aristocratic Anna de Noailles . Once at the door of the countess' fashionable townhouse, however, Dulac panicked and interviewed Noailles' valet de chambre instead. Soon thereafter, she turned her talents towards theatrical criticism. This naturally increased her interest in cinema, for many stars of the stage, several of whom she had previously interviewed, were also making their debut on the silver screen. The analytical experience gained at this task, and contacts made within the acting community, were to prove valuable in her later career in cinema. During this period, Dulac, by now a militant suffragist, also occasionally contributed to another feminist newspaper, Marguerite Durand 's La Fronde.

The year 1914 not only marked a watershed for a whole generation of Europeans but was a turning-point in Dulac's career as well, for it was then that her actress friend Stacia Napierkowska introduced Dulac to the rudiments of filmmaking. Napierkowska invited her friend along to Rome to assist in the filming of Caligula for Film d'Art, an important debt Dulac later acknowledged.

Dulac's first film, Les Soeurs ennemis, was completed in 1915 and marked the debut of her commercial period, lasting until 1920. She herself was not happy with the results of her first directing efforts, later asserting she had "massacred" the talent of her female protagonist, Suzanne Desprès . While her next three films, Geo le mystérieux (with Jeanne Marken ), Vénus victrix, and Dans l'ouragan de la vie (starring her friend Napierkowska) attempted to walk the line between artistry and commercialism, Ames de Fous (1917) marked an important stage in the development of Dulac's style and theory. In the course of making this film, she realized that atmosphere, as against plain facts and action, was a most critical component for the emotional expression of cinema, and that the right atmosphere could be generated by using various techniques such as lighting, camera position, and editing—which she considered capital elements more important than the classical dramaturgical guidelines of theater. Charles Ford termed this appreciation a "lucid and intelligent view, rarely encountered during this period."

Louis Delluc, the leading film critic and avant-garde filmmaker who guided French cinema away from its prewar commercialism into the realm of art, wrote the script for La Fête espagñole, released in 1919, probably Dulac's best-known film. According to Jean Mitry, the film marked a major turning point in the history of French cinema. Whereas previous movies had always been adaptations of books or plays, this was the first film "thought in images" and based on a script conceived expressly for the medium. While critics praised the directing and screenplay, neither Dulac nor Delluc were completely satisfied with the results, since they had been unable to film completely on locale in Spain and had substituted with the French Riviera.

In December 1915, Dulac had founded her own film production company, "D.H.", or "Delia," in association with Irène Hillel-Erlanger , her first screenwriter. Dulac's husband had put up the initial capital of 12,000 francs and took over the administrative direction. The company was run on a shoestring budget, so that Dulac was sometimes forced to accept less than ideal scripts. With this company, she produced La Fête espagñole, La Cigarette, Malencontre, and La Belle Dame sans merci. According to Georges Sadoul—echoing the contemporary judgment of Delluc—the last of the series of films is a fine example of Dulac's work; she was "herself," not making commercialistic sacrifices to current infatuations of either the Latin or the American public. The latter, she had occasion to observe first hand in 1921, on a trip to the California movie studios to study the production methods pioneered by the American director-producer David Wark Griffith. In fact, she was not seldom disappointed and embittered by the artistic constraints placed on her work by commercial considerations. Although she dreamed of a commercial blockbuster that would buy her her artistic freedom, that blockbuster sadly never came.

Dulac's next film, La Mort du soleil, vigorously asserted her personal esthetics of cinema. She later claimed that it had "realized not a few of my ideas. I began to utilize what I will call technical acrobatics, since I believed that certain devices had a suggestive value equivalent to musical notes." The film itself was given only a tepid welcome by the public, who failed to appreciate her technique of psychological commentary on the state of mind of the protagonist, a scholar paralyzed by a cerebral congestion, and many movie houses simply cut out the offending sequence. Furthermore, Dulac's brilliance as a director was muted by the mediocrity of the script. In any event, the films between La Fête espagñole and La Souriante Madame Beudet, her next work, contributed significantly to the refinement of her technique as well as to her understanding of the importance of the actor's psychology.

In November 1923, La Souriante Madame Beudet, Dulac's 12th and most famous film out-side of France, opened in Paris. The film, considered her masterpiece, was based on a drama by André Obey and Denys Amiel and starred Germaine Dermoz , Arquillères and Madeleine Guitty . Obey's drama was particularly suited to an interpretation by Dulac because Obey, himself, had developed a theory of "silent theater," in which silence replaced dialogue and the thoughts of the actors replaced their words. Dulac subscribed to a similar theory in cinema; Sadoul characterized the film as one with "no action, or little: the life of a soul." It also very much suited Dulac's temperament and feminist persuasion, for the script revolved around the Bovaryistic fantasies of a bored provincial housewife married to a rather coarse petit-bourgeois merchant. The film focuses on the atmosphere and psychology of domestic conflict, which Dulac conveyed using all the contemporary technical and pictorial devices available. Standish Lawder noted one fine example of her technical prowess in the film: "an ingenious shot into a three-way dressing-table mirror beautifully catches the anguished introspection of a woman contemplating the murder of her husband." La Souriante Madame Beudet is not only a work of art, but also a historical document, a commentary on contemporary middle-class mores and the condition of women at the beginning of the 20th century. According to William Van Wert, Madame Beudet is depicted as "nothing more than a showpiece for her husband…. She is a victim, without future, without escape." The film also marked an important turning point in the evolution of Dulac's work, which had now clearly entered into the avant-garde, which she defined as:

every film in which the technique, utilized with the purpose of a new expression of image and sound, breaks with the established traditions, to seek out, in the visual and auditory domains, new pathetic chords. The avant-garde film does not address itself to the simple pleasure of the crowd. It is… egoistic, because [it is] the personal manifestation of a pure thought; altruistic, because [it is] disengaged from every care other than the desire for progress.

The second phase of her career in cinema had begun, and one of its characteristics was to be a willingness to compromise her avant-garde vision with hard commercial realities.

Dulac made her next film in 1923. Gossette was a serialized murder mystery in six episodes for Film d'Art, a purely commercial company. Though given a warm reception by contemporary critics for its superior technical production, she saw it as a compromise between cinema as art and cinema as a commercial operation. Indeed, it indicated a willingness to sacrifice some of her artistic ideals, both to popularize the avant-garde and because of her straitened financial situation. Le Diable dans la Ville, a medieval tale of how superstition takes hold of a whole village, soon followed. The film is notable as another example of Dulac's pioneering role in the use of new camera techniques, and Ford observed

that critics received it as the "conscientious work of a woman of taste."

Her next film, Ame d'artiste, was another financial compromise, in which Dulac agreed to work for the Franco-German film consortium run by Russian emigrants, Ciné-France-West. She directed the film, featuring Yvette Andreyor Gina Manès , Charles Vanel, Mabel Poulton and Nikolas Koline, in collaboration with Alexander Wolkoff. The piece was distinctly cosmopolitan, both in style and acting (the actors were French, English, Russian, and Serbian), and with its fabulous sets was considered a European super-production to rival Cecil B. De Mille's dazzling Hollywood extravaganzas. Still, the film knew no great commercial success.

With Antoinette Sabrier—the story of an industrialist torn between his wife and a younger woman—directed for Paramount, Dulac finally produced a highly successful exercise in combining the demands of an artistic aesthetic with a certain popular commercialism, and the film was even praised for its profound psychology, very much in the spirit of the avant-garde cinema.

Her next film, La Coquille et le Clergyman (1927), is now generally considered by cinema critics and historians to be the first Surrealist film, though it was not accepted as such by Surrealists of the 1920s. The film was certainly her most controversial, and perhaps misunderstood, work. In fact, Antonin Artaud, the Surrealist actor-writer who wrote the script, allegedly rejected Dulac's film as a "perversion" of his scenario, while other contemporary Surrealists equally denounced it. Van Wert's discussion of male-dominated Surrealist cinema themes, with their prevailing exaltation of aggressive male sexual fantasies and stereotypical women, frequently portrayed as either "castrating mothers or mindless nymphomaniacs," suggest that it was Dulac's departure from such images that earned her the criticism of having "feminized" the original script. The actual artistic relation-ship between Artaud and Dulac, however, is still debated. Lawder reported that in 1929 even the British Board of Film Censors rejected the film, stating that it was "so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable." Be that as it may, La Coquille et le Clergyman was a tour-de-force of Dulac's cinematographic technique. Writes Lawder:

The film is a veritable catalogue of avantgarde camera tricks, ranging from weirdly elongated images of the sexually frustrated clergyman moving in slow-motion, to shots of his hands grasping at the mirage of a lovely lady's bare neck, to an almost painfully literal description of a split-personality neurotic, his head dividing in two.

Dulac's next few films, particularly L'Invitation au Voyage (inspired by the French Symbolist poet Baudelaire) and La Princesse Mandane, can best be described as attempts at realizing her vision of "pure cinema," or, as she described it, "a cinema free from literary subjects, and whose only subject would be lines and volumes"; ideally, this should be a cinema composed according to the rules of a "visual music." She in fact often felt stifled by the contemporary aesthetic of cinema that required films to be based on known literature or theater, and summed up her own aesthetic in 1925 in a well-known comment on the theory of cinema:

The integral film that we dream of composing is a visual symphony made up of rhythmic images coordinated and projected on the screen solely by the feelings of an artist. A musician does not always compose under the inspiration of a story, but most frequently when inspired by a feeling.

Dulac's efforts at creating "pure" or "integral" cinema are best exemplified in her three last films as director, notably Disque 957 (an illustration of Chopin's work), Thèmes et Variations (inspired by classical melodies) and Etude cinématographique sur une arabesque (a cinematic evocation of a Debussy partition). All of these attempted a rhythmic visualization of music. In the latter film, she used a honeycombed mirror as a device to create multiple but identical images as a visual rendering of repeated musical notes; to underscore her didactical intentions, she cut in literal images of hands playing the piano.

In 1928–29, serious health problems, and the advent of the "talkies" with their new technology and esthetics that so troubled Dulac in her conception of cinema, put an end to the second phase of her career. She could not adapt to the changed medium, rejecting sound cinema on aesthetic grounds. This watershed ushered in the third phase of Dulac's career. Combining her experience in journalism with her cinematographic expertise, she turned to newsreels, directing first for the Société Pathé-Journal and then for Gaumont, until 1940. Dulac also directed her own newsreel production company, France-Actualités, which produced a weekly newsmagazine of world events, until 1935.

Dulac made a great impact both as a popularizer and a theoretician. As early as 1922, she was elected secretary of the Ciné-Club de France, later becoming president of the Fédération des Ciné-Clubs. Subsequently, she traveled widely in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, and Holland, explaining the new medium. A short documentary she made at about the same time is noteworthy because it became something of a trademark during her many speaking tours. Germination d'un haricot pioneered the use of time-lapse cinematography and depicted the growth of a tiny bean sprout pushing through the soil and unfolding its leaves. Ford reported that when she showed it as illustrative material at one of the many lectures given in Paris at the Vieux-Colombier, Colisée, Musée Galliéra, or Club du Faubourg, her admirers would jokingly quip, "Here comes Germaine Dulac with her beanstalk again!"

Dulac was also president of the Cinema Commission of the International Council of Women and treasurer of the Association of Film Authors. Her theoretical writings had a major impact on contemporary and later European filmmakers, notably in France, Russia, Poland and Italy, and she always militantly promoted the idea of cinema as art, sometimes incurring the enmity of those who saw this as a strict condemnation of commercial cinema. She clearly understood that a major difference between cinema and literature, or painting, was the necessity of the author to solicit major capital funding with a studio; it was a fact that the multiple consumption of the final product did sometimes necessitate certain artistic and aesthetic compromises. To make her views known, she published numerous articles on film theory and criticism in contemporary trade journals, including Le Film, Cinémagazine, Cinéa-Ciné pour tous, Schémas, l'Art cinématographique, and Le Rouge et le noir. With the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, and the censorship imposed by the Propagandastaffel, Dulac was forced to stop all professional activity.

A staunch feminist, Dulac battled mightily against the gender prejudices of her day in society at large. Delluc lavished praise on her first film, asserting that she was worth "more than a dozen of each of her colleagues…. But the cine ma is full of people… who cannot forgive her for being an educated woman… or for being a woman at all." Yet Dulac was made an officer of the Legion of Honor, a particularly striking attainment for a woman of her era. She died in the last days of July 1942, following a grave illness that had sapped her energy for some years.

While a final appraisal of Germaine Dulac's life and work is still restricted by the lack of a definitive scholarly biography, Charles Ford's verdict can be considered representative of contemporary academic opinion: "Tenacious, conscientious, efficient in her work as director; ardent, passionate, revolutionary in her mission as the apostle of a new art; she fought valiantly for the 'pure cinema.'… Convinced feminist, seduced by the socialist doctrine, [she was also] a woman of letters enamored of the theater and of music."


Bawden, Liz-Anne. The Oxford Companion to Film. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Boussinot, Roger, ed. L'Encyclopédie du Cinéma. 3rd ed. Vol 1. Paris: Bordas, 1989.

Ford, Charles. "Germaine Dulac," in Anthologie du Cinéma. Vol. 4. Paris: L'Avant-Scène, 1968.

Lawder, Standish D. The Cubist Cinema. NY: New York University Press, 1975.

Mitry, Jean. Histoire du cinéma: Art et Industrie, 1915–1925. Vol. 2. Paris: Encyclopédie universitaire, 1969.

Sadoul, Georges. Histoire Général du Cinéma: L'Art muet 1919–1929: L'Après-Guerre en Europe. Vol. 1. Paris: Denoël, 1975.

Thomas, Nicholas, ed. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol. 2. Directors. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991.

Van Wert, William. "Germaine Dulac: First Feminist Filmmaker," in Karin Kay and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1977, pp. 213–223.

suggested reading:

Ciné-Magazine. February 24, 1922; September 1927.

William L. Chew III, Professor of History, Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium