Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Toute la Misere Du Monde": Eli Lotar's Aubervilliers and a Sense of Place

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Toute la Misere Du Monde": Eli Lotar's Aubervilliers and a Sense of Place

Article excerpt

Paris, the center; the banlieues, the circumference; to these children, this is the whole world. They never venture beyond it. They can no more live out of the atmosphere of Paris than fish can live out of water. For them, nothing exists beyond the city gates. Ivry, Gentilly, Arcueil, Belleville, Aubervilliers, Menilmontant, Choisy-le-Roi, Billancourt, Meudon, Issy, Vanves, Sevres, Puteaux, Neuilly, Gennevilliers, Colombes, Romainville, Chatou, Asnieres, Bougival, Nanterre, Enghien, Noisy-le-Sec, Nogent, Gournay, Drancy, Gonesse; these are the end of the world.

--Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)

Place-names (toponyms) align experience with the measurement of physical space associated with location (geography) and maps (cartography). The fact that all of the place-names listed above can still be found on maps of greater Paris enhances their evocative force a century and a half after Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables. Belleville thus conjures up generations of emigrants newly arrived from Europe, Asia, and Africa; Ivry, a psychiatric clinic where the poet, actor, and theater director Antonin Artaud spent the last two years of his life; and Menilmontant, Dinitri Kirsanoff's 1926 silent film starring Nadia Sibirskaia. Like the film critic Andre Bazin some twenty-five years earlier, the writer Didier Daeninckx spent time as a young adult in the 1970s screening films in schools and youth centers on the northern outskirts of Paris. Recalling the stint, Daeninckx has stated that he often introduced feature-length films by Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, and Jean Renoir by screening Eli Lotar's Aubervilliers, a 1946 documentary he considered a tribute to the town--among those listed by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables--where he had attended primary and secondary schools. (1)

Because Lotar's film depicted the gritty atmosphere that Daeninckx would later evoke in his own fiction, he wondered why it was not better known among those who lived there. The historian Tyler Stovall begins his study of Bobigny, immediately to the east of Aubervilliers, by noting that turn-of-the-century perceptions of areas in and around the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth arrondissements among inner-city Parisians ranged from a terra incognita to the citadel of "an organized and vengeful proletariat, the barbarians waiting outside the gates of the city." (2) What Stovall calls the red belt of working-class neighborhoods in north and northeast Paris includes a number of locales in which Daeninckx sets his fiction. It also overlaps with sections of la Zone, a thirty-five-kilometer-long ring of shanty towns that sprang up in the mid-1850s between military fortifications built a decade earlier and the ring of outlying towns (communes) and villages (faubourgs) Victor Hugo had described in Les Miserables as the end of the world. Stephen Barber reinforces this sense of the area as foreign and threatening when he characterizes Aubervilliers in the 1990s as a vast non-city of non-citizens beyond Paris. (3)

This article situates Eli Lotar's photography and filmmaking within avant-garde visual cultures in France between 1928 and 1946. To this end, I take a first cue from efforts by narrators of Daeninckx's crime novels (neo-polars) to disclose the causal trajectory of what appears at first to be a minor incident or crime. A second cue builds on Michel de Certeau's assertion that every story is a travel story and thus a spatial practice. (4) What, then, does Lotar's cinematic treatment of place in his 1946 film disclose about the town of Aubervilliers? And how might a clearer understanding of Aubervilliers provide insight into practices of social cinema in France dating back to the late silent era?

Documentaries by Georges Lacombe, Boris Kaufman, Andre Sauvage, and Marcel Carne completed between 1928 and 1930 broke with newsreel, travelogue, and scientific-educational modes of nonfiction film. They did this by means of visual treatments of Paris and Parisians that departed from picture-postcard accounts of the city in dozens of fiction and nonfiction films produced during the same period. …

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