The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, centered as they were on a concert venue, might make us wonder about the city’s history of violence like this at places of popular entertainment, including the movies. Going to a cinema in Paris typically has been a fairly benign affair, although a great deal went on there besides just watching movies.
At least from the late-1920’s to the 1950’s, from humor magazines to government inquiries, there was a great deal of interest in France in exactly what took place at the movies, from sleeping to eating to reading newspapers to gossiping and any number of other activities. And also, there were occasional outbreaks of violence. We know, for instance, that during the Occupation the cinema became a convenient place for Nazis to round up Jews or resistance fighters. In those cases, the venue itself—and it would seem that this motivated the more recent terrorists, too—was an irresistible one, with hundreds or thousands of people concentrated there at any one time. Sometimes, however, the movie itself, rather than the location, might seem to motivate actions anywhere from unusually aggressive to extremely violent. Three such outbreaks, perhaps related to each other, took place in Parisian cinemas between December 1930 and January 1931.
The most celebrated incident happened first, when the right-wing Ligue des Patriotes destroyed the screen and attacked viewers at the Studio 28 cinema in the eighteenth arrondissement during a showing of Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’or.
Just a few weeks later, there was a weekend of escalating disruption and violence in Paris cinemas. On Saturday evening, 17 January, spectators at the Mozart-Pathé in the sixteenth arrondissement whistled derisively when the image of Théodore Steeg came on screen, apparently in a newsreel. Steeg had had a long career as a colonial official, and in December had been elected the head of a new, left-wing French government, replacing that of the more moderate André Tardieu. The next day, during a matinee at the Aubert-Palace on the boulevard des Italiens in the ninth arrondissement, a group of young men tore up the movie screen, once again, it seems, when Steeg’s image appeared, probably in the same newsreel that had played at the Mozart.
The angry young men at the Aubert may have been more prepared for action than the viewers at the Mozart who hissed and whistled at Steeg. That audience was there to watch Atlantis, a French-language version of a British film based on the story of the Titanic, along with the 1927 Laurel and Hardy silent short about World War One, Les Gaités de l’infanterie (With Love and Hisses). The much more agitated audience at the Aubert had come to see a very different kind of film about the war, G.W.Pabst’s Quatre de l’Infanterie (Westfront 1918).
This bleak anti-war film about four doomed members of the German infantry was a very big deal when it opened in Paris, exclusively at the Aubert, in December 1930. Critics claimed that it was a fitting and important followup to A l’ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front), which already had been drawing large crowds for months at the Ermitage cinema on the Champs-Elysées. As with other popular films playing at single cinemas, people came from all over Paris to see Quatre de l’Infanterie. On the day of the torn screen, police arrested two young men, both from working-class districts fairly far from the Aubert: a sixteen-year old who lived on the boulevard Barbès in the eighteenth arrondissement and a twenty-nine year old accountant from rue Capri in the twelfth.
If either of them had just wanted to go to the movies, they would have had any number of choices within easy walking distance of their homes. In particular, the eighteenth arrondissement was full of cinemas, with 17 showing programs that week. Just to get to the Aubert, each of the men would have had extended metro rides, and the bus routes were even more complex. They were, quite obviously, eager to see the film. Their motivation for doing so might be a little less clear.
A number of Parisian newspapers covered the events at the Mozart and Aubert cinemas that weekend, reporting on them together, with the newsreel images of Steeg serving as the link. Some reports refused to name the men arrested for the crime at the Aubert. At least one, in Le Petit Parisien, provided their names and addresses. But only one source that I’ve found identified the men ideologically. According to the communist newspaper L’Humanité, both men were fascists, just like the toughs who wrecked Studio 28 when L’Age d’or played there.
L’Humanité called them “troublemakers” (troublions) and “thugs” (voyous) egged on by the far-right political movement and newspaper Action Française, and then lamented that they would certainly be released soon from police custody.
The newspaper likened the event to the destruction of Studio 28, which had led to the stunning decision to suppress further screenings of L’Age D’or. According to L’Humanité, the fascists just kept winning.
The precise relationship between the three incidents at important Parisian cinemas is difficult to determine. The same voyous at the Aubert may or may not have been at the Mozart the night before, and at Studio 28 a few weeks earlier. And it’s unclear whether any of them could have known which newsreel would be playing at the Mozart or the Aubert, because those short actualités tended not to turn up in the typical movie advertisements or listings. There is no question, though, that Quatre de l’Infanterie alone was enough to attract a politically motivated crowd, from both the right and the left of Parisian politics.
In fact, just a couple of weeks before the Aubert attack, the socialist Club du Faubourg held an apparently open conference to discuss the possibilities of a war in Europe. There was a diverse list of speakers from across the political spectrum, including military officials, and the event would end with a discussion and debate about both of the pacifist films then playing in Paris, A l’ouest rien de nouveau and Quatre de l’Infanterie. The club met at 15 boulevard de Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement, just a few blocks away from where the sixteen-year old assailant at the Aubert lived, on the boulevard Barbès. We can easily imagine that he might have been at the meeting, or would certainly have known about it, and would have had his interest piqued in a film so important to the Parisian left.
After all of the initial excitement about the events on the weekend, both of the men arrested seem to disappear from the available public record. Pehaps L’Humanité was right, and they were quickly released and no charges were pressed. Or there may have been more compelling news to report—there is no shortage of sensational murders in the Parisian press from the period. And just a few days after the events at the Mozart and the Aubert, on 22 January 1931, Steeg himself was voted out of office after only five weeks as head of the government. A l’ouest rien de nouveau and Quatre de l’Infanterie continued to play in Paris, apparently without incident. But the events of December 1930 and January 1931 at three different cinemas in the city remind us of the long history that links violence—and especially right wing violence—and Parisian sites of leisure and popular culture.