The Paris Cinema Project

Fretting about the impact of American cinema had become a constant and popular pastime in Paris by the 1930s, among intellectuals, artists, and government bureaucrats. Their concerns were of course cultural, about the apparent effects of foreign films on the national patrimony, but they also were often primarily economic. Far too many important Parisian exhibition sites, for example, seemed to specialize in American films, making it that much more difficult for French movies to find an audience or to make any money (see my post from August 27th, 2016, at https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/539). Various interested parties made similar complaints outside of Paris, too, but there were other areas in France, on the country’s eastern periphery in particular, where the enemy of French cinema was not so much Hollywood but Berlin, and the popularity of German films.

An extraordinary degree of regulation marked the French cinema from the period, matched only by the level of chaos in the industry that French lawmakers sought to control. Myriad film companies and exhibition chains went in and out of business, exhibitors complained about exorbitant taxation, and an ad hoc system of censorship rules came and went, while the government vigorously kept track of everything and kept passing more laws. 

In its issue of May 27th, 1939, the Journal Officiel de la République Française, a record of lois et décrets, reviewed a new law that fixed the price of gas masks during time of war at seventy francs; addressed the recent budget decree by the minister of education; and, among many other things, ran three pages of analysis of the film exhibition sites throughout the Bas-Rhin and the Haut-Rhin, which, combined, made up that section of France on the Rhine River in Alsace, and sharing a border with Germany.

journalofficiel-5-27-39

The cinemas of Strasbourg, with their “authorized” and “required” percentages of German and French films, from the Journal Officiel de la République Française, May 27, 1939

The region was composed mostly of the cities of Strasbourg, Metz, and Mulhouse, as well as surrounding areas, or arrondissements; Strasbourg-Campagne, d’Erstein, Haguenau, Thann, and many, many others.   In the example of the largest city in the region, the Journal listed Strasbourg as having a dozen cinemas. There may have been others that didn’t figure in the Journal’s accounting, but given that Strasbourg had around 250,000 people, that number may have been accurate, with one cinema for every 20,000 or so residents. The official language of Strasbourg was French, but many there spoke Alsatian, a variant of German, with French law determining how many German-language films the city’s cinemas could show, and how many French films they were required to run.

The government mandated that the Arcades cinema there, for example, might show no more than ten percent German films, while ninety percent had to be in French. The same numbers held for most of the cinemas in Strasbourg, except for two, the Palace and the U.T., which might run German films up to sixty-five percent of the time, and another, the Eldorado, which was authorized to go as high as seventy-five percent.

Administrators emphasized a significant difference in the language of the law. The percentage of French films was “required” (exigé), while the number of German films was simply “authorized” (autorisé). My best guess, then, is that American films, or British, or those from any other country, counted against the German total. The government understood that most of the films in Strasbourg, from anywhere other than France, would come from Germany, but that the authorized number included all foreign films. The percentage of French films indicated an absolute requirement, protecting the domestic film market.

Arcades-Strasbourg

The Arcades cinema in Strasbourg, around 1925

In the areas just around Strasbourg, the government typically allowed cinemas to show more films from Germany, perhaps a sign of more German or Alsatian speakers in those regions. The same was true for Metz, where all of the cinemas except one were capped at ten percent German films, while outside the city the cinemas might show anywhere from thirty-to-sixty percent. 

The day-to-day evidence of German films in Alsace can be difficult to come by. The only available newspapers from Strasbourg, for example, are in German, and while they tend to run extensive radio schedules, none of them lists anything about the films playing there. There is, however, L’Express de Mulhouse, covering the city that was just south of Strasbourg and with about half the population. The Journal Officiel listed twelve cinemas there, with the Moderne at the low-end of allotted German product at two percent, and the Central at the high-end with fifty-five percent. L’Express typically announced the shows for at least a few of those cinemas, so we know that, during the week of November 13, 1937, four of the five cinemas listed ran French films, including Jean Renoir’s La Grande illusion (1937) at the Palace, with only one, the Casino, showing a film from Germany, Flitterwochen (1936), which starred the Austro-Hungarian actress Anny Ondra, who was popular throughout France during the thirties. Just a year earlier, for the week of December 6, 1936, L’Express listed five cinemas once again, and this time two, the Casino and also the Odéon, had booked films from Germany, Singende Jugend (1936) and Leutnant Bobby (1935). From a look at a series of examples from L’Express, these same patterns seem to hold for most of the decade.  Of course, at least occasionally, the precise definition of a German film might vary. At the end of December, 1932, the Odéon cinema in Mulhouse ran Mam’zelle Nitouche (1931), directed by French filmmaker Marc Allégret and featuring the great French star Raimu. The film had been produced by a German company, however (a not uncommon practice at the time), and there were probably versions made in both French and German, and possibly with different casts. L’Express advertised Mam’zelle Nitouche as a “film spoken and sung in German” (film parlant et chantant allemand). What isn’t clear is whether this film counted against the Odéon’s forty percent authorization of German films or would be included in its sixty percent requirement for French movies.

L'Express de Mulhouse 11-13-37

Listings of some of the cinemas in Mulhouse, with the Palace showing La Grande illusion, from L’Express de Mulhouse, November 13, 1937

By early in the next decade, these distinctions hardly mattered.  A little more than a year after that issue of the Journal Officiel de la République Française, in June 1940—just nine months after the beginning of the war in Europe–France surrendered to Germany. From then until the liberation in August 1944, the French cinema was, in fact, German cinema. Nazi authorities controlled which prewar French films could be shown in Paris or elsewhere in the country, they ran German films on French screens, and they established a production company, Continental Films, to produce French movies. The entire Alsace region, which the French government tried so hard to protect from the influence of German movies, was simply taken over by Germany, absorbed within its own border, for the duration of the war.

Corso Mulhouse 1955

A 1955 photo of the Corso cinema in Mulhouse, which in the late-1930s was authorized to show five percent German films and ninety-five percent French