Back Into the Shadows

Part Six: Being the conclusion of our tale of madness and mayhem

Immediately after completing Les Vampires, Feuillade threw himself into his next feature, another original crime serial called Judex, using most of the same cast as Les Vampires. The slow move toward domestic melodrama that crept into the end of Les Vampires was front and center in Judex, partly because Feuillade was under heavy fire from critics who felt Les Vampires was simply too ghoulish, too in love with its criminals, too subversive. But largely it was because as 1914 wound down, it was becoming clearer and clearer that this skirmish between France and Germany – and subsequently Great Britain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Turkey, so on and so forth – wasn’t going to be a quick and clean affair. Over the next few years, the whole of Europe was sent through a meat grinder. By the end of the Great War, France lost nearly 1.4 million men in combat along the Western Front and another 40,000 civilians.

As is often the case, the tides of war also swept in a tide of conservatism, of “back to basic values” thinking in France that prized families and children. If Irma Vep was a part-time threat to the family unit when Les Vampires was being made, she was a threat to the whole of France under the new/old conservatism. So in Judex, which was delayed for release until 1916 because of the need to ramp up for the war effort, instead of a criminal master of disguises we are introduced to a mysterious avenger on the side of justice (if not the law), seeking to punish criminals who thrive beyond the reach of the police. Musidora’s femme fatale character was no longer an anarchic criminal pulling heists and hatching plots; now her primary purpose as the arm of evil was to disrupt the happy French family.

Villainous banker Favraux (Louis Leubas, who played Satanas in Les Vampires) has, through a series of merciless financial machinations, driven a rival to ruin and eventual suicide. The dead man’s son, Jacques de Tremeuse (René Cresté) reacts in the only logical way: by putting on a hat, mask, and cloak (if you’ve ever seen the pulp heroes the Shadow or the Spider, Judex is where their look comes from), calling himself Judex, and swearing bitter, destructive vengeance against Favraux and all those in positions of power who use their influence to exploit and crush the less fortunate. However, Judex’s revenge isn’t going to be all sinister laughing and smooth sailing, because Favraux has a daughter, Diana Monti (Musidora), who is just as batshit crazy as Judex. So begins a long and not always involving battle of wills between Judex and Diana, and eventually between Judex’s extended family and Diana.

Gone is the surreal pseudo-structure of Feuillade’s previous serials. In its place is a much more typical melodrama, complete with all the amnesia, vapors, country estates (as opposed to the apartments, streets, and nightclubs of metropolitan Paris), and threats to family melodrama entails. Judex himself is a move away from the intrepid reporters and dogged police inspectors of Fantômas and Les Vampires, just as Favraux and Diana are nothing like the scrappy apaches and self-made madmen. These are aristocrats battling other aristocrats, far removed from the dirty streets of the modern city. There are a lot more children with much more screen time. In the end, revenge gives way to redemption, at least for most of the characters. For the sin of living in flagrant disregard for the importance of family and marriage, Musidora’s nouvelle femme Diana is irredeemable.

It is, honestly, rather a disappointing follow-up to the delirium of Les Vampires. Regardless of one’s political leanings or opinions on the revival of French conservatism during the war, the focus on family and family values simply makes for less thrilling material. But, given the move toward family-focused melodrama in the final installment of Les Vampires itself, this shift isn’t unexpected or out of nowhere. Ever a canny commercial filmmaker, Feuillade sensed the social shift toward wartime conservatism, and Judex reflects a pulling back from the gleeful mayhem of Fantômas and Les Vampires. If the first represents the anxiety of pre-war France, and the second represents the confusion and anarchy of those early days of World War One, then Judex represents the fear and exhaustion of life during wartime, a circling of moral wagons and, amidst the insecurity and instability of life at the time, a retreat away from risky, daring social change and back into stable, recognizable institutions.

However, that isn’t to imply that Judex is without entertainment value. Judex himself has a well stocked cave full of gadgets and technology he uses to solve crimes and interrogate prisoners. His look inspired the Shadow and the Spider, but the idea of a masked vigilante detective in a cave using gadgets to crack cases had substantially farther reaching influence. And although she is set up as the modernized liberated woman who stands in stark opposition to all that is good and pure in the world (getting married and having children, as epitomized by Yvette Andréyor’s saintly Jacqueline), no amount of “family values” melodrama or government celebration of le feminisme integrale, urging women to produce lots of children (ghoulishly, to replace all the men being killed in the war) can contain the sheer magnetism and charisma of Musidora.

Lights Out

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about an event that occurred in the final minutes of the Great War. As recounted in Paul Fussell’s 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory, as the watch ticked down the final seconds of the war, troops from the British Fourth Army were suddenly startled by machine gun fire coming from the German trenches. It was sustained fire, an entire belt’s worth of ammunition, but not aimed at any particular target. As the gun’s ammo was exhausted, the final shot fired, “a single machine-gunner was then seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and turning about walk slowly to the rear.”

For anyone familiar with the history of what was then the Great War, or the War to End All Wars, but which is tragically known today simply as World War One, this finale is as sentimental as it is devastating. By that time, between August of 1914 and November of 1918, nearly 2 million German soldiers had died. Over a million troops from the United Kingdom had met the same fate, and something along the lines of 1.5 million French. Millions more were permanently maimed, and millions more still would die from post-war epidemics like the Spanish flu. Three empires — the Austro-hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman — were wiped out. Three more — the German, British, and French empires — had been dealt severe blows. Entire countries ceased to exist, with new ones drawn often hastily and without much regard for local considerations. The United States emerged from the conflict, into which had joined much later than other combatants, substantially stronger than when it entered. Japan also benefitted from the war, handily taking over German holdings in the Asian Pacific and adding to the prestige of having already trounced Russian at the beginning of the century. They began eyeing their neighbors on the Asian mainland and wondered if perhaps it wasn’t time for a Japanese empire.

But for most of Europe and North Africa, the First World War left the countryside ravaged, the cities emaciated, and the people shellshocked. It was a conflict unlike anything the world had seen and which only a few people had predicted would be as horrific as it ended up being. It was a war that boasts not one but two contenders (Verdun in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917) for the absolute worst battle in human history, ranked alongside the battle of Stalingrad during the Second World War and the Battle of Cannae, part of the Punic Wars between the Roman Empire and the armies of Carthage led by Hannibal in 216 BC. Although much of Europe had been spoiling for a fight in the years leading up to WWI, it was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality that solidified them as the aggressors, and it was that which led to the Treaty of Versailles, a lopsided agreement that inflicted so many punitive measures on Germany that many considered it a guarantee of future hostilities. American president Woodrow Wilson was horrified by it. French general Ferdinand Foch, who had been the supreme commander of Allied forces, thought the treaty attempted to punish German harshly without providing the nerve to back up the punitive measures. “This is not a peace,” Foch proclaimed after the signing of the treaty in June of 1919. “It is an armistice for twenty years.” The Second World War started twenty years and 64 days later.

In the two decades between the fall of Germany’s Kaiser and the rise of Adolf Hitler, Germany endured one of its most economically bleak periods in history. It also happened to be one of Germany’s most profound creative periods. The war had been harrowing, and the men who returned from it were not the same man who marched to it. Artists from across Europe and the United States flocked to Berlin, attracted as they so often are by the macabre and melancholy state of the defeated country’s capital. But that melancholy was perhaps not as melancholy as they thought. The end of the war also ushered in the beginning of the jazz age, and many Europeans had picked up a taste for this brash new American style of pop music, which had been carried to their shores when the United States entered the war in 1918. Then there was Prohibition, which scattered many American entertainers, artists, bartenders, and adventurers elsewhere in the world. Paris, the traditional epicenter of such artistic enclaves, was in the grips of a social conservatism the likes of which often crops up during wartime. But Berlin, defeated and disgraced Berlin, was suddenly in the throes of apocalyptic abandon that ushered in an era famous to this day for its artistic accomplishments and stunning decadence. Cross dressers, torch singers, drugs and booze, strip clubs and prostitution, writers’ circles and artists’ schools, self-discovery and self-destruction; we know it today as the Weimar era. As artists, hustlers, and dreamers flocked to Berlin, the nexus of important European filmmaking came with them, shifting away from Paris. In this crucible, a bizarre and unique cinematic philosophy known as Expressionism found its ultimate expression (so to speak) in the form of director Robert Wiene’s 1920 masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In 1925, at the age of just 52, Louis Feuillade passed away. It’s estimated that by the time of his death, he’d directed some 800 films for Gaumont. Although his work faded from the limelight with the introduction of sound film to Europe in the 1930s, neither Fantômas nor Irma Vep spent very much time in the “forgotten” category. They remained highly influential and popular, if only sporadically and among film fanatics. Some of the first people to celebrate the work of Louis Feuillade and revive his films – particularly Fantômas and Les Vampires as well as Pathé’s Les Mystères de New York – were the Surrealists. The Surrealist art movement grew out of dadaism and the psychoanalytical theories of Freud and emphasized, by way of the ever-popular manifesto (this one written in 1924 by André Breton), the need to shed the shackles of structure, tradition, and rationality and pursue art that captured the true and often baffling process of human thought or dreams. In Feuillade’s thrillers, they found something to champion, even though Feuillade himself was primarily a commercial filmmaker who considered himself a social and artistic conservative; at best, he was an accidental Surrealist.

The Woman in Black

After her work with Feuillade, Musidora moved behind the camera, directing a number of films of which only two are known to remain in existence: 1922’s Soleil et Ombre and 1924’s La Terre des Taureaux. She also produced and directed La Flamme Cachee in 1918, based on the writings of her friend Colette. Her image on screen is often couched in terms of the erotic, but for her it was more about assertiveness. She was, in nearly every way, the sort of independent, modern woman she depicted and which so terrified those prone to being terrified by feminism and liberation. In fact, though the role of Irma Vep causes her to frequently be compared to Theda Bara, in the end Musidora was much more a Mary Pickford, including a career as a writer and director and crusader for the rights of actors.

For all that she was the personification of what the French government wanted to stop women from becoming, she proved popular with the troops. Signed photographs and totems from Musidora were common among the personal effects of French soldiers hunkered down in the trenches. The government might have wanted women to be more Jacqueline in the name of the troops, but the troops definitely preferred Irma Vep. In a move that was a precursor to the same vocation adopted by silent screen star Louise Brooks, Musidora became a frequent writer for film journals. She was also one of the few stars at Gaumont who stood up to studio head Leon Gaumont, and she did for the same reason Mary Pickford rebelled against her studio handlers. As part of a contract dispute, Gaumont decided to drop the practice of including the names of actors in a film’s credits. Musidora was incensed, and confronted Gaumont in his office — an unheard of act! But for her, it was important that she not be Irma Vep or Diana or any of her characters. She loved them and embraced them, but they were not her. She was, then and always, simply Musidora.

In the 1950s, one who was attending a screening at Paris’ prestigious Cinematheque Francaise, one of the most famous film archives in the world, might have had one’s ticket taken by an aged woman with a keen passion for cinema and impressive knowledge of its most inner workings. It might not occur to the attendees to wonder about the woman. Just another senior citizen volunteer, nothing out of the ordinary. They would not suspect that, were they watching one of the revival screenings of Les Vampires, that the old woman who had sold them their ticket would also be up there on the screen, decades younger, creeping across the rooftops of old Paris in her iconic maillot de soie.

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