Interview with Christian Delage

August 28, 2012 | By French Culture & CUNY TV

John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens… three names more evocative of Hollywood entertainment than of the dark memory of the Second World War. But it is that experience, and its impact on the careers of these three men is explored in the exhibition, “Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg”, currently on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.

The exhibition was created by Memorial de la Shoah in Paris in 2010 and curated by Christian Delage, a documentary filmmaker and history professor at the University of Paris VIII, who took some time to share his thoughts about the exhibition and the work of these three film-makers…

How did these Hollywood directors enlist?

Their three situations were different, because John Ford and George Stevens were already professional filmmakers, while Fuller was about to become a filmmaker.

Ford was in the Navy Reserve, and in the beginning of the war he was asked by the colonel Donovan to create a team of photographers and cameramen.

As for Stevens, he created the Special Coverage Unit (SPECOU) in 1943, at the request of General Eisenhower. The SPECOU was more or less under the control of the Film Photographic Branch, directed by Ford, which itself was under the control of the secret services. Those teams were nicknamed “The Hollywood Irregulates”, which means that they were independent from the army even if they worked by its side. Only Samuel Fuller was a real soldier, a member of the Big Red One (the famous infantry division): and he filmed everything for himself, from the German counteroffensive to the Falkenau camp, with a camera his mother had sent him.

Then what was your “red thread” to relate them together?

I chose those three filmmakers because all of them share an experience of war as well as a professional experience of filmmaking. What is interesting is that, despite their different situations, the three of them had a personal 16 mm camera, and filmed for themselves, somehow “doubling” the official images. And what is fascinating is that Fuller, even without special instructions, did the same as Stevens and Ford! All of them filmed the events with the same kind of ethic, what I call “the right distance”, which truly defines “the artist’s point of view” on the world.

You emphasized the fact that Samuel Fuller’s work was deeply influenced by his first experience of filming the war and the camps. What about the two other filmmakers?

There is no possible comparison between Fuller and the others on that point, because he is the only one who did an autobiographical film strictly derived from his war experience (The Big Red One, 1980). However, it was also a founding experience for Stevens, who directed The Diary of Ann Frank in 1959 and later returned to Dachau with his son, and for Ford who later founded a house dedicated to war paraplegic veterans.

This exhibition on American filmmakers, which was first created in France, is now in the United States but still presented by a French curator… What does this whole project tell us about the French-American relationships?

It simply tells us that I am a great admirer of the United States and of Barack Obama… That being said, I am not the first French to be interested in American mainstream cinema. The paradox is that French people are those that have fought the most against the imperialism of American movies, and those that love them the most! And often, they are better connoisseurs of American mainstream cinema than Americans themselves, who take it as simple entertainment. Using the example of Samuel Fuller again, he was completely supported by Les Cahiers du Cinéma and the French critic, even after he left the Hollywood circuit.

“Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg,” is on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage until October 14.

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