At the start of the 20th century, cinematographic projection halls began to multiply everywhere in Belgium, particularly in Brussels: from a simple object of curiosity, the cinema becomes the favourite popular entertainment. At the time of the June 1914 release of the very forward-looking Belgian film Maudite soit la guerre (War is hell) by French producer Alfred Machin, Belgium is a neutral country, at peace with its neighbours. It's still the "Belle Epoque", an untroubled time. The public enjoys its entertainment, keeping up with the adventures of Fantômas or Nick Carter in one of Belgium's 1200 cinemas. It is far, very far, from being able to imagine that it will soon be difficult not only to go out on the town, but also to find food, stay warm, live… Indeed, during the 50 months of the occupation, the German authorities expand both the censorship and the administrative red tape, on the one hand, as well as the gestures of goodwill intended to inject a little life and entertainment into the occupied Belgian cities, on the other. After initial hesitation, the public begins to return to performance hall and cinemas, not so much for the quality of the films being shown, but more for an evening's worth of low-cost heating and lighting! Despite having been interrupted by the conflict, the cinema industry will resume its formidable expansion as of the Liberation in November 1918. As though the Great War had only been a parenthesis? Not quite, since many patriotic films are there to recall the horrors of the war for quite some time.
Birth and expansion of cinema in Belgium
In Belgium, the first public demonstration of the Cinematograph, this curious projector of animated images invented by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895, takes place in Brussels, on 1 March 1896 ; this first showing is in the premises of the liberal daily newspaper La Chronique, located at n°7 de la Galerie du Roi, where public projections will then be held on a regular basis. Very quickly, given the modest necessary means (seats, a projector and a screen), small venues will appear here and there in most of the big cities and particularly in Brussels, along the commercial streets in the centre and the upper part of the city. However, these are not yet "cinemas", in the strictest sense: often located in theatres, former stores or workshops, restaurants or breweries, they naturally include a few rows of seats, but also tables for eating and drinking and a small area for the orchestra. Indeed, the films produced at this time are relatively short (between five and ten minutes) and their projection, every hour or half hour, is punctuated by concerts and performances. This expansion of the cinema industry is rather paradoxical, since as the number of venues increases, their lifespan is relatively short-lived. It isn't until 1905 in Brussels that the doors of the first real cinema open, namely the Théâtre du Cinématographe, at 110 Boulevard du Nord (current boulevard Adolphe Max); this venue can initially accommodate up to 156 seated spectators, then 216 after an initial enlargement in 1911.
At this time, the first films by Charlie Chaplin - Making a living and Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., shown in the United States in 1914 – and American films in general have not yet made their way across the Atlantic; in addition to newsreels, Belgian cinemas are more likely to show Italian, Danish and, especially, French films such as Les voyages à travers l’impossible by the fantastic Georges Méliès, the great forerunner of similar special effects, or the Fantômas (1913) series by Louis Feuillade. In fact, "serials", i.e. series of comic or police episodes shown each week, very quickly become a great success with the public, that also greatly appreciates the adventures of the "king of detectives" Nick Carter (1908) and of the dandy Max Linder (1910-1914). These are still the days of silent films, full of exaggerated expressions, interspersed with captions and set to music; they're also in black and white, though colourized images are slowly starting to appear. This decade starting in 1900 also sees the emergence of the first networks of cinemas developed by the famous French companies Pathé and Gaumont (still active in this sector today), and also by the Belgian entrepreneur Louis Van Goitsenhoven… In time, the cinema ceases to be a simple curiosity and becomes, though at times ignored by the more comfortable classes that consider it to be vulgar, the ideal popular performance. As such, just before the start of the war, Belgium has nearly 1200 cinematographic projection halls.
"Serials", i.e. series of comic or police episodes shown each week, become a great success with the public, that also greatly appreciates the adventures of Fantômas, Nick Carter (1908) and Max Linder.
The German occupier arrives… and so does censorship!
Just like theatres and other performance halls, cinemas close their doors as of the start of the hostilities, in August 1914, but in September are forced by the German authorities to reopen them in order to inject some semblance of life and entertainment into the occupied cities… This generous attitude is not without conditions, however, since on 13 October 1914, censorship is established not only for the written press, but also for all forms of media: "Theatrical presentations, recitations of any kind whether sung or spoken, as well as cinematographic luminous projections or other projections, can only be organised when the theatrical performances, recitations or luminous projections in question have been approved by the censor." The German order, signed by governor general von der Goltz, also indicates that any violators, including spectators, will be punished according to martial law! There is great agitation within the Chambre syndicale de la Cinématographie (Cinema Association) that, three days later, holds an extraordinary general meeting during which certain operators recommend the immediate closing of cinemas, while others mention financial interests and the future of their personnel. The association finally leaves it up to each cinema to choose its fate, with most cinemas reopening in order to organise projections for the benefit of philanthropic charities. However, amusement is not uppermost in the minds of the population, a large part of which experiences dramatic destitution after the departure of the soldiers and the closing of certain plants, leading to mediocre receipts.
On 31 January 1915, the German authorities decide that in addition to the civil servants and agents normally in charge of monitoring performances, officers from the Kommandantur will also monitor these venues. Then, on 20 March, as part of the flamenpolitik (Flemish policy), they oblige operators to show their films with titles and captions in Dutch. The cinema association protests to the Governor general, but the measure is maintained and even strengthened: the censorship service henceforth monitors the accuracy of the translated titles and captions, with any error being assumed to be deliberate on the part of the operators, resulting in the seizure of the film, at best, and of the cinema itself, at worst. Retaliatory measures are also applied against the States at war with Germany, with the protection of their films in Belgium being prohibited, and the performance venues belonging to their citizens being embargoed. This is therefore the case of the Pathé group, the Brussels installations of which cease to operate under the French flag: the Pathé-Palace, near the Bourse, transforms into an operetta theatre run by the Belgian star Angèle Van Loo, who is forced to produce at least two German or Austrian operettas each year. The Théâtre Pathé, located at 152 boulevard du Nord, is taken over by a certain Union Théâtrale Belge that shows production by Nordisk Film in Copenhagen. Neutral and rather pro-German, Denmark comes to occupy quite a favoured position on the Belgian market.
Cinematographic luminous projections can only be organised when the luminous projections in question have been approved by the censor.
German order of 13 October 1914
More than a source of entertainment, a source of heat
Deprived of French films, inundated by German films and exasperated by the censorship, many cinemas increasingly intersperse their projections with variety acts… while others convert completely into theatres or cabarets, such as the Vieux Bruxelles (25 rue de Malines), La Cigale (37 rue Neuve) and the Kursaal Brasserie (13-15 rue Neuve). Others manage to enlarge, such as the Excelsior (13 rue Haute) and the Palace (62 rue du Pont-Neuf) ; once again, the difficulties of the occupation are felt notably through the shortage of construction materials… Nevertheless, as the German occupation drags on, the public once again begins to look for entertainment, and returns to the cinemas. The crowds are so big that, on 16 May 1916, the German authorities slyly decide to increase the tax on the proceeds from performance venues to 10%, while also – and surprisingly – granting 1/8 of the proceeds of the tax to the provinces and 3/8 to the communities.
The winter of 1916-1917 then arrives, during which temperatures fall as far as -15°; the population fills the cinemas but pays little attention to the programme, interested more in the low-cost heating and light. Indeed, cinema operators don't hesitate to play on this sensitive point, as demonstrated by this leaflet from January 1917: "Would you like to save money? It's a possibility open to everyone wishing to reduce their expenses in these difficult times that we are currently experiencing. Below are some of the prices of current lighting and heating methods. Namely: coal 80 francs per tonne ; gas 15 centimes per m³ ; oil 6.50 francs per litre ; carbide 4 francs per kilo ; candle 1.50 francs per unit (= Stock Market price). When we realise that the exorbitant prices attained by some of these basic necessity products are not a dream, but rather a very sad reality, there is only one thing to do: spend your evenings at the cinema, where for 30 centimes, you can sit where you like, with heat, lighting and entertainment all that the same time, the ideal solution for these winter nights." In Brussels, a German decree orders the closing of schools, which affects nearly 30,000 children whose parents, rather than keep them at home with no heating, send them to spend the day at the cinema… This influx of minors does not fail to disquiet the moralists who insist that the community authorities of Anderlecht and Etterbeek should prohibit the cinema to children under the age of 16 years, except for performances especially intended for them, whereas in Brussels-City, the first school cinema opens in September, in the premises of the community school in the rue Rempart-des-Moines. A meeting is then held at city hall, with approximately 100 people from the judicial branch and the educational world railing against the cinema as being unsuitable and even unhealthy for minors.
… Spend your evenings at the cinema, where for 30 centimes, you can sit where you like, with heat, lighting and entertainment all that the same time, the ideal solution for these winter nights.
The Liberation and its proliferation of patriotic films
The moralists include a certain Hippolyte De Kempeneer, a cinematographer and founder, back in 1913, of the Ligue du Cinéma moral (Moral Cinema League), the key idea of which was to convince burgomasters to allow cinemas to open only if their operators have agreed to comply with the League's principles. He also manages the Cinéma des Familles, located in the rue de la Colline, a stone's throw from the Brussels Grand’Place, and he produces films on current events, under the occupation, in his development and printing laboratory installed in the basement of his cinema. He also creates the Compagnie belge des Films instructifs with which he produces educational films (La Belgique historique, La Belgique géographique et pittoresque, La Belgique agricole etc.) that will have little success amongst young people who have been perverted, he says, by the likes of Nick Carter, Fantômas and other masked heroes such as Judex by Louis Feuillade, released in 1917… However, in secret, Hippolyte De Kempeneer films Le mystère de la Libre Belgique that tells the story of this conservative Catholic weekly newspaper that was sold through clandestine channels during the conflict; shown after the Liberation, it is naturally quite a great success. He also produces several patriotic films including La Belgique martyre (1919) by Charles Tutelier, a 5-part drama about a country family torn apart by the Great War, and Âme belge (1921) by Armand du Plessy, to the glory of corporal Léon Trésignies and in which the actor Marcel Roels plays an English spy in the best tradition of the serials.
Films paying homage to Belgian heroes also do well and please the public, such as Le martyre de Miss Cavell (1918), the English nurse shot by the Germans for helping with the escape of Belgian soldiers; La libre Belgique et l’héroïque Gabrielle Petit (1920), a Belgian nurse shot for espionage; or Jeune Belgique (1920) that recounts the martyrdom of young Yvonne Vieslet, 10 years old, killed for having given her cake to a French prisoner. Little remains of all of these films; it would nevertheless seem that they were more of a mix of acted scenes and documents borrowed from the current newspapers, rather than genuine films with a screenplay. In the aftermath of the War, the objective was naturally to glorify the heroes and to denounce the atrocities committed by the occupier! As such, German films – now prohibited – quickly give way to anti-German films with often very evocative titles: Le Kaiser, la brute de Berlin shown at the Victoria Palace in March 1919, Ruse d’Alsacienne at the Cinéma des Princes in July 1919 and Mes quatre années en Allemagne by the former ambassador of the United States to Berlin, James W. Gerard, at the Cinéma Empire in January 1920. Finally, we note that the Belgian army's Cinematographic service used the Palais du Trocadéro (boulevard de la Toison d’Or), in March 1919 to show L’Armée belge en campagne that, for the first time, presented the harsh realities of the Yser front; for Belgians kept in the dark during the 50 months of the occupation, the shock is complete…
In the aftermath of the War, the objective was naturally to glorify the heroes and to denounce the atrocities committed by the occupier! As such, German films – now prohibited – quickly give way to anti-German films.