Facts and alternative facts on Mata Hari on film

real-mata-hari-aurel  real-mata-hari-gaumont-luce-sapphire

Figure 1. 14-18 (Jean Aurel 1963). Courtesy LUCE/EFGG1914. Figure 2. Paris après 3 ans de guerre (Gaumont 1917). Courtesy Gaumont.

Mata Hari was famous for own fabulation of her oriental past and scandalous present. Myth and reality converged in ever changing combinations, which impressed many, but also caused her serious troubles during her notorious trial, leading to her execution by the French as spy for the enemy. However, the afterlife of Mata Hari also seems to have been afflicted by this mythologization. Some myths can be very persisting because we so dearly want to find them or hold on to them. I’d like to show this by two examples. I present the first example in this post.

Since late 2016 I have been involved in the search of filmic materials for the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition, which will open at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, on 14 October this year and will run until 2 April 2018. While still materials of Mata Hari are abundant: gorgeous coloured postcards, studio photos by prominents such as Emilio Sommariva, actuality photos etc., but what lacked were moving images. With a woman who was such a society figure between 1905 and the First World War, one asks himself why Pathé, Gaumont or any other prominent company did not film this woman, whose oriental dances had caused such a stir in Paris and beyond, and who was the mistress of many a prominent figure in politics, finance and culture?

Thus in films on her life or compilation films on the First World War  a clip persisted of a fashionable lady helped in her coat by a doorman. She afterwards steps into a luxurious car with chauffeur and is driven away. This clip, coined as being with Mata Hari, has been used over and again as real footage with Mata Hari. Even the respectable site EFG1914, supported and replenished by various European Film Archives, including the Dutch EYE, holds a compilation film that contains the same clip. It may be well have been the original culprit of the massive reuse and mythologization of ‘real’ film footage with Mata Hari. The compilation film uploaded by LUCE is the Italian version of 14-18 (1963) by French filmmaker Jean Aurel. The commentary states we notice Mata Hari here, helped into a taxi. The image quality was too poor to recognize any person. So where did Aurel did take it from? Could I get a better image quality?

Researching this clip was quite an adventure. I first contacted the CNC (Centre National pour la Cinématographie) near Paris, where Béatrice Paste kindly indicated me the compilation 14-18 by Aurel was a Gaumont production and CNC had recently digitized the film. Paste advised me to contact the Cinémathèque Gaumont. So I contacted curator Manuela Padoan who referred me to Nathalie Sitko, who proved to be an avid documentalist and helpful researcher. In the mean time I searched myself on the site of Pathé-Gaumont-Archives. There I found the compilation documentary Paris après 3 ans de guerre (1917) by Gaumont, which contained the same clip, but now without any indication of Mata Hari. The description on the Gaumont site just said:”Au pied d’un escalier, une femme élégante (bourgeoise) enfile son manteau aidé d’un maître d’hôtel, elle attend son véhicule et monte dans l’automobile.” The film had been uploaded in HD, so the image quality was really good. Still, I had my doubts whether this was really the famous Mata Hari. My doubts proved to be right.

Nathalie Sitko confirmed me that in Paris après 3 ans de guerre there is no indication of Mata Hari. Soon after she wrote me that the woman in the clip is not at all Mata Hari, but really Mademoiselle Luce Saphir of the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. The clip originally comes from a short fashion film by Gaumont dating from 1916:  La mode à Paris. Mademoiselle Luce Saphir, artiste au Theatre du Palais Royal. Title on the film is: “Mode: Mlle Luce Saphir du Palais Royal présente les modèles Paquin, dans un parc parisien.” The full fashion film is visible on the Pathé-Gaumont website (restricted vision). Presumably this actuality was part of a newsreel. Luce Saphir, a rather unknown artist of the French revue and operetta, demonstrates in this clip and additional ones the newest fashion by Paquin in a park in Paris. So instead of witnessing one of the most notorious women of the Parisian Belle Epoque, we are watching a precursor of the nowadays so popular phenomenon of the fashion film. A young and proud woman, standing on a terrace at the foot of outdoor stairs, shows off her clothes and waves to a roofless, upcoming taxi, which holds another woman, apparently a lady friend, whom she greets. A fancy doorman helps her in an elegant coat before she enters the car and drives away. The whole narrative is staged and just an alibi for showing off the woman’s wardrobe. The shot perfectly matches the other shots of this fashion film as visible on the Gaumont website, showing Saphir strolling in the park while displaying her fashionable outfits. It also reminds of other fashion actualities by Gaumont and Pathé in general in the 1910s in which fashionable ladies casually meet in the park and show off, as José Teunissen so well illustrated in her compilation film Mode in Beweging (1992).


~ by Ivo Blom on March 3, 2017.

4 Responses to “Facts and alternative facts on Mata Hari on film”

  1. Interesting research. Well done.

  2. Thanks for the succesful effort in annihilating the last remaining piece of ‘evidence’ about Mata-Hari on film. One remaining question: did you come across any reasonable hypothesis about the ‘why’ of this sorry state of affairs? One would expect her to have an immediate love affair with the brand new (and soon to become glamerous) medium of film. Imagine her moon dance with all the swirling mouvements being filmed! And all her rich friends who could have afforded financing a Mata-Hari performance on film with ease. Any idea?

    • I fear the answer on the fake clip is, that because of the lack of any footage with Mata Hari, it is like with Van Meegeren: you fill in the gap. Of course, Mata Hari was between 1905 and 1914 a celebrity and society figure in Paris, so she could easily have been filmed by the Pathé or Gaumont newsreels. She loved clothes, so it would not have been surprising if a film company would have used her for fashion footage. On the other hand, she was not the kind of women to be found in family gatherings, so in early home movies like those of Sarah Bernhardt and the like. I am pretty sure that Mata Hari disliked what early cinema (pre-1910) showed on film, as this was generally less sophisticated than on stage, and considered low-brow. With the film d’art cinema of 1908-1909 and the long feature film the reputation improves and some stage actors are willing to contribute, though the Comédie française remained quite anti-cinema. On the other hand, we have film footage from e.g. Mata Hari’s rival Cléo de Merode dancing an oriental dance, but the footage is very conventional: stage floor, camera frontally, no camera movement, no special light, simple setting. It is only from the early 1910s on that filmmakers start to experiment with creating their own versions of spectacular dance shows with light, fire and colour. Moreover, film celluloid then was not so light sensitive, so an enormous dosis of light would have been necessary to imitate Hari’s clair obscur light show. Finally, don’t forget that some 70 to 80% of early cinema is lost, so who knows somebody did film her. Other dancers like Stacia Napierkowska became prolific film actors as well, but apparently Mata Hari never tried her luck there.

      • Thank you for your best possible answer. Hein Kraij

        Verstuurd vanaf mijn iPad


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: