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Essential Films
Chapter 12

Buy this film
(Early Cinema -
Primitives And Pioneers,

Histoire d'un crime [Story of a Crime]
Ferdinand Zecca
Pathé Frères / France / 1901

Starring: Jean Liézer, Bretteau, Ferdinand Zecca
Written by: Ferdinand Zecca
Cinematography by: Ferdinand Zecca

Ion Martea
posted 6 October 2006

The first decade of the 20th century is often ignored in cinema history, mainly because it is seen just as a natural post-experimental phase in the development of the medium. This is unfortunate, as the outburst of creativity was unhindered by other external (economic, social, political) factors for the first and maybe the only time in mainstream filmmaking. In consequence, directors were free to explore the possibilities of constructing narrative through images, regularly tackling controversial material. These productions were to be the main source of inspiration (often plagiarised shamelessly even by masters in the field) for some of the more famous films of later decades.

The system of perfect competition in the newly created niche of the entertainment industry is unarguably the main cause for this artistic freedom. Studios would stand behind directors' decision, as there was little to no knowledge of what audiences expected from moving pictures. One predominant mood emerged on the continent however: film as popular art, rather than plain entertainment.

For the more successful films of the period, the focus was on emotion rather than intellect. Assuming that art is first of all meant to create an emotional reaction, an intellectual dimension is a bonus for the interested art-lover, when it is there, yet it is not essential to the appreciation of a work as a piece of art. The crowd puller remains cinema that 'directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through exciting spectacle' in Gunning's words. Having this as a benchmark, the success of a production can be assessed in terms pleasure, rather than narrative consistency. This utilitarian approach to art does seem at first unsatisfactory, and arguably incapable of producing works that rise above base entertainment.

Story of a Crime is one film that defies expectations. Ferdinand Zecca, one-time club entertainer turned film director, managed to secure himself the title of the first dramatic director in history, with a production that deals with crime and its sociological implications. As with many productions of the time, Zecca is trying to develop the medium in order to create Gunning's 'astonishment' factor, acting both as an innovator, and as an entertainer.

The film's has two famous technical novelties: editing through a dissolve transition, and the use of flashbacks to develop a non-linear narrative. The dissolve did not catch on as well as expected, Zecca abandoning it himself after a few transitions. The flashback, on the other hand settled bravely into the construction of the film plot. The key lies in the fact that in Story of a Crime Zecca shows the possibility of film of showing two parallel actions within the same frame without creating confusion, technically opening the possibility to parallel editing.

The dream-insert appears as a frame within the main frame in which we notice a prisoner sleeping in his cell. Above the bed, the linearity of narrative is broken by the dream sequence, which is essentially a flashback of the crime committed by the offender. Zecca's sequence works by introducing the parallel story in the background of the immediate action (or non-action, in this case). The audience's reaction is then not one of shock, but one of involvement into the story triggered by the innovative technique. To the director's credit, it is surprising how easily he managed to introduce a potentially disorientating shot within the spectator's limited film vocabulary. By using a dream sequence recounting the crime, rather than a flashback per se, Zecca brings the audiences a work that can be easily understood by the 'base-audience', yet it asks for intellect to rationalise the story.

Initially, Story of a Crime does seem to be a rather straightforward tale of a crook who is caught by the authorities, presenting itself as a morality tale. Yet, Zecca's pivoting of the plot on the culprit's point of view (emphasised by the fact that he is the dreamer, the owner of the flashback dream), means the audience is asked not to think of retribution, but is made to engage emphatically with the offender. From this perspective, the simple elaboration on film image explores the possibilities of involving an audience in other ways than the hitherto conventional ones.

It is at this point that popular entertainment becomes popular art. The focus on empathy allows a universal appreciation of the film, moreover it stimulates the spectator intellectually. This leads us to the film's final scene. Once the prisoner awakes, he is taken to execution. The guillotine is quick, effective, unsentimental, deafening, gruesome, shocking. Zecca closes the film with the same shot, the only difference that the decapitated body is left motionless on the guillotine, his head rolling on the floor, the white walls of the execution room dirty with the shadows of the heavy black machinery, the executioners quietly reconciling themselves with their deed. This shot, which asks the audience to watch and think, contrasts beautifully with the brusque shooting of the crime itself. The audience is thus not only shocked, but is left in a delirium with their own thoughts.

Story of a Crime reminds one of Dekalog, piec [Decalogue: Five] (Krzysztof Kieslowski/Poland/1988) or the celebrated longer version Krótki film o zabijaniu [A Short Film about Killing] (Krzysztof Kieslowski/Poland/1988). Kieslowski's films were praised highly for their insight into the question of capital punishment: secular legal murder as retribution for a criminal murder. Zecca's film, although primitive in comparison, raises the same issues with the same engrossing effectiveness. The difference lies in the way both directors arrived at the same conclusion. The French maverick employed a popular art approach, using the story to elevate the technical status of cinema, achieving in consequence a rebellious work of art in a time when capital punishment was still the norm. The Polish director, instead, employed the film medium to deliver a manifesto against capital punishment.

Ferdinand Zecca's film is one of many productions of the time that raised important issues, but which for various reasons have been abandoned to dusty shelves. But these films capture the moment when film was elevated to the status of an art capable of engaging its audience. By damning the early shorts as mindless entertainment pieces, and criticising them for their technological crudeness, one is in consequence celebrating philistinism along with a snobbish attitude towards a medium that could tackle difficult subjects artistically even in its early teens.

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