Léon Poirier was born into an old French family for which the arts occupied pride of place - his aunt was the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. Poirier was first a man of the theater before becoming a film director at Gaumont studios, where he succeeded Louis Feuillade as head of production. During the 20s, he left Gaumont to become a ethnological filmmaker of mystical bent, positing the notions of civilization and spirituality.
In 1906, as the very young administrator of the Gymnase Theater, he attracted attention by canceling the off-season in Paris theaters and instituting the summer season. In 1910, he produced the first Paris production of the famous Belgian comedy, Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans. The success was so great that he had the play running simultaneously at three other Paris theaters (the Renaissance, the Théâtre Réjane, and the Bouffes Parisiens). "The collective hysteria of success... To my knowledge, there are only two similar cases in the annals of the theater in the past 20 years: Cyrano de Bergerac and The Lady from Maxim's."
The following year, he organized a hugely successful operetta season at the Vaudeville Theater.
Forging ahead, he decided to create his own theater. With Gabriel Astruc and the Perret brothers, he erected the building that would house the large auditorium of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and the smaller Comédie des Champs Elysées. The theater was baptized the Théâtre Léon Poirier for its inauguration in 1913. But the bankruptcy of the main theater (despite the Ballets Russes), a series of flops and a serious accident led to his ruin.
Léon Gaumont, to whom Poirier had leased the Gymnase Theater for showings of his chronophone sound film system, offered him 50 francs a week to write and direct two-reel films, which had to be shot in the same lapse of time for a total budget of 2,500 francs. This first film, L'amour passé was quickly followed by other, including Le Jugement des pierres, Ces demoiselles Perrotin, Monsieur Charlemagne and Le Trèfle d'argent, which was interrupted by the outbreak of the war. Poirier enlisted and served in an artillery division.
Returned to civilian life in 1919, he devoted himself completely to the cinema. He resumed activities at Gaumont studios, where he made Ames d'Orient, a strange drama whose main scenes were set in a Riviera garden. In 1920, he made Le Penseur from a story idea by Edmond Fleg, a philosophical drama starring André Nox. Next came Le Coffret de Jade, a humoristic and philosophical tale, Narayana, a fantastic reverie started Van Daële, Myrga and Madys.
In 1922, L'Ombre déchirée, with Suzanne Després, climaxed the series of fantastical pictures that had become the director's specialty. Gaumont, now turning toward literary and theatrical adaptations, assigned Poirier to direct Lamartine's famous 19th verse novel, Jocelyn. Next came L'Affaire du courrier de Lyon, Geneviève and La Brière.
La Croisière noire (about the Citroën expedition across Africa in half-tracks) ushered in Poirier's second film career as ethnologist fascinated by primitive cultures. "Everything evolves, everything changes, every is transformed, or rather, seems to be transformed, because human nature remains the same and well-clad humanity only camouflages stark naked humanity."
After Amour Exotique, Poirier returned to France to prepare his famous historical fresco, Verdun, visions d'histoire, which recreated the famous Great War battle. The approach was symbolic, with each character representing a segment of the population - both French and German - as they react to the shock of the battle: the French soldier, the German soldier, the officers, the pacifist, the mother. The tone was pacifistic, the rationale of the film a plea for brotherhood. The year was 1927, and Franco-German reconciliation was in the air.
"In 1927, 11 years after the German assault on the Bois des Caures, there were many surviving veterans. In fact, survivors of Driant's Chasseurs took part in the reconstruction of these dreadful days.... Lieutenants Simon, Robin, Captain Vantroys and all the veterans of the 56th and 59th Chasseurs answered my call, the Moroccan tirailleurs of the Verdun garrison and the young recruits mingled with the poilus of the 42nd division, so that Verdun wasn't so much reenacted as experienced."
With the exception of two actors playing the Wife and the Mother (Suzanne Bianchetti and Jeanne Marie-Laurent), and older actors such as André Nox and Maurice Schutz, the cast and crew were made up of authentic Great War veterans. Thomy Bourdelle, Albert Préjean, Daniel Mendaille, Jean Dehelly, Pierre Nay, the cameramen Robert Batton and Georges Million, only had to get back into their uniforms. The Germans, were also real, among them Hans Brausewetter. It felt strange to be in Berlin commanding a bona fide goose-stepping march. Among the younger cast members, only Antonin Artaud, the surrealist poet, was a newcomer to arms, but he was perfectly cast as the pacifist intellectual dying in a shell hole - a real one, where we found the remains of a human arm with a ID tag on which we could just make out: "Fulle... 1916" (Class of 1916). This martyr was 20 years old." To increase the authenticity of the reenactment, Poirier inserted period newsreel footage of Petain, Joffre, Nivelle, the Kaiser...
For his next film, Poirier shipped out for Madagascar to make Caïn, Aventures des mers exotiques. Thomy Bourdelle played a modern man, "a factory reject suddenly plunged into the heart of the tropics, the last territory where man is still obliged to bow to Nature. So much for the story. The action: the life of this man, the odyssey of his psyche, the story of his love."
"By recounting the adventures of a half-civilized, classless, rebellious European discovering, losing, then recovering the lost paradise of this deserted isle, Mr Poirier is attempting to describe a modern myth, a morality play." (André Levinson)
Poirier than returned to Paris for the difficult sound version of Verdun, visions d'histoire - retitled Verdun, souvenirs d'histoire. Like many silent filmmakers, he was confused by the advent of sound, which put an end to a certain form of symbolism which he deemed the very essence of cinematic art.
He next returned to Africa to make an adventure film set during the Great War, La Voie sans disque. Then he buried himself in René Bazin's biography of French explorer and missionary Charles de Foucaud and regretted not having taken the time to travel the two kilometers to Benni-Abbes during the shooting of La Croisière noire. To make amends for his laziness, Poirier decided to make a film about the life of Charles de Foucaud, L'Appel du silence. He came up with an unusual financing method: a national subscription. He obtained the backing of General de Castelnau - the "Capuchin in boots", as Clemenceau nicknamed him - and through him the powerful National Catholic Federation. For 16 months, he toured France and Belgium lecturing on Charles de Foucaud, with the help of slides. He concluded each lecture with a request for subscriptions. He collected enough money to enable him to approach banks to complete financing. Citroën lent him automobiles for the production. During the making of La Croisière noire, Poirier has fallen under the spell of the desert and he wanted to capture that sense of enchantment better than he had the first time, when he was working under the constraints of a prestige expedition. Indeed, the theme reflected a personal drama. In the Sahara, he had found an inner peace after a serious spiritual crisis. He now intended "to create a simple portrait of an individual, whose soul, in the silent vastness of the desert, aspires to an inaccessible infinity."
His next film, Soeurs d'armes, told the true story of Louise de Bettignies, who headed a resistance network in northern France during the Great War. In addition to the originality of the subject matter - which seems no less original today because the resistance has become exclusively associated with World War II - it broke with the traditional representation of the German soldier (Renoir's La Grande illusion was shot the same year), characterizing him in ways that announced the deviancy of Nazism.
But Poirier could not stay put. He once again set off for Africa, this time to the equatorial jungles of the Congo and Gabon, to make Brazza ou l'épopée du Congo. The film related the struggle of Savorgan de Brazza and Stanley in the conquest of Africa, the first adopting a pacifistic methods, the latter not hesitating to use violence in a virtually systematic way. In a larger context, he contrasted French and British methods of colonization.
By the time the film was completed,
France was at war.
In 1943, he made the controversial Jeannou.
In 1947, he returned to Africa with actor Robert Daréne to continue his work on Charles de Foucaud. The resulting film was La Route inconnue, which dramatized the confrontation of the three monotheistic religions. The message was ecumenical but it showed Christianity in a position of weakness in regard to Islam and Judaism (civilization leading to the decline of the spiritual).
After this film, he retired to the small village of Urval le Buisson in the Dordogne, where he became mayor. He published his memoirs in 1953 under the title, 24 image à la seconde - in it, the cinema took second place to a literary display of humanist musings. He died in 1968, completely forgotten. It is important to examine this obscurity.
The few biographical notes are disparaging. His name is absent from most film dictionaries. The few reference works that do include him tend to refer to him as "the official filmmaker of the Third Republic," "colonialist," "ultra-conservative," reactionary," "conformist"... The reasons for this denigration are unclear, but one major episode of his career may explain in part these hasty dismissals: he was at the center of a controversy over the film La Croisière jaune. Citroën has commissioned documentary filmmaker André Sauvage to supervise the filming of the famous Asian expedition. But Sauvage fell out with Citroen over the editing of the film, which was then entrusted to Poirier. The film was released with only Poirier's name on the credits. The artistic community protested in favor of Sauvage and against Poirier. Citren, which owned the film, remained unmoved by the controversy. Sauvage abandoned the cinema. A resentment against Poirier has endured till this day.
Then came the affair of Jeanneau (1943), considered by some to be a Pétainist. Pétain had aided Poirier during the making of Verdun, visions d'histoire. Did Poirier's respect for the hero of Verdun take precedence over other considerations? Perhaps.
Even Poirier's deep mysticism worked against him at a time when intellectuals denounced the complacency of the Church with regard to the occupiers.
And La Croisière noire? It is often described as a neocolonialist film. But, in fact, isn't it a precursor of the Paris-Dakar motor rally?
Setting aside these controversies, let us consider the essential:
Poirier was a major figure of French silent cinema who played a role in the history of Gaumont equal to that of Marcel L'Herbier and Louis Feuillade. He was a pioneer, and one of the first directors to understand the importance of set design. He was a filmmaker with an ethnographic outlook who studied the nature of civilized man. The civilization that was responsible for the mass butchery of Verdun and the ruthless conquests of a Stanley, against whom he posited primitive man in harmony with nature and the gods.
Too, he made films at the other end of the world in conditions unlike those enjoyed by modern-day filmmakers. His approach was clear-eyed:
"It is unquestionable that to destroy your happiness, you simple children of nature, the devil dressed as a peddler. You once ate bananas, fish and chickens with relish, but then he went and gave you a hankering for steaks; tomorrow, he will give you a yearning for caps, khaki shorts, sunglasses, then bicycles, cars, radios, television sets and - since everyone cannot afford to buy these once useless but now indispensable objects - there will be jealousy, class struggles, social clashes: you will have become a great nation again, you will work day and night to conquer freedom, without ever realizing that you have left it behind you. Finally, and until the end of time, mankind - black, yellow, red or white --may change its way of living but will never succeed in altering a life of which it is no longer master. Mankind will only catch a glimpse of it between two infinite realities: love and death."
He was a filmmaker who was dissatisfied with the never-ending compromises that go with the material complexity of filmmaking. He was an artist who often envied the freedom of the writer who is not a slave to the constraints of his art.
Let us conclude on these words by André Levinson:
"Poirier stands aloof from the civilized world not to satisfy a hunger for new sensations, or out of the spirit of adventure, but to better commune with himself."
All quotes are from Poirier's memoirs: 24 images à la seconde.