Henri Storck – Documentarist, Surrealist, Anarchist

By Julian Petley

henri-storck.jpgHenri Storck

Storck is one of the most important figures of Belgian cinema, along with Charles Dekeukeleire, André Cauvin and André Delvaux, and was a particularly important member of the Belgian avant-garde of the late 20s and early 30s. Born in Ostend in 1907, he became interested in cinema from an early age and, in 1924, bought a Pathé-Baby camera. His formative influences also included the painters and writers who were frequent visitors to his family, such as James Ensor, Leon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke. Through Ensor in particular Storck became familiar with Flemish Expressionism and also the Flemish tradition from which it sprang, stretching back to Bosch and Brueghel. In the 20s he read Breton’s Manifeste du Surréalisme, and went on to join the Brussels Surrealist Group whose number also included René Magritte and André Souris. Like many drawn to Surrealism he was also active on the Left. He was a member of the Association of Militant Artists and Writers and knew Malraux, Aragon, Prévert and Breton.

Like so many of the Surrealists his first cinematic influence was American silent comedy. However, another cinematic revelation was Flaherty’s Moana. In the late 20s he founded a film club in Ostend and began to make short films such as Pour vos beaux yeux and Images d’Ostende. Whilst in Ostend Storck met Germaine Dulac who invited him to work in Paris where he encountered Jean Vigo. He worked as Vigo’s assistant on Zéro de Conduite and also with Jean Grémillon, Pierre Billon, Léon Moussinac and Boris Kaufman.

Storck’s own work in Belgium intermingled quasi-Surrealist fantasy (for example Trains de plaisir, the two films on Paul Delvaux) with impassioned social criticism (the seminal Borinage, on which he worked with Joris Ivens, and Les Maisons de la misère). Both of these last two made innovative and influential use of the technique of reconstruction, and both were excellent examples of highly committed film-making. As Storck put it: ‘we wanted to show the infernal, Dante-esque conditions of the workers’ world…there was a feeling of intimate participation in the life of these people’. Or as Ivens said: ‘every sequence should say I ACCUSE – accusing the social system which caused such misery and hardship’. Though banned in many capitalist countries Borinage was an immensely influential documentary and was certainly seen by the burgeoning school of British documentarists. Likewise Les Maisons de la misère, whose direct and angry political message makes the much-vaunted Housing Problems seem pretty tame by comparison. Storck’s strong political commitment was also to the fore in Histoire du soldat inconnu which used the full arsenal of montage techniques to put forward a strong socialist pacifist message at the time of the signing of the Kellogg-Briand pact.

Storck’s interests also include art and ethnography. His films on artists such as Delvaux, Rubens and Permeke make full use of a whole range of cinematic devices in order to plunge the viewer into the world of the artist and his paintings. Meanwhile he also developed a strand of almost ethnographic film-making with works such as Regards sur la Belgique ancienne, Symphonie paysanne (a near rival to Rouquier’s Farrebique) and a number of films on Belgian carnivals, one series of which is dedicated to James Ensor and shows Storck at his Surrealist best. In 1951 he made his only feature – Le Banquet des fraudeurs which, within a thriller framework, looked at the problem of economic union between the three Benelux countries. This was also the first Belgian international co-production.

In 1938 Storck was one of the co-founders of the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and in 1964 of the International Association of Documentary Film-makers. For 15 years he was President of the Association Belge des Auteurs de Films et Auteurs de Télévision. For a number of years he also taught film production at the Institut des Arts de Diffusion in Brussels.

In February 1993 the National Film Theatre in London held a very short retrospective on Storck, and the director himself was present throughout. Not one English paper or film magazine showed the slightest interest in interviewing this quite remarkable figure, with his unique personal experience of the early days of both the documentary and of Surrealism. Indeed, so embarrassed was the NFT press office at the failure of their valiant attempts to interest the English critics in anything other than the latest circuit releases that they asked me for a list of useful contacts. This too produced not a squeak.