Wednesday 10 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 2: De huizen van ellende (1937)

The booklet which accompanies the Cinematek Blu-ray/DVD set which includes De huizen van ellende refers to the film as a "fictional documentary".  While this may sound like an oxymoron, it's actually a pretty fair description of a film in which non-professionals play out scenarios closely matching real events they were directly involved in.  As such, De huizen van ellende isn't far removed from the work of Jean Rouch, that master of the ethnographic film, who correctly observed that subjects will always be affected by their awareness of the camera.  Four years on from Borinage and minus Joris Ivens (who at that time was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway), Henri Storck had overhauled his technique and now included dialogue in a film which took an unblinking look at Belgian slum housing and all its attendant problems.  In many ways this is a companion piece to Borinage, as the subject of the earlier film - the 1932 miners' strike - chiefly served to highlight the truly terrible living conditions of the workers and their families.  There's a further link in that the French titles of these two films share a highly apt word: misère.

De huizen van ellende, in both content and message, bears similarities to the 1935 John Grierson production Housing Problems, which documented how the same issue was presenting itself on the other side of the English Channel, where the Greenwood Act - which encouraged councils to demolish slum housing and build new homes - had been passed in 1930.  These two films charted the same, very real problem, and both stood as pieces of propaganda in which the filmmakers' feelings could hardly have been more obvious.  Despite the awful living conditions witnessed in both works, there is a shared optimism as these films look to the future and the promise of the new, planned housing estates which would significantly raise the living standards of those who had endured (and survived) life in the slums.  As De huizen van ellende comes to a close, we are shown the demolition of slum dwellings, and the viewer can share in the joy of the onlooking crowds, who are delighted to witness the razing of these miserable, unsanitary buildings.

Before this most welcome release, however, Storck presents us with a suffocating, claustrophobic litany of deprivation: overcrowding, pitiless landlords, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, evictions, lack of schooling, loan sharks... surviving another day amidst such squalor and disease was about as good as it got for the slums' forlorn inhabitants.  And although this impressive slice of docufiction does end on a relatively uplifting note, we are all too conscious of the sad fact that the outbreak of WW2 would soon see Belgium facing far bigger problems than slum accommodation; the UK of Grierson's film, which during wartime would host many exiled Belgians as well as the Belgische regering in Londen, would endure an even greater housing crisis as the Luftwaffe bombs rained down.

Darren Arnold

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons