Neverending disease 1 : « D’après nature »

From Medfilm

From Nature by Christian Bonah and Joël Danet, 2022, Université de Strasbourg – Laboratoire SAGE UMR 7363, 12’

From Nature revisits the use of wax moulages in syphilis prevention films.

From Nature, a montage of health-related utilitarian film archives, focuses on the use of wax moulages in syphilis prevention films in the first half of the 20th century.

Instrumental in scientific research and education, wax moulages were displayed in science museums or shown in amphitheatres during medical lectures. The film reshapes this approach by transforming moulages into cinegenic objects through the use of light, motion and montage, associating the wax face to a real face. In doing so, the production of health films demonstrates a permeability to contemporary fiction. Many films with fantasy overtones, such as Waxworks, produced by Paul Leni in 1926, or The Hands of Orlac, produced by Karl Freund in 1935, included wax moulages as quasi-faces, either as a static replica of a living being in the throes of an existential crisis, or as an object of morbid desire.

At the centre of From Nature lies an essential archival film: Feind im Blut, shown in cinemas in 1931. The director, avant-garde figure Walter Ruttmann, conceived the film in a style reminiscent of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, a classic of the city symphony genre that he produced in 1926. Feind im Blut is an ambitious cinematic undertaking relying on superimposed images, frantic cuts, urban photography, and experimental sound. The objective was to emphasize the risk of venereal diseases omnipresent in modern cities; herein the magnified and dramatized wax figure is a recurring motif in the mise-en-scène. From Nature combines this key cinematic reference with clips from other early 20th century antivenereal films where wax moulages are shown using pictorial and narrative mechanisms. The montage is an echo chamber highlighting the dispositifs these films have in common, which Ruttmann’s work reiterates and exalts.

The objective of producing such a montage of archival films is to offer an immersion into representative images of the film corpus studied, and to put them into perspective, not only through narration and analytical commentary, but also via editing, modifying their format, speed, and flow. Finally, the montage is punctuated with intertitles and sound commas from the soundtrack of the films cited, some of them slightly altered. Here, the goal is to make tangible the cinematic identity of the archives used (the film grain, the font of the credits, the sound quality, the tones of voice), while editorializing them, to account for the specific materiality of the utilitarian films chosen, and share the knowledge they call for and reflections they inspire.

The Neverending Diseases film series is dedicated to the discourses brought forth by utilitarian films or television productions to inform and spread awareness about sexually transmitted diseases. It is produced as part of the “Neverending Infectious Disease. An interdisciplinary model to explain neverending infectious diseases. The case of syphilis (1859 to the present)”. “Neverending Infectious Diseases” is a five-year research program funded by the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation) and led by Alexandre Wenger (Université de Genève), Laurence Toutous-Trellu (Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève), Christian Bonah (Université de Strasbourg) and Christine Keyser (Institut de Médecine légale, Faculté de médecine de Strasbourg). The project is a collaboration between Université de Strasbourg (DHVS and SAGE UMR 7363), Université de Genève, Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Translation : Michelle Daou