Cinematographer. Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 10 February 1909. Education: Attended the Conservatoire des Arts-et-Métiers and Institute of Optics. Family: Married to script supervisor/assistant director Nadia Starcevic. Career: Worked as assistant cameraman while a student; then bank clerk and puppeteer; 1931–36—assistant cameraman; 1932—helped form group, later union, of assistant cameramen; 1936–41—cameraman; 1940—briefly imprisoned by Germans during World War II: later worked in the Resistance (Legion of Honor); 1941—first film as cinematographer; 1944—founding member, IDHEC film school; 1946—co-founder, Académie du Cinema. TV work: Le Taxi (Marzelle), 1962, France; The Henri Matisse Centennial at the Grand Palais (Falkenberg/Namuth), 1970, U.S. acting debut in Wenders's In Weiter Ferne, so Nah! ( Far Away, So Close ), 1993. Awards: Prizes, for L'Enfer de Rodin , Prague Festival, 1957, and Cerf-volant du bout du monde , Karlory Vary Festival, 1958; César award for The Trout , 1982; Prix ESEC (École Supérieure Libre d'Études Cinématographiques), 1985. Member: Vice president, Film Production Technicians Union, 1958–65, president, 1965–68. Address: 46 rue de la Tourelle, 92100 Boulogne, France.
Le Chariot de Thespis (Canolle—short); Robie est un ange (Y. Allégret—destroyed)
Les Chevaux du Vercors (Audry—short) (co); Tu seras vedette (Mineur—short); Ceux du rail (Clément—short); Les Deux Timides (Y. Allégret) (co)
Bell ouvrage (Cloche—short); Les Petites du Quai aux Fleurs (M. Allégret—short); Echec au roy (Paulin); La Symphonie du travail (Cloche); La Grande Pastorale (Clément—short)
Chefs de demain (Clément—short)
La Bataille du rail (Clément); La Belle et la bête (Cocteau)
Les Maudits ( The Damned ) (Clément); Le Diable souffle (Gréville)
Anna Karenina (Duvivier); Arch of Triumph (Milestone) (2nd unit); Un si jolie petite plage ( Riptide ) (Y. Allégret)
La Marie du port (Carné); Les Amants de Vérone ( The Lovers of Verona ) (Cayette)
Ma pomme (Sauvajon)
Juliette ou la clé des songes (Carné); Parigi e sempre Parigi (Emmer); "Mouche" ep. of Trois femmes, trois âmes (Michel); La Voyage en Amérique (Lavorel)
Stranger on the Prowl ( Encounter ) (Losey) (+ ro); La Sarre, pleins feux (+ co-d—short); Le Fruit défendu (Verneuil)
Zoë (Brabant); Quand tu liras cette lettre (Melville); Roman Holiday (Wyler) (co); Les Amours finissent à l'aube (Calef); Julietta (M. Allégret)
Le Port du désir (Gréville); Les Impures (Chevalier); La Reine Margot (Dréville); Frou-Frou (Genina)
Les Héroes sont fatigués (Ciampi); La Meilleure Part (Y. Allégret)
Typhon sur Nagasaki (Ciampi); La Salaire du péché (de la Patellière); Le Cas du Docteur Laurent (le Chanois); "La Maison du bonheur" ep. of Die Windrose (Bellon)
L'Enfer de Rodin (+ d—short)
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Meyer); Cerf-volant du bout du monde (Pigaut)
Le Mariage de Figaro (Meyer); Douze heures d'horloge (Radvanyi)
Austerlitz (Gance); La Princesse de Clèves (Delannoy); Les Collants noirs ( Un, deux, trois, quatre . . . ; Black Tights ) (Young); Le Secret du chevalier d'eon (Audry) (co); Un Oiseau s'en vole (Canaille—short)
"Ella" and "Antonia" eps. of Les Parisiennes (Poitrenaud and Boisrond)
Le Couteau dans la plaie ( Five Miles to Midnight ) (Litvak)
El otro Cristobal (Gatti); Réunion des artistes (Madanes)
Lady L (Ustinov)
Danger Grows Wild ( The Poppy Is Also a Flower ) (Young); Triple Cross (Young)
Mayerling (Young); Ici et maintenant (Bard—short)
Versailles (Lamorisse—short); L'Arbre de Noel ( The Christmas Tree ) (Young)
Figures in a Landscape (Losey) (co); Giselle (Farrel)
Soleil rouge ( Red Sun ) (Young)
Noire et Caline (Leconte); L'Ombre et la nuit (Leconte)
The Territory (Ruiz)
Techo de la ballena ( The Roof of the Whale ) (Ruiz); Der Stand der Dinge ( The State of Things ) (Wenders); Une Pierre dans la bouche (Leconte); The Trout (Losey)
La Belle Captive (Robbe-Grillet)
A Strange Love Affair (de Kuyper); Wunkanal Hinrichtung fur vier Stimmen ( Exécution à quatre voix ) (Harlan); Unser Nazi ( Notre Nazi ) (Harlan)
The Perfect Kiss (Demme)
Der Himmel über Berlin ( Wings of Desire ; Sky over Berlin ; Les Ailes du désir ) (Wenders)
Im Exil der ertrunkenen Tiger
Berlin-Jérusalem (Gitai); J'écris dans l'espace (Etaix); Cézanne (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet); La Danseuse de 14 ans (short)
Golem—L'Esprit de l'exil ( Golem—The Spirit of Exile ) (Gitai)
Golem—Le Jardin pétrifié ( Golem—The Petrified Garden ) (Gitai)
Mademoiselle Docteur (Pabst)
La Danseuse rouge (Paulin); Drôle de drame ( Bizarre Bizarre )(Carné)
Le Drame de Shanghaï (Pabst); Quai des brumes ( Port of Shadows ); (Carné); Campement 13 (Constant); L'Esclave blanche (Sorkin); Mollenard (Siodmak)
Les Musiciens du ciel (Lacombe); L'Emigrante (Y. Allégret and Joannon)
Sans lendemain (Ophüls)
La Vénus aveugle (Gance); La Femme dans la nuit (Gréville)
Des lumières et des ombres , Paris, 1984.
Télécine (Paris), April 1961.
Cinéma (Paris), February 1973.
Le Technicien du Film (Paris), 15 January-15 February 1974.
Cinéma (Paris), June 1979.
Cinématographe (Paris), June 1981.
Film Français (Paris), 24 September 1982.
Positif (Paris), November 1982.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1983.
Cinéma (Paris), May 1983.
Le Technicien du Film (Paris), 15 May-15 June 1983.
Film Français (Paris), 31 August 1984.
Visions (Brussels), February 1985.
Skrien (Amsterdam), February/March 1985.
Première (Paris), June 1985
Postif (Paris), July/August 1985.
Films and Filming (London), no. 392, May 1987.
Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 431, October 1987.
Filmcritica (Montepulciano), September/October 1989.
Jeune Cinéma (Paris), no. 199, February-March 1990.
Framework , nos. 38/39, 1992.
Sight and Sound (London), vol. 3, no. 6, June 1993.
Film Français (Paris), no. 2519, August 1994.
Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 442, May 1995.
Filmvilag (Budapest), vol. 40, no. 2, 1997.
Unifrance (Paris), June/July 1951.
Lettres Françaises (Paris), 15 July 1970.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Predal, R., in Cinéma (Paris), February 1973.
Film Français (Paris), 11 February 1977.
Vagnon, F., in Cinéma Pratique (Paris), April/May 1977.
Haustrate, G., and J. Petat, in Cinéma (Paris), June 1979.
Film Dope (London), no. 39, March 1988.
Première (Paris), no. 137, August 1988.
Film Français (Paris), nos. 2296/7, May 1990.
24 Images (Montreal), Summer 1992.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1996.
1986 Henri Alekan, des lumières et des hommes (short) (Roth)
1988 Alekan, la lumière and Alekan, la mémoire (Dumoulin) (TV films as part of Océaniques series)
* * *
After studying optics and working as an assistant cameraman for several years, Henri Alekan abandoned film and worked as a bank clerk and puppeteer until 1931. Then he returned to film as an assistant cameraman, and worked with Eugen Schüfftan on several renowned films during the later 1930s: Pabst's Mademoiselle Docteur and Le Drame de Shanghaï , Carné's Drôle de drame and Quai des brumes , Siodmak's Mollenard , and Ophüls's Sans lendemain .
Alekan was imprisoned during the early years of World War II, but escaped and became a Resistance fighter. He found time to work on a series of short films (directed by Canolle, Audry, and Clément), and with both Yves and Marc Allégret. He persuaded Clément to revise his documentary Ceux du rail , and they collaborated with members of the "Résistance Fer" on the new version, centering on acts of sabotage and battles between the railway workers and the Germans. The film, La Bataille du rail , was greeted enthusiastically when it was shown in 1945, and considered the best French film about the Resistance.
Alekan's lyrical precision and sobriety, appropriate to the documentary subject, brought him an immediate reputation for sensitivity combined with realism. His next film was Cocteau's La Belle et la bête , a fairy tale with a cultivated poetic atmosphere. His earlier work with Schüfftan had opened his eyes to the potentialities of the camera; now his work with Cocteau would change his life. With Cocteau's help, he created a series of images often compared to such painters as de Hooch and Vermeer or de la Tour. The beauty of the film relies on the charm of Jean Marais and Josette Day, the leading players, on the splendor of the designs of sets and costumes of Christian Bérard, and above all on the harmony of the images and the ingenious utilization of values and the black-and-white contrasts caused by the play of light and shadows. Without becoming overly artful, Alekan was able to adapt his sense of the image to the needs of the scenario and the exigencies of the director, an ability he was able to maintain in all his future work.
After these two completely different films which showed his versatility of style, Alekan worked with a series of leading French directors, and made Roman Holiday with Wyler in 1953. Alekan's short film L'Enfer de Rodin , illustrating a double dream (of Dante and of Rodin), was widely praised, and in Gance's Austerlitz and Delannoy's La Princesse de Clèves , he was shown as masterful with color as he had been with black-and-white. Later outstanding films include El otro Cristobal , Versailles , Figures in a Landscape , Der Stand der Dinge , The Trout , and Wings of Desire , in which Alekan once more makes dazzling use of his talents in black-and-white cinematography.
In the mid-eighties Alekan teamed up with Amos Gitai, initially for Esther , then for the thematic trilogy dealing with exile and nationhood, Berlin-Jérusalem , Golem—L'Esprit de l'exil , and Golem—Le Jardin pétrifié . Each film tested Alekan's abiding aesthetic concerns with light, particularly in Esther , where the harsh sun of Haifa was ultimately turned to dramatic effect with painterly contrasts of light and shadow. In Berlin-Jérusalem , Alekan's formation through German expressionism is witnessed in dark and menacing atmospheric studio images of prewar Berlin, while for the sequences in Palestine, long traveling shots capture the ravaged, arid landscape to achieve a metaphorical resonance. If Golem—L'Esprit de l'exil is overly didactic in its representation of Paris as an inhospitable refuge for displaced foreigners, Alekan's images of despair, occasionally built from multiple exposures, retain a dark poetry. In Golem: Le Jardin pétrifié , the symbolic journey of an art collector's search for family heirlooms in Russia is registered in evocative landscape photography.
As an extremely active octogenarian, Alekan made his first American screen appearance in Wim Wenders's In Weiter Ferne, so Nah! , and in 1994 penned a vigorous protest against the relocation of Langlois's beloved Cinémathèque. Reflecting on his career, he asserts his preference for black-and-white photography and generously acknowledges the importance of his chief electrician Louis Cochet to his achievements. Several exhibitions marked his eightieth birthday and, as a celebration of his contribution to cinematography, French television screened two film studies: Alekan, la lumière and Alekan, la mémoire .
—Karel Tabery, updated by R. F. Cousins