Film still from Ronald Chase’s Bruges-la-Mortes
It’s time to go sight-seeing in canal-laced Bruges, Belgium. The city still retains many vestiges of its medieval architecture and its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might have already seen modern Bruges in the entertaining 2008 crime/comedy movie In Bruges with Colin Farrell, but you can also see Bruges depicted in two film versions of the nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), a Belgian Symbolist writer. Bruges-la-Morte (1892), probably the earliest novel to ever include photographs, tells the story of a widower whose grief over the death of his beautiful wife has turned him into a recluse in his own home, which is filled with reminders of his life with her. But then he attends an opera where he sees on stage a woman who looks very much like his deceased wife. He courts her, but this only leads to further tragedy. In the novel and in the films, the city of Bruges serves as one of the main characters.
Bruges-la-Morte, a 1978 film by Ronald Chase, has just been re-released and made available on available on Vimeo in a new hi-res, high definition restoration. Ronald Chase is primarily an director known for his innovative use of film and projection in the operas he has produced for companies around the US and Europe. On his website, Chase writes about the attraction that the city of Bruges held for Symbolists:
In the late 1800’s until the first world war Bruges was an escape for a certain type of romantic tourist. The town had become almost deserted (the canals and waterways had dried up) and heavy fog and a feeling of sadness and despair hung over the city. The English were especially drawn to Bruges, and often had a second house there. A school of art around Symbolism was created by a small group of writers and artists surrounding the writer, Georges Rodenbach. They gave Bruges a nickname – The Dead City. The Symbolists believed in the power of dreams–they often felt dreams were filled with the real character of people, and were more truthful than waking life. Rodenbach wrote: “The essence of art that is at all noble is the DREAM, and this dream dwells only upon what is distant, absent, vanished, unattainable.”
Chase writes more about the making of his film Bruge-la-Mortes on his website.
The second version available on the Internet is Roland Verhavert’s Brugge, die stille, a 1981 film in Dutch. More entertaining than Chase’s version, it clearly had a much bigger budget, which means a great musical score, several strong actors, and a wonderful cinematographer in Walther van den Ende. But Verhavert veers off somewhere into cinematic Romanticism, while Chase managed to make a film that retained an integrity to Rodenbach’s Symbolist vision.
You can read more about Rodenbach’s groundbreaking book here at the post I wrote thirteen years ago. Since the publication of this first novel with photographs, many hundreds of novels and volumes of poetry have been written that also include photographs as an integral part of the author’s “text.” You can always see an extensive bibliography of these titles by hovering over the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of my blog. My bibliography is currently complete from 1970 to 2019. I’ll be adding 1892-1969, in a few months.
Finally, for an absolutely wonderful vintage film tour of Bruges, watch the six-minute video of old film footage of the city, people, canals, and even some of the city’s animals from around 1910-12, painstakingly restored by Johan R. Ryheul.