It is a rare occurrence when you can see the film footage of a situation in which a famous photograph was made. In the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s documentary film Le Retour we are able to see one of those rare occurrences.
From April to November of 1945 Cartier-Bresson made a short 29 minute documentary co-directed with United States Lieutenant Richard Banks about the return of prisoners of war and detainees to France. When he was rumored to have been killed in the war, Le Retour spurred the Museum of Modern Art to start preparation of a “posthumous” exhibition. The film was screened at the opening of this exhibition in 1947.
I had the chance to see a screening of this film at the Walter Reade Theater last week during the Magnum Photos 60th Anniversary Festival here in New York. At one point during the screening, my friend and I almost jumped from our seats when the situation of the famous Cartier-Bresson photo of the "Gestapo informer" hit the screen.
Shot in Dessau, Germany, the footage shows that particular situation and several others that Cartier-Bresson documented while close by with his Leica. A quick search of the Magnum Photos database revealed these situations.
That initial “Gestapo informer” scene is shot from a perspective that might be at a slightly higher vantage point as if over the left shoulder of Cartier-Bresson. I quickly looked to the edges of the frame to see if he would step within view but he never appears.
Others include segments of refugees crossing a pontoon bridge and being de-loused by US Army armed with DDT sprayers. This is a disturbing scene in itself as they are spraying the subjects liberally with the stuff and often directly in the face.
If you see the film, keep an eye out during the last shot as it starts with the film running backwards, then briefly forwards, and then backwards again to extend a scene of a kiss. Tricky, Henri, tricky.
This film is available as a part of a 2 DVD set released in part from the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation and MK2 Editions.
Book Available Here (HCB Scrapbook)
DVD Available Here: http://www.henricartierbresson.org/publi/PUBLI_publifond_en.htm