Facts and fabulation: the ‘real’ Mata Hari on film

By Ivo Blom

Mata Hari, photographed in Milan in 1912 by Emilio Sommariva. Courtesy Fries Museum/ Brera.
The real Mata Hari, photographed in Milan in 1912 by Emilio Sommariva. Courtesy Fries Museum/ Brera.

Mata Hari was famous for her own fabulation of her oriental past and scandalous present. Myth and reality converged in ever changing combinations, which impressed many, but also caused her serious troubles during her notorious trial, leading to her execution in 1917 by the French army, condemned as enemy spy. However, the afterlife of Mata Hari also seems to have been afflicted by this mythologization. Some myths can be very persisting, because we so dearly want to find them or hold on to them.

Since late 2016 I have been involved in the search of filmic materials for the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition. This will open at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, on 14 October this year and will run until 2 April 2018. While still materials of Mata Hari are abundant: gorgeous coloured postcards, studio photos by prominents such as Emilio Sommariva, actuality photos etc., what lacked were moving images. With a woman who was such a society figure between 1905 and the First World War, one asks himself why Pathé, Gaumont or any other prominent company did not film this woman, whose oriental dances had caused such a stir in Paris and beyond, and who was the mistress of many a prominent figure in politics, finance and culture? Why do we still have films with rivalling dancers of those days, such as Cléo de Merode and Caroline Otero (though, alas, most not in Open Access), and not Mata Hari?

Real Mata Hari Aurel
From the compilation film 14-18 by Jean Aurel. Courtesy LUCE/ EFG1914.

Thus in films on Mata Hari’s life or compilation films on the First World War a clip persisted of a fashionable lady helped in her coat by a doorman. She afterwards steps into a luxurious car with chauffeur and is driven away. This clip, coined as being with Mata Hari, has been used over and again as footage with the real Mata Hari. Even the respectable site EFG1914, supported and replenished by various European Film Archives, including the Dutch EYE, holds a compilation film that contains the very same clip. This compilation film may be well have been the original culprit of the massive reuse and mythologization of ‘real’ film footage with Mata Hari. This compilation film, uploaded by the Italian non-fiction archive LUCE, is the Italian version of 14-18 (1963) by French filmmaker Jean Aurel. The commentary states we notice Mata Hari here, helped into a taxi. The image quality was too poor to recognize any person. So where did Aurel  take it from? And could I get a better image quality?

Real Mata Hari Gaumont Luce Sapphire
From the Gaumont compilation film Paris après 3 ans de guerre (1917). Courtesy Gaumont.

Researching this clip was quite an adventure. I first contacted the CNC (Centre National pour la Cinématographie) near Paris, where Béatrice Paste kindly indicated me the compilation 14-18 by Aurel was a Gaumont production and CNC had recently digitized the film. Paste advised me to contact the Cinémathèque Gaumont. So I contacted curator Manuela Padoan there, who referred me to Nathalie Sitko. She proved to be an avid documentalist and helpful researcher. In the mean time I searched myself on the site of Pathé-Gaumont-Archives. There I found the compilation documentary Paris après 3 ans de guerre (1917) by Gaumont, which contained the same clip, but now without any indication of Mata Hari. The description on the Gaumont site just said:”Au pied d’un escalier, une femme élégante (bourgeoise) enfile son manteau aidé d’un maître d’hôtel, elle attend son véhicule et monte dans l’automobile.” [At the foot of a staircase, an elegant (bourgeois) lady is helped into her coat by a butler, she waits for her car to arrive and steps in.] The film had been uploaded in HD, so the image quality was really good. Still, I had my doubts whether this was really the famous Mata Hari. My doubts proved to be right.

Luce Saphir
La mode à Paris. Mademoiselle Luce Saphir, artiste au Théàtre du Palais Royal (Gaumont 1916). Courtesy Gaumont.

Nathalie Sitko confirmed me that in Paris après 3 ans de guerre there is no indication of Mata Hari. Soon after she wrote me that the woman in the clip is not at all Mata Hari, but really Mademoiselle Luce Saphir of the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. The clip originally comes from a short fashion film by Gaumont dating from 1916:  La mode à Paris. Mademoiselle Luce Saphir, artiste au Theatre du Palais Royal. Title on the film is: “Mode: Mlle Luce Saphir du Palais Royal présente les modèles Paquin, dans un parc parisien.” The full fashion film is visible on the Pathé-Gaumont website (restricted vision). Presumably, this actuality was part of a newsreel. Luce Saphir, a rather unknown artist of the French revue and operetta, demonstrates in this clip and additional ones the newest fashion by Paquin in a park in Paris. So instead of witnessing one of the most notorious women of the Parisian Belle Epoque, we are watching a precursor of the nowadays so popular phenomenon of the fashion film. A young and proud woman, standing on a terrace at the foot of outdoor stairs, shows off her clothes and waves to a roofless, upcoming taxi, which holds another woman, apparently a lady friend, whom she greets. A fancy doorman helps her in an elegant coat before she enters the car and drives away. The whole narrative is staged and just an alibi for showing off the woman’s wardrobe. The shot perfectly matches the other shots of this fashion film as is visible on the Gaumont website, showing Saphir strolling in the park while displaying her fashionable outfits. It also reminds of the loose narratives of other fashion actualities by Gaumont and Pathé in general in the 1910s, in which fashionable ladies casually meet in the park and show off, as José Teunissen so well illustrated in her compilation film Mode in Beweging (1992). See also Marketa Uhlirova’s fascinating book Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle (2013) and the early fashion film images in an early compilation by Pathé, below.  It claims these images are of 1909, but they show a wider range of years, also the early and mid-1910s definitely. Unfortunately, the images are in black and white, while originally they must have been coloured, or at least tinted:

Coda: it seems that in 1913, while working for Pathé, French film director Albert Capellani did film Mata Hari dancing a Hindu dance, according to Christine Leteux, in her book Albert Capellani, Pioneer of the Silent Screen (2015). The film, though, seems lost. The source for this information was Capellani’s cameraman Pierre Trimbach. Leteux: “They shot the sequence with various lighting effects to make her appear naked in silhouette behind a gray canvas.” This sounds quite like the effect Alexander Volkov later used in his film Casanova (1927); see clip from 02:44.



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