Le roi des aulnes (The Erl King) (1931) - Marie-Louise Iribe
Marie-Louise Iribe was something of a prodigious pioneer in early cinema. As well as directing she also acted and produced (setting up her own production company - Les Artistes Réunis) and made the challenging transition from the silent era to sound. She was 37 when she directed Le roi des aulnes, her second and last directorial effort. She died at the age on 39. As an actress she worked with luminaries such as Louis Feillade, Gaston Ravel and Henri Fescourt. She also starred in Jacques Feyder's L'Atlantide (1921). In the 1920s she married Pierre Renoir, son of the great painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and brother of the famous director Jean Renoir, who in 1927 directed Iribe in Marquitta for Les Artistes Réunis. Following this, she co-directed Hara-kiri with Henri Debain (though she took over direction when Debain was unable to finish the film). Which brings us to Le roi des aulnes or The Erl King.
The was Iribe's only sound film but feels very much like a silent film as it retains many of the traits of silent cinema; namely the acting styles, limited dialogue, and visual storytelling. Despite this the film is enchanting, stylish and marks Iribe out as a curious voice in early French cinema.
The film starts with a rendition of Goethe's poem. This essentially confirms the plot to us, and as such, the finale. Not that this undermines the power or potency of the film. We open on a man on horseback, carrying his sick child in a desperate attempt to reach a doctor in the nearby town. The horse collapses throwing father and son from the horse. Luckily a local spots them and shepherds them to a house close by where they seek refuge. The family in the house looks after the father and son briefly but at the fathers' insistence they set off for the doctor. Before doing so the child is told the story of the Erl King.
Having left the refuge of the house, the father rides through the forest with his son. It's here that the film is elevated to the sublimely beautiful as Iribe uses all manners of cinematic trickery and art to conjure the forest spirits. The film also leans heavily into the stylistics of silent cinema. Dialogue is sparse and almost exclusively limited to the father dismissing his delirious son's proclamations about the Erl King and his magic.
As they ride through the forest, Iribe using excellent cinematography and editing to bring the environment to life. Firstly, they traipse through a bog, and you feel the struggle. It's here that the Erl King is first made aware of the father and his son. And his magical power comes to life. Through trick photography a toad, which seems to be stalking them transforms. It's the first of many convincing and brilliantly executed visual effects in the film.
Alerted to the father and son, the Erl King comes into being and begins conjuring fairies from the forest, a leaf, a spider, etc. are all turned into fairies ready to do his bidding. The father is assaulted by wind, lightning, and rain in his futile attempts to deliver his dying son to a sanctuary. The boy witnesses these events and sees the manipulations of the Erl King. As he calls out in fear - even at one harrowing point being physically attacked by the ephemeral King, the father dismisses his son. It is merely nature. One of the great strengths of the film is how Iribe positions the audience and structures the mystical events of the story ensuring the audience is never clear whether the Erl King is indeed real or merely the creation of the boy, delirious with illness. That the father never sees or experiences the Erl King's assaults could be just that the King is after the life of the child, or it could be that the child is merely imagining everything. Either way, the father's growing concern and anguish at his son's deterioration are genuinely moving and Otto Gebühr gives an excellent performance as the father.
As the opening of the film begins with Goethe's poem, we know beforehand the ending of the story, and the futility of the father's actions hangs over the film. When the finale arrives and the Erl King reveals his death mask its a genuinely haunting and horrifying moment and reminds you of how effectively and effortlessly Iribe has made you care about this father's futile attempts to save his son.
Le roi des aulnes is a fantastical folkloric tale that, despite its short running time, manages to elicit a strong reaction and leave a lasting impression on its audience. The film is full of ingenious and riveting camera work and trickery. It's narrative may be slight buts its power is not. A wonderful example of early cinema which marks Iribe out as a great talent both in front of and behind the camera.