Dreyer goes to Africa

In 1934, Dreyer was hired for a film project to be shot in Africa. He wrote, together with the Italian journalist Ernesto Quadrone, a screenplay - "L'Homme ensablé" - and subsequently traveled to Somalia with an old camera, some raw footage and a small Italian film crew. This period in Dreyer's life is virtually unknown, not least of all because he himself never talked about his experiences in Africa. Here is Quadrone’s first-hand report from Somalia: on Dreyer's research, his working method, his enormous dedication and uncompromising approach to realizing a film: from its conception to realization.


While Dreyer's script is entitled L'Homme ensablé, its title while filming was Mudundu. The final film, completed by the french director, Jean-Paul Paulin and released in 1934, is entitled L'Esclave blanc.

In 1951 the film's conceptual creator, Ernesto Quadrone, wrote a report on the film project, the filming in Somalia and not least, his experiences with Dreyer as director. He presented detailed information on Dreyer's approach and events in a harsh and inaccessible country where Dreyer, as well as several of the other Europeans, succumbed to malaria. Quadrone’s

article was published in the Italian journal Cinema, N. 67, 1 August 1951. We have had it translated into Danish from Italian, because we believe that it contributes new knowledge about Dreyer and this relatively unknown chapter of his life. The article contains some inaccuracies, particularly the twice-mentioned year 1936, which is obviously wrong, since Dreyer's work with the film according to several sources took place in the first half of 1934. Editorial comments are added in brackets. Otherwise, the text is faithful to the original Italian article, except for some paragraph divisions.

Dreyer’s Mudundu: A victim of malaria

By Ernesto Quadrone

In 1936 [wrong year - it's 1934] Dreyer participated in an Africa expedition led by [the Italian journalist] Ernesto Quadrone. Dreyer, however, was so challenged by the environment and the strain that he had to abandon filming Mudundu. Quadrone would later complete the filming.

There are still no biographers of Carl Th. Dreyer who know why the Danish director, for several months, shirked the film industry’s vigilant curiosity, or where he had been hiding. Someone even claimed to have spotted him among the passengers on a ship to India. After a few months, others, inspired by this rumour and who wished to play into it, added that he had been sighted among pilgrims in a caravan in Tibet. This dark shadow that Dreyer has let rest over him has not yet been lifted. A few years ago, when Franco Altavilla interviewed Dreyer for the periodical La Stampa, Dreyer still did not mention his disappearance. I thought this silence was perhaps an attempt to quell this mysterious chapter of his life. I wanted to add a comment to Altavilla’s text, but in the end did not, because on further thought I felt that it did not reflect who I am. I would have continued to remain quiet if I had not had the feeling that Dreyer himself was waiting for me to break the silence. It was almost as if he said: "You know as much about it as I do. If you want to talk about it just do it. If there is a reason for it, I will also say something." If this brief and incomplete sketch should come before Mr. Dreyer’s eyes, I hope that he will receive it as an expression of the reverent friendship I have always cherished with him.

When I, in 1936 [again wrong year, it’s probably 1933], returned from a big-game hunting trip in Africa, which La Stampa had sent me on, I was so excited about everything I had seen that I set out to return to Africa to shoot a documentary. My enthusiasm and what little knowledge I had, convinced first my newspaper and then a group of friends in Turin, that they should invest money into the venture. First I went to Jerzy Toeplitz in his office in London, but he was not convinced. Instead, he equipped me with a very gracious letter to a film producer in Paris, a Russian émigré, whose name I will allow myself not to reveal [Quadrone is very likely speaking about the Russian tycoon Grinieff who produced La passion de Jeanne d'Arc for the Société Générale de Films].

The Russian had his office in a building on Rue de la Boetie right near the Place de l'Etoile, one of the most prestigious districts in Paris. His office’s décor was exclusively in light wood, with panels lined in magnificent Moroccan leather. Even the huge, semicircular desk (which occupied the entire one wall with its arch, and filled a good third of the room) was covered with scarlet leather. Behind this giant, curved barrier stood the man who (perhaps rightly) described himself as the one who controlled French film. He received me standing, with shoulders firmly propped against the wall and his hands in his pockets. At each of my subsequent visits, he stood in exactly the same position. I thought it was a natural and characteristic defensive position and did not doubt for one moment that he really had much to fear and defend himself against. But in reality, his private life did not concern me, or at least not then. A wonderfully beautiful woman sat collapsed in a chair. In the following years, I repeatedly saw her picture on the front pages of major American magazines, accompanied by the text: "Attention! It is not Greta Garbo, but Lady Abdy." She told me later that she had contacted the producer, who was her compatriot, to "make movies" but le patron had inexorably refused her. According to him, Lady Abdy (who was truly a noble lady, since she had married a real Lord) was at least 25 inches too high to, "fit on screen in her full height."

In the office at Rue de la Boetie, I also met Carl Th. Dreyer who was framed by the window, at the opposite end of the room. The pink and black Parisian sunset glow that fell in through the windows lit up his very blond, light and fine hair. He stood there with a slightly bowed head - I noticed later that that was a habit with him - and a gaze into his blue eyes was met with the arch of his eyebrows, which had the same color as his hair, just a bit brighter. He had a tough and strong-willed jaw, but a mild mouth whose lips recalled those of a pouting child. His round chin softened the rest of his face, and was in sharp contrast to his other traits. His very white skin blushed easily, so that no aggravation or other feelings could remain hidden. I subsequently learned that Dreyer was an immensely friendly man. When I was with him, I managed, for example, never to light a cigarette, while he carefully beat me with a lit match. Nevertheless, he demanded to always get his way. He demanded the impossible sometimes, but always with a smile and with much kindness. These and other expressions of Dreyer's uncompromising nature made it difficult for me to understand why he was so accommodating to this Russian, unless it was of course, an act of gratitude towards the man who, with one stroke, had made Dreyer famous by producing his La passion de Jeanne d'Arc.

When Dreyer came out of the light and walked towards me, he did so with such sincere warmth and a smile so friendly, that I immediately surrendered to him. In one breath, I told this small yet intimidating audience about the reason for my visit. I talked about my experiences, of my fascination with Africa and of my determination to return to shoot a film. I was so moved by my story that I had not noticed that the Russian had not shown the slightest interest in my words. I had started the conversation wrong, but when I, with a bit of mischief, began to list the names of some potential investors among my stories of the natives and lions and the river and the forest, le patron suddenly seemed to become even more enthusiastic for Africa than I. When he two hours later took leave of me and left me to Mr. Dreyer, he could not hide his enthusiasm.
"Think of it as an agreement and come back tomorrow," he told me.
"But," I tried to argue, "I return to Turin tonight."
"No way. You do not travel until you have agreed with Mr. Dreyer on the script and everything else ..." 
The Russian certainly doubted that I would return for the money, so he stuck Dreyer some large bills, ensuring that I had noticed. This money was apparently so that Dreyer could "entertain" me. I appreciated the thought, but not the strange deals and certainly not the gesture that accompanied it. Neither Dreyer nor I wanted to see Paris: The forthcoming work had supplanted all other thoughts. I remember only a single visit to Mrs. Dreyer and the couple's children, Dreyer idolized. And I still remember how the Russian winked at me when he gave me his hand to say goodbye.
"In a few days I send Mr. Dreyer down for you in Turin. And I will even come later."
I did not like the way he blinked. It seemed to me not so much as an expression of direct contact, but rather an invitation to engage in a kind of conspiracy. Dreyer was not that type. I also discovered later that when Dreyer was not focused on his work, he was not of this world. When I noticed this and tried to explain it to him, it brought to a stop the good relationship I had experienced between us. But this came much later.

Dreyer came as agreed to Turin a few days later, and this displaced even the Russian's physical appearance from my memory. We immediately went to work, and from that moment, Dreyer did not waste even a minute. It was as if he had been a part of a machine, which he at once controlled and was controlled by. Nothing else existed. Money had no value to him. The only money that mattered was that which the Russian had promised to send to his family. There was no script. Everything we had was a little story that we turned and twisted and changed every time we talked about it. In return, the "environment" began to take shape.

From the beginning I was delighted at how Dreyer asked about everything I told him about Africa, how he wanted a more in-depth picture of it and how he tried to get to the core of it. He skimmed curiously through what I knew, as if he tried to acquire the entire continent. He wrote all my answers to his numerous questions down on pieces of paper which he then reviewed and studied, and then began again to inquire about any detail that he had not fully understood, a phrase, a word, a colour, a sound, the sound of a voice which I had not described sufficiently or not precisely enough. The number of his small notes gradually multiplied to tenfold then a hundred-fold. We were still in Turin, but in reality we lived back in Africa. An example: Dreyer was looking for a "type" that we could take, an ordinary man who had never been an actor, but who would be able to become one. One evening when Dreyer went around from one theater to another, he finally found the person who fit the bill in the packed Teatro Alfieri. Dreyer would immediately engage him, but the amiable gentleman refused his offer, which was first made through lawyer Gianni Castagnetto and then by Dreyer himself. He had just come back from the Congo, where he had lived for a dozen years, and now he wanted to rest. In a glance, Dreyer had, among more than a thousand Turinese, found the ideal star for a movie about Africa.

When we were in Somalia, Dreyer was as familiar with the part of the country that was located between Mogadishu and Kisimaio and between the rivers Uebi Scebeli and Juba as I. He knew, and not only by name, some specific trees which he had me describe, from the roots to the leaves, and among whose branches he intended to hide the "rebels"; he knew a certain "harisc" (a square hut) right down to the proportions, and had already designated it as a future prison. He knew of the leprosy colony in Gelib, located on a small island in the Juba river, from which he briefly would allow fifty inhabitants to flee, he knew of a certain girl, a 15-year old "gheber" (virgin). He called her Fay, and under a sort of "press conference" (he had agreed to in advance) he would declare that no one other than he could talk to her. "Fays 'artistic' education," he said, "requires one and only one teacher who can guide her in one direction and subjugate her certain will: mine." It was true, but uncomfortable. But those who have worked with Dreyer and have learned from him how to conceive a film and prepare for its birth, can only be grateful to him for that, and may even be grateful for his stubbornness, his method, and his mandatory discipline. His precision was unforgiving. I observed a rather impressive scene where Dreyer, with one single glance and imperious gesture, got an employee who had come too late to hurriedly take away a cup that a servant in haste had brought to him from his mouth, just as the driver had put the vehicle into gear. They were to drive to Kisimaio, on a journey of discovery into the country. As soon as the unfortunate employee had detected Dreyer's sharp gaze upon him, he immediately returned the cup to the boy who accepted it with trembling hands, and the employee disappeared to his seat beside the driver.

The Russian paid a fleeting visit to Turin to collect the amount [among investors] that he owed Dreyer, besides the money for the manuscript, which he claimed that two experts worked feverishly on in Paris, and the technical equipment. Then I saw no more of him. Nor did the investors who had trusted him, see more of him.

Back then, some parts of Africa that we had planned to visit, were not entirely safe. Of all the organizational apparatus, which I had seen in the Rue de Boetie, I only recognized a poor little black-clad man with a battered top hat on his head, who jumped around between tracks on the yard at the port of Genoa, a few minutes before our ship weighed anchor. He came with the little equipment that the Russian had sent us from Paris: an old camera and a shaky tripod. Nothing more. Using this equipment we were to bring back 30-40 000 meters of footage from Somalia, while our actors spoke, besides Italian, only French and maybe a little English. The camera was the Russian's only contribution to the Parisian-Turinese cooperation. When we returned from Africa, it appeared that le patron had taken the old Debty [presumably Debrie] from a poor movie man who had been ill and hospitalized, and was therefore unable to hold on to the camera, which was everything he owned and which would have ensured his career and his future. With these anything but favorable omens began our journey and adventure.

Dreyer, however, remained totally unaffected by all these unfortunate incidents. His small notes, which from the trip’s very first day replaced all normal conversation between us, and prevented any discussion that could be, became his admirable creative world. It drew itself little by little; like a mosaic – the final “landscape” only he himself saw. Dreyer worked in his cabin, and I in mine, and he did not once allow me to leave mine during "work time", not even in the Red Sea’s scorching heat. Every time I had written one, two, three or more sentences of the script, depending on my inspiration and fan speed, I sent them over to Dreyer, who read them again and again and then sent them back to me, either because they did not work and I had to replace them with some others, or "archive" them with those which he had previously approved. In the evenings we would finally meet on deck to stretch our legs and talk about the day's work. In the few hours of "playtime" the great director revealed himself to be an incomparable travel companion.

Dreyer's method may have been tyrannical, but it gave good results and the work progressed. Dreyer was now one with our movie, the end result already envisioned, or rather enjoyed beforehand. When we got to Mogadishu, he was not the least touched that everything the little colony in any way could offer, was at his disposal. He was totally unaffected by the miracles which had been organized at a distance using radio telegrams sent from the ship. Maybe he did not notice that he would live in the governor’s mansion, where he was shown all the honor which his reputation deserved, and where he was received with great cordiality by Governor Vittorio Rava, who was a passionate film enthusiast, hunter, painter, photographer and researcher in colonial relations. Dreyer was not surprised - or did not show his surprise - to see the whole Mogadishu literally lie at his feet, nor did he appreciate the quaint greeting by hundreds and hundreds of natives along the roads and wheel tracks in the interior of the country where local concessionaires had lined up to celebrate our arrival. He saw nothing of all this, or did not want to see it because he believed it was all together too early. I realized later that his true strength was not to see, not to hear and not to think about random things. He allowed himself to never become distracted by "anticipation", but moved slowly and gradually toward the creation of the film, without jumping, notepaper after notepaper. Then when the crank finally began to turn, one was perhaps a little tired, but everyone had a clear awareness of what they did and so were free of hesitation and regret.

You cannot shoot movies in Africa without becoming an African. And I did everything for Dreyer to become one. Dreyer was not completely satisfied until he finally came to the headquarters that, through my arrangement two months before, an officer from Kisimai secured with the available resources. It was a small hotel, and since we were the only occupants, was completely quiet. Already on the first evening concession holders from the other side of the Juba River came to greet us and offer us help, which would later prove not only valuable, but also indispensable. These courageous pioneers had lived alone year after year and therefore had learned to do everything themselves, and they had conveyed these skills to the natives. Dreyer slept soundly the first night. He slept as though he had had a film studio at his fingertips, as well as film developing facilities and of course a movie theater where he could browse through the day's work. Maybe he slept without even giving it a thought that we had nothing else than a Debty camera [Debrie camera], "our" cameras, a lot of stamina and a certain experience, which together with the others, i.e. banana farmers, was very significant, coupled with a strong will and almost no budget.

The day after our arrival the first telegrams were received about other groups who were doing projects similar to ours. There was a film crew in Uganda, or maybe somewhere else, under the leadership of a German director who resided in London, thwarted by malaria. Only the director's brother and a photographer had been back for shooting exterior pictures; the rest of the movie was shot in Europe by means of rear projection. The film was actually completed some years later in a studio in London. Employees at Simon Arz's trading house told us about another German film crew that had come to a halt in Port Said, but had since disappeared in the Madagascar interior. One of our compatriots there on the island asked us over the radio whether we had heard anything new about our missing colleagues. Africa began to intrude. The local colour crept gradually into our skin along with the fever associated with shivering, and gradually began to awaken in us "old" African travelers. Photographer Mario Craveri, who was a knowledgeable and passionate 'Africanist', had, as he himself put it, a fever "totally out of the hair." The poor driver of the sound truck, who later died of malaria, was the first to stick the thermometer in his mouth and whose teeth began to chatter. The brave camera assistant Martini was the first to get tropical blisters all over his body. The only one who could not be affected was Carl. Th. Dreyer, who only allowed himself a bit of rest at night. Once he had decided that we were to awake at 4 am, and that work should continue until sunset— rest was irrelevant to him, as was malaria and sunstroke.

But unfortunately it was also his turn. Reluctantly, he buckled under the fatigue and fever, but first and foremost to the sun, which had knocked him completely out. The day he left was a sad day for all. We will remember it forever, and especially during the troublesome continued work that was frequently interrupted and delayed by the immense difficulties. It is thanks to Dreyer and his original initiative and everything he taught us that despite everything, we eventually (thanks to Mario Craveris’ work as a photographer) managed to get several thousand meters of usable film home to Europe. It is also to Dreyer's credit that the film, accompanied by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s music, now appears in North Africa. On departure day Carl Th. Dreyer – as we all had – was carried on the shoulders of his servant, the faithful and devoted Gibril, to a barge [a small flat bottomed loading and unloading vessel], which was waiting outside the sandbar, far from the surf. The small vessel sailed choppily on the water and then disappeared out over the Indian Ocean's warm and stormy waves. It is this remembrance that I, and all who worked with Carl Th. Dreyer, will always have of him.

Ernesto Quadrone
Published in Cinema, No. 67, 1st August 1951

Translated from Italian into Danish by Thomas Harder and from Danish into English by Lesley-Ann Brown

About Ernesto Quadrone: 
Born 1887, died ?. In a period before 1934 (and maybe even after the African film) he was employed as a journalist at La Stampa in Turin. Quadrone has published the following books / articles:

  • Mudundu – Cacciatori d’ombre in Equatore (1935 – 239 pages)
  • Sahara, genti e paesi (1938, Fratelli Treves – Milano)
  • La veritá sulla Morte di Italo Balbo (New York Times 2. juli 1940, 7:2 – Tempo, april 22, 1954 – Giordano Bruno Guerri: Italo Balbo (Milan, 1984, p. 239)

See also (only in Danish or French): 
Martin Drouzy: Carl Th. Dreyer født Nilsson, bd. II, p. 148-151 (Gyldendal, 1982), or the translation into French: Carl Th. Dreyer né Nilsson