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A pessimistic urban drama, with a musical score by Jack Sels and Max Damasse, charts in strongly expressionistically lit black-and-white images the wanderings of a tormented man through the cosmopolitan port city of Antwerp. The only people to show him understanding are an orphan and two disillusioned women. Written by
A movie made by a film critic (Roland Verhavert), a writer (Ivo Michiels) and an amateur film-maker (Rik Kuypers). The film introduced aesthetics into Flemish film and heralded the beginning of a serious fully-formed cinema. See more »
Seen as the first artistic Belgian film A film containing Dutch (Flemish and even more specific an Antwerp dialect), German, French and English, you cannot get more Belgian than this on a language level.
1955 was the year the French, German, English and Italian national film production had resurrected and this was infectious for neighbouring European countries, even those were no film culture had resided. Belgium is a special case (as it is in many, if not most, aspects) for Seagulls Die in the Harbour is the "first artistic endeavour in the art of film in Flanders and even Belgium" (Erik Martens, head of division 'verspreiding filmcultuur' VAF, 2015) and after it, Belgium had to wait eleven years, until The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short for a film to reach the same standards.
There was no government funding for Seagulls Die in the Harbour, Bruno De Winter had to search for sponsors, who had an impact on the esthetics of the film as they demanded Antwerp and its harbour to be shown in all its glory. This is most present in the flashback, as various famous (maybe I am not the best judge, as I grew up in Antwerp) touristic landmarks are shown. The absence of a government system subsidising Flemish film production is the major cause of the complete dearth of quality films between 1955 and 1966.
Of the three directors Rik Kuypers was the most able to handle a camera, and even he was just an amateur, Ivo Michiels and Roland Verhavert had been film journalists up to that point. The binding factor of these three men was their cinefilia, which is reflected in the esthetic of the film; Meeuwen sterven in de haven (Seagulls Die in the Harbour) possesses a film-noir, expressionistic atmosphere, reminiscent to The Third Man.
The film handles a sensitive subject for most Flemish in the post-war era, namely the sense of guilt felt by the Flemish nationalists and even sympathisants, as the Flemish nationalist party had collaborated with the Third Reich in hope to acquire independence. It would last until the seventies before Flemish nationalism recovered from that fatal blow, but even today people still easily use the word 'fascist' when they speak about the NV-A (the new Flemish Nationalist party).
The protagonist in the film, played by Julien Schoenaerts (yes, he is the father of that one Belgian actor), has a strong sense of nostalgia and melancholy to the times before the war, before the people were physically, but more so mentally destroyed. He cannot live in a country were everyone despises him. This sense of shame is a motive in the works of all the three directors, all held Flemish nationalist ideologies.
The relation between Gigi (the girl of six years old) and the protagonist has only one function, to convince the audience that he has a heart of gold an is in fact a 'good' guy. It would go to far as to purely describe it as an act of revisionism, but it does play a factor.
Yet, for all the importance of this film, historically, esthetically and symbolically, purely as film it is not great. Most of the actors had only acted on stage before, the three directors all made their debut with this film and the film suffers from identity crisis in its effort to portray the beautiful side of Antwerp to please the sponsors, display the shame of the Flemish nationalist and the fact that he in fact is not bad.
The benefit of this identity crisis is the room for different interpretations, as can be seen by the success Seagulls Die in the Harbour attained in Russia; communist could read the role of the American liberators as the primary force of all consequences in the film and anti-communist saw a protagonist rebelling against his government.
Because of this it is likely that more Russian have seen the film than Belgians, because even we almost never care for Belgian films, then and now.
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