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The Cinematograph as an Agent of History

Page history last edited by girl_athena@... 5 years, 8 months ago

Kamila Kuc


The photographic apparatus as a nonliving agent


For many classic film theorists such as André Bazin, the invention of photography in the 19th century was a response to the human’s supposed psychological need for illusion created by ‘a mechanical reproduction’. According to Bazin, the arrival of photography was precipitated by a crisis of realism in painting, a crisis that emerged from a certain tension between the ‘aesthetic and the psychological’ (Bazin, 2005a: 12-13). Bazin believed that photography had ‘freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness’ and, in doing so, addressed a ‘psychological’ problem: the human need to preserve images for posterity, thus winning the battle against time and ‘spiritual death’ (Bazin, 2005a: 9). For Bazin photography was characterized by a greater objectivity than painting, as he considered the photographic apparatus a ‘nonliving agent’: ‘for the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of a man’, he pronounced (Bazin, 2005a: 13). Because of its ability to reproduce movement, cinema took this aspiration to realism a step further as it was capable of capturing, or simply functioning as, ‘objectivity in time’ (Bazin, 2005a: 14). It was in film that, for the first time in the history of vision, ‘the image of things [was] likewise the image of their duration’ (Bazin, 2005a: 15).


One could argue that, ever since its emergence, this task of faithfully representing reality has been imposed on cinema because of its ability to capture motion. And it is precisely the notion of movement that brings together – and separates – the complex and interrelated histories of photography and film. Both media have been burdened with claims about their supposed objectivity as something that shapes and defines their ontology. It is also because of its extensive use in science, for example in providing records of surgical operations, that it was traditionally believed, especially in the early days of the medium, that cinema’s main destiny was to document reality. Among those who held this view was an internationally renowned Pole, Boleslaw Matuszewski (1856-1944), who was convinced that film’s most important role was to faithfully capture the world as it was. Matuszewski was a keen theorist, photographer (he owned two photographic studios: one in Paris, one in Warsaw) and filmmaker. This essay revisits Matuszewski’s understanding of the cinematic apparatus as a witness of history in relation to Karen Barad’s notion of agential realism. A clear tension between the objective and subjective approach to filmmaking is revealed once we allow the claim that the cinematic apparatus is not just a witness to history but also its active agent. In what follows I will show that, on the one hand, early documentary practices were seen as a rather conventional, straightforward record of reality, as embodied in Matuszewski’s actualities (aka proto-documentaries) and the principle of ‘capturing life unawares’. On the other hand, the 1920s and 1930s avant-garde experiments with documentary allow us to situate this type of filmmaking within the realm of more subjective and, to use Barad’s term, more agential storytelling, as seen, for example, in Dziga Vertov’s or Walter Ruttmann’s city symphonies.


The cinematograph as a creator of history


Matuszewski’s seminal article ‘The New Source of History: The Creation of a Depository for historical cinematography’ (1898) is one of the first texts concerning the ontology of the cinematic image.[1] An admirer of both still photography and the cinematograph, Matuszewski believed that the latter was less open to manipulation than photography. For him photographs could be retouched, ‘even to the point of transformation. But just try to make identical changes on… microscopic images!’ (Matuszewski, 1898a).[2] For Matuszewski the superiority of the cinematograph rested in the fact that, unlike any other medium, it could reliably reproduce movement, and hence life. For him, ‘authenticity, exactitude and precision’ were intrinsic to ‘animated photography’ (Matuszewski, 1898b). Matuszewski’s belief in the impartiality of the cinematic lens led him to a conviction that film was actually capable of correcting the errors of history. A Polish weekly paper commented on the publication of Matuszewski’s ‘A New Source of History’ as follows:


As a work of the human mind, every literary or printed source must, from the very nature of things, be more or less reticent. Because of this, historical truth is relative. However, the cinematograph – unmistakably a source of, as they say, mechanical history – is an absolutely truthful document: the cinematograph never lies. (Anonymous, 1898).[3]


Matuszewski considered his actuality, The Visit of President Faure in St Petersburg (1898), an expression of this view. The film documented the visit of President Faure to St Petersburg. During this visit, Otto von Bismarck accused the French President Félix Faure of breaching a certain diplomatic etiquette by not taking his hat off while reviewing a guard of honour. Matuszewski’s footage challenged this claim by showing that Faure did indeed do so, thus preventing a historical error and a possible diplomatic conflict.[4]For Matuszewski this film proved itself a reliable eye-witness, as the cinematograph verified ‘verbal testimony’ (Matuszewski, 1898a). He believed that ‘if human witnesses contradict each other about an event, the cinematograph could ‘resolve the disagreement by silencing the one that it belies’ (Matuszewski, 1898a).


For this reason, the filmmaker considered a celluloid strip not simply a historical document, but a part of history in its own right. The process of recording reality was thus the very act of creating history for him, which he believed was the filmmaker’s greatest responsibility (Matuszewski, 1898a). Such a view conflates different senses of ‘history’: as a record and document, as well as analysis and discourse. Matuszewski’s idea that a celluloid strip constituted a part of history not only granted the cinematograph more seriousness, but it also made a stronger claim for the reliability of the recorded image. This echoes the German historian Leopold von Ranke’s concept of writing history.13 Because of his critical use of documents as the model for historical research and writing in the 19th century, Ranke is often referred to as the ‘father of historical science’. Influenced by German Idealist thought and figures such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schelling, Ranke’s method can be summarised in the idea of holding on ‘strictly to the facts of history’.


For Ranke a proper understanding of history required a reconstruction of the past, which stressed the importance of the relevant facts and the use of a strict critical method. This included ‘a documentary, penetrating, profound study’ as a necessary approach. Ranke considered history an art but, unlike other arts, history required the ability to recreate (Iggers, 2010: xi). The ideal historian, for Ranke, should therefore possess certain qualities, the most important one being his ‘pure love of truth’ (Ranke, 1830: 12). He believed that ‘by recognizing something sublime in the event, the condition, or the person we want to know something about, we acquire a certain esteem for that which has transpired, passed, or appeared’ (Ranke, 1830: 12).


However, for Ranke, the factual establishment of events did not yet constitute history and the historian was not a passive observer who merely recorded events: instead, the historian actively recreated a historical subject matter by relying on empirical observation and was ‘bound by the reality of his subject matter’ (Iggers, 2010: xxvii). The ability to ‘portray the forces of history without interjecting one’s own set of values is the core of objectivity’, thus impartiality was of key importance (Iggers, 2010: 2). For Ranke universal history could never be a mere compilation of national histories, but the history of the nations had to be related to a ‘broader course of world history’ (Iggers, 2010: 84). He valued an ‘honest’ historian who could confront the documents and thus attain an objective view of the great facts, ‘free from the mutual accusations of the contemporaries and the often restricted view of their posterity’ (Iggers, 2010: 84).


According to Ranke, history was given a task of ‘judging the past’ and ‘of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages’ (Ranke, 1824: 57).For him a reliable historian should be able to show ‘what actually happened’ (‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’) (Ranke, 1824: 57). Similarly, Matuszewski was convinced that the human word failed as the only evidence in the recollection of historical events and that the cinematograph could correct this failure because it offered a reliable and objective view. Like Ranke, Matuszewski thought that history could teach future generations how to avoid political errors: ‘Do you believe that some knowledge of past events contains nothing useful which is applicable to the present or future?’, asked Ranke (Ranke, 1836: 77).The aim of history was not so much to ‘gather facts and to arrange them as to understand them’ (Ranke, 1836: 77).Although it is not clear whether Matuszewski had ever read Ranke, many of Ranke’s beliefs, prominent at the time, were reflected in the way Matuszewski perceived the role of film in society.


Matuszewski’s appreciation of the cinema’s documentary values was echoed in subsequent debates about the processes of recording history. For example, in 1931 the President of the American Historical Association, Carl L. Becker commented on the fact that many historical events are only known ‘imperfectly’ because we can ‘never revive them, never observe or test them directly’ (Becker, 1931: 221). Becker continued that once the event had occurred, it had disappeared, ‘so that in dealing with it the only objective reality we can observe or test is some material trace which the event had left – usually a written document’ (Becker, 1931: 221). As an effect, Becker distinguished two histories: ‘the actual series of events that once occurred; and the ideal series that we affirm and hold in memory. The first is absolute and unchanged – it was what it was whether we do or say about it; the second is relative, always changing in response to the increase or refinement of knowledge’ (Becker, 1931: 221).


This complex relationship between the actual and the related events is at the heart of Matuszewski’s film, which illustrates the limitation in the process of writing history with words. The numerous imperfections in relating historical events could be successfully avoided in film, as seen in The Visit of President Felix Faure. Although Matuszewski claims that the process of recording reality counts as the very act of creating history, often in his discourse the apparatus of cinema, i.e. the actual cinematographic machine, seems to function as an objective and passive agent. Similarly, in his claim about a greater authenticity of photography over painting, Bazin supports himself with an observation that ‘the lens’ in French is ‘the objectif’, a nuance that seems lost in English (Bazin, 2005a: 13). In the process of revisiting such claims Karen Barad’s notion of agential realism, which I will discuss at the end of this essay, will prove instructive.


Actualities and the avant-garde documentary tradition: between objectivity and subjectivity


Matuszewski’s own films were of documentary (Coronation of Tsar Nicolas II, 1896; The Jubilee of the Queen of England, Victoria, 1897 and The Visit of President Faure in St Petersburg, 1898), ethnographic (Travels in Spała and Białowieża, 1895) and educational character (Surgical operations in Warsaw, 1895). His practical and theoretical works testify to a certain tension that existed in cinema from its beginning: the one between what film-makers and critics alike perceived as objective and subjective forms of filmmaking. The key films of the 1920s and 1930s avant-garde were typically seen to be of a documentary nature: for example, Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929, Soviet Union) and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). These films to a great degree reflected the growing politicization of the avant-gardes, as captured in Hans Richter’s 1934 book, The Struggle for the Film, in which the filmmaker traced a departure of numerous avant-garde filmmakers from a purist, formalist filmmaking to a politically and socially concerned filmmaking of the late 1920s and 1930s. 


By the 1920s the documentary was also one of the most popular film genres in Poland. Productions such as Praca Polski na morzu (Polish Work at the Sea, produced by Sea and River League, 1928) and Łódź – miasto pracy (Stefan Grodzieński, 1927) (Banaszkiewicz and Witczak, 1989: 245-246) all derived fromthe early actualities by filmmakers like Matuszewski. Let us first consider the differences between actualities and documentaries, because it is in this distinction that the more creative role of the supposedly realist and representational filmmaking comes to the fore. Tom Gunning understood ‘actuality’ as ‘the practice before World War One’, whereas such practices after the Great War are referred to as ‘documentary’ – the term which has been in use since John Grierson’s 1926 review of Robert J. Flaherty’s Moana (1926) (Gunning, 1997: 23).In Grierson’s view Flaherty ‘had created a film of documentary value’, which nevertheless involved a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Grierson, in Loiperdinger, 1997: 25). The founder of the British Documentary Movement therefore clearly believed that the filming of ‘actuality’ in itself did not constitute what might be seen as the ‘truth’. Actuality footage had to be subjected to a creative process ‘to reveal its truth’. He distinguished documentaries from other films made from ‘natural material’, such as newsreels, scientific and educational films. Film could not just describe and photograph – it needed to analyse and synthesise. Only through this process, Grierson claimed, could creativity emerge, and he believed that his film The Drifters (1929) was an expression of such an approach.


This creative approach to the recording of reality discussed by Grierson as a mark of difference between actuality and documentary relies on a particular intervention and embraces the notion of the cut (i.e. edit) in the process of shaping the film’s form and content. It is because, as we know well by now, the practice of editing is by no means neutral. Prompted by this realisation, in Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (2012) Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska ask: if we must always cut – as writers, photographers and film-makers, then ‘what does it mean to cut well?’ (Kember and Zylinska, 2012: 71). One possible answer to this question can be found in Bazin’s writings. For the Cahiers du Cinéma theorist the decisive cut is not just an aesthetic, but also an ethical notion, which is a point that Kember and Zylinska also make. Not one in favour of the fast cutting and montage techniques of Sergei Eisenstein, Bazin preferred the deep focus of Orson Welles and the long takes of the Italian Neorealist directors. He believed that these latter techniques created a greater illusion of reality and thus brought cinema closer to life (Bazin, 2005b).Yet ‘reality’ remains a highly contested and subjective term, given its reliance on editorial decisions, choices and cuts.


As for the links between documentary and the avant-grade, Bill Nichols argues that what fulfilled Grierson’s desire for ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ most relentlessly was the modernist avant-garde (Nichols, 2001: 592). It can thus be said that the evolution of documentary went hand in had with the development of avant-garde tendencies in film. They both utilised each other’s techniques: ‘Modernist techniques of fragmentation and juxtaposition lent an artistic aura to documentary that helped to distinguish it from the cruder form of early actualities or newsreels’ (Nichols, 2001: 583).


It was the experimental use of film that, according to Nichols, turned an actuality into a documentary. In consequence, ‘documentary, like avant-garde film, cast the familiar in a new light…’ (Nichols, 2001: 580).Nichols thus considers documentary as a mature version of actuality and an important genre of avant-garde film. For Matuszewski the raw footage of actuality was enough to consider it a faithful representation of reality as the cinema’s artistic status rested in its unique qualities as an objective source of historical events. The mission to represent reality faithfully was, he believed, the cinematograph’s raison d'être. In a similar vein, in his 1935 book Documentary Film, Paul Rotha recognised the early actualities’ capability of recording ‘spontaneity of natural behaviour’ as ‘a cinematic quality’ (Rotha: 1935, 79).Matuszewski’s preoccupation with film in the service of the nation and his recognition of film’s nation-building qualities resembles not only Polish Romantic beliefs but also an approach employed by such key figures of the international avant-garde film scene as Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov.


In his argument for making a connection between documentary and avant-garde films, Nichols points out four elements that contributed to the formation of a documentary film wave. Only one of these elements, Nichols argues, ‘had been in place since 1895’ (Nichols, 2001: 586).Incidentally, this element is most crucial to my argument as it refers to ‘the capacity of cinema to record visible phenomena with great fidelity’ (Nichols, 2001: 586).  Here Matuszewski’s attitude towards shaping historical consciousness through the use of film puts him at the forefront of the debates about the propagandist values of film. His recognition of the propagandist values of cinema corresponds to some degree with that of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928). Although highly stylized and heavily cut, Eisenstein’s films, like Matuszewski’s actualities, reflect Nichols’s belief in the documentary’s power to ‘alter our perception of the world’ (Nichols, 2001: 596).


Both Matuszewski and Eisenstein shared a certain level of utopian visionary romanticism as far as the role of cinema was concerned.According to Sheila Skaff, Matuszewski’s writing was ‘informed by the nineteenth century Polish Romantic nationalist literary tradition and its sense for longing identity, which has fallen into a slumber and must be reawakened’ (Skaff, 2008: 33). Matuszewski’s proposal concerning the importance of preserving aspects of army life is relevant here. He thought that footage of army battles could be shown to the future generations of soldiers and civilians (Matuszewski, 1898a). In this vein, in 1900 Robert W. Paul filmed The Army Life or How Soldiers Are Made: Mounted Infantry, a silent propaganda actuality, which featured the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment riding over a plain. Both Matuszewski and Paul recognized the nation-building values of the cinematograph and its potential for strengthening patriotic feelings and preserving tradition – a function that, particularly in the occupied Polish territories, was previously performed by literature and painting. In filming soldiers fighting for the freedom of their country, Matuszewski saw the resurrection of national values and the promotion of patriotism, as seen in the art of painting (Mazaraki, 2006: 40).His need to present ‘the true’ version of history was may have been driven by his coming from a country which for many years had been affected by the reversals of history (Mazaraki, 2006: 40). He saw the cinematograph as playing an important part in the process of a creating new national consciousness and cultural identity of the Poles. To this end, Matuszewski considered the role of a filmmaker as that of an orator who offers moral and political guidance to the masses by means of film.


Taking into account Poland’s political situation and its geographical positioning in the 19th century, it is no surprise that Matuszewski emphasised the need for objectivity in the process of recording history in an accurate manner. There had been no Polish state since the partition of 1795 (Wandycz, 1996). Divided between the three occupiers: Austria, Prussia and Russia, Poland existed only as an idea. His conviction about the role of the cinematograph as a reliable witness to history are also a reflection of the spirit of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century.


In his ongoing commitment to representing reality faithfully, Matuszewski believed in cinematic truth as the ultimate truth. It was mainly because of the cinematograph’s ability to record reality in an accurate manner that he proposed to establish a legitimate film archive, an act which the British film historian Penelope Houston has described as ‘one of the most unexpected and remarkable in film history’ (Houston, 1994: 10). For Matuszewski, cinematographic documents deserved the same level of authority as any other objects kept in a museum. Matuszewski also wanted to publish a periodical of animated photography with an international editorial board – Chronotografia i jej zastosowanie – which was to be used as a platform to discuss film preservation and other issues concerning cinema.


Matuszewski’s proposal recalls Robert Paul’s 1897 letter to the British Museum, ‘Animated Photos of London Life’, in which he expressed the need to create an archive devoted to the moving image, for pieces of history to be safely stored (Matuszewski, 1898b).Matuszewski’s recognition of the need of a moving image archive brings him close to the preoccupations of the later film avant-gardes, since the question of film archives formed an ongoing debate among numerous avant-garde filmmakers in the late 1920s, particularly since, as Malte Hagener points out, the avant-garde was largely responsible for the naturalization of documentary (Hagener, 2007: 36). In 1928 Walter Ruttmann highlighted the need for a film archive of sorts. Such archive, Ruttmann believed, would preserve and make available all those important films ‘which failed to be successful’ (Ruttmann, in Hagener, 2007: 113). Matuszewski was thus at the forefront of the ideas of archiving and preserving moving image works.


The very process of recording history also makes us reflect on the role of documentary cinema in the avant-garde tradition. As shown here, for theorists such as Nichols the evolution of documentary took place alongside the various developments in avant-garde film, as both genres utilised each other’s techniques. This, I suggest, permits us to view Matuszewski’s supposedly ‘objective’ work in the context of more experimental, subjective filmmaking.


In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007) Karen Barad proposes to view apparatuses as active agencies and ‘boundary-making practices’. For her apparatuses are ‘specific material reconfigurings of the world that do not merely emerge in time but interatively reconfigure spacetimematter as part of the ongoing dynamism of becoming’ (Barad, 2007: 142). To this end she considers apparatuses as material-discursive practices. They are ‘not passively observing instruments’ but are capable of producing differences that matter; hence they are boundary-making practices that are ‘formative of matter and meaning’ (Barad, 2007: 142, 146). The apparatuses can reconfigure the world and here Matuszewski’s film proves that the apparatus’s record shaped the course of history and helped to avoid a diplomatic disaster. This conclusion corresponds with Barad’s agential realism, which proposes that ‘phenomena do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of observer and observed … rather phenomena are ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting “agencies”’ (Barad, 2007: 139). Apparatuses, according to Barad, are thus themselves phenomena and have no intrinsic boundaries, thus they constitute open-ended practices (Barad, 2027: 142).


Barad’s notion of ‘intra-actions’ suggests that individuals ‘do not preexist as such but rather materialize in intra-action’, which means that they ‘only exist within phenomena’ (materialized/materializing relations) ‘in their ongoing iteratively intra-active reconfiguring’ (Barad, in Kleinman, 2012: 77). Most importantly, for Barad, the intra-actions enact ‘agential separability’ – ‘the condition of exteriority-within-phenomena’ (Barad in Kleinman, 2012: 77). Barad’s notion of agential realism does not begin with any predetermined set of fixed differences. Instead, it aims at making inquiries into how differences are made, ‘stabilised and destablised’ (Barad in Kleinman, 2012: 77).  Barad’s argument goes beyond the objective/subjective divide: she claims that apparatuses actually shape the history on the material level, beyond the thoughts and passions of their individual human users. Seen in this light, Matuszewski’s cinematograph – or, indeed, any other camera – is not a passive witness to history but an active creator and agent of it. The more recent uses of highly portable, digital devices that upload content to various Internet platforms with immediate effect – as seen, for example, in Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian revolution, The Square (2013), in which such small devices played a crucial role – testify to the medium’s active (even if not determining) role in all kinds of history-making.




Anonymous (1898) ‘Z tygodnia na tydzień’, Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 31.


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Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press.


Bazin, A. (1945/2005a) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.


Bazin, A. (1945/2005b) ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’ in D. Andrews (ed.), What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.


Becker, C. L. (1931) ‘Everyman His Own Historian’, American Historical Review 37 (2). 


Gunning, T. (1997) ‘Before Documentary: Early Non-fiction Films and the View Aesthetics’, in D. Hertogs and N. Klerk (eds), Uncharted Territory: Essays on Early Nonfiction Film. Amsterdam: Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum.


Hagener, M. (2007) Moving Forward, Looking Back: The European Avant-Garde and the Invention of Film Culture 1919-1939. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Houston, P. (1994) Keepers of the Frame: The Film. London: British Film Institute.


Iggers, G. (ed.) (2010) Leopold von Ranke: The Theory and Practice of History. London and New York: Routledge.


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Kleinman, A. (2012) ‘Intra-actions: An Interview with Karen Barad’, Mousse, 34.


Loiperdinger, M. (1997) ‘World War I Propaganda Films and the Birth of the Documentary’ in D. Hertogs & N. Klerk (eds), Uncharted Territory. Essays on Early Nonfiction Film. Amsterdam: Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum.


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Nichols, B. (2001) ‘Documentary Film and the Modernist Avant-Garde’, Critical Inquiry, 27 (4).


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[1] Matuszewski’s seminal article was written and originally published in French as ‘Une nouvelle source de l’histoire (création d’un dépôt de cinématographie historique)’. Here I am using Julia Bloch Frey’s translation, with an introduction by William D.Routt at La Trobe University website: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/classics/clasjul/matintro.html. Translated by Julia Bloch Frey. Accessed on 16 July 2007 [1898].

[2] Matuszewski, ‘La photographie animée, ce qu’elle est et ce qu’elle doit être’ (‘Animated photography. As it is and as it should be’) at La Trobe University: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/classics/clasjul/matintro.html. Translated by William D.Routt and Danielle Pottier-Lacroix. Accessed on 16 July 2007 [1898].

[3] My italics.

[4] Le Figaro from 12 January 1898 confirmed that Matuszewski’s film challenged von Bismarck’s claim: ‘Or, voici qu’avant-hier le cinématographe reproduisit précisément la scène de l’arrivée de M.Félix Faure a Saint-Pétersbourg. Et chacun put voir le Président s’avancer à pas lents, devant le front, et baisser tout à coup son chapeau, d’un geste large et correct, - ce geste que tous les Parisiens connaissent bien’. Le Petit Journal from 15 July 1898 stated that, thanks to documents such as Matuszewski’s footage, Bismarck’s assertion could have been refuted: ‘C’est même grâce à ces documents qu’on a pu réfuter l’assertion de Bismarck, qui prétendait que M. Félix Faure avait omis de se découvrir devant le drapeau russe à son débarquement’.




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