09 October 2016


French actor, director and art director Donatien aka Emile-Bernard Donatien (1887-1955) was active in silent French cinema of the 1920s.

Donatien aka Emile-Bernard Donatien
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, Paris, no. 214.


Donatien was born Emile-Charles-Bernard Wessbecher in Paris but from Alsacian descent, in 1887. After his studies he focused on art decoration for the theatre and in 1918 he opened a shop and ateliers in Paris and Deauville.

He started in cinema in 1919 as production designer thanks to Marcel L'Herbier, who took him on for his film Rose-France (Marcel L'Herbier, 1919) with Jaque Catelain. L'Herbier helped him to establish a reputation in designing apartments and collecting Medieval and Chinese antiques.

Rose-France was followed by Li Hang le Cruel/Li Hang the Cruel (1920) by Edouard-Emile Violet with whom Donatien often would collaborate. He played in three more films by Violet: Les mains flétries/The Branded Hands (Edouard-Emile Violet, 1920), L'auberge/The inn (Donatien, Edouard-Emile Violet, 1922) based on a novel by Guy de Maupassant, and La ruse/The guile (Edouard-Emile Violet, 1924), and codirecting with him L'auberge and Les hommes nouveaux (Donatien, Edouard-Emile Violet, 1922).

In fact, in 1920 Donatien had not only expanded his activities with film directing and film acting, playing in and directing Une histoire de brigands (Donatien, 1920), but he really became the jack-of-all-trades, as art director, costume designer, actor, director, editor and producer.

From 1922 on, Donatien's career went into overdrive, directing one film after another, often with himself in the lead or in a supporting role, and with Lucienne Legrand in the female lead. Privately, she was his partner as well. The couple was much helped by French film mogul Louis Aubert, who enabled them to shoot in various countries and realize prestigious period pieces such as Florine, la fleur du Valois/Florine, the flower of Valois (Donatien, 1926) or the science fiction film Le chateau de la mort lente/The castle of the slow death (Donatien, 1925).

Donatien's overall presence was even sustained by showing him on the title role, inspecting his own celluloid. Of course set decoration was highly present in his films, accentuated by light effects.

Lucienne Legrand
Lucienne Legrand. French postcard by A.N., Paris, no. 159. Photo: G.L. Manuel Frères.

French postcard by A.N., Paris, no. 181. Photo: G.L. Manuel Frères. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Arrested by the Gestapo

Donatien aborted a collaboration in Germany after he shot only one film, Miss Edith, duchesse (Donatien, 1929) starring Lucienne Legrand and Rolla Norman. He returned to France to direct his last silent film L'arpète (Donatien, 1929) with Lucienne Legrand.

In 1930 he made the film Pogrom, shot in Palestine, Tunisia, Greece and the Cote d'Azur. Tragically the negative burned down at the laboratory of Eclair in Epinay. Painstakingly Donatien made one sound film, a remake of Mon cure chez les riches/My cure to the rich (Donatien, 1932), and then quitted film altogether.

He left Paris and established himself in the Jura, where he directed some stage plays and focused on ceramics. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1940 and hardly escaped deportation.

Donatien was the uncle of actress Claude Romet, who is told to have helped Donatien in the 1950s when he focused on ceramics. He was also the cousin of general Marie-Pierre Koenig.

It seems that because of his reputation as an art decorator, Donatien never reached real fame as filmmaker. Emile-Bernard Donatien died in 1955 in Appoigny, France.

Rolla Norman
Rolla Norman. French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 140.

Sources: CinéRessources (French), 1895 (French), Wikipedia (French), and IMDb.

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