The Bonfire of Destiny, a Parisian Disaster on Netflix

One of the biggest fires in the 19th century has inspired a series coproduced by French television network TF1 and Netflix, streaming in the United States since December 26.
© Quad Television/TF1 Studio

In Paris during the Belle Epoque, the Bazar de la Charité sale organized by the Baron de Mackau was an annual get-together for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Women in hoop skirts and men in top hats arrived in horse-drawn carriages to purchase works of art and discover the French capital’s latest trends. At the 1897 auction, visitors were astonished by a new invention: the cinematograph.

A screening of L’Arroseur arrosé was interrupted on May 4 at 4:15 pm, and the room was plunged into darkness. The projector’s ether lamp had gone out, and a match struck by an assistant set fire to the vapors. The fire spread to the tarred cloths on the projection room’s walls, then to the bazar’s wood paneling, drapes, curtains, and papier-mâché decorations. In less than 20 minutes, the building on the Rue Jean-Goujon in the 8th arrondissement was devoured by the flames.

There was no emergency exit, and the revolving doors only let one visitor out at a time. Panic seized the crowd; some men even swung their canes to force their way out. “At my left I caught a glimpse of an old lady emerging from an adjacent door, and saw her stumble on her skirt,” said Elsie Bushbeck, a Philadelphia native who was at the auction, in a New York Times interview. “The next instant, some twenty people piled on top of her.”

A National Tragedy

At 5 pm, reported newspaper Le Matin, “we glimpsed the mournful, black debris of what used to be the Bazar de la Charité.” There were 131 victims, mostly women, including countesses, baronesses, marquises, their servants, and their children. The niece of New York mayor William Lafayette Strong managed to escape, but the Duchess of Alençon, the Empress Elizabeth’s sister, was killed. The Notre-Dame-de-Consolation chapel was built on the site of the Bazar near the Champs-Elysées to commemorate the tragedy.

The front page of Le Petit Journal, May 16, 1897. © BNF/Gallica

The fire led to the introduction of modern safety standards in public places, as well as the invention of the electric movie projector by the Lumière brothers. This disaster also serves as a starting point for the 8-episode series The Bonfire of Destiny, written by Catherine Ramberg and Karine Spreuzkouski. Against the backdrop of women’s rights during the late 19th century, the series follows three women affected by the fire: a member of the bourgeoisie (Audrey Fleurot, seen in The Intouchables and A French Village), her niece, and her servant.

The secondary roles include Stéphane Guillon as the head of security leading the investigation, Gilbert Melki as a career-driven politician, and Josiane Balasko as a matriarch trying, in her own way, to deal with losing her daughter. “I invented all the characters, said screenwriter Catherine Ramberg in an interview with newspaper Le Parisien. “However, the costumes are identical replicas. We worked really hard on reproducing them using engravings from the time.”