This Land is Mine is both a great film and a terribly flawed one. It’s talky. It can be almost unbearably self-righteous. It has none of the romance or style of Casablanca. Nevertheless, any film that stars Charles Laughton in his prime is worth revisiting. What’s more, This Land is Mine was directed by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir. While not on the same level as Rules of the Game or The Grand Illusion, it’s far and away more intelligent, and politically radical than most films that came out of Hollywood, even in the 1930s and 1940s.
The setting is a small town in an unnamed country in Nazi occupied Europe. It’s Vichy France, but Renoir leaves it ambiguous. He wants This Land is Mine to be about the universal struggle between democracy and fascism, not about a nationalist war between the French and the Germans. Charles Laughton plays Albert Lory. Lory, a schoolteacher who still lives with his mother, is a timid, unprepossessing man in his 40s, quite obviously a virgin, and deeply in love with Louise Martin, a fellow schoolteacher. Martin, a very young Maureen O’Hara, is a fiery patriot who hates the Nazis. Her brother Paul is an underground resistance fighter who carries out acts of sabotage against the occupation, but she’s also engaged to George Lambert, a local factory owner and fascist collaborator.
Renoir was a solid anti-fascist. Joseph Goebbels declared his film The Grand Illusion “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1.” But what makes This Land is Mine so fascinating after all these years is how Lambert, Manville, the collaborationist Mayor , and the Nazi military commander Major Erich von Keller are complex, three dimensional human beings, not cartoon villains. Von Keller is an evil, manipulative political mastermind, but he’s not stupid. He knows that being appointed military governor over a resentful, sullen, occupied people is no easy job. This is Vichy, not Poland. Von Keller not only has to rule with an iron hand. He has to keep up the charade that the local civilian government is still in charge, that Manville is more than just a puppet. Manville is just the typical politician who bends with the prevailing wind. Lambert is the most interesting character of all. Played by suave British actor George Sanders, George Lambert embodies the inner conflicts of the bourgeoisie, of the French capitalist who depends on the German occupier to put down a revolutionary proletariat he can’t control himself.
“I too fought the unions Major Von Keller, right here in this (railroad) yard. I was very nearly killed. But you had a leader and were many. We had no leader and were few. That’s why you’re here.”
The American and British attitude towards the French under Nazi occupation has always had an air of bad faith. How would the British have acted had the English Channel, and the Royal Navy, not been in between them and the Wermacht? We actually know. They turned tail and ran, pulled their army out of Europe at Dunkirk and abandoned the French to their fate. The United States, in turn, sat out the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and only opened up the western front in June of 1944, long after the Soviet Union already had the Germans on the run. The American and British ruling classes were spared the decisions George Lambert and his class had to make all over Western Europe. Hitler declared the French, along with the Danes, Belgians, Dutch, and Norwegians as Aryans in good standing. But they were also deprived of the right of self-government. France, the oldest nation state in Europe, was partitioned, 1000 years of history wiped out of existence with one armored blitzkrieg through The Ardennes. To be a French patriot meant to join Paul and Louise Martin, to commit acts of sabotage, to become terrorists. To remain a good, solid bourgeoisie meant to side with the Germans, to become a traitor. George Lambert, who can’t bring himself to choose, chooses to kill himself.
For Albert Lory, it’s a lot easier. All he needs to do is grow up, find a backbone, cut his ties with his mother, and die like a man. It’s Paul Martin, who represents the revolutionary proletariat, and the headmaster at Lory’s school, Professor Sorel, who represents the liberal intelligentsia, who precipitate the film’s crisis. In the film’s opening, Albert Lory wakes up to two things, a bottle of milk his mother scams for him from the local German authorities, and a newspaper slipped under the door. The newspaper, edited by Professor Sorel, and called “Liberté” is the voice of the local resistence movement. As with Lambert, Lory’s inner struggle almost directly mirrors the struggle of the French people as a whole. It’s a clear choice for a 40-year old boy man, his mother’s milk, or a struggle for liberty. Emma Lory is a jealous, smothering mother, so controlling she manipulates time, sets the clock ten minutes ahead every morning so her son — who dutifully sets the clock back when he comes downstairs— gets to work on time. She knows her son is in love with Louise. She does everything possible to keep them apart. But then she goes too far. Louise invites Albert to dinner at her house with her brother. But Paul Martin is out, as usual, committing acts of sabotage against the Germans. So he comes home late. Albert agrees to cover for him.
Emma initially keeps quiet. Then it comes out that Paul killed two German soldiers. Von Keller takes ten hostages, all of whom will be shot unless someone turns in the newspaper’s publisher and names names, and one of whom is her son Albert. She goes to George Lambert and confesses that she knows that Paul was the “terrorist.” Lambert goes to Von Keller. Paul is killed. Sorel is shot with 8 other hostages, and Albert is released. Louise turns viciously on Albert. Albert temporarily loses his mind. He goes to Lambert’s railway yard intending to kill Paul’s betrayer. Lambert has already committed suicide when he arrives. But after Albert picks up the gun, and is discovered by an office clerk, the Germans arrest him and put him on trial for murder. Lambert, now dead, has passed his moral dilemma on to Albert. Von Keller gives him a choice. If he agrees to work with the German occupiers, to replace Professor Sorel at the school, to dutifully indoctrinate his students in the tenets of National Socialism, Von Keller will have the prosecutor forge a suicide note, and Albert will be allowed to live. But if he rejects the deal, he will be shot as the murderer of George Lambert.
Walter Slezak, who plays Von Keller, is an effective Satan. The temptation he offers Lory is not only his life, but the truth. Lambert, after all, did commit suicide. Lory doesn’t deserve to die for a murder he didn’t commit. But Albert Lory, unlike George Lambert, faces his moral dilemma head on. More importantly, he understands his class position. As a member of the educated middle-class, the intelligentsia, he’s neither bourgeois nor proletariat. Will he chose to be a French patriot, and side with the memory of the dead Paul Martin? Or will he choose to be a collaborationist and side with the dead George Lambert. We know he’ll make the right choice. It’s 1943, not the 1970s. Jean Renoir is writing anti-fascist propaganda, not a nihilistic script about the moral bankruptcy of the intellectuals. But it’s how Lory makes the right decision that brings the film to its climax. He’s determined to win over the jury of the kangaroo court, to have them find him “not guilty,” and force the Germans to murder him outright. During the trial scenes, all of Charles Laughton’s acting skills and Jean Renoir’s directorial genius are on full display. It may be talky, but it’s talky the way a great educator is talky, and Lory lays out the stakes with a lucidity we rarely see in films about the Second World War.
“It’s very hard for people like you and me to understand what is evil and what is good. It’s easy for the working people to understand who the enemy is because the aim of this occupation and invasion is to make them slaves. But middle-class people like us can easily believe as George Lambert did that a German victory is not such a bad thing. We hear people say that too much liberty brings chaos and disorder. And that’s why I was tempted last night by Major Von Keller when he came to my cell. But this morning I looked out through bars and I saw this beautiful new world working. I saw ten men die because they still believed in freedom.”
One of the men Lory saw die was Professor Sorel. Sorel, who Lory respected as a father, waves, going to his death with a smile. Earlier, he had told Lory that there will come a time when he has to make a decision. Will he have the courage to die like a man? He does. Astonishingly, the jury finds him “not guilty,” but he knows its only a matter of time before the Germans drag him out in front of a firing squad. He goes back to his classroom. He takes a forbidden book out of his jacket, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and starts reading. Which one of his students will take his place in the struggle for democracy against fascism. Will it be Edmund Lorraine, a Jew, who’s regularly bullied, and whose father was executed along with Professor Sorel? Or will it be one of the bullies? As the Gestapo lead him away to his execution, he gets a hug from Louise Martin. She takes his in front of the class, and finishes the reading. His mother, significantly, isn’t there.
Albert Lory has become a man.