Tag Archives: Jean Renoir

This Land Is Mine (1943)

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.

The Rules Of The Game (1939) The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Even though Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game is thought to be one of the two or three greatest films ever made, I was initially quite underwhelmed, even bored. I recognized that the camera work was masterful, the deep focus a model for Citizen Kane. But what kind of story was Renoir, this Prospero at 24 frames per second, trying to tell? Aristocrats and their servants behaving badly is one of the oldest clichés in film. From Upstairs Downstairs to Downtown Abby, you don’t even have to bother with subtitles. You can get the same story in English.

The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel, on the other hand, had me hooked right from the start. The story is very similar, the breakdown of western civilization as represented by a group of upper-class house guests at a grand estate in an unnamed Spanish speaking city. But Buñuel tells the story in such a novel way, and lets loose so much leftist rage against his doomed bourgeoisie that my angry American populist side just wanted to lie back and have a cigarette. Seeing a group of rich assholes not only tortured, but tortured by themselves? What could be better than that?

I suppose the problem is that I’m too hateful and too immature for Jean Renoir’s transcendent humanism. I need blood, not understanding, guillotines, not a subtle, nuanced exploration of the different ways in which the working classes imitate the bad behavior of the aristocracy. Yes, Renoir is right. Workers, domestic servants, and slaves are often loyal to their masters. The Rules of the Game’s Lisette is a perfectly truthful representation of a maid who works as a personal servant to a great lady. She’ll abandon her surly, tyrannical gamekeeper of a husband to go off with “Madame” without thinking twice about it. But give me the opening of The Exterminating Angel instead. The cooks, waiters, and coat check boys sense that something evil is about to go down in the grand manor house of Señor Edmundo Nobile and his wife, Lucia. One by one they leave, even at the cost of getting fired. It’s better to lose your job then to hang out and watch the Red Masque of Death, to wait around for the “exterminating angel” to hover over the ornate dining room that will soon host the gathering of the damned.

Once Buñuel lets the innocent working class leave –- Except for the butler. “Every butler wants to be bourgeois” we’re told. –- he can put the cap back on the jar, now full of his aristocratic cockroaches, and, like a malicious schoolboy, watch them devour one another. What makes The Exterminating Angel even more satisfying is that he doesn’t even need to put a cap on the jar. Señor Edmundo Nobile and his guests are trapped, not by any outside, coercive power, but by their own intellectual and emotional paralysis. Try as they might, they can’t leave the dining room, and I mean literally. Every person who makes for the door after the dinner party is over suddenly gets tired and falls asleep. When they wake up the next morning, they still can’t get out. They get distracted by conversation. They quarrel. They forget. They want breakfast. They get lost in conversation. Even after their intelligentsia, a doctor and two of his friends, figure out nobody can leave the room, they’re still trapped. Why doesn’t someone just walk out? Nobody knows. Almost as if we were in a Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode, the door seems to have some kind of force field, that force field, of course, being their own ruling class mindset. Franco won, Buñuel is telling us. The ruling class, the “job creators,” got what they wanted. Democracy is gone. There is no society, as Margaret Thatcher would say two decades later, only individuals and families. But far from being a blessing, it’s a curse. Every aristocrat is trapped inside a tiny world of his own making, with nothing left to do but to worship his own household gods, which, as it turns out, are also his “exterminating angels.”

France, on the other hand, in spite of Marshall Petain and Vichy, would never quite go fascist the way Spain did. Renoir, filming in 1939, like Buñuel’s cooks, waiters and coat check boys, knows something bad is on the horizon. He knows France is morally weak, that the French people lack the will to maintain their republic, and he stages the country’s breakdown in miniature, but he doesn’t quite have the sadistic glee of the loser with no hope the way Buñuel does.

The Rules of the Game opens with a quote from Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro — “If Cupid was not meant to flitter, why was he given wings?” We then find ourselves at Le Bourget Airfield just outside Paris, the very same airfield Lindbergh landed at in 1927, to witness André Jurieux, a wannabe French Lindbergh, complete a solo flight across the Atlantic. True, it’s 12 years after Lindbergh, but since André Jurieux makes it in 22 hours to Lindbergh’s 32, I suppose it means something. The press is there. There’s a crowd of people. A government minister sends his press secretary. But the one person Jurieux cares about, the aristocratic Christine de la Chesnaye, is not. Jurieux has an emotional breakdown on the radio.

“I did it for you Christine,” he says. “now it means nothing.”

Looking back at The Rules of the Game with the hindsight of knowing that France would surrender just a year later, we can’t help but note that Jurieux, a young man, an aviator, just the kind of “hero” who should have been preparing for war against the Germans is a weak willed ninny pining over a woman. To be honest — and maybe I’m just a misogynist — part of the reason The Rules of the Game doesn’t engage me is that I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about Christine de la Chesnaye, Nora Gregor. She looks OK for a 40-year-old woman, but from my crudely American point of view she’s just a snobbish rich bitch who can’t make up her mind, and, as a result, winds up destroying all three men who love her. Why don’t these frogs, these cheese eating surrender Monkeys, these civilized Frenchman tell her to go to hell, and walk away?Jurieux is bad enough, but there’s Robert de la Chesnaye, Marcel Dialo, Rosenthal from The Grand Illusion, who, it’s true, cheats on her, but in the end can’t quite leave. There’s also Octave, Jean Renoir himself, a sly, rotund intellectual who loves Christine as much as Jurieux does, even though he’s better at hiding it. And if that weren’t enough, there’s Lisette, who, quite understandably, cheats on her swaggering bully of a husband with Octave, with Marceau, a poacher “given the opportunity to improve himself by being a servant,” and with just about any other man who catches her fantasy, but who, in the end is every bit as devoted to the great lady as André Jurieux, the “cupid with wings” who, at the end, gets shot down by brutish masculine jealousy.

If aristocrats often worship the household gods they see in the mirror, then in The Rules of the Game, the only household god around is Christine de la Chesnaye

But I suppose that’s not totally accurate. Christine de la Chesnaye, the daughter of a famous Viennese classical music conductor, represents the “western civilization” that the French, being the most civilized people in Europe, all worship. But Robert de la Chesnaye, who’s a bit less devoted to Christine than Octave or André Jurieux, worships another household god, technology. Robert has a seemingly endless collection of toys, clocks, wind up dolls, a gigantic Wurlitzer that breaks down at the film’s climax, that he seems more devoted to than either his wife Christie or his mistress Geneviève de Marras. This, of course,  is not the kind of technology that will beat Hitler. Robert is a liberal, broad minded, civilized man, that very American stereotype of the Frenchman who doesn’t care if his wife cheats on him or if the servants have some fun on the job. But he’s also a weakling who can’t keep control of his own estate, or provide for the safety of his guests, including, of course, André Jurieux, who’s accidentally murdered by the maid Lisette’s jealous husband Schumacher. What good is a liberal aristocrat if there’s no democracy? What happens when the French elite grows soft and decadent, even while they remain the elite? Well, we all know what happens. A crude, brutish conqueror comes to take their place. Fascism replaces degenerate liberalism. Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinière, gives way to Vichy.

Did Renoir know what was coming? Probably not. He no more had a crystal ball then Kafka. But if Kafka caught the essence of the concentration camps in the aesthetics of his novel The Metamorphosis, then Renoir probably had some inkling that France was no longer the France of  1793 or 1914, that it wouldn’t fight in 1940 simply because it didn’t think it had anything to fight for. The problem is that when I watched The Rules of the Game I didn’t think I had anything to root for. So it bored me. Who cares if André Jurieux gets shot? He’s a baby who probably deserved it. It was only when Luis Buñuel released my inner proletarian hater and let me watch these same people tortured, put into a jar like bugs and roasted alive in the sun, that I was glued to the screen. Give me an angry, defeated Spanish anarchist over a civilized, liberal Frenchman any day. The Rules of the Game might be a better movie than The Exterminating Angel, but The Exterminating Angel is 100 times more enjoyable.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion is the kind of film that you can watch once every year from your teens into your old age, and find new meaning with each viewing. The first time I saw Renoir’s masterpiece was on a TV set in a college history class. The restored print had not even been found. It was washed out. The sound quality was bad, and yet I came away realizing that I had just experienced a great work of art. You can listen to Beethoven’s 9th on a scratchy LP and its still Beethoven’s 9th. I not only admired Captain de Boeldieu, I wanted to be Captain de Boeldieu, to put on a pair of white gloves and die for my country as calmly as if I were going to Maxim’s to drink a bottle of fine Bordeaux. My professor corrected me. “That’s the wrong conclusion,” he said. But I was so taken with the romanticism of a doomed Bretagne aristocrat climbing the ramparts of the Wintersborn Castle, playing the flute to distract the Germans so that Lieutenants Marechal and Rosenthal could escape and get back into the war to fight for France, that I had missed how Grand Illusion is a statement about the futility of war.

The next time I saw Grand Illusion, I knew more about the history of France, the First World War, and, above all, the Dreyfus Affair. The film revealed an entirely new layer of meaning. A real life Captain de Boeldieu, not only an aristocrat but a professional soldier, would have been on the side of the anti-Dreyfusards. He would have been in favor of keeping an innocent man on Devil’s Island for the crime of being a Jew. That he could turn to Major von Rauffenstein, his German counterpart, point at Rosenthal and say “his word is as good as mine,” demonstrated an intelligence and ability to rise above anti-semitism to go along with his honor and patriotism. Captain de Boeldieu is a heroic figure like few others in French, American, or any cinema. He has more than physical courage or the willingness to die for a higher idea. He’s able to die for the right higher idea. Captain de Boeldieu doesn’t die for France. He dies because he knows the ideals of the old aristocracy are destructive. That Rosenthal and Marechal are officers and gentlemen, von Rauffenstein regrets, is part of “the charming legacy of the French Revolution.” Captain de Boeldieu, to use a term popular on the “intersectional left,” knows how to “step up and step back.” Rosenthal and Marechal are the future. Democracy is the future. It’s no mystery why Joseph Goebbels declared Grand Illusion “cinematic enemy number one.”

After the United States and Russia got into a conflict over Ukraine, and people in my Facebook feed started talking about another First World War, I decided to watch Grand Illusion again. Major von Rauffenstein treats his prisoner Captain de Boeldieu with the courtesy he deserves as a “gentleman.” I used to think there was something admirable in the idea of their solidarity, even if it wasn’t exactly solidarity, but a recognition of privilege. Our oligarchs today, the gangsters around Vladimir Putin and the bankers and financial swindlers around Barack Obama, seem entirely less civilized. It’s all about smashing and grabbing what you can. Obama declined to prosecute the American bankers who crashed the economy in 2008, accorded them the privileges of their rank, but he had no qualms about freezing the assets of pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. Our aristocrats, our Goldman Sachs CEOs, our Koch Brothers, Russia’s natural gas and oil barons have no code of honor. They don’t care who they evict from their houses, what kind of poison they feed kids not their own, or how much disinformation they pump out about global warming. Compared to the people Obama works for, Renoir’s Lieutenant Rosenthal, the son of a rich banking family who had enough patriotism to fight for his country, and, once taken prisoner of war, shared his food with the working class Marechal, seemed like a vision of a more civilized age gone forever.

But then I realized that’s not exactly the message Renoir wanted to send. The ruling class in 1914 wasn’t civilized. They were bastards willing to send 8 million young men to their deaths, to destroy Europe for reasons I don’t even think they understood. In 1937, they were getting ready to do it all over again. Rosenthal, Marechal and de Boeldieu may have been admirable as individuals, but they were trapped in a horrible cycle of destruction. Renoir’s original draft had Marechal and Rosenthal escape the Wintersborn Castle only to get back into the war and get killed. Why does de Boeldieu sacrifice his life? Just for the principle of it? He doesn’t exactly like Rosenthal and Marechal. He’s just their superior officer, a captain willing to go down with his ship. He steps aside for the future, but never quite realizes that the future might not be the democracy. It might be something much worse.

Jean Renoir was a left wing filmmaker. So why did he make a humanist film instead of an anti-imperialist one? True, the Soviet Union had degenerated into Stalinist totalitarianism, but in 1917 it was the communists who were leading the movement to end the war, not liberal humanists. That’s when I realized Grand Illusion is even richer and more nuanced that even I, as a great fan of the film, can express in one review. Grand Illusion is an anti-imperialist film.

Let us consider one scene early in the movie. The French prisoners, bored, missing the company of women, stage a musical comedy. They get themselves done up in drag. They invited their German captors. In the middle of a high kicking routine, Marechal rushes to the stage with a German newspaper. “We’ve captured Douaumont,” he says. “We’ve captured Douaumont.” Just then, the musical comedy stops. Men dressed as women snap to attention and sing the Marseillaise. France has won the battle of Verdun. They’ve regained their manhood and their patriotism after weary months as prisoners of war. Later, of course, we see another headline. “Germans capture Douaumont.” It was all useless. War is futile.

Doing a bit more reading on the Battle of Verdun reveals yet another layer of meaning beneath the film’s anti-war message. Douaumont wasn’t retaken for France by white Frenchmen but by the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco, by white French soldiers alongside black Senegalese soldiers. Later, when de Boeldieu, Rosenthal and Marechal are confined to the Wintersborn Castle, we see that one of their fellow prisoners is black. He’s working on a painting. He approaches Rosenthal and Marechal for their opinion but they refuse even to acknowledge him. The same two soldiers de Boeldieau died to help escape, two individuals who have made a heroic effort to overcome their own ethnic differences, who, earlier, were seen celebrating the recapture of Douaumont, won’t even look at a black soldier who almost certainly risked his life at Verdun to do it. History won’t end with a peaceful, unified Europe, Renoir suggests. It won’t end with the end of anti-Semitism or militarism. It probably won’t even end with the fall of European imperialism, but that’s what’s coming.

Dien Bien Phu is less than 20 years away.