The 400 Blows

The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut’s childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.

Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he’s no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher’s authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. “Speak up, or your neighbor will get it.”

We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.

There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he’s been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.

Truffaut’s stepfather really did hand him over to the police. He was subsequently sent to a reform school on the outskirts of the city, the Paris Observation Center for Minors, a grim institution where corporal punishment was employed to keep the delinquents in line. Antoine is sent to an Observation Center in Normandy, near the coast. The routine is strict, militaristic. We see the young offenders marching two-by-two under the watchful gaze of the warden. No deviation passes unnoticed. Antoine is slapped for taking a bite of bread before he is given permission to eat, the blow delivered casually and without rancor. A simple transaction: one violation of the rules earns a slap.

More serious infractions, such as running away, earn a beating. A boy is returned to the institution, his face bruised and bloody, dragged past the other juveniles by his captors and locked in a cell. Truffaut suffered the same fate for attempting to escape and ended up spending several months in solitary confinement. He also underwent a series of psychological assessments. In the film, Antoine is warned by another boy not to let his guard down in his interview with the “spychologist.” Anything he does or says in her presence will be noted in his dossier, his source cautions, together with “what everyone thinks of you, including your neighbors.”

The Kids in the Cage

This scene, though not strictly autobiographical (in reality, the Center’s psychologist became Truffaut’s staunchest ally), is in keeping with the wartime undercurrents running throughout the picture. Harder to decipher is an incongruous detail the filmmaker inserted into an outdoor sequence at the reform school, where we see the warden locking his own small children in a cage, presumably for their own protection, as the young offenders pass close by for their daily exercise. Granted, the cage is a rather pretty structure, filigreed metal painted white, but the image echoes a key moment in the police station, when Antoine was taken out of the basement cell he shared with a male inmate to make way for some newly-arrested prostitutes.

The idea of an eleven-year-old boy being locked up with these immoral women was so unthinkable that he was removed to a cage the size of a phone booth for his protection. Film scholar Adam Lowenstein draws a connection between the image of the kids in the cage and the work of French director Georges Franju, whose horror films exerted a powerful influence on Truffaut. Franju liked to slip uncanny images into his work, “forcing a recognition with the disturbing historical events that haunt it.” The past, in Franju’s cinematic vision, was not safely past; events such as the German occupation and postwar purges, the round-ups of French Jews and their deportation to the death camps, continued to inform the present in myriad ways, not all of them conscious. Indeed, Truffaut said in an interview that he intended the kids in the cage as a tribute to Franju.

The persistence of past trauma in present-day awareness was also a central preoccupation in the films of Truffaut’s colleague and mentor Alain Resnais. His documentary, Night and Fog (1955), was released during the Algerian war (1954-62), when French soldiers were accused of “doing over there what the Germans had done over here,” as Albert Camus bluntly put it. The narrator’s final words, scripted by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol, stand as commentary on France’s dirty war in the colony.

We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.

The bleakest moments of The 400 Blows seem freighted with political significance. Let us return to that notice on the wall of the police station about rat exterminations. The term used in the notice, deratissages, closely resembles the euphemism the French army employed when referring to their anti-terrorist raids on Algerian villages: rat hunts or ratissages. These operations entailed razing the village to the ground, rounding up suspected terrorists, and forcibly resettling the remaining inhabitants in barbed wire-enclosed camps. Some two million Algerians were expelled from their homes and interned under harsh conditions by French authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths from starvation, disease, or exposure.

Evidence of such inhumane policies, on top of the Gestapo tactics decried by Camus—torture, hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians, summary executions—was impossible to ignore in the late 1950s, when Truffaut was making his film. No less troubling were the French government’s efforts to suppress debate on the Algerian campaign at home. When the journalist and former Resistance leader Claude Bourdet published an editorial in 1957 critical of the war, he was arrested at his home in Paris, handcuffed and brought to the Fresnes Prison, strip-searched, and questioned for the better part of a day. Fresnes Prison was where the Gestapo had interrogated members of the Resistance; Bourdet himself had been tortured there in 1944 before being sent to a concentration camp, and he did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the two experiences. “When the doorbell rings at 6 a.m. and it’s the milkman, you know you are in a democracy.”

Discipline and Punish

The curtailing of personal freedom in the interest of security and public order would become the focal point of Michel Foucault’s investigations into the disciplinary mechanisms permeating modern society. Working as a cultural attaché in the French foreign mission in Hamburg, he may well have seen The 400 Blows when it came out. The picture made quite a splash at the 1959 Cannes film festival, earning Truffaut the award for Best Director and a nomination for the top prize, the Palme d’Or, and it was Foucault’s job to promote French cultural productions. Movies also happened to be one of the few distractions Foucault permitted himself, beginning in his student days at the École Normale.

Imagine the as yet unknown scholar, putting aside his work on the manuscript of Madness and Civilization (1961) to take in Truffaut’s picture. He would have appreciated the “spychologist” line; Foucault himself had been subjected to psychiatric evaluations after his first suicide attempt. The film’s spontaneity, an affront to the mannered traditions of French cinema—a tradition Truffaut dismissed as “cinéma de papa”—would have appealed to the iconoclastic philosopher. And it’s tempting to regard the image of the kids in the cage as the proverbial grain of sand, the nucleus of the book that many consider the pearl in Foucault’s oeuvre, Discipline and Punish (1975).

Toward the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault introduces a walk-on character, Béasse, a thirteen-year-old orphan brought before the authorities in 1840 for vagabondage. The judge viewed the boy as a delinquent because he had no home and no steady employment. Idleness was a punishable offense under nineteenth-century French jurisprudence. Béasse understood his situation differently, however:

I don’t work for anybody. I’ve worked for myself for a long time now. I have my day station and my night station. In the day, for instance, I hand out leaflets free of charge to all the passers-by; I run after the stagecoaches when they arrive and carry luggage for the passengers; I turn cart-wheels on the avenue de Neuilly; at night there are the shows; I open coach doors, I sell pass-out tickets; I’ve plenty to do.

The Béasses of this world, Foucault lamented, could not withstand the disciplinary system of “civilization” and “order” and “legality” that defined freedom as a crime, and yet the boy’s joyful exuberance could not be suppressed entirely.

Hearing his sentence of two years in a reformatory, Béasse ‘pulled an ugly face, then, recovering his good humor, remarked: “Two years, that’s never more than twenty-four months. Let’s be off then!”’

The 400 Blows is punctuated with moments of joyful exuberance, but the ending suggests that there is no evading the regimen of the Observation Center. Antoine escapes, and we follow him as he makes his way to the ocean. He runs along the beach, dashes into the surf, then turns back. Where can he go? The camera zooms in on Antoine’s expression, the final shot a freeze frame of his face. That lost look will stay with us for a long time.

The Spirit of the Beehive

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) was the first film to address the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, which it presented obliquely, through the eyes of a child. In part this was necessary to evade the censors; the dictator Francisco Franco still ruled Spain when Victor Erice made the film. But the story, which Erice wrote as well as directed, was intensely personal. “Erice and co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos based the script on their own memories,” Paul Julian Smith revealed in his Criterion essay on the film, “recreating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s own birth.”

Erice belongs to the second generation of Spanish Civil War survivors. Too young to have experienced the worst of the conflict, when Loyalist defenders of the democratically-elected Republic battled with Nationalist rebels led by Generalísimo Franco while the German Luftwaffe bombed civilians in Republican strongholds, he grew up in a society where memory was suppressed. The victors imposed their version of history, presenting the war as a quasi-religious crusade, a reassertion of traditional Spanish values against the godless agenda of the “Reds.” Supporters of the Republic who were not killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile after the defeat were silenced. Mourning was done in private, betrayal being commonplace, particularly in small villages such as the one in which Spirit of the Beehive is set. “Only by acting as if everything is perfectly normal can you show that you are above suspicion,” said one of the subjects interviewed by Roland Fraser in his oral history of the war and its aftermath, Blood of Spain.

Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.

–Miguel de Unamuno

Ana, the young heroine of Erice’s film, lives in a remote village in Old Castile, a region conquered early in the war by Franco’s forces. We are made aware that both of her parents supported the Republic. Ana’s father Fernando is an old-style rationalist who dabbles in natural science, studying the behavior of his bees and jotting down his philosophical reflections in a little notebook, working late into the night on his esoteric research. Teresa, Ana’s mother, spends her days alone, writing to an ex-lover who is now a refugee in France, most likely because he belonged to one of the Republican militias. “Perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest,” she laments in a letter.

Certainly the household is emotionally cauterized. Fernando and Teresa seem detached from Ana and her older sister Isabel and barely speak to one another; in one scene, we see Teresa pretending to be asleep when Fernando finally comes to bed. The camerawork reinforces the isolation. Never do we see the family together in one establishing shot, not even when they are all at the breakfast table. The characters speak in low voices, when they speak at all. “The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of the most silent films I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere is one of bereavement, the adults walking around as if their skin hurts, the way you feel when you realize the world no longer holds the person you loved.

Ana comes to enact her parents’ grief—and perhaps the grief of Spain itself. A wounded soldier she encounters in an abandoned barn near the family’s house becomes a friendly spirit in her imagination. One day he disappears. We know that he was shot by the local police, but Ana is told nothing, and so she invents an answer to the mystery. She retreats into silence now, neither eating or sleeping. The doctor is called, another crypto-Republican it would appear as Teresa calls him by his Christian name, Miguel. But other than reminding her of the sacrifices that they must all make, Miguel offers only the weakest of reassurances. “Teresa, the important thing is that your daughter’s alive. She’s alive.” Ana has had a shock, he says, and will heal in time. Thirty-three years later, Erice seemed to be saying, Spain is still waiting.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Two pals, Gil and Roy, head down to Baja California for a fishing trip in The Hitch-Hiker, Ida Lupino’s noir nail-biter. Gil’s already having second thoughts, missing his wife and kids, throwing cold water on his friend’s plan to hit the bars in Mexicali for old time’s sake. “Remember Florabelle at the Alhambra club?” says Roy in an effort to bring him around. “She’s probably dead by now,” snaps Gil. “That was a long time ago.” You get the feeling he’s not the same man he was in the old days, before the war. There’s an edge to him, a wariness. From the moment the hitchhiker forces them at gunpoint to drive through the Sonoran desert, we see Gil weighing his options, calculating the chances of survival, falling back on battle-honed instincts. But battling a sadistic killer is beyond the scope of his training.

Early in their ordeal the hitchhiker, on a whim, sends Roy off to hold a tin can at arm’s length, setting up a high stakes shooting match with Gil. The tension mounts as Roy is ordered to move farther away and hold the can closer to his body. We know Gil is an excellent marksman, but for an instant he loses his nerve. Then cold fury takes over. Gil aims and blows the can out of Roy’s hand without killing his friend, but it’s a hollow victory.

“You guys are gonna die, that’s all. It’s just a matter of when,” the hitchhiker announces, his tone matter-of-fact. He could be forecasting the weather. High probability of showers in the next twenty-four hours. Lupino underscores the men’s vulnerability in stunning overexposed shots of the desolate landscape and it’s scary, how utterly alone they are. In fleeting encounters with Mexicans when they buy food or fill up the tank, their distress goes unnoticed. One night, while stealing gas at an unmanned filling station, Gil surreptitiously removes his wedding ring and leaves it on the pump. I read this not as a plea for help, but as a farewell gesture. He expects to be dead by the time it’s found, whereas Roy rages against their fate, endangering them both in a botched attempt at escape. Finally he cracks. “You haven’t got a thing except that gun,” he threatens their captor. “You better hang onto it because without it you’re nothing, you’re finished.” He’s wearing the hitchhiker’s clothes and it’s hard to tell them apart. Nothing remains of the innocent guy who fantasized about Florabelle—which is Lupino’s point, I think.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

William Wyler made documentaries for the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army during World War II, accompanying the airmen of the Memphis Belle on bombing missions over Germany—an experience he described as “an escape into reality.” His cinematographer was shot down in the course of filming one raid, and Wyler himself lost his hearing while collecting aerial footage of the Allied advance in the Mediterranean. Disabled, he returned to Hollywood determined, as Mark Harris relates in Five Came Back, to tell a story “not about the end of the war, but about the end of its aftermath, the moment at which, sometimes with resignation, sometimes with renewed hope, and often with uncertainty, the men of World War II would begin to live in a world that was no longer defined by their military service.”

Wyler’s personal struggle to regain his footing as a director and to preserve the balance in his marriage in the face of his disability is what gives The Best Years of Our Lives its punch. The picture has an immediacy that aligns it with the neorealism of Rossellini’s early films, its authenticity underscored by the inclusion of documentary footage in the opening sequence. Sets were built to scale, giving the cameramen less room to maneuver. When we’re in the tail of the B-17 bomber flying home with the three returning veterans, we feel cramped. So many hours trapped together in that cluttered compartment, and yet none of them seems eager to return to civilian life.

Homer (Harold Russell, a disabled veteran, not an actor), the sailor who was severely wounded when his ship was torpedoed and now has prosthetic hooks instead of hands, is quite adept, signing his name with a pen and lighting the others’ cigarettes. “You ought to see me open a bottle of beer,” he quips, but the bravado doesn’t last long. The last thing he wants is pity, from his family or from his girl, Wilma. Sergeant Al (Fredric March) has a wife and family waiting for him, and they’ve been holding his old job at the bank. You’d think he’d be eager to slide back into the familiar world he left behind, but his war experiences have hardened and embittered him. “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.”

Fred (Dana Andrews), a bombardier who suffers from PTSD, is the most tightly wound of the trio: restless, angry, indifferent to the medals and citations he earned for his heroism, he claims to want nothing more than an ordinary life. And yet he alienates his floozy of a wife and sabotages his job as a soda jerk, punching out a customer who belittled the sacrifices of those who fought and died in the war. Granted, the guy deserved it for calling Homer a sucker for enlisting and getting himself wounded. Anyone who talks that way about veterans deserves to be punched.

Hollywood being Hollywood, all three characters are redeemed by the love of good women, but Wyler pulls off his happy ending without indulging in sentimentality. Sure, there’s a fair amount of wisecracking between Al and his faithful wife Millie (Myrna Loy), but there’s an edge to the dialogue—a far cry from the glib exchanges between Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) doesn’t flinch when Homer shows her how helpless he is without his prosthetic hooks, and I found myself unexpectedly moved in the final wedding scene, when he succeeds at maneuvering the wedding ring onto her finger.

The best line is Hoagy Carmichael’s. He plays Homer’s Uncle Butch, who owns a cozy little bar where he dispenses beer and advice, the latter delivered while he tickles the ivories. Homer is lamenting his family’s coddling of him but Butch assures him they just need time to get used to one another. Everything will settle down, he says, playing the closing chords of “Lazy River.” 

Unless we have another war. Then none of us will have to worry because we’ll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?

Definitely not a sentimental guy, that Wyler.

A Tribute to Ennio Morricone

We lost a brilliant composer today. Of course I’m thinking of the scores Morricone wrote for Spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. But today it seems most fitting to listen to the haunting soundtrack to Fateless, Lajos Koltai’s 2005 adaptation of Imre Kertész’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Fatelessness. I reviewed the film on 3 Quarks Daily in 2014. Much has changed in the world since then, but the basic message seems all the more urgent in these troubled times. I’m reposting it here.

I could not swallow that idiotic bitterness that I should merely be innocent.

—Imre Kertész, Fatelessness

Something akin to survivor’s guilt is at the core of Imre Kertész’s novel, Fatelessness (1975), a fictionalized account of the year he spent while still a teenager interned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Published during the so-called “soft dictatorship” of the communist leader János Kádár, the book did not sell many copies in Hungary, and no wonder: György Köves, its young narrator, does not want us to feel sorry for him. “I was aware that I was about to start writing a novel that might easily turn into a tearjerker, not least because the novel’s protagonist is a boy,” Kertész said in a recent interview.

He needn’t have worried. György insists that he was complicit in his fate. “Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home.” This comes perilously close to admitting the charge that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter, that through their passivity, they colluded in their own destruction. As if anticipating the objection, Kertész voices it through one of his minor characters. Old Fleischmann, György’s former neighbor, was not deported, escaped being murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross, and endured the siege of Budapest. He lived while others (including György’s father) died, and yet he cannot hold himself to blame for his survival. “So it’s us who’re the guilty ones, is it? Us, the victims!” But György refuses to back down. Even though he recognizes the futility of explaining his views to those like old Fleischmann, who urge him to put the horrors of Auschwitz behind him in order to live, “it was not quite true,” he maintains stubbornly, “that the thing ‘came about’; we had gone along with it too.”

Blaming the Victim

The most famous—or perhaps I should say notorious—articulation of this argument is Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the Judenräte. Jewish councils set up by the Nazis in the ghettos of cities in occupied countries containing large Jewish populations (and in smaller Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe) helped implement the Final Solution, surrendering their members for deportation in the misguided hope that by cooperating with the Germans they might save at least some from extermination. In fact, the Nazis counted on this cooperation. Without it, Arendt claimed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.” The Nazi functionary who was “just following orders” was no more and no less a monster than the Jewish leader who distributed Yellow Star badges, organized the relocation of Jews to the ghettos, put together transport lists and raised money from the deportees themselves to defray the expenses of their travel to the death camps. Each refused to accept moral responsibility for his actions, yet each could have chosen otherwise.

Arendt further blurred the distinction between Nazi perpetrators and victims in the essay “Personal Responsibility and Dictatorship” (1964), her response to those critics of the Eichmann book, including her friend Gershom Scholem, who said that we should not judge the Judenräte because we were not there. Not only the Jewish leadership, but even ordinary Jewish citizens in Hitler’s Europe enabled genocide to take place, she contended:

The extermination of the Jews was preceded by a very gradual sequence of anti-Jewish measures, each of which was accepted with the argument that refusal to cooperate would make things worse—until a stage was reached when nothing worse could possibly have happened.

György’s response to old Fleischmann is very much along these lines, and decades later, Kertész continues to assert that he brought his fate upon himself. “I behaved in a way that made me a member of the tacit, looming conspiracy against my life.” But he allows his protagonist a measure of peace at the book’s end. “I am here,” György thinks, looking around his old neighborhood, “weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises.” He will accept any rationale as the price for being able to live; it is only human, after all, to want to live.

Such generosity comes as a surprise after the bleak and bitter chronicle leading up to it, especially since it follows the heated exchange with old Fleischmann, the only time György loses his cool. In the space of a page, Kertész abandons his detachment, the accusatory tone of his narrative voice, forgiving himself as well as his audience. Reading Fatelessness as a work of Holocaust testimony, this redemptive turn feels forced, unearned. And yet the 2005 film version, Fateless, for which Kertész wrote the screenplay, ends in exactly the same way. Further complicating matters, the author resists the label of “Holocaust writer.” Kertész used the ordeal of the death camps to talk about something more universal, and more timely: daily life under under a totalitarian dictatorship. He wrote about Auschwitz in the extended present, he said in a speech he delivered in Berlin in 2000.

The Tastes of Auschwitz

Kertész gained a perspective on the brutality he accommodated himself to as a boy in the Lagers by recognizing the degradation he continued to tolerate as a man during the Kádár era. The Stalinist regime under which he came of age, with its torturers, its secret prisons and work camps, its network of informers and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, mirrored the world into which he was thrust at age fourteen. In Dossier K (2006), the memoir he published after receiving the Nobel Prize, he claimed that he would never have understood his ordeals had he grown up in a democracy. The regime “revived the tastes of Auschwitz,” he said, in much the same way that Proust’s memories were awakened by dipping a madeleine in a cup of tea.

Here too, I find parallels with Arendt. The key feature that united both Nazism and Stalinism, she noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was how both systems reduced people to the condition of children in order to manipulate them, persuading them to sacrifice their principles and beliefs, to degrade themselves, in return for not having to take responsibility for their immoral acts. Kertész chose to make his narrator a boy not simply because he himself was a child at the time he was deported. “I invented the boy precisely because anyone in a dictatorship is kept in a childlike state of ignorance and helplessness.” But ultimately he refuses to condemn his protagonist or himself. Looking back on his younger self after he returned from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész sees only “a fundamentally cheerful young man, who is greedy for life and will not allow anyone or anything to put him off.” Naturally he collaborated with the regime, naturally he took steps; “there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally,” György says at the end of the novel.

What Kertész cannot accept are the artistic renderings of the destruction of Europe’s Jews that employ euphemisms—including the word “Holocaust”—that obscure the reality of the death camps. Or voyeurs like Steven Spielberg “who integrate the Holocaust into the aeons of suffering in the history of the Jewish people and, ignoring the mountains of corpses, the rubble heap of Europe, the breakdown of all values,” as Kertész sees it, “celebrate the eternal story of survival to the accompaniment of triumphal music and color photography.” Equally offensive are accounts that focus on the gruesome details, the “ugly literature of horrors.”

When he wrote the screenplay for Fateless, Kertész struggled to translate the stark, matter-of-fact language of his book into scenes and images that would not betray its essence. The film has a terrible beauty, a power to unsettle even as it draws viewers in through a combination of stunning cinematography (the director, Lajos Koltai, is first and foremost a cinematographer) and Ennio Morricone’s moving score. The fact that the film was made after the fall of communism makes it less universal, perhaps, more of a witness testimony, but one that continues to speak to the point Kertész made in Dossier K, that even after Auschwitz, the world order has not changed. The mass movements of the twentieth century, the nationalism and fundamentalisms of today: how is is that the lessons of the death camps have not been absorbed? In the end, I believe he would say, it still comes down to simple decency, or the lack thereof, among leaders and those who, through their action or inaction, enable them to stay in power.

A Foreign Affair (1948)

Satire was always Billy Wilder’s favorite weapon, from his first American hit—he wrote the screenplay for Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”)—to Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Even his darker pictures are interspersed with humor. Who can forget the chimpanzee’s funeral, complete with Erich von Stroheim in white gloves playing “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” on the organ, at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard?

Set in postwar Berlin and hyped as a comedy (“It would make a cigar store Indian laugh…”), A Foreign Affair is full of lighthearted touches. A pair of enlisted men cruising the streets on a tandem bicycle, armed with chocolate, posterlooking for fräuleins, prim Iowa congresswoman Jean Arthur attempting to ward off her would-be seducer’s (John Lund) advances by opening one file cabinet drawer after another and, when finally cornered for a kiss, reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in a valiant effort to quell her own passion.

But there’s Marlene Dietrich, sultry as ever, performing in the Lorelei Club—a postwar version of the seedy nightclub where the German actress was introduced to us in The Blue Angel (1930). “Falling in Love Again,” the melancholy song composed for her in that film by Friedrich Hollaender, feels positively upbeat when compared to the numbers Hollaender composed for this one.

They had a touch of paradise, a spell you can’t explain. For in this crazy paradise, you are in love with Pain. — “Illusions”

We’ve already gotten an aerial viewmore ruins of the bombed-out German capital from the congresswoman’s plane, and seen various characters picking theie way through the rubble at night. Still, we’re unprepared for the bitterness that undercuts the jaunty tune of “In the Ruins of Berlin” or the sado-masochistic kick of “Illusions.”

Wilder, an Austrian Jewish emigré whose family had been murdered by the Nazis, had no reason to sympathize with the plight of ordinary Germans struggling to survive amid the devastation, and yet despite the laughter, A Foreign Affair leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. ‘What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians swept in?” Dietrich’s character asks the congresswoman. “I kept going. It was living hell. And then I found a man, and through that man, a roof, and a job, and food and – and I’m not going to lose him.”

Not surprisingly, the film was withdrawn from circulation, its “rotten taste” denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Berlin’s trials and tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy, and rubble makes lousy custard pies.” But as Steven Bach tells us in his biography of Dietrich, the actress was featured on the cover of Life and was  generally seen as having stolen the show.

pub photo

Cronaca di un Amore (1950)

Today I learned of the death of the Italian actresslucia-bosé Lucia Bosè from complications of Coronavirus. She was 89 years old. The winner of the 1947 Miss Italia beauty pageant, she was discovered by the neorealist director Guiseppe De Santis and then became the “muse” of Michelangelo Antonioni, who directed her in Cronaca di un Amore [Story of a Love Affair] a remake of his friend Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione — an adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice that came out several years before Tay Gannett’s bowdlerized American version. 

With regard to Lucia Bosè, I had to direct her almost with a sense of violence. Before every scene, I had to put her in a state of mind appropriate to that particular scene. If it was a sad scene, I had to make her cry; if it was a happy scene, I had to make her laugh. — From a 1962 interview with Antonioni in Film Culture

Cronaca di un Amore mercilessly exposes the moral rotScreen Shot 2020-03-26 at 7.55.09 AM that accompanied the economic miracle of Northern Italy’s rebirth in the postwar era. Massimo Girotti again plays a luckless drifter, Guido, although he is middle-class in this film. Seven years earlier, during the war, he’d had an affair with Paola (Lucia Bosè), the best friend of his fiancée, who died under mysterious circumstances. Now Paola is married and her husband, Enrico, a wealthy Milan industrialist, hires a private detective to uncover the truth about his wife’s past, bringing Guido back into Paola’s life. The two attempt to rekindle their romance, but the passion is gone, replaced by a soul-killing materialism. “Money is everything in love,” Paola tells Guido, who reluctantly agrees to murder Enrico, but it’s hard to see what difference getting him out of the way would make in their listless romance. Cain’s one-sentence characterization of The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly applies here: “A couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret.”

The alienation that would become the hallmark of Antonioni’s films in the sixties is already in evidence in Cronaca di un Amore. Antonioni plays with the conventions of Italian cinema, showing Paola in her boudoir, toying with the telephone, awaiting her lover’s call. The actress is ravishing, but she is cold. Empty. Her “interior landscape,” in the director’s words, as arid as the Po Valley, where Visconti shot Ossessione. Nothing remained of the intense, serious events that Italy had come through, he said in a lecture he delivered at the film school attached to Cinecittà in 1961, following a retrospective screening of his films. The hope of building a new and more just Italy that came through at the end of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City was gone. And yet we cannot turn away from this bleak portrait of bourgeois society. The vulnerability of the young Lucia Bosè in this film is what stays with me. May her memory be a blessing.

cropped bose

Ossessione (1943)

Lucino Visconti’s 1943 adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is truer to the novelist’s vision than the 1946 Hollywood film of the same name. For one thing, the Frank character, Gino (Massimo Girotti), is more convincing as a drifter. undershirtWearing a threadbare undershirt beneath his tattered jacket, he is drawn by hunger to the kitchen of the roadside tavern, where Giovanna (Clara Calamai) sits on a table, dangling her legs while unselfconsciously singing and polishing her nails, oblivious to the newcomer who has come to stand in the doorway. Visconti places the camera behind Gino, obscuring our view of the woman. We observe them falling into sin, but from a safe distance.

Gino and Giovanna are victims weighed down by social and economic forces beyond their control, and it is these forces that corrupt and ultimately destroy them. Only one character in Ossessione appears to have any choice, a Spanish gypsy who takes Gino under his wing and tries to show him how to live as a free man, beholden to nobody. Generous, carefree, with soulful brown eyes, there is nobody remotely like the Spaniard in the book. Every scene in which he appears brims with life and hope, but when he shows up at the tavern after the murder of Giovanna’s husband and urges Gino to leave, to take to the open road, Gino drives him away. The next thing we know, the Spaniard is being questioned by the police, setting into motion the film’s tragic denouement.

with gypsy

Ossessione opened to popular acclaim but was quickly banned by the Mussolini regime, all copies ordered destroyed. The movie was considered subversive, not only on account of its immorality but because of the political statement it made, a statement at odds with fascist values. “The film is just imitating the French kind of realism that must not be imported to Italy,” complained a critic in the Bologna newspaper, Avenire d’Italia, who then proceeded to disparage it as “a concoction of repulsive passions, humiliation, and decay, [and] an offense to the Italian people.” In fact, Visconti and the circle of young filmmakers who assisted him in bringing Cain’s story to the screen sought to liberate the Italian people by showing them the truth, for once.

dia 8
No holds barred advertising

Ossessione cast light on poverty and despair, exposing the lies of nationalism. In place of the regime’s insistence on family, church, and country, the film showed women turning to prostitution because they had no other means of supporting themselves. Men defeated by their inability to find dignified work. Dirty streets, abandoned children, domestic squalor. This was life as the majority of Italians experienced it under fascism, and as was the case in life, the story of Gino and Giovanna did not resolve cleanly. As screenwriter Cesare Zagattini wrote in “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” his famous essay on neorealism, “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot, I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Our first glimpse of Lana Turner’s character, Cora,postman-legs is a slow pan of her legs, starting from the tips of her white peep-toe heels and moving up beyond her knees. She is revealed to be wearing shorts and a midriff top, showing an awful lot of flesh for a woman who works in her husband’s diner, although Cora doesn’t seem to work much. She toys with Frank, the drifter played by John Garfield, rolling her tube of lipstick across the floor to get his attention, giving him a good view of her scantily-clad body, front and back, opening her compact and taking her sweet time applying the lipstick. Frank knows exactly what he’s in for, and so do we. Cora’s husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) was cooking him a hamburger when he was momentarily called away. Frank is supposed to be keeping an eye on the grill but, unable to keep his eyes off Cora, his hamburger goes up in flames. Talk about foreshadowing!

James Cain summed up the story of Postman in one sentence: a couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret. The attraction between Frank and Cora is primitive in its intensity. The first time they kiss, Frank bites Cora’s lip hard enough to draw blood, a scene that occurs nine pages into the book. “I sunk my teeth into her lip so deep, I could feel blood spurt into my mouth.” Needless to say, sadomasochism does not figure in Tay Gannett’s adaptation; however, the sexual charge between Frank and Cora is quite powerful. Frank is no chump—Garfield’s character can hold his own against Turner’s, unlike Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity—but once aroused, he cannot resist Cora and chooses to hang around at the diner, doing odd jobs for Nick, awaiting his chance to get  her into bed.

Choose is the operative word here. The film emphasizes the couple’s willful slide into adultery and murder, and what’s brilliant about Garnett’s adaptation is how the director makes us complicit in their transgressions. That slow pan of Turner’s legs pulls us immediately into Frank’s point of view. MV5BNTUzODE2Mzg3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTE1MDkxMTE@._V1_UY1200_CR93,0,630,1200_AL_We too are burning with desire, and getting the husband out of the way seems like the logical next step, once he and Cora become lovers. Only when we learn (along with Frank) that Cora will be the recipient of Nick’s life insurance policy do we (along with Frank) begin to have qualms. Maybe he was a chump, but it’s too late now. Both book and film conclude on the eve of Frank’s execution for Cora’s death, which was an accident, but whereas Cain’s Frank is aggrieved, regarding his wrongful conviction as further evidence that the world is against him, the movie’s Frank is reconciled to his fate. Violins play in the background as he confesses his sins to a priest. “Father, you were right. It all works out. I guess God knows more about these things than we do.”

MGM struggled for years to come up with a script that would pass muster with the Hays office, and most critics feel that the sizzle between Turner and Garfield is adequate compensation for the bowdlerization of Cain’s work. It’s interesting that both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni directed versions of Postman. I’ll be reviewing those next.

Bitter Rice (1949)

Bitter Rice is a hopeful film, as rousing a myth of national unitybitter rice poster as Roberto Rossellini’s  Rome, Open City (1945). Its young director, Guiseppe De Santis, was a member of the Italian Communist Party who had fought with the Roman Resistance, putting him in a strong position at the liberation. His first feature film, The Tragic Hunt (1947), received funding from the National Association of Italian Partisans and won the award for Best Italian Film at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.

A story of crime and passion set in the rice fields west of Milan, Bitter Rice owes much to James Cain, as far as its story is concerned, and to Dorothea Lange’s images of sharecroppers in the American South for its cinematography. Indeed, De Santis was an assistant director on Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but as a doctrinaire Marxist, his ultimate objective was to glorify the working people of Italy while revealing the evils of capitalism.

In a famous sequence in Bitter Rice, the corrupting influence of American culture is juxtaposed against the class solidarity of the women rice workers: Silvana (Silvana Magnano), the bad girl who will betray her fellow laborers, is shown dancing the boogie-woogie, watched by a gum-chewing low-life, Frank (Vittorio Gassman), who abandons his lover Francesca (Doris Dowling) to join her.

Bitter Rice

Silvana is portrayed like a Hollywood pin-up girl, and no small part of Frank’s allure is his promise to take her to America, where “everything is electric.” The sexual attraction between these two is tangled up in a their shared passion for material things; where Francesca finds fulfillment in honest work, Silvana is a willing accessory to the crime, conceived by Frank, to flood the rice fields and steal the harvest, realizing only belatedly the error of her ways when she learns that the necklace he gave her is paste. Guilt-ridden, she kills her lover and jumps from a wooden tower to her death, but she is forgiven by the other workers, who file past her body at the end of the film, each scattering handful of rice over the fallen woman.

The message feels heavy-handed today, but Silvana Magnano’s mesmerizing performance and the brilliant camerawork make Bitter Rice well worth watching. American censors may have agreed with the Italian Marxist critic who complained, “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” but you can’t tell me that Kim Novak’s climb up the wooden steps of the bell tower in Vertigo (1958) wasn’t influenced by Silvana’s suicide.