The Battle of Algiers

FRENCH posterFranco Solinas, who wrote the screenplay for “The Battle of Algiers,” set out to demystify colonial war. Honor, glory, maintaining peace, bringing freedom and the advantages of civilization, guaranteeing human rights—whatever the occupier’s stated motivation for fighting—all of this was sentimental drivel. Solinas felt compelled, he said, to present the events in a harsh light because he was against “a hypocritical, phony, romantic, fictionalized idea of war.”

It’s true that the French do not come off well in this film. The colonists seem spiteful, their young people spoiled, their policemen immoral and underhanded. Apart from the paratrooper commander, Colonel Mathieu, who upholds his warrior code, the French army appears callous at best, sadistic at worst. In one brutal sequence, we see Algerians being tortured in graphic detail, Ennio Morricone’s mournful score heightening our revulsion. Not only must we endure the men’s agony as they are beaten, burned, waterboarded, and subjected to electric shocks, we are also shown the faces of their wives and mothers, tears running down their cheeks, as they too are made to witness the torture.

But none of this would have surprised audiences in the mid-1950s, when the events marked by the film took place. The fact that torture was routinely used in France’s “Dirty War” in Algeria was widely known and hotly debated. Exposés were written by prominent figures, from decorated army generals to Catholic theologians. Soul-searching was the order of the day, particularly among Left-Bank intellectuals. Former members of the French Resistance routinely denounced the “Gestapo methods” of the French army. And efforts by the authorities to censor this literature only increased the demand for it.

The European-born editor of a left-wing Algerian newspaper critical of the colonial regime was tortured for a month at the height of the Battle of Algiers. His account, smuggled page by page out of prison, sold 168,000 copies in a clandestine Swiss edition published in 1958, after the original version was confiscated in France. His ordeal became a cause célèbre.

The shock value of “The Battle of Algiers” did not reside in its revelation of French brutality, difficult as the scenes of torture are to view. I think it was the film’s glorification of revolution, its endorsement of the argument found in Frantz Fanon’s radical manifesto, The Wretched of the Earth, that violence could be a cleansing force, enabling an oppressed people to overcome their fears and reclaim their dignity, that earned the film its acclaim, and its notoriety (depending on the viewer’s politics).

In a famous sequence, three Algerian women prepare to bomb civilian targets in the European area of Algiers. Who doesn’t root for them to get through the checkpoints?

Battle of the Algiers

Pretty shocking, I’d say, even today.

Les Enfants du paradis

The screenwriter of “Enfants du paradis,” poet Jacques Prévert, claimed that cinema and poetry were the same thing. les-enfants-du-paradis-children-of-paradise-L-QeYR7y1-219x300After last night’s Oscar ceremony, that may seem hard to believe. Movie writing nowadays is more like advertising: simple, clear messages designed to elicit a particular response in audiences too impatient for nuances. Poetry it’s not.

But Prévert was onto something. On the surface, “Enfants du paradis” is a costume drama, exquisitely detailed in its rendering of French society during the restored monarchy of Charles X and Louis-Philippe. This was the period when France attempted to put the upheavals of the Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic era behind. Order and stability were regained, by force if necessary; the main action of Les Misérables takes place during this period as well.

In the upper balcony of the theater, the “paradise” level (so named because it is high up, close to heaven), the lower classes watch the performances with childlike pleasure. How charming, this faithful recreation of a world when everyone knew their place in the social hierarchy! Petty thieves bring a soupçon of danger to the idyllic scene. We glimpse the low-life in a seedy bar and are introduced to one genuine criminal. But all of this is just a backdrop for the real story, which centers around the loves and betrayals of a courtesan, Garance.

Here’s where poetry enters the film. Garance plays with men, allowing herself to be kept by an aristocrat while flirting with the criminal, encouraging the attentions of a famous actor while rejecting the earnest mime who truly loves her. All of the acting is superb. And to think, Marcel Carné made “Enfants du paradis” during the German Occupation, in the midst of wartime shortages and power failures and the rounding-up of Jews and other foreign or dangerous elements — not that you’d know it, of course.

“A cathedral erected to the glory of French art during France’s darkest hour.” That’s how French critics regard this film. No less a luminary than François Truffaut said, “I made twenty-three films but would give them all up for this one.” That’s quite some tribute.

French scholar Jeffrey Mehlman takes a different view. “Murderous nostalgia” is his term for such productions, which partook of the Vichy regime’s yearning to turn back the clock, its effort to restore France to herself.

And yet, the image of France that “Enfants du paradis” presents is morally complex. We empathize with Garance, even when she is cruel and fickle. Arletty, the actress who plays her, was the mistress of a German Luftwaffe officer during the war, a betrayal for which she was tried and imprisoned during the purges. Not long after her death in 1992, the French government issued a 100 franc coin with her face on it.

If the beauty of poetry lies not only in its artistry, but also in its ambiguity, “Enfants du paradis” is the poetic film par excellence.

Love (Szerelem)

Love is such a quiet, private film, you’d never guess it was a political statement — and a dangerous one at that. So dangerous that the Hungarian government would not allow the director, Károly Makk, to make it for eight years. And it would be two years after it won the Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival before Hungarian audiences would be allowed to see it.

The story is deceptively simple. Luca’s husband Janos is in prison, one of the thousands of political prisoners in Stalinist Hungary. We do not know his crime and nor does she; we do not learn until the end of the film that he is alive. In the meantime, Luca must somehow get through the days without him.

Janos’s ninety-six-year-old mother does not know her son is in prison. Bedridden, she awaits the daily visit of her daughter-in-law, who conspires with the old woman’s housekeeper to make her believe that Janos is in America making a film. Luca goes so far as to invent letters purporting to be from Janos, which the housekeeper dutifully fetches from the mailbox to keep up the ruse.

Janos’s mother appears to go along with the charade. Born in Vienna, she harbors the lost culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its refined tastes and romantic illusions. She is removed from the harsh realities of life in postwar Hungary, and yet we sense that she knows more than she chooses to reveal.szerelem-1971-b-muller-magda_gyujtemenyebol

In the film, we see flashbacks to the war in which her older son died. She asks Luca to tell Janos not to be so obstinate.

“Why don’t you say it to him, Mother?”

The old lady lifted a hand, and let it fall wearily. “It will be a very long time before he comes home again,” she said, staring fixedly into space again.

In “Two Women,” one of the two short stories by Tibor Déry upon which Love is based, the message is more pointed:

“But why, Mother?” asked Luca again.

Again the old woman made no reply. She lifted her head a little, tried to include in her vision the wasp droning above the pansies, observed it a little while, and then let her head fall back onto her lilac pillow.

“Once I was watching such a wasp,” she said in a muffled voice, “that was buzzing, too, like this one above such yellow pansies, then sat down on one and because it was very heavy the pansy quickly turned her head and bent down deep to the ground. You know, if it had not bent down then perhaps its … what you call it — stem would have broke.”

“Is that what I am to tell Janos?” asked Luca.

“Yes,” said the old lady.

“It’s too late,” muttered Luca.

It was advice that Déry himself did not follow. Always an outspoken opponent of repressive regimes in his native Hungary, whether these were on the right or the left, he spent much of his life in prison or in exile. In fact, “Two Women” was based on the letters Déry’s wife wrote to his mother during his imprisonment following the failed 1956 revolution in Hungary.

The Witness (A tanú)

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Cold War dissident, explored the writer’s dilemma under Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

In the field of literature [socialist realism] forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task — to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

Telling the truth could land you in jail if you were an Eastern European artist in the 1950s. Many compromised with the regime, betraying their ideals, along with their friends and associates. Worse still, acting the part of a loyal servant of the regime became natural. As Milosz warned, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.”

Honesty was impossible if you wished to survive. Your vision, the meaning you found in the world, could only be conveyed if it conformed to the party line. But in Péter Bacsó’s brilliant satire, The Witness, released in 1969 but banned in Hungary for ten years, the truth surfaces through black humor.

Kallai Ferenc plays a poor schlemiel, József Pelikán, a dike keeper  who is promoted by the Communist authorities into a series of positions for which he is totally unqualified. 090318-witnessHere he is, being arrested by the standard-issue secret police agents in their leather trench coats following the disastrous opening of his Great Socialist Fun Park.

One disaster leads to the next. The orange grove he oversees produces a single orange, which one of his children eats before it can be presented to the leader. Pelikán hastily substitutes a lemon at the ceremony, daring the assembled dignitaries to show him up in front of the crowd: “The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly sharper, but our own.”

After each failure, Pelikán is thrown into prison, but others are persuaded to confess to his mistakes and he is given another chance to mess up. Eventually he learns why the authorities have taken such a kindly interest in his case. He is now complicit with the regime, and must show his gratitude by serving as a witness at the show trial of a former colleague from the Resistance.

The man has been accused of espionage, a charge that Pelikán has difficulty believing. There’s nothing suspicious about him, he protests.

“The suspicious thing about spies is that they are not suspicious,” his handler assures him.

“I’m not suspicious and I’m not a spy,” says Pelikán.

“How do you know?”

The hapless Pelikán stubbornly maintains his friend’s innocence. “Show me one man in this country whom I won’t be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes,” his handler retorts.

Persuaded at last, Pelikán is given the script of his testimony to critique. Several aspects strike him as implausible, including the part where the so-called traitor jumped into the Danube and started to converse with some enemy frogmen. His objections are overruled, however (the scriptwriter claims artistic license). Pelikán is taken to a drama coach, who trains him to understand his character’s motivations so he can perform with genuine feeling. He is dressed for the part — “I’ve got it! Worker circa 1950,” the costumer exclaims — but cannot go through with it at the actual trial. Even with the judge prompting him, he refuses to stick to the script.

Meanwhile, the entire town is under water because nobody is manning the dike. People are floating by in boats loaded with their household possessions, including livestock. Pelikán and his family are in a tree, surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he is still spouting his testimony, the lies and slogans, oblivious to the reality that he is about to drown.

Kind of amazing, that Bacsó was allowed to make this picture in the first place.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Gosh, is there any role Alec Guinness couldn’t play? From the highly-principled (but tragically misguided) Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” to George Smiley in the 1970s TV serializations of John le Carré’s novels, to his delightful turn as Professor Godbole in “Passage to India,” the man was a cameleon. And that’s without mentioning his memorable performances in “Great Expectations,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” (He preferred not to be remembered for his recurring role in a certain George Lucas science fiction trilogy, so I will not name it here…)

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he plays eight members of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family, most of whom are dispatched by the last in line to the family title, the young Louis Mazzini (played by the superb Dennis Price).  First to go was the snooty playboy, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, followed by the daft-but-likable Henry D’Ascoyne. Then we meet the tedious Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne — and here is where Guinness really hits his stride.Next we have him as Lady AgathaLadyAgathaGuinness and Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, followed by General Lord Rutherford, who is felled by an exploding jar of Beluga caviar. “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.”

One thing the Brits used to do VERY well was black humor, dry with a twist. Criterion released a remastered version of “Kind Hearts” in 2006, but it’s gone out-of-print. Rent it at your local library or DVD store, and be sure to watch the interview with Sir Alec.

Nights of Cabiria

NightsSometimes a film performance is so perfect that you take the character home and make her part of your life. Giulietta Masina isn’t the kind of person I’d ordinarily invite over for dinner. A low-class prostitute with quite a mouth on her, you wouldn’t guess that she’s a sweetheart underneath.

But look at how much fun she’s having in the posh nightclub, doing the mambo with the self-absorbed actor who picked her up after a snit with his girlfriend. “People want to watch her unrehearsed reaction to the world,” said one commentator on the Criterion DVD. Others have compared her—aptly—to Charlie Chaplin. The closing scene of “Nights of Cabiria” strikes the same chord as the end of “City Lights.”

Masina was a comic genius who moved with grace, but wasn’t too proud to take a pratfall. She could make you laugh one moment, break your heart the next. Her performance opposite Anthony Quinn in “La Strada” was so devastating I haven’t had the courage to watch that film again.

This one I could watch a hundred times.

Le Corbeau

Paris, StraßenszeneAll of France resisted the Nazis, if not actively, at least in their hearts. So argued Jean-Paul Sartre in “The Republic of Silence,” an uplifting little address he published a month after the Liberation. “Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest,” he wrote. “And here I am not speaking of the elite among us who were real Resistants, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and day throughout four years, answered NO.”

Of course, Sartre knew better. In “Paris Under the Occupation,” published a few months later, he presented a different picture of the compromises that daily life under the thumb of the Germans entailed. Here he admitted that his countrymen, for the most part, were too demoralized to resist. And yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to acknowledge how eagerly many complied.

Millions of people denounced their neighbors in anonymous letters to the authorities during the Vichy era. You could say this was something of a patriotic tradition in France. During the ancien régime, secret letters led to the imprisonment of countless “enemies,” who would languish in jail, never knowing what crime they had been accused of, not even knowing the name of their accuser. The practice was stopped during the French Revolution, but the habit persisted. Under Napoleon Bonaparte it was said that half of France was paid to inform on the other half. Informers were also employed during the colonial struggles after the war.

Betrayal was an uncomfortable fact of life under the Occupation, and Henri-Georges Clouzot made it the subject of his 1943 suspense film, “Le Corbeau.” Remarkably, the film was produced by a German-owned company, Continental. More remarkably, early publicity for the picture highlighted the theme:  “Informing, the shame of the century!” Goodness, what were they thinking?Le_corbeau_release_poster

The film was a smash hit. The Catholic Church gave it a “6” on its moral scale—“1” being appropriate for all audiences, even children, and “6” being a film so pernicious that it deserved to be banned—ensuring that it would find an audience for decades to come. In fact, prominent critics on both ends of the political spectrum condemned “Le Corbeau.” Clouzot was accused of treason in the collaborationist newspaper Je Suis Partout; anonymous letters were “necessary” to maintain public order claimed fascist writer Lucien Rebatet. The Left, meanwhile, objected to the complete absence of admirable characters. Nobody comes off well. Not a single soul. Children, nuns, peasants, shopkeepers, teachers, workers: all are corrupted by the poison pen letters circulating in their small town.

“You think that the good are all good and the bad are all bad,” the head of the hospital, Vorzet, tells the film’s protagonist, Germain, in a famous scene. “The good is the light and the bad is the shadow.” (Here Vorzet swings a lightbulb that is dangling from a wire overhead.) Germain is having an affair with a woman in the town. He desires her, but says that he wouldn’t hesitate to turn her in if she were found to be the culprit sending the poison pen letters. “But where is the shadow, where is the light?” Vorget asks. (By now the zones of light and shadow are shifting crazily as the bulb swings back and forth.) “Do you know if you are in the light or in the shadows?”

It’s only natural to seek clarity, particularly during times of upheaval. Simone de Beauvoir argued in favor of the death penalty for war criminals for precisely this reason.  Salutary executions were the only means of restoring the moral certainties that were compromised during the Vichy era, she proclaimed in her essay, “An Eye for an Eye.” And yet both she and Sartre stood up for Clouzot when the postwar French government barred him from making any more films on account of his alleged ties with the Nazis. Sartre even worked with Clouzot on a screenplay during the two-year period before the ban was lifted.

clouzotFor his part, Clouzot seems to have been quite a piece of work. Germain’s intolerance for the hypocrisy of human nature seems to have mirrored the director’s own. He was not an easy man to work with; more than one actress complained of being slapped around on the set. On the other hand, he got fine performances out of his cast and is one of only three directors to have won the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin (the other two were Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Altman).

So, where is the shadow and where is the light?

Welcome to Sarajevo

I knew about the siege of Sarajevo. I mean, I watched the news, saw the images of the bombed-out and burning city. I remember hearing on the radio the accounts of civilians who survived the first Markale massacre, when Serbs shelled a crowded open-air market. But the siege lasted for close to four years, and I will confess that the war in Bosnia was not uppermost in my thoughts for all that time.

The film focuses on the journalists who covered the war in the mid-1990s. They’re shocked by the carnage, and frustrated by the indifference of the public back in Britain, who can’t stay focused on the crisis. Not when the Duke and Duchess of York are getting divorced.

So watching “Welcome to Sarajevo” brought more than a pang of guilt. You see people getting shot, randomly, while going about their daily business. You see residents of the city running for their lives through “snipers alley”—risking their lives for water, or food. You see the bloody bodies of kids lying in the street. You see summary executions carried out casually by Serbian soldiers and the emaciated bodies of Bosnian men behind barbed wire in a concentration camp. You don’t see the rapes of Bosnian women, but we knew about those, too.

I found my mind wandering backwards and forward, to other times when the outside world proved indifferent to the suffering of innocent civilians and international bodies seemed powerless to prevent the carnage.

Following the second Markale massacre, the Serbs claimed that the Bosnians were shelling their own people, to build support for a NATO strike, and the Russians supported their claim. It took two years before NATO actually enforced the no-fly zone established to protect the Bosnian people, two months longer before the the United Nations Protection Force fought back against Bosnian-Serb forces. Before that happened, over 10,000 Sarajevo residents had already died and another 56,000 were wounded in the conflict, among them 15,000 children.

The film offers a glimpse of the trauma, but actual photos from the time tell the story much better.


I first read Tess of the d’Ubervilles during a long and lonely train ride through the French countryside. I was fifteen, returning from a summer language immersion, and Hardy’s tragedy struck a chord.

Maybe it was the feeling that Tess was stuck in a world whose rules were made by others. Honesty, innocence, goodness:  these counted for nothing. Not even love could save her. She was doomed from birth and she knew it. By the time I reached Paris, Hardy had me convinced, too.

Polanski’s film captures the spirit of the novel. The mood struck me as exactly right, and the fact that “Tess” was filmed in the French countryside didn’t hurt, even if the spell is broken whenever Nastassja Kinski opens her mouth.

Fortunately, she doesn’t say much. Watching her face, with its somber beauty, I was reminded of a line from the French Romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine:

I plunged myself into the abyss of sadness.  An illness, without a doubt, but an illness whose actual texture is seductive rather than painful, wherein death comes to seem like a voluptuous surrender into infinity.

Hardy himself considered Tess of the d’Ubervilles “an impression, not an argument.” Watch the film with this in mind and you may also find yourself surrendering to the voluptuous melancholy of Polanski’s vision.


Sunday Bloody Sunday

The kiss was the killer.  Peter Finch’s character, who shares a much younger (male) lover with Glenda Jackson’s character, kisses said lover (Murray Head) on the mouth.  In close-up.

The kiss is not particularly passionate—none of the sex in the film is passionate.  In fact, this is my complaint about “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  The kiss shows that the two men are comfortable together as lovers, which was shocking to film audiences in 1971.  But we’re supposed to believe that Finch’s character is mad about the boy, or that Jackson’s character is mad about the boy.

They aren’t.  Finch got mad as hell in “Network.”  Mad enough to win an Oscar.  Here he’s just mildly disgruntled, even when his lover fails to call, or walks out on him during a party, or abandons him to go off to New York.  “People say to me, ‘he never made you happy.’  And I say, ‘but I am happy.  Apart from missing him,” Finch tells us at the end of the picture, in a poignant little monologue.  “We were something,” he concludes.  Well, yes.  But what, exactly?

As for Jackson, she’s nothing like the firebrand she played in “Women in Love.”  Sure, she’s involved in a love triangle, but she’s like a long-suffering wife who puts up with her husband’s philandering for the sake of appearances.  I guess she doesn’t want to appear like the lonely divorcée she is—although the way she drifts into bed with one of her clients, a married man who has come to her agency looking for a job, suggests otherwise.  She’s not particularly interested in sex with this guy, either.

I liked both Finch and Jackson.  I liked the cinéma vérité feel of the picture, which comes across in Penelope Gilliat’s dialogue and John Schlesinger’s direction.  It just says something that, minus the shock effect of that kiss, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” presents a thoroughly domesticated treatment of illicit love.