Bridge on the River Kwai

“Maybe the unbridgeable gulf that some see separatingRiver Kwai the western and the oriental souls is nothing more than a mirage… Maybe the need to ‘save face’ was, in this war, as vital, as imperative, for the British as it was for the Japanese.”

— Pierre Boulle, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï

Eight years after his escape from a French colonial prison in Saigon, Pierre Boulle published the novel that became the basis for David Lean’s award-winning epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954). Never mind that the bridge was actually on the Mae Klong river, that the actual senior Allied officer who oversaw work at the bridge did everything in his power to sabotage it. (The real story is told in a BBC documentary.) Try not to whistle the catchy theme song.

I want to focus on the film’s ending, where the priggish officer Nicholson, brilliantly played by Alec Guinness, does manage to blow up the bridge. Boulle left the bridge standing at the end of his novel. Was this simply an absurdist touch, symptomatic of postwar French Existentialism, with its insistence on the arbitrariness of life? Boulle would have us believe so. “A novel is built around an abstract idea, on the logic of the absurd. Only after having got the thing precisely plotted do I add my own memories and experiences,” he said.

French Indochina was effectively under the control of the Japanese in 1942 and Boulle was sent by the Free French to find sympathetic Vichy officials who might be persuaded to help undermine their authority from within. Captured while floating down the Mekong river on a raft, he found himself confronted by a Pétainist collaborator and sentenced to forced labor. “When he came to Indochina he thought he was on the good side. But then a Frenchman arrested him and said, “No you are not,” reported a close family member. “It drove home a point about the relativity of good and evil, which is the theme of all his works. What is good is good only in a certain context. Not necessarily universally.”

Literary critic Ian Watt had a different take. Watt had worked on the Burma Railway as a British POW during World War II and nearly died. Twelve thousand Commonwealth, Dutch, and American prisoners did die, and Watt resented the “myth” that Boule propounded, the absurd idea that “stiff upper-lipped British pluck,” as Roger Bourke put it in his study of WWII prisoner-of-war narratives, combined with “superior western technological expertise,” succeeded in defeating the Japanese, at least on a moral level.

I appreciate Watt’s perspective, as one who was there, but his complaint seems to be more with Lean’s film than with Boulle’s book. Keeping in mind that Boulle would go on to write La Planète des Singes, the science fiction novel that became the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, it seems fair to acknowledge the consistency of the French author’s moral concerns: “the illustration of a general ‘absurdity’ which could as well have been located in other times, other places, and with other personages.” An outspoken anti-colonialist, radical for his time, Boulle seems to have spent his postwar existence closeted in his sister’s Paris apartment writing fiction, filtering reality through his fabulous imagination.

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.

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?

Army of Shadows

Some twenty minutes into “Army of Shadows,” Philippe Gerbier, the number-two man in a Resistance cell in occupied France, manages to escape from Gestapo headquarters, where he has been brought for interrogation. shadows1It’s after curfew and we see him running through the deserted Paris streets, looking for a place to hide.  He ducks into a barber shop, the only place that’s lit.  The barber appears, mistrustful of the stranger who is obviously on the run.  On the wall of his shop hangs a poster celebrating the collaborationist leader Marshal Pétain. “What do you want,” he asks. “I want a shave,” Gerbier replies. Without another word, the barber ushers him into a chair and lathers him up. When he is finished, Gerbier reaches into his pocket and hands the barber some crumpled bills. The barber refuses the money, but Gerbier insists on paying him. In return, the barber hands Gerbier a light-colored raincoat, to replace the dark overcoat he was wearing. “It isn’t much, but it’s all I have,” he apologizes.

Heroism, director Jean-Pierre Melville is saying, is found not in grandiose sacrifices for a noble cause, but in small gestures like these. And he speaks with authority, having fought in the Resistance (Melville was a French Jew, born in Alsace; “Melville” was his nom de guerre).  A moment of trust, of shared hope. Here we are, in 1942, and a German defeat seems unlikely. The Resistance is small, fragmented. Betrayal is common, and even men like Gerbier find themselves in the moral gray zone, violating their own principles in the name of an abstraction like freedom, clinging to the small shred of dignity, to their memories, when all else is lost. This is the reality of war and resistance, of life itself.

“Army of Shadows is beautifully shot, its muted palette reflecting Melville’s grayscale message. Many scenes are composed in the stark, spare strokes of a Goya drawing, and this strikes me as fitting because both artists’ sense of the effects of violence on the human soul is the same.  A bleak film, it rings true.

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