Archive for Raymond Bernard

The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns

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An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.

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So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.

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The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.

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The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

 

Flames of Passion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 1, 2013 by dcairns

Happy New Year!

Your Pathe-Natan film of the week. Raymond Bernard, who made the truly great PN films WOODEN CROSSES and LES MISERABLES, started his career at the company with FAUBOURG-MONTMARTRE, which somewhat defeated my benshi translator David Wingrove since the copy I’d obtained had pretty cruddy sound. Add to that the vagaries of early thirties recording and early thirties French slang, and you have a film that’s pretty hard to understand — and it might be hard to understand even if you had perfect audio and spoke 1930s French like a native.

The romantic plot inexplicably yields sway to a riotous fire festival in a small town, in which the lovers are burned in effigy by no less a figure than Antonin Artaud — if you’re going to have a burning at the stake in your movie, qua THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Artaud will turn up, it seems. I suspect his toothsome shade mingled among the crowds attending Edward Woodward’s immolation in THE WICKER MAN, perhaps pausing to pinch Britt Ekland’s bum.

Bernard flings himself into the festivities, concocting an expressionistic frenzy that ends with an anthropomorphic building like something from a Fleischer brothers cartoon. Then the film goes back to normal, the villagers say they didn’t mean any harm, and shortly afterwards the film just kind of stops. Was the director wrong to build this sequence up so much that it ruptures the surrounding movie? Perhaps not, since the surrounding movie is kind of dull by comparison, and this sequence is AMAZING.

Paper Edit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 6, 2012 by dcairns

My first day in the edit was a day of hanging around. Hanging around waiting for a courier to deliver rushes from Ohio (our shoot covers two continents!) — he came, decided he couldn’t get in, didn’t try the buzzer, and left again. Hanging around as our ace editor assembles our paper edit, which he doesn’t need me for. Hanging around as he digitizes various Pathe-Natan films I’ve brought with me from Edinburgh. So far that’s been my only concrete contribution, although at least I performed my courier duties better than the professional.

The paper edit is a document created from transcripts of our various interviews. We chopped them up and assembled them into a rather long-winded and repetitious narrative — the next stage is to assemble the actual video into a matching order, before beginning to prune it down. And also adding a ton of footage that’s NOT interviews — scenes of Paris, clips from movies, newsreels and other archive material, and shots of pertinent objects in our interviewee’s homes. And also some special footage I don’t want to say too much about yet.

Listening to Mark Cousins lecture on his excellent new feature WHAT IS THIS FILM CALLED LOVE? I got a great tip. Index cards. Tomorrow I will buy myself a stack. I was always slightly dubious of the index card approach, but that was before I became a documentarist. The argument against file cards is that if you can remove a scene from your narrative and replace it five scenes later, then you might as well remove it altogether. But this project seems different, partly because it’s a true story, and a story which advances on several fronts at once, as well as jumping back and forth between the subject’s life in the early twentieth century, and his reputation in the early twenty-first. Mark says that when he had his scenes written on cards he could INSTANTLY tell what belonged where. I long for that sensation.

Optimistically, I also feel that when I can hold the film as a stack of cards, I will have a better mental grasp of it as well. Currently, it exists on various hard drives, as a series of ones and zeroes, and you can only experience a frame of it at a time. When I have my stack of cards I will be able to weigh the film in my hands. I don’t know what good that will do me, but I’m expecting some kind of perceptible benefit.

Meanwhile, my co-director Paul is in London where he’s nominated for a Grierson Award for best newcomer with his feature BARBARIC GENIUS. He’s in good company — Julian Schwanitz, a student from Edinburgh College of Art, where I teach, is up for best student film with his short KIRKCALDY MAN. Wish them both luck!

Today’s Pathe-Natan film recommendation: LES CROIX DE BOIS (WOODEN CROSSES). Available on the Eclipse set of Raymond Bernard movies, it’s maybe the darkest and strongest of all the early talkie WWI movies. All the major members of the cast and crew (including Natan) were veterans, and the film achieves both a palpable sense of authenticity (complete with de-lousing and lost limbs) and an epic scope, while ambling along in a disarmingly free-form manner. The lack of an obvious theatrical structure just makes the movie feel even more lifelike.

Screenings were arranged up and down the country for veterans. One was so distressed that he killed himself. Not an effect any of the movie-makers intended, but a terrible testimony to the impact of their work. I only recommend the film to you on the assumption that Shadowplayers are pretty resilient people.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

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