Askew

Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…

The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.

As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.

Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).

Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”

Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.

This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.

There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.

Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.

But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.

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

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36 Responses to “Askew”

  1. Although, sadly, not tough enough to survive the Nazis. Looking forward to catching up with more of Baur’s work.

  2. As am I: my new favourite actor. Look forward to more about him here soon.

    A lesson to us all: never take your Jewish wife to wartime Berlin for a theatrical engagement. Poor Harry. Not only did they torture him, causing his death a couple of days later, but French collaborationists ransacked his apartment and stole the antique furniture, as exposed in Bertrand Tavernier’s dramatisation of the era, Laissez-Passer.

  3. Finally got a copy of Chenal’s Crime and Punishment with subtitles, so I’ll be enjoying Baur in that soon.

  4. And when speaking of Victor, don’t forget Adele.

  5. This is the only film version of Les Misérables that I’ve seen which at least tries to capture some of the scope of Hugo’s novel rather than reducing it to Valjean-Javert; I’d read it just before I saw Bernard’s film and while there are numerous non-narrative asides that disappear onscreen I’m not sure how you can capture those on film. I’m curious about the Le Chanois version from 1958, not least because it has Bourvil as Thenardier and Danièle Delorme as Fantine, but I can only find a pretty poor VHS copy locally.

    The canted angles are something of an affectation but they worked for me because they seem to get ever more extreme as Baur’s predicament deepens: people seem to be walking vertically in some of the courtroom scenes!

    The extraordinary moment you highlight where Baur begins to weep reminded me of the scene in West of Zanzibar when Lon Chaney’s face suddenly crumples as he realizes what he has done: it’s very much an earned moment of emotion.

    I love the idea that Bernard’s film was released in three parts on consecutive weekends — like The Lord of the Rings but without giving the studio two years to bombard you with ads.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Who Killed Santa Claus? (1942) directed by Christian Jacque also contains a good Bauer performance.

  7. A year or two ago I read “Cinema of Paradox,” by Evelyn Ehrlich, a good book about the French film industry during the Occupation. I can’t find a fully searchable edition at the moment, but I believe this book discusses the disparate claims about exactly what happened to Baur and (more disputedly), why — including that his wife was Jewish, that he was too (although this latter may be mostly sourced to some repugnant remarks from Sacha Guitry), and/or that one or both of them was involved with the Resistance. Whether post-war commenters viewed him as a victim, a hero, or an unlucky opportunist depended in large part on which category they fell into themselves.

    The book also has some very interesting material on the distinct culture of Vichyism, which I’d always thought of as Nazism with a beret, but no, it was very much its own creepy creepy ultramontane thing. Santorum-creepy.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Katya, You’re right about Vichy having its own repugnant ideas very similar to Santorum. Severall interesting books have been written on the subject such as POLITICS AND PARADES and others by historian John Sweets worth looking into. LE CORBEAU with its sympathetic view of a “femme fatale” who attempts an abortion and does not suffer for it is another example of a complex film that “goes against the grain.”

  9. Oh, I love L’Assassinat du Pere Noel. Best Christmas film ever.

    Thanks for the reading material — it so happens this period, and the interwar period before it, is one I’m taking a crash course in right now. The reason why will be announced soon-ish.

  10. I’ve just been informed of the Albert Capellani version of 1813, apparently very impressive, and a 1925 version by Henri Fescourt which is even longer than Bernard’s — around 8 hours. It appears to have influenced his visuals, too: the scary Disney forest is present already.

    Thanks to Christine Leteux.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    Raymond Bernard was a fascinating and much underrated figure. His silent adventure epic THE CHESS PLAYER is some sort of masterpiece – and even a later work like his 1954 LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS with Micheline Presle (the most atrociously faded colour print I’ve ever seen) is well worth a look.

    Somehow, the ghastly non-talents of the Nouvelle Vague seemed to erase not only their more talented contemporaries (Claude Autant-Lara & co) but also anyone who had done interesting work in French cinema before them!!

  12. The French cinema enthusiasts I ment recently probably vary in their opinions of the nouvelle vague as cineastes, but seem to agree that their influence on the perception of French cinema history has been wholly negative — disastrously so. Conversely, one would have to say that, foibles aside, they had a beneficial effect on US film history studies, elevating the genre filmmakers to their rightful place.

    I’ve long been familiar with The Chess Player just from the clips in Kevin Brownlow’s Cinema Europe, but have still to actually watch the thing.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    Does one see a parallel with the MOVIE critics dismissal of British Cinema in the 1960s with the exception of Joseph Losey? Later decades saw the re-evaluation of the Archers, Lauder and Gilliiat, and British film noir – to name but a few examples.

  14. It’s similar, but Movie’s view never became the prevailing cultural attitude to the same extent, and the filmmakers they disparaged never sank into such obscurity — David Lean and Carol Reed probably never noticed the dismissal.

    The UK situation is more like the US, where Hitchcock and Hawks gained from new appreciation, but Wyler, Wilder, Capra and Zinnemann were still appreciated by their own followers. Which strikes me as healthy, inclusive.

    Considering that Cahiers was a relatively small magazine, through the New Wave and the Cinematheque and Cannes they seem to have effected a total shift in consciousness.

  15. I just got a copy of the Baur-Jouvet film Volpone, which I’m very much looking forward to; I like the Jonson play a lot, though I think this version owes a good deal more to the liberal adaptation by Zweig/Romains.

    From the same period, I love Goupi Mains Rouges, too; a great gallery of character actors there. Becker didn’t suffer too badly at the hands of the Cahiers folks, of course.

  16. Yes, they had their favourites. I slightly suspect that the difference between being a Cahiers fave and a bete noire was somewhat political.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, GOUPI is such an amazing film in terms of its cinematography due to low-budget facilities. The notorious Robert Le Vigan also appears in it. As for Becker, Truffaut mentions that it was easier for a beginner to become a director in the Occupation period than in the post war (Melville) in his introduction to Bazin’s book on this era. Here Tavernier’s later film becomes really interesting. Despite his appaling views Le Vigan emerges as an interesting actor paralleling the similar case of Louis Ferdinand Celine (also mentioned in Tavernier’s film).

  18. Vigan was certainly compelling onscreen — an amazing face! But I’m tempted to conclude they should have executed him, just to be consistent.

    Still to see Goupi. Always been tempted to put it on a double bill with Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. A Very Goopy Movie.

  19. I think you’re likely to enjoy Goupi on numerous levels. Le Vigan is good there as the clan member with colonial experience. I confess I didn’t know a whole lot about his background until prompted by Tony’s comments above. Just watched him in Les Bas-Fonds — a small but, as per usual, memorable role.

    Just to keep the connection going, Le Vigan was directed by a gent by the name of Roger Goupillières in the 1933 version of Knock.

  20. I’ve only seen the later Knock, which was awful good fun.

    Duvivier testified to try and save Le Vigan’s life, claiming he wasn’t really political. Certainly the guy’s punishment in the end was hard enough: dying insane in Argentina.

  21. I haven’t been able to trace a full copy of the first Knock; I have the second but haven’t watched it yet. There’s a clip online comparing the two versions, and the 1933 segment includes Le Vigan.

    One of the Le Vigan films made in Argentina would be some kind of Forgotten Forgotten.

  22. Tony Williams Says:

    David, 10:54 post. A Scottish joke straight from Sir Walter Scott whose WAVERLY I’ve just finished reading?

    Yes, I agree that Le Vigan’s end fulfilled the tenets of “poetic justice” rather than a quick exit. To Truffaut’s shame, he wanted to bring Le Vigan back from his Argentinian exile to French cinema. Fortunately, the reprobate refused.

  23. It’s a tough call. Does anybody benefit from Le Vigan being kept off the screen? What is the point beyond which an actor’s personal views or behaviour renders him beyond the pale?

    For Nicol Williamson, it was stabbing a co-star in the arse. Le Vigan’s antisemitism (and yet he played Jesus — leaving aside whether God is Jewish, Mary was, therefore so is Jesus) was tolerated by Carne, Duvivier et al, until the liberation. Eugene Pallette’s racism bothered nobody, it seems, until it interfered with his ability to take direction from Preminger.

    Still, I’m happy to believe any trash-talk about Truffaut that comes my way, while still enjoying some of his films.

  24. Tony Williams Says:

    According to the Pierre Chenal monograph, Le Vigan did not turn anti-semitic and nasty until the late 30s. The Jewish Chenal worked with him several times and regarded him as one of his key actors along with Harry Bauer, Louis Jouvet and Eric von Stroheim. He never mentions him after ww2 when Chenal fled to South America. Chenal does mention that his art collection was looted during the Occupation and that credits mentioning he and von Stroheim were removed from 1930s films.

    Had LeVigan returned to the screen, this would have provoked protests from audiences who remembered his notorious Vichy activities. He is also mentioned in Celine’s RIGODON, FROM cASTLE TO CASTLE, and NORD.

  25. “What is the point beyond which an actor’s personal views or behaviour renders him beyond the pale?” I think context should count. Mel Gibson’s rants are ultimately just fodder for late-night satire, but LeVigan was performing his while the project of murdering every Jew in Europe was actually underway — and while his buddy Celine was complaining that he was still spotting non-dead Jews on the streets. People LeVigan knew were being killed, and he was going on the radio and saying, in effect, that they should be killed.

    (Now I’m reminded of the most stupefying defense I’ve ever heard for Celine’s politics — “Yeah, he was saying that Jews were vermin and demanding that they be exterminated, but he didn’t know that that was actually happening!” Treblinka as an art installation.)

  26. I take Gibson slightly seriously because I believe he does believe all the foul things he says when he’s drunk, and that his persona the rest of the time is an act. That’s my personal take on it. But I don’t know if he wants anything DONE about the people he hates, so he might fall into what Kingsley Amis cheerfully called the “mildly anti-semitic” group.

    Duvivier’s defense of LeVigan was that he was basically an idiot, too weak-minded to resist Celine’s persuasion. But he was an adult, so he was responsible. Damn he was good onscreen though. Did he ever recant his wartime views?

  27. Tony Williams Says:

    i’ve heard that it was the other way round that LeVigan was a bad influence on Celine whose comments were so over-the-top that he also embaraased the Nazis. One critic (Rober Brassilier) was actually executed but Le Vigan escaped that fate.

  28. I agree that Gibson’s shit is the real deal. He was raised in a schismatic Catholic outpost that I believe has historical and ideological links with Vichyism, so the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But probably even full-time racists regard him as a liability.

    “Basically an idiot” is a defense that Werner Krauss and Emil Jannings were also the beneficiaries of. More precisely, “They were actors — you know, idiots — so cut them some slack.”

  29. “Filmmakers are silly people,” says Mrs Kubrick, in reference to her uncle, the highly problematic Veit Harlan. And while I truly believe she’s right, I don’t know what kind of excuse it ultimately is. Maybe the concentration camp guards were silly too. I guess culpability can be measured by how close a person got to the atrocities without flinching, with drunken ranting at the lower end of the scale.

    Sternberg didn’t cut Jannings any slack, finding him an idiot but also a monster (“and to me he had boasted that his first wife was Jewish”).

    As Hume Cronyn realizes in The Seventh Cross, “You’ve got to pay attention.”

  30. Tony Williams Says:

    Didn’t Veit Harlan’s first wife end up in a concentration camp? Also, he was not only responsible for JEW SUSS but also an anti-gay film that he made in the 50s, very different in tone from Richard Oswald’s DIFFERENT THAN THE OTHERS. I don’t think the excuse of being “silly” can justify excusing people like Harlan from responsibility. A very good documentary by one of his sons who took him to task also exists, the title of which I forget.

    THE SEVENTH CROSS was a film about escapees from a concentration camp written by a Communist writer who, though hardline, in the future GDR was far from being “silly.” Anna Seghers did not want to see the same thing happen again and it is a blessing she did not live to see it perpetuated by the USA.

  31. Well this is it. Harlan’s two hate-films saw him following the dominant ideology of the times, so I guess he could always claim these weren’t really HIS ideas. But there comes a point at which stupidity is culpable, and he was a repeat offender. Responsibility has to start somewhere.

  32. There’s no right to remain a moron.

    Speaking of Richard Oswald, IMDB shows that LeVigan was in “Tempete su l’Asie” (1938), directed by Richard Oswald (German Jewish exile), starring Conrad Veidt (anti-Nazi German exile) as well as … Sessue Hayakawa. Interesting trio, but I think it’s a lost film.

    Several sources (Carl Zuckmayer, Lotte Eisner, and I guess Klaus Mann via the Jannings figure in “Mephisto”), say that Emil Jannings had at least partial Jewish ancestry. It appears that he at least liked to claim Jewish connections pre-Hitler, which required fancy footwork subsequently and perhaps made his bad behavior worse.

    The documentary Tony has in mind is “Harlan: In the Shadows of Jud Suss.” There’s also “Wandersplitter,” a riveting interview with Veit Harlan’s son Thomas.

  33. …and a recent dramatic film telling the story of the movie’s making.

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