Archive for Anatole Litvak

How to Succeed in Nazi Cinema without Really Trying

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , on May 12, 2020 by dcairns


I’m hoovering up Gunther Peter Straschek epic series Filmemigration aus Nazidetschland with my eyeballs and earballs. It is just interviews with German film professionals who fled their homeland to escape the Nazis. Five hours of just that. I wish there were fifty.

Anatole Litvak tells a remarkable story, more remarkable perhaps than any he ever filmed. I like A.L. quite a bit as a director, though perhaps he never made a masterpiece. But I think THE SNAKE PIT is aces.


Litvak was working in Berlin in the early thirties, and suddenly he was arrested. He spent a night in a jail cell, unable to understand what had happened. He knew that as an expat Russian he could rely on no embassy to help. Fortunately, he got a message to his employers at UFA asking help.

The next day he was questioned by a,,, “Not a policeman.” Litvak is telling his tale in German, he only occasionally struggles for a word. The man who interrogated him is a puzzle, in fact, because he seems like a kind of Kafkaesque authority figure representing obscure forces…

He asks Litvak, “Did you take photos of the border between Italian and French territories in 1929?”

Litvak is roughly as puzzled as you or I would be if asked that question, but then he recalls that he was a camera assistant on an Arabian Nights adventure shot in North Africa and the French and Italians did have some territory there. He tries to explain. He didn’t take any photos. They were making a film. He was a camera assistant.

The not-a-policeman, who has a big file on Litvak in front of him, nevertheless writes down that his information is confirmed. Then he asks Litvak if he took photos of French fortifications in Paris in 1932.

Again, Litvak is baffled. But he was in Paris, directing COEUR DE LILAS with Jean Gabin in that year. And he remembers that the district he was in had a spot called Les Fortifs — Napoleonic era fortifications, nothing left of them now, grassed over. He tries to explain this but the notcop writes down again that it’s true.

Fortunately, the UFA lawyer gets him out. Then the lawyer asks him, is there anyone in Berlin who could confirm your story?

“Certainly, there’s an assistant, Leschke, and there’s the great cameraman, Curt Courant…”

Well, it turns out Courant is away from Berlin but his mother is at home and she has also been the victim of an anonymous denunciation. At which point Litvak realises that the assistant Leschke, “because he had a fit of madness, and because h was a Nazi, and because he wanted to get ahead in films, had…”


And at this point, an extraordinary thing occurs. Litvak, a Russian who had learned German to work in Germany, and French to work in France, and the English to work in America, and is now living in France again… all his languages desert him. Tens of seconds drift by. It’s the longest pause I’ve ever seen performed by a living human being. Straschek’s rigorous technique of simply recording in unbroken takes from a single set-up is electrifyingly justified her.

Litvak is NOT not overcome by emotion. But there are just no WORDS for this. Not in German, nor French, English or Russian. His hands are moving, his fingers are literally making tiny snatches at the air as if to grab the elusive, intangible, slippery words he needs.

Eventually he quietly says something like “…made up this story…” and it’s obvious that he’s not happy with these words, but they will have to suffice.

Georg Leschke’s last film credit is 1935, though who knows, he may have gone on being uncredited as he was on the two films where he worked with Litvak. His career certainly doesn’t seem to have flourished. Maybe, even in the Third Reich, film crews didn’t much care for a rat.

Lilac Time

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2012 by dcairns

Regular Shadowplayer and NATAN collaborator Phoebe “La Faustin” Green enters the fray now with the final film of a screen siren little known and indeed quite new to me. I am thrilled to make her acquaintance ~

Marcelle ROMEE

Oh la la, qu’elle a du chien,” one of my screening companions growled appreciatively as Marcelle Romée made her first appearance in COEUR DE LILAS (Anatole Litvak, 1932).

Indeed, Marcelle Romée demonstrates that untranslatable quality, the French version of “it” – a careless magnetism, a deep, racy energy under a coolly imperturbable surface. Her face tapers from a high, pearly forehead and wide-set dark eyes to a nose of arrowy delicacy, with perpetually flared nostrils, and a tense, fine-cut cupid’s bow mouth. Less than a year after shooting that scene — appearing in her kimono on the landing of a dive hotel to demand that her sheets be changed, then pivoting back with a sullen, “This dump …” — she would be dead.


In the 1920s and 1930s, even before the rise of the Reich sent German and German-based filmmakers fleeing westward, Paris was both location and subject for foreign directors: Kirsanoff, Litvak, Ophuls, Ozep, Pabst, Siodmak, Wilder… They revelled, with what might be thought of as the sensitivity of a fresh eye or the prurience of a slumming tourist, in gleaming cobblestones, misty quais, slinking apaches, fatalistic streetwalkers, hoarse-voiced urchins tearing through the littered no-man’s land of the fortifs…

Their presence was condemned, in a 1938 letter to the French Ministry of Internal Affairs by the board of the National Technical Federation of Cinematographic Production, as “causing grave wrong to their French colleagues … They are competing, here and abroad, with our own directors, in their own language. And yet they infuse their films … with a spirit and a character that are not ours. They risk losing for French film on the world market its advantages of elegance, lightness, cleverness, and charm …”

These attractions – the “Frenchness” that was conjured up by Lubitsch or Mamoulian on a Hollywood soundstage – are not to be found in COEUR DE LILAS. And yet it is very, very French:

  • The romance of squalor, pugnacious flair, wistful hope – articles de Paris since … Bruant? Rétif de la Bretonne? Villon?
  • Location shots that thrill us with the 1932 everydaynesss of La Chapelle’s hilly wasteland by the tracks and Les Halles’ bustling abundance – contrasted with a burst of freshness on the Marne
  • Pathé-Natan studio shots that give us the quintessential tarts’ hotel, escaliers de la butte, and honking bal musette of our sordid dreams
  • A scenario based on a play by Tristan Bernard (a luminary in his own right and father of Pathé-Natan’s key director Raymond Bernard)
  • Three beautifully staged songs by Maurice Yvain (composer of “Mon Homme”) that variously illustrate, motivate, and counterpoint their scenes
  • Marcelle Romée, Jean Gabin, Fréhel, Fernandel …

COEUR DE LILAS opens on the scrubby hills on the northeastern outskirts of Paris, with trains from the gare de l’Est hooting by and a wrong way round glimpse of Sacre Coeur. A gang of little boys apes the soldiers drilling nearby, then, when one of them says he wants “no more war”, breaks off to play cops and robbers – though no one wants to be a cop. One of them discovers a man’s corpse on the hillside. Gapers and policemen gather promptly.

A quick montage of newspapers brings us up to speed – the victim is an industrialist — a glove found near his body belongs to a tart known as Lilas (Lilac) – an American sailor alibis her for the night in question – suspicion falls on the industrialist’s clerk. In the examining magistrate’s chambers, the poor cipher is peppered with sardonic questions – didn’t he have money troubles? Didn’t he know his boss had a large amount of cash on his person? Didn’t he pay off an outstanding debt the day after the crime? The victim’s widow is received with obsequious attentions and leading questions – the accused’s frantic wife with a pointed fingering of her little fur neckpiece. Over her sobs, the camera moves toward the statue of justice in the courthouse waiting room.

So far, so schematic – but André, the young police detective (André Luguet*) who found the glove at the scene of the crime, is convinced of the clerk’s innocence. He asks for time off to investigate the original suspect, Lilas, on his own.

Now, twenty minutes in, the film really begins. A barrel organ plays and, punningly synchronised with its whining, the metal shutters of a café are cranked up. This is our Paris.


The young detective checks into Lilas’ hotel, a greasy den whose bar is frequented by a tangy assortment of riffraff, led by Jean Gabin’s Martousse.


Gabin is a Cagneyesque plug of energy, so springy that he has to counterbalance himself every few minutes by readjusting the slant of his hat. But he moons over Lilas, when she appears on the stairs, as though she were Juliet on her balcony.

André clashes immediately with Martousse, defending Lilas from the latter’s apache-style attentions. That evening she comes to his room and stonily begins undressing as a return for services. It’s the réaliste version of the pre-Code lingerie scene, and leaves an appropriately nasty taste in the mouth. André, however, insists on going out together instead, and they go to the bal musette across the street. Marousse, embittered by the turn things are obviously taking, sings along with “La Môme Caoutchouc” – “My girl, Rubber Doll – you won’t believe what she can do – you think she’s under you, she’s on top – “

Look at Gabin’s hands at the bar. Am I the only one reminded of the opening of Footlight Parade’s “Shanghai Lil” number?

A police raid sends André and Lilas running – they take shelter on an all-night bus, riding from one end of the line to the other until morning. Lilas confides her hatred and terror of the police – “They get you and they work you over. Some of them pretend to be pimps, and then it turns out they’re stool pigeons and they turn you in.” André cradles her and she sleeps.

Bright morning and another Paris location: Les Halles. Fresh flowers, oranges … the pair picnic on the steps of the Fontaine des Innocents. “You can’t even handle a knife,” André says with tenderness and relief. He buys Lilas a floaty crepe dress and a wide-brimmed hat – you can feel what it must be like for her to peel off her hard-used sweater and skirt.

The two escape to a riverside hotel. Their idyll is set off by a wedding party arriving for a blowout, with Fernandel leading the singing of “Ne te plains pas …” – “Don’t complain if the bride’s too beautiful, if she’s got these and those … if you’d chosen a dog, you’d have her all to yourself … you’ve got it made, you cuckold!” 

But Martousse has told Lilas what her lover is. She is shocked into a gasping confession – she did kill the industrialist. As the wedding party bursts gleefully into the room and dances around the couple, she flees. She is haunted in double exposure by a farandole of increasingly grotesque wedding guests, and by the superimposition of implacable uniformed police and her lover’s face. Appointment in Samarra: she runs headlong into the cop on the beat.

André finds her in a local police station. He identifies himself and pleads that Lilas’ confession not be taken seriously – she’s not in her right mind. Of course not, the desk sergeant replies – the guilty man is already in jail in Paris. André is brought back to earth, and, inevitably, picks up the phone … Headlines confirm the result.

Back on the La Chapelle hillside, one urchin is consoling another, who’s fallen. “What are you doing, petting a robber?” he’s asked. “A cop can’t go soft!”


Marcelle Romée was hospitalised for depression that year. She ran away from the clinic during the night of December 3rd, 1932, and drowned herself in the Seine.

The Gang

*Luguet had a busy 1932, with seven films shot in Paris and, for Warner Brothers, in Hollywood. Let’s hope that Love is a Racket and Jewel Robbery cheered him up after this one.

Paris in the Spring

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2012 by dcairns

So, early April saw me back in Paris, on top-secret Shadowplay business… except I’m about to reveal what that business is…

Regular Shadowplayer Paul Duane proposed to me the idea of a documentary about that shadowy and exotic figure of film history, Bernard Natan — producer in France in the late twenties and early thirties, head of Pathe, and eventually convicted of fraud, slandered as a pornographer, sentenced to jail and finally handed over to the Nazis.

I thought this was a swell idea, but wondered who would back such a film — then Paul found a fund specializing in films that couldn’t get funded any other way. We pitched the project, and they agreed it met that criterion. So now we’re making a documentary feature about a Romanian-French film producer, despite neither of us being Romanian or French or even speaking either language adequately. You can’t blame our contacts in France for looking puzzled.

The reason I’m telling you this is — well, I have to tell you sooner or later. And there’s no reason to remain secretive, I don’t think. And I’m curious if anybody out there has any expert knowledge on the period and personalities we’re dealing with. Apart from Natan himself there are his regular directors, who include Raymond Bernard, Maurice Tourneur, Henri Diamant-Berger, Leonce Perret, Fedor Ozep, Anatole Litvak and Michel Colombier. Then there are the people Natan gave a start to: Jean Gabin, Jacques Tourneur…

Research is already proceeding apace, but I’m very interested in suggestions…

I’m also interested in getting good copies of the Pathe-Natan films. Ultimately, Pathe themselves will supply their finest archive material, but for viewing and consideration, good copy DVDs, especially with subtitles, would be most welcome. Of particular interest: Ozep’s MIRAGES DE PARIS, Pierre Colombier’s CES MAITRES DE LA SANT, Litvak’s L’EQUIPAGE, Tourneur Snr’s DANS LA NOM DE LA LOI, Gremillon’s LA PETITE LISE, and pretty much any others.