Tag Archives: collaboration

Coming of age in fascist Sicily, fixated on one who was treated as a “collaborator” after Mussolini’s fall

I think that “Malèna” (2000) is a better film than many of the other Italian films set in fascist times that have been honored as “best foreign language films”: Mediterraneo, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Life Is Beautiful, and even Amarcord. Indeed, I think that it is probably the best Italian film since “Cinema Paradiso,” which was also written and directed (twenty years ago) by Giuseppe Tornatore.

One admirable aspect is that the “macro context” is clearer in “Malèna” than in these other films. There is no need to stop and insert newsreel footage, because the local reverberations of the course of the war are very clear. Making historical sense is a rarely invoked criterion of excellence. “Malèna” has many others, but the passage of time is handled so ineptly in the much-honored list of films above, that I start with it.

Hardship is downplayed in all these films, though getting food is a problem for the title character in “Malèna.” Renato (Giuseppi Sulfaro) is propelled more by hormones than by hunger, but his family seems to have enough to eat.

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Renato is obsessed with Malèna Scordia (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of the small city’s new Latin teacher. Her husband is off fighting colonial wars in East Africa. She is very beautiful, very unprotected, and more than a little provocatively dressedand shod. Renato is not the only one obsessed with her. The whole city is! Men of all ages are drooling about—and occasionally on—her. Respectable women are outraged at the effect she has on the men. Both sexes resent her—the women because she distracts the men, the men because she is at the time so voluptuous and so unavailable to them. Renato seems to be the only one who does not resent her. He worships her as a goddess from whom one cannot expect anything, spies on her, fantasizes about her, is horrified at the good citizen’s treatment of her, fights to defend her honor, and is heartbroken by his inability to protect her from what others spitefully regard as and make be her fate.

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The film, beautifully photographed in Syracuse, Sicily by Lajos Koltai, from a story by Luciano Vicenzoni, takes Renato’s retrospective perspective on his wartime youth. What Malèna thinks of what befalls her, from the daily ogling and resentment to her “punishment,” is opaque to the viewer, because inaccessible to the boy. In a sense this means that the film objectifies her, just as the townspeople, including Renato did. Although she is the object of masturbatory fantasies in the film, I would stress that the perspective of the film is retrospective. That is, it is the adult narrator conjuring both the hormone-crazed boy that he was and the woman who probably never noticed him. Looking back he has compassion for both, as does the audience, or at least most of the audience. For the mob that hails Mussolini’s declaration of war, welcomes the Nazis and the American troops in turn, it is more difficult, and for the officials who go from being fascist officials to being aides to the Americans, it is impossible.

I know that the film has some detractors, mostly those expecting another celebration of the Italian past like “Cinema Paradiso” or the blitheness of “Amarcord.” And for the first hour or so, this film is lighthearted, even comic. But “Malèna” is not bittersweet in the manner of late Fellini movies. The violence is not stylized as it is in much recent American popular culture. What happens is excruciating to watch. The violence, when it comes, lasts an agonizingly long time.

I do not think that the leads are “wooden,” as some other viewers have. Monica Bellucci’s subjectivity is supposed to be unavailable, and during most of her scenes she is trying not to show emotion, but it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could think that Giuseppi Sulfaro is inexpressive! And, being an Italian movie, there are some other very expressive characters. There are plenty of theatrical gesticulation and operatically overdramatized speech available from the lawyer and from the mother in two of the film’s hilarious (yet not unserious) scenes.

I think that the film is at times extremely funny, but it plunges into horror and anguish, and ultimately provides catharsis. Is there anything else that art is supposed to do?

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The cinematography of Lajos Koltai (The Legend of 1900) is superb (and wasa Oscar-nominated), the pacing brisk, and the acting convincing. My only dissatisfaction was with the overly insistent music supplied by Ennio Morricone (composer for hundreds of films, including “For a Few Dollars More,” “Brun!” and “Cinema Paradiso”). Eventually, I predict that “Malèna” will be recognized as a worthy addition to the tradition of “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Nights of Cabiria,” two of the most poignant classics of Italian neorealistic cinema. It is also one of the few great films about those treated as collaborators, along with “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”

©2001, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

A young, not-very-bright collaborator with the Nazis

Lacombe, Lucien” (1974, written and directed by Louis Malle, cowritten with the typically vague Patrick Modiano) starts slowly and proceeds at a languid, dreamy pace (with bursts of violence). It is a disconcertingly lyrical look at an 17-year-old Frenchman in rural southwestern France (near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border) who joins the Gestapo in 1944 (that is, after Allied forces have landed in Normandy) and develops a very complex relationships with three Jews (a young woman, her father, and his mother) who are in hiding.

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The title character is devoid of ideology. He is rejected by the Resistance and then, being out after curfew because a tire on his bicycle went flat as he was returning to town, he is taken up by collaborators who are attempting to root out and destroy the Resistance. He does not decide to join the other side. They get him drunk and he provides useful information (so that he can’t go home again), and they keep him around. (Similarly, he did not decide to betray his village’s resistance leader, but did so nonetheless.)

Lucien seems to find an outlet for his sadism, an opportunity to swagger like the young collaborator in Georges Dirty Snow. I think that Malle was influenced by the “banality of evil” thesis that Hannah Arendt advanced in Eichman in Jerusalem a decade earlier (and that was illustrated in “The Sorrow and the Pity” in the French context, a few years before “Lacombe, Lucien.”

The surly Lacombe is easily manipulated by those who enroll him in the Gestapo and make him feel important. He is very immature, which makes him dangerous to everyone (including those on the side he has drifted onto more than joined). He lacks the methodical organization of the Germans in the Gestapo, the greed of other French collaborators, and the anti-Semitic ideology of both. None of which make him a nice guy, but, as the cultivated Jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler ) says, it is difficult to despise him. And it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Lucien being way over his head and almost endearingly gauche in courting France Horn (the beautiful and sophisticated Parisian played by Aurore Clément). Lucien is something of a bully (indeed a sociopathic sadist) but unsure of himself, a good son, and in many ways close to being an innocent. He is armed and dangerous, but his dangerousness is unpredictable. To be somewhat of an innocent within the Gestapo is still complicity with great evil, which is not mitigated by seeing that Lucien does not understand what he is doing and how what he does affects others beyond making them cower. He does not like being talked down to, but does not notice being tolerated in silence by the vulnerable (Jewish) family he forces himself into.

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Pierre Blaise was killed in an auto accident a year after the movie justifiably brought him international acclaim (and augments the aura of doom surrounding Lucien). Löwenadler, Clément , and Therese Giehse the surly grandmother forever playing solitaire are all fascinating to observe, as are the supporting players. (Blaise, Löwenadler, Clément had not acted in films before (Blaise was a country boy who had only seen a few movies, Giehse had appeared in German films dating back to 1928, Löwenadler, was a Swedish stage actor).

Despite running 140 minutes, the film has a frustratingly perfunctory ending that leaves the viewer in doubt about some important matters (typical Modiano…). As Pauline Kael wrote, “There’s no special magic involved in the moviemaking technique—it’s simple, head-on, unforced.” She says that “the movie is in the boy’s face,” though I think it in the faces of the three Horns as much as in Lucien’s. (And I think that what we see through Blais’s “open face” is a blank mind rather than a dark one.) The almost upbeat musical score by Django Reinhardt seems to me to indicate how Lucien would like to see himself and what he is doing. The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, particularly of the French countryside, is almost jarringly beautiful (though the interiors are neo-noirish).

“Lacombe, Lucien” was Malle’s favorite of his films film, though his other portrayal of complex French-Jewish relations during the German Occupation, “Aux revoir, les enfants” (1987) garnered the best notices and most rewards and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) and “Viva, María!” (1965) are my own favorite Malle films. The image of the Criterion DVD is excellent with clear monaural sound and easily legible subtitles (though dialogue is fairly sparse).

The single DVD’s extras are only a two-and-a-half minute trailer (that includes some shots not used in the final cut of the film) and Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review from 1974 (also available in her collection Reeling—which should have a “plot spoiler” warning attached to it. (I rarely agree completely with Kael—but also rarely disagree with her completely. I think she is right that Malle lost interest in some of the scripted scenes, particularly the scenes of Lucien and the maid in the Gestapo HQ/hotel where they live and torture. It is also plausible to me that working with nonprofessionals in the leads and adapting the script to Lucien’s emerging character, Malle probably had to cut scenes he needed to tell the story but that didn’t pan out. I did not dare to read what she wrote until after writing my own take, BTW.) The DVD is also available in a four-volume boxed set with “Aux revoir, les enfants” and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” and a whole disc of extras (which I have yet to see), including an interview with Malle’s widow, Candice Bergen.

On the willing collusion with evil, beyond Simenon’s already mentioned Dirty Snow and Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, I would recommend Uwe Timm’s In My Brother’s Shadow. I find these reflection of too much contemporary relevance, even though I realized that “Lacombe, Lucien” was made closer to the time in which the film was set than today. (It is also disconcerting in that I remember the theatrical release of “Lacombe, Lucien” and was already an adult when I saw it the first time.

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

The great French occupation novel, Dirty Snow

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a phenomenon. Between the ages of 21 and 27 (during the years 1924-1931) he churned out around 190 pulp novels under at least 17 pseudonyms. Between then and his retirement 1973, he published at least as many more novels under his own name (and twenty volumes of memoirs after his retirement). Roughly half of the novels bylined Simenon were cases solved by Inspector Maigret of the Paris police. The rest were “psychological novels” (not that Inspector Maigret was anything but a keen deployer of psychological insight into killers’ minds…). Of the non-Maigret novels, Dirty Snow (La Neige était sale, is widely considered Simenon’s masterpiece, twice as long as most of the others, dealing with the very painful subject of disreputable conduct in an occupied country.

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Simenon told the story of a 17-year-old boy who was doing just fine during the occupation of his country by a rather Nazi-like power. The location is not specified as being French, and could as easily be Poland under the Nazi yoke, or most any country under brutal occupation. The names of the characters, both occupiers and occupied, are German. According to the jacket of the New York Review reprinting, Hans Koning described Dirty Snow as “one of the very few novels to come out of German-occupied France that gets it exactly right.” Simenon lived through the Nazi occupation and was regarded by some of his countrymen as a collaborator. He decamped to the United States for the decade after the end of the war, and Dirty Snow is date- and time-stamped, “Tucson, Arizona, 20 March 1948.”

(The jacket also asserts: “Dirty Snow, widely acknowledged as one of Simenon’s finest books, is a study of the criminal mind comparable to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. The very noirish, very cinematic novel was filmed, apparently badly. in 1950.)

The story is told somewhat obliquely (though not requiring as much effort to put the boy’s life story together as it takes to put together that of the title character in Simenon’s later anti-narrative Betty), but more or less chronologically. The winter seemed endless, adding to the general feeling of oppressiveness: “There was still the dirty snow, piles of it that looked like they were rotting, stained black, peppered with garbage. The white powder that loosed itself from the sky in small handfuls, like plaster falling from a ceiling, never managed to cover the filth.”

Frank is the spoiled son of Lotte, who runs a small bordello, masquerading as a manicure shop, from her apartment. Frank uses the bodies of the staff when he is so inclined. A high-ranking police officer, who may be Frank’s father, provides protection. The other residents of the apartment building hate Lotte and Frank and the young employees less for the prostitution than they resent them for having more and better food as a result of collaborating with the invaders.

Bored with his privileged but vacuous existence, freed from the struggle to survive that most of his countrymen and -women are engaged in, Frank is in the tradition of the antiheroes of Gide’s Les caves de Vatican and Camus’s L’étranger, performing a gratuitous murder. At the start of the novel, Frank lies in wait for a particularly corpulent and corrupt noncommissioned officer of the occupying army, whom he calls “the Eunuch” because of how he plays with the women he feeds in an off-limits nightclub. After stabbing to death “the Eunuch,” Frank makes sure that one of his neighbors, Holst, sees him and can place him at the scene of the murder. Holst’s daughter Sissy is infatuated with Frank. Soon enough Frank finds a way to outrage her (plot-spoiling details suppressed!).

With the pistol taken from the corpse, Frank goes on to a robbery that further exposes him by putting others in the know about his crimes. The crime echoes that in Crime and Punishment, but Frank feels no guilt, not the slightest remorse. Indeed, he does not seem able to feel anything. He believes that “destiny was lying in ambush somewhere. But where? Instead of waiting for it to appear in its own good time, Frank went out looking for it, poking around everywhere in his search…. He had searched for destiny in every corner and it was in none of the places he’d looked.”

A destiny does find him, one that surprises him, and which some readers understand as redeeming his adolescence of banal attempts at evil. I found the second half of the novel more interesting than the first (though no more twisted), but any discussion of it would constitute plot-spoiling. I can say that it vividly illustrates (14 years before Hannah Arendt coined the phrase) “the banality of evil” in the bureaucratic order of the occupying power that bears considerable resemblance to the Third Reich.

©2005, Stephen O. Murray