Tag Archives: occupation

Fleeing south in 1940

Reading “Storm in June” (the first novel in Suite Française)  stimulated me to watch “The Last Train” (simply “Le Train” in French) again, though I remembered how “horrible” the color transfer is and the annoyance of the dialogue being dubbed (though I think that the multilingual Romy Schneider might have dubbed herself).

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A romance in a crowded freight car filled with people fleeing the Nazi invaders across France in June of 1940 no doubt sounds a dubious enterprise to many, and when the 1973 French movie was shown in Anglo North America, some viewers were vociferously offended at the very idea that a very conventional-seeming electrician, whose daughter and pregnant wife were traveling in first-class would undertake to protect a lone woman—however coolly elegant—in a box car, and that people would copulate during the many nights on the train, between Luftwaffe strafings.

Characters of the prolific Georges Simenon would! And the phenomenon of marrying and/or getting it on before a man goes off to combat in which he has a good chance of dying is not exactly unprecedented. “Pretty” it ain’t, but the panicked flight before the Hun hordes was far from pretty, as Némirovsky showed, writing at the time.

Surely, the lone woman seeking protection and warmth while terrified is not difficult to credit. And how many men would fight off Romy Schneider ca. 1973? I have not doubt that she turned the heads of many married men in real life.

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Anna, Schneider’s character in “The Last Train” has no expectations of kindness or chivalry. In a black dress with her hair pulled back in a very tight bun, she looks severe. Given that the movie is dubbed, it is fortunate that her most important scenes are wordless. Commanding the screen, she makes the viewer attend closely to the slightest flicker of facial expression.

Her champion, Julien Maroyeur (Jean-Louis Trintignant in the midst of an extraordinary run of international successes that included “A Man and a Woman,” “Z,” “The Conformist,” “Les Biches,” “My Night at Maude’s”—and much later, “Rouge“) has never had a vacation or an adventure, and presumably has never ventured into infidelity (not having been popular with girls). The trip south puts him in a liminal state.

Anna does not expect him to be heroic—or a great lover (romantic, that is). It has clearly never occurred to him that he might be (either), and he surprises himself. (Movie audiences are accustomed to men rising to the challenges of heroism and love, but one suspects that Julien has not imagined himself as being like screen heroes…)

I love train-bound or train-centered movies (The Lady Vanishes, The Narrow Margin, The Train, Murder on the Orient Express, and, my absolute favorite, Shanghai Express) and especially steam locomotives like the one much observed herein. Locomotive C253 seems like a major character in the movie, which increases my appreciation of it. (On the other hand, other passengers—including Julien’s wife and 7-year-old daughter—have some screen time, but make little impression.)

The best part of the movie, however, is the last five minutes, which occur in a French police office rather than on a train. It is very unsensational and very tense with Paul Le Person as a suave human crocodile presiding.

The colors are very degraded (making all the flesh tones too close to that of crocodiles, washed out blues, and reds turned brown). Through a crummy print, the very stripped-down performances of Schneider and Trintignant can still be glimpsed. My rating is of the movie. My rating of the DVD would be 1-.

The movie was directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre, who adapted many Simenon novels, including dozens of Inspector Maigret policiers. He directed Simone Signoret in adaptations of two Simenon novels that I badly want to see (Le Chat, L’étoile du Nord) but that are not available on DVD. (I also particularly wish that I could see “Christine” and “The Victors” with Schneider.)

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

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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

The grumpy old man and the refugee child

The French title of “The Two of Us” (1967), “Le vieil homme et l’enfant” (the old man and the child) is more precise. The movie intends to be a heartwarming memoir of writer-director Claude Berri’s (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) being hidden in the countryside during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In Paris Claude’s Jewish parents were trying to maintain a low profile, something Claude (Alain Cohen. Born in 1958) neither understood nor seemed capable of.

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A Gentile friend of the family arranges for the truculent boy to stay with her parents. The old man, Pepe, played by Michel Simon (born in 1875, who was once Boudu saved from drowning and père Jules on L’Atlante) is a raving anti-Semite (and just as vitriolic about Freemasons, btw) who insists that he can detect Jews by smell. Claude has been taught the Lord’s Prayer and told that he must pretend to be Catholic, and listens with puzzlement to the old man’s rants.

Pepe has a 17-year-old dog whom he feeds, clad in a bib, at the dinner table. Indeed, spoon-feeding the old dog is the first glimpse the viewer and Claude have of his benefactor. The old man has a long-suffering, pragmatic wife (Luce Fabiole, The Bride Wore Black) but no friends except the dog, who is 105 in human years. Pepe adores his new audience and the boy is affectionate.

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In that it is Berri’s memoir, there is no suspense that French police will round him up and turn him over to the Nazis, which leaves only the question of what will happen when Pepe finds that he has been harboring and doting on a Jew.

A major disappointment with the movie for me is that that question is never answered. After the war, Claude’s parents sweep Claude up to take him back to Paris, but there is no scene of them thanking the old couple for harboring (not to mention feeding) their son. As they drive off with Claude looking out the back window, it is not even certain that Pepe has registered Claude’s Jewishness (and the challenge that presents to his confidence in being able literally to smell out Jews).

Simon is a somewhat amusing grumpy(/lonely) old man and Cohen was as liquid a dark-eyed boy as could be found. The relationship built on a false foundation is credible to me, but not especially involving (maybe I was fed too many Disney movies when young and impressionable?). The part I like best is actually the first quarter hour in which Claude’s father (Charles Denner (Z, The Bride Wore Black), who obviously loves his son very much and is very concerned that the boy’s trouble-making is going to get them all hauled away attempts to convince Claude not to make waves. (Zorica Lozic plays Claude’s mother but has little to do.)

 

The “true story” aspect is highlighted in a 1975 conversation between Berri and the woman whose parents harbored him in the countryside. There’s also a 1967 interview of Berri and a longer 2007 one. The Criterion Edition also includes Oscar-winning short, “Le poulet” (The chicken) about a boy child who gets attached to a chicken destined for the stew pot. There’s a very short (two-minute) interview of Simon and a 2005 reminiscence by Alain Cohen (running twelve minutes). Plus an excerpt from the documentary “The Jewish Children of Occupied France.” Apparently, the illustrated booklet which I have not seen has more from Berri and discussions of the film from François Truffaut and David Sterritt.

The black-and-white images are pristine in their clarity and the mono sound transfer cannot be faulted.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”

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(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”

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The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

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(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

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Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Poland after the Nazi surrender

Andrzej Wajda’s famous 1958 film “Ashes and Diamonds” (Popiól i diament) looks striking (très noir) but is very confusing. The intentions of the killings at the start become clear, but I don’t know why the assassin who no one knows is one runs and is shot near the end (other than to provide a photogenic ten-minute dance of death). In between the shootings is a lot of talk, though it does not clarify the politics. The whole movie puzzles me in that I thought Soviet control was established quickly and the movie is set after the fall of Berlin to the Red Army and at the time of the German surrender. With the kitsch Hitler portrait, the anti-Soviet plotters come across as leftover Nazis, rather than as fighters for Polish independence. I guess that must have been a necessary accommodation to the regime that allowed the movie to be made. (Non-Nazi opponents of the communist probably could not be shown.)

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At the time, Zbigniew Cybulski may have seemed to be “the Polish James Dean.” From a later perspective, his womanizing and arrogance (and destruction) seem much more like the young Warren Beatty (in movies made after 1958).

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And the middle adumbrates “The Fireman’s Ball,” not one of my favorite movies, but hailed for showing aspects of Soviet bloc society that were already on display a decade earlier in this Polish film.

Wajda’s trilogy is available from Criterion as “War Movies by Andrzej Wajda” with “A Generation” and “Kanal,” neither of which is as perplexing as “Ashes and Diamonds” is. (BTW, I’s have labeled the three as “End of the War Films by Andrzej Wajda). The great director, who was born in 1926,  died in 2016.

 

©2004, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Hell in the Sewers of Warsaw

Just out of film school in 1954, painter-turned director Andrzej Wajda‘s first feature film “Pokolenie” (A Generation), based on the novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also wrote the screenplay) remains impressive. There are painterly chiaroscuro compositions, but also gripping action sequences, and strong characterizations. (And unlike Pasolini’s first movie, Accatone, there are well-done tracking shots and none of the lingering on scenes that are dramatically finished.)

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A lot happens in the 83-minute running time of “A Generation.” Set in the outskirts of Warsaw in 1943, the movie starts with a group of young male slackers (just like “Accatone” does). Three of them jump onto a German train hauling coal toward the eastern front. Pillaging a bit is their form of resistance to the Nazi occupation. One is killed by a guard’s bullet and the film settles onto a shocked protagonist, Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki), grazed by another bullet.

He stumbles into what seems to be a brick factory and (I think) perceived as being an opponent of the German Reich is taken on as an apprentice in a furniture-making factory. Being the most junior employee, he is run ragged. Sent off with a more senior one, Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz), he receives a brief lecture on surplus value. (This might seem like elementary Marxist propaganda, but in the very informative Criterion edition interview with Wadja that I heartily recommend watching before the movie, I learned that the Polish authorities wanted this cut lest Polish workers think that they were still not receiving most of the value of their labor, though it was going to the state rather than to private owners.)

A very attractive young woman, whose code name the viewer will learn is Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska) distributes leaflets to the workers urging them to join the People’s Army, Stach is smitten both by her and by the glory of fighting the occupiers. He forms a band of freedom fighters (one of whom, Jacek (Ryszard Kotas) says he is already a communist, but is torn by the need to stay alive to support his father and engaging in high-risk actions).

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There is a killing that the occupiers consider an act of “terrorism.” There is exemplary punishment, an extended chase (not as extended as in “Odd Man Out,” but even more stylishly shot), a carnival set up by the Germans just outside the walls of the burning Warsaw ghetto, a daring rescue operation, intrigues, romance, a Gestapo visit, a beating, and more. The ending looks like standard Soviet glorification of a band of anti-Fascists, though is open to other interpretations (not only from the tears in the eyes of the man making the rendez-vous, but in that he has now learned what these smiling partisans soon will about the costs of an insurgency against a military occupation).

Relatedly, I don’t think the movie pretends to provide a representative sample of the political factions in the Polish Resistance, or that anyone ever thought so. The band shown here was not doctrinally communist, and in Lenin’s terms are adventurers engaged in “infantile leftism. “A Generation” does not show the Soviet indifference to the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt or indicate that the future was trading one set of masters (from the Nazi empire) for another ((from the Soviet empire). There are hints of the latter, but giving the partisans of 1943-44 such foreknowledge would have been anachronistic. The idealism of the characters is tempered by seeing the high costs. Those who survive are not dewey-eyed!

In “On Becoming A Filmmaker” (the 2003 interview running 34 minutes), Wajda provides much interesting information on how a band of recent film school students (including the 6th-billed Roman Polanski; center in the still above) made it up as they were going along in location shooting and the despair at how the movie was transformed before its release by the cultural commissars. He thinks the film is valuable as a record of how things looked in war-devastated Poland, but there is much more of value in the fervently acted and impressively filmed movie.

The Criterion restoration is meticulous, and, along with “Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming A Filmmaker,” (which includes film clips and some explication of the milieu by critic Jerzy Plazewski as well as Wajda speaking) the disc includes the second of Wajda’s three student films, a 10-minute film. “Ceramics from Ilza,” and a gallery of 98 images of the production and publicity for the film. The subtitles are yellow, so do not disappear against white backgrounds.

“A Generation” was the first of what became a trilogy about anti-Nazi activities in Poland in 1943-44 with  “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) (in which it is an official being imposed by the Kremlin who is assassinated) twice. All show the destruction of a generation of young Poles with more enthusiasm for resistance than ideology or political analysis. “A Generation” and “Kanal” were shot by the brilliant Jerzy Lipman (who had shot “Ceramics from Ilza” and would also shoot the first feature directed by Roman Polanski, the very impressive-looking “Knife in the Water” (1962).

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray