Monday, August 06, 2007

Les Croix de bois

1932, France, directed by Raymond Bernard

Thematically very similar to 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front - and, like that film, based on a novel that remains in print today - Raymond Bernard's masterful film of Great War trench life has fallen into the cracks of cinematic history: purchased by Fox for US release, it sat on the shelves, with war footage turning up in films like 1933 Oscar-winner Cavalcade (according to the DVD liner notes). Like the better-known American film, it's a profoundly pacifist work, drenched in the tragedy of the wartime period, though also imbued with a grittiness that surely resonated with contemporary audiences for whom the front was an all-too-vivid memory. Bernard doesn't pull punches, however, reminding the viewer of the initial enthusiasm for war with an opening montage that evokes an almost joyous atmosphere, crowds taking to the streets, and troop trains decked with flowers.

That spirit of adventure is quickly snuffed out in the trenches, where the world is reduced to just a few square metres: for all the vast scale of the war, each soldier ultimately experiences it as, at most, a village to village affair, with prolonged battles over tiny slivers of land. Bernard enhances the sense of restricted movement by shooting a lengthy sequence inside a small post, where the members of the unit become aware of a German mining crew planting a bomb. The tension inside the cramped space, which seems to promise instant death in the event of an explosion, most surely have influenced Henri-Georges Clouzot's similarly sweaty The Wages of Fear two decades later (it's perhaps no coincidence that actor Charles Vanel plays a major part in both films). The sequence is also unusual in that the German side is shown, dispassionately, from time to time, the soldiers there in similar conditions, carrying out orders from officers behind the lines and out of danger.

Later, the film moves outside as Bernard choreographs pummeling scenes of battle, particularly a prolonged depiction of a ten-day bombardment. Like the battle itself, the sequence constantly promises to end, only for another shell to drop: it's an extraordinary attempt to provide a sense of the reality of this particular war, of what it means to experience a bombardment of this duration, the sound pounding constantly on every soldier's eardrums and nerves. During the battle, the camera cuts between sustained tracking shots, moving rapidly over the pock-marked landscape, and handheld shots that seem remarkably modern, evoking the combat photography of much later wars, with occasional, near-abstract shots of the artillery barrels as they pump shell after shell into the air. Indeed, throughout the film, the director exhibits a remarkable ability to move between and to blend styles, to convey the profound disconnect between life on the front and behind the lines, as well as the depth of the tragedy in France and beyond, couched in bitterly ironic terms in the final montage.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States