Raymond Bernard on DVD: Wooden Crosses and Les Misérables
by Phillip Lopate
Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard
A three-disc box set including Les Misérables (1934), B&W, 114 mins. and Wooden Crosses (1932), B&W, 282 mins.
It is ever the dream of cinephiles to discover lost masterpieces, just as it is ever a nuisance to have to redraw the Pantheon map and accept previously overlooked candidates for auteur status. But a great film usually implies the handiwork of a great filmmaker, so what to do? There is of course an expanding field of film scholarship that makes the case for regional masters unknown to the general film buff, such as this polished Finnish director of the 1940s or that Malaysian pioneer of the 1970s. The case of Raymond Bernard is more peculiar, because he directed several movies that were hailed as extraordinary accomplishments in 1930’s France, a territory hardly off the beaten path of film history, and then sank from sight. The Criterion Collection’s new Eclipse line, which bills itself as “a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics” (can something be a forgotten classic? Is this an oxymoron?) has now released Bernard’s two best films, Wooden Crosses and Les Misérables, and together they make a compelling case for admission into the canon.
Bernard (1891-1977), the son of the playwright Tristan Bernard, acted in silent films and wrote screenplays, apprenticed with Jacques Feyder, and got his first big break taking over the troubled costume epic, The Miracle of the Wolves (1923). He became known as a director who could handle crowds and epics. His 1932 antiwar film, Wooden Crosses, was a remarkable ensemble work using veteran actors who had served in World War I, and a devastating, uncompromising portrait of a French regiment as it goes its episodic way from gung-ho enthusiasm to stoical disenchantment. The camaraderie of the men scarcely compensates for the fact that they are expendable cannon fodder, thrown into impossible situations by commanding officers safe at headquarters. The battle scenes were so realistically recreated that Hollywood bought the rights to the picture and cannibalized it for their own war movies. Made two years after the stiffer and more sentimental All Quiet on the Western Front, to which it is both a reproach and corrective, Wooden Crosses continues to sting. It is certainly one of the five finest films made about that war. Despite its pessimistic tone, the picture scored an impressive box- office success when it opened.
Bernard was ready to take on the biggest assignment of his life, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The novel had been adapted previously, in the silent era, and would be adapted many times more; but Bernard’s is by far the finest version. One cannot assess the quality of his 1934 film adaptation without considering the challenge of the source material. Les Misérables is an astonishing, jaw-dropping book, 1400 pages long, structured like a series of novellas, each building toward its own climax, and encompassing into the bargain vast digressions on history and philosophy (which emboldened Tolstoy to write War and Peace). Hugo was something of a megalomaniac prophet who felt entitled to put in everything. The result is like a combination of Moby- Dick, Eugene Sue, Poe, the Communist Manifesto, and Little Women. It is monumental grandeur and kitsch wrapped in one package. A Christian fable and arguably France’s national epic (its author believed France had a destiny to save the world), it contains more sentimental claptrap than any other great novel I know, and, at the same time, more scenes of tremendous tension. Hugo was a man of the stage, and he delivers many coups de theatre, hair-raising dramatic turns and confrontations.
Bertrand and his coscreenwriter André Lang set about condensing. Of necessity, whole plot chunks disappeared or were elided, including some fairly gaudy events, such as Valjean’s second imprisonment, the escape over the wall, Cosette’s years in the nunnery school. But what is surprising is how much of the novel’s sweep has been retained; and even more surprising, the intimate pace at which it unfolds. Each glance, each touch of an object, each moment is given its proper time to mature.
The fine acting of the leads sets the tone for the film’s overall unhurried rhythm. Harry Baur plays Jean Valjean, modulating from animalistic, hardened criminal to compassionate philanthropist. The difficulty with the character of Valjean—even more problematic in the novel than the movie—is that once he reforms, he turns into a plaster saint. Baur distracts you from this problem by the compelling, warm physicality of his performance—you just want to keep watching him, with his heavy-lidded narrow eyes, thick lips, and bulbous nose. Anything but an Adonis, he came from that era when movie audiences tolerated rather homely but forceful leading men such as Edward Arnold, Edgar G. Robinson, and Michel Simon. A major star in France, Baur also played the lead in Abel Gance’s sweet-natured film about Beethoven and, ironically, was the judicial pursuer of Raskolnikov, in Pierre Chenal’s Crime and Punishment. This time Baur is the fugitive and Charles Vanel, his bushy-browed, alert, relentless pursuer. The scenes between the two of them are staggering: you feel their hatred and grudging respect distilled into a life-defining magnetic attraction.
Visually, the shots are gorgeously composed, yet never static. Jules Kruger, who was Gance’s cinematographer on Napoleon, nudges each scene toward an active imbalance, either by tilting the camera, German-Expressionist fashion, or by hand-held lurching into fights and crowds. Close-ups, wipes, startling transitions up to the clouds and back to Valjean on horseback, long tracking shots, jittery little pans across the body—every technique of silent and early sound film is commandeered effectively. The country fair scene of little Cosette maneuvering her heavy water pail past carnival stands, dancing bears, monkeys, fire-eaters, is a marvel. The long tragic episode of 1832 revolutionaries at the barricades is an intricately staged, utterly convincing battle scene. The composer Arthur Honneger wrote a memorably haunting score. But what lingers most in my mind are the sets, and the exquisite way they are lit to show just enough of their architecture. Bertrand’s production designer, Jean Perrier, conjures a whole world of stark French villages and seedy Parisian tenements that look like Seurat’s smudged charcoal drawings, as graphically economical and as ineffable.
Of course it is a highly stylized studio look, far from the casual plein air of Renoir’s Toni and the neorealist films that were just around the corner. That may partly explain why Bernard’s towering, monumental Les Misérables, which premiered as three separate films, ended up being butchered, trimmed to less than half and eventually forgotten. When French studios, close to bankruptcy, turned away from competing with Hollywood via big productions, and began supporting small-scale, psychological, atmospheric pictures by Carné, Renoir, and Gremillon—that alluring turn labeled “poetic realism”—Bernard got lost in the shuffle. Meanwhile, the official accounts of French cinema which ensued focused on only one Thirties story, the development of poetic realism; the large-scale national epics that had preceded it began to seem embarrassingly rhetorical, in comparison to the newer manner’s lean, grimly fatalistic verisimilitude.
With the passage of time, Carné’s fog-shrouded ports and Bernard’s village squares have come to look equally fantastic, equally magical and fabricated. Now that Les Misérables has been restored to close to its original five-hour length, and made to sparkle, in the Criterion DVD tradition, we can see what a treasure it is, and how much it shares, in its tenderness, lyricism, progressive political humanism, and melancholy spectacle, with the best of Feyder, Duvivier, Carné, Gremillon, and Renoir.
Phillip Lopate has recently edited American Movie Critics, now in paperback. His novella, Two Marriages, will be published by Other Press in September. He is currently finishing a book on Susan Sontag.