The Greatest Stories Rarely Shown
People get forgotten for unforeseen reasons. Raymond Bernard was the star director of a fledgling French blockbuster industry that was smothered by shifting national circumstances. Criterion’s fourth edition of its Eclipse series, dedicated to the director, is a revealing glimpse at his aborted career and his curiously overlooked talent for precisely attuned epics, incorporating a wide variety of artistic and technological developments into populist narrative filmmaking.
In the early ‘20s, French production and distribution companies encountered tough competition from American and to lesser extent German studios. Coupled with a lack of identifiably “French” product and the tendency of other countries to distort French history, the major French studios started to shovel their money into high profile historical spectaculars. Chief among them was the smash The Miracle of the Wolves, Bernard’s directorial breakthrough, the first film to be shown at the Paris Opera, and was the first of a later abandoned attempt to tell the history of France through a series of costly epics. “It is not propaganda,” Bernard told the New York Times in 1925, “but merely the notion of presenting our history in anecdotal fashion.”
From then on Bernard’s fame would grow. Unfortunately the Eclipse set doesn’t include any of his silent movies, most notably The Chess Player, just his foremost sound films Wooden Crosses and Les Misérables. But it’s still obvious how Bernard brought his considerable experience in silents to these two films.
Wooden Crosses opens with a rather abstract sequence setting the background for a story that follows young soldier Gilbert Damarchy (Pierre Blanchar) in World War I from enlistment to death. The first shots show groups of soldiers superimposed with graveyard crosses and then it abruptly shifts to a dynamic newsreel-style montage starting with an announcement for conscription, soldiers enlisting, and then marching to war. The juxtaposition of imagery and use of zigzagging movements reveals a clear influence of Soviet framing, but mostly shows how skilled Bernard had become at conveying emotional and practical information succinctly without the use of sound. Following this montage, suitably primed by the propaganda apparatus, Damarchy joins his unit in high spirits, immediately buys everyone wine, and expects the party to last.
Instead, through brief episodes, he is initiated into the monotony and punctuated violence of trench warfare. The other soldiers are identified by their “types” (dandy, dumb, loudmouth, grandpa) as a way to distinguish themselves. The effect is less of a clichéd genre broad stroke than demonstrating the meager way in which the soldiers define their tenuous relationships. We know little about their background. We don’t know when the movie takes place. They talk as if the war is perpetually just getting started or nearing one “final big push”.
These early scenes feel very “realistic.” The soldiers are casual with each other, the dirt covering their clothes modestly appropriated. Select details, like a soldier spraying perfume on his handkerchief to cover his face before sleeping, ring true. I have no idea how realistic this is but a story in The New York Times from 1932 quotes, “the war veterans hailing it as the first and truest expression of the war as it really was”. With the cast made up of grizzled veterans, and Bernard’s own experience serving in the war, it appears that a certain amount of verisimilitude was achieved. A respectfully muted pessimistic tone is set, neither maudlin nor nervously honorific.
From Les Miserables
Though a keen visual stylist, Bernard also employs the rudimentary elements of early sound design, most notably spare but pointed sound effects, to establish mood and build tension. On the unit’s first deployment to the front, the rhythmic sounds of the Germans digging a tunnel to plant explosives beneath their trench first establishes the steady stress of their existence. The worry of disaster is later foisted on their replacement unit, but the portent of total doom remains. Later, on their final trip to the front a stranded and dying solider crying for water in no-man’s water drives Gilbert mad, foreshadowing his lonely and pathetic death.
The centerpiece is a lengthy battle sequence, a masterpiece of long tracking shots, grand matte vistas, explosive special effects, gothic and surreal set design, and multiple points of view. Bernard subverts the initial rush of the fight, shifting rhythms and visual approaches so that the adrenaline of the first charge gives way to the sputtering and disjointedness of a grueling 10-day battle lasting twenty-five minutes of screen time. Fox was so impressed with the footage that they bought the rights and Howard Hawks and John Ford among others appropriated it into their World War I movies The Road to Glory and The World Moves On. I would be very surprised if Stanley Kubrick didn’t study it closely too, the order of shots when the soldiers first leave the trench closely mirrors those in Paths to Glory.
According to the minimal but informative DVD notes (the sole extra with Eclipse sets) Wooden Crosses was “France’s answer to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Despite its lack of heroics and propaganda [it] was a huge box-office success.” It’s better than All Quiet on the Western Front for precisely those reasons, evoking the deaths of millions of young men through the artfully unpretentious depiction of Gilbert’s unit.
The success of Wooden Crosses convinced Pathé-Natan Studios to move forward with Les Misérables. It was a massive undertaking. Three features totaling almost six hours were shot and then shown at the same time. It was the Lord of the Rings gambit of its day, and its outsized ambition, rumored to be the most expensive film ever made, probably contributed to Pathé-Natan’s economic collapse and Bernard’s attendant career decline. After its initial release in France the three were combined into a two and three-quarters hour version released for American audiences in 1936. Reviews seem to indicate that most of the second portion was removed and a later two-part version was later re-released in France in 1944. I have also found a reference to a two-part version shown in Britain in 1935. In 1977, Bernard and his editor Charlotte Guilbert were given a chance to restore the film as much as possible to its original form and it’s this version that appears on the Eclipse set.
The first section, “Tempest in a Skull”, follows Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) from his release from prison to his vow to care for Fantine’s (Florelle’s) daughter Cosette (Gaby Triquet and later Josselyne Gaël). Visually, this portion isn’t impressive, most of the information is conveyed through lengthy dialogue and Bernard has the tendency to pointlessly cut back and forth from straight to low angle shots to try and keep things interesting. The duality of the structure plays off ideas of sympathy and grace between Valjean and Fantine, echoed in the recurring motif of the bishop’s two candlesticks. This portion is largely carried by Baur, a popular stage actor with the putty-on-granite build of a fifties pro wrestler, whose skill at rendering Valjean’s physical and spiritual transformation is astounding.
The main purpose of the second part, “The Thénardiers”, is to bridge the two sections and set up the long climax of the third portion, but the action is still conveyed with liveliness and interest. This includes the Gothic fairy tale-style opening shot from the point of view of young Cosette, a comic diversion between Marius (Jean Servais) and his royalist grandfather, and the sharp proto-noir lighting and camera angles of a fight between Valjean and the Thénardiers’ band of thieves.
Bernard’s diverse directorial skills coalesce into the final episode “Liberty, Sweet Liberty”, which is really one long action sequence revolving around the students’ fight at the barricades. Like the battle in Wooden Crosses, Bernard uses moving shots, long mattes, and handheld close-ups to great effect. To set the stage, Bernard cross-cuts between a long tracking shot along a street mob whispering about the rebellion and the various characters preparing for it.
Shots from the point of view of rooftop assassins and trouble makers establish the overall placement of the action while shifts to interiors showing the army generals planning their counterattack further anticipates and explains the action while juxtaposing their ornate surroundings with the street (a similar trick was used in Wooden Crosses). The noise of the battle gives way to the tensely quiet coda, with Valjean and Javert’s (Charles Vanel) flight through the Paris sewers, lit to emphasize tall curving shadows and the plunging and perilous space.
This is blockbuster filmmaking of the most skillful and impressive sort. Bernard worked with many of the same technical crew as on Wooden Crosses. Cinematographers Jules Kruger and René Ribault, screenwriter André Lang, and Jean Perrier for the sets and together they combine nearly the entirety of technical and stylistic advances in film from the past 20 years, from D.W. Griffith’s multi-character epics to F.W. Murnau’s visual splendor. He captures the scope and melodrama of Victor Hugo’s novel without succumbing to its portentous or tedious irritants. Though a response to Hollywood, Bernard’s two movies presented by Criterion easily surpass their Tinsel Town equivalents as popular entertainment and for their artistic excellence.
The uncertain economics of inter-war France couldn’t sustain Bernard’s large-scale films. As budgets were slashed small-scale poetic realism became more popular, a style he in some ways anticipated. But the die was cast and for decades after France’s film industry was largely defined economically and temperamentally by the modest and more personal. Bernard continued to work, but like his idol Griffith, his status was diminished, an observer on the sidelines of an industry that he helped create. Though his fate was undeserved we can at least take pleasure in these two testaments to his faint prominence.