“Do a Holocaust movie, the awards come,” snarked comedian Ricky Gervais to actress Kate Winslet on his HBO show Extras. Cynicism aside, Gervais’ advice to Winslet might be seen by some to be solid as she took the Oscar for Best Actress this year for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, in which she played a concentration camp guard on trial for war crimes.
Each time a film that focuses on the Holocaust gets nominated for an Oscar, or is in the running for any award, disparagers bemoan that no other films stand a shot at winning because of the reverence to this subject matter. With Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro, however, there is a refreshing sense of magic realism at play that is absent from most films, Truffaut shares a point of view that is neither overtly reverential or sentimental towards its subject matter, nor to any particular “formula”.
In The Last Metro, set in occupied France, there are never any copious rings of falsity, for even a single moment, mainly because the images spring directly from the memories of the auteur: Truffaut, as a boy, lived through this complicated, dangerous era. In his theatrical universe, the Nazi footmen aren’t as threatening a presence as his fellow countrymen, despite their omnipresence. In fact, few films set in Europe in World War II go out of their way to not make the physical presence of Nazis integral to the story. In The Last Metro, their influence obviously lurks everywhere, unseen but not in the forefront (in this case, they are heard in the form of anti-Semitic diatribes over the radio).
Truffaut’s look at this era is more finely attuned to daily the intrigues that take place in order for people to survive, to produce their art, and, specifically, on actors. This struggle to balance art, commerce and nationalism are recurring themes in his body of work, making for a beautifully proper thematic cohesiveness.
Truffaut became obsessed with cinema at an early age and was known first as the enfant terrible of French film criticism (working for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinema). His essays focused on what he perceived as rigid traditionalism in the French film industry, and resulted in his transitioning into an essential figure of the French New Wave.
Adept at both contemporary, cutting-edge cinema (Fahrenheit 451) and the formalist films that he critiqued, Truffaut constantly referenced his love of cinema and of performers. With the more time-honored feeling of The Last Metro, the great director tips his hat to the comdia de arte troupes of Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach, as well as to Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. In transitioning from writer to auteur, the introverted Truffaut was able to capture his wild essence on the page and distill it into a new, beautiful filmic language.
His 19th effort, The Last Metro, might be considered by critics to be his most classical approach to filmmaking. The film might belie every principle he set during the New Wave, but there is a fresh alchemy in this marriage of Truffaut’s two distinct sensibilities. He is reverent and respectful of film and film history, while still remaining truthful to his own idiosyncratic, highly-identifiable signature style of filmmaking.
There is a sense of wonder in the movement of his camera, a joie de vivre. Because of a particularly fleeting subplot involving a lesbian costumier, Truffaut subversively made a progressive political statement about acceptance of homosexuality. He was called a “supreme humanist” by Village Voice critics for his anachronistic, non-judgmental depiction of homosexuality, a stance that was considered daring at its time.
This is the feeling that is reflected in his films, no matter how “traditional” they may appear. Modern technical elements mixed with historical truths make for a singularly Truffautian experience, where tolerance is paramount.
In Vichy, a theatre troupe owned by the Jewish Lucas Steiner readies a new production. It is September 1942, and the show must go on in the face of any adversity, as it so famously does in other behind-the-scenes explorations of show-people such as Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and brilliantly in his own Day for Night, Truffaut’s other financial success outside of The Last Metro. The director lovingly showcases the action with the assistance of one of cinema’s greatest photographers, Nestor Almendros (who won the Oscar in 1978 for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven and is featured in an archival interview on the plentiful extras disc).
The look is soft, almost dream-like. The pace is immediately invigorating, beginning with a beautifully-cut montage of historical footage explaining France’s particular political situation at the time. The curfew is 11PM, sharp, and citizens are shown rushing to catch “the last metro”. As film scholar Dr. Annette Insdorf points out in her expert commentary, the title also references where Jews were forced to sit on the train – in the last car, at the very back, not unlike African American citizens being forced to sit at the back of the bus during the Civil Rights era.
In an effort to add balance their perilous reality, the French citizens of Truffaut’s world turn to escapism through film and theater, not unlike the director himself. “Movies and theaters play to full houses,” intones the narrator at break-neck speed. “Seats must be reserved in advance.” The Monmartre Theater, managed by Steiner, is in rehearsals, though Steiner himself has “fled France”.
Compositionally, The Last Metro virtually explodes with a stunning array of colors, leitmotifs, and textures. Nothing seems accidental or ephemeral in its placement. Each objet, each tone, is carefully placed into the mise en scene by Truffaut. Whether it is the simple graphic scheme of a vintage film poster (another recurring Truffaut motif), with its eye-popping, architectural graphics or a simple shock of cherry red (as in the door to the theater or its luxe velvet curtains, the background of the Nazi emblem, or the transfixing crimson-stained mouth of star Catherine Denueve), each of the smaller visual components of The Last Metro adds up to a beautiful finished product, commanding attention, and adding to the elegance and ambiance. When green or blue appear, it is almost jarring amidst the autumnal palette and masterful use of light and shadow.
Marion (Denueve), will not hire Jewish actors, despite the fact she is married to the missing Steiner. She meets actor Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) as she is desperately trying to score a permit from the censors. Cleverly, she says she knows nothing about how to run a theater, and she has had to learn how to do paperwork, mind the money and generally take care of business since her husband’s departure. It establishes her as a woman in control, despite her wishes. She is only an actress, after all, and while actresses can deceive, they can also adapt quickly, two survival skills necessary during this time.
Gérard Depardieu as Bernard Granger – Photo courtesy Criterion Collection
Insdorf’s commentary is filled with nostalgia and is one of the Columbia professor’s finest commentaries for Criterion (she is also featured on recent release Before the Rain, as well as on The Double Life of Veronique, among others). Insdorf worked as Truffaut’s translator in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, particularly when he brought films such as The Last Metro to the United States for film festivals.
Her book Francois Truffaut was called “the most sensitive and intelligent book in the English language about my work,” by Truffaut himself. Virtually jam-packed with anecdotes and information, Insdorf says that with this film, the director was attempting to accomplish three things: “he wanted to evoke the climate of the occupation, he wanted to take camera backstage in the theater, and he wanted to give Catherine Denueve the role of a responsible woman.”
“One of the inspirations for making the film at this time,” says Insdorf on the commentary, “[was that] he was writing the preface to [Andre] Bazin’s first articles, called Cinema of the Occupation. He said he was flooded with memories of early film-going.” Since many directors who came of age in this era are no longer with us or are not working, these kinds of authentic, personal films about the Holocaust are fast becoming products of a bygone time. Contemporary directors like Stephen Daldry or Steven Spielberg have the bountiful use of their imagination, their own familial pasts and technical prowess to examine this politically volatile, complex part of history, and they do it well, but no one executes such a daringly capable vision on the subject matter as Truffaut or a director who was actually there and can capture the true essence on celluloid. It is the kind of first-hand knowledge that is missing in visually-stunning, yet somewhat hollow films such as Atonement.
Truffaut’s fondness for authenticity extended to his treatment of actors, in particular, was witnessed by what Insdorf calls an en famille style of filmmaking, in which the director often employed many of the same collaborators. In The Last Metro, the actors are the unequivocal focus – on stage and off everyone is putting on a performance. They are intellectual, they are the heroes that go above and beyond the call of duty in real life and as their characters.
The often-delicate layers of humanity are what interests Truffaut the most, and “actors” naturally will best-reflect this brand of psychological complexity the director is clearly so fond of. This love of actors marked each of the great director’s films, but never as lovingly or literally as in this film, which creates an anomaly of sorts, if you believe Gervais’ advice: a film set during the Nazi era that never comes across as calculated or false in any sense. It leads with a true heart that is filled with a zest for life and for pure entertainment, not for the collection of awards. The film’s bravura epilogue only confirms this.