Le Corbeau, Henri-Georges Clouzot
Courtesy of Film Forum

Contemplating Obligation in Clouzot’s ‘Le Corbeau’

When anyone looks in the mirror, Le Courbeau‘s Vorzet (played with beguiling charm and a touch of devilment by Pierre Larquey) suggests, they see a devil accompanied by an angel.

Le Courbeau
Henri-Georges Clouzot
28 September 1943 (FR)

Responsibility is a fundamental aspect of our existential condition and yet it is one of the most difficult components of our lives to conceptualize. In one sense, it might seem a superfluous concept altogether. No one “asked” to be born. We were, as Martin Heidegger so aptly describes it, thrown (geworfen) into the world. Therefore, it may seem rather unjust that we ought to be forced to accept the burden of obligation in an existence we didn’t choose. But something seems rather petulant and wrong-headed in that suggestion. Indeed, our thrownness indicates that the world pre-existed us, that it had its manner of operation, the “ways of the world”. Long before we entered into engagement with it.

The latter phrase is key. We do not exist in some abstract relationship to the world but rather are embedded in it; we engage with it in an ongoing set of adjustments. “Making our way” in the world involves negotiating the “ways of the world”. This doesn’t necessarily mean we submit to the world as it is given to us, but neither can we suborn it to our outsized will. Responsibility here encapsulates more than merely the obligations to which we consciously accede. Responsibility goes “all the way down”, meaning that before we sign on to anything in this world, our embeddedness in it places a demand upon us.

Many (perhaps all) religious and philosophical schools of thought attempt to deal with this rather recondite situation. The doctrine of Original Sin supplies a revealing example. Prior to the Adamic Fall, there was, in essence, no obligation and no time (at least there was no positive obligation, meaning there was nothing that Adam and Eve had to actively do; there was negative obligation in that there was something they were supposed not to do—namely, eat the forbidden fruit). Since the sinless realm of Eden involved no death, there was no experience of time. Time, as Aristotle shows, requires change, and change involves two basic forms of motion for living things: growth and decay, maturation and senescence, coming into being, and death.

By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve enacted time, the time of Becoming (and dying) that is ontologically divorced from God’s time of Being (and eternity). The fact of our ineluctable demise makes our time (and part of what was enacted was our ownership of our time, which is related to and yet separate from the time of others) a kind of economy. We decide to spend our time on certain pursuits while letting others go. We invest our time in the things we value. Time, therefore, gives rise to both value and obligation. The doctrine of Original Sin suggests (among other things) that our mode of being in the world involves a debt, and it is a debt that we can never fully repay—meaning that our obligation only ends when we do.

This would suggest that our responsibility derives, in the deepest sense, from a pre-ontological condition; in other words, before we are, we owe—or better yet, universal debt precedes individual existence. The phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas captures this notion with his insistence that ethics is first philosophy and thus precedes ontology. For Levinas, before there is being, there is obligation. Our existence is founded on our indebtedness as a condition of being in the world with others.

In essence, there is a reversal of the Cartesian view of the Subject-Object relation at work here. Whereas for Descartes, the Subject was a sovereign and self-consistent entity that sought to know and ultimately master the external world, for Levinas the external Other calls into question the illusory stability of the Self. In other words, the “I” that I am is constantly under construction but not primarily as an act of self-formation; rather, I am always attempting to “live up” to my time and situation to satisfy the demands of the world and others in the world.

The life and work of French film director Henri-Georges Clouzot is a study of responsibility as a theme within his oeuvre and an existential issue within his biography. In the ’30s, Clouzot scraped together a living by writing and translating scripts in Germany. There he absorbed the Expressionist works of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang—films that depict the world as askew, freighted with the underlying threat of violence and insanity. But as Hitler became prominent, Clouzot was fired from UFA Studios for his association with Jewish film producers. Clouzot’s tenuous health kept him in a sanitarium in Switzerland for five years. When he finally returned to France, he once again attempted to make his living as a screenwriter and found that he could barely subsist on his income.

Then came 14 June 1940. Paris fell to Hitler’s army, and much of France became occupied territory. A German film company, Continental Films, was established in Paris in October of that year, run by a former colleague of Clouzot’s from his Berlin years, Alfred Grevin. Clouzot began writing for Continental, producing the script for Le Dernier des six (1941); its success afforded Clouzot the opportunity to direct and his first two films as director—The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1943) and Le Corbeau (1943)—were produced under the auspices of Continental and thus under the auspices of the German Occupation. This made Clouzot a collaborationist in the eyes of post-war France; the director was tried, convicted, and sentenced to stay out of the film business for the remainder of his life. After an outpouring of support from figures ranging from Marcel Carné to Jean-Paul Sartre, the sentence was reduced to two years.

Le Corbeau (The Raven) has been the object of critical concern from the moment of its release. Although met with initial success, it was soon denounced by both the conservative forces of the Vichy government and the Catholic Church for immorality and by supporters of the French Resistance for its portrayal of the French villagers as corrupt, untrustworthy, and pernicious. Indeed, even Continental was unhappy; they fired him two days before the film premiered.

Over the past several decades, criticism has revolved around the question of what Le Corbeau reveals about Clouzot’s attitude toward the Occupation. Was he a willing collaborationist with this film revealing a distressing comfort with fascism? or was he a reluctant artist left with no other way to provide for himself—that is, was he going along to get along? In other words, what were Clouzot’s obligations with respect to his time and situation? Did he adequately attempt to repay the debt he owed the world he inhabited? Was it his duty to openly resist Nazi power even if that resistance were to have no practical effect? Moreover, is it possible that he managed to covertly resist that power and are such symbolic modes of rebellion to be considered efficacious and redemptive?

In light of its political situation, Le Corbeau strikes one as a meditation on responsibility. The story takes place in a small village where a young doctor, Germain (Pierre Fresnay), becomes the victim of a series of anonymous poison pen letters sent to recipients throughout the town and signed Le Corbeau. The letters accuse Germain of adultery and performing illegal abortions (indeed, Germain has recently presided over a few cases where he strove to save the mother at the expense of the life of the child, thus giving rise to the suspicion). These letters also accuse most of the citizenry of various crimes and instances of egregious behavior ranging from corruption to embezzlement to general stupidity. One young man, learning from a Corbeau letter that his cancer is far more serious than he realized, commits suicide. The letters terrorize the town, and neighbor turns against neighbor—sometimes owing to the contents of the letters and sometimes in search of their mysterious author.

Now, aside from perhaps a few false accusations (Germain is in an untoward relationship with a married woman, and while he is not facilitating abortions, he does come to regret his handling of certain pregnancies), the Corbeau letters reveal actual immoral acts perpetrated by the villagers—particularly among those in power, those (in other words) who hold responsibilities. In short, the letters are an irresponsible way of holding to account those responsible for the functioning of the town. The behavior of their neighbors scandalizes the villagers, but they are terrified, lest the letters reveal their own failure to live up to their obligations. And yet, insofar as everyone here fails to pass that level of scrutiny unscathed, it becomes clear that the pre-ontological guilt under which we live (the debt that precedes existence) creates an impossible but necessary (or at least ineluctable) demand upon us. The poison pen letters reveal the original sin that undergirds our being in the world.

In a celebrated scene, Germain discusses morality with the psychiatrist Vorzet (played with beguiling charm and a touch of devilment by Pierre Larquey). They are in a darkened classroom. On the desk on the raised platform lies a globe, the entire area is illuminated by a small, suspended lamp. Vorzet chides Germain for thinking that people can be all good or all bad. In such a Manichean divide, the Good is Light while Evil is Darkness. Vorzet grabs the lamp and sets it swinging—how can you tell where you stand (in the darkness or in the light) when everything endlessly shifts? “Just stop the lamp,” Germain insists but when he tries to do so he burns himself; so the experiment is proven, Vorzet laughs.

The lamp continues to swing, and the simulacrum of the world (that globe) moves from shadow to light and back again. Swallowed by obscurity or bathed in luminescence—the motion of the lamp and the passage of time refuse to allow the world to be all one thing or the other. It is suspended between good and evil. There is no hard and fast line between the two. For Vorzet, the letters are not evil but neither do they reveal others to be evil; they expose the condition of guilt under which we all operate. When anyone looks in the mirror, Vorzet suggests, they see a devil accompanied by an angel. Germain refutes any such ambiguity; “I know myself,” he contends.

Germain then falls asleep at the desk and is awakened in the morning by the mourning mother of the suicide (Sylvie) who now must earn her living by cleaning the schoolroom. She brazenly informs Germain that she plans to murder Le Corbeau with the very razor her son used to kill himself. “You have no right,” an astonished Germain declares. “Oh no?,” the mother asks, “I’ll do it anyway.”

Here we have a fascinating trio of views on responsibility, responsible action, and moral rectitude. Germain insists on the stable self with an inherent and clear sense of morality, a clean dichotomy of right and wrong that guarantees social stability. The letters, disturbing the equilibrium of the social whole, are evil. Evil must be brought to justice within the bounds of the law. One has “no right” to take the law into one’s own hands and any blurring of the distinction between good and evil is a human failing. Good and evil are constants, evenly splitting the world into light and darkness. Guilt is attained through right or wrong action; the good man keeps clean, thus free of guilt.

Vorzet offers a different account of the world. No man is a monster, even if every man is guilty as an inherent part of being human. Good and evil are not entities in their own right; they are ways of viewing the world, not components of it. Shift the lamp, shift your point of view, and the act that appeared evil turns out to serve goodness. Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, the human is “part of that Power which would/ Do evil constantly and constantly does good.”

Those letters shed light on the darkness the villagers believed they kept hidden; moral certitude crumbles and reveals itself to be a pernicious lie, a pretense that serves only to allow us to flee the originary guilt that conditions our existence. Perhaps not all things are allowable but all things are understandable. There are no monsters, only human frailties; the letters are bad acts that may, despite their seeming intention, do good. Since we all live under the penumbra of guilt, assessing blame becomes a convoluted business. Sympathy ought to displace condemnation. The law is no stabilizing force; like the suspended lamp, swinging on its chain, the law casts the world alternately in light and shadow.

The suicide’s mother presents a far more harrowing take on responsibility. She feels she owes it to her son to avenge his death. Like Vorzet and unlike Germain, she holds no faith in the law, seeing it as a mere tool of society that can’t properly adjudicate right from wrong beyond the conventional. But her son’s death and those letters have already breached the bounds of convention. The law seeks to re-establish equilibrium (that is precisely what Germain values in it). But the town doesn’t need to be restored to its previous stability insofar as that stability was founded upon corruption and iniquity. The law is inherently conservative, but the mother seeks transformation and, therefore, transgression. The law seeks to vouchsafe the status quo, but when it is the status quo itself that has become degenerate, the law falters. Like Germain and unlike Vorzet, the mother sees a clear delineation between good and evil. But to combat evil, she is willing to transgress what is defined as “right”. The obligation to her son transcends the socially accepted codes of morality. She is willing to employ evil to perform the good.

Germain occupies the socially conservative position of the absoluteness of the law; in his conception there is justice but no movement. Vorzet endorses relativism; there is constant undirected movement but no possibility of justice because there is no morally superior position available to occupy. The mother represents the revolutionary; there is justice but it requires the transgression of the law, the directed and transformative motion away from the status quo and into the unknown.

In the end, Germain comes to realize that his efforts to preserve the pregnant mothers’ lives was an expression of his desire to preserve the status quo (inspired by the fact that he lost his own wife when complications arose regarding her pregnancy) and his inability to face up to his obligation to the world. The world insists on openness insofar as the world itself is not foreclosed to possibility. The strength of the film is that it refuses to endorse any one vision of responsibility aside from the fact that we are all already immersed in it; we can’t flee from our debt even when we attempt to shirk it. As Germain clarifies his insight: “We can’t sacrifice the future to the present.” We can’t sacrifice what may be to what is. Transformation is part of human responsibility; time demands change. Our obligation never ends.

The Film Forum in New York City presents two films by Henri-Georges Clouzot: Le Corbeau and the first film he directed after his sentence for collaboration was lifted, Quai des Orfèvres (1947). The latter film can also be seen as a meditation on responsibility. Here three people (all of them innocent) attempt to prevent the others from accepting responsibility for a murder. The film features a superb script, stunning camera work, and fine acting; it epitomizes a well-made film. The first eight minutes of the film are a tour-de-force of cinematic storytelling. Quai des Orfèvres will run at the Film Forum from Friday, 13 April to Thursday, 19 April. See the premiere of a new 4K restoration with an all-new translation of Le Corbeau at Film Forum NYC 20 April through 1 May.