Inner Turmoil Turns Outwards

Issue section: 

Review of 'Le Crime de Monsieur Lange', 'La Grande Illusion' and 'La Bête Humaine', director Jean Renoir

Considered individually, each of these three films is outstanding. Put into the historical context of the rise and fall of the Popular Front government, which existed in France from 1936 to 1938, they become a cinematic talisman for an era of hope and betrayal. Director Jean Renoir embraced the spirit of these times, adopting Communist sympathies and working with the radical left wing theatre company Le Groupe Octobre.

A product of this period was the film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935). In a cafe workers discover a wanted murderer, Mr Lange. They are invited to hear his side of the story before deciding what to do with him. His crime is to have killed Batala, his corrupt, womanising boss.

Told in flashback, Batala initially feigns his own death. Dignity and prosperity arrive at his factory, which is now run by a workers' co-operative (mirroring the notion of the popular front, they are aided by a benign member of the upper class). At the film's climax Batala returns to be confronted by Lange and the crime is committed. But Renoir poses this question: can we simply condemn Lange, or was he justified in his actions? Technically the film is awesome. Today we can forget how static the films of that era were but here, amid sets that capture the seedy reality of industrial Paris, Renoir liberates movies from theatre in one spectacular pan shot. He also experiments with spatial sound techniques. As we see Batala dying in an empty street we hear the sound of celebration from within the out of shot factory.

La Grande Illusion (1937) brought Renoir an Oscar. It was made at a time of growing panic in France at the prospect of resumed war with Germany. The film was conceived to be part of a movement to rekindle a spirit of national unity after the class divisions of the previous years. In this it fails gloriously.

In the First World War a group of French POWs plan their escape. As the film progresses it becomes clear that the social differences between the POWs are harder to overcome than those with their German captors. The main characters are Boeldieu, an aristocratic French officer, and Maréchal and Rosenthal, both ordinary soldiers. Boeldieu, whose natural ally is the German officer running the camp, refers to the other two as a 'charming legacy of the French Revolution'. Maréchal contemplates the reality of national unity when he says to Rosenthal, 'Suppose you and I were on the skids. We'd just be two bums. If it happened to him, he'd still be "Monsieur de Boeldieu".' Ironically Maréchal finally meets someone he can relate to, a German woman lonely because her husband and all her brothers have died in the war. The film is one of the greatest anti-war movies ever released.

La Bête Humaine (1938) was made during the collapse of the Popular Front government. This is a darker, more despairing film than the other two. Based on a novel by Zola, here the principal character, Jacques Lantier (played by the Renoir stalwart Jean Gabin who learnt to drive a train for the part), is obsessed by the past crimes of his working class forefathers, 'generations of drunkards'. The film is infused with the inner torments typical of Zola's characterisation of workers who strive for light and humanity, yet are dragged down by life and circumstances to act like beasts. In a familiar Double Indemnity type love triangle the hero sleepwalks into murder. This movie eschews the innocence and redemption offered Mr Lange or even the understanding that Maréchal finds. Instead Lantier becomes a victim of the demons that haunt him.

In all three films Renoir couples the fate of his characters to the hopes and then failure of the movement in France during this period. His genius was that he was able to make great films that were coupled to the political realities of his time without his audience having to endure the sterility of propaganda.