Think Piece

French Cinema and the Great War: Remembrance and Representation

by guest contributors Marcelline Block and Barry Nevin

World War I represented a loss of youth, innocence and ideals unparalleled in the twentieth century. Its initiation of mechanized murder and trench warfare laid waste to patriotic ideals, dismantled empires across Europe, plunged ill-equipped societies into a traumatized stupor, and formed a prelude to the unbridled ferocity of the Second World War. Diverse and multifaceted in its execution of warfare and in its consequences, World War I continues to haunt collective memory and to inspire imaginative endeavor in various forms of art, including poetry, fiction, music, and—most significantly for our purposes—film.

Modris Eksteins writes that World War I’s “agony is with us still. We cannot forget, nor can we ever truly comprehend” it (317). Building on Eksteins’ assertion and current writing on the relationship between WWI and cinema, we produced an edited volume, French Cinema and the Great War: Remembrance and Representation, in order to provide the first English-language book-length study devoted to representations of the First World War in French cinema from wartime society to the present day. It spans nearly one hundred years of filmmaking, from Léonce Perret’s Une page de gloire (1915) to Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël (2005).Block & Nevin C1-3We are interested in the various ways in which film mediates and transmits personal and collective memories and trauma of this crucial historical catastrophe through filmmakers’ engagement with contemporary political thought. Considering developments and deviations within the war genre, as well the relationship between the war and aesthetic style in French cinema, allows us to treat the relationship between French social, political, and cultural spheres throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and, by extension, to address evolutions in historical memory and the cathartic role of film in the expression of post-war trauma and memory.

From the earliest days of the cinematic medium to the twenty-first century, “la Der des Ders” inspired films as diverse as La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937), Le Roi de Coeur (Philippe de Broca, 1966), La victoire en chantant (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1976), Bertrand Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre (1989) and Capitaine Conan (1996), Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004), and Joyeux Noël (2005), challenging contemporary perceptions of European history and the boundaries of artistic expression.

For example, Joyeux Noël is based on true events of “a truce at Christmas on the Western Front” (9) and “real cases of Christmastime fraternization on the front lines” (262). The film depicts French, German, and Scottish soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front in 1914, during the first winter of World War I. Although the film’s director, Christian Carion, declares that he is “not a historian” and that Joyeux Noël is not a documentary, in attempting a “recuperation of the history” (220; translation mine) of this chapter of World War I—when enemy soldiers in the trenches dared to socialize together on Christmas—the film depicts, onscreen, “an incident long hidden from history” (66). Along with his film, Carion proposed “a scholarly work telling the true story of Christmas 1914 […] to coincide with the launch of his film” (10). This publication, Frères de tranchées—edited by French historian Marc Ferro with contributions by the British, French, and German scholars Malcolm Brown, Rémy Cazals, and Olaf Mueller—was published in 2005.

The publication of 'Frères de tranchées' coincided with the launch of Christian Carion’s film 'Joyeux Noël.'
The publication of ‘Frères de tranchées’ coincided with the launch of Christian Carion’s film ‘Joyeux Noël.’

The English translation, Meetings in No-Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in The Great War, appeared in 2006. According to Brown, this book “owes its existence […] to the intuition and vision of a young French film director, Christian Carion, a native of northern France, who somehow stumbled across the story which had taken place more or less on his own doorstep and saw the possibility of making a major film about it” (9).

The English translation, 'Meetings in No-Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War,' appeared a year later in 2006.
The English translation, ‘Meetings in No-Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War,’ appeared a year later in 2006.

Joyeux Noël’s treatment of real historical events that took place during World War I is just one example of how French film contains a complex repository of national collective memory and mourning about the Great War. It is also particularly amenable to reassessment due to its unique relationship with the trauma of war, alternately commemorating and stifling memories of the bloody combat in the years that followed the armistice. On one hand, films like Les Croix de Bois (Raymond Bernard, 1932), Le Roi de coeur (Philippe de Broca, 1966) and Joyeux Noël directly interrogate the war’s origins and consequences. On the other, in the decade of silent filmmaking that followed the armistice and in the twenty years following the end of the Second World War, French films were on the surface level conspicuously reticent regarding the Great War (with the exception of singular films such as Abel Gance’s 1919 J’accuse). But looking at the narrative setting and narrative style of cinematic representations of World War I allows us to interrogate the relationship between society and memory, and the former’s endless re-contextualization of the latter through time: in particular, through attention to gender, socio-political contexts, narrative style, and personal/collective trauma and memory of the First World War in French film. A wide range of filmmakers mobilized thematic and stylistic modes of expression to explore personal and collective memory of the war, creating texts that remain open to re-interpretation.

In the first instance, it is necessary simply to revisit and reassess many Great War narratives produced between the war years and the present day, some of which remain critically underappreciated. For instance, we bring renewed attention to Germaine Dulac’s use of newsreel footage in Le Cinéma au service de l’histoire (1935); the relationship between theatricality and power in Thomas l’imposteur (Georges Franju, 1965) and Le Roi de Coeur (Philippe de Broca, 1966); the dichotomy between physical and social space in Le Roi de Coeur; and how silenced, oppressed voices—forcibly conscripted colonial troops, members of the underprivileged social classes, and female victims of male violence—are represented in La victoire en chantant (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1976), Capitaine Conan (Bertrand Tavernier, 1996), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004).

Another important aspect of French Great War films is the examination of representations of women as active contributors to the war, to local society during wartime, and to the preservation of memory in the aftermath of war. Particular case studies include Une Page de gloire (Léonce Perret, 1915) placed in dialogue with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American (1917); Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004), and La Vie et rien d’autre (Bertrand Tavernier, 1989) and Joyeux Noël examined in comparison. In each of these films, love functions as a potentially radical force: as a disruption of trench life and as a remedy to post-war trauma. Although “women’s First World War experience has played a lesser—often a non-existent—role” in studies of the Great War, “without women’s frame of reference, an analysis of the legacy of war remains incomplete, leading to the positing of universal statements in the name of only half the population” (1).

Of particular importance to our understanding of French cinema concerning World War I is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusiongrande_poster2. Renoir’s film is a core concern for three particular reasons: firstly, it was made during the twentieth anniversary of the war, as Europe drifted inexorably towards another war whilst others clung desperately to a pacifist stance; secondly, Renoir himself had fought in the Great War, and stood as a living embodiment of post-war trauma; thirdly, and most interestingly, the film salutes fallen soldiers through its very portrayal of POWs and bereavement, but simultaneously challenges notions regarding commemoration through its dialogue and mise-en-scène. Because of the numerous stances embedded in Renoir’s complex narrative style, the extent to which the film alternately laments, commemorates and foreshadows war in a manner that demands reassessment.

Still from 'La Grande Illusion.'
Still from ‘La Grande Illusion.’

In particular, a complex analysis of the narrative’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of gender, disability, and heroism can demonstrate how La Grande Illusion becomes a metaphor for the inherently problematic nature of commemoration. The context of the film’s production shows how certain elements of a filmmaker’s personal memory can enter into dialogue with collective memory, producing new reflective narratives that complement as well as challenge society’s exigencies.

We’ve edited our volume in order to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Great War. Its exploration of French cinema is timelier than ever since first-hand experiences of the war have now been definitively buried: Lazare Ponticelli, who lived to be 110 years old, was the last French poilu to die, on 12 March 2008; Harry Patch of the British Army, the last veteran to have served in the trenches, died on 25 July 2009 at the age of 111; and Claude Choules of the British Royal Navy died on 5 May 2011, aged 110. We aim to broach issues such as developments and deviations within the war film genre, the relationship between the war genre and aesthetic style and, on a broader level, the continued significance of World War I to contemporary French social, political, cultural and cinematic spheres throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Marcelline Block’s publications about cinema include World Film Locations: Paris (Intellect, 2011), Filmer Marseille (Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2013), and French Cinema in Close-up: La vie d’un acteur pour moi (Phaeton, 2015), which Library Journal named a Best Print Reference work of 2015.

Barry Nevin (BA, PhD) currently lectures on French and film studies at NUI Galway. His research on Jean Renoir’s La Chienne will be published in Urban Cultural Studies (Intellect) in March 2016, and his examination of Renoir’s pro-colonial propaganda will be published in Studies in French Cinema (Taylor & Francis) in July 2016.

Think Piece

Why Are All the Costume Dramas Edwardian?, or, History and Popular Memory

by Emily Rutherford

When the World War I-era miniseries Parade’s End, based on the novels of Ford Madox Ford, was being broadcast on the BBC, a British friend asked me, “Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian?” It’s true: the narrative of Edwardian innocence lost in the trenches of France and the slow disintegration of the Empire has captivated audiences for decades, from Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, to ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, to Merchant Ivory’s 1980s and ’90s films of E.M. Forster novels, to today’s hits. The film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, released in the UK last month, has proved surprisingly popular, enough to secure a US release later this year. The main UK television networks currently feature lavish shows set in an Edwardian department store and (albeit stepping slightly later, to the interwar period) the end of British rule in India. It’s not as if the rest of the English-speaking world is immune to this form of historical romance: just look at the success that Downton Abbey has had in the US and Canada.

What’s a tour of period dramas doing on a serious blog like this one? I want to suggest, speculatively and inexpertly, that the Edwardian era (the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910, and usually lumping in the years leading up to the First World War) has an outsize place in popular understandings of the British national story, in part because of how Edwardian and interwar writers themselves defined a particular sense of their national culture. We’re bequeathed that story now through lavish television adaptations of Waugh and Forster, Brittain and Flora Thompson, and I think it’s done a lot to obscure a more nuanced understanding of continuity and change in an English/British national history.

I was set on this train of thought by reading academic histories of the early modern British Empire—what’s often called the “first” British Empire, in contrast to the “second” that takes shape after the Napoleonic Wars. The latter is characterized, the usual story goes, by a strong metropolitan government that enacted powerful political authority over colonies across the world, by a strong culture of imperial pageantry, by an economic policy of free trade, and by a cultural experience of empire that touched the lives of everyone in the British Isles as well as those native populations whom the Empire subjugated. This, understandably, is what we think of when we think “British Empire”: after all, we’re not so temporally distant from it. People our parents’ or grandparents’ age celebrated Empire Day across the globe. Historians of the “first” British empire, therefore, have often had to clarify and explain how the ideology and the practice of imperial politics, economics, and lived social experience worked in a time before the nation-state (and indeed before Britain) and before capitalism. To what extent was the British Empire a system of political governance, and to what extent was it a trading network? What were the power relations between British settlers and native populations, and between settlers and the metropole? Does it make sense to conceive of the whole empire as a single entity? How were imperial politics and economics affected by the great political upheavals in seventeenth-century England? As I read this scholarship I’m struck by its need to overcome the sense that “the British Empire” wasn’t always already the concept Benjamin Disraeli invented when, in 1877, he got Parliament to pass a bill declaring Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and his biography of Queen Victoria (1921) gave us the Victorian age we remember today: war, duty, muscular Christianity, sexual repression, stiff upper lips, all rendered colorfully with the irreverent tone of a child rebelling against his parents. Indeed, as psychoanalysis came to be a powerful backdrop to the explorations of the Bloomsbury set to which Strachey belonged, other writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster helped to solidify that sense of a generational break. “On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” The old social conventions no longer applied; the generation that grew up amid the Great War had to ascertain new ways of relating to each other. Downton Abbey, actually, dramatizes vividly this perception of a generational divide, showing it being worked out among groups other than one too-clever set of young London literati. I’m not convinced, though: my own research suggests that the concerns of affect, sociability, and interiority that preoccupied writers like Woolf and Forster had their origins in discussions about democratization, urbanization, educational reform, and, yes, sexuality that interested many upper-middle-class, educated people of their parents’ generation, too. Here, again, the psychological interest of the loss-of-innocence story that attracted literary writers since the Great War itself may be a distraction from what the evidence shows.

In order to engage with an audience wider than field-specific specialists, historians must constantly interact with received popular narratives and oral traditions about the past, narratives which as they’re repeated can seem to acquire a shinier veneer of truth than anything that appears between the covers of books published by Oxford or Cambridge University Press. If there’s a gulf between the truth that drives television ratings and the truth that gets a scholar tenure, it comes to matter: witness politicians’ attempts to redefine school history curricula on both sides of the pond, most recently an attempt in the Oklahoma state legislature to ban the revised Advanced Placement US History curriculum from state schools because, essentially, its themes and questions, crafted by professional historians, don’t conform to the rather different received popular narrative those legislators have internalized. Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian? Because they sell a dramatically seductive narrative and evoke a time when Britain still had significant world political power. But when, for instance, these narratives shape how politicians observe the centenary of the First World War and perceptions of foreign conflict going forward, the work they do to comfort and to entertain assumes serious importance.