Friday, July 04, 2014

Les Croix de bois / Wooden Crosses (2014 Pathé 4K restoration)



Puuristit. FR 1931. D: Raymond Bernard. Based on the novel (1919) by Roland Dorgelès. SC: Raymond Bernard, André Lang. DP: Jules Krüger. ED: Lucienne Grumberg. AD: Jean Perrier. C: Raymond Aimos (Fouillard), Antonin Artaud (Vieublé), Charles Vanel (caporale Breval), Gabriel Gabrio (Sulphart), Paul Azaïs (Broucke), Pierre Blanchar (Gilbert Demachy). P: Pathé-Natan. [4K?] DCP. 115'. B&w. English subtitles. From: Pathé International Restaurato da Pathé e Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé. Il film è stato scansionato e restaurato in 4K presso il laboratorio L'Immagine Ritrovata / Restored by Pathé and Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé. The film was scanned and restored in 4K at L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.
    Fox Film Corporation bought the U.S. rights to Les Croix de bois but instead of releasing it used it for stock footage in The World Moves On (John Ford, 1933), Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933), The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936), and Seventh Heaven (Henry King, 1936). Also in France footage from Les Croix de bois was reused: in Les Nuits Moscovites (Alexis Granowsky, 1934), and L'Équipage (Anatole Litvak, 1935).
    English subtitles on the DCP by Lenny Borger.
    Introduce Sophie Seydoux (Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé).
    Screened with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato), 4 July 2014

Lenny Borger, 1983 (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website): "Les Croix de bois is one of the most underrated films in French cinema from the Thirties which should nevertheless be included in the history of cinema among the most terrifying portrayals of the World War I. The structure and direction are surprisingly rigorous, almost documentary-like, in describing the relentless disintegration and the death of a squadron of French soldiers. Whilst Milestone and Pabst highlight their pacifism, Bernard avoids rhetoric, entrusting himself completely to the impact of Jules Krüger's cinematography. Its simplicity was criticised by some at the time but now shows its modernity, together with the rejection of pathos and military melodrama. The film was an immediate success, and yet international recognition was thwarted, first of all, by the Nazis (who banned it immediately) and then Hollywood, where it had a strange fate: it was bought by Fox as early as 1932, it would never be distributed but parts of it would be used for stock-shots by Darryl F. Zanuck's production. Yes, it really is Pierre Blanchar that you can see hurling grenades between two studio frames of Fredric March and Werner Baxter in The Road to Glory (1936) by Howard Hawks!" Lenny Borger, Les Croix de bois, "Cinématographe", no. 91, July 1983 [Lenny Borger's original article, thorough and profound, is still valid, to the point and worth checking out]. (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website)

Presented by Gian Luca Farinelli, Sophia Seydoux introduced the film in English. She explained the significance of the novel by Roland Dorgelès, its meaning in the anti-war movement, the general feeling of "never again". She told about the commitment to authenticity, the research for actual locations and accessories. All actors and extras were veterans re-living an awful experience. Roland Dorgelès himself was the advisor on authenticity. In this early sound film a lot of things were invented to record the authentic combat sounds with three sound trucks, even building a huge generator at a distance of 2 km in order to avoid its distracting noise. (My notes of the introduction by Sophia Seydoux).

AA: I saw Raymond Bernard's masterpiece for the first time, and it was for me the highlight of this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato, so powerful that I could not take seriously the film I was planning to see next, Chandralekha. Les Croix de bois belongs to a handful of the best war films ever.

The most popular film of Finland is The Unknown Soldier (1955) which, like the novel on which it is based, became a major vehicle of coming to terms with the overwhelming devastation of war.

Les Croix de bois was such a film in France for the generation which had experienced the First World War. For decades veterans went to watch and cry in Les Croix de bois which was in continuous release after the premiere (except during the Occupation). It was recognized as authentic by those who had been through it themselves. It belongs to the great popular films of all time, films whose true audience figures can be impossible to estimate.

Les Croix de bois is not entertainment. It is bigger than a film. It is a memorial and a monument. A phenomenon, a site of remembering, an invitation to come to terms with a shock, the greatest in history so far.

Like Edvin Laine in our The Unknown Soldier, Raymond Bernard employed war veterans in his cast although they were now too old for the parts. There was the bigger truth there that they had lived through something that was beyond imagination. They conveyed the true approach, the atmosphere, the attitude, the reactions, the expressions, the gestures, the words, the sense of the ensemble. And that is why Les Croix de bois feels completely different than most war films.

The Finnish word for a dissolve or a superimposition is "ristikuva" (a cross shot, a crossing shot). I was struck here by the early superimposition from marching men to a cemetery full of wooden crosses. The image during the opening credits is that of eternal fire. Such shots belonged already to the established imagery of anti-war films, as are the superimpositions of ghost soldiers marching to heaven. Abel Gance had employed such images powerfully in J'accuse!

Mostly Les Croix de bois is about the brutal disillusion of a young recruit who enters a squadron of already hardened veterans. We witness jubilant parades, the general mobilization, the presentation of all aspects of military life, the equipment, the sleeping conditions, the esprit de corps, the marches in the darkness, the trenches, the stench, the patrols, the incessant ominous sound of the enemy about to mine our foxhole from below, war panic and hysteria, the canteen, the military drill, lice removal, war mail, and the war hospital with legless and armless invalids.

We are taken to the front, to the barrage of fire and explosions, the grim, cruel and brutal massacre going on there, the smoke and the darkness, the incessant thundering noise. The main combat takes place at a graveyard. The exhausted soldiers have to parade in front of a general. The fight goes on, and there is another parade - the steady parade of the wounded all day. Vacations are cancelled. There is a wailing voice of one of our own in no-man's-land. It is impossible to retrieve him.

Everybody dies, and finally Gilbert, too, is hit. He cries in vain for help, and in his hallucinations sees memories pass by as the flame of his life gets extinguished.

A film about the end of the myth of heroism in war. The battlefield has become a slaughterhouse.

The performances are strong. There is no music score, but diegetic music is important: military marches, "En revenant de Montmartre" [Dorgelès had led Bohemian life on the Montmartre before the war, and wrote later a beloved cycle of books about it], "Ave Maria", and the bitter theme song by the soldiers, "Les Croix de bois" written by Dorgelès for the movie ("Oui tu l'auras, ta croix, ta croix / Si c'est pas la croix de guerre / C'est que ça sera la croix de bois"). The realistic soundtrack is terrifying.

The cinematography by Jules Krüger is stark. Much of the film has been shot in the darkness.

The visual quality of the screening was puzzling. Is the condition of the source elements this bad? There was no full black, fine texture was missing, and at times the image looked like video. PS. I heard that there are issues about the digital projection at Arlecchino. The fault may have been with the projection.

PS. Roland Dorgelès was the one who coined the expression "drôle de guerre" in WWII.

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