Wednesday, February 08, 2017

La Bandera

La Bandéra / Kuoleman pataljoona / Legionärer, Spanien har lejt er att dö! / Navnløse helte. FR 1935. PC: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie. P: André Gargour. D: Julien Duvivier. SC: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier – based on the novel (1931) by Pierre Mac Orlan (Pierre Dumarchais). Cin: Jules Kruger. Cadreur: Marc Fossard. AD: Jacques Krauss. M: Jean Wiener, Roland-Manuel. Theme song: "Sous les ponts de Paris" (paroles: Jean Rodor [= Jean Coulon], musique: Vincente Scotto, 1914). S: Robert Teisseire. ED: Marthe Poncin. Ass D: Robert Vernay, Jésus Castro-Blanco.
    C: Jean Gabin (Pierre Gilieth), Annabella (Aïscha la Slaoui), Margo Lion (Planche-à-Pain), Viviane Romance (the girl in Barcelona), Génia Vaury (a girl in the restaurant), Claude May (a drunken woman), Robert Le Vigan (Fernando Lucas, a detective of the secret police), Pierre Renoir (captain Weller), Gaston Modot (soldier Muller), Raymond Aimos (Marcel Mulot), Charles Granval (the Segovian), Robert Ozanne (the man with the tattooed face), Maurice Lagrenée (Siméon), Louis Florencie (Gorlier), Noël Roquevert (drill sergeant), Marcel Lupovici (a legionnaire at the fort), Robert Ancelin (lieutenant), Raphaël Médina (a legionnaire at the fort), Pitouto (bellboy), Paul Demange (a joker), Raymond Blot (patron at the dance hall), Eugène Stuber (thief), Robert Moor (legionnaire), Jésus Castro-Blanco (sergeant), Reine Paulet (Rosita), Little Jacky (Weber, a legionnaire), Philippe Janvier, José Casado, Suzy Prim.
    Dedicated to General Francisco Franco.
    Loc: Barcelona, Gibraltar, Morocco: Spanish Sahara (June 1935). Studio: Studios de Joinville.
    Helsinki premiere: 2.10.1936 Royal, released by: Kosmos-Filmi – classification 1936: 19933 – K16, MEKU 2017: K12 – 96 min, 106 min
    Viewed a 35 mm print with a duration of 102 min with dansk tekst and e-subtitles in Finnish by Lena Talvio at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Julien Duvivier), 8 Feb 2017

Revisited La Bandera, a turning-point on the careers of Julien Duvivier and Jean Gabin. It was also Duvivier's first collaboration with the brilliant screenwriter Charles Spaak.

Jean Gabin may be the greatest tragic actor in the history of the cinema, and La Bandera is the film where this talent of his first emerged on the screen.

Like later in Pépé le Moko the action is set in the Arab world of Northern Africa. Also here Jean Gabin plays a dangerous wanted criminal on the run from the police, here called Pierre Gilieth. Place Blanche at Montmartre already appears as an object of nostalgia, but not for Pierre. Pierre gets a jolt every time when Rue Saint Vincent is mentioned (a street now near the tourist district). Worst of all for him is singing or playing the song "Sous les ponts de Paris".

After the striking opening scene at Rue Saint Vincent we observe Pierre in a little hotel room in Barcelona, like a haunted beast trapped in its cave. The scene already prefigures Le Jour se lève in many ways.

André Bazin wrote about "the suburban Thebes" of Le Jour se lève. In La Bandera and Pépé le Moko we still have a foreign space for tragedy. A hallmark of Jean Gabin's stardom, a rage scene, emerges twice. The first scene takes place in Barcelona, when Pierre, down and out, having gone for days without food, is offered a plate of soup by a kindly bar woman and bullied by the customers who shove his face into the soup. An even worse fit of rage emerges in the Foreign Legion when "Sous les ponts de Paris" is played. There is a cosmic, mythical power in Gabin's rage. The pretext may be trivial, but the rage, as Bazin observed, opens an aperture into something extraordinary and atavistic. We are in the vicinity of the definition of tragedy: greatness is within his reach, but he fails due to a fatal weakness.

In Barcelona, Pierre hits bottom. "The measure of squalor cannot be fathomed by anyone who hasn't experienced it in Barcelona". In Sahara, having met his soulmate Aisha, Pierre celebrates a blood and tattoo wedding with her. "I have never been so happy in my life".

La Bandera is about the death drive. Even the vintage Finnish name of the movie is, aptly, Kuoleman pataljoona = The Battalion of Death. In the final suicide command mission everyone dies except one, the detective of the secret police, who had just decided to give up on hunting Pierre. Puzzlingly, this kind of extreme fatalism was a source of Jean Gabin's stardom.

La Bandera is also a colonial film, a colonialistic film, a militaristic film, and a film dedicated to General Francisco Franco – a year before the Spanish Civil War, one of the preludes to WWII. But it is also so pervasively a desperado film that I cannot seriously relate to the political context. The title on the gate of the fort says "La Légion", but it might as well read "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" / "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" / "Ken tästä käy saa kaiken toivon heittää", because it is the gate of Hell.

The most positive figure in the film is the Arab woman Aisha, a free spirit, an incarnation of the life force so powerful that she almost manages to draw Pierre out of his suicidal vortex.

Among the films that La Bandera seems to prefigure is La Grande Illusion – the camaraderie of the soldiers, and the figure of the crippled commandant. Pierre Renoir plays here Captain Weller, one-eyed, and with a prosthetic arm, in a way that invites comparison with Erich von Stroheim's immortal Captain von Rauffenstein in brother Jean Renoir's film. Perhaps an inspiration to Jean Renoir was to create an anti-militaristic counterpart to La Bandera. But La Bandera is too honest a film to paint a picture of the military that would seem lucrative to anyone with sanity. And – I had never even thought about this before – La Grande Illusion is still a picture about the gentleman's war, and it does not even aim at an account of the unheard-of massacres of WWI. Les Croix de bois was more to the point. The final massacre of La Bandera is also relevant as an account of modern warfare.

Music is of the essence as often in Julien Duvivier's films. The theme song has been mentioned, but there are many other exciting music contributions from Italian ballads to military marches. It would be fascinating to study a soundtrack listing.

Duvivier is in command of the whole. The atmosphere is strong and exotic. There is documentary passion in scenes of Barcelona, Gibraltar, and Morocco. The ensemble of actors is wonderful. The looks are expressive and soulful. The looks have gravity.

The cinematographer is the master Jules Kruger who had worked with Dulac, Gance (as one of the four DP's of Napoleon), L'Herbier (L'Argent), and Bernard (Les Croix de bois). Kruger is still in possession of the magic of silent cinematography with striking angles and agile movements. The camera dances and fights like in Napoleon.

The print viewed has been heavily used but it is of equal duration with the restoration from Les Archives françaises du film / CNC which I blogged about in 2008 in Bologna. The image is good enough often enough to get a strong impression of Jules Kruger's cinematography.


Kamera liukuu öiseltä taivaalta Pariisin kattojen yltä kapealle huonosti valaistulle kadulle, jolla juopunut nainen tanssii rakastajansa kanssa. Mies pujahtaa ovesta, ja nainen tarttuu häneen. Vasta miehen sysättyä naisen syrjään ja kadottua tanssisalien ja tuntihotellien ryteikköön nainen huomaa veritahrat, jotka mies on jättänyt hänen puseroonsa.
    Tällainen on Kuoleman pataljoonan tehokas avauskohtaus. Kyseessä on ranskalainen elokuva Espanjan muukalaislegioonasta, jonka nimettömiin riveihin murhaaja karkaa, kun häneltä on ryöstetty kaikki rahat rähjäisessä espanjalaisessa satamassa. Kohtaus on loistava osoitus elokuvan etulyöntiasemasta teatteriin verrattuna, sen kyvystä sijoittaa draama miljööseen. Olemme jo lähes luopuneet toivosta kuulla teatterissa sanoja, joiden kuvallinen ilmaisuvoima voisi välittää meille draaman ilmapiirin. Kuoleman pataljoona teatterissa olisi pelkästään taas yksi melodraama Afrikan helteestä, raakuudesta ja kuolemasta, älykäs melodraama, jonka pelastaisi keskinkertaisuudesta poliisivakoilijan henkilöhahmo, ihailtava ja halveksittava pingottuneine hermoineen ja lapsenomaisen herkkine vartaloineen, hänen ajaessaan takaa murhaajaa muukalaislegioonan vaarallisilla poluilla.
    Mutta koska kamera rekisteröi rikollisten katujen ja halpojen hotellien ilmapiirin tarkemmin ja eloisammin kuin useimpien elävien näytelmäkirjailijoiden proosa, se tuo tarinaan autenttisuutta ja atmosfääriä. Tunnistamme miljöön yleisen aitouden ja olemme valmiimpia hyväksymään yksilöllisen draaman totuuden.

– Graham Greenen mukaan (The Spectator 6.12.1935, kirjassa The Pleasure Dome, toim. John Russell Taylor 1972) AA 8.2.2017

JULIEN DUVIVIER (s. 1896 Lille, k. 1967 Pariisi) aloitti uransa ranskalaisen realistisen teatterin suurmiehen André Antoinen apulaisena ja tuli tämän kannustamana myös elokuvan piiriin. Vuonna 1919 Duvivier tuli Gaumont-yhtiölle Louis Feuilladen ja Marcel L’Herbierin apulaiseksi. 1920-luvulla Duvivier ohjasi 20 elokuvaa laatuviihteen sujuvana ammattilaisena. Huomiota herättivät koskettava lapsikuvaus Poil de Carotte, kolmituntinen elokuvahistoriallinen katsaus La Machine à refaire la vie ja katolista uskontoa käsittelevät elokuvat. Täyteen mittaansa Duvivier kohosi äänielokuvan läpimurron myötä 1930-luvulla. Irène Nemirovsky -filmatisoinnissa David Golder Duvivierin luottonäyttelijäksi tuli Harry Baur, joka tulkitsi myös komisario Maigret’ta (Maigret ja mies Seinen rannalta) ja esiintyi Poil de Carotten äänifilmatisoinnissa. Duvivier löysi tähdekseen myös Jean Gabinin elokuvissa Maria Chapdelaine ja Golgata. Kuoleman pataljoonassa Gabinin traaginen tähtikuva alkoi kiteytyä, ja käsikirjoittajaksi tuli ensi kertaa Duvivierille keskeinen Charles Spaak.

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