This is in many ways the most personal film of the distinguished French filmmaker Louis Malle. The basic story is taken from experiences in his early years during World War II.
What happened in January 1944 was instrumental in my decision to become a filmmaker. It’s hard to explain, but it was such a shock that it took me several years to get over it, to try and understand it – and, of course, there was no way I could understand it. What happened was so appalling and so fundamentally opposed to the values that we were being taught that I concluded that there was something wrong with the world, and I started becoming very rebellious.
The film is set in a boarding school in occupied France, rather like the one that Malle actually attended. The film develops a narrative depicting a tragic chain of events, but as he recalls, one that was traumatic for the participants as well as the victims.
Malle started out in filmmaking in the 1950s. Even for a noted European director he has worked in unusually wide variety of industries and settings: in France, but also in the UK, in North America and on documentaries made in Asia. Malle comments that he had three great passions: Music, Literature and Film. The role of music in his work is exemplified by the marvellous score improvised by Miles Davis for his first feature, Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, 1957). A good example of the contribution of literature is in the very fine Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) with its exploration of and homage to Anton Chekhov. Film itself crops up regularly: in today’s feature there is a sequence when the school students watch old movies:
…it was in the following years that they showed films in the school on Sundays, that’s when I saw the first Chaplin shorts. They were projected in this strange format that was rather popular in the late 1930s and 1940w, the 9.5 mm, which had a perforation in the centre – a terrible invention. Chaplin was forbidden during the war by the Germans, not only because he was Jewish but also because he’d made The Great Dictator. But his films, I was told, were still being shown, very discreetly, in schools and cine clubs. It was one of the great memories of my childhood, those Sunday evening, we’d darken the room, there’d be a white sheet, and everyone would sit and watch those films. I chose The Immigrant because, first, it was one of the great ones, and second, it was an evocation of freedom for those Jewish children when they see the Statue of Liberty, America being the Promised Land.
The film also reveals important influences from French cinema and from Malle’s own work. The school setting reminds one irresistibly of Jean Vigo’s great Zéro de conduite (1933). The wartime setting and the problem of ‘collaboration’ echoes Malle’s earlier Lacombe Lucien (1974) also set in 1944. At a more general level, there is a recognisable thematic thread
… at the centre of the film is a child, an adolescent, who is exposed to the hypocrisy and corruption of the world of grown-ups.
This immediately calls to mind the later British film The Fallen Idol (1948). But there is also a wider thread across French cinema, going back beyond Jean Vigo to the silent era: for example Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’enfant (1925). More recently there have been the series of French film dealing intelligently and eloquently with schools and school students, School of Babel (Le Cour de Babel, 2014) being the most recent. The story in this film is set in the midst of the worst modern example of European racism: a problem that features in more recent films, if not at the same appalling level.
The quality of this film also depends on the contribution of Malle’s talented collaborators and production team. Malle is credited with the screenplay, but he recalled that he consulted the doyen of European scriptwriters, Jean Claude Carrière:
He’s an expert of script structure. Also he’d had that experience of being a boarder in a school during the war – so he gave me some ideas.
The image quality of the film is particularly distinctive,
First, I could always picture the precise look that the film should have. It crossed my mind that I should shoot the film in black and white. Very quickly |I decided this was too simple. What I remember visually of the Occupation period was that there were no colours. The school walls were white or grey, and we were all in navy blue: the beret, the sweater, the short pants – all blue. The priests were Carmelites, so they wore dark brown. It seemed obvious top me that I should make the film in colour, yet it was going to be a film without colours.
The cinematographer was a young technician Renato Berta, working with Malle for the first time.
… when I discussed the lighting with Renato Berta we already had the environment.
We had the great luck, which also made shooting very difficult, of having one of the coldest winters in January and February 1987. There was a lot of snow, which I had been hoping for. The problem with snow it that it never matches, and you have snow when you don’t want it. But I was so happy when it snowed, we rushed certain scenes.
This meant Berta had to work fast and also use fast film stock. The mise en scène depends to a great degree on the Art Direction of Willy Holt and the sound is provided by Jean-Claude Laureux. All three’s inputs are organised through excellent editing by Emmanuelle Castro. The music may sound familiar; the film uses Schubert and Saint Saëns.
Quotations from Malle on Malle edited by Philip French, Faber and Faber 1993: Translations by Kersti French.