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WOODEN CROSSES: A SOUND OF THUNDER
It’s hard to think of an artist who better exemplifies the obscuring ebb and flow of film history than Raymond Bernard. Once a director equally admired by critics, fellow artists, audiences, and studio heads, Bernard is now, even among film scholars and French-cinema junkies, nearly forgotten. Perhaps it’s because his grand successes were part of a film movement that fell out of fashion almost as soon as it had emerged. Bernard established himself in the late 1920s and early 1930s with big-budget prestige productions influenced by, and sometimes based on, nineteenth-century romantic literature and created to compete with the Hollywood spectacles of the time. Both a contract director and an engaged artist, Bernard made a handful of unforgettable films during this short-lived flowering of ambitious French studio production, which soon withered in the face of economic pressures and new political urgencies. Before long, the influential poetic realist movement would arise and overshadow Bernard’s heyday for decades to come.
The son of belle epoque playwright Tristan Bernard, Raymond began his career as an actor, making his screen debut at age twenty-two, with Sarah Bernhardt, in Jeanne Doré (1915), adapted from his father’s play. Illness prevented him from fighting in World War I, so, in 1916, he joined his father at Gaumont studios, where the senior Bernard was serving as screenwriter for then debuting silent-film master Jacques Feyder. Raymond quickly moved from assistant director to director and, under contract, made a series of popular films. But his breakthrough came in 1923, when he was asked to replace director Robert Boudrioz on a troubled Louis XI costume drama, The Miracle of the Wolves. Bernard pulled off this enormous spectacle with great skill; predating Abel Gance’s Napoléon by three years, The Miracle of the Wolves was considered France’s first great national epic.
Still, France was hardly competing with Hollywood’s prodigious output. And when talkies burst onto the scene, the industry had a new challenge. In 1930, René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris officially put French sound cinema on the map, but French studios needed to up the ante—and Pathé-Natan Studios boss Bernard Natan had the answer. He had recently bought the rights to Roland Dorgelès’s best-selling autobiographical war novel Wooden Crosses, which, along with a new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les misérables, he was hoping would help rejuvenate the Depression-embattled industry. Bernard, under contract to Pathé since 1931, was the man he turned to.
France’s answer to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Wooden Crosses (1932) was a groundbreaking dramatization of war that revealed a new level of technical sophistication for Bernard. Shot on location in France’s Champagne region, this devastating account of a French regiment during World War I quakes with alarming realism and sadness (the entire cast consisted of war veterans). From its opening montage of soldiers’ figures dissolving into gravestones, it is clear that this is going to be a melancholy, pacifist film, and that Bernard was discovering innovative ways to depict the trauma of war on-screen. Despite its lack of heroics and propaganda, Wooden Crosses was a huge box-office success, marking Bernard’s official arrival onto the sound stage.
LES MISÉRABLES: END OF AN ERA
The enormous critical and popular success of Wooden Crosses (1932) convinced Pathé-Natan Studios to move full steam ahead with its third major production attached to Raymond Bernard: an adaptation of Les misérables. There had already been a widely adored silent version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, directed by Henri Fescourt just seven years before, but Pathé head Bernard Natan felt that a new take on this tried-and-true property could both inspire the populace in the midst of the Depression and be an impressive national export. Bernard triumphed, but his success comes with a touch of poignancy retrospectively. For Les misérables (1934), as it turned out, marked the culmination of this era of French filmmaking, in which the grand historical fresco—l’épopée—reigned. In this sense, Les misérables is a magnificent farewell—looming, forceful, both intimate and all-encompassing, the film shows off Bernard’s filmmaking at its most majestic.
It was Bernard who proposed adapting Hugo’s hefty book into three parts—“Une tempête sous le crane” (“Tempest in a Skull”), “Les Thénardier” (“The Thénardiers”), and “Liberté, liberté chérie” (“Liberty, Sweet Liberty”)—to be screened as separate feature-length films, thus allowing him to include as much of the original narrative, characters, and details as possible. And because of the great success of his previous film, the forty-two-year-old director got the screen time (nearly five hours) and resources he needed to realize his vision. As his coscreenwriter he chose critic and playwright André Lang. The influential Swiss composer Arthur Honegger gave the film its majestic score, later so admired by Miklos Rosza and Charles Koechlin and still available on CD in the United States today. And for his cameraman, Bernard selected the Alsatian-born cinematographer Jules Kruger, who had shot not only Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (1932) but also Abel Gance’s astonishing silent epic Napoléon (1927).
Kruger’s penchant for uniquely styled canted framing, highly influenced by German expressionism, was perfectly complemented by the dazzling art direction of Bernard’s exclusive production designer, Jean Perrier, who fully re-created sections of nineteenth-century Paris on exterior locations (the set was built near the southeastern resort town of Antibes), in addition to incorporating lovely matte paintings and breathtaking miniature work. The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).
Throughout this epic journey, Bernard juggles Hugo’s multitude of characters with dazzling dexterity, ensuring that such iconic figures as Inspector Javert (played by the chameleonic Charles Vanel, who had costarred in Wooden Crosses and would go on to win best actor at Cannes for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1952 The Wages of Fear), Cosette (Gaby Triquet and, later, Josselyne Gaël), Eponine (Orane Demazis), Marius (Jean Servais), and, of course, Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) never feel rudely shuffled around—a rich approximation of the unfolding pleasures of the novel. Key to the film’s success was the brilliant Baur, who embodies cinema’s most unsentimentalized incarnation of Valjean. An actor from a theatrical background, who had often collaborated with filmmaker Julien Duvivier, Baur, whose boxer’s mug conceals a surprising soulfulness, carries the film on his brawny shoulders, his face transforming gradually from the scowl of a convict to the benevolent smile of a loving father. (Baur’s life would come to a tragic end a decade later. After traveling to Berlin to star in his final film, his Jewish wife was arrested on charges of espionage; in trying to free her, he was arrested, tortured, and released by Gestapo officers, only to die at home days later.)
Depression-era audiences in France responded to the film with enthusiasm. But its timing was somewhat inauspicious. Just three days after the film’s February 3, 1934, premiere, there was an uprising against the Third Republic (the political regime of France that followed the Second French Empire, in 1870, and preceded Vichy) by right-wing militias. And soon the financial insecurity of the nation was taking its toll on the film industry as well: Pathé-Natan filed for bankruptcy in 1936, as did its fellow vertically integrated conglomerate Gaumont-Franco-Film-Auber, effectively ending a Hollywood-like superstructure for large-scale productions in France—and paving the way for an industry defined by more reasonably budgeted, character-driven stories. This contributed to the rise of poetic realism, a film movement that relied greatly on realist literature, gritty scripts, and working-class milieus (and was an important precursor to the film noir movement in America).
This general downsizing left the industry baffled by what to do with massive relics such as Les misérables. In May 1935, Pathé rereleased the film as an abbreviated, two-and-a-half-hour feature, and a 162--minute version premiered the following year, in New York, as reported in Variety. Then, in 1944, a longer, two-part version was shown in France, although this time, due to obvious wartime influences, all references to revolution and political uprising were excised. When Bernard and Lang, who, both Jewish, had been lying low during the war, discovered this version, they began legal proceedings to get it restored to the proper length. They ultimately managed to get it to 204 minutes, and this shorter version was the only one available for decades.
This wasn’t the first time Bernard had seen his footage taken from him, chopped up, and dispersed. In 1932, Fox Films, so impressed by the jarring, eloquent battle scenes of Wooden Crosses, purchased the film from Pathé-Natan for $140,000, for distribution in the United States.
Ultimately, however, Fox decided not to open Wooden Crosses but instead to use footage of battles and parading soldiers from the film in other Fox productions, such as the best picture–winning Cavalcade (1933), The World Moves On (1934), and a remake of Seventh Heaven (1936)—a right covered in the fine print of the contract. Meanwhile, Wooden Crosses novelist Roland Dorgelès entered into court battles with Fox over Howard Hawks’s The Road to Glory, which Dorgelès, and many others, maintained was plagiarized from the French screenplay of the film. And through all of this, Wooden Crosses sat on the shelf, unreleased, at Twentieth Century Fox.
Thus the two greatest works of Raymond Bernard’s career (which lasted until 1958, when he made his final picture, Le septième ciel, with Danielle Darrieux) were for many decades unseen in their entirety on this side of the Atlantic (and this is still the case, outside of the very occasional art-house retrospective). It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the French Broadcasting Company (ORTF) commissioned a restored version of Les misérables, that Bernard, then in his eighties and nearly blind, was given the opportunity to reconstruct the film into something close to its original, expansive length. After months of reassembling it from memory, he and his editor, Charlotte Guilbert, arrived at a version that was almost complete, save for some scenes that were unrecoverable. This version, which is now the most commonly available, premiered on French television in the summer of 1977, mere months before Bernard died, at age eighty-six.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.