Writing the screenplay for The Last Metro with Suzanne Schiffman, I intended to do for the theater what I had done for the cinema in Day for Night: the chronicle of a troupe at work, within a framework respecting the unities of place, time, and action. There was a notable difference between the two projects, which is that my acquaintance with the theater is superficial and that, in any case, putting on a play is very much less rich, visually, than shooting a film.
The occupation does not constitute a theme in itself but simply a background and, for me, who was eight at the start of the war and twelve at the Liberation, a background rich in sensations, emotions, memories. In 1958, writing The 400 Blows with Marcel Moussy, I regretted not being able to bring in a thousand details from my adolescence connected with that period of the occupation, but the budget and the New Wave frame of mind were not compatible with the notion of a “period film.” From that standpoint, Jules and Jim in 1961 constituted an exception.
It was in 1968, after having made Stolen Kisses, that I again felt I wanted to reconstruct that epoch. But at that point I was stopped dead in my enthusiasm by a remarkable film, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, which, by the use of documents and interviews, mingles past and present with a Proustian felicity. The Sorrow and the Pity is certainly not a film of fiction, yet it is not a documentary either, but rather an impassioned reflection of such a richness that several viewings do not suffice to exhaust it.
To suspect, as is sometimes done, that artists haunted by the occupation are exploiting an ambiguous nostalgia makes no more sense than to reproach John Ford for having devoted two thirds of his output to the conquest of the West or Marcel Proust for having, in his Recherche, made numerous references to the Dreyfus Affair.
The war of 1914-18 and the occupation of 1940-44 have every possibility, in another twenty years, of appearing as the two most thrilling, most romantic periods of the twentieth century, and therefore also the most fascinating and inspiring.
After the shock of The Sorrow and the Pity, ten years passed and, like everyone, I had seen a dozen films about the occupation. One struck me as too gloomy, another as too rosy, there was too much sunshine in one, too much modern music in another. In short, I remained with my desire unsatisfied and with a few certainties valid for myself alone: a film about the occupation should take place almost entirely at night and in closed places, the feel of the epoch has to be reconstructed by darkness, close to confinement, frustration, precariousness, and—the sole luminous element—one should include, in their original recordings, some of the songs heard at the time in the streets and on the radio.
I read that during the war fifteen or more theaters in Paris were run by women, actresses or former actresses. My heroine therefore would be a “directress,” and I immediately thought of Catherine Deneuve, a thrilling actress I had not used to the best of her possibilities in Mississippi Mermaid. I had read that Louis Jouvet, to escape the pressures of German censorship, left Paris at the start of the occupation for South America. I asked myself what would have happened if, for love of a woman, a Jewish director had pretended to flee France but had remained hidden in the cellar of his theater throughout the war. Invented as it was, the idea was not entirely improbable, because the musician Kosma and the designer Trauner had known that situation, working clandestinely under false names for the films of Marcel Carné, for example.
I needed a young fellow, an actor just starting out and torn between his pride in entering a famed theater company and the desire to have a hand in the liberation of his country, as was the case with Louis Jourdan and Jean-Pierre Aumont. It was only after writing the first half hour of the subject that the choice of Gérard Depardieu became inevitable. As in Day for Night, I felt that a careful distribution of known actors and new faces was necessary in the interest of plausibility.
One of the shortest but most interesting roles was that of Daxiat, our only bad character, who could say: “I adore the theater, I live for the theater, but theater people detest me.” This character was inspired for us by Alain Laubreaux and also by a talented filmmaker who, in the midst of the fight over the Cinémathèque in 1968, didn’t hesitate to pick up his telephone to call a producer hostile to Henri Langlois a “dirty Jew.” Daxiat illustrates the irresponsibility of the French extremists who, by their excess of zeal, often did more harm than the Germans. To confide that role to a known actor, even a very talented one, who is seen three or four times a year on the screen would have weakened it.
With the work of writing finished, I returned to Paris in September and came to realize that although the screenplay seemed to please each of the actors concerned, it was received very coldly by the distributors and possible backers. The role of Lucas Steiner, a German Jew, would have justified a French and German coproduction, but the German distributors didn’t like the screenplay and wanted a better known name than Heinz Bennett, whom I was absolutely insistent on. Two of the major French distributors returned the script, one refusing it outright, the other proposing to distribute the film without giving us any money, and I foresaw the moment when I would be forced to announce to the actors that the film would be cancelled or postponed.
A coproducer we had in mind liked the script but disapproved of the choice of Andrea Ferreol for the lesbian wardrobe woman: too improbable. Could I make him understand that it was precisely for that that I chose her, so as to obtain at first an effect of suspense (will Arlette give in to Depardieu’s advances?) and then of surprise (Arlette is in love with Catherine)? It is not sufficiently known that the French pro-Nazis who proclaimed their cult of virility (for them, Germany was male and the defeated France female) included Jews and homosexuals in the same hatred. The fascist critics regularly denounced Bataille’s “Jewified” theater, Cocteau’s “effeminate” theater. I felt that our script had to show that double racism of which Sartre, in Portrait of an Anti-Semite, very effectively exposed the obsessive, sexual, and passionate aspects.
When I opened the script to consult or complete it, it pleased me, though without overwhelming me. It corresponded quite well to the rudimentary and intelligent definition John Ford gives of his work: “Filming sympathetic characters plunged into interesting situations.” But I hadn’t succeeded in making the character of Lucas Steiner speak with the humor and derision I felt indispensable. One evening, at the Theatre du Gymnase, I saw the superb play L’Atelier, both moving and funny, and I immediately got in touch with Jean-Claude Grumberg to ask him to write a sort of additional dialogue designed to give more nuance to the character of Lucas Steiner.
With the screenplay already firmly established, the length estimated at 150 minutes, and shooting about to begin, Jean-Claude Grumberg’s freedom to invent was against a wall, yet his contribution was precious, for example in that scene in the cellar when Lucas puts on a papier-mache nose and says: “I am trying to feel Jewish. They’re very delicate, Jewish roles. If you do just a tiny bit, they say, ‘He’s exaggerating.’ If you put it on a lot, they say, ‘He doesn’t seem Jewish.’ Just what is ‘seeming Jewish’?”
Shooting The Last Metro was quite pleasant but difficult. I would have been a lot more relaxed if I could have foreseen the success the film would enjoy. After five days of shooting, Suzanne Schiffman, my collaborator from the start, fell ill and had to leave the set for a month. Two days later, Catherine Deneuve had a fall on a staircase, and when she came back to work the doctor forbade her to wear theater costumes (heavily corseted) for another ten days. The working plan had to be changed, the stage scenes put off until later, and the scenes with Catherine in street dress filmed right away, though the necessary sets were still in the making.
What reassured me was to see how very well the actors were fitting into their roles. Working for the first time with Gérard Depardieu, I marveled at the warmth and truthfulness he brought to the role of Bernard. Jean Poiret’s insolent frivolity enchanted me. For the role of a young actress with great ambitions, I engaged the adorable little Sabine of Jules and Jim. It was with Heinz Bennett that I worked most, an hour in his dressing room every morning, in order that, as both of us hoped, despite his fine German accent he would speak in the same rhythm as the French actors.
Catherine Deneuve loved this double role of a woman not afraid of appearing antipathetic, cold, and hard in order to protect the man who until then had protected her. In her previous films, to my taste Catherine too often played girls’ roles (rather than women’s), and that impression was reinforced by her triumphal hairdo cascading freely over her shoulders. Before shooting I had easily convinced her to look her real age and to wear her hair in a chignon and always rolled up so as to represent not a beautiful girl but a beautiful woman who was responsible and almost authoritarian. Catherine had some misgivings about the scenes on stage. She was the only one in the cast who had never mounted the boards, and she wondered if she would be able to articulate as in the theater, to slow down the flow of words, and to project her voice toward the balcony. She succeeded in all of this perfectly.
After shooting The Last Metro, I was conscious of having made the fictional film with the greatest amount of information about daily life under the occupation. I knew that viewers of forty-five and older would be concerned with our having got the climate just right, but how to know if young viewers would be interested? Wouldn’t they find the incidents in the film too slight and the dramatic vicissitudes too few? I thought: “The American cinema constantly presents characters who carry their action through to its conclusion, and here I am showing only people prevented from realizing their plan and whom circumstances lead to concentrating on survival.” On that point, happily, I was wrong, because it is probably thanks to all the obstacles blocking my characters that the public was able to sympathize to such an extent with them, even identifying themselves with this one or that.
When the leading characters in the film are really alive, the situations don’t demand an extreme tension, but it’s only when the film is shown in public that the author knows if his characters come alive or not. If, as is still done regularly in America, I had arranged two or three previews, I would have kept faith with my original intentions and would certainly have presented the film in a slightly longer version (of which the transcription in Avant-Scene remains the only evidence), but doubt led me to deliver a film of 128 minutes (though, for the TV version, my editor Martine Barraque succeeded in restoring a six-minute scene between a scriptwriter, Monsieur Valentin, and Marian Steiner).
Like babies, films shift around in the belly. As Roger Leenhardt pointed out, “You have the idea for a film, you shoot a second one, and the public gets a third.” Today, in 1983, if I have to analyze the good reception The Last Metro got, I think that my having filled out the screenplay with details that had struck me in my childhood gave the film an originality of vision it wouldn’t have had if it had been conceived by someone older (who would have experienced the occupation as an adult) or younger (who would have been born during the war or afterward). To illustrate this perfectly obvious truism by example, I will recall that only children observe a funeral “objectively” and, with a well-dissimulated interest, take note of what does not strike adults as essential: the mourning bands, the silvery letters on the wreaths, the hats, veils, black stockings, Sunday clothes. There you have what The Last Metro probably is: the theater and the occupation seen by a child.
This excerpt from a March 1983 article in L’Avant-Scene Cinema appeared on Criterion's laserdisc edition of The Last Metro and is reproduced here with permission of Laura Truffaut.