Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 317th Platoon – La 317ème section (1965) The Final Days of the French – Indochina War

I am not sufficiently familiar with the war in Indochina or the history of the French occupation although my great grand-father was posted there as a prison guard but I’m interested in the topic. I think studying it would help us understand the war in Vietnam much better.

Pierre Schoendoerffer is the go to director for those interested in the war in Indochina from a French perspective. I’ve seen his Dîen Bîen Phû (1992) a long time ago, pre-blogging, and remember having been impressed. Usually it is considered to be one of the top war movies. However, critics seem to agree, as great as Dîen Bîen Phû is, it’s nowhere near as outstanding as one of Schoendoerffer’s other movies, namely 317th Platoon – La 317ème section . It’s one of a very few 5/5* movies in Gary Freitas’ excellent book War Movies.

Schoendoerffer is a veteran of the Indochina war. He was an Army cinematographer and became a POW during the battle of Dîen Bîen Phû. After his liberation in 1954, he wrote books and directed movies. One of those novels was the 317th Platoon (French only) which he made into a movie later.

317th Platoon tells the story of a platoon which was trapped  behind enemy lines. In 1954, the war in Indochina is about to end. France was defeated by the Viet Minh and had just lost the bloody battle of Dîen Bîen Phû. The French forces are in full retreat. The risk to be overrun is constant. The 317th Platoon, a unit of French soldiers and Laotian allies, is one of them. The platoon is led by a very young and idealistic and inexperienced sous-lieutenant Torrens (Jacques Perrin) and his adjutant Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer), a former soldier in the German Wehrmacht during WWII. Torrens has just arrived in Indochina, barely two weeks ago, while Willsdorf has been there several years. The survival of the platoon depends on completing a trek through enemy territory, right through the dense jungle that lies between them and the next French outpost.

The movie has an immediacy you do not see often. The spectator is very close to the people in the movie, feels like being part of it. The grainy black and white pictures are like documentary shots and the sound is amazing. We hear all the animals in the jungle screaming and screeching. The jungle is a loud place to be, especially at night. For the soldiers this is an additional difficulty. The Viet Minh swarm the forest, the noise is deafening, the monsoon rain is constant, it’s hot and humid, they suffer from stomach cramps and diarrhea, dysentery. In the first few minutes, some are wounded horribly and to watch them suffer and die is agony. The death scenes are uncomfortably realistic.

The movie offers excellent character studies. The men portrayed, especially Torrens and Willsdorf are complex and arresting. While Torrens makes bad choices because he is kind and caring, Willsdorf has become a cynic but he is always right about his assumptions and predictions. The unlikely men come to appreciate each other in the end.

I liked that we get a feeling for the country and the terrain. We see this when they stop at a village to rest and treat the wounded. The wounded are given opium in the villages, Willsdorf tells Torrens how much he loves the country and that he cannot wait until he can leave the army and settle somewhere with a nice woman.

There are many quiet scenes in the movie but it’s never boring. The actors are excellent. In some of the shots their faces express more than others with words. We see that they feel lonely, how much they despair, the fear, pain and agony. It’s all there and palpable.

The way the wounded are treated is another excellent example of the movies realism. There is not shooting morphine without assessing the condition of the wounded first. The way they treat them is with  a lot of understanding and empathy.

The only other movie I have seen so far which offers such a compelling mix of character studies and combat scenes is When Trumpets Fade, one of my Top 10 favourite war movies.

I’m certain of one thing after having watched 317th Platoon, there is no way around Pierre Schoendoerffer’s movies for those truly interested in war movies. 317th Platoon – La 317ème section deserves to be on a Top 50 list, at least.

I found two things on YouTube. The French trailer and a dubbed version, Spanish with English subtitles, of the entire movie. It’s a bit weird for me, from a French perspective to hear it spoken in Spanish but if you are not a native French speaker you might not mind. At least you get a chance to watch, right?

The Round Up – La Rafle (2010) – Operation Spring Breeze or The Round Up of Vel d’Hiv

The French/German/Hungarian co-production, The Round Up – La Rafle, is a powerful and intense movie based on true facts. In the nights of July 16 and 17 13000 Parisian Jews were arrested in a raid in Paris and confined in the Vel d’Hiv (Winter Velodrome) or Drancy internment camp and from there to the extermination camps in Poland. Of the 13000 arrested Jews only 25 survived. Many among them, at least 4000, were children. Not one of them survived. The aim was to round-up 25000 Jews but 10000 escaped and were hidden by the people of Paris. The most shameful part was played by the police who actively contributed to make this happen. French President Jacques Chirac apologized in 1995 for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants served in the raid.

The movie begins with original black and white footage. We hear Edith Piaf sing “Paris” while we follow Hitler on his tour through the city. That sent shivers down my spine. To think that if the Germans had won the war, Hitler would have made Paris his capital. In the pictures he looked like a guy inspecting real estate, deciding on what walls to knock down, what to keep. Horrifying. Here is an account of Hitler’s tour, written by his pet architect Speer.

After the opening we see people in a Parisian street located in Montmartre. The street scenes show that French and foreign Jews amicably lived together with non-Jewish Parisians. Many French people are friendly towards the Jewish population, but others are openly hostile and hate them. The movie focusses at first on a few Jewish families. It shows how secure they felt. They didn’t think the French government would ever give in. But it did. In exchange for privileges it promised to round-up the Jews and deport them eventually.

After the round-up we see the scenes in the Vel d’Hiv and the point of view changes. A young French nurse, Annette Monnod (Mélanie Laurent), has been sent to help alongside a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno). The doctor and a handful of French nurses are the only health care professionals for 13000 people. There is almost no food, no water, no toilets and the hygiene is abominable. Many of the children are ill. There are doctors willing to come and help but they are not let in. Operation Spring Breeze, as this round-up is called, should be kept a secret. While there are many collaborators among the French, there are many more who are hostile towards the Nazis and willing to risk their lives to save Jews.

Annette becomes very attached to the children and does everything to help them survive. She follows them to camp Beaune where they stay until they are finally deported to Auschwitz. Until the last day many think, they are sent to Poland to work. Rumours that those camps are extermination camps are only spreading very slowly.

I really loved this movie. It moved me, I found it very touching and emotional.  I would say that of all the Holocaust movies I’ve seen, this is my favourite. I liked that it focussed on a few Jewish families with different backgrounds. Some rich French Jews, others immigrants and people who fled from other countries. Those individual stories are more interesting and touching than the story of a mass of deported people. In chosing Annette, a French nurse, we see how far the “good” Parisian people went, risking life and health for others. It’s such a shameful chapter in the history of France, its important to remember that there were courageous people as well.

The only thing I didn’t like so much was the end. It should have been different but I cannot tell you why or I would spoil the movie. Considering how excellent the rest is, this is a minor fault. I added The Round-Up to my Children in War Movies List. It’s an excellent example. Other Holocaust movies can be found here: 13 Holocaust Movies You Should See.

Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 (2010)

Based on Heinrich Mann’s eponymous novel Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 is a large-scale epic about one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. This is a fascinating and eerily beautiful movie. It is a French-German co-production which explains why there are as many French as German actors.

I’m quite familiar with French history from Louis XIV on but what came before is somewhat blurred. I knew about the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (La St. Barthélemy) and the Edict of Nantes, was familiar with the Queen Margot and Catherine de Medici, I had even heard the famous saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” meaning “Paris is worth a mass” but I wouldn’t have tied all this together and associated it with Henry of Navarre, future King Henry IV of France. What a bloody story, full of treachery, passion, fanaticism, civil war and murder.

Henry, King of the little kingdom of Navarre, is forced to go to war at an early age. By the time he turns twenty it is all he knows. It is the time in which France is divided in two. Catholics are on one side, Protestants (Huguenots) on the other. The Civil War or Wars of Religion rage and tear the country apart. Paris and the court are held by Catholics who are to a certain extent ruled by the Pope. They don’t get married without the assent of the Holy Father. The people of the kingdom of Navarre and Henry himself are Protestants. The opposing parties meet on the battlefield more often than anywhere else.

France is unofficially reigned by the scary Catherine de Medici, the King’s mother. Charles, the King, is an anxious man, constantly afraid of being poisoned or murdered. His fear is well grounded as we will soon find out. Catherine de Medici had the reputation of being a cruel, despotic woman who had people executed on a whim. But even she is tired of war and arranges a marriage between her daughter, the beautiful Margot, and Henry of Navarre.

The marriage is overshadowed by the death of Henry’s mother, presumably she was poisoned. As soon as they are married someone orders to massacre all the protestants in the city which will be the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The following two-thirds of the story follow Henry until he finally becomes Henry IV, King of France. Many people had to lose their life to make this a possibility.

The movie excels in making these people come to life and shows us a King who was far beyond the ordinary. He was  much-loved, tolerant and accepting of people of every religious conviction. This may well have been the first step towards France becoming a secular country, something it has remained until today. Henry was also a womanizer, a trait the film-makers enjoyed to illustrate.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Henry IV, I’m not going to reveal too much. It should suffice to say that love plays a major role. He will also divorce the Queen Margot as she cannot give him the much-needed heir and will get married to Marie de Medici.

I didn’t know much about Henry IV, so I’m not sure how well-chosen Julien Boisselier is. He’s a pleasant, likable looking man and did a very good job.

Ulrich Noethen as Charles IX, is very convincing. He is an experienced actor who has starred in movies like The Downfall.

Having studied old French literature I had to read Agrippa D’Aubignés Les Tragiques. It’s a harrowing account of the times and the Wars of Religion. I liked that Agrippa played a prominent role in the movie. He is played by the excellent German actor Joachim Król. Agrippa was one of Henry’s best friends and only left him towards the end, to withdraw from the world and start to write his famous book.

The most fascinating character of them all, is Catherine de Medici. Hannelore Hoger, a German TV star, plays her very well. She gives an uncanny, eerie and quite scary Catherine de Medici.

All in all, I enjoyed Henry of Navarre a lot and will re-watch it. If you like epic movies, beautiful cinematography and French history you will enjoy it.

I’d like to thank Showbox Media Group for sending me a review copy of the movie.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.

Winner of the DVD Giveaway Henry of Navarre

As promised I have drawn the winner of the DVD Giveaway Henry of Navarre today.

I used random. org. and the winner is

Guy Savage

Congratulations Guy. Drop me a line at allaboutwarmovies at gmail dot com.

I have received my review copy yesterday and will be watching it shortly. At 148 minutes it is quite long. Maybe it would have been a worthy candidate for my 12 French war movies list. I’m eager to find out.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937) The Classic French WWI Movie

What took me so long to watch La grande illusion one of the greatest masterpieces of French cinema?  Jean Renoir’s black and white movie is simply one of the best movies I have ever seen, regardless of any genre. It combines so many elements, to enumerate them all would make a long list. Compared to La grande illusion every other POW movie seems to be just a remake. Every element of later films is already there but the message is a different one. This is a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the same core message after WWII. When Renoir shot his movie, there was still ample room for positive German figures. We don’t see any nasty or cruel guards.  La grande illusion is a work of poetical realism. The two points of view go hand in hand.

The central story is the story of two officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a simple mechanic, and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, shot down together over Germany. They are brought to a prison camp where, thanks to the food parcels of one of their rich Jewish fellow officers, they live relatively luxuriously while the German guards eat cabbage day in and day out. The people they are sharing a room with have been digging a tunnel for weeks. While waiting for the tunnel to be finished, they spend their days rehearsing for a theater play, dreaming of women and civilian life. When Maréchal announces that Douaumont has fallen, they all sing the Marseillaise together. Maréchal is locked up for this act of instigation and almost goes mad in isolation.

Before they can put the tunnel to use, they are all sent to another camp. After different attempts to escape, Maréchal and Boeldieu are brought to burg Wintersheim. Officer von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) whom they have met before is in charge of the burg. Von Stroheim as Rauffenstein is one of the most memorable war movie characters. He has fairytale like, fantastic aspects. Von Rauffenstein has been badly wounded, his spine has twice been broken, he has silver plates in his body and wears a corset. He looks like an artificial being. He is an aristocrat through and through and recognizing the same background and upbringing in Boeldieu he takes an intense liking to him. Boeldieu, even though, stiff and formal as Maréchal often says, feels closer to the simple officers and wants to transcend the class differences. Even though he likes von Rauffenstein a lot, he still helps the other prisoners in their attempt to flee. Maréchal and Rosenthal make it and find refuge on the farm of a German widow (Dita Parlo). They cannot stay but Maréchal and Elsa still dream of meeting again after the war.

Renoir chose deliberately to show no violence. The war is spoken of, we never see it. His aim was to show a world that transcends differences. This is socialism of the purest kind, the one, that unfortunately only ever existed as an idea. Renoir wanted to show in how many ways people of different classes and nationalities are alike. The French prisoners make fun of the Germans’ constant repeating “Das ist strengstens verboten (strictly forbidden)”. It’s like a running gag all through the movie. A ritual. The Germans try to coerce the French and the French in excahnge make fun of them. Contrasting the attitudes of France and Germany towards obedience is one that we find in many older movies. It is also symbolised in all the interdictions that we see in the movie and in the barbed wire and fences. It’s a very funny movie at times. Fun that stems from the contrasts of the different classes and their use of language. The late, great Jean Gabin was always an outstanding actor, but here, as Maréchal, the simple mechanic, born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (pure working class), he surpasses himself.  I really don’t know how they did the subtitles for this movie as they speak rapidly (I did watch the French version). Judging from the trailer, parts of the dialogues have been left out, nuances have been flattened. That is a pity. The use of dialogue and languages throughout the movie is a very realistic one. Germans speak German, French speak French, English speak English. Working class people speak like working class people, and the aristocrats like aristocrats.

As I said before, I don’t think a movie like this would have been possible after WWII. The illusion that everybody is the same at heart was shattered by then.

The illusion in the title apparently refers to the illusion of the class system. But I think there is another interpretation. Towards the end Maréchal says “We have to finish this war and hope that it was the last one” upon which Rosenthal utters something like “That is just an illusion, old man”. In 1937 is was already obvious that peace wouldn’t last forever.

La Grande Illusion is a movie that every cinephile needs to watch and possibly re-watch as it is multilayered and full of symbolism. Truly a work of art.

Tomorrow We Live (1943) British Black and White Movie on French Resistance

Do NOT mix this up with the US movie with the same title. They are not exactly in the same league. The US movie is very clearly a B-Movie and has absolutely no war theme in it. Tomorrow We Live aka At Dawn We Die is a British movie on the French Resistance. It is unlike anything I have seen before. Apparently the film makers got the support of General de Gaulle. Be it as it may, this is forties cinema at its best. Atmospheric, black and white, gaslight feeling… It seems as if every scene was shot in the studio (and likely was) which makes it look at times like a theater play. It does look artificial but it also has a very special charm because of this. Many of the scenes reminded me of the feel of an Edith Piaf song.

Jean Baptiste, a member of the French Resistance is a fugitive on his way to England. He lands in a little occupied French town swarming with Nazis. A young woman, the daughter of the mayor,  helps him to hide and find a place where he can spend the night. There are quite a few female characters who all have an interest in Jean Baptiste. Some want romance, others see their son in him, and others just want to help him and use him for their plans. The mayor and his daughter are seen by many as collaborators. In fact this is just a cover for them. Unknown to anyone they are the leaders of the town’s resistance and organize many acts of sabotage. Like in any Resistance movie you have some vile and treacherous characters who really collaborate.It’s frankly quite entertaining but what I liked most is that it is so dated. Movies like this are not done anymore. They were probably not even done anymore in the fifties. I would say it has an appeal  for any cinephile and not necessarily for someone interested in war movies only. Some of the characters are great, reminiscent of Fellini. Many are funny eccentrics. And we got some mean and ridiculous Germans too. The way they are treated is quite amusing. They are so full of themselves, it’s easy to annoy them; loud yawning and singing during a broadcast of Hitler at the cinema will suffice, to infuriate them.

Tomorrow We Live is special and entertaining, the right thing to watch during the festive season. I can see how this was supported by de Gaulle. It bestowed a little light on those dark and bleak days of the Vichy Regime.

La chambre des officiers aka The Officers’ Ward (2001) France, WWI and the Nightmare of Facial Mutilation

La chambre des officiers

The French movie La chambre des officiers aka The Officers’ Ward may very well be one of the most moving and shocking war movies I have ever seen. I felt sick twice, I cringed endlessly and it made me really sad. It is  a masterpiece. An absolutely brilliant anti-war movie. If you thought Born on the 4th of July was horrible then you haven’t seen this one.

The movie is based on Marc Dugain’s novel La chambre des officiers aka The officers’ ward and tells the story of the young lieutenant Adrien. At the beginning of WWI Adrien is a very handsome young officer. A piece of shrapnel rips half his jaw off. He will spend the rest of the war, a full five years, at the Val-de-Grâce Hospital in Paris. At this hospital they only cure men with facial wounds, burns etc. It is like a freak show only these are human beings.

During the beginning of the movie we never see Adrien. We only see the reaction of those around him. The doctors’, nurses’ and patients’. The profound pity in these faces says more than actually seeing him. Since he cannot talk anymore, we hear his thoughts. The moment when he realises that his face is a gaping hole is so awful…

During the five years at the hospital he fights great pain, despair, horror, suicidal thoughts. Together with the other mutilated officers they try to stay alive and become human beings again.

The music is very intense (Arvo Pärt and Wagner, admittedly the second is a bit strange) and underlines the atmosphere of this saddest of war movies. Funny enough there is also beauty. The beauty in the relationships between the wounded. And the beauty between Adrien and a very gentle and loving nurse. There is also a brothel scene towards the end that is not only lighter in tone but even in a melancholic way funny.

This is a very thought-provoking, must-see, 5/5 star movie.

I only found the French trailer, I’m sorry.