Black and White in Color (1976) – A Guest Post by nem baj

I’m still in a movie watching slump and that’s why I’m really grateful to have another guest post from nem baj for you today. His post is dedicated to a movie I haven’t seen yet. In all honesty, I hadn’t even heard of it although I’m familiar with many of Jean Jacques Annaud’s movies. 

In a nutshell: two French and German outposts in 1914’s central Africa, cut away from their respective metropolitan authorities, mimic the European conflict once they have learned its existence – six months after the hostilities have been declared in Europe. Focusing on the French, the movie is a satire of patriotism and the ‘civilizing mission’ of french colonialism.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud may be known to younger audiences as the craftsman behind international productions such as The Name of the RoseSeven Years in Tibet or Enemy at the Gates, but he started his career in France by directing two little rebellious films, Hot Head (about local sports celebrity and politics) and Black and White in Color, which is a war movie based on an actual event. It is a comedy, cliché-based from the start, the Germans being organized and professionals, whereas the French spend more time speaking, eating and making love than preparing for a fight. Yet the latter are so vain they launch the first offensive, which ends up being a disaster. Now they’re scared and in a defensive mode – which means time has come for a radical change in leadership.

For the main weakness of the French is the way the small community in their outpost envisions exploitation: the locals are not considered as men, crooked shopkeepers and even more crooked missionaries exploit the populations for immediate profit, and the only French soldier, a sergeant (seconded by a handful of tirailleurs, professional Black soldiers), is only a few months from retirement, and has never fought a battle except maybe against the appeal of booze and local women (those battles he seemingly always looses).

However, a young educated geographer, a pacifist and a socialist, decides to take over after the defeat. He engages the village chief, using the antagonism between villagers and bush tribes, to capture fresh cannon fodder from the countryside. Then he appoints the local White bully as a staff trainer, and takes a Black woman, possibly of high rank, as his mistress. The result is a brand new force of African soldiers, which is used to launch a new offensive on ‘German’ soil, this time with better, though inconclusive, results. They start digging trenches similar to those appearing in French magazines… I won’t spoil the ending.

The whole thing is a cruel satire, the story of a ridiculous war fought by Black proxies on account of racist White trash. Whether you’re a French with self-irony or a fan of French-bashing, it will surely please you. But its strength lies in the fact that is quite witty. The role played by language barriers is both symbolic and hilarious. Also, on one hand the Africans are real people, with their own identities, language and distinct approaches to the colonizers – yet on the other hand the recognition of their social existence by the French geographer gives him more exploitative power than his predecessors ever had… which in turn seems to give new strength to the contestation of colonial power. And finally, the intellectual betrays his own pacifist ideals for the pursuit of glory, sending more men into combat… in the name of humanism.

PS: this review refers to the international version of the film, which gained the Foreign film Academy Award in 1976 in the name of Ivory Coast, where it was shot. On first release, the movie received extremely bad reviews in France, then the international version was re-released in France after the Oscar…

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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.

Special Forces aka Forces Spéciales (2011) French Special Forces on a Rescue Mission in Afghanistan

Forces Spéciales aka Special Forces is an exciting although controversial new French movie with an exciting cast. Apart from the lovely Diane Kruger (Joyeux Noël, Troy) there are Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Benoît Magimel (Intimate Enemies), Denis Ménochet (Inglourious Basterds, Robin Hood), Raphaël Personnaz (The Princess of Montpensier), Alain Figlarz (Bourne Identity, 36), Mehdi Nebbou (Body of Lies) and Tchéky Karyo (Bad Boys, The Patriot). I am excited because I didn’t expect an action movie like this to come from France and on this type of topic. There have been a few recent French movies which were outstanding but they focused on WWI, WWII or Algeria, hardly ever are they dedicated to modern-warfare and the special forces.

This is contemporary, fast-paced, action-driven, kick-ass and very authentic. Think The Hurt Locker meets Bravo Two Zero and you get Forces Spéciales. The movie is dedicated to soldiers fallen in Afghanistan and to the journalists who risk their lives in war zones. The support from the French military is obvious, the gear that is displayed is amazing. Due to this the movie is extremely authentic. I’m not into weapons but I like authenticity and this is as authentic as it can get regarding the equipment.

The story is pretty simple. The French war reporter Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) gets caught by the Taliban leader Ahmed Zaief in Afghanistan. She has been conducting interviews with women and called the leader “the butcher of Kabul” in her articles. The last of the women she tries to interview warns her. They are both in great danger. Too late. Zaief captures her informant first and then lures Elsa into an ambush. He threatens to kill her and films the execution of one of her assistants and sends it to France. The French president and his advisors are informed of her captivity and decide to send Special Forces to save her.

The group of men manage to free her but when they arrive at the pick up place, the helicopter doesn’t arrive. Similar like in Bravo Two Zero, they cannot get in contact with anyone as their radio equipment has been destroyed. Time was a crucial factor in the escape and now that the helicopter won’t come, the Taliban leader and his men close in on them. They have no other choice and try to escape over the mountains. This is a catastrophe. Not only are they not equipped for high altitudes and snow but they are hunted by a large group of men.

They have to stop and fight more than once. They also need to decide at some point whether to defend villagers who have helped them against the Taliban  or try to save themselves first. Each of the men is trained in another specialty. The scenes in which the sniper is center stage are, as is usual, the most exciting ones.

The group is very likable and because these are men who have undergone an amazing training, there is a bit of superhero flavour. And they have managed to squeeze in a love story.

The strength of this movie, apart from the suspense, action and the amazing gear that is displayed, is the cast. This is one of the most appealing casts I have seen in a long time.

I also liked the score a lot but it’s not original. It’s heavily influenced by other movies. Gladiator among others.

All in all, this is a highly watchable, action-packed movie with a solid story and great actors and certainly a movie fans of The Hurt Locker and Bravo Two Zero should not miss.

I mentioned initially that this is a controversial movie but didn’t say why. As authentic as the gear and the initial scenes look, there are a few instances which are not logical later on. Agreed. The movie hasn’t received a lot of positive reviews by the French press because it was felt to be too propagandist. I’m not sure if any movie that displays army equipment and is supported by the military has to be called propagandist. Maybe it is because more than an anti-war message it carries an anti-Taliban message? In any case, it’s more of an action than a war movie, this should have become obvious by now. I suggest you watch it and let me know how you feel.

Here are two very different trailers which will give you a good idea.

Bertrand Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre aka Life and nothing but (1989) The Aftermath of WWI

This quiet and beautiful movie deals with the aftermath of WWI in France in a way I haven’t seen before.

Life and nothing but aka La vie et rien d’autre is set in France, in 1920. The landscape is destroyed. The villages are in ruins. 350’000 men are missing. Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret) is working in some sort of army hospital trying to find the missing soldiers. He analyses features and descriptions, looks at those who are so badly wounded that nobody would recognize them, looks at those who have gone deaf, blind or crazy and also at dead bodies. He has them drawn and measured and puts their portraits in huge albums. So far he has found maybe 50’000 soldiers but there isn’t a lot of hope of finding the remaining ones.

Into this mess comes Irène de Courtil (Sabine Azéma), the wife of a missing officer and member of the French high society, part of those who are responsible for this monstrous war. Irène is looking for her husband. Not so much, it seems, because she wants to see him again but because she wants to move on. Her memory of him is almost faded and they were not married for very long either. Dellaplane treats her very unkindly and tells her that her husband is only one out of 350 000 missing men. In other words, he couldn’t care less about one individual person.

She leaves the hospital and tries other places but much has changed, addresses do no longer exist. She meets Dellaplane again in various other places.

When she hears that there is a site in which they display the belongings of dead soldiers, she travels there to try to find something that belonged to her probably dead husband. Dellaplane is there as well. Every time they speak, they quarrel and shout at each other but they also start to understand each other’s positions. Dellaplane feels pity and promises her to help her husband’s body.

While this is happening, there is a second story line. General Villerieux has to find bodies of anonymous dead French soldiers. One of them should be picked and buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It proves to be very difficult as there are as many dead German and American soldiers in this region as there are French ones. The earth is saturated with dead bodies. Plus there were the Senegalese troops. Despite their being French, the government doesn’t want to bury an African soldier or one from another colony. As easily as these are ruled out, for obvious reasons, as difficult it is to make a difference between American and French soldiers.

Unknownsoldier paris.jpg

The idea of the tomb for the Unknown Soldier infuriates Dellaplane and he doesn’t help his superior. He thinks it is cynical and belittles the losses. 1’500’000 dead French soldiers shouldn’t be represented by one anonymous figure.

There are other important story lines in the film. One follows a sculptor who is making monuments for the villages. Each and every village wants a monument for their fallen.

La vie et rien d’autre is beautiful but also bleak. It’s raining constantly, there are accidents with mines that go off, the places are swarming with hopeless people looking for their loved ones. Everything is in ruins. Everything seems so senseless. The destruction, the deaths, the suffering.

I liked this movie a great deal. It’s also a touching love story. What I liked best is the fact, that it starts where most other movies end. After we have seen the last dead soldier fall on the battle field, WWI movies usually end.

I recently finished the mini-series ANZACS and watched this right after. I’m glad I did as the contrast is amazing. As much as the Australians, Canadians and Americans sacrificed, they returned to their countries, countries that had not been touched by war. They lost a lot of young men, but they didn’t have to cope with a war-ravaged country and destroyed cities. I think this shouldn’t be forgotten.

Unfortunately there was no English trailer but the French one will also help you decide whether you should track it down or not.

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.