If the idea of making movies seems challenging, try doing it during the Nazi Occupation. While Hitler and his pals may have been huge fans of art and cinema (see Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Frankenheimer’s The Train for more on this subject), they were, of course, fascists. This month at the New Beverly, one of the greatest films ever made is playing. That film also happens to have been made during the Nazi Occupation of France. Get your Google calendar or iCal out now and cancel any plans you may have had. Les Enfants Du Paradis aka Children of Paradise (1945), directed by Marcel Carné and written by Jacques Prévert, plays on Friday and Saturday, February 24th and 25th and you genuinely won’t want to miss it.
Director Marcel Carné noted that it was quite frightening to shoot the film during the Occupation, especially with a cast and crew made up of people who were all actively anti-Nazi. Having Resistance Fighters in your ranks makes for great moral support but perhaps not when the Gestapo comes snooping around, which inevitably they did. As frightened as Carné and writer/friend Prévert were, they actively went against the fascists as often as they could. Their bravery was quite astounding for some artsy romantic filmmakers. As Carné tells it, “We had to be slyer than they were. What was really annoying was when we had scenes with extras, and God knows there were a lot. In the morning, the Germans came in with their own extras, from the unions, and made us use them. So we had to talk them out of it, since we didn’t like them – they were collaborators, you understand. We didn’t want them, so we invented excuses, saying that they didn’t have the right physique for nineteenth-century France. I’d say, ‘I have nothing against this gentleman, but I can’t use him.’ We cheated like that all the time . . . I mean, it wasn’t all that terrible. What was absolutely terrible was that we were closely watched, because of the Resistance. One day, I asked for one of the production directors – there were two of them – and I was told he would be back in an hour. I said, ‘He’s not here?’ ‘No, he went to run an errand.’ So I said, ‘Fine.’ An hour passed, and then another. So I asked for the production director again – I forget his name. Finally, I found out that he had run off because there were two Gestapo agents waiting for him downstairs in our second-floor studio. We had opened a garage behind the studio to make it into a costume shop, and he fled that way. If, by chance, we hadn’t, the Gestapo would have seized him. I had an assistant director who – he never told me, but I learned later – was one of the leaders of the Resistance. I was upset, but there were obviously a lot of partisans in the crew.”
The story of Les Enfants du Paradis is not complex. It’s a basic love triangle with wonderful criminal action and theatrical narratives. It may sound average or generic but there is no other film like it. Among the performers, the immense Jean-Louis Barrault plays Baptiste in breathtakingly beautiful pantomime, while the magnificent Arletty is Garance. Garance is essentially the femme fatale of Les Enfants, a smolderingly beautiful and sexy woman for whom all male characters seem to want to move heaven and earth for. The landscape of Les Enfants is riddled with clowns and actors and jugglers. Carné’s film bursts at the sprocket-holes with stories and the people telling them – visually, aurally and narratively.
Prévert and Carné decided on the name Les Enfants du Paradis for a very particular reason. The film centers upon theatrical space and the title is a referent to the balcony. At that time in France, balcony seats were commonly referred to as “Paradise” (or Paradis). Paradise, then, signifying both the theater seating and the celestial location, plays a critical role in the film’s narrative. The characters’ journeys through the physical and the spiritual, the real and the romantic, are expressed strongly throughout the film’s text. Is paradise a chair to view and be entertained or is it a beatific state of existence? And finally that question of all questions – does paradise even exist for these characters? Will it ever?
The majority of film criticism has made an analogy between Les Enfants du Paradis and Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). This is confusing and incorrect. They have generally done so based on Les Enfants’ scope and the manner in which the film radiates “epic.” But it is a false equivalency. It is regularly referred to as the “Gone With the Wind of France” but is that because it is a lengthy film? I would ask you to reconsider this poorly thought out nickname that has been utilized for too long. The film that Carné and Prévert actualized bears no resemblance to the Civil War drama. No offense to Selznick, but the romance, criminality, and adventure that sallies forth in this French cinematic journey is worlds away from Tara.
While GWTW had financial backing, sets, a studio to go to each day, Les Enfants had to worry about the Gestapo kidnapping their actors and possibly putting them in camps. Carné and friends had severely restricted amounts of film stock (every shot and take counted); all materials used were expensive and ran out much of the time. As usual in wartime, the power went out pretty frequently. And very much unlike GWTW, Les Enfants had to move their sets multiple times due to news of Allied invasions.
And about that set? It was HUGE. When they had to move it from Nice to Paris and then back to Nice due to those invasions it wasn’t just a “let’s pack a few things, grab a truck and go” situation. This was the biggest set that had ever been made for a French film: Carné physically made the primary set, the Boulevard du Crime, using concrete, plaster and other resources. Not only this, but his cast/crew involved 1000+ extras. Les Enfants was not a small film. It was huge. It’s genuinely a miracle that it got made.
Very rarely can you say: let’s go to the movies and watch the film that totally shouldn’t have made it but totally did. These days, those films are usually the ones that had some crazy set story or ran out of money or a weird personality involved. And those are crazy interesting too. But this one is from 1945. This film was basically made to say, “Fuck you, Hitler. Beautiful things can, do and WILL continue to exist.” If there was ever a time to come watch Les Enfants Du Paradis, it’s now.