The Little Match Girl (1928)

Sometimes, the best way to perceive the nature of a thing is to place it in contrast to a radically different object. Jean Renoir adapts Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale in such a way as to highlight the harsh realities of poverty. He achieves his purpose through a sharp juxtaposition of opposites.

In the 33-minute film’s first half, a figure that appears only in shadow forces the poor match girl, Karen, out of her shack and into the blustery night to sell her wares. As she walks through the town, Renoir employs a wide shot followed by a medium shot. People hustle by her as she spins right and left to catch their attention. The movement looks something like a companionless dance, graceful and fluid yet empty. Furthermore, not a single person looks at her until she stops, worn out and depressed from her lack of success.

When a man in need of matches sees her, a glimmer of hope lights the film. But some friends quickly usher him into a nearby restaurant. Just before, she had peered through the window of a car to get a better look at his friends. After the man enters the restaurant, she presses her nose to the window, an outsider to the comfortable world within. Two boys also see her, but only as a target for their snowballs.

When she finally shuffles away from the restaurant, a policeman takes notice, and they spend a few minutes looking in a toy store window together, admiring a collection of figurines in a miniature town filled with joy and peace and order. The encounter is pleasant, but Karen and the policeman have something in common—they both stand outside that wonderful world in the toy store window. When she departs, she can’t bring herself to go home without a sale. So she sits under a lamp in the snow and lights matches to keep warm. Her grueling world offers her no comfort, no solace, and no justice.

At this point, Karen’s hunger and chill lead her to hallucinate that she is in a toy store where everything is life size. Dolls, a ballerina, and a giant beach ball populate this strange place. Renoir blurs the image during the transition, visually indicating a movement away from the harsh realism of the film’s first half.

In the store, Karen finds a jack-in-the-box who happens to be the same policeman she had seen on the street. She also spies out the commanding officer of a group of toy soldiers, the same man who needed matches, the same man who held with him the promise of taking her to another kind of world. She runs to him, where he declares his love for her and provides her with a table full of food. Her dreams are coming true.

When the jack-in-the-box approaches them and identifies himself as Death, the officer and Karen jump on a horse and ride into the heavens, hoping that there they will escape. But Death finds them even there. When Death finally lays a lifeless Karen under a cross, the symbol of suffering morphs into a flowering bush. As the petals drop on her dead face, Renoir brings us back to reality, snowflakes falling instead of petals. No one knows of the beautiful moments she had in her last bits of consciousness, seeing only the foolishness of keeping warm with matches.

The abrupt shift from the vision back to reality has the effect of highlighting the painful realities of Karen’s poverty. It’s in the contrast with fantasy that we see the reality clearly, especially because reality actually breaks into Karen’s fantasy and ends it. Renoir is kind to Karen in that final moment, though, closing the film with an out-of-focus close-up of her face. Renoir reminds us of her fantastical vision of a world that, at least for a moment, carried with it some measure of hope. The tragedy of the film is that people like Karen have no hope of elevating their circumstances. But the beautiful desire for something better—for joy and peace and justice—that lies in the most desperate of hearts serves to ignite in us a glimmer of hope as well.

This Land is Mine (1943)

When a movie engages in propaganda, we see in it a power play, often a desire on the filmmaker’s part to bend the audience member’s opinion through dishonest and/or manipulative means. We see this most regularly in religious films, and widely in war or politically-themed works (think Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will). Jean Renoir’s 1943 wartime film, This Land Is Mine, has been called “propagandistic” with a screenplay that consists of “pure jingo” from no less a critic than the estimable Dave Kehr.[1]

And yet, despite a personal aversion to such tactics, This Land Is Mine offers a surprising dose of humanity in its brisk 103 minutes. This is due in no small part to Renoir’s gentle, even playful, touch with a number of the characters, making them more people with opinions and tendencies rather than mouthpieces spouting hard and fast ideology. The German Major von Keller, for instance, plays against the typical Nazi type, a man preferring to negotiate with and persuade the occupied instead of dominating them with a brash show of force. Von Keller remains evil—perhaps appearing even moreso with his gentler ways. In this spirit, von Keller’s most effective weapon turns out to be a flower, rather than a gun.

Laughton’s Albert Lory serves as the prime example of Renoir’s deft handling of his characters. To merely recount the arc of this character would lead one to affirm Kehr’s casting the screenplay into the classic Hollywood jingo-bin. However, while the character undergoes a remarkable transformation in an absurdly short amount of time, the film and the performance are so compelling that the abruptness of the transition is lessened.

Ultimately, the sequence that makes the film work appears in the film’s final third, as Lory offers two speeches in the courtroom that bookend a crucial few moments in his cell. None of these scenes will win awards for their distinctively cinematic qualities, but small and significant touches work to visually play off of the more straightforward ideas in the script. Most significant among these are the abrupt cut away from Lory’s friend Professor Sorrell, just before the latter’s execution. Renoir leaves him in mid-wave, effectively cutting off our last view of the great man too quickly. The cut serves to heighten our loss of this admirable character, one cut down far too soon.

Further, in Lory’s second courtroom address, immediately following the execution, Renoir alternates his camera between a medium shot of Lory himself and the faces of those in Lory’s hearing. This effectively minimizes the focus on the star—who, by the way, brilliantly delivers the speech—and places the “audience” in the midst of a dialogue of sorts—those who are hearing the speech and will have to respond to it.

This interplay between word and image doesn’t allow the film to avoid its propagandistic label—or the naïve liberalism of the final, anti-climactic classroom scene. But with his focus on faces, witnesses to this persuasive speech, Renoir injects something universally human into the proceedings—the portrait of a weighty choice: how to respond to the often conflicting messages and feelings we receive and have during our most trying times.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s 1937 pre-war classic, has certain thematic, though not narrative similarities with his later The Rules of the Game. In both films, the dividing lines between people and groups, between class and race, serve as the backdrop for substantial portions of the story. In Grand Illusion, Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are shot down in German territory by a German officer, Capt. von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). After a brief meeting and lunch with von Rauffenstein, the prisoners are carted off to a prison camp for officers. There they narrowly miss out on an escape attempt before being moved, and through the use of montage and some well-placed dialogue, we learn they made other unsuccessful attempts at escape. That takes them to a special camp for those officers with a history of escape attempts, where they again meet up with von Rauffenstein, who now is in charge of this camp.

One could read that description and begin to think this a run of the mill prison escape film. It is nothing of the sort. As noted above, it is interested in things that divide people. It is interested in class, racial, linguistic, and national distinctions. The somewhat comic aspect of it all is that one wonders one good such distinctions are in prison. In these prison scenes, I was reminded of The Bridge on the River Kwai, where such distinctions are of immense importance to the British. The same is true here as well, though we are only shown the officer side of things here. Note that none of the characters has a first name, but they are all known by their formal title, like Lt. Maréchal, Capt. de Boeldieu, Lt. Rosenthal, and even the German guard, Lt. Arthur. There is a sort of officer’s code that stretches across lines of nationality, even as two nations war against the other. This is set up almost immediately, as the first scene in France takes place in a bar that has music playing. This is where Maréchal and de Boeldieu meet up before their ill-fated journey to Germany. The film then cuts immediately to Germany, after the plane crash, and Capt. von Rauffenstein entering a bar and ordering very similar music to be played. The men are on opposite sides of the battle, but they have something in common that transcends the ongoing war.

Racial distinctions are similarly noted. While the prison camp contains officers, and there is much respect between them all, they still divide themselves according to race, with a separate barracks for distinct nationalities such as Russian and French. And yet even within the French quarters, we learn that one of the men is Jewish, and there is a sense in which he is both above and below the other officers in his room. His supplying them with good food definitely endears him to the group, but there seems to be an underlying tension that comes out of long-standing prejudice against Jews in general.

That the class and race distinctions are placed next to one another make this film quite an interesting piece. Where there is commonality because of class, there is distinction because of race or nationality. However, lest we think that if class and race are the same it provides two people with an immediate camaraderie, we have the example of our main characters, Maréchal and de Boeldieu, neither of whom ever seems to really enjoy the other’s company. Because even though both are officers, de Boldieu is of higher rank, and so it is almost as if he must lower himself to be in the presence of Maréchal. There is always a sense that de Boeldieu is uncomfortable with the rest of the Frenchmen, though extremely comfortable with von Rauffenstein.

Thus, the film does not simply moralize and suggest that if one finds someone of their own class and race, they will find camaraderie. In fact, just the opposite. When the film is set in the prison, camaraderie and friendship seem impossible because of the constant attention to distinctions and differences. However, the film’s final 30 minutes provide hope that such distinctions as race, language, and class can be overcome. One can, in fact, find companionship with someone outside of the limited boundaries with which he is presented by society. One need not be controlled by such things. And as the two men struggle up a snowy hill in the final shot, it becomes clear what a difficult and arduous journey it is out of such a society. What a challenging and fascinating film! I expect it that I have only but scratched the surface here, and that it will yield even greater truths upon repeated viewings.