Two films, made over twenty-five years apart, engage with WWI through its invisible victims: the countless, nameless dead, and the shell-shocked, removed from sight. Both are set in the immediate post-war period when France had to come to terms with its traumatic impact. They explore conflicting influences that ranging from the nation-state to romantic love, from psychiatry to memory. We asked two historians to gauge the respective value of these films for the classroom.
Antonin’s Stories & Life and Nothing But
The seventh art has aspired almost compulsively to condemn the Great War more than any other, including the Vietnam War. Since before the advent of talkies, the great classics about the war have been films of protest – Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). These and others, like Richard Attenborough’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), depicted the war as an immense absurdity, imposed by the military and civilian elites upon men projected onto the screen as passive victims. Once at least a film even foiled the intentions of its creators. In 1916, during the battle of the Somme, the British army combined some footage from the scene with re-enactments and released the first war movie ever made, hoping to galvanize the viewers to patriotic heights. Instead it shocked and depressed them. In recent years a new spate of films from France has kept the tradition alive. But they approach it from a different direction. The earlier films re-told the war years, whether in the trenches or the prisoner of war camps or the music halls; Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But (1989), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (2004), and Gabriel Le Bomin’s Antonin’s Stories (2006) explore the consequences once it was all over. They present spectators with the wreckage rather than the wrecker, and seem to announce a mini-genre: the après-guerre movie.
In Antonin’s Stories the fictional protagonist has no chronological recollection of the war, only fragmentary fixations that have left him traumatized and unable to communicate. He had been a schoolteacher before the war and a corporal during it, assigned to the carrier pigeon service after being lightly wounded. The pacific prewar villager who declined to hunt with his friends on Sundays had been turned in to a killer along with all the others. Half a dozen episodes, presented in the film as the components of his shattered memory, turned the patriot and the optimist of 1914 into the misfit of the Armistice, swept up with other human debris into a treatment center somewhere in France. “Rarement le temps de la guerre aura si durablement pénétré le temps de la paix,”[rarely has wartime so durably pervaded peacetime] an off-voice narrator declares at the beginning of the film, prompting the viewer to recall Yves Angelo’s film of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert (1994) and to wonder how this generation of survivors differed from that on the morrow of Waterloo.
Does the film present a plausible picture of postwar France, one to import into a course or a classroom? Yes, as far as it goes: shell-shock was a medical reality but a social taboo. Specialists in the army’s service de santé were interested enough in the hysterical symptoms among survivors from the trenches to film them, leaving footage that Le Bomin used to open his own movie. A new kind of medicine – psychiatry, the “talking cure” – was groping to identify and treat the ailments from a new kind of war. Every war leaves some kind of psychic damage, but the ceaseless and nerve-shattering shelling of this one, the artillery war by excellence, had written a new chapter in the annals of military pathology. By 1917 specialists here and there were inducing their patients, sometimes under hypnosis, to re-live their traumas in order to overcome them. But no one outside of their clinics knew any of this. Students today will have heard of PTSD, but it was new then, and widely ignored or misunderstood by the public. Outside of a few enlightened specialists and a sympathetic nurse, Antonin would have found little compassion among his compatriots.
Antonin’s Story is that of a single man; Life and Nothing But is that of 350,000 others. Philippe Noiret portrays a major charged with identifying the Unknown of the postwar – the missing, the anonymous dead, the live amnesiacs. How many had died? No one knew, until in 1922 a parliamentary commission released a highly detailed report that helped resolve a national quandary but did little to answer the doubts and hopes of the families of the disappeared. Hundreds of thousands had vanished, and were neither officially alive nor officially dead. In this way too the war lived on into the peace. In 1920, in a ceremony portrayed in the film with scrupulous accuracy, one of eight French corpses was selected from eight gathered at Verdun from various battlefields, placed under the Arc de Triomphe, and left there as an emblem for all the others, however many they were. A sham and a scandal, in the eye of the major played by Noiret, but a form of group therapy that mirrors the private talking cure administered to Antonin. Quite by accident, one film complements the other.
Still there is the war itself. How plausible are the episodes that Antonin slowly recovers from the depths? Antonin is forced to knife a German soldier in a trench fight. Yes, bayonets and more often cudgels and rifle butts did come into play, and close quarter killing left killers traumatized for life, but such actions were exceptional in the war of death by distance, the industrial war. Antonin befriends a German soldier. Yes, fraternization worried the High Command as much as morale and shell-shock; it was far from marginal and need not have assumed the spectacular forms of the Christmas truce of Christian Carion’s film Joyeux Noël (2005). Antonin watches German deserters manhandle his pigeons. Yes, desertions did happen, sometimes mass desertions as in the Russian army in 1917 and the German in 1918, but students could do worse than ask themselves why men did not desert. Because, in a terrain teeming with fellow soldiers and military police, and shadowed by the apparatus of the modern state, they could not? Or because, powerfully motivated and swept up in a culture of war and nationalism, they would not? Antonin watches an officer shoot a soldier unable or unwilling to leave his trench in an attack. Yes, officers did threaten or kill their own men, and codes of military justice even allowed them to under special circumstances, such as mutinies. But men routinely disobeyed or ignored orders and lived to talk about it. If all the French soldiers had obeyed all their orders, Pierre Norton Cru wrote in Témoins, there would have been none of them left by the end of 1915.
Perhaps one man was unlikely to have endured as many nightmares as Antonin, but none is inherently implausible. Many men snapped because of them. The film can and should be used in history courses. So should Paths of Glory, but for the opposite reason: it is historical nonsense. No, the French did not shell their own trenches to get the men to attack; no, French generals were not promised promotions if they ordered mindless offensives; no, French court martials were not conducted like American criminal trials; no – but ask the students. No film should drive out a book or an article, but good history movies, like good history teachers, can make students wonder, what was it like then?
Gabriel Le Bomin, Director, Fragments d’Antonin [Antonin’s Stories] (2006) France/Color, Dragoonie Films, Running Time: 90 min.
Life and Nothing But
University of Colorado, Boulder
Life and Nothing But is a brilliant film: its story of a nation seeking to recover from the psychological and physical damage caused by war is haunting and poignant; its performances, compelling and finely wrought; its understanding of the historical reality of France immediately after the First World War, extraordinarily incisive. And yet it is, as Bertrand Tavernier readily admits, mostly fiction. The central site of the film does not exist; the main characters are wholly imagined. Only two episodes are fully grounded in fact, and both touch upon a story that occupies only the margins of the film: how the Unknown Soldier, destined in November 1920 for burial under the Arc de Triomphe, was selected from among the countless unidentified corpses that still littered what had been the Western Front. The major plot, that captures the agony of families still uncertain of their loved one’s fate, that conveys the righteous determination of one man to identify all those categorized only as “missing in action”, and that seeks to understand how to restore life (and love) to a nation almost destroyed by war, is fully invented. More extraordinary still, Life and Nothing But predates by several years most of the scholarship that explores the themes that animate this marvelous film: mourning and bereavement, cultural commemoration, the fate of the missing, and the anguish of civilian survivors.
Set in November 1920, the film centers on one French officer, Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret), whose official responsibility and personal obsession is to identify all 350,000 French soldiers, whether living or dead, designated at the end of the war only as “missing in action.” This lugubrious task takes him to a railway tunnel that German troops had mined in 1918, causing the subsequent destruction of a Red Cross train and the deaths of countless unidentified French and American soldiers. Two years later, as the excavation of the site continued, families from all over France sought out some conclusive evidence that their son or husband had been among the soldiers killed in the tunnel explosion. And it was here that Irène de Courtil (Sabina Azena) crossed swords with and then fell in love with the earthy, principled, impatient, and altogether extraordinary Major Dellaplane. The elegant and haughty daughter-in-law of a French Senator, Irène found herself completely out of her element in the midst of rural France and genuine grief. Unlike the obviously distraught families who wished only to find their sons’ bodies and give them a fitting burial, Irène no longer loved the man she was so determined to find. Yet she, like her father-in-law (albeit for very different reasons), was insistent that François de Courtil’s name now be counted among the unambiguously heroic ranks of the war dead. Having combed veterans’ hospitals in search of her husband, having looked into the uncomprehending eyes of traumatized soldiers, having seen the broken bodies of amputees, she admitted that the prospect of finding her husband alive, disabled and disfigured, was more than she could bear. Not so, however, for the lovely Alice (Pascale Vignal) whose fiancé had also gone missing late in the war. Dismissed from her teaching position when the previous instituteur returned from the war, Alice found work as a waitress in the village café so that she, too, might be close to the excavated tunnel and any evidence that it might disgorge of her lover’s fate.
Life and Nothing But conveys with subtle compassion the agony of uncertainty associated with the war’s 350,000 missing soldiers. As Dellaplane tells Irène, he and his staff would devote precisely 1/350,000th of their time and energy to discovering the fate of her husband; 349,999 other families in France deserved his attention, too. Had he been entirely honest, he would have conceded that of the 350,000 French soldiers designated as “missing-in-action” at the end of the war, “only” 200,000 remained unaccounted for two years later. By 1920, however, it was surely the case that nearly all of those 200,000 were in fact dead. All prisoners-of-war had returned to France, and most families who had lost contact with a son or husband during the war and had held out hope that he was being held in an unknown prison camp, had now to come to terms with the fact that he was, in all probability, never coming home. And thus the search for living survivors turned, in most cases, to the search for definitive evidence of a soldier’s death. This national obsession with the missing and the trauma of unfulfilled mourning that necessarily accompanied it is a story recently told, with equally powerful effect, by Jean-Yves Le Naour in The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War. And Le Naour’s text serves as an invaluable complement to Life and Nothing But: not only does he explain how difficult it was for the families of the missing to come to terms with the indeterminate nature of their fate; and how much solace they eventually found in visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris; but he also explains why it was that France suffered disproportionately more MIAs than any other Great War nation. As German troops advanced quickly through northern France in August 1914, and then again as allied troops recaptured the same territory in the autumn of 1918, it was almost impossible to recover or to identify accurately the bodies of men killed in action.
Any war story set in 1920 is, by necessity, a story of survivors: of civilians as much as soldiers, of women as much as men. Here, too, Tavernier anticipates with striking accuracy much of the recent scholarship on the war and, in particular, women’s affective and emotional connection to the men who fought it. Two stories of women, the war, and fidelity to men at the front – embodied in the stories of Irène and Alice – vie for our attention. On the one hand, Irène represents an oft-described, much despised type: the indifferent bourgeoise who never really loved her husband and whose elegant widow’s weeds disguise her inability to mourn his death. That she knows how to jitterbug and ends up a flapper with bobbed hair and a view of the New York skyline is, all things considered, not at all surprising. This is the “new woman” who caused traditionalists so much angst in the interwar years and whose place in the cultural discourse of the ‘twenties has been so effectively analyzed by Mary Louise Roberts in Civilization without Sexes. Alice, however, complicates the story of the “new woman” in interesting ways. She is intent upon supporting herself, and not just because she has no other choice. Determined not to let her brevet go to waste, reluctant to give up her teaching position even to a deserving (and disabled) returning veteran, she desperately wants to do something more meaningful than wait tables in a village café where she is required to seat colonial troops in a separate corner and serve them pork that is ambiguously described only as “roti.” Yet Alice is also a paragon of fidelity. That she loved a man who (we discover) had deceived her was, surely, not her fault. That she remained true to him unto (and beyond) death makes her not just a conventional stereotype of female virtue but also a real human type, of which France was filled in the aftermath of the war. As Le Naour reveals, when one amnesiac soldier, with no identity papers and no sense of who he was or who had loved him, found himself in the care of a conscientious, compassionate hospital director intent on finding his patient’s next of kin, hundreds of bereaved families hoped fervently that this man was the son, or husband, or fiancé who had never returned from the war. Alice and the nameless civilians who assemble near the railway tunnel to examine an array of personal effects spread out on tables like assorted items in a macabre tag sale had plenty of real company in postwar France.
For Tavernier, the dominant message of Life and Nothing But is that life goes on. This is no doubt true. Not even the Great War could change human nature: lust still consumes young men; charlatans still hope to get rich by exploiting the gullible; and even men with a jaundiced eye, grey hair, and a permanently disabled arm still fall in love. But for the historian of modern France, the great power of Life and Nothing But resides in its ability to capture the psychological effects of a nation overwhelmed by grief and to convey visually the physical effects of unprecedented destruction.
- Jean-Yves Le Naour, Le Soldat inconnu vivant (Paris: Hachette, 2002); published in translation as The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War, trans. Penny Allen (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).
- Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917 – 1927 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Bertrand Tavernier, Director, La Vie et rien d’autre [Life and Nothing But] (1989), France/Color, Hachette Première, Running Time: 135 min.
Film and Fiction for French Historians: A Cultural Bulletin, Issue 1, No. 3 (December 2010)