by Allan Fish
(France 1931 83m) DVD1/2
Aka. Freedom for Us
p Frank Clifford d/w René Clair ph Georges Périnal ed René Clair, René le Henaff m Georges Auric art Lazare Meerson
Raymond Cordy (Louis), Henri Marchand (Emile), Rolla France (Jeanne), Paul Olivier (Paul Imaque), Alexander d’Arcy (Gigolo), Jacques Shelly (Paul), Germaine Aussey (Maud), André Michaud (foreman),
René Clair is a definitive example of the director who has been through the full hyperbole of critical opinion. His films were originally seen as groundbreaking and as a director of feather light comedies he was unsurpassed. However, in the eighties and nineties he became unfashionable and, in my opinion, this was simply down to one thing; availability. Clair’s best films, that is to say A Nous la Liberté and Le Million, were never seen in the UK and very rarely in the US (and even then in faded insufficiently subtitled prints) so that if critics were mentioning him at all it was for his later American films. Though I Married a Witch, It Happened Tomorrow and And Then There Were None were marvellously enjoyable entertainments (two of the three are listed here), they were not as innovative as his French work. The same thing happened to the contemporary Lubitsch in America, who is now fêted for Ninotchka and Heaven Can Wait, rather than for the real ‘Lubitsch touch’ films of the early thirties because they were never seen and his later films were. But it had become unfashionable to like Clair, just as Carné and the poetic realists became unpopular with the Cahiers du Cinema generation.
The fact is that they do Clair an injustice to slight him. Nowadays A Nous la Liberté is known mainly for its being copied by Chaplin in Modern Times and, for sure, there are many marked similarities. But it could be argued that Clair himself borrowed from Chaplin, not only his shorts but in the central relationship, which is reminiscent of Chaplin and Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (as well as Chaplin and Harry Myers in City Lights, though Clair could not have seen that while making his film). The story follows two convicts as they are about to bust out of prison, only for one of them not to make it. The one who escapes to freedom slowly becomes a powerful phonograph magnate, while his friend is eventually released to unemployment and misery. That is until he gets a job at the very plant owned by his old friend…
Clair makes many statements in the film. Not just the obvious ones about individualism – man makes his own destiny and can amend his ways or continue on his criminal course as he chooses and each man is more than a number on a production line – but also about freedom in general. Considering it was made in 1931, some of the subtexts are quite disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany; a teacher gets his class to robotically chant “work is mandatory because work means liberty”, as close an approximation to the gates of Dachau and Auschwitz’s “Arbeit Macht Frei” as could be offered; the factory foremen wear badges on their left forearm and the factory logo is everywhere to be seen as if on a political rally; the women are all almost identical in their Aryan nature, etc, etc. But Clair was a humanist and he was making a statement, just as Chaplin was to do in Modern Times. Chaplin was no stranger to being influenced by French films, having said that he owed so much to the silent comedian Max Linder in his early days and Clair himself was actually flattered by Chaplin’s film five years later. By this time Clair had left France after a few less successful ventures, but it is safe to say that with this film and Le Million, which shall be covered further down the alphabet, he helped move talking pictures into a new age of fluidity that was quickly seized upon by not only Chaplin but Lubitsch and Mamoulian as well. And forget that talk about it being a milestone of interest for film buffs as that is pretentious rubbish. It’s just a damned fine film, and the Freedom for Us of the title could just as easily apply to both the camera and its numerous captivated audiences over the intervening decades.
How ‘A Nous la Liberte’ made the Elite 70:
Allan Fish’s No. 20 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 27 choice