July 28, 2017

We are very pleased to add another text here expressly written in support of last night's "Kino Slang" program at the Echo Park Film Center, "Several Militant Films: Hitchcock, Barnet, Monteiro". Its author is Bruno Andrade, Brazilian critic and editor of the journal FOCO
and long-time friend of this blog (his own blog, o signo do dragãowe dialogued with for many years, roughly 2007-2015). Below, Andrade dives into João César Monteiro’s WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THIS SWORD? (1975) and comes up with a startling fugue of ideas. His text goes alongside the translation by Dmitry Martov of Evgenii Margolit's essay on Boris Barnet's A GOOD LAD (hereand Bill Krohn's essay on Hitchcock's AVENTURE MALGACHE (herein the endeavor to give non-summary attention to these films.

Along the Great Wall
by Bruno Andrade

It should come as no surprise that João César Monteiro’s What Shall I Do with This Sword? was programmed with a 1942 Boris Barnet musical comedy about a downed French pilot who falls in love with a Russian partisan, and a 1944 Alfred Hitchcock war-effort short that reflects upon the Resistance against the Axis powers during World War II. Product of an extremely volatile creative and social turmoil, Monteiro’s 1975 film works as a kind of great synaptic rift between past and present, document and representation, intervention and reflection. What Hitchcock and Barnet – what Murnau himself – did in the form of spectacle is done here by Monteiro in the form of documental inscription – and is closer in that respect to what filmmakers like Glauber Rocha and Santiago Álvarez were doing in films like Di Cavalcanti (1977) and 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh (1969), but with a meditative quality that appeals to the films of Monteiro’s countrymen Fernando Lopes, Manoel de Oliveira and António Reis.

The film begins its inquiry – about the situation of economic and social distress in Portugal during the aftermath of some maneuvers by NATO ships in the Tagus River from late January to early February 1975 (i.e. less than a year after the Carnation Revolution) – by establishing a fairly blunt intertextual structure: the interference of American imperialism is directly associated with the arrival of Murnau’s Nosferatu, the vampire, in the city of Wisborg (the famous scene where actor Max Schreck is seen carrying a coffin in the emptied entrance of a pier plays as an analogy to the arrival of American sailors on land). Later on we follow a pursuit of American sailors in the red-light district while Billie Holiday’s I Cover The Waterfront plays on the soundtrack (I cover the waterfront / I'm watching the sea / Will the one I love / Be coming back to me?).

To achieve this mixture of debauchery and committed testimony, Monteiro seeks less to merge past and present than to put them on a collision course, and it is by shock, by abbreviation, by montage, in short, that the profound reality of a country manifests itself through the very construction of a film: colonialism, in all its stages, both its face and its shadows, is violently stripped bare on the film surface itself. For what is shown to us is a country that represses its own colonialist past while being exploited by a country with a very active imperialist inclination. Much like the people we see in the film (a verbose prostitute who tells us about her sexual experiences with a priest, some Alentejo peasants, a couple of dockworkers, an old revolutionary who gives a long anti-fascist speech), we are constantly bewildered by the immediate disorder of such a situation. But the film itself lays out this disorder in a way that feels very much like the product of a culture that needs to be shaken up. By questioning each step of his own inquiry – i.e. the scenes where we listen to the life experiences of two black immigrants from former Portuguese colonies –, Monteiro establishes an unsparing invocation of Portugal’s past and present situation.

From the time we see, in the film’s first post-credits shot, a perfectly symmetrical and balanced composition of an old cannon atop Castelo de São Jorge targeting a NATO ship right down to the last shot of the film, where we face a shot of a peeling wall brutally ravaged by the passage of time, What Shall I Do with This Sword? avoids the guileful device of coercion through an opinionated testimony of its author. It does so by working less as an interventionist or a confrontational document than as an accurate testimony of some facts from a convulsive present. Monteiro contemplates, in such a situation, the possibility of exposing dialectically the conventions and the contradictions, the order and the despair of a whole society, projecting all of its memory into a kind of chaotic mythology (Nosferatu on one hand, Siegfried on the other; Billie Holliday’s music and Richard Wagner’s Siegfried's Funeral March on the soundtrack). The chaos, the contingent disorder of the present ends up unsteadily outlined by this richly textured assortment of icons, but such a resort has an inevitable consequence: it destabilizes all previous order. The disjunctive procedures of such an editing ploy, which scrutinizes directly and indirectly all that is narrated to us by speech, all that is articulated by language and cultural reflexes, cannot but lead us, spectators, to the scaffold: it is us, in our conditions as spectators, who are being summoned in the end. One cannot walk away from a film like What Shall I Do with This Sword?, or a film like Branca de Neve, unscathed: we leave them no longer as spectators, but as witnesses.

It is said that a book that demolishes everything but does not destroy itself has exasperated us in vain. The work of João César Monteiro, here and elsewhere (the last shot of Come and Go, the whole of Branca de Neve), has not been disappointing in that respect. From the moment, near the end, when Margarida Gil asks the film title’s question to its last moments, What Shall I Do with This Sword? seems to take an almost epic ascent, with the winds of Dovzhenko’s cinema blowing into Portugal’s seas, the peasants demonstrating through their marches the fearsome action of gravity upon earth. The image of a freighter cutting the ocean, seen under the effect of a diaphanous sea air that looms until it completely obliterates the image, could inspire in us the most romanticized feelings of a once lost grandeur now recovered by the magnitude of a new order, that of the immutable and eternal values of sacrosanct Western civilization. Monteiro would already be a great filmmaker for evoking such greatness in a film that until then not only seemed unable to accommodate it but also seemed to insidiously and deliberately reject it; he would be an even greater filmmaker by doing so with such an extreme scarcity of material means. But the truth is that Monteiro is more than a great filmmaker. As a man, as a witness – in other words, as a citizen with responsibilities –, Monteiro is capable of evoking this glorious past, haughtily and ironically at the same time, and then of discarding it, making this the main political point of his film. 

At the very end the camera zooms in on a depleted wall where the Marx and Engels phrase “Proletarians of all countries, unite” can be read. There’s a cut that brings us closer to that last word; a camera movement follows, which takes us off of it and leaves us only with the stripped wall, empty, not carrying any inscription. But that is not true: we’ve seen this wall before, at the beginning of the film. It carried the name of the film’s crew, the laboratory where film was processed and the film’s production office. These people that got together and worked together in the film we just saw were already occupying a place on this wall. This wall, the empty spot on it, points to the necessity of a new space, a space at no time previously explored. This space could only arise at the moment when everything is already said and done, the moment past the point of no return, past the risk of any retreat. This space is a void, the “after” that comes at the end of all stories, of all the possible tensions between history and civilization, a wall where nothing has yet been written, where it is still possible to inscribe something. Let us not be surprised, therefore, that Monteiro made a film from this “next instant”, from this wall still without inscriptions.

Its title is What Shall I Do with This Sword?

July 18, 2017

The following text originally appeared in Евгений Марголит, "Живые и мертвое. Заметки к истории советского кино 1920-1960-х годов" — Evgenii Margolit's The Living and the Dead: Notes on the History of Soviet Cinema of the 1920s-1960s (St. Petersburg, Seans, 2012).  
It was recommended and translated from the Russian by Dmitry Martov (great thanks to him) on the occasion of the upcoming July 27th, 2017 screening of Boris Barnet's Новгородцы (also known as A GOOD LAD) — to be shown alongside Hitchcock's AVENTURE MALGACHE and Monteiro's WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THIS SWORD?  as part of "Kino Slang" at the Echo Park Film Center, in Los Angeles.

"Slavnyy Malyy" 
(A Good Lad, Boris Barnet, 1942)
by Evgenii Margolit

For historians of the Soviet era in general and of Soviet cinema in particular, the present time has one undeniable advantage: we are dealing with a system that has completed its formation, and the entire network of previously latent, secret meanings and connections, of which the creators were unconscious, is now spread before our eyes, where global traditions at their origin could lead to phenomena which were, in the past, partly or completely ignored.

The template for Soviet films about the [Great Patriotic] War which unites THE CRANES ARE FLYING (
Kalatozov, 1957) and IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (Tarkovskii, 1962), FATE OF A MAN (Bondarchuk, 1959) and TRIAL ON THE ROAD (A. German, 1971), ONLY OLD MEN ARE GOING TO BATTLE (Bykov, 1973) and TORPEDO BOMBERS (Aranovich, 1983) manifests itself for the first time in a 1942 film by Boris Barnet that is not merely unknown but is, in a manner of speaking, the most unknown of his films, with even its exact title being a mystery until recently: according to the official papers it was NOVGORODTSY (MEN OF NOVGOROD) but during the opening credits the viewers would read with amused disbelief the title SLAVNYY MALYY (A GOOD LAD).

This film was completely forgotten as soon as its fate — or rather lack thereof — had been sealed. No documents have yet been found explaining why it was banned; and the surviving documents testify the following: no global objectives were set before Barnet; everybody clearly understood that no masterpiece could be created in the absence of a more or less proper script (there was a libretto by Petr Pavlenko titled “The Avengers” which, according to some testimonies, war correspondent Aleksei Kapler was trying to turn into a screenplay but he was soon purged); and the film that Barnet was eventually able to produce was met quite charitably.

Indeed, the lack of a script’s strong foundation would never be a fatal hindrance for Barnet, what with his irrepressible imagination as a director. He said on several occasions that to direct a weak script is, in a way, easier: the director’s prowess would be more apparent, and there would be fewer complaints. So A GOOD LAD turned out to be a modest, unpretentious film, sticking to its genre.

However, Barnet turned the subject of the partisan movement into a comedy. Did the ban have anything to do with his choice of the genre? On the one hand, the Russian official criticism certainly did not favor war comedies, but on the other hand, there had been precedents, and in the same year, 1942, Gerbert Rappaport made VOZDUSHNYI IZVOZCHIK (TAXI TO HEAVEN) and Konstantin Yudin directed ANTOSHA RYBKIN. Another thing was probably more important: the author of A GOOD LAD populated his film with characters who were fundamentally no different from the lovable and touching oddballs of [Barnet’s 1940 film] THE OLD JOCKEY. Actually, the plot thickens only when two completely eccentric characters appear in the midst of the squadron: a French aviator and an opera singer. The Frenchman is played by Viktor Dobrovolskiy who here looks somewhat similar to young Jean Marais; he is an actor from Leningrad, later based in Kiev, who became popular after PETER THE FIRST (Petrov, 1937) (where he played the parts of the officer Yaguzhinsky and runaway debtor Fed’ka). The role of the opera singer is performed by Nikolay Bogolyubov, and it is incredibly interesting to observe how Barnet yet again plays in a comical fashion with the monumental typecasting of his Kol’ka Kadkin from OUTSKIRTS (Barnet, 1933), whose trademark roles by this time were “the Great Citizen” and “the First Red Army officer”. This was the triumph of an auteur cinema logic, which was not very typical for Soviet wartime cinema. It is not a coincidence that, for example, SEKRETAR RAYKOMA (WE WILL COME BACK) by Ivan Pyryev, made during the same year and based around the same subject of the partisan movement, had nothing in common with Pyryev’s comedies: this was rather a partisan western, with a completely different cinematic universe, with the actors and archetypes being completely different.

A GOOD LAD, on the contrary, is a very moving and very humane, genuinely auteur gesture: when facing imminent danger, the first thing to be saved should be the spring of one’s loins — one’s world. Barnet searches for a narrative provision whereby this world can survive, and hides it in an almost fairy-tale forest, so remarkably shot by the cinematographer Sergei Ivanov, far from open spaces where the enemy is rampant. Thus emerges another half-ark, half-haunted island, so typical in Barnet’s cinema. A sanctuary of harmony, which from film to film becomes more and more fortuitous and exotic: from the crowded house on Trubnaya Square, through the prewar Russian province, to the island of the eccentrics “by the bluest of the seas”.

In this respect, Barnet is an artist-demiurge to the nearly the same degree as those artists to whom this term is usually applied. His model of the world is just as fortuitous and individual as that of, let’s say, Eisenstein’s. However, the nature of their models is fundamentally different. Montage cinema is imbued with the pathos of life-building: it is a sort of display of creative will, which re-creates reality based on new principles; a sort of campaigning for the advantages of this way of life. If you will, conjuring reality by demonstrating its future. Whereas for Barnet the most important thing is the self-propulsion of life, whose festive spontaneity he is trying to evoke with all available artistic devices. For such a world, any purpose prescribed from the outside is a catastrophe, a restriction to the abundance of life; in other words, a depravity. The director first and foremost strives to uncover in his characters their natural belonging to this spontaneity.

For this reason Barnet’s cinema at its core knows only two genres: idyll and tragedy, since, given such a complete degree of fusion between a character and the world, all other transitional genres drop out as unessential. A conflict in Barnet’s films is either flat-out false, serving as a foil to the sought-after harmony, or total — tragical, because the incongruity between an individual and the world is in itself already catastrophic [1].

This is one of the reasons why the blatantly fortuitous world of Barnet’s guerrilla fighters, led by a young woman (lovely ingenue-comеdienne Ekaterina Sipavina from the Lenfilm acting school), who sing romantic songs by Tchaikovsky and satirical stanzas composed by Nikita Bogoslovsky, nevertheless does not irritate us with its contrivedness. For the record, A GOOD LAD proved itself to be the precursor of the war musical comedy genre. Particularly if one takes into consideration the fact that both Semyon Timoshenko, the creator of HEAVENLY SLUG (1945), and Mikhail Zharov, who directed A NOISY HOUSEHOLD (1946) right after the war, in 1942 were also stationed in Alma-Ata and, therefore, could have witnessed Barnet at work.

However, in their films, made under completely different circumstances, the comic universe engulfs the plot entirely. In A GOOD LAD things are much more complicated. Apart from the idyllic partisan forest, there also exists the tragic universe beyond the forest’s bounds. These two universes, closed on themselves with heightened genre definitiveness and finality, oppose one another and define each other through this opposition. In the forest reigns early autumn, with its sun shining through the luxuriantly yellow foliage. But around the forest is a pre-winter season, with its bare wastelands, where under heavy skies and wind skeletal trees are stripped of their leaves and burned down huts stand still. During some of the shots the viewer is startled: we’re seeing the landscapes from IVAN’S CHILDHOOD.

To be sure, in Soviet wartime cinema this kind of opposition between the tragic and the idyllic is encountered quite frequently. However, as a rule, it is arranged temporally: the tragedy of war descends upon the pre-war idyll. (The most representative example is THEY FOUGHT FOR THEIR COUNTRY, again dedicated to the guerrilla subject. In this film the protagonist literally changes: a peace-loving person is transformed into a forbidding warrior, a soldier).

In Barnet’s wartime filmography, however, the characters remain immutable in their essence: they are profoundly civilian. They are intrinsically unable to live by the wartime laws, which are alien to them. In A GOOD LAD the partisans are not primarily fighting or avenging — they are simply living in the forest. Their primary mission is preservation of life’s vividness. The opposition between the two universes turns out to be the opposition between the element of vivid life and the element of war (which is intent upon conquering, dismembering and destroying life).

But it is exactly on this opposition that the whole paradigm of the Soviet cinema about the Great Patriotic War is built thereafter. One can effortlessly spot it in, for example, the very complex world of Aleksei German’s TRIAL ON THE ROAD that separates with the same precision the universes of war (stone cold snowfield) and life (forest). The same principle takes shape in the war films of Leonid Bykov, in which the protagonist organizes his own “combat unit”, right up to a musical ensemble. And is it a coincidence that the idea of IVAN’S CHILDHOOD came to Tarkovsky only when he envisioned Ivan’s dreams — the blatantly idyllic world?

Obviously, such an artistic template of the cinematic universe fundamentally contradicts the official sovereign template, because for the ideology of the state the immediate goal was “the final and decisive battle”, wherefrom the vision of war-as-a-festival, war-as-a-parade emerged, eventually transforming into the vision of war-as-a-competition between two military state-machines (from the defense films of 1930s through epic docudramas of 1940s to the LIBERATION film series [1970-1971] as well as the endless number of Stierlitziana films [2]).

Therefore, A GOOD LAD turns out to be the earliest exposition of the Soviet war cinema. The starting point of the plot is yet to come: in this film two universes, foreign to each other and at odds with each other, remain as if frozen before the collision. Here is where the lack of screenplay manifests itself: a flimsy storyline, proposed by the author of a libretto, is merely a substitute for the actual plot. For this reason, in A GOOD LAD the convergence of these universes has not yet taken place (although by this time there already existed the cinenovella A PRICELESS HEAD — perhaps the best segment in all of the FIGHTING FILM COLLECTION (BOYEVOY KINOSBORNIK). This collision was to occur eventually in the last of Barnet’s wartime films — in the truly unknown (even today!) masterpiece of war cinema DARK IS THE NIGHT.

1.This concept defining Barnet’s creative work was first proposed by Khrisanf Khersonsky during the post-screening discussion of Barnet’s DARK IS THE NIGHT at Moscow’s Dom Kino in May 1945.

2.Spy films inspired by the very popular TV series "17 Moments of Spring"(1972) about the Soviet spy who was operating in Nazi Germany under the name Max Otto von Stierlitz . (Translator’s Note)

July 9, 2017

"Kino Slang" 
at the 
Echo Park Film Center


July 27th, 2017
Doors at 7:30pm
$5 Suggested Donation

Echo Park Film Center
1200 North Alvarado St.
Los Angeles, CA 90026

AVENTURE MALGACHE (Madagascar Landing, Alfred Hitchcock, 1944, 32 min)

Deemed ineffective as propaganda and shelved for 50 years by the British government, this wartime short directed by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock reenacts a true story of the French Resistance against fascist collaboration during World War II in the French colony of Madagascar, Africa. The film's m.o. was not suspense but rather an open-book lesson on the ins-and-outs of collaborationism, nationalism, and underground fighting. The film pays tribute to a hero of the Resistance, records how it was done, and reflects on the reflection. Hitchcock stamps every scene with the contradiction that this is a liberation story among colonizers, either by use of colonial symbols or by inserting the colonized themselves. A baroque array of political machinations, choices and attitudes to freedom are compacted into just 32 minutes of pure composition while delving into themes of perception, morality, and disguise. 

A GOOD LAD (Slavnyy Malyy, Boris Barnet, 1943, 65 min) 

Film historian David Bordwell summarizes: "A French pilot's plane is downed in a (Soviet) forest, where a resistance group is hiding out and forming its own little community. Living under the imminent threat of Nazi discovery doesn't forestall songs, romantic affairs, and mistakes born of the language gap: 'I love you.' 'I don't understand.' 'I don't understand.'" Boris Barnet, one of the greatest of all Soviet filmmakers, was quite popular in Russia yet his films, full of life, are almost totally forgotten today, or remain unknown in the West. Particularly A Good Lad, which was not released at the time of its production during the Second World War,  but only later screened in the U.S.S.R. in 1959, then was considered lost again until premiering once more in 1999 at the Moscow Film Museum. "Barnet's A Good Lad is (in one hour!) a musical, a comedy, a love story, and a war movie--and everything is perfectly balanced and free" wrote critic/filmmaker Serge Bozon. 

WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THIS SWORD? (Que Farei eu com Esta Espada?João César Monteiro, 1975, 63 min)

"​We are in Portugal, in 1975, a country boiling in the aftermath of an ongoing, still unresolved revolution. People are out in the streets, crowds shout slogans, tension and indistinctness surround their daily lives. Filmmaker João César Monteiro, himself boiling, goes amidst the crowd. (...) What Shall I Do with This Sword? is a time capsule, from a precise moment in recent Portuguese history, a mirror-image of a fragmented country. There is the threat of external intervention (...), interference with national sovereignty, here embodied by NATO ships moored in the Tagus River, and more specifically an American aircraft carrier, named Saratoga, a sleeping giant. This and other ships, stationed as reserves waiting to invade if deemed necessary, were visible from Lisbon, within reach of the Terreiro do Paço, a symbolic place of power and revolution, and it was necessary to film them. Monteiro takes a boat and surrounds them, filming the aircraft carrier and submarines as if looking for a weak spot, facing these figures with a defiant attitude.This is a film created around symbolism, and the demystification of those same symbols." (João Araújo)


Program total running time: 3 hours.
There will be no introduction. 
Program notes provided at the door.

Special Thanks to Chloe Reyes, Bill Krohn, Pierre Leon, Travis Miles, and Bruno Andrade.

"Kino Slang" is a new regular series of cinema screenings,--typically a double-bill and a short on the chosen night--programmed by Andy Rector at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. This iteration of Kino Slang will continue the cinematographic and historical excavation, proceedings by montage and association, silent alarms and naked dawns of this eleven-year-old blog. 

Notes on the program and series, documents and translations, ephemera and images related to the films at hand will appear here both before (see below) and after the programs. 




 by Bill Krohn

What we know about Aventure Malgache (1944), the remarkable short Alfred Hitchcock made to show how the flame of the Resistance had burned brightly in the colonies, we owe to Alain Kerzoncuf, who discovered that Jules Francois Clermont, the actor who plays Clarus, the leader of the Resistance in Malgache (Madagascar), had been a lawyer there before the war and had lived the adventure told in the film – as if Pina, the heroine of Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, had been played, not by Anna Magnani, but by a real heroine of the Resistance.  By 1944 Clermont had joined the Moliere Players, a troupe of exiled French performers assembled in London, because the Allies could no longer employ him in a staff position during the coming invasion of the continent.  Having been on the stage before taking up the law, he now went back to his first profession.

After meeting with Hitchcock, who had travelled in steerage to London to contribute to the war effort, Clermont was commissioned to write a script in tangy colloquial French with Hitchcock’s future collaborator Angus MacPhail, whom the director first met at the Claridge Hotel in London during preproduction for this film and another, Bon Voyage, made to be shown in France when the Allies landed.  (The opening credits address a specific “vous” that never saw the film:  the French people who had been living under Nazi occupation.)  The collaboration with the gifted MacPhail lasted until the writer died of alcoholism after outlining the structure of Vertigo (1957) for Hitchcock.* Aventure Malgache, shelved until 1999 at the request of the French, who didn’t care for its portrayal of the political and economic contradictions at the heart of the French Empire during the Occupation (for example, the black-skinned servants whose wordless presence makes its own comment), didn’t fare much better, but both have now gotten their due.  Ars longa, vita brevis.

The account of Clermont’s war in Aventure Malgache cuts some corners for reasons of budget.  He was being shipped to a penal colony when British warships stopped the convoy and freed him, setting him up as Radio Free Madagascar on a ship in the Indian Ocean.  Hitchcock, who didn’t have the money to film a scene at sea, built a dungeon-like set for Clarus’s maritime prison from which he could see the smoke-stacks of British ships coming to save him.  (His joyous exclamations are greeted by a fellow prisoner’s muttered “’giveafuck”s, which are left un-translated in the BFI’s subtitles.) The British invasion of Madagascar, which is shown in newsreel footage, then leads to the scene where Clarus has the pleasure of broadcasting back to the man who imprisoned him, the gangster and Vichy turncoat Michel (Paul Bonifas), that the British are coming for him.  

The film pays tribute to a hero of the Resistance by having him reenact for Hitchcock’s camera the daring subversion that made him famous.  Clarus introduces the show with a few words in Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, then does the “knock knock” sound effect that introduced all his broadcasts.  Poverty of means spurs a wealth of invention.  It’s hard not to read this as a metaphor for Aventure Malgache, a better film than Spellbound (1945), which Hitchcock put on hold when he came to England, despite MacPhail’s contributions to the latter when he followed the director back to California:  David O. Selznick spent lavishly on Spellbound, then lopped off MacPhail’s opening sequence, set in a mental asylum, and truncated the dream sequence planned by Hitchcock and another gifted collaborator, Salvador Dali.

Selznick’s tinkering paved the way for the psychoanalysis-on-skis sequence that would be Hitchcock’s ludicrous first attempt to portray that impossible-to-portray process until he and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen finally nailed it with the Psychonalysis in the Boudoir sequence that resolves the mystery of the heroine’s frigidity in Marnie (1964).  By way of contrast, despite the gripes about too much dialogue from “users” and professional critics alike preserved on iMdb, Aventure Malgache deftly pulls off a psychoanalysis of the Occupation carried out in France’s colonial unconscious, tucked away out of sight in the Indian Ocean, which anticipates the triumphs wrought by “talky” Hitchcockians ranging from Eric Rohmer to the Straubs long after Aventure Malgache had been consigned to the vaults.

The situation we see in the dressing-room of the Moliere Players (a troupe created to give French actors in exile a way to participate in the fight while hiding their identities to protect their relatives in France) is one that could really have happened:  Clarus advising a colleague on how to play the villain in a play they’re getting made up for by telling him about his personal nemesis in Malgache to enable him to get into the skin of a real-life Nazi.

While Clarus explains the character of Michel to this colleague as they prepare to take the stage – translation: to begin the film we’re watching – the latter gradually dons the make-up that accompanies his inner transformation as he gets into character.  Hitchcock stages the transitions so that, when we cut from the dressing-room to the trial scene in the first flashback, Michel’s back is to us, and we only discover his features gradually.  The figure looming in the foreground of the trial sequence, whose face is also turned away from the camera, is Clarus, the witness -- in reality and within the film -- to everything that happens in this early Hitchcock experiment with single-point-of-view storytelling.**

As the two actors in the dressing-room are getting ready to step on the stage, the one who will play the villain of the piece gradually dons the make-up that accompanies his inner transformation as he gets into the character with Clarus’s help.  It would have taken a while for French spectators – had they been permitted to see the film -- to realize that he’s the same actor who plays Michel in the flashbacks.

Hitchcock has never been subtler, in fact.  Clarus recounts, and the film shows, how the Resistance-friendly governor of Madagascar was forced by Michel to put a spy on Clarus’s tail to uncover his Resistance activities.  Back in the present of the film’s narration the other actors in the dressing-room joke that Clarus must have been killed and ask how he could get away with anything while being tailed. “Nothing simpler,” says Clarus.  Cut to Clarus entering the cellar that is Resistance headquarters to address the troops, arm in arm with his tail.  The ceiling of this odd little set is decorated with symbols from the Zodiac:  Fate, looming like Wagner’s Valkyries over the Resistance, will have to be overcome by guile.

As with the real and reel Michels, the spectator has to use his eyes to understand these gags, and the actor playing the part of the false spy doesn’t make it easy.  His dress and demeanor change considerably between the office of the Governor, where we met him, and the cellar, and no dialogue hints that this is the same man come to the aid of spectators who haven’t been paying attention.  In Bon Voyage, Hitchcock’s other wartime short, the action recounted in flashback happens at night, teaching the spectator a political lesson in how to read images.  Aventure Malgache, which happens in bright light (including an uncanny scene of treachery illuminated through a sheet), is a lesson in how to see. 

At the end of the film the nameless actor preparing to play a Nazi, who now sports Michel’s moustache, picks a fight with the indignant Clarus, who realizes when the transformation is complete that his colleague has become Michel and they are talking to each other the way they did back in Malgache.  They have become the characters they’re playing, like Norman Bates in Psycho, still sixteen years in the future.  As they leave the dressing-room to go on stage “Michel” buttons the jacket of his Nazi uniform and Clarus dons the costume of a Resistance fighter.  The flashback is over, but the struggle goes on.

Does the budget alone account for the bare-bones staging of some scenes, like the one with uncanny illumination where a hysterical woman whose motives are never explained in words picks up the phone to denounce Clarus, where the set is a bed and a gauze curtain with a light behind it?***  Perhaps, but the production seems to have had a dolly, a costly piece of equipment for a no-budget short, which the director uses here to pull back until the phone that seems to be controlling her actions, like the stolen money on Marion Crane’s bed in Psycho, is in the frame.  Other scenes where the dolly is being used in offbeat ways include the one with the pooterish Vichy General, during which the camera moves closer to the characters, almost imperceptibly, until Michel is center frame, then pans right each time the general paces nearer to the camera.  There is also a rather modern quick dolly-in on Michel during the trial. For viewers who aren’t hypnotized by the dialogue they hate (cf. those iMdb comments), there’s quite a lot being done with the camera in this little film.

If Lifeboat is a film influenced by Brechtian stagecraft, Aventure Malgache is a Freudian miniature, with Michel occupying the place of Willie (Walter Slezak), the German submarine captain.  “I see the type you mean,” says Boniface, playing the nameless actor who is having Michel explained to him in preparation for his own performance as a Nazi he considers underwritten and opaque.  “A rat like Laval” [a Vichy official executed after the war]. “No,” says Clarus, “he was a roly-poly man…”  Surfaces are deceptive when the Unconscious is calling the shots.

Aventure Malgache also reproduces the mythical structure of Lifeboat by equating the rise to power of Michel, a gangster, with a period of misrule:  a dark carnival that can only end in when the Lord of Misrule who presides over it is killed.  Although we don’t see Michel go before a firing squad, we’re assured that the British weren’t fooled by him when they arrived in Malgache.  He sticks his framed picture of Petain (shown in the first insert used in this little film) under the fridge, prudently stashes his bottle of Vichy Water -- this is the second insert -- inside the fridge, an expensive but invaluable item in the tropics in 1944, and puts up a picture of Queen Victoria where Petain had been. 

The last dolly (a cut, actually:  Hitchcock’s own pricey equipment had its limitations) isolates the motto at the top of the painting: Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense, Latin for “Shame on anyone who sees evil in it” — an ironic motto that French spectators in 1944, who spoke a language descended from Latin, would have had no trouble parsing:  Michel, who embodies Collaboration, would be quickly spotted and put to death by the Free French accompanying the British invaders, the way the enraged lifeboat passengers execute Willie when they realize he’s steering them to a concentration camp.

Hitchcock’s Aventure Malgache (or the True Story of DZ 91),” Alain Kerzoncuf, Senses of Cinema, Issue 41, November 2014.

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut and Helen Scott, Simon & Schuster 1967.

Hitchcock at Work by Bill Krohn, Cahiers-Phaidon 2000.  

*MacPhail had been driven to drink by dialogue writer John Michael Hayes, who should have shared screen credit for the script of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with him but didn’t because the ambitious Hayes was American and a dues-paying member of the WGA, founded in 1954 to look after the rights of American screenwriters, but not of English writers working on American films – a situation that the Guild had not yet figured out, although Hitchcock imposed his own solution:  he never worked with Hayes again.  When Aventure Malgache was finally released in 1999, MacPhail was properly credited as the co-author of the screenplay with Clermont.  He was subsequently the credited screenwriter on such classics as Dead of Night, Whiskey Galore and, for Hitchcock, The Wrong Man.  He is cited in books on the Master as the man who invented the concept of the MacGuffin.

**On the psychoanalytic symbolism of characters facing away from the camera, see “Cinema and Psychoanalysis:  Parallel Histories” by Stephen Heath in Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories (ed. Janet Bergstrom), University of California Press, 1999, 25-56.  Heath discovers this figuration of the Unconscious in early films about psychoanalysis like G. W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926)

***The eerie illumination in the scene where Clarus is denounced to the Gestapo recalls the scene with Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in dead Rebecca’s dressing room (Rebecca, 1940).  Hitchcock disliked Rebecca because he didn’t have complete control when he made it (cf.  the ham-fisted scenes with George Sanders), but for that very reason it seems to have haunted him, as we can see in this little scene in Aventure Malagache where the Unconscious is in the driver’s seat.