Book Review: Revolution in Paradise

This brilliant academic study includes an outstanding index and will be invaluable to students and researchers.

MAP OF occupied France during World War II (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MAP OF occupied France during World War II
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) is universally acclaimed as the brightest jewel of French cinema, a Citizen Kane with bells on. Set in the Théâtre des Funambules on the crime-ridden Boulevard du Temple of 1830s Paris, and drawing on the lives of legendary actors and street characters, Les Enfants is indeed a testament to its creators’ virtuosity, its stars’ luminosity and, given the circumstances, the cast and crew’s resilience.
Cineastes won’t hear a word against it. Nobody wants to acknowledge the treacherous undercurrent that courses through this landmark film.
Financed by an Italian production company with links to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Les Enfants was written in 1942 by Jacques Prévert, directed in 1943 in Nice and Paris by Marcel Carné, and released to much fanfare after the liberation. As Jews living in constant fear of the Gestapo, the set designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma had to work through intermediaries.
French actress Arletty, who made her name in the central role of Garance, a not-so obscure object of desire, was well-known for her passionate collaboration with one Luftwaffe officer in particular. (“Sartre… is a member of a French Jewish network,” she wrote to him.)
The fanatical antisemite Robert Le Vigan, sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor in 1946, was going to star as the old-clothes man Jericho, but fled in fear of the Allies advance. His replacement, Pierre Renoir, had been enthusiastic in ridding Parisian theaters of their Jews.
Jean-Louis Barrault, who plays the mime-artist Baptiste, stayed loyal to Le Vigan, which “implies that he was probably not averse to Le Vigan’s outspoken ideologies.” It’s good to know who we’re dealing with.
Before reaching Carné’s masterpiece, Yehuda Moraly devotes half of Revolution in Paradise to several French propaganda films of the period. You can see on YouTube Forces occultes, which was distributed to cinema managers at no charge. Ostensibly an alarmist documentary about a masonic conspiracy to bring down France, it reveals the conspirators’ true identity by their names – Ginsburg, Isaac, Levy, Stein – and a prevalence of threatening Star of David images.
In Le Camion blanc, the conflation is with gypsies. Elsewhere it’s with capitalists or Bolsheviks or nihilists. Moraly points out that Marshal Pétain himself never referred to Jews explicitly.
Audiences at Les Enfants du Paradise would recognize Jericho by his peddling and meddling, by his stooped figure and wispy beard. “Remember they call me the tightwad, the niggard, the rat,” he warns, with a diabolical laugh.
MOST CHILLING of all is his ostracism. “I don’t like you. I can’t stand you… You know it very well,” sneers the saintly mime-artist Baptiste. “His voice makes me shudder and the sight of him makes me sick,” he tells a fellow actor. Baptiste kills Jericho in the original script’s climax. As the war turned in the Allies’ favor, the murder scene was cut and the old-clothes man became peripheral.
The director’s cut doesn’t quite sanitize such medieval demonization. Nor can Jericho be compared with a mere Fagin, that staple of English “antisemitism.” Whereas Dickens’s colorful, three-dimensional scoundrel is not even the villain in Oliver Twist, Prévert’s old-clothes man served only to reinforce the exclusion of Jews. He could have wandered in from one of those hateful propaganda movies.
Carné told an audience at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque that the idea of Jericho as a Jew “never crossed his mind.” And Moraly does concede that “authors such as Cocteau, Prévert and Carné… maybe unconsciously created themes that aligned with the values of those who funded the films.”
Even so, it is hard to imagine Powell and Pressburger across the English Channel succumbing to such a pernicious zeitgeist. “The French writers’ hatred often surpassed that of their German counterparts,” writes Moraly. Céline in particular was adored by the bien pensants. That would be the Céline who “reproached the Germans for what he considered their overly gentle treatment of the Jews.”
Moraly sees Les Enfants as an inversion of the Garden of Eden myth. Garance has a predilection for nakedness, pleasure and sin. Baptiste is too chaste to be seduced, and there in the background, disapproving of our heroes, Jericho blows his trumpet. As a symbol of freedom from puritanical morality, Garance speaks for the poet Prévert, to whom love was a sacrament, and for Carné, who was a homosexual.
This brilliant academic study includes an outstanding index and will be invaluable to students and researchers. The general reader might be disappointed by the absence of movie stills or illustrations of any kind. All concerned in today’s culture clashes should note its far-reaching conclusion.
Les Enfants du Paradis expresses a humanist narcissism born of French history’s defining moment, argues the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Moraly. The revolution of the title refers to the ongoing fallout from 1789, after which “the people” or “France” or “art” took the place of God.
“The cult of man puts human values – passionate love, beauty, creativity – above all others, transforming men into earthly gods and consecrating the People.”
As in the French and Russian revolutions, so in Nazi-occupied France, “the most sacred value was the “People,” who were regarded virtually as gods and whose purity had to be protected.”
High in the gods at the Funambules, the people both watch and participate in the spectacle. Not so much Citizen Kane as Birth of a Nation.
By Yehuda Moraly
Sussex Academic Press
276 pages; $60