colinr0380 wrote:While I think this film is a highly moving one, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of it is the use of sound and editing to emphasise the interior spaces of the characters. It is perhaps why I bracketed it a little with Kanal, especially in this film's central bunker sequence, as Wooden Crosses feels very much about a subjective experience of war and the anxieties it provokes to be under a constant threat of death (rather than under the protection of the Virgin Mary, as in one pointedly held lapse dissolve from a statue to the crowds leaving the church, full of the wounded, to return to the trenches). It is perhaps the main way that films about trench warfare or (literally) underground resistances could be portrayed, literalising the stagnancy of futile, yet inescapable, situations.
Kinsayder wrote:This authenticity is what gives the film its emotional punch. We share the anxiety of the soldiers as they wait to be blown up by the Germans they can hear mining beneath their position; their terror during the harrowing ten-day battle; the agony of their protracted deaths. It's not an easy film to watch, but the anti-war message is powerful and clear.
gubbelsj wrote:As others have noted, the special effects and battle sequences within this film are astonishing, and I also found Bernard's use of sound to be quite effective, especially when creating suspense (such as the sequence involving tunneling under the trenches). There's an impressive control of the medium for so early a sound film. And I was struck by the way Bernard draws viewers into his film. The opening moments suggest this may be just another war picture, featuring a regiment filled with colorful characters exuding bravery and nobility. It's easy to get comfortable. But when the picture moves into a much bleaker trajectory, there was a conscious desire on my part to adjust, to re-think my attitude towards the characters. Fires on the Plain begins in despair, with a barely-conscious soldier getting slapped in the face, and only goes downhill from there. But Wooden Crosses fools you, leads the viewer on, and finally ends with a devastating calmness that was in many ways even more disturbing than the horrific final moments in Ichikawa.
Yes, the film is incredibly immersive and claustrophobic. There’s a shot in one of the battle scenes where you see a line of soldiers silhouetted against the sky in the far distance, marching across No Man’s Land from right to left, and there are distant shell explosions; then, as the shot goes on, more soldiers start moving in the same direction, closer and closer to the camera, as the shell explosions draw closer as well, and the (at times almost unbearably repetitive) sound effects get louder and louder. Quite a few shots are layered and ‘staggered’ like, to give us a sense of objective distance, then dissolve this to force us into the midst of the action.
It’s a movement that occurs on a larger scale at the start, when we begin with the crowds and statues, the pomp and circumstance of glorious war and all that, and then wind up in the squalid courtyard with the wise-cracking grunts – and then find ourselves, with them, frozen into silence by the makeshift funeral procession going past. This is a chilling forecast of the way that the film will not only make us see these soldiers as comrades who are right alongside us, but will also cruelly reduce them to inanimate objects – not beautiful, patriotic statues, but wooden crosses, lumps of matter to be used as parapets and even, towards the end, figures who are not clearly distinguishable from living people. Gilbert finds himself on watch with the dead Lemoine while a dying soldier cries out for help on the battlefield behind him, and he closes his eyes and covers his ears, not just out of grief and sympathy, but in an attempt to deny his own proximity to the dead and dying, the increasingly blurred boundaries between these different states.
colinr0380 wrote:One of the other aspects of the film that I particularly liked was the introduction of 'sentimental' notes only to deepen their impact through 'real world' application. Such as the scene moving from Gilbert at Varion's graveside to the church where we initially get the mass and Ave Maria tugging the heartstrings in a classical manner, along with the introduction of the wounded in the barricaded off area of the church. Then it shifts from that to Gilbert's speech about accepting anything as long as they can live and not lose faith, with the groaning of the wounded providing a new soundtrack (which prefigures the final scene).
It also feeds in to Gilbert's understated (thankfully!) relationship with his own girl back home. The usual photograph and perfume are there but that highlighted phrase in her letter about having broken a heel while dancing that Gilbert reads in the grave/trench in the same cemetery just before Bréval's shooting, shows she is similarly living a very different life, that the frivolous world still continues barely touched by the war while soldiers are dying.
In a way this connection underlines that the film is truly Gilbert's story - it begins with his billeting to a squad and ends with his death. He also mourns Varion perhaps more because a tenuous link with his home town has been severed early on. He is the one standing for the many, just another dead soldier with a mother at home. For me that point of view shot just after Gilbert is shot is devastating - he looks around at the other bodies of anonymous soldiers lying dead and there's that realisation that this is his fate as well - he's not special except to us (this also reminded me of those scenes in the shop, the church, the pub or the mess halls where there are lots of other groups of soldiers having conversations like our group, whose stories we don't follow but can maybe infer will have a similar trajectory).
I found that moment almost physically painful myself with that revelation as we are so forcefully shown the world through his eyes throughout the film (unlike say Bréval or Varion, though their deaths touch us) that his impending and inevitable return to anonymity adds to that sense of waste. He's as anonymous to anyone else as those soldiers entering the bunker to die in the explosion were earlier on - we don't want to look at them as individuals because there's no way they'll live, but with Gilbert there is no escape from an emotional connection and so the audience dies with him. His dragging himself a little further on seems less an attempt to survive but more a futile attempt at escaping a spot on which he is destined to die. The masterfully complex montage of his companions, his girl breaking her heel, his parents, the city, the soldiers provides an extremely moving representation of a dying man's final thoughts. The layers of imagery of imagined moments, remembered moments, comments on a life, condemning of it and their blending together and slipping away all at the same time until he joins the procession of the dead.
What’s really remarkable about this film is that although it is deeply moving, on the whole it doesn’t go out of its way to push the audience’s buttons or manipulate their emotions. There are several situations that could have been played more for pathos, but instead are invested with a sort of hard-nosed pragmatism. The most obvious example is Gilbert’s visit to Vairon’s grave. I adore All Quiet on the Western Front
(and to be honest I think it’s a better film overall) but I can’t imagine a moment like this passing by so coldly in that film. We might expect Gilbert to open the letter and read it to the grave, or to leave it unopened and place it respectfully beside the flowers, but instead he rips it up. As Colin says, this shows his sense that a link (with his home town) has been severed, but it also shows his brutal insistence on the annihilation of Vairon. There is no spirit hovering over the grave, waiting to hear the contents of the letter, no link between the world of the living and that of the dead. The bird that starts singing after he tears up the letter seems less like a manifestation of the dead man's spirit than an indication that life will go on, oblivious to the soldier's death - the tone is bleak, not hopeful.
Tommaso wrote:"Crosses" must be one of the greatest war films ever made. It's amazing to see how Bernard managed to make the landscape reflect the dreary proceedings: every tree is barren, also the way the sky looks (painted I believe). Amazing use of stylistic elements coming straight from German silent cinema: think of that extraordinary scene with the dead soldiers going to heaven through the church top with their living comrades parading down on earth (am I wrong in smelling some Dreyer here?), or the very end of the film.
HerrSchreck wrote:I took the "spirits into heaven" drill a direct rhyme/tribute to ALL QUIET with the procession of spirits at the end of the film off into the sky. Admittedly there is a bit more painterly art in Bernards technique. And the scenes of war, the monstrous blasts of artillery in endless rapid succession, the thunder and lightning of his mise en scene, it's like an enraged devil shot and cut the film with supreme fury. For tempo of violence, the percussive devastation, combined with expressionstically exaggerated tone of dreary grey/brown emptiness and doom, it's just in a class by itself.
At first glance this recalls the ending of All Quiet
, but there the young men looked poignantly back towards the camera as they marched off, full of regret for what they were leaving behind, as well as reminding us of what we had lost. In Bernard’s film, there is still some sense of the horrifying scale of the losses incurred by the war, but overall the point is quite different. We first see the marching ghosts when the soldiers are forced to parade after their gruelling ten-day battle. The spectacle echoes that at the start of the film, but now we see it for what it is: an empty charade, resented by those performing it, designed to manipulate those watching it, orchestrated by old men who know nothing about the war. When the ghosts appear above the church, they are a faceless, anonymous horde. Just as that crowd of soldiers dissolved into a field of wooden crosses at the start, so these men on parade are equated to a line of identical ghosts. The parade celebrates the triumph of reclaiming that town, and thereby wilfully forgets all those who died in the course of that victory (a victory whose importance is never explained, and is indeed undercut by Sulphart’s bitter declaration that it was only a victory because he
survived it). The ghosts don’t bring a tear to the eye, they coldly underline the way in which these young men are being used, wiped out and forgotten.
At the end, when they appear again, the ghosts are conflated with Gilbert’s memories and fantasies. This agonising conclusion shows the culmination of the hero’s earlier horror at being thrown among the dead and dying, to the point of being indistinguishable from them. He tries to look alive on the battlefield so the stretcher-carriers will see him, but we hear countless other soldiers crying out for help at the same time. No Man’s Land resembles Hell by this point, as though we’ve already passed into the afterlife – an idea underlined more explicitly in the earlier graveyard battle, where Gilbert hummed the ‘Dies Irae’ while lying in a tomb, as though he and his fellow soldiers were corpses arising on Judgment Day rather than living soldiers trying not to die.
The appearance of the ghosts on the battlefield at the end might seem to give us some hope that these soldiers will rise up after their deaths, like the dead in J’accuse
, or The Phantom Carriage
, but I think the final shot marks their appearance as part of Gilbert’s fantasy. When he dies, his eyes go up as far as they can into their sockets, and we see a light reflected in them for a few seconds before he slumps down dead. Then there’s nothing: no ghost going up to Heaven, just another corpse on the battlefield. You could read this in different ways, but for me the light in his eyes is the light going out
, rather than some gesture towards a moment of transcendence and escape. It’s a scary, uncanny image, designed to haunt you after the film is over, not to provide a glimmer of hope.
HerrSchreck wrote:Let's take the death of Vanel... You wanted an angry bitter death where the man doesn't at least sacrifice his final possession in the world (besides his body) which is his bitterness at his wife for cheating. The reason Vanel's character didn't do this is-- that's not who he was. Clearly the script or novel rendered a man who died what some would consider an enlightened death-- perhaps he remembered at the last that he himself could gain nothing by taking his stomach acid into the afterworld, perhaps he grew up at that last moment, perhaps he had an epiphany, that the world itself (and the battlefield) is filled with enough misery and suffering that taking same into the next is pointless. Obviously you'd prefer to see him spit a final curse like Narcy in They Made Me A Fugitive, then croak, but that's not this character in this film.
colinr0380 wrote:Then there's the scene of Bréval's dying speech. Surrounded by his companions, already laid out in a tomb, he delivers an unexpectedly scathing indictment of his philandering wife and then recants for the sake of his daughter. It not only blows up (literally in the barrage which follows that explodes the tomb he has been laid in! Even the dead are assaulted) those cliches of "tell my...wife I...loved...her *flump*", it gives Bréval a chance to open his heart to his companions and yet still allow his family to live in blissful ignorance in the constancy of his love.
Yes, there’s a sense that the film is allowing Bréval to die an ‘enlightened’ death, and is celebrating the modest heroism of this, but I think Colin gets at the deeper effect of this incredible scene. What stays with me afterwards is the bitterness, not the forgiveness. Really and truly, Bréval wants to curse his wife at the end for living it up while he starves, fights and dies horribly in a cemetery – that’s how he feels at the moment of death, and this feeling dovetails with the film’s overall sense of how oblivious the rest of the world is to the reality of what the soldiers are going through. What makes him recant at the end is not any kind of noble sentiment, or (I think) any alleviation of his own bitterness, but a simple sense of duty towards his daughter. He asks his comrades not to tell his wife the truth
, which only they will ever know, but to tell her what is most likely to prompt her to be a good mother from now on. At the start of the film, we saw an official notice ordering people to restrain their emotions and do their duty throughout this difficult, noble struggle: for a moment, Bréval violates this order – Charles Vanel is so wonderful here, his writhing, raging agony so completely authentic, to the point that just watching him feels traumatic – but then we see him settling back into his duty, with a sigh and a grimace. This is just one more horror the people at home won’t hear about.
By the way, I love the detail here of Bréval’s little finger getting caught in Gilbert’s uniform, so that Gilbert has to gingerly detach it before leaving his dead comrade to get obliterated amid the rubble. It’s as if the corpse is still trying to cling to the world of the living – or, more accurately, as if that’s what Bréval did with his last ounce of strength, hooking his finger in there just to make sure he was remembered, just a little bit, by one person, after his death. The film is full of such moments. Bouffioux refuses to do guard duty, and Lemoine goes in his place. Everyone curses Bouffioux, Sulphart calls him a ‘gros salo’. Lemoine gets blown up almost immediately. Bouffioux reaches mournfully for his gun, but Glibert has already gone off to take Lemoine’s place; Sulphart pats Bouffioux on the arm and gets him to put the gun down. There’s no close-up to underline the moment or spell out what it means, it’s just unobtrusively there, telling us everything we need to know about the bonds between these men, their attitude to the war, and their sense of their own near-inevitable deaths.
zedz wrote:One of my favourite shots in The Chess Player was a battle scene in which an entire hillside suddenly comes alive with rifle fire, and Bernard has the same sense of scale and overwhelming action throughout this entire long sequence. It makes you realise just how easy the heavily montaged route taken by so many similar scenes can be: where this sequence gets its power is in the absence of cheats. We don't just cut from a long shot of men in battle to a close-up of an explosion, back to the long shot with the men falling down amidst smoke. Instead, we get men, smoke and multiple explosions all within the same shot. The visual impact of a barrage of explosions going off in every part of the frame, dwarfing the human figures in the midst of them, is stunning, and there are several shots that make you gasp at the proximity of the pyrotechnics to the actors.
This is not to say that montage is insignificant to the sequence: Bernard is masterful at matching a range of dynamic imagery, including thrilling tracking shots alongside advancing troops (anticipating some of the best shots in Paths of Glory), backwards tracks in the path of running grenadiers, handheld soldiers-POV footage, punctuating inserts of artillery fire, and beautifully composed static images of the battlefield at momentary rest, in which drifting smoke creates the kinetic effect. The entire sequence is a masterpiece of carefully paced sensation and shock. And there's another sequence, in the graveyard towards the end, that's nearly as good, and makes use of a different visual and stylistic vocabulary.
Bernard also makes use of complex multiple dissolves and superimpositions at key points to approximate the characters' mental states (an Impressionist touch, but I don't think Bernard was ever particularly strongly aligned with that movement). And this is one of those precious films in which the lighting of almost every scene is a key expressive element: simply beautiful work from Jules Kruger (also responsible for Napoleon).
It's a filmmaking tour-de-force, but it's also a compelling - if brutally straightforward - narrative, with great acting. Charles Vanel is absurdly reliable, and he's as good here as in his work with Gremillon and Clouzot. I should recognise Gabriel Gabrio from a couple of his other roles, but he was a revelation here, giving a lively, charismatic performance that personalized the pointedly schematic plot, in which the deaths of major characters came suddenly, arbitrarily and often.
There’s one moment in particular, when the Germans are advancing across No Man’s Land, where several shells explode at once in the air above them, and the Captain’s body collapses in agony as his men scatter chaotically around him, which is kind of operatically horrifying. So much work has gone into staging that moment, yet it feels as natural and authentic as everything else in the battle scenes. The battle in the cemetery is another good example: it feels like the Apocalypse, but it feels like the Apocalypse is really happening
, rather than just being evoked by some pretentious artist; it makes you realise that being in the middle of such carnage must actually have felt like the end of the world.
HerrSchreck wrote:There is an explosion that occurs at 66 minutes 22 seconds which COMPLETELY envelops a number of men... a blast which appears to be much more than some innocuous flash/smoke smoke effect. You can see the percussion, see bits & pieces of rock go blasting out, see all the dirt kicked up via the shock wave. For gods sakes I swear I'm seeing at least two dudes get blown to pieces right there on the "set".
zedz wrote:I think this was the shot where I emitted a loud yelp: some guys standing in front of a ruined wall, and an explosion goes off right at their feet, obliterating them. And it's not the climax of the sequence or anything, it's just another momentary, did-I-really-see-that? visual impact.
This is one of the most realistic special effects I’ve seen in a war film. The precision of the jump-cut from one shot to the next is razor-sharp – and again, the key thing is that the moment does not primarily elicit a sense of awe and admiration for the film-makers’ craftsmanship, but rather (because it is so realistic, so unlike an ‘effect’) a sense of shell-shocked horror, as if we really have just seen people being blown up.
Tommaso wrote:What I didn't get at my first viewing of "Crosses" is that Antonin Artaud has a role, I only noticed when I looked at the cover blurp afterwards. As I'm terribly bad in remembering character names and won't have the time to watch the film again any time soon, which character did Artaud play? I didn't recognize him at all in the film.
Is he the soldier who has a fit and runs out of the bunker during the ‘digging the mine’ sequence?