Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance

Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

Fury (1936)


Fritz Lang

Bartlett Cormack

Fritz Lang
Director of Photography:
Joseph Ruttenberg

Running time: 95 minutes

The first English-language film of the acclaimed German director of M, Fritz Lang, has an electrifying idea that doesn’t just provide us with a courtroom drama, but an indictment of mob rule and of the primative climate of revenge that many in the American South clung to at the time the film was made. This could have been a sweeping, powerful production if only Lang had been able to gauge how poor the acting of many in the cast was, and if the screenplay had relied a bit more on logic than emotion.

The story, which shows striking similarities to the case of the Scottsboro boys, is about the mindless violence that can result when emotions get the better of people’s minds and the principle of “innocent until proven guilt” goes out the window in the name of expeditious revenge. During the Great Depression, a very upstanding young man named Joe is working hard to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart and settle down.

Joe, played by Spencer Tracy, has even convinced his two brothers, equally desperate in the terrible economic climate, to give up their involvement in the underground business of racketeering, and everything seems to be going swell. That is, until he is pulled over by a policeman on the day he is supposed to meet up with his dear Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) again. He has a single banknote with him, whose serial number matches one given to a kidnapper as ransom. The kidnapper is still on the loose, and because the police is anxious and the public is breathing down their necks, Joe is put behind bars as a precautionary measure.

However, this precaution quickly gets the town talking, spurred on by those who have an axe to grind with the authorities, and in a dazzling sequence, we see how gossip spreads like wild fire, the stories becoming more and more embellished and the townsfolk whipping themselves into a frenzy. It doesn’t take long before a crowd gathers outside the police station demanding the delivery of the body so they can lynch the as yet uncharged man whose innocence is indisputable.

Fritz Lang, whose already had traces of this kind of mob rule and the devastating consequences it can have on someone who is innocent, is clearly passionate about his defence of the innocents, and with the meteoric rise of Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany, he had good reason to point out the dangers this kind of mind set could lead to.

Besides the abovementioned sequence of chattering people in the small town, the one more animated about the kidnapper having been captured than the previous, which ends with a hilarious shot of hens in a pen to signify the gossipmongers, there are many other memorable moments. During the scene with the crowd outside the police station, there is a quick succession of close-ups on the people’s starkly lit faces, giving an air of expressionism to the realism.

And at two points, Joe and Katherine individually break the fourth wall, although the reason for this is unclear. Joe, having survived a life-threatening fire, wishes to take revenge on the mob by pretending to have perished in the flames, and he delivers a rousing speech to the camera: “I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.”

In another scene with the two brothers, Katherine looks at us and calmly exclaims, “I saw him, behind those flames, in that burning jail, his face …” before grabbing her head and dissolving in tears.

But the court case itself seems to be more wishful thinking than sound legal argumentation, as there is no corpse that would justify finding the horde guilty of murder, no matter how much we or Joe would like that to be the case. Even in rural America, the doctrine of “corpus delicti” applies in murder cases, and it is plain ridiculous to assume Joe’s case is strong when no effort is made to produce his corpse. 

However, the film’s main point of interest to those who watch films for reasons beyond pure entertainment is its use of the medium to emphasise its ability to convey truth. Of course, the plot bears resemblance to other cases of lynching or attempted lynching of innocent men in the United States, but on a more tangible level, it uses newsreel footage to allegedly prove the identity of those who participated in the events. Such footage is presented as evidence in court, and lays to rest the claims by the defendants and their witnesses that they had nothing to do with the calamity at the police station. It is a shame, however, that the footage we are shown is so patently fake, as the camera seems to have been purposefully installed in certain positions right in front of the worst culprits at the very moment they decided to do something illicit. The sequence is utterly ridiculous and almost completely undermines the point Lang is trying to make.

By the time the final scenes roll along, Lang makes his most scathing indictment of the justice system that permitted lynchings, to some extent, until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and even allowed the spectacle of public executions until shortly after the film’s release (the release date was May 29, 1936, and the last public execution, of Rainey Bethea, took place Aug. 14 of the same year). A lawyer observes that on average a lynching takes place in the United States every three days. All of this while the people in the small town talk about the Sunday services they routinely attend.

Fury has a powerful message and delivers it forcefully, even though the elocution of many of the actors (Joe’s brothers, in particular, and also the district attorney) makes them sound like they are onstage and we are sitting in the front row of a theatre. The screenplay doesn’t do Lang many favours, but his use of multiple incidents scattered throughout the film that all fit together in the end makes us feel confident in the storyteller, and it pays off in the end.

À Nous la Liberté (1931)


René Clair
René Clair
Director of Photography:
Georges Périnal

Running time: 83 minutes (see review below for details)

René Clair’s À nous la liberté (“Freedom is ours”) is a heartfelt film about friendship in the face of capitalist greed. Its one lead is a die-hard romantic and the other is a guy full of ambition who, once given his chance, quickly establishes himself as the businessman of the decade. But the film has become more well-known for the controversy it caused years after its release than for its plot or its technique.

The film was released in 1931. Five years later, in 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times showed a remarkable similarity to Clair’s film, and the French producers decided to take the Americans to court in a case that was only settled after World War II. On careful viewing, it is clear that Chaplin had not stolen from Clair: The characters and the storyline are both very different, and even the one scene at the root of all the trouble is so enjoyable it would be hard to imagine either film without it.

The scene in question takes place around an assembly line at a factory. It’s one of the first sequences of Chaplin’s film, taking place during the opening minutes, and it shows the Tramp hard at work tightening the screws on some nameless implement the company is producing. He continues to be distracted and as a result comes up against the next person in line, creating a domino effect of chaos.

More or less the same thing happens in À nous la liberté, in that occupational chaos ensues when the aforementioned romantic is distracted at work in the factory. But Clair does not give the mechanical nature of the work environment the same priority as Chaplin; instead, his story looks at the friendship of two former prison inmates. Their work behind bars very obviously resembles the work in the factory — both take place around a conveyor belt — and in both spaces they are watched over by powerful individuals (guards or supervisors) who ensure they don’t steal anything, but Clair doesn’t belabour this point.

The two former prison inmates are called Louis and Émile — when they both attempt to escape at the beginning of the film, only Louis succeeds. He goes on to sell records on the street and in a very quick succession of shots that anticipates the editing of the famous decline of the marriage sequence in Citizen Kane, we witness his meteoric rise to becoming a very wealthy producer of gramophone players.

Émile is not so lucky and remains in prison a while longer, before he is release, and upon his release he is found in a field by two police officers and in resisting them he gets locked up again, albeit briefly.

The film’s subsequent handling of the reunion of these two men is smooth though never very profound, as they both seem to instantly revert to their earlier selves, without any real complications. There is a very firm sense that Émile could make Louis’ life difficult as he could tarnish his reputation as an upstanding member of society when he has in fact broken out of jail. But this line is never thoroughly exploited.

Instead, Clair has a very soft storyline that sees Émile fall in love with a girl who shows a little interest towards him at the factory — and whom he literally broke out of jail for to be with. This is where the film’s re-releases become an interesting point of discussion. While the film was initially released with a running time of more than 100 minutes, the current version has had two scenes cut, both available on video sharing sites.

The first scene develops the musical theme of much of the first part of the film by having flowers sing to Émile. The film didn’t really need this scene. The second scene, however, serves to provide some detail on Émile’s appreciation of the girl he has fallen in love with and certainly would have provided a firmer background to Émile’s apparent laissez-faire attitude when it is revealed she will remain with her boyfriend rather than hook up with Émile.

Besides one scene that, in retrospect, seems an eerily accurate commentary on the evil of the workplace (a teacher tells his students, “Work is freedom,” echoing the infamous words of the Auschwitz death camp), À nous la liberté has a humanist slant and is by no means that scathing indictment that Chaplin insinuated with Modern Times. That being said, Chaplin  has a much more enjoyable film, and he offers more gimmicks than Clair that, in the end, make for a memorable production. That is not to say Clair’s film lacks importance or interest — the opening tracking shot in the prison is a particularly strong evocation of man’s potential loss of human characteristics in the prison (or work) environment, and in a very well-scripted speech towards the end of the film, someone makes the point that while machines can replace the hand of man, they cannot replace his brain.

Whether that is true remains to be seen, but as far as we can tell from this film, Clair’s heart, head and hand were in the right place at the right time.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


Leo McCarey
Viña Delmar
Director of Photography:
William C. Mellor

Running time: 91 minutes

Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow will forever be known as the American film that anticipated Yasujiro Ozu’s celebrated Tokyo Story by more than a decade. It is the story of an elderly couple who have lost their home during the Great Depression and need the support of their five children, all of whom are unwilling to put a roof over both their parents’ heads because of the disruption it would create in their own lives. So, their father and mother spend most of the film separated from each other, waiting for a letter or a phone call that would offer reassurance about each other’s health and good spirits.

The film is affectionate towards its two main characters without being sentimental or schmaltzy, and the director’s very simple presentation of the material makes for an unassuming visual quality that does not seek to highlight any part of its content; the impact of the film on the viewer is the result of many small incidents that we fear might tear at the relationship of a couple who has been married for fifty years.

Barkley and Lucy Cooper are in their late sixties or early seventies and the bank has recently foreclosed on their home, because Barkley hasn’t worked in four years, and is visibly affected by his age. They have gathered together their children to explain the situation, but their children seem to think it would be a terrible bother; not one of them is keen on putting up both the parents, so Barkley and Lucy go their own ways to spend time with their children for what is supposed to be a temporary arrangement. It does turn out to be very temporary, and in the process the generation gap quickly becomes evident and unbearable. The film itself starts with a title card that implies the natural difficulty of communication across the generations: “…there is no magic that will draw together in perfect understanding the aged and the young. There is a canyon between us, and the painful gap is only bridged by the ancient words of a very wise man — ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’.

We spend most of the film in the company of Lucy, the mother, who is staying with her son George, his wife and their daughter. We quickly realise that Lucy is not as out of touch with reality as her family thinks she is, and while she doesn’t want to impose, her daughter-in-law, who teaches bridge at home in the evening, makes no bones about the fact that her stay is interfering with the established rhythm of the family. In the meantime, her own son has made contact with a rest room for elderly women. I found, however, that certain scenes were a bit overdramatic in the sense that Lucy did meddle with the guests – being the only person standing up, while the others are seated at the tables, she goes around looking at people’s cards and making comments about their hands.

Lucy’s husband, Barkley, is spending time with his daughter Cora, a woman whose pride blinds her to the generosity of others and whose stinginess makes her appear to be completely heartless. As opposed to the events of Tokyo Story, the children in this film, while arguably even worse than the children in Ozu’s film, do realise, in the end, that they have not lived up to their parents’ expectations. The emotional shock that George’s wife gets when she becomes aware that there is also a communication gap between her and her daughter is a significant development, for it becomes a mirror held up to the adults and reflects their relationship with their parents.

The film contains beautiful moments of reminiscence between Barkley and Lucy that may be compared to the beginning of Up, and by the time Lucy recites a poem she memorised as a young girl, half the audience will have teared up. Make Way for Tomorrow is not a life lesson as much as it is a look at a couple whose relationship has lasted 50 years, and can even withstand the condescension of their own children, though we might not always believe what they are capable of.

The poem that Lucy recites is the following:

A man and a maid stand hand in hand,
Down by a wedding band.
Before them lay uncertain years,
Promised joy, maybe tears.
‘Is she afraid?’ thought the man of the maid.
‘Darling,’ he says, in a tender voice,
‘Do you regret your choice?’
‘We know not where the road will wind,
Or what strange byways we may find.
Are you afraid?’ says the man, to the maid.

She raised her eyes, and spoke at last.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘the die have been cast,
The vows have been spoken,
The rice has been thrown,
Into the future we travel alone.’

‘With you,’ said the maid, ‘I’m not afraid.’