Marie-Louise (1944, Leopold Lindtberg)
Likely the most obscure film we have yet examined in this space, Marie-Louise is a haunting oddity that eerily captures the dour mood of Europe in the waning years of World War II — a stark, dangerous and dread-filled existence seldom examined by the jingoistic, cheery American propaganda films of the time. This is not a film with any particularly powerful agenda; it’s mostly just a lament, an elegy of sorts, for an entire generation’s rapid loss of comfort and innocence. From the perspective of a precocious teenage girl — years before we knew Anne Frank’s name, but filmed while she wrote and suffered — it examines the unforgiving destruction and tedium of a war-torn life, its frightening, shadowy photography of same contrasted beautifully with the florid naturalism of Switzerland and its relative calm and widespread understanding. On a very superficial level, Marie-Louise is about acceptance of one’s fate — but it’s more likely that we are meant to question whether any child deserves to be forced to come face to face with such a cruel resignation.
Very little information about this film is available online — it is quite difficult to see in the U.S. at present — and much of what exists at IMDB and other sources is incorrect, so an accurate plot summary might be of some benefit here; we generally skirt such things here, but it seems necessary in this case. The gist: A girl of about 12 runs frantically through a traumatic life in occupied France with her mom and younger brother, but is recruited for a three-month stay in neutral Switzerland where, after getting over her violent fear of planes and people, she comes to love her surrogate family, and when horrible news comes from home, she clings more tightly to them than is perhaps appropriate. There are subplots dealing with the kind hearts of the rich family that takes in Marie-Louise, a bit of tearjerking stuff about how the community opens up to the French children given temporarily shelter, and some cross-cutting that shows how life has only gotten worse for her mother and brother.
The film is almost exclusively known today not for its content but for its highly surprising win of the Best Screenplay Academy Award — the first major award given at the Oscars to a foreign-language film, in this case a Swiss production but spoken mostly in French. That award led to Hollywood script work for writer Richard Schweizer, who would go on to cowrite the Montgomery Clift vehicle The Search and win another Oscar. Good for him, but in a time of international strain this was likely a token gesture. The dialogue or writing in Marie-Louise is not what’s special about it — it’s in acting and direction that the film so astutely captures the civilian experience of war.
It’s hard to judge the film visually from the copy I had — a bootleg some unimaginable number of generations from its source — but it certainly looked very beautiful from what I could gather, and featured a few moments of stunning, almost magical power. The harrowing opening air raid sequence is threateningly realistic and troubling in a close-to-home manner that none of the great Hollywood air-war films like Wings ever could be, specifically because Marie-Louise captures the terror on the ground: the every-second-crucial search for a place to hide, the never knowing who will survive to the next morning, the barren wastelands of what once were city streets, captured here by director Leopold Lindtberg and cinematographer Emil Berna with noir-like darkness but no layer of irony or cynicism. Later, the scene in which Marie-Louise’s Swiss host father buys her a dollhouse that’s a replica of her real home is rhymed exquisitely, tragically with the searingly mournful funeral scene that features four people killed by air raids speaking on their lives from beyond in simple, devastating terms — the “you can’t go home again” point perhaps never being so cuttingly illustrated.
But above all else in the film stands the shattering climax that has Marie-Louise running from the train meant to return her to France, following the train tracks and going back to the place where she now feels safe. Her quiet escape and subsequent journey on foot emotionally and visually anticipate The 400 Blows and are the peak of the fine, aching performance by the otherwise-unknown Josiane Hegg in the lead. Hegg manages a broad grin when she finally says goodbye for the last time, but the film’s polished pleasantry only half-heartedly hides the oppressive sadness of the viewer who knows that the war is not over, that she is returning to a broken family and possibly being sent to the brink of her own death. There’s something sickening, finally, about all of those smiling faces.
Lindtberg and Schweizer fill the final fifteen minutes with business about another young boy whose dogged romanticism charms the adults, and this seems a painfully manipulative bone thrown to the audience-pleasing, feel-good propaganda cinema circling around the world in the mid-’40s, with much pointed dialogue about the sweetness and glory of France, and about the safety and happiness a rotating cycle of children will find in Switzerland, the political faults of which go unmentioned. The unsatisfying and slightly absurd conclusion doesn’t resolve the film’s central problem; all we’re seeing is a child, Marie-Louise, mature enough to pretend to be happy surrounded by others fatalistic or oblivious enough not to reflect as despairingly upon their likely fates. It’s significant that the film does not cut again to Marie-Louise’s former home after the key plot point of the film (which, given the unusual circumstances of this review, I will forego directly revealing); it seems as if a part of her has now died, that her escape is its last gasp, and she will now fold her hands and wander quietly into the night. None of this is directly addressed, which is why a surface glance of the film reveals that it’s about a young girl until it decides to be about a building (and a country). Either way, the finale doesn’t wash.
There’s a chance that some of these criticisms come about due to cuts that have been made to American prints of the film. The IMDB lists Marie-Louise as running twenty minutes longer than the version I saw. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether the posted length is inaccurate or if I saw a cut version. I wouldn’t be surprised by either. But I’ve seen enough to proclaim that this is an intriguing artifact if you’re lucky enough to track it down — and certainly serves as a fascinating portrait of European attitudes near the end of WWII, and more universally, the degree to which war destroys childhood, inevitably and always.
[With a heavy heart, I submit what will hopefully be one of the very few reviews here that features no illustrations. My DVD drive did not like the bootleg I purchased, and there’s virtually nothing related to this film available online. Open invitation to anyone who has stills or anything else relevant to this movie and willing to share to email me: poisonmail at aol dot com.]