All About the French New Wave (compiled from the work of Simon Hitchman) 1940 1944: The Occupation

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All About the

French New Wave

(compiled from the work of Simon Hitchman)

1940 - 1944: The Occupation

Paris during the Second World War was a dark city. The blackout imposed by the occupying German forces meant that lights had to be turned off, a shortage of gasoline kept cars off the road, and a curfew kept most people off the streets at night. During the day, the occupying German forces enacted numerous regulations, censorship and propaganda. In short, Parisians found life rather unbearable under the thumb of the oppressor.

One of the few distractions available to the French citizens was the cinema, but the choice of what to see was limited. American films were banned, and aside from German productions which consisted mainly of imitations of Hollywood musical comedies and melodramatic propaganda movies, they had access only to the 200 odd French films that were produced during this four-year period. These films, which had to be approved by the German censor, were essentially pale imitations of the great French cinema of Marcel Carne, Rene Clair, Marcel Pagnol, and Jean Renoir—who had dominated the French cinema prior to WWII.

Le Corbeau (The Raven) [1943]

To a generation of cinephiles (film lovers) like Andre Bazin, Alain Resnais and Eric Rohmer, who had grown up in the rich cinematic culture of the 1920’s and 30’s, this lack of choice added to the sense of loss they already felt as a consequence of the war. And it wasn’t just French films they missed; they could also no longer see the American genre films they loved: westerns, comedies and adventure films by directors such as Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, Leo McCarey, and Ernst Lubitsch. This experience of loss led them to prize freedom of expression and truth of representation above all else—values which would become central to their later work.

For a younger generation born around 1930, who would later make up most of the directors of the New Wave, the cinema became the center of their universe and a refuge from the harsh reality of the world outside. They were too young to know much about the films that had come before the war. Neither had they any reviews or criticism to guide them, but they instinctively cherished a handful of films made during the occupation like Lumiere d’ete (1943) by Jean Gremillon, Les Visiteurs du Soir (1943) by Carne and Prevert, Le Destin Fabuleux de Disiree Clary (1941) by Sacha Guitry, Goupi Mains Rouges (1943) by Jacques Becker, and above all, Le Corbeau (1943) by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

France After The War

In 1944 France was liberated from German occupation by the Allied forces. In the years that followed the Liberation, cinema became more popular than ever before. French films such as Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du paradise (1945) and Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail (1946) were a great success. Italian and British imports were also popular. But most popular of all were the stockpile of films now streaming in from Hollywood.

During the occupation the Nazis had banned the import of American films. As a result, after the war, when the ban was lifted by the 1946 Blum-Byrnes Agreement, nearly a decade’s worth of missing films arrived in French cinemas in the space of a single year. It was a time of exciting discoveries for film enthusiasts eager to catch up with what had been happening in the rest of the world.


Reviews and Journals

Andre Bazin

The Liberation brought with it a great desire for self-expression, open communication and understanding. The discussion of film, inevitably, became part of the discourse. Journals, such as L’Ecran Francais, became a platform for writers like Andre Bazin to develop their theories and convey their enthusiasm for film. Bazin saw cinema as an art form, and one that deserved serious analysis. His interest was in the language of film – favoring the discussion of form over content. Such an attitude tended to bring him into conflict with the predominantly left-wing writers at the paper, who were more concerned with the political standpoint of a film.

Another writer at the magazine who shared Bazin’s sense of aesthetics was Alexandre Astruc. In 1948 he wrote an article titled “Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera as Pen,” in which he argued for cinema (a counterpart to literature) to become a more personal form, in which the camera literally became a pen in the hands of a director. The article would become something of a manifesto for the New Wave generation and a first step in the development of “auteur theory.”

Another magazine that was quite popular with this new generation of cinephiles was Le Revue du Cinema. This was a publication devoted to the arts and, therefore, much less concerned with politics and issues of social commitment. American cinema was discussed as much as European cinema, and there were in-depth studies of directors like D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Fritz Lang, and Orson Welles. Andre Bazin contributed some important articles to the magazine on cinema technique, as did the young Eric Rohmer, whose piece, “Cinema, the Art of Space” would have a lasting influence on the directors of the New Wave.

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