David Golder. Director:Julien Duvivier, Script: Julien Duvivier from a novel of the same name by Irene Nemirovsky, Cast: Harry Baur/David Golder), Paule Andral/Gloria Golder, Jackie Monnier/Joyce Golder), Gaston Jacquet/Count Hoyos, Paul Franceschi Soifer. France,1931, 86 minutes
In recent reviews of this director's work I questioned why he was drawn to particular projects. Was it simply a vehicle for work and money as a journeyman director or was it a particular intellectual and emotional drive relating to a particular subject? I remain perplexed because I have such limited biographical information about Julien Duvivier. What I can say is that this is clearly the director's first truly mature work, at least in sound and compares, in my view, very favourably with La Fin du Jour (Fraance, 1939), generally recognised if not as Duvivier's absolute masterpiece (I happen to think it is), certainly as his pre-war masterpiece.
The film is one of unrelieved pessimism, even more so than the novel by Irene Nemirovsky upon which it was based. This novel had been published only a very short time previously, to rapturous acclaim that the author, being so young, could have produced something so mature. Ms Nemirovsky was an emigre Russian of Jewish background who arrived in France after the Russian October Revolution and subsequently married a French Jewish banker, David Epstein. Both were subsequently to perish in the Holocaust, she from typhus in a concentration camp, and he somewhat subsequently by being gassed. The issue of the author’s Jewish background and the subject matter of the book, inevitably colour, to some considerable extent, one's perceptions of the film.
Ms Nemirovsky faded from public interest relatively quickly after her death although her work has been revived in the last few years. It remains tarnished in the eyes of many because her novel "David Golder" takes a rather unflattering view of its Jewish subjects. The author has been consistently lambasted during this period of revival as an "anti-Jewish Jew". Also somewhat before the Second World War she was baptised Christian and wrote for a number of extremely right wing publications, possibly with the expectation that this would help her, even though she could not have in the prewar period known that the country would fall to the Germans. In reality it did not help her at all. But a modern reader of the novel, just like a modern viewer of the film, inevitably looks at anti-Semitism through the prism of the Holocaust and without wishing for a moment to diminish the moral complexity of this issue, I think we must accept that in the prewar period, in most Western countries, a sort of casual anti-Semitism was more or less universal, though not an anti-Semitism that would for a moment contemplate mass killing. It seems to me to be far better to face this fact directly and judge the film taking this into account in accordance with the standards of the time, rather than judge it (certainly not exclusively anyway) by modern perceptions.
As a background historical fact, France lost vast manpower during the First World War and was forced to accept immigration from other European countries subsequently. Many of these new migrants came from Poland including a very considerable number of Jews from the Pale of Settlement and this significant influx of "Orientals" caused considerable discomfort to traditional French society. While immigration was permitted, obtaining citizenship was rendered very difficult and indeed Ms Nemirovsky failed in several attempts to become a French citizen. When the Germans occupied France, the first Jews to be kidnapped and killed were these non-citizen immigrants.
So let us be entirely candid, pictorially, the film panders to all the usual anti-Semitic stereotypes. David Golder himself, profoundly financially successful, wallows in the obsession with money. His friend, Soifer, whom we meet early in the film, dining with Golder, and who is almost certainly a successful jeweller (another typically "Jewish" profession) is hooked nosed, very unattractive, unshaven and with bad table manners. To top all this off, he walks on the points of his shoes, so that he will not wear out the soles. Harry Baur, a quite magnificent actor, was not himself Jewish (although his wife was) and he manages to convey a Jewish physiognomy, just by almost imperceptible changes in facial expression and demeanour. It is an extraordinarily refined and compelling performance such that he makes us emotionally identify with Golder, even if not necessarily liking him.
At the same time as dinner is going on Golder rebuffs a former co-venturer (this co-venturer seemingly being a Gentile) who has cheated Golder. Rebuffed the man takes his own life to Golder's apparent indifference. "I don't care.", he says. Yet it does not seem to me that he is by nature cold; rather, despite his worldly trappings, he is profoundly unhappy. What he has achieved cannot bring him acceptance and intimacy. It is the playing out of this "aloneness" which I think is the kernel of the movie. Concerned with the onset of angina, he decides to join his estranged wife (Gloria) and sole child (Joyce) in Biarritz where they live in splendour in a villa. Golder is picked up at the airport by Gloria's driver. Golder observes that it is a new car – a Rolls-Royce and the driver observes that Mme grew tired of the previous car, an Hispano Suiza. I should note at this point the fidelity to consistent style of the director. The Rolls-Royce in question was a then recently released Phantom II, probably only about six months old and with an English body, all of which indicates a conspicuous attempt at verisimilitude. Somewhat subsequently Joyce implores her father to get a new car, which he does: a Bugatti sports car. This car was similarly wildly expensive and rare.
Manifestly uncomfortable and not made really welcome by either his wife or child, nor by the gaggle of hangers on in and at the Villa, Golder becomes more estranged. His wife, stunningly groomed all the time, from morning till night, is positively dripping jewellery and shows absolutely no interest in Golder's ill-health. She is concerned exclusively with her ability to maintain her lifestyle, including a surreptitious long-term adulterous relationship with Count Hoyos whom in a moment of anger she reveals is the father of Joyce.
There is no doubt that Golder is a very hard man. He is a "chancer" in business but has had long-term success. He displays this hardness by going to the casino and winning, pretty much against the odds. But this indomitable hard nature must be construed as having an adverse effect on his health and as it is gradually revealed that his business empire is in danger, he begins to take more chances to hold things together, not so much for himself but for his daughter whom he cannot see at all does not care a whit for him. He exists solely as the provider of her lifestyle. What we as viewers see is completely hidden from him.
Leaving the villa he pursues a final gamble: seeking oil concessions from the Soviets in the Baku oilfields to the irreparable damage to his health. He dies in the presence of a young Jewish Russian emigrant (my guess is that the city they have left from in Russia is Odessa) but he is not a confidant. Golder dies without the support of family and indeed begs the young man to ensure that his daughter is the recipient of his wealth. His life ultimately is without purpose or comfort.
This is one of those rare films that from apparently unpromising material, an emotional bond is created – and this is solely due to the director – so that we identify and understand completely with the character, in this case Golder. Everything about this film is first class. It might seem that the supporting actors are not of particularly high standard, but this would not be accurate in my view. They are all superlative. It is just that Harry Baur is so overwhelmingly convincing. The set pieces are superbly constructed. Scenes in the villa capture completely the brittleness and falseness of a mini society that is only held together by the rapacious desire for someone else's money. An absolute masterwork!