Friday 23 August 2019

On Vintage Film Buff DVD - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison tracks down a rarity, MARIE-LOUISE (Leopold Lindtberg, Switzerland, 1944)

An oddity, Leopold Lindtberg‘s (1944, suspect date) Marie-Louise was curiously the first foreign film to win a U.S. Oscar - for script - apparently a landmark for Swiss film making. While it has an appeal in its own right, it is more notable for rare glimpses of neutral Europe during WW2.

Opening in 1940 Rouen under German bombing, this one covers the Swiss holidays arranged for French children to get them away from hostilities for a month. Teenage Josiane Hegg, devoted to her little brother, shepherds him into the cellars when sirens sound. A wiz bang destroys the next house. There’s dialogue about the mother working in a factory making shells like the ones which are destroying the city.

A large numbered ticket round her neck, Hegg joins the train for the Alps. When she gets there, the family she is to stay with has had an outbreak of measles. French-Flammand charity worker Margrit Winter takes her home to the large house of her father Heinrich Gretler (glimpsed in the Lang M) the manager of a local textile mill. The women are worried about the reaction of the controlling patriarch but Gretler takes the surprise calmly and warms to the girl.

However, news arrives that Hegg’s beloved little brother has been killed. There is an out of character flourish that doesn’t really work at the Rouen funeral with the dead speaking over their head stones. 

When planes fly over her new home, young Hegg goes into shock, recalling the bombings. She has to be hospitalised and the mill workers are moved. “A child shouldn’t have nervous attacks.” They come up with a plan to do an extra quarter of an hour a day to build a fund to aid war victims. One Bolshy tradesman objects that the bosses will now expect it but fatherly Gretler smooths out the details.

No one says "The Swiss work for the Germans during the week and pray for the Allies on Sunday." It’s not that picture.

When it’s time to rotate the children, Hegg doesn’t want to leave, jumping the return train and removing her ticket. The train is an element that Lindtberg’s production team rise to - tearful farewells, the shot of the girl standing filmed through the passing bogie wheels as it pulls away from her, or the final twisting rails.

The family find her and with some more tender loving care she’s up to going back to her mother in Rouen. This element of the plot will be worked over as The Search which Lazar Wechsler & Oscar Duby produced for Fred Zinnemann post-war, the director’s first major film and Montgomery Clift’s screen debut. 

Marie-Louise is a particularly interesting comparison to The Search. It shows the shift from simple, comforting humanist contemporary European films like Blasetti’s 1942 4 passi fra le nuvole/Four Steps in the Clouds or Becker’s 1943 Goupi Mains Rouges, into the savage depiction in Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns/The Murderers Are Among Us and  Rossellini’s Paisà, both made in 1946. 

Marie-Louise is a slighter achievement but it is still touching and derives impact from its unfamiliarity. Details probably observed from experience register - the light bulb in the shelter dimming as power fails, the refugee children washing their picnic dishes in an outdoors tub, the basket of apples a stranger distributes among them. Post-war film societies cherished films like this. It is an exceptionally accurate representation of the optimism that would be crushed. 

Now forgotten, Wechsler and Lindtberg, together and individually, were the visible face of Swiss film-making for years to come. Cameraman Emil Berna later did Winnetou films.
The cover of the official Swiss DVD. (Not under review here)

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