War Is Near: 1938-1939

If an alien would visit our globe after the humans had destroyed each other and enter a film archive, the films from 1938-39 would give him a glimpse of the madness to come. We aren’t showing the most direct anticipations (which do exist), preferring images of fear and frail hope, random shadows that catch us by surprise, bits of dialogue that do not meet – everything that the greatest film of the period, Renoir’s La Règle du jeu, did so miraculously. Accordingly, the working title for the series has been Les Années Règle du jeu. Our round-trip to these troubled times will include Menaces (Edmond T. Gréville), Bílá nemoc (Hugo Haas), Sans lendemain (Max Ophuls), Ošibka inženera Kocˇina (Aleksandr Macˇeret), Three Comrades (Frank Borzage), Pour le mérite (Karl Ritter). Plus some great shorts, for instance, by Humphrey Jennings. What is revealed in probably least known of these, Ošibka inženera Kocˇina? It’s the Soviet Union in 1939, the atmosphere of spying, sabotage, informing. On the screen: certainly not the ‘truth’ but more than that, in a way that only cinema can convey, planting touches of paranoia, doubt and the strangest life of all, existence between 1936-37 (the Moscow trials) and 1941 (war), and between life and death. We’ll see the same with other films as well. It’s a concerto in which several countries participate, all of them in different situations but facing the same world and the same concrete threat. Their destinies would vary. Sometimes a film seems to offer relatively straight-forward testimony, yet it is more telling and varied in perspective than diplomatic communiqués and documents. Other films are oddly present in the time of peace they show, but preview the war to come, with nothing much happening in the fragile daily life, opening onto amazing revelations. Fiction is often more concrete than documentary; taken together, their testimony is something no other form of expression can catch about Nazism and communism, democracy and neutrality, the big wolves of the world map and the small countries, and thus a missing link in our understanding of one of the most burning single moments of the last century.

(Peter von Bagh)