"Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark": Motherland, Occupation and Resistance in "Lumière d’été"

A look at Jean Grémillon's 1943 masterpiece: its story, reception, and allegories of nation and society.
Ehsan Khoshbakht


In Laissez-passer [Safe Conduct], the film that the French director Bertrand Tavernier made in 2002, we see the French film industry of the Occupation years as a ruined and almost shut-down institution that is highly dependent on the factor of chance. In his story, Tavernier exculpates one of the key figures of the occupation cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot, from the accusation of collaborating with the Nazis. He pictures Clouzot as a man whose Jewish wife has been held hostage by the Nazis and, and against all odds, he finishes Le corbeau about the vicious and nasty people of a small town in France, where someone is sending poison pen letters to its "honourable" citizens. Le corbeau became a very popular box-office hit during the Occupation, and, at the same time, the underground press attacked it for showing France as a land of the degenerate and perverted people, a view that, according to accusers, would confirm the Germans' impression of French people. After the liberation, such an accusation brought Clouzot to trial and cost him a heavy price: two years of suspension from directing films.

In the same year that Le corbeau was made, another pillar of French cinema, Jean Grémillon, directed one of his masterpieces, Le ciel est à vous [The Sky Is Yours], about the passion of flying, an allegory for the people of an "occupied" land. A well-respected director from the days of silent cinema, Grémillon made this beautiful and deceptively simple story of struggle and family values to address what was happening in France. Grémillon's message of resistance was hidden so deep that it even fooled the censors in Vichy, where the film was praised for its return-to-French-principles that the collaborationist regime was propagandizing. Paradoxically, the same director was also hailed, for the very same film, as a hero in Résistance publications, and the underground film journal, L'Écran français, described the film as a picture of "the true French of today."1

Ironically, Le ciel est à vous had a poor sale in France, and it contributed to the decline of Grémillon as a director of commercially successful films. After the war, Clouzot returned to the scene and conquered the box office with almost the same pessimistic stories he had designed in Le corbeau. For Grémillon things didn't work out well, and after some intriguing attempts to repeat the success of his pre-war films, he returned to the documentary field. Even some of the post-war critics, in a reversed position, interpreted Clouzot as anti-collaborationist, and Grémillon as a "Pétainist, for its small- minded patriotism."2

The Occupation of France was a crucial moment for French cinema. Known for its liberal attitudes and responsive portrayals of topical issues, it now had to deal with censorship in its most constraining form. Nothing could be made without Vichy's or the occupants' approval. But in on another hand, and according to the detailed researches of scholars like Evelyn Ehrlich, this period shaped the characteristics of French cinema of the post-war years up to Nouvelle Vague. What was attacked in merciless Cahiers du cinéma articles as "cinéma de papa," is actually this "certain tendency" in French cinema raised during the Occupation; a cinema obsessed with quality and craftsmanship, but utterly indifferent, or unable to deliver what was actually happening in the streets.

So, how was French cinema responding to occupation? An accurate answer would require a careful study of 200 films made under the Vichy regime. But here my aim is to read that period and examine certain concepts in French cinema concerning "nationality" and "land," by studying a key film Jean Grémillon made during the occupation, Lumière d'été (1943). I would bring two different histories together: a socio-political history of French cinema, along with the history of an individual.

The question which remains quintessential is: Can one person re-write the history of a country and shape the national identity singlehandedly? Which picture is true about the occupied France, the one we see in Le corbeau or is it the one depicted by Grémillon in Lumière d'été?

Grémillon and Occupation

Born in 1901, Grémillon was originally a musician, but he later developed a passion for cinema as a field of expression that could be complementary to music. He started working in cinema as an editor, later, as a director of industrial documentaries. From his first silent feature, Maldone (1928), till his death in 1959, he directed twenty more feature films, among which L'étrange Monsieur Victor, Gueule d'amour, Remorques, Lumière d'été, and Le ciel est à vous, are considered classics of French cinema. He died on the same day as Gérard Philipe, and he unjustly remained unknown in English language film literature.

For all the French filmmakers, occupation turned out to be the end of an era, and Grémillon wasn't an exception. With no raw material, the best talents hid or fled to neutral countries, and a constant threat of a physical war, there was no hope for making films. But soon, and for various reasons—economical, cultural and political—the occupants allowed French film industry to resume its production under new laws and, obviously, a tight censorship.

Two months after the fall of France, and when the country was divided into two sections (one occupied by Nazis, and another free, both under the dictatorship of the Vichy regime), Marcel Pagnol directed the first French film of the new era, in the South.

In 1941 the French cinema was not only far from slowing down, but sprouting forth as if it was witnessing a new birth. During the short years of normalcy, roughly between 1941 to early 1943, Jean Grémillon managed to make two films, Lumière d'été and Le ciel est à vous, both regarded as his masterpieces of the Occupation years.

In spite of tyranny and the absolute control of Germans over the French film industry, statistics show a growth in production and a noticeable leap in the quality of films. Even some of the legends of French cinema made their debuts under these circumstances (Robert Bresson and Jacques Becker, both prisoners of war, and of course Clouzot).

Louis Daquin describes the situation of film-making under Vichy as something similar to that of the UFA studios in the late 1930s: In such a place where, supposedly, everything should have been filtered by Nazis, Daquin says that in fact they had no intention, nor the ambition, to force propaganda themes on every single film. That's probably why not a single Nazi-praising film was made during the Occupation.

To avoid showing Nazi road signs and Nazi uniforms walking every day in the streets of Paris, films moved away from the traditions of the urban realist cinema and went to the provinces. Visually, Occupation films were more stylized and detached from everyday reality. In the case of Lumière d'été, this mannerism in style reminds me of great French films of the late silent period.

Surprisingly, Lumière d'été was supported by both sides. Vichy was providing financial aid for films that were meant to glorify nationalism and French culture. In 1942, twenty films received such aid, including Lumière d'été. On the other hand, this film was also financed by fascist money, not from Germany, but from another ally: Italy. During the occupation years, some French producers were collaborating with Italians, and they were using their money while France was desperately in need of basic resources. These co-productions led to the formation of 'La Société Cinematographique Mediterranéenne d'exploitation' (CIMEX) of which 60 percent was owned by Italians. Despite pressures from the Germans, who wanted total control over French cinema, especially for economic interests, CIMEX's role in making the Lumière d'été shows the transnational character of European cinema, even during the most troubled times of the continent's history.3

This is what makes the case of Lumière d'été so interesting, and at the same time more complex, when we bear in mind that how the money from Vichy and Fascist Italy led to the birth of one of the most anti-tyranny, anti-fascist films of the occupation years.

Was Grémillon sympathetic to the Résistance? Noël Burch and Geneviève Sellier reveal in their 1996 book La drôle de guerre des sexes du cinéma français, 1930-1956 that in Le ciel est à vous, the couple's favorite song, "The Time of Lilacs and Roses," played by the piano teacher, is an allusion to "Lilacs and Roses," the first Résistance poem written by Louis Aragon in 1940 and distributed by the French underground.4

Le ciel est à vous, according to the film historian Bernard Eisenschitz, was taken by French audience as a "call to arms."5  No wonder Grémillon played a significant role in producing documentaries about the Résistance that were made soon after liberation. These films carried titles such as Monde-Libra, Paris se libéré and France libéré, and they were all compilation documentaries made from Allied newsreels. According to Daquin (a member of 'Le Comite de liberation du cinema'), Grémillon contributed to these films.6  His Le 6 juin à l'aube was a documentation of two months of fighting along the coasts of Normandy. Even around April, 1947, Grémillon started to prepare to make a film called Le printemps de la liberté, but after fourteen months of pre-production, the project was cancelled and, instead, Grémillon performed a radio version of it (July 1948) and at the end of the year (December 1948) it was published as a book. According to the documents, a stage version of it was also performed in Paris in 1949.7

Was Lumière d'été an adequate response to occupation? To what extent Grémillon is consciously challenging the values promoted by Vichy and how he is addressing the Nazis in his film, are points demanding a more careful study.

Lumière d'été

Lumière d'été depicts "the contrast of a group of self-pitying, disintegrating failures living in a hotel in a remote part of France, with the hard, earthy existence of workmen engaged on building a dam in the valley below." Its central character, like some other Grémillon films, is a young woman, Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), who comes to the hotel to meet her fiancé (Pierre Brasseur), a drunken second-rate artist. There, she attracts "another typically pervert character—a selfish, aging and wealthy playboy full of disillusion and self-hatred" played by Paul Bernard.8

Conflicts and tensions between the hotel residents create the drama. The owner of the hotel, played by Madeleine Renaud, is a former dancer who has an affair with the wealthy Count, and with her fading beauty and social status she becomes pathetically jealous of the Count's attraction to the young and beautiful Michèle. As Michèle's fiancé begins to hide his fears and doubts in alcohol, the Count, taking advantage of the situation and trying to possess Michèle, invites them to stay with him in his castle.

Michèle and her fiancé accept the invitation, but their life in the castle ends in tragedy and disaster after a costume party. Michèle, who has recognized the helplessness and decadence of the society represented by the Count and other characters, goes off with a young engineer from the valley.9

Lumière d'été consists of two parts, separated by a change in location. The first part happens in the hotel on the mountains, and the second half in the castle of Count Partice du Verdier. The hotel is not only a sign of drifting far from home, but a realist representation of the conditions of life in France that many of its cities (especially in the north and west) were evacuated of its habitants, many of which fled to the south.

The last sequence of the film and the dramatic resolution of the story occur when all the guests in Verdier's castle drive back to the hotel—a fatal accident stops them and they end up in the valley, among the workers.

Family was the supreme institution in Vichy's dogma, and even Marshall Pétain called it "the cell of French life."  The official motto of Vichy was "work, family, country", and it was seen in direct relation to the country's youth. Like Fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany, youth was glorified as the key factor of National Socialism's victory.

But in Grémillon's film, France is depicted as a colonized nation, divided by social classes and personal conflicts. Throughout the film absolutely no sign of establishing families is visible. As a matter of fact, what is represented is a picture of people, utterly passive towards their situation, and merely living in the past (constant references to souvenirs and the oral reminiscing if the "better days"). Grémillon presents an interesting variety of characters from different social classes in the French society: aristocrats, middle class, artists, and workers. With the exception of workers, the rest are waiting for salvation in complete isolation. They are depicted as a bunch of exiles and outcasts who cannot understand the necessities of the time. As shown masterfully in the bal masqué scene, they are living in the past, an imaginary past that is supposed to represent the glory and the pride of the French nation.

Pierre Brasseur's character can be seen as a commentary on French artists, or maybe a commentary on the nature of the escapist cinema of occupation. He is selfish, and unpredictable. The artist's weakness allows the Count to control him, and makes him a servant of the upper class, while the Count, by feeding Brasseur the alcohol he needs, pushes him to an inevitable collapse.

The artist's nihilism and his cowardice prevents him from standing against the Count, and when the young engineer finally throws the Count out of the cabin on the mountains, the artist regrets not having the courage to do it himself.

Since the artist cannot create anything worthy of his time, he has turned into a self-pitying character that, in two scenes, shows a touch of self-destruction: in the first he is riding a motorcycle, drunk and suicidal, and again, in the last scene, he is drunk and irresponsibly drives the Count's car on the dangerous roads of the valley and kills himself. "I can't help it. The truth is out. It's washing over us, shaking us. We're soaked. We're both lost," says the artist to Michèle, and it's not easy to ignore the bitterness these lines are reflecting with regards to the France during the Occupation. This suicidal behaviour is not only a feature of the artist's character; Michèle also walks deliberately on the hills that she knows are full of land-mines, and are about to explode any moment.

The main couple's choice of dress in the bal sequence can be seen as another allegory: the artist dresses up as Hamlet—the dilemma of the artists under the Occupation—while Michèle chooses Ophelia as her character. When the artist keeps saying "something's rotten in the State of Denmark," the film reaches the climax of its confrontation against Vichy values: "Your gambles? Your songs? Look Ophelia. Look at him behind the bar, with his poor face. Why this poor face? Because something's rotten in the state of Denmark."

When referring to Germans is utterly impossible, the Count takes becomes the evil character. At the time of the film's initial release, the Count was seen by many—including the Résistance—as a Nazi sympathizer. He is a totalitarian character with evil intentions. This disillusioned aristocrat apparently had shot his wife but his ambiguous past is brought up just briefly in the film. He corrupts the artist and makes a drunk out of him in order to possess his woman: France.

His association with guns links him with the military values not only of Germans, but those of Pétain's. While showing off his guns to Michèle, he asks "you don't seem to like firearms much." He talks about the power that a gun gives to anyone who holds it: "guns are such good things. With a weapon like this you can do amazing things." Then, he says how he can get rid of the "gardener" (another allegory?) or the "rude young man" by using the gun. He should eliminate others to conquer the woman, the motherland. In the bal sequence, the Count dresses as the Marquis de Sade, and in the final scene he gets killed by the workers, as they tighten the menacing circle around him and force him to move back and fall into the valley where workers are building a dam.

But Grémillon, like Renoir, does not present everything in black and white. Between grey shades there is a scene where the Count talks about his childhood, and his being a spoiled child—getting what he wants at any price. During these moments we begin to think that he may be a victim of the situation, like all the other characters.

And if the Count represents the worst of Vichy, the other characters show different shades of its personality. Among them, an old man living in the hotel who later dresses as William Tell, is a living example of intolerance, impatience, and in his special case, xenophobia.

These people, embroiled in humiliation, self-despise, and self-destruction, reflect deep feelings of a defeated nation. But all is not completely bleak. Two other types are shown to construct the image of the ideal France, a country of liberty and equality.

Workers at the dam construction are "real" people, even if they are just casually shown, but the story, significantly, ends among them. At their side we have the young engineer with an idealist attitude, and a Jean-Maraisque look. Though a "colourless and conventional character,"10  he is the only one who stands against the Count. He constructs the "dam" against the "floods", a very ambiguous, but still highly recognizable hint to Résistance.

Are the workers supposed to reflect the principles of Résistance in disguise? We barely see them, but they are the driving force behind the construction and changes in the land. Their job is entangled with danger, and in order to build, first, they have to demolish. In the final sequence we see them as a united group of people, simple workers that have "principles", unlike the rest of the people we see in the film. While almost all the scenes in the film are highly stylized, the only "real" scenes in the film that can be stylistically influenced by Grémillon's industrial documentaries are those representing the workers. I must point out that Grémillon's sympathy for the workers is not similar to those in the political Left, but more like a romantic rebellion against the bourgeoisie. Even the film's survey of the social layers has a significant twist: it has displaced the class conflict onto sexual conflict that cannot be considered the continuation of the Popular Front's line of thought.11  These contradictions can lead us to see the message of resistance from a different perspective, a perspective that is more "poetic" and humanist, rather than political or nationalist.

And finally we have Michèle, unquestionably the symbol of innocence, sacrifice, love and youth. I think that, with regard to her role in connecting three locations in the story together, any interpretation of her character needs close attention regarding her association with the concept of land in Grémillon's film.

According to Ehrlich's research, "return to the land" was a favourite subject of many Vichy era films. Lumière d'été was also a "return to the land" film, opening with a shot of mountains being blown up, and ending with a shot that put the "summer light," the mountain, and two young protagonists in one composition—the glory of nature and symbolic finale delivering a sense of hope and a call to survival, struggle and victory against all the odds. Here, because of the political status of France, "the complexity of the province emerges more fully" than what a "purely Pagnolesque view of it might suggest."12

The land (i. e. Country) is embittered by the sad and tragic lives of the people who inhabit it, and endangered by implanted mines. The exquisite underlying narrative tells why these people are imprisoned in their hotel and the ghostly castle (which indicates the "past"): because the land is restricted and occupied, and it has become "fatal," a metaphor for France, cut from the outside world and turned in on itself."13  That unique quality that Dudley Andrew has observed in Gueule d'amour (1937) in which the film is "freighted with 'concern' in an abstract sense," can be senses in Lumière d'été too. When Andrew says that "characters are blind to the disastrous situation, and this blindness is something that a calculated 'poetic' style forces us to share," he may clarify many of techniques used by Grémillon in his films, which are poetic and solitary, but at the same time contemporary and alarming.14

Ehrlich alludes to a number of films made during occupation that were inserting veiled messages of resistance and nationalism in their story, even some of the films made by the infamous German-owned company, Continental. For instance, that L'assassinat du Père Noël (Christian-Jaque) was sending out coded messages hidden underneath a fairy tale, by indicating that the princess of the story (i. e. France) had fallen asleep in her chair and she needed to be woken up. In the allegorical language of these films, France appears as a delicate and fragile princess, as a tough mother, or as a self-assured woman who changes the fate of the men who meet her.

There is a sense of transition in the land throughout Lumière d'été: Workers are working all the time. The sound of explosions never stops. While a dam is being constructed in the valley, the lives of the people in the hotel seem still. During most of the film, nature and land are absent, and we only hear people talking about it. In Grémillon's vision, land turns into an abstract notion which contrasts the city life, while the city itself, due to the limitations of making urban films, is conspicuously absent.

In many films made during this period, Paris or other big cities of France were out of frame and something not to be discussed with regard to their "occupied" conditions. Film-makers solved this issue by ignoring it, as if there was never such a beloved city. But in Lumière d'été people are yearning to go back to Paris. They talk about it, dream about it, and make plans about it. All the glories of the past, especially for the aged dancer, are buried in Paris. The film's refusal to show any image of Paris is astonishing. Even when the couple, the former dancer and the Count, are reminiscing about Paris—unlike Casablanca, for instance—the flashback doesn't take us to the city before occupation, but it stays in the present time and allows the soundtrack of the film to travel back. We 'hear' the sounds of this lost past. Suddenly, the "reminiscing in sound" erupts violently by the remembrance of how the Count's wife had been killed (as a matter of fact, she had been killed by Count himself), and the joyous sounds of gay Paris are replaced by the voice of hound dogs barking. This disconnection with Paris and its human, artistic and intellectual life is seen as a trauma in the lives of the hotel inhabitants. Keith Reader calls this a "gulf" that, above anything else, characterises French society, "the split between Paris and the provinces."15

I must point out that many Vichy productions were shot on location, in whole or in part, for lack of studio space.16  The other reason for this popular trend was the low quality of film stock in use, as well as the insufficient electricity in the studios available for lighting scenes. But not all directors used these shortcomings as a source of creativity to establish a new filmic language as Lumière d'été.

Lumière d'été avoids showing any image of the city life, but its power arises exactly from an approach in which the concept of "land" becomes more abstractly central. Again, Ehrlich questions the much criticized absence of urban themes in the films of occupation, a period that is called "cinema d'evasion" but she argues "the term is misleading. For what characterizes this cinema is not simply its avoidance of subjects of daily life, but its sense of remove from this life. Although many of these films are set in other times or other worlds, the same tone and style occurs even in films set in seemingly "realist" contemporary films like Lumière d'été."17

The deconstruction of Vichy values is so subtle, and at the same time so ambiguous, that it made it impossible for the opponents of Grémillon to say exactly what is wrong with it. The film gave them a sense of unease without providing them enough evidence to ban it. On the other hand, the Résistance embraced the film as a message of freedom to France. For some writers, such as Georges Sadoul, the whole film was an allegory, both in its "clearly opposing to those society supporters of Vichy, the healthy strength of the workers, the soul of the Résistance," and also by showing "the union of the Frenchmen in the Résistance sweeping out the occupier and their accomplices."18

There is another cleverly ambiguous scene in which the engineer, carrying a cricket in a box, gives this lucky charm to Michèle. The girl refuses to accept it and asks him to free the creature. He says he can't, because it doesn't belong to him, and Michèle replies gently that "no one belongs to anyone." She rejects the idea of possession, thus the Occupation. When the guy surrenders and lets the cricket go, the creature starts singing and, again, Michèle wisely declares: "he's happy. He's singing, because he's free."

The central committee of censorship, famous for its absurd objections to everything slightly out of line with Vichy's do-s and don't-s, miraculously passed the Lumière d'été. Not all the members were sure this film could be suitable for public screening. One member in particular was so keen on banning the picture, claiming that with its degenerated characters "people will ask themselves on whom they can rely to affect the national revolution."19 But, fortunately, the majority of committee members thought that the film was representing the best of Vichy - another irony of Lumière d'été.20


Lumière d'été reached London in 1950 and Monthly Film Bulletin called it "a distinguished failure." The Anglo-Saxons saw it as no more than a highly technical melodrama, and none of the few remaining reports of the UK opening reveal any understanding of the political subtext of the film. Even if we completely ignore the conditions under which this film was made, and call Grémillon's assessment of his era's social problems "partial," and his solutions, "escapist," his film still remains "powerful for its ingenious, yet precarious, balance of individual aspirations, social forces, and the destiny of sentiments."21

Although one must keep in mind that allegorical implications are not limited to filmmakers who cannot express their ideas freely or directly22,  it becomes essential in Grémillon's film because such a practice arouses a feeling of the vital necessity of using such language.

I see Lumière d'été as a secret message of resistance that needs to be decoded. It is thrilling and illuminating to see how this process demonstrates the power of images as a tool for resistance, an art form that in spite of all restrictions on expression, can still 'express,' mirror the truth, and invite the audience to a secretly held meeting in the movie theatre, where everything can be told without the director necessarily being put in front of the firing squad.

Grémillon proves the necessity of cinema during the hard times, and Lumière d'été is the height of an encounter between social and political responsibilities with the brilliance of the medium. When, four decades after the war, Marcel Carné declared that "we tried to regain by Art what we had lost through Arms," his words gave a new meaning to the cinematic efforts made by a master like Grémillon.23

But Grémillon's image of France in Lumière d'été shouldn't be limited to a commentary on the occupation. Instead, a broader view of France that carries some of the anti-bourgeois features of La règle du jeu, should be taken into account. "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark," seems to reflect a profound critique of France that is not only caused by occupation, but occupation has just speeded up the contradictions of classes and morals that existed already in the country.

For this reason, Grémillon deserves to be regarded as one of the most courageous and innovative film-makers in the history of French cinema. In his works "visible is the sign of the invisible"24 and he can seamlessly connect the past and the present of French cinema, in a new social and political context that addresses a traumatic moment in the history of his country.


  1. Crisp, Colin, The classic French cinema, 1930-1960, (Indiana University Press, 1993), P. 248
  2. Faulkner, Christopher, “Critical Debate and the Construction of Society”, The French Cinema Book, edited by Michael Temple and Michael Witt, (BFI, 2004), P. 176
  3. Ehrlich, Evelyn, Cinema of Paradox: French Filmmaking Under the German Occupation, (Columbia University Press, 1985), PP. 24-25
  4. Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Bravery in Hiding, Chicago Reader, 2002
  5. Ibid
  6. Daquin, Paul, Interview with Paul Daquin, Film Dope, No. 21, October 1980,  P.12
  7. Ibid
  8. Monthly Film Bulletin, 1950, Vol. 17,  P. 4
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Andrew, Dudley, Mists of Regret, (Princeton University Press, 1995), P. 229
  12. Reader, Keith, “The Geography and Topography of French Cinema”, The French Cinema Book, edited by Michael Temple and Michael Witt, (BFI, 2004), P. 160
  13. Ehrlich, 1985, P. 97
  14. Andrew, 1995, PP. 229-231
  15. Reader, 2004, P. 153
  16. Ehrlich, 1985, P. 23
  17. Ehrlich, 1985, P. 97
  18. Sadoul, Georges, L’Histoire Generale du Cinema, as quoted in Ehrlich, 1985.
  19. Ehrlich, 1985, P. 32
  20. Sadoul, Georges, Dictionary of Film, translated and edited by Peter Morris, (University of California Press, 1972), P. 199.  Sadoul mistakenly claims that film was banned by Vichy which is not true. But it is true that it was harshly attacked by Vichy press after its release.
  21. Andrew, 1995, P. 17
  22. Ehrlich, 1985, 105
  23. Cheshire, David,  Arena: Marcel Carné - The Classic Years (BBC, 1985)
  24. "Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?" – Jean Grémillon

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