Above: Niemandsland (No Man’s Land). 1931. Germany. Directed by Victor Trivas. Image courtesy of Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.
Each year in Cannes I discover something truly fantastic in the always small and usually unsurprising Cannes Classics retrospective sidebar. This year was the early talkie what's-it Niemandsland (No Man’s Land), a marvelous creation, part film essay part, dramatic fable about World War I, made in 1931. For lucky New York residents, the newly restored version of Victor Trivas' film is showing this month in the Museum of Modern Art's To Save and Project festival.
The first half of the film sets up five characters—one Englishman, one Frenchman, one German, one Jew, one “Negro”—living their pre-war life in a geography-spanning montage anecdotally and, of course, allegorically establishing what they do and who they hold dear—new babies, new wives, camaraderie, stardom—at the same time giving some flavor of their cities, their surroundings. Some of their lives are dramatized: the loveliest and most human scene being a tram car pick-up in Paris which carries all the early 20th century modern city charm and dizzying location work (shot on a moving tram, and showing action inside the car and out) of the contemporaneous People on Sunday.
Much of this first section is a highly mobile, drama-free collage of images representing peace time and its transition into enlistment. The early reverie does not last long; on comes war: a development represented by various national flags waved and hats of nations throw up, bamboo umbrellas in Japan, top hats in England, berets in France. All five men are impacted differently—my favorite of the bunch is the German who, after being drafted, joins a crowd marching on the street, walking arm in arm with his sorrowful wife, who, as the march (and shot) continues forward, gradually feels the beat of the drum, the enthusiasm surrounding her. Her smile grows, she holds her husband tighter.
The film uses its early sound with clever aplomb—only the its second half, set, predictably, in a battlefield crater where all five combatants find themselves waking from a daze, features direct sound, but the rest of the film is a creative montage of audio much in the manner of Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm. This second half threatens pacifist, idealized corn but never succumbs. It grants the “negro,” amazingly, the ability to speak five languages, and as the five men linger in their international pit of war, this second act muddy kammerspiel becomes a wonderful panoply of languages heard and not understood, of translations, song, food, and pensiveness. The finale is endlessly optimistic and endlessly pessimistic at once, stepping back from the human drama of the five and returning the movie back to its first mode of address as a film essay, less a melodramatic story than a moving, poetic view of the fragmentation and unity engendered by nationality and by nationality’s progeny, war.