Image, Meaning, History… & the Voice of God

By James Leahy

In the act of joining his comrades the young man steps into a second film, whose action unfolds at a different moment in history. Simultaneously, he moves from propaganda fiction into analytical documentary. Yet the young man is still in the same shot!

la-vie-est-a-nous.jpg1. A door opens and a young man steps into a room

Behind the door was Jean Renoir… Frame 1 was from a film he produced for the electoral campaign of the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1936, La Vie est à nous.

Frame 2 appears in both that film, and the one the young man steps into. The latter is a report on French politics from the popular US news series March of Time, arguably the granddaddy of everything from Panorama to Newsnight. This report describes the factory occupations which followed the 1936 election, when, emboldened by the success of their candidates at the polls, the workers sought to maximise their gains during negotiations to determine new conditions of employment.

la-vie-est-a-nous-jacques-becker-2.jpg2. Where a meeting is in progress

They were seeking to put pressure on both the employers and ‘their’ government, which was, in the ineffable words of March of Time’s commentary, led by ‘cultured socialist Leon Blum…’

Neither La Vie est à nous nor March of Time had any qualms about mixing actuality and staged footage purporting to be actuality. Such mixtures were, in fact, common in documentaries of the period. The difference is that March of Time seeks to erase all traces of the difference between stag­ed and actuality footage, whereas La Vie est à nous is a campaigning film which, while promoting the PCF’s Stalinist line, is in places prepared to mark explicitly its rhetorical re-working of actuality footage.


Thus Jacques Brunius edited actuality footage of a parade by the fascist ex-servicemen’s group the Croix de Feu to make its leader Colonel de la Roque look ridiculous. In the same sequence he dubbed a speech by Hitler so that the Fuhrer seemed to be barking at his followers like a dog.

On the other hand, of course, its treatment of the speeches of PCF leaders such as Maurice Thorez could not be more respectful. As a result, the sequences where they dominate (staged in the Francoeur Studio to resemble a Party rally) are pretty dull by the standards of conventional filmmaking.

image-meaning-history-and-the-voice-of-god-4.jpg4, 5*, 6

Other scenes are more obviously staged, including one apparently shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson, which reworks to fit PCF purposes a physical attack made on Socialist Party leader Leon Blum a few weeks before La Vie est à nous was shot. In it some workers rescue a militant who is selling L’Humanité, the PCF newspaper, from a gang of fascist bully boys.

Even more clearly staged are the scenes involving the decadent upper classes, which look quite theatrical.

la-vie-est-a-nous-jacques-becker-5.jpg7. Charles Blavette as the Party militant

These are centred on Brunius as a company director who by day advocates policies the Board of British Gas would be proud of, whilst by night he is a compulsive gambler, strikingly reminiscent of André Citroen as portrayed in Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1929 novel The Life of the Automobile. Ehrenburg was in Paris throughout the 1930s, as correspondent of Izvetsia, and knew all the leftist French intellectuals.

The bulk of the film is structured around Marcel Cachin, the editor of L’Humanité, and three exemplary stories of solidarity and resistance. He introduces two of these as accounts narrated in letters he has received from his readers, the events ‘coming to life’ filmically in a manner similar to that often employed in fictional features. This clearly suggests to the audience that they are witnessing staged re-enactments. Moreover, several of the actors involved in the three stories may have been recognisable to members of the audience as actors, at least in France.

la-vie-est-a-nous-jacques-becker-6.jpg8. Max Dalban as the unscrupulous foreman

March of Time acquired several shots from the story involving Blavette and Dalban, the first. This is about a strike against harsher working conditions, sexual harassment and unfair dismissal. These shots are re-edited with other material, and, by means of a Voice of God commentary, presented as actuality footage illustrating a purportedly objective analysis of, first, general Communist agitation before the election; second, the factory occupations immediately after.

Thus shots from a fictionalised dramatisation of events occurring before May 1936 are presented as being documentary footage of events occurring during June of that year. The average audience in 1936 would have had no reason not to accept them at their face value. Indeed, such is the speed and precision of March of Time editing (which trims the nine shots I have identified as appearing in both films to less than one third of their previous length) and so insistent the tone of the commentary that few spectators would have been likely to start asking pertinent questions about how the images used in this, and in other reports, had been produced.

march-of-time.jpgFrom top left, 9, 10, 11, 12. Frame 12 shows the March of Time team leaving for the torch-lit rally.

If they had, they might have wondered how March of Time’s cameraman, filming a report released the previous year about the rise of the Croix de Feu, managed to be right on the spot, inside Stavisky’s hideout, to film the police as they burst in to find the disgraced financier and sleaze merchant dead on the floor from (probably self-inflicted) gunshot wounds.

This 1935 March of Time report on the Croix de Feu did provoke forceful and hostile criticism. However, this was directed mainly at its apparent espousal of the cause of the fascists. A second concern was the degree of co-operation with the fascists that filming entailed.

Richard de Rochemont, who directed the film, had been responsible for suggesting to the leadership of the Croix de Feu the idea of the torch-lit meeting that became its visually striking climax.

In America, some commentators found this sequence strongly reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally, and it’s possible that de Rochemont had hoped that such unsavoury visual associations would undercut sympathy for the fascists. However only a minority responded in this way, and to expect more to have done so was probably to underestimate the authority generated by the Voice of God commentary, despite its hectoring tone. This, in one place, goes so far as to assert: ‘The movement captures the imagination of the finest young men in the land.’ However, no-one in the controversy seemed to worry about the morality of presenting staged scenes as actuality.

* Further research has revealed two more shots which are used in both films, that of Leon Blum (Frame 3) and that of Maurice Thorez (Frame 5).