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Forbidden Games: Marcel Carné Interviewed

Making an epic—the peerless Children of Paradise—under the Nazi Occupation

Many have called it the Gone With the Wind of French cinema—which is putting it mildly. Children of Paradise is one of the monuments of world cinema, not only larger than life but also, even more gratifyingly, as large.

An instant classic upon its release in 1945 (U.S: ’46), this epic film-novel of theater as life, life as theater, with indelible performances by Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty, and Marcel Herrand, is in the process of being introduced to a new generation. Films Incorporated/Entertainment has just released a glowing two-volume videocassette version with sharply defined subtitles (there are some sequences that viewers of previous US. editions of the film have never been able to “read”) through its Homevision subsidiary, and Criterion/Voyager is bringing out the laserdisc. Cinemax will host the first U.S. cablecast in December. And Films Inc. will issue new 35mm theatrical prints—the first in decades to capture the luster of the original release—early next year.

Brian Stonehill, producer of the Criterion laserdisc, interviewed director Marcel Carné at his home in St. Germain des Près, August 17, 1990. Their conversation—which includes Carné’s reminiscences of other films, as well as his assessment of the current French cinema—can be heard in its entirety, in French, on the disc’s second audiotrack. The following portions, translated and edited for FILM COMMENT, deal with the experience of making a teeming period-piece during the Nazi Occupation of France in 1943–44.

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)

Children of Paradise may be the most famous and best-loved French film in the world.

Ah, that’s kind of you.

How did you come to make such an elaborate film at such a difficult moment in history?

The producer [André Paulvé] had told me, “Thanks to the big success of Les Visiteurs du Soir, I made a lot of money. I want a very big picture, grande fresque, epic.” Producers don’t say that very often to a director! So I looked around. [Jacques] Prévert and I thought of doing L’Ami Arsouille with Pierre Brasseur. But we found it was a little too provocative, too full of conspicuous consumption; it was the essence of wastefulness, and would have been pretty unwelcome in a time of rationing, to talk about fine eating and fancy meals.

Finally, we were staying a little above Nice, looking for an idea. And on the Promenade des Anglais we bump into Barrault, Jean-Louis Barrault, whom we hadn’t seen since the Great War. So of course we go have a drink. We gab for hours. Barrault talks theater, theater, theater. And he gets to telling us a story that happened to the mime Deburau.

Deburau’s at the peak of his glory and fame, famous even in the provinces. He goes for a walk; he’s rich, he’s well-dressed, he’s strolling with his mistress on his arm—and a drunkard starts to hassle him. The fellow calls the woman every name in the book, including putain. Seeing that he’s drunk, Deburau brushes the man aside. But with a drunkard’s tenacity the man persists, and Deburau loses his temper and strikes him with his walking stick. With such force that he kills the guy. So he’s put on trial.

Why the story amused us, why we wanted to do it, was that all of Paris wanted to come to the trial to hear Deburau speak. To hear Deburau’s voice! We thought that was a terrific idea and bang!—we were off. But very quickly we realized that it wasn’t an idea for a movie. If Barrault played Deburau, people already knew his voice; there’d be no surprise. And if we took an unknown, nobody would care what he sounded like. So we had to abandon it.

Prévert asked me if I was discouraged. I said, “No, Jacques, the period interests me. The cinema paying homage to the theater—that would be good.” So I said I’d go to the Carnavalet (which is a great museum), and go through their collection of engravings. And also to some bookstores I knew in St. Germain des Près, and get some books on that time, and the theater of that time. I went to Carnavalet and had photocopies made of 200 engravings there. From a book on the theater I learned that the amphitheater section was called “le paradis”—in England they say “the gods.”

The phrase wasn’t current anymore?

It wasn’t current at all! Nowadays it’s called the peanut gallery [le poulailler] in slang. But not “paradise.” We were also making a play on words, because there was a store that’s no longer around, in the rue St. Honoré, close to the Madeleine church—a toy store it was. It was called Le Paradis des Enfants, the paradise of children. So we called our film Les Enfants du Paradis.

But “children of paradise” can have two meanings. The children of paradise can be the people who sit up there in the top balcony. Or the actors who perform for them—the actors may be seen as the children of those spectators up there in paradise.

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)

Was the Grand Théâtre really right across the street from the Funambules, as it was in your film?

No, it’s next door! If you’re on the Boulevard of Crime at the Funambules, the Grand Théâtre is farther down on the left. Everything’s on the left—there’s nothing but one-story buildings on the other side of the street. Actually, we didn’t even construct the other side; it was already expensive to build that 80-yard set of just one side.

So all of a sudden we’re working very fast. We realized then that it was going to be a very long picture. Because we said: These people had genius; we have to show that; it’s too easy to say, Take our word for it, these people were geniuses. So we figured that, to the average French film length of an hour forty, we’d have to add at least half an hour.

People said it was a talky film [un film bavard]. Jacques would point out that there were 37 minutes of pantomime, yet people called it a talky film!

So we had to have more length. But I said, “I can’t take that responsibility.” The producer ran the Victorine Studios in Nice. I go down to Nice and tell him, “Everything’s going well, André. There’s just one problem: the picture’s going to run long.” “What do you mean by ‘long’?” “Oh,” I said, “about two hours ten, two-and-a-quarter hours.” You knew right away what his answer would be: “That’ll cost a lot more, but it won’t earn any more.”

He asked me, “Would you consider doing deux époques, two periods? Because I could handle that.” [The film would become still longer!] So I say, “Listen, I can’t take it upon myself to agree to that. Let me talk to Jacques”—who was up in the mountains; there was a little “tuff-tuff” mountain train that took forever . . .  So Jacques and I thought about it and Jacques says, “Yes, we can do it.” So I go back down and agree, on one condition: that at least during the opening exclusive engagement in Paris the two periods would be projected together.

When we showed the film to the distributor, he said, “We’ll screen the first period in one of our moviehouses , and the second period in another of our houses.” I said no. “What do you mean, ‘no’?” I said no!

At one point the filming was interrupted. [Paulvé] had been . . . not exactly arrested . . . but he was forbidden by the Germans from functioning. Production had been stopped, the Americans were thought to be landing in Italy, and we had to leave Nice and go back up to Paris. Pathé took up the film then, and demanded concessions from everybody, to the point that when shooting was over I wouldn’t be paid for six or eight months. I had to move into my parents’ place in Normandy, so that gives you some idea . . .  That’s how you make a good film, you know. I missed my house, but after all, I’d made the movie.

But to return to my story: [We finish the film and screen it for] Gaumont, the distributor. I say, “Here’s what the first producer promised me” [the unified screening]. “Ah, but that doesn’t obligate us!” So we had to go around on that one for a while, and finally they agreed. We doubled ticket prices and I asked, “At what times are you going to screen this film, which lasts three hours ten minutes? If I’m not wrong, you’ll screen it at 2, at 5:30, and at 9.” “That’s right.” “Good. So I’m asking that for the 9 o’clock show you sell reserved seats.” “Oh! Reserved seats—we can’t do that. It means hiring another person!” “Listen, don’t make me laugh.” Finally, I got it.

Because I’d noticed that during the war the movies did extremely good business here. There was so little entertainment, there were no restaurants—all there was were shows, le spectacle. And that’s why all of a sudden cinema was hugely profitable. On Les Visiteurs du Soir there had been a waiting line, quite long; and when someone got to the window and was told it was sold out, he’d yell, ‘This is the third time I’ve come, and waited an hour to be told I can’t get in!” So people were delighted to buy tickets in advance, to be sure of getting in when they wanted.

Now it’s a common practice to offer reserved seats, but that was the first time, right?

Right. I said, “If the receipts fall off after two weeks, you can try something else.” The receipts didn’t show a drop for 45 weeks. So the film went on that way.

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)

What was it like to make a movie during the Occupation?

It’s very curious. For Les Visiteurs du Soir we had enormous difficulties in getting all the materials. For the costumes, for the things that had to be painted shiny. Or what we call “stuff,” which is made from plaster and horsehair. There was no horsehair, it had been requisitioned—so we used grass. And with the plaster, you put a primer on it so you don’t have to wait for the plaster to dry, and then you paint it. But primer wasn’t available either, so we had to paint right on the plaster, and these big stains would come through. We’d have to stop photography and cover the stains. Also, there was a glossy paint to make the floor look like marble or tile, and the actors would get it on the soles of their shoes.

In addition, people were dying of hunger. If we put some fruit on the table, it would be eaten before we’d finished dressing the set. We were forced—and it bothered me—to poison the fruit with carbolic acid so the extras wouldn’t eat any! Of course we warned them. But we had to do it; we needed the fruit for the camera.

There were big round loaves of bread. Once one of those loaves was in the foreground and it was blocking something I wanted to be seen. I push the loaf of bread out of the way and it feels extremely light. I turn it over and there’s a hole in it the size of my hand! The extras had eaten the pith of the bread, and left the crust.

And I had troubles with the horses—there weren’t any! We even asked for Pétain’s guards, Pétain’s horses. Dogs—dogs were skeletal. And of course for the satin, and the silk, and the velvet, you couldn’t find any. I could never get close [to shoot]. I’ve been reproached, with some justice, that the banquet scene is a little cold. Cold in its mise-en-scène. But the costumes were in this cheap substitute fabric, and you could’ve seen that from up close.

And with Children of Paradise you had the same troubles?

For Les Enfants, miraculously, it was much easier. Because mainly we needed wood, and not much “stuff.” Also, we’d grown accustomed to the restrictions, and found people who sold the material, at exorbitant prices. And I found—I don’t mind plugging them—Lanvin had everything I needed, the marvelous material for Arletty’s gown. And I found a great English tailor who had fabric. Three or four of the fashion houses had been set aside for the higher German officers. We diverted some of that.

Did you have problems with the censors during production?

No. We feared we might, because it had been said that Les Visiteurs was too political. “The heart that beat beneath the stone” was the heart of France beating beneath the Occupation; the Devil was Hitler . . . They interpreted everything that way, and symbols were seen in the film that neither Prévert nor I had thought of. I mean, frankly.

In Children of Paradise I can see Garance, in the first scene, as put under arrest and then set free by Deburau’s art—


—an example of people being liberated by art.

No . . . We weren’t making any allusions. It was too serious an offense, you understand? At the very least the film would have been banned. Stopped and banned. So we had to play it smart.

When we had scenes with large numbers of extras—and Lord knows we did—the Germans would show up in the morning with their own extras, from their own union, and we were obliged to hire them. We didn’t like them; they were collaborators, or whatever, and we didn’t want any part of them. But we played along. I would say, “I’ve been reading the literature of the 19th century and I require such and such a physique. I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing against this gentleman, I don’t even know him, but I can’t hire him.” So in that way we cheated all the time.

That wasn’t terrible. What was terrible is that we were being watched. The Resistance was active at this time. One day I asked for one of the two production directors, and was told, “He’ll be here in an hour. He had to run an errand.” An hour goes by, two hours. Finally I heard that he’d run away. He’d found out that there were two Gestapo agents waiting for him downstairs. We were in an upstairs studio and we’d opened the back of it into a garage that was converted into a costume shop. He got out that way.

I had a production manager who—I didn’t know it at the time but I found out later and it made me angry—was a leader of the Resistance. Obviously, there were Resistance members on our team. It worried me, because Arletty was the mistress of a German officer . . .

We were shooting the Carnival, and this production manager comes over to me and says, “Monsieur Carné, somebody is asking to see one of the extras in the office. Two men are asking for him.” “Are they French?” I ask. “Yes, they’ve got Niçois accents. They say his wife is on her deathbed and wants to see him.” I’m surprised; you know, we were living in fear then. We really didn’t know what things were going on, we only found out gradually. So I ask, “Did they look at the attendance sheet to see if the guy was here?”—we had to keep records to know which ones deserved to be paid. He says, “No, they didn’t.” I said, “Tell them he’s not here.”

So we [resume filming] and this régisseur comes back and says, “Monsieur Carné, forgive me for insisting, but the woman was struck by a trolley, she’s lost both her legs, and she’ll never see her husband again if he doesn’t get to the hospital within the hour.” So there I am, and what can I do? I have to give them an answer. So we send him to the office. Five minutes later the régisseur returns, completely discomposed. The two guys were from the Gestapo. I’ve never forgiven myself for that.

How could that happen? Well, there was a French Gestapo. They have a certain air, I should have been able to smell it. Even this Resistance leader was taken in, but . . . I should have been able to spot them from a distance. Even if they were locals from Nice. The Gestapo was very big in Nice; the militia, anyway. Those guys always come in pairs, see? Or more. But never alone.

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)

During the production you had people working “in clandestinity,” as it says in the opening titles.

Yes, that was [Alexandre] Trauner and [Joseph] Kosma. Kosma was staying in a little hotel on the outskirts of Cannes, hidden in the trees. I’d go there so he could give me the lines of the songs. On Les Visiteurs he thanked the guy who’d hidden him by giving him the credit for the film’s music. That was Maurice Thiriet.

Trauner made models for the sets. He never made the sets themselves; when people say that Trauner made the sets for Les Visiteurs du Soir, that’s not true. He made the models, outside of Nice, in a remote village. I’d go out there and pick them up. One day Trauner wanted to come to Nice to take a look at the castle set. Prévert and I talked him out of it, but I practically had to punch him in the face. Afterwards, Trauner hid out in the middle of the forest in a tiny cabin. It was crazy!

There was Wakhevitch for Les Visiteurs, Barsacq for Les Enfants, who were willing to do the work [of constructing from Trauner’s models]. And that was courageous, because they risked being sent to the camps. I ran that risk too. Prévert wasn’t at risk because he wasn’t responsible for hiring those people. I was responsible for those choices.

Is it true that Arletty was in prison when the film came out?

She wasn’t exactly in prison. I had a friend who’d played a page in Les Visiteurs du Soir, and they’d become good friends. When the Resistance started making raids all over the place, she took refuge with him. He telephoned me to come over—I lived behind the Moulin Rouge, he was barely a kilometer away and he tells me, “Arletty is in hiding at my place.” I say, “That’s a problem—what can we do?” It was dangerous; even in the middle of Montmartre you had snipers on the roofs, taking shots at the apartment buildings. Two days later he calls me and says, “It’s terrible, Arletty’s been arrested at my place.” Resistance members came, they knocked, and my buddy, like an imbecile, opened the door. And they start shouting, “There’s that whore, that bitch over there! That’s Arletty!” She was led away and her head was shaved at the police station. She wasn’t harmed, but they were very rude to her—every crudity you can imagine. And they put her under “résidence surveillée”; she was outside of Paris and she had to check in with a judge every day.

Now, the judge took a liking to her. He started joking with her. One morning he says to her, “So! How are you feeling today, Mademoiselle Arletty?” “Oh,” she says, “my resistance is down.”

Are you still in touch with her?

Absolutely. Unfortunately she’s completely blind now. But as lively and as joyous as ever. She’s making an effort, you can tell.

Really, Children of Paradise gave me infinitely less trouble than Les Visiteurs. If I hadn’t had a terrific team, working solidly together—I’m not an authoritarian, not the boss type—but still, you need a center of gravity. Everybody has to acknowledge that one man bears all the responsibility. And everybody did, always. I never had a serious argument.

Brian Stonehill is Associate Professor of English and coordinator of Media Studies at Pomona College.