Representing Nationality in This Land is Mine
In its very title, This Land is Mine (Renoir, 1943) registers both the historical crises the film seeks to represent and the representational crises this history engenders. Like those of other war-time Hollywood melodramas that deal with European fascism—The Moon is Down (Pichel, 1943), for instance, or Hangmen Also Die (Lang, 1943)—Renoir’s title produces by way of its earnest sententiousness, its pared-down declarative grammar, a forceful rhetorical gesture of reclamation. Yet the title’s blunt assertion of ownership necessarily recalls the interrogative challenge to which it responds: Whose land is it? In answer to this otherwise unasked question, in fact, the title may be understood as asserting either reclamation or usurpation, signifying either the triumphal liberation the film’s rhetoric heralds or, alternatively, the fascist occupation of a small European town that its narrative chronicles. In spite of the title’s first-person form and the sense of immediacy it implies, the sentence is spoken by no character in the film itself, but appears as the patriotic slogan at the head of a leaflet distributed by underground resisters of the occupation. At a crucial moment in the narrative, the meekly apolitical schoolmaster Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) pockets the leaflet instead of discarding it, leading to his subsequent arrest. The Nazi officers who discover the leaflet on his person understand the slogan as evidence of Lory’s guilt, but since the audience has witnessed Lory’s repeated failures to resist the occupation, his arrest invests the title with a third potential level of significance, designating a third position possible in relation to the titular assertion of ownership, that of ideological neutrality. One of the lessons [End Page 954] of Renoir’s essentially didactic film, however, is a familiar one in Hollywood’s war-time narratives of European fascism. Neutrality, the film tells us, though understandable in itself, will always be read in this historical context as commitment, as allegiance to secret resistance. 1 It is a lesson Lory has learned by the end of the film when, newly patriotic, he delivers himself of a protracted oration of nationalist pride, reclaiming the land as his, even though he knows doing so will mean facing the same fascist firing squad he saw shoot down his mentor the previous night.
Still, the implied question—Whose land is it?—has not been answered with finality at film’s end because, released in 1943, the crisis the film represents had yet to be resolved. The near-universal criticism of the last third of Renoir’s film responds, no doubt, to its awkward effort to achieve a semblance of ideological closure before the end of the story is known. 2 In this sense, though the film has typically been singled out by critics for unusual abuse, it is fully representative of Hollywood’s narratives of occupation, from the films named above to Casablanca (Curtiz, 1943). In each of these films, the demand for narrative closure meets the threat of historical open-endedness, and in most cases the threat is circumvented by transforming the conventions of a combat-film into those of a drama of personal conversion. Albert Lory’s conversion, in This Land is Mine, from apathy to patriotism, from cowardice to heroism, from pacifism to activism, can serve as a useful measure of the way war-time Hollywood modifies or reconsolidates its conventions as it attempts to absorb contemporary historical developments.
If critics find Lory’s conversion less convincing than, say, Rick’s/Bogart’s admittedly different one in Casablanca, meanwhile, this is likely traceable to expectations of Renoir-as-auteur—famously celebrated for his casual “off-handedness,” his improvisatory spontaneity, his ideological agility and “openness.” 3 Thus, the apparent ideological overdeterminism of This Land is Mine reveals much not only about Hollywood’s confrontation with history but, at the same time, about Renoir’s confrontation with Hollywood.
Nationality as Ideology
Like most examples of Hollywood’s war-time melodrama, Renoir’s film is about crises of nationhood, but these crises are in a sense nothing but the logical outcome of the film’s own already fairly explicit definitions of nationhood. The film’s ideological burden is to wend its [End Page 955] circuitous path to Lory’s final speech in such a way as to legitimate ideologically a valediction that might otherwise appear to a bourgeois audience disturbingly revolutionary. In its critical class-consciousness and its open endorsement of sabotage, Lory’s speech articulates a newly-fervent nationalism that the film identifies as inspirational, by way of intense close-ups of Lory’s fellow citizens as they listen. But the film’s problem is this: just how to secure the effect of such inspiration, retaining its affirmative character, while engaging in a vociferously didactic social critique at the same time. How, in other words, is it possible to articulate an explicitly anti-fascist ideology of nationalism in Hollywood’s war-time melodrama, especially once fascism itself has been identified, as it routinely is in the genre, as a form of hyper-nationalism? How, on the other hand, is it possible to mount a critique of fascist nationalism without endorsing what was at the time the most clearly formulated alternative to European fascism, Communism? 4 Lory’s final speech makes the film’s ideological program clear enough even as it throws this whole set of problems into unintentionally harsh relief. Advocating violent resistance and exposing capitalist complicity with the occupation, Lory calls for a form of democratic socialism to oppose the Nazis’ “National Socialism.” Lory’s speech argues that the occupation, enabled by Nazi exploitation of a tacitly complicit capitalism, can be defeated only by collective action: “Naturally you wanted to survive—and the black market was the answer. You keep your business going by selling meat out the back door at ten times its price. Some to my mother, who was equally guilty, as I was in eating it . . . I don’t blame you for making money—You should blame yourself for making the Occupation possible—because you can’t do these things without playing into the hands of the real rulers of the town, the Germans.” 5 While covering its ideological flanks (“I don’t blame you for making money”), the speech remains remarkable in its refusal to see the occupation as caused only by virulent Nazi aggression, conceiving it instead in terms of systemic social dynamics. In its clear assessment of collective guilt and ideological complicity, the speech culminates the film’s refusal to conceive of national identity as a fixed, transcendent value.
It is this refusal that plunges the film into ideological difficulties other films of the time avoid by presenting national identity as a redemptive social category powerfully reinforced by the threat of war. In spite of its obvious differences from Renoir’s film, Mrs. Miniver (Wyler, 1942) is a key example of the more characteristic ideological single-mindedness of Hollywood’s war-time melodrama. The thematic and [End Page 956] narrative logics of the earlier film work systematically to eliminate the very kind of social critique with which This Land is Mine provisionally concludes. Mrs. Miniver insulates its version of nationalism by tying it inextricably to extended familial kinships and to related fantasies of class reconciliation. Through such strategies, Wyler’s film works to exclude terms that would threaten the film’s single-minded ideological coherence, its construction of a purely triumphal British nationalism. Lory’s speech, by contrast, cannot fail to introduce, however inadvertently, a certain ideological incoherence into Renoir’s film simply by pursuing the film’s own thematic logics to their conclusion. The differing operations of ideology in the two films define distinct positions in Hollywood’s war-time melodrama. For Mrs. Miniver, definitions of a stabilized nationhood along lines noted above are comparatively easy to secure through an appeal to specifically British cultural traditions—presented alternately as admirably entrenched or humorously quaint—and through projections of the Germans as faceless, anonymous enemies.
One of the few melodramas of occupation Hollywood produced, This Land is Mine obviously cannot participate in the same strategies, simply because of its aspiration to depict life under occupation. Set in an unspecified country “somewhere in Europe,” Renoir’s film cannot exploit a presumed relation of cultural ancestry to its audience, as Wyler’s seeks to do; nor, compelled as it is to represent the occupying forces as well as the citizens under their dominion, can it project the Nazis as demonically invisible Others. Such literal obstacles to the film’s participation in Hollywood’s standard war-time ideologies of nationalism, however, cannot account for the film’s ultimate ideological distance from films like Mrs. Miniver. Where the latter film presents nationality as an invincible State-of-Being, This Land is Mine presents it as, precisely, an ideology, subject thereby to appropriation. In his often-cited discussion of the concept of “nation-ness,” Benedict Anderson points to a formative slippage between the status of nationality as ideology and its parallel but dominant construction as a more fundamental category of identity, a conflation to which Anderson recommends a kind of strategic assent: “[I]t would, I think, make things easier if one treated [nationality] as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion.’” 6 If Wyler’s film draws on familiar tactics in order at once to install and efface its ideology of nationhood, such as identifying family with nation, fantasizing classlessness, or demonizing enemies, Renoir’s film all but reverses such tactics. Built around speeches explicitly demonstrating characters’ relationships to ideologies, This Land is Mine [End Page 957] is oddly scrupulous in its determination to grant the Nazis equal time. Moreover, the film’s chief Nazi, von Keller, played by Walter Slezak, is invested with qualities of persuasiveness not evident in Slezak’s many other portrayals of Hollywood Nazis. As the scriptwriter Dudley Nichols portentously remarks of the film’s conception, “There was no villain in the drama. We had ruled him out at the outset, for there are no villains in life but only human beings emobodying elements of good and evil . . . ”. 7
A glance at the volume Renoir on Renoir confirms that Nichols’s sentiment echoes statements by the director himself. The avoidance of standard demonologies in This Land is Mine may indeed be read in part as a signifier of Renoir’s authorship, a function of the expansive humanity and generosity-of-spirit that, as standard critical surveys would have it, enable the Renoir of Grand Illusion to embrace warmly characters of all nations. 8 The vision of multinational fraternity of that earlier film grew out of a conception of war itself as shared tribulation. Although This Land is Mine parallels Grand Illusion at important points, its exactingly “humanized” portraits of both Nazis and collaborationists, in spite of the film’s avowed anti-fascism, derives from neither a perverse impulse toward fairness nor a recognizably characteristic breadth of spirit but, precisely, from the film’s commitment to a vision of nationality-as-ideology. As Christopher Faulkner points out, “It is the tyranny of the ideology of Nazism for which Major von Keller is the articulate spokesman, and that ideology is shown to be effective—and attractive—because it masquerades as a superior humanism.” 9
Tellingly, Renoir makes this point by paralleling von Keller’s breezy fascism with the committed humanism of Lory’s mentor, Professor Sorel. Apart from quite explicit localized cross-references between the characters’ speeches, the parallels are made even more overt through attendant parallels of dramatic structure in two scenes that assert pointed similiarities between the characters. Both scenes present a paternalistic figure lecturing with fatherly wisdom a respectful subordinate, transmitting ideas welcomed or already shared by the underling, who, however, is yet unable to articulate those ideas clearly. The first is a scene between Lory and Sorel following an air-raid in which Lory’s terror, presented as a sign of his political cowardice, has been nakedly revealed to the entire school. Preaching a form of “moral” resistance to fascism, Sorel admonishes Lory gently: “Love of liberty isn’t glamorous to children. Respect for the human being isn’t exciting. But there’s one weapon they can’t take away from us—and that’s our dignity.” The remark is explicitly echoed by von Keller in a later speech [End Page 958] about nationalist “dignity.” The particular verities Sorel values—“love of liberty” and “respect for the human being”—are those of a democratic liberalism which von Keller rejects, but the appeal to verity itself is fundamental to the rhetoric of both leaders. In spite of the differing ideologies voiced by these two figures, their conceptions of political order are shown to correspond fundamentally. Both celebrate the virtues of powerful leadership whose justice can be measured through an appeal to universalized Truth, and both weigh the virtue of nations as a symbolic extension of familial kinships, as a kind of extended “brotherhood” or “family of man.” Thus defining nationhood as ideology, the film inevitably introduces a potential threat to its own ideological agenda. Clearly favoring Sorel’s democratic liberalism, the film nonetheless underlines here not the irreconcilability of that ideology with fascism, as might be expected, but rather the commonalities of these seemingly opposed ideologies.
The treatment of the character of George Lambert further illustrates the film’s refusal of standard imperatives of Hollywood’s war-time melodrama. Typical of its genre in its methodical placement of characters as representative of ideological positions, the film accordingly positions Lambert in the narrative as the representative of the collaborationist mind. Lambert’s exposure of Paul, the saboteur-brother of Lory’s secret love and Lambert’s fiancee Louise, is the plot’s pivotal moment. Most noteworthy about the film’s treatment of the Lambert character is its brisk refusal to heap scorn upon him as the despised betrayer of the film’s favored ideology. Indeed, the rhetoric surrounding the character makes plain that he has been conceived in some measure as a genuinely tragic figure rather than as a figure of simple contempt. In the context of the film’s meticulous schematism, the emotional fervor it grants to the Lambert character in what is presented as his authentic torment over having turned Paul in is especially striking. Significantly, Lory’s later conversion from apathy to commitment takes place, by contrast, entirely off-screen, even though we may assume it too, like Lambert’s, follows a dark-night-of-the-soul after Lory has witnessed Sorel’s assassination. In spite of his status as the narrative’s central figure, Lory’s moral dilemma and subsequent conversion are presented as given, without dramatization, even at the risk of rendering his final speech dramatically otiose. Even though Lambert is a peripheral character, however, his agitation is accorded full-scale dramatic treatment in intense close-ups of his solitary remorse, marking the film’s only effort to render inner experience and its only indisputable moment of emotional correspondence with Renoir’s earlier [End Page 959] work. Indeed, the scene of Lambert’s suicide suggests that of Bouldieu’s death in Grand Illusion in its forthright deployment of symbolism and in its heightened emotional register. Preparing to kill himself, George releases a dove from his office window and drops the flower he has been wearing in his lapel on the floor. (Compare to the symbol of Rauffenstein’s geranium in Grand Illusion.) Apparently attempting a kind of melodramatized understatement, Renoir tilts the camera downward, barely noting the gun Lambert retrieves from his drawer, refusing to punctuate it by focusing on the object. The camera remains trained on a delicately lit shot of the lorn flower as the off-screen gunshot sounds, causing the camera—in a final example of the scene’s rhetoric of emotional immediacy—to tremble.
The presentation of the collaborationist as a figure of pathos complicates the film’s ideological objectives, its critique of fascism, even in spite of a schematic structure that should by rights guarantee simplicity of ideological design. At the most basic conceptual level, to be sure, Lambert resembles a crucial type in the Hollywood war-time melodrama, the contemptible worm who cravenly betrays the cause in order to preserve himself, like Ugarte (Peter Lorre) in Casablanca. One of the plot’s more improbable elements, Lambert’s engagement to the openly anti-fascist Louise, serves to reinforce both Lambert’s humanized status and, more importantly, the film’s conception of nationality as ideology. Though the film will end by figuring Lory and Louise as its idiosyncratically idealized couple, it does not seek, in order to achieve that idealization, to eliminate the Lambert figure by caricaturing him. Especially given the film’s near-complete indifference to the thematics of romance, the romantic quasi-triangle of This Land is Mine is unconventional in its refusal to specify a favored suitor. 10 Moreover, in its eagerness to present Lambert as a potentially legitimate object of the love of the film’s heroine, the film finds it necessary to disregard the ideological unsuitedness of the collaborationist Lambert to the resister Louise. The scene in which Louise discovers the depth of Lambert’s collaboration and breaks off their engagement thus becomes a crux of the film’s ideological dispositions, since it combines the necessity to extend sympathetic understanding to collaborationism with an explicit amplification of the film’s twin commitments to liberal democracy and to the resistance to fascism. Significantly, the scene follows soon upon that of von Keller’s dialogue with Lambert and finds Lambert echoing von Keller while adapting the latter’s ideas to Lambert’s own rhetoric of pacifism. In the context of the film as a whole, especially after Lory’s explicitly anti-pacifist final speech, such [End Page 960] rhetoric is ultimately found to be untenable, but in this scene it is granted a very real persuasiveness.
If nationhood is to be defined as a function of ideology—rather than of, say, race, birth-right, or some other form of political nativity—then the rhetoric of persuasion takes on the power to confer or alter the status of nationality. Certainly the didactic spirit of This Land is Mine evinces clear recognition of this implication, but it is a mark of the film’s unusual relationship to Hollywood ideology that it not only parallels ideologies it could easily present as absolutely distinct but, until Lory’s final speech, furnishes the mouthpieces of opposing ideologies with the most persuasively, fully-wrought arguments. Indeed, though von Keller’s dialogue with Lambert is presented at some length, a later, narratively crucial dialogue between Sorel and Lory enters the film only by Lory’s fatuous and sketchy report: “Professor Sorel explained a lot of things to me I didn’t understand. Now I know why our country fell: Some people were more afraid of our own workers than of the enemy.” If nationhood is to be understood as ideology, the threat of false-consciousness and its real political ramifications can no longer be attributed to some reassuringly foreign enemy. As the parallel speeches of Sorel and von Keller both make clear in their different ways, acknowledgment of the ideological basis of nationality either produces or results from endogenous conflict, internalizing enmity and introducing the possibility of antagonism among compatriots.
Nationhood and Family
However improbable it may be that the film’s most overt anti-fascist would, in the movie’s backstory, have become betrothed to its most avid collaborationist, the engagement of Louise and Lambert extends the theme of internalized enmity into the very realm the war-time melodrama customarily called upon to secure stabilized nationality, the unit of the family. Positioned between the exuberant, uncomplicated nationalism of Mrs. Miniver and the I-Married-a-Nazi paranoia of the sub-genre represented by, say, The Man I Married (Pichel, 1940), the scene of Louise’s break-up with Lambert exemplifies a central theme of the film as a whole, the disruption of kinship structures by incompatible ideological identifications. This Land is Mine is entirely structured around the dialogues of schematically paired kinpersons whose familial ties are troubled by ideological split between resistance and collaboration, and the film’s didacticism is aimed almost as unbendingly at critique of the ideology of kinship structures as it is at that [End Page 961] of fascism. Three central pairs—Lory and his mother, Louise and her brother, Louise and Lambert—exemplify three rigorously distinct types of kinship structure, parental, fraternal, and sexual. Lory’s relation to his mother provides the fullest formulation of the conflict the film posits between nationalist ideology and familial stability, since the film goes to great lengths to show Mrs. Lory’s machinations to detach her family from political life, only then to reveal both the insidiousness and the inevitable failure of such efforts. Indeed, Mrs. Lory’s attempt to ward off the intrusion of politics into her family results, in the terms of the film, in the infantilization of her son. Emphasizing the repetitious sterility of the Lory household’s daily routine, the film presents the son’s relation to the mother through images of infantile orality. A key image of their first scene, for instance, connoted in a striking close-up as a suggestive emblem of maternal dependency, is the bottle of milk Mrs. Lory has procured on the black-market. The regressive character of the relationship sketched here is depicted most clearly in the scene in the schoolhouse cellar during an air-raid, while the students look on with derision as a terrified Lory cowers and huddles, with clear suggestions of fetal imagery, in his mother’s arms. In contrast to the usual procedures of the war-time melodrama, which consolidate national identity around idealized representations of the family, This Land is Mine presents kinship structures it defines as profoundly unhealthy in order to show how, in the film’s terms, such structures enable the occupation. The relation of mother and son, constructed as “primitive” in a literalized Freudian sense, has already been threatened by political difference when Lory, in one of his pre-resistance gestures, rejects the official newspaper as lies, whereupon his mother, defining the resisters as “troublemakers,” counters, “At least we have order [under the occupation].” In the terms of the film, then, Lory’s proper course of action is to sever the regressive bond with the mother by joining the resistance, a suggestion the movie seals by making the mother complicit in Paul’s assassination. After he has taken this course, significantly, the film can achieve its desired closure only by absenting Mrs. Lory entirely from the narrative. The film’s vision of family as an obstacle to political virtue rather than an extension of national identity can broach no possibility of reconciliation between mother and son after Lory joins the resistance, so Mrs. Lory disappears jarringly at the film’s climax.
The disturbance of kinship ties by political identifications is seen in the brother-sister relationship of Paul and Louise as well. Though a member of the resistance, Paul poses as a collaborationist even to the [End Page 962] disapproving Louise. Early in the film, the audience is shown Paul’s activities of resistance, including the act of sabotage on which the plot turns. The tension in the Paul-Louise relationship is shown to derive, in this film otherwise decidedly short on irony, from an ironic contrast between Paul’s publicly avowed political identity, criticized by the anti-fascist Louise in spite of her own relationship with the collaborationist Lambert, and the actual one to which the audience is privy. When Louise discovers that Paul is the saboteur being sought by the Nazis, her response, according to the script, is “pride and joy” (This Land is Mine, 54). Differences between the shooting script and the actual film in this scene point up the film’s keen sense of discord between national identity and family bonds. Where the script presents a dramatic reconciliation, the film registers more forcefully the troubling implications of Louise’s former suspicion of her brother. As she embraces Paul in the film’s version of the scene, Louise proclaims, “Now you are the brother I have always been so very proud of! Oh Paul, now I can believe in you again . . . “. The unusual syntax of Louise’s speech, with its curiously slipped tenses, reveals the film’s strain as it tries to gloss over Louise’s previous disillusionment with her brother. What the film has painstakingly chronicled until this scene is the crisis presented to ordinary modes of human kinship by nationalism-as-ideology, with its inevitable potential to divide families, so it is perhaps not surprising that this scene of reconciliation should seem both somewhat perfunctory and oddly over-elaborated.
The example of the Louise-Lambert pairing, already discussed, illustrates that such political division, in the film’s terms, betokens no distinction between consanguineity and collocation. If the imperatives of nation demand choice between collaboration and resistance, this choice is as likely to sunder “natural” kinships of blood as it is to disrupt established kinships of marriage. Further, the film’s eagerness to make this point, evident in its apparent indifference to the narrative illogic of the Louise-Lambert relationship, demonstrates its concern with symbolic forms of kinship in spite of its refusal to conflate family with nation. Identifying this conflation as basic to the ideology of nationality, as in von Keller’s appeals to universal brotherhood, the film goes on to portray social structures as fundamentally inflected by family structures, extending the features of the latter.
Significantly, a noteworthy feature of the family structures represented in This Land is Mine is a general absence of fathers. The overwhelming, regressively Oedipal character of the Lory household obtains even though the father is nowhere present, mentioned only in a [End Page 963] passing neutral reference. Thus, what the film represents as Lory’s irresolution of Oedipal conflicts, his failure to progress beyond infantile connection to the mother in order to assume the position of father, is not traced back to any literal paternal oppression. Instead, the film seems inclined to locate the problem in its representations of society at large, equating political inertia with arrested emotional development. The traumatized, fatherless world of the film’s unspecified country thus becomes in miniature a battle-ground between symbolic fathers, Sorel and von Keller. At the same time, the film’s characters, divided schematically between political identities as resisters or collaborators, are divided equally schematically in their relations to the Law-of-the-Father. The male characters are defined as either poised on the brink of marriage, about to assume the Law-of-the-Father, like Paul or Lambert, or beyond the pale, incapable of ascending to the Law-of-the-Father, like Lory, too child-like to participate in the symbolic network of sexual kinship that confers paternalist status. The film entirely lacks any representation of the centralized, stable family of many a war-time melodrama, and both of the film’s symbolic fathers, Sorel and von Keller, through their status as “bachelors” (Sorel’s self-identification), are significantly detached from literal family structures, explicitly defined in both cases as having chosen ideology over marriage.
Sorel’s remarks to Lory, when he learns of Lory’s ineffectual desire for Louise, clarify both the film’s enforced distinction between its symbolic fathers and its (absent) literal ones, and its need to envision Lory as painfully split between the socio-psychic conditions of childhood and fatherhood. As schoolmaster, Lory’s position of shared power in the social order makes his assumption to the Law-of-the-Father possible, but Sorel’s gentle condescension, treating Lory as a child, points to the failure of this possibility. The film’s tendency to work out tropes of political identity by aligning them with symbolic kinship structures is illustrated in a scene where Louise, comforting a neighbor boy, Edmond, after his father’s arrest, delivers a motherly kiss to Edmond and a parallel one to Lory, calling him a “brave boy.” Though a lingering close-up shows Lory to be excessively moved by the kiss, its asexual nature makes clear that, in the film’s terms, Lory cannot become an object of Louise’s desire until he has rid himself of infantile identifications and assumed the symbolic fatherhood the film is at pains to assert from the start as one of his available roles.
The film’s notably overdetermined ending yields, in one sweeping rhetorical gesture, a triumphantly paternalized Lory, a newly love-struck Louise, and the reinforced possibility of a securely liberal national [End Page 964] identity for the traumatized nation-state, bringing together literal and figural formations of kinship the film has manipulated throughout only to find they will not be so readily reconciled. That such reconciliation is the project of the film’s conclusion is fully evident in its very overdetermination. Lory’s new-found authority has been amply exhibited in the confident oratory of his final speech in the courtroom, so his circulation through his now-orderly classroom, reading with orotund paternalism from the “Rights of Man” as his spellbound students look on with misty-eyed admiration, serves only to reconfirm it. Both his liberal proclamations and the perfunctorily eroticized kiss he exchanges with the newly-smitten Louise, in clear contrast to their earlier kiss, illustrate his welcome acceptance of Sorel’s political legacy, as does his parallel destiny to Sorel’s when the Nazis escort him away in the film’s penultimate shot.
If the film achieves its desired closure—the celebration of nationalist heroism and the consequent reestablishment of liberal nationalism—by collapsing figural and literal kinship, it cannot do so without high cost to its representations of nationality in more general terms. In Children of the Earth, Marc Shell argues that the tension between literal and figural conceptions of kinship is basic to the ideology of nation, underlying the incest taboo that, for Shell, serves in turn to stabilize and regulate the structure of the nation-state:
The literalist view, even as it belittles the figural as merely fictive, itself involves a key fiction, namely, that we can really know who are our consanguineous kin. . . . Likewise, that my lover may be my consanguineous kinperson is a logical reality, and this merges with the oneirological nightmare that my lover is my consanguineous kinperson. The particular family dissolves in the republic of dreams. The literal disappears in the figural. 11
In This Land is Mine, the social order imposed by the occupation is viewed as artificial and oppressive, but it is counterposed against a critical vision of the social disorder it controls, which is finally identified in Lory’s last speech as having somehow allowed the occupation. Clearly, one of the unavoidable implications of the internalization of guilt in the film’s representation of its imagined country’s occupation is that a weakened patriarchy permits foreign takeover: The absent fathers of the film’s destitute country permit the entry of the false figural fathers of Nazism. Refusing to reject altogether the imperatives of patriarchy itself, with its need of symbolic father-figures, the film can only envision political strife as a confrontation of opposed figural fathers, where ideology functions to legitimate some fathers while invalidating [End Page 965] others. Similarly, the unmarried status of all the film’s principal characters serves both to undergird the film’s critique of the family and, somewhat paradoxically, to underline its vision of social disorder. Having shown how resistance is harmfully limited or threatened by the demands of family structures, the film then proceeds to attribute social disorder to what it perceives as weakened family structures. As a gauge of the film’s collapse of literal with figural kinship, this double-bind is well-illustrated by the treatment of Louise, especially since she is the character most insistently shaped by the film’s ideological regime, without much regard for any external logics. As we have seen, Louise’s attachment to Lambert coexists with her open resistance to fascism, and her subsequent disillusionment with both Lambert’s collaboration and Lory’s cowardice must give way with remarkable abruptness to her final unadulterated, idealized sexual love of Lory after his speech.
Though the film absolutely requires this shift in order to secure its ultimate placement of Lory as a legitimated father-figure, the shift can be achieved only through repression of the figural kinships the two characters have previously enacted. Once a student at the school where she now teaches with Lory, Louise, as the film opens, is Lory’s colleague but is betrothed to Lambert. Thus the Louise character potentiates a full range of the patterns of figural kinship. In relation to Lory, she may be linked as wife because of his desire for her, sibling because of her position as his fellow-teacher, and daughter because of her status as former student. She herself alternates between treating Lory as a brother-figure, as in the dinner-scene where her response to him parallels her responses to Paul, and as her child, as when she calls him a “brave boy.” Their final kiss merely seals a representation rooted in the contingencies of kinship, through these multiple kinship possibilities, but blooming into the triumphal universalization and idealization of kinship.
In fact, this collapse of figural with literal conceptions of kinship is the defining function of a key problematic in the film that can be put quite simply. On the one hand, the film defines national identity as ideological structure, but on the other it idealizes constructions of figural kinship after having strategically detached questions of nationality from questions of literal kinship. A contradiction is thus presaged, especially if we make the conventional assumption that the workings of ideology neutralize contingency, particularity, the sundry forces of the literal. Indeed, this problematic emerges clearly in a number of seemingly contradictory impulses basic to the film’s structure. If, as I [End Page 966] have argued, the film defines nationhood as ideology, then on what ground is one ideology to be favored over others, especially after their affinities have been acknowledged? Given the conception of nationality-as-ideology, in any case—with its subtending rhetoric critical of a universalizing false-consciousness like von Keller’s, which may best be nullified through dialectical attentiveness to particularities of experience—how can the film take ultimate refuge in the idealization of figural kinship structures? Somewhat more concretely, given its critique of the ideology of nationhood, how is the film able to conclude with a triumphal rhetoric of nationalism that is fairly conventional in its marshaling of the concepts of heroism, courage, and pride, in spite of its overtly revolutionary edicts? The film ends with Lory being led to his death by the Nazis, but instead of expressing outrage at such literal perversion of justice, the film seeks to earn its nominal pathos by presenting the event as Lory’s higher victory, outside ideology, in the realm of moral truth celebrated earlier in the film by Sorel, whose fate Lory, in an irony the film must neutralize, will now share.
Literal vs. Figural, Particular vs. Universal
With such questions, it may well appear that we end up precisely where we started, with the film’s need to preserve a domain of universal truth against encroaching ideology, or, to put it in the terms of this essay’s introduction, against the onset of an unfinished history. Even so, however, the dynamic still reveals much about the representation of national identity in this film and, by extension, in Hollywood’s war-time melodrama in general. But this scission may be part of an even larger cultural current in which Hollywood participates. Especially in their twentieth-century versions, debates about nationality often presuppose a relation of paired dyads—literal and figural, particular and universal—where nationality is seen to depend on complex interconnections among these terms. Insofar as it is manifestly a social construct, nationality is a figural form of identity, yet it achieves its resonant force by claiming to extend “literal” structures of kinship. Similarly, though the imposition of nation-ness requires the particularization of a citizenry, distinguishing some countrypersons from others by virtue of conferred nationality, it also marshals a form of universalism that purports to elide individual difference within a given nationality. In Children of the Earth, Shell points to what he sees as the general impossibility of “the attempt to attain universalist kinship structure . . . within a world of nations” (193), arguing that “it is partly the free-floating conditionality [End Page 967] of kinship terminology that allows for the nationalist and universalist ideology according to which any person stands, or stands potentially, in relation to any other person as a kinsperson” (4–5). The problematic of nationhood in This Land is Mine takes shape around a trio of opposed terms—exogenous versus endogenous national conflict, figural versus literal kinship structures, and particularist versus universalist nationalisms—that, as Shell’s formulations suggest, are inextricably bound together in the ideology of nationhood at large. In Renoir’s film, as in many of Shell’s examples, each pair troubles the others in their interaction. As a drama of occupation, This Land is Mine finds itself positioned between narrative of intranational and international conflict. Neither fully endogenous, brother-against-brother, nor clearly exogenous, brother-against-other, the film’s narrative conflict generates scenarios in which one’s literal brother becomes unknowable, in which families are divided between opposed political options, in which enemies are unrecognizable by outward appearance (as in the sub-plot involving the frustrated search for the saboteur). Yet, having identified the danger of Nazism’s universalizing rhetoric of brotherhood and having opted for a particularist ideology that recognizes such rhetoric as the mask of imperialism, the film counterposes its own fraternity, both explicitly nationalist and rhetorically universalized, where the Lorys, Louises and Sorels of the world may mingle eternally in their bower of universal truth.
This balance, if so it can be called, between particularist and universalizing tendencies is an ideological rarity in war-time Hollywood’s representations of nationality, where, as in Mrs. Miniver, an overarching universalism is the rule. Paradoxically, however, the conventions for representing nationality in war-time Hollywood accomodate such balance readily, so that even if This Land is Mine retains a certain distance from standard representations, it finds, in effecting its particular ideological operations, an unlikely ally in Hollywood’s received conventions of representation. In other words, if the film combines an un-Hollywood-like rhetoric of ideology-critique with a typically Hollywood-like vision of universalized virtue, that mixture is crudely readable as a structuring tension concomitant with the Renoir-in-Hollywood signifier. Even though contemporary reviewers of This Land is Mine derided the dislocated quality of the film’s fictive country, such coy allegorization or representational abstractedness is in fact quite characteristic of Hollywood’s versions of Europe, even when the geographical referents are openly acknowledged and unmistakable, like the representation of Germany in The Great Dictator (Chaplin, 1940). 12 [End Page 968] Indeed, in many ways, This Land is Mine typifies Hollywood’s representations of war-time Europe, through complexly mingled strategies of displacement and projection, revealing how a tension between particularist and universalist tropes of nation inform these representations fundamentally. Textual signifiers such as characters’ names and the conclusive invocation of the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man” combine with extratextual signifiers, such as Renoir’s own nationality and the historical fact of France’s occupation by Germany, to invite a reading of these signifiers’ “real” referent as “France.” This particularity, however, is undermined by the film’s effort, as James Agee noted at the time, to “internationalize” its setting (36). Thus, for instance, the Francophone potential of characters’ names like Martin or Lambert is diminished through Anglicization in pronunciation.
In an essay of 1949, “National Types as Hollywood Presents Them,” Siegfried Kracauer compares pre-war, war-time and post-war Hollywood conceptions of national typology. From his study of a range of films Kracauer concludes that these typologies are shaped by the relations of national ideologies to one another and by the imperatives of contemporary political exigencies. For Kracauer, these factors determine the distance between particular representations as projections or as actualities:
Our concepts of a foreigner necessarily reflect native habits of thought. Much as we try to curtail this subjective factor . . . we still view the other individual from a position which is once and for all ours . . . Whether our image of a foreign people comes close to true likeness or merely serves as a vehicle of self-expression—that is, whether it is more of a portrait or more of a projection—depends on the degree to which our urge for objectivity gets the better of naive subjectivity. 13
Hollywood’s images of England, according to Kracauer, are likely to be “objective” because of “common traditions” between British and United States culture, while its images of Russia incline toward “subjective” projection because of a historical lack of cultural interaction and because of basic ideological antagonisms. Yet, as Kracauer recognizes, because “a people is not so much a fixed entity as a living organism that develops along unforeseeable lines” (258), these images themselves undergo significant shifts, so that war-time Russia, for instance, is often represented favorably as an ally of the United States while post-war Britain is curiously marginalized in Hollywood’s representations, perhaps, as Kracauer speculates, because of “the uneasiness with which Americans react to Labor rule in Britain” after World War II (263). [End Page 969] The latter point especially implies the determining role Kracauer sees of ideology, or at least of specific political trends, upon Hollywood’s favor in its representation of foreignness, conferring what Kracauer calls “in-group” or “out-group” status on particular nations in particular political circumstances.
A synthesis of the particularist/universalist issue with Kracauer’s categories is easy to achieve, for in practice Hollywood’s representations of nationhood, especially in the politically volatile contexts of World War II, engage in what may be called a pragmatic materialism, particularizing its “out-groups” while universalizing its “in-groups.” Tropes of nationality on view in This Land is Mine illustrate the tendency in Hollywood’s versions of Europe to draw upon strategies made available by received conventions in order to balance universalist identifications against politically exigent dissociations. By allegorizing the setting of This Land is Mine, for instance, the film is able to exculpate its citizens under the banner of individualist democracy while demonizing forms of societal “weakness” that permit foreign occupation. The townpeople are projected as quasi-Americans in their courageous resistance and in their commitment to republican liberty, but as pan-European in their exploitation of black-marketeering and their complicity with fascism. The double-binds of the film’s ideological infrastructure thus enable a double-focus on its thematics, where its strategies of de-specification permit the association of all virtues with a more-than-implicitly American ideal of democracy and the relegation of all vices to a position of clearly-marked foreignness.
The specific manner in which the setting is visualized clarifies the film’s dual relation to Hollywood’s images of Europe, particularizing “out-groups” while universalizing “in-groups.” The opening sequence crystallizes the film’s detailed specifications of German nationality even as French nationality is methodically elided so that it may later be allegorically celebrated. Constructed around a precise, tightly-organized shot/reverse-shot schema uncharacteristic of Renoir’s usual procedures, the sequence works out visually the German occupation of the town by juxtaposing the literal icons of invading Nazism against general emblems of native national identity that have been emptied of their specificity. For instance, under the credits appears a somewhat generic statue commemorating victories in World War I, showing a soldier crouching for attack above a patriotic plaque. This image is followed by the camera’s portentous tilt downward to reveal a discarded leaflet at the base of the statue announcing Hitler’s invasion. The juxtaposition of the statue as an internationalized marker of all-purpose [End Page 970] patriotism against the specific reference to Hitler initiates a pattern that organizes the whole sequence, systematically contrasting inflammatory images of historical Nazism—goose-stepping soldiers, swas-tikas, the Nazi flag—with signifiers of a generalized nationalism, such as the vaguely European town-square of the opening scene, with its cosily pre- or proto-modern architecture. Indeed, the sequence’s visual rhetoric depicts the inexorable eclipse of this generalized nationalism by a fully particularized Nazism.
These qualities of generalization are both necessitated and made possible by the conventions of Hollywood studio-shooting. 14 As evidenced by other of his American films, Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945), Renoir’s American period was marked by a pioneering insistence on location-shooting in the name of fidelity to regional milieus. In his comments on This Land is Mine, however, Renoir links both the film’s decidedly un-Renoiresque shot/reverse-shot editing and its obviously studio-shot ambience to the didactic purpose of the film:
Nichols [the co-writer] didn’t think about the stage setting. I was the one who made him think about it . . . [I]t was a bit of a propaganda film . . . So I thought we’d better be cautious so as to change the editing . . . the only method is a secure method, and that is why you have to have shots, reaction shots, master shots, medium shots. . . . 15
That Renoir saw the project as an opportunity to exploit the conventions of studio-shooting for particular ideological ends is best illustrated in the film itself by a later sequence in the square when Lory discovers his mother’s intervention in his arrest that has resulted in the killing of Louise’s brother. The sequence is noteworthy for combining an open acknowledgment of the artifice of studio-shooting with an improvisatory rhetoric more in keeping with Renoir’s characteristic styles. In the scene, Lory is faced with the revelation of his mother’s betrayal of Paul to Lambert in order to secure Lory’s release from prison. Rejecting his mother vehemently in the plot’s key turning-point, Lory marches off with new-found resolve to confront Lambert. Lory’s reaction to his mother’s revelation is one of violent disorientation, and that reaction is figured visually through an unstably moving camera, in powerful contrast to the fixed camera positions of most of the film but much in keeping with the stylistic openness and spontaneity ordinarily attributed to Renoir. The camera swivels back and forth to follow Lory as he lunges in and out of its range, pursued by the grasping mother, and Renoir punctuates this passing permeability [End Page 971] of the frame-space by way of the surprising entry into the composition’s fray of various anonymous citizens who wordlessly join this public domestic struggle, ineffectually cuffing Lory or pulling at his mother. At the end of the sequence, such rhetoric of improvisatory openness is undercut abruptly by a sudden immobile high-angle shot that reveals unapologetically the stage-bound quality of the setting by punctuating the artificiality of the housefronts and the reedy, hollow character, heightened by the camera’s distance, of the stage-sound. 16 Yet the suggestion of Renoir’s free-form open-style persists in the unconventional angle of Lory’s trance-like exit from the frame, an off-centered lurch that undermines the traditional comparison of the film-frame to the proscenium-stage. Manipulating conventions of studio-shooting, the scene encapsulates the film’s use of those conventions to ally its conceptions of anonymously virtuous nationhood with the enforced artifice of the Hollywood studio.
In Hollywood’s war-time melodramas, foreignness is typically represented as something of a constant quantity, effortlessly distinguished from patently American identities but undifferentiated in itself. Thus, for instance, foreign speech is marked stylistically in these films by vaguely European, usually British, accents that cast back fancifully to the projected or imagined “original.” In the always-exemplary Casablanca, for instance, the French Louis Renault is played by the British Claude Rains, with Rains’s Britishness straddling a boundary between difference and sameness crucial in the construction of the character. Synthesizing the threat of cultural alienness with the security of cultural ancestry projected upon the British, the film can initially vilify the character’s collaborationism (albeit affectionately) but ultimately redeem him in friendship with the American character Rick. The projected nationality of This Land is Mine is constructed through a Britishness that has been similarly encoded. Significantly, von Keller is enacted by an actual German, but the citizens are enacted by American or British actors, with the cast’s spunkiest Americans (Maureen O’Hara and Kent Smith) in the roles of the most clearly ennobled resisters, Louise and Paul. The other characters are shaped according to a Britishness encoded at its first level, like Rains’s in Casablanca, as non-British, a stand-in for the also-absent signifier of French nationality, so that characters’ betrayals are accounted for by their foreignness while their triumphs coincide with their gradual Americanization.
A final effect of the film’s specific evocations of German national identity as against the effacement of its other nationalities is that the [End Page 972] film’s ultimately favored ideology of nationhood can be identified, in an important sense, only negatively. In its fantasy of pan-European resistance, This Land is Mine generates a fictive nationality defined only by its opposition to fascism, characterized chiefly by its status as non-German. It is thus important to the film’s vision of the collapsibility of nations into an ideal of republican liberalism that its principals be fashioned as “schoolmasters,” custodians of the archive of classical liberalism. Shoring up the artifacts of what Lionel Trilling in a similarly exuberant spirit of universalism would call the “liberal imagination,” the film deploys references to Voltaire, Plato, Juvenal and Tacitus as eternalized signifiers of the liberal democracy which the film calls upon for its definition of virtuous nationhood. The clearest instance of how these signifiers operate in the text is, perhaps, the conclusive recitation of the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” At one level, obviously, this scene marks the reinstatement of the seemingly excluded national signifier—France—in its explicit appeal to this document of the French revolution, an artifact of the decisive historical emergence of modern conceptions of nationalism. At another level, however, the recitation denies the document its historical particularity even as it is invoked. For instance, the declaration is read in Lory’s liltingly stentorian tones in a form both abridged and abutted, deleting the text’s more notable exclusions, such as its denial of suffrage to women and to some men, while playing up its nascent political individualism. 17 With this characteristic maneuver, the film perhaps unconsciously broaches the conflation of the French declaration with the American Bill of Rights, culminating the film’s tendency to project political weakness as foreign while establishing political strength as implicitly or potentially American. 18
1. Important recent analyses of Hollywood cinema see such problematics as definitive. On the problem of “commitment” in American film, see Robert Ray’s analysis of “Classic Hollywood’s most representative film”(89), Casablanca, in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). Ray argues that the film’s ideological project is “the avoidance of choice between autonomy and commitment,” even as, paradoxically, the film trades compulsively in the rhetoric of choice. A similar dynamic is treated in Bernard Dick’s analysis of the American World War Two film in a chapter on the paradoxical issue of “neutral intervention”; see Dick, Star-Spangled Screen: The American World War II Film (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 65–100.
2. Related problems of historical placement are treated in theoretical terms by Marc Ferro in Cinema and History, trans. Naomi Greene (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988), though Ferro’s emphasis is more on shifting responses to texts over time: Ferro observes, following Eisenstein, that “every society receives its images in function of its own culture . . . The same is true of a work’s content and meaning, which may be read in varying and contrary ways at two different points in history”(18–19). Significantly, Ferro draws on Renoir’s work to illustrate the point: “[Grand Illusion], which attempted to be pacifist, left-wing and internationalist and was greeted as such in 1938, was reconsidered in 1946 . . . and seen as a profoundly ambiguous work”(19).
3. Leo Braudy, for instance, sees Renoir’s work as the embodiment of “open” style in The World in a Frame (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 218–225. Among standard critical treatments of Renoir, see also Andre Bazin on the “improvisatory” element of Renoir’s style in Jean Renoir, ed. Francois Truffaut, trans. W. W. Halsey II and William H. Simon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 80–81; on ideological openness, see Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 400–405.
4. The best discussion of Renoir’s relation to the Popular Front is in Christopher Faulkner, The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 71–105; see also Bazin, 36–52. A notorious contemporary anti-fascist melodrama that explicitly endorses Communism, illustrating the ideological strategy most such films seek problematically to avoid, is Mission to Moscow(Curtiz, 1943). See the detailed introduction by David Culbert in the published screenplay by Howard Koch, Mission to Moscow (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1980), 11–41.
5. Dudley Nichols, This Land is Mine, (New York: Ungar, 1970), 108; further references cited in the text. Unless followed by parenthetical citation, quotations from the film are transcribed from the text of the film itself.
6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 15.
7. Dudley Nichols, “The Writer and the Film,” in Twenty Best Film Plays, eds. John Gassner and Dudley Nichols (New York: Crown, 1943), 8.
8. See Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir: The French Films (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 290–298.
9. Faulkner, 133.
10. Key influential theories of classical Hollywood’s models of representation see the exclusionist aspect of the consitution of the couple as fundamental. As Raymond Bellour states, “ . . . [T]he film gradually leads to a final solution which allows the more or less conflicting terms posed at the beginning to be resolved, and which in the majority of cases takes the form of a marriage. I’ve gradually come to think this pattern organizes—indeed, constitutes—the classical American cinema as a whole. . . .” See Janet Bergstrom, “Alternation, Segmentation, Hypnosis: Interview with Raymond Bellour,” in Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New York: Routledge, 1988), 187. The point here is not that This Land is Mine defies this pattern but that it modifies the specifically exclusionist cast of the pattern. See also Virginia Wright Wexman, Creating the Couple (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3–36.
11. Marc Shell, Children of the Earth: Literature, Politics and Nationhood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 4; further references are cited in the text.
12. A representative contemporary review critical of the film’s allegorized, abstracted nationalism is James Agee’s; see Agee on Film (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1958), 36; further references cited in the text.
13. In Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1957), 258; further references cited in the text.
14. Leo Braudy makes a similar point about Renoir’s manipulation of the stylization of studio-shooting when he notes that the film’s studio-sets become “an image of confinement.” See Braudy, Jean Renoir: The World of his Films (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 48.
15. Renoir on Renoir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 16–17.
16. Significantly, Bazin’s discussion of the “realism” of Renoir’s pre-Hollywood soundtracks turns on a comparison of location to studio shooting: “The soundtrack of La Chienne is consistently excellent thanks to the on-location recording . . . Even in the scenes consisting completely of dialogue, which were shot in the studio, the sound is realistic . . . “(28). For Bazin, Renoir’s Hollywood period is marked by a decline in “realistic” sound, a point with which I concur for different reasons and with different conclusions. See Bazin, 93.
17. See Children of the Earth, 184. On the French Revolution as a “triumph of bourgeois individualism,” with specific reference to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” see Jacques Solé, Questions of the French Revolution, trans. Shelley Temchin (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 54–56.
18. So insinuating is this conflation that several critics mis-identify the document read in the final scene. In his book on Laughton, for instance, Simon Callow repeats James Agate’s earlier mis-identification of the Rights of Man read in this scene of the film as the American Bill of Rights; see Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (London: Methuen, 1987), 161–163.