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  • Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943): The Work of Art as Will to Power
  • Gregory Sims (bio)

It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

Our religion, morality and philosophy are decadent institutions. The counter-agent: Art.

Nietzsche, The Will to Power


In light of the extremely tight ideological, economic and administrative controls placed on French film production during the Occupation by both German and Vichy authorities, 1 it is not unreasonable to expect this period and this corpus of films to provide fertile ground for an examination of potential and actual relations between aesthetics and ideology. Indeed, whatever the period, this expectation would seem to be especially well-founded in the case of the cinema, no doubt—at least in its mainstream, commercial form—the most social, the most industrial of the arts, the one in principle most directly subject to economic and ideological pressures. And yet, crudely [End Page 743] propagandistic works aside, 2 the great majority of the fiction films of the Occupation (including—and some would say, especially—those made under the aegis of “Continental,” the Paris-based, German-administered and financed production company) 3 have thus far ren-dered meager and at best ambiguous results in this respect: with just a few exceptions, they do not seem to express explicitly fascistic ideol-ogies, 4 nor do they even appear obtrusively to foster the conservative “Travail, Famille, Patrie” ideology of Pétain’s “Révolution nationale.” As Alan Williams explains, “The majority of postwar critics, historians and political activists felt that most fiction films of the Occupation had served as an expression of the nation’s political and moral in-dependence from the Occupation.” 5 Indeed, François Garçon has argued that, paradoxically, one finds much more overt instances of right-wing ideology in the French cinema of the 1930s than in that of the Occupation. 6

And even when there are discernibly ideological or at least didactic intentions in the cinema of the Occupation, they have often resisted efforts at any straightforward categorization; occasionally the same film was championed (for example, Jean Grémillon’s Le Ciel est à vous [1943], Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir [1942])—or decried (for example, Le Corbeau)—by both the conservative right and the various clandestine Resistance factions, so that it has simply not been clear whether any specific, readily assignable set of ideological values at all is being promoted or opposed by a particular film. Evelyn Ehrlich [End Page 744] concludes that the corpus is “necessarily devoid of clear-cut political meanings,” that it is “impossible to isolate the exact political meaning of the films made during the occupation.” 7

Moreover, as a result of systematic institutional and economic reforms carried out by the Vichy government, 8 and a concomitant emphasis on aesthetic value (“quality productions”), 9 the French cinema is even seen to flourish during this period, becoming, accord-ing to some, more properly “French” than ever before. Certain film makers even speak in terms of a “Golden Age,” claiming that they were more “free” during the Occupation than before (referring to [End Page 745] the infrastructural and political disarray of the 1930s). 10 “The curious fact is,” writes Alan Williams, “that few, if any, periods of French film history have produced so many acknowledged masterpieces and near-masterpieces in so little time.” 11 All of these factors—the ostensible ideological neutrality or at least ambiguity of the films themselves (which is often seen as intimately bound up with the emphasis on the aesthetic), 12 the allotment of considerable official energy and resources [End Page 746] to the industry, the structural reorganization, the emphasis on quality—have given rise to the designation “cinema of paradox.” 13

Elsewhere, in a detailed study of Cocteau’s and Delannoy’s much-lauded film L’Eternel Retour (1943), I have taken the paradox hypothesis to task, and shown how even—or especially—this highly prestigious, aestheticized kind of work, which situates itself so overtly and resolutely in the domain of “High Art,” going so far as to allegorize its own autonomy with respect to social...

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