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

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 and political forces, can be seen as participating in a broad, “exorcistic” purging and politically driven appropriation of the aesthetic field by French intellectuals of the right and extreme-right. 14

In the present article, as a further contribution to the analysis of both the relations between aesthetics and ideology in the French cinema of the Occupation and of the symptomatology of Vichy, of les années noires—which, as Henry Rousso has demonstrated in his Le Syndrome de Vichy, 15 and as the Touvier, Bousquet and, most recently, the Papon affairs illustrate, stubbornly refuse to fade away, to remain in the past—I examine a crucial, properly neuralgic film from the period, one which, in spite of its radical singularity, has somehow become emblematic of the French cinema of the Occupation in general. Unlike other art films, however, Le Corbeau was at the time rightly seen, and still is, as anything but apolitical, but again the sheer [End Page 747] range of (often contradictory) political positions ascribed to the film has made its politics a difficult matter to judge. I shall try to shed some new and, I hope, significant light on this question by approaching Clouzot’s film from the specific vantage-point of the ways in which it invokes and deploys certain aspects of Nietzschean aesthetics and politics, or political aesthetics, and by speculating as to what the impli-cations of this might be.

Approaching the film through Nietzsche has, to begin with, the appreciable advantage of allowing one to bypass conventional issues of “representation” or “mimesis” in order to focus on questions of ideology and—or better, as—aesthetics. For in order to reconstruct—or simply construct—links between the French feature films of the Occupation and the sinister historical reality that is seen as being, to a lesser or greater degree, symptomatically and paradoxically “absent” from the screen, critics have, predictably, tended to resort either to allegory 16 or to a rather crude, positivistic sociology (the sympathetic or unsympathetic portrayal of the family, women, children, peasants, workers, employers, social institutions, etc.). 17 This preoccupation with questions of representation, with the (absent, failed, repressed) representation of “les aspects sombres du quotidien,” 18 has led critics to overlook the subtle but often profound intrication of these films, as films, in the cultural-ideological discourses of their day, and thus links between aesthetics and ideology that operate quite independently of mimesis. [End Page 748]


Perhaps nowhere do the shortcomings of the critical preoccupation with questions of mimesis in the cinema of the Occupation, with the (absent, failed, repressed) representation of “les aspects sombres du quotidien,” 19 become so starkly apparent as they do when attempting to deal with Clouzot’s Le Corbeau. With its aggressively bleak narrative centered on the wave—ultimately, a deluge—of anonymous, poison-pen letters that descends on the provincial town of “St Robin,” the film has habitually been interpreted as thematizing, albeit ambiguously, the contentious issue of anonymous letters of denunciation, a widespread practice during the Occupation. Add to this the fact that one obsessive theme of the letters turns around accusations of abortion, when motherhood and child-rearing were amongst Vichy’s most sacrosanct and energetically-promoted values, and the predictable result is that critics have not felt the need to look any further for the film’s “politicality.” As Roger Regent put it in his review for Les Nouveaux Temps: “Sa violence, son pouvoir incisif, cette sensualité aiguë qui traverse ses images en font une oeuvre tendue, virulente, qui va terrifier les amateurs du cinéma de famille. . . . Il est à prevoir que certains vont discuter de l’opportunite d’un tel sujet!” 20

While it is true that, unlike the overwhelming majority of the art films of the Occupation, which pointedly avoided overt representation of the context in which they were made, Le Corbeau seemed to lack all such discretion, all such timidity (for one thing, being produced by the German company, “Continental,” it was not subject to the standard censorship and production “visa” procedures), and while in this regard the film can easily—too easily—be read not just as the “return of the repressed,” but as a veritable flaunting of the repressed, the film’s true audacity, its undeniable power to unsettle, does not consist in—is not limited to—its more or less explicit thematization of (then) politically controversial practices; the film’s rootedness in its own time lies, I believe, elsewhere, in a complex but precise intersection between politics, philosophy and aesthetics characteristic of the period. The film’s ostensible “topicality,” in conjunction with the critical emphasis on “representation,” has, in my view, barred access and blinded us to this much stronger and deeper “historicity.” [End Page 749]

By turning, in the first instance, to philosophy, my aim is thus to free Clouzot’s film from its habitual, secondary role of handmaiden to “history”—a role that even Clouzot himself, for quite understandable, self-interested reasons, tended to emphasize 21 —so as to grasp better the ways in which, in relating the formation of a proto-political, specifically Nietzschean form of subjectivity, it dramatizes not so much “context” but rather “historicity” as such, and allegorizes its own artistic and political ambitions. For, unlike a film such as L’Eternel Retour, which shares with other art films of the Occupation and indeed with the entire culture of Vichy, “une formidable aspiration à sortir du temps,” 22 Le Corbeau rushes to meet the period in which it is made; to quote Gilles Jacob:

A regarder [ces] films, la censure et l’autocensure aidant, on se croirait vivre dans un monde de fantaisie, où l’allégorie médiévale des Visiteurs du Soir le dispute aux complications sentimentalo-policières d’un inspecteur ‘prudent mais circonspect’ dans L’Assassin habite au 21, où Le père Goriot arrive en retard, etc. . . . Certains films, au contraire—et ce ne sont pas les moins importants—auscultent leur époque, un peu à l’image de Pierre Fresnay, le docteur Germain du Corbeau auscultant à contrecoeur Ginette Leclerc, belle patiente d’une scène restée célèbre. 23

At once noxious symptom and mordant diagnosis, Le Corbeau intervenes in its epoch, but, paradoxically, only in order to make a powerful case for the therapeutic benefits of, so to speak, “forgetting” it, or rather “overcoming” it, in a strong, ultimately Nietzschean sense.


The film premiered in Paris in September 1943 and although it enjoyed considerable popular—and thus financial—success, 24 this [End Page 750] was very much a succès de scandale. For, unlike the unreservedly warm reception accorded other art films that generally fall under the heading of the so-called cinema of paradox, Le Corbeau triggered, in many quarters, outbursts of critical-political opprobrium, the critics’ tone often virulently irrational, their accusations hazy, ill-argued, and painted with a broad brush. 25 The vigorous controversies aroused by Le Corbeau—a film maudit if ever there was one—are finally not terri-bly surprising, since the film is expressly designed to grate on the nerves, to refuse all complacency.

To begin with, there is obviously the story itself: a steadily-increasing number of anonymous letters signed “Le Corbeau” suddenly begin appearing in a small provincial town, accusing their recipients (all respectable, if not respected bourgeois occupying official positions, not altogether innocent of the calumnies imputed to them) of adultery, cuckoldry, financial and political corruption, and a range of other misdeeds. The main target of the “anonymographe,” however, is Doctor Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a mysterious newcomer to the town, a loner, who is accused of being an abortionist. The tone of the letters is cruelly abrasive, vulgar, slangy. Since the police are stymied, another, unofficial investigation is launched, leading to rumor-mongering, scapegoating and entrapment which only serve to exacerbate the levels of paranoia, finally creating a lynch-mob atmosphere. The film features an impotent, corrosively cynical psychiatrist who also happens to be a morphine addict (Dr. Vorzet), his sexually frus-trated, much younger wife (Laura), a hard-bitten, viciously jealous nurse who steals the morphine for Vorzet and also coldly mistreats her patients (Marie Corbin, Laura’s sister), a voluptuous, slightly-crippled vamp (Denise) who takes “revenge” for her infirmity by seducing every eligible man who comes within reach (in this case, Germain), an alcoholic surgeon who finds a case of gangrene rather entertaining, a cancer patient who, on learning (from an anonymous letter) that his case is terminal, commits suicide by cutting his throat, a vituperative shouting match and brawl (between Marie Corbin and [End Page 751] Denise) at the cancer patient’s funeral, a hypocritical priest, a corrupt district prefect, and, last but not least, a rather sleazy teenage girl (Rolande) who, as well as being a minor con artist, also eavesdrops and peeps through keyholes: “Quant à la petite Rolande,” writes Hélène Garcin, “on ne peut faire plus sournois, plus horriblement pervers que cette mineure à lunettes.” 26 As a critic for Le Spectateur aptly and eloquently put it at the time: “c’est une ville disposée comme un grand corps écorché, avec ses muscles, ses nerfs et ses tripes à vif.” 27

Nor did the political circumstances of the film’s production help to mitigate the scandal it caused: it is clear that Le Corbeau would never have gotten past the pre-production stage, much less passed Vichy censorship, had it not been produced, financed and distributed by “Continental,” the Paris-based German production house (of which Clouzot was, to boot, artistic director), which thus allowed the film to bypass the usual two-stage censorship procedure (script then final cut). We are thus dealing with a film that, in many eyes, was (and remains) doubly reprehensible: a morally corrupting product of flagrant political collaboration. 28

The attacks on the film came from (almost) all sides: from the Left (the communist critic Georges Sadoul talks in terms of “propagande antifrançaise soigneusement enveloppée”); 29 from the conservative Right (Vichy condemned the film’s corrosive immorality, in particular its implacably harsh depiction of official institutions, and the censors from the Centrale Catholique du Cinéma describe it as “essentiellement pernicieux de point de vue social, moral et religieux,” being especially appalled by its anticlericalism and the fact that the protagonist, Doctor Germain, attending a difficult birth, deliberately intervenes to save the mother’s life at the expense of the child’s). By far the most savage and—ultimately—influential critiques, though, came [End Page 752] from the clandestine Resistance press: Georges Adam and Pierre Blanchar in l’Ecran français talk of “trahison,” of “[des] boches camouflés . . . [qui] sous le couvert d’une marchandise impeccable et parfois même séduisante [alimentent] l’idéologie sournoise des occupants nazis.” 30 Even the German company U.F.A. considered the film as too demoralizing for it to be distributed inside Germany. Given these passionate controversies on the film’s release, it comes as no surprise that, after the Liberation, Clouzot and co-writer Louis Chavance were suspended from film-making for three years by the Commission d’épuration (indeed, there were even calls for the death penalty from some quarters), and the film continued to be decried in the harshest terms: “[c’est] une oeuvre qui consentit à représenter la France comme une nation pourrie, dégénérée, petite bourgeoise vicieuse et décadente, en concordance avec les assertions de Mein Kampf.” 31

But if these controversies are not especially surprising, they are even less illuminating, telling us little or nothing of significance about the film as such. They are finally little more than symptoms that, in their own way, merely reproduce the blind outrage provoked by the letters in the film itself—a kind of chain reaction of accusation and scapegoating that spills over into the film’s own reception.

Of course, the film did have its admirers, especially among the Parisian collaborationist critics, “cinéphiles” full of praise for its forceful style (its expressionistic lighting, bold, disorienting framing, dramatic close-ups) and—albeit more ambivalently, more reservedly—for its generally nightmarish, even perverted, “subject matter.” The feature that these reviews have in common is their refusal or inability to discuss the question of form and/or content (and no film at the time was more subject to this distinction than Le Corbeau) other than, on the one hand, in terms of a straightforward opposition, where cinematic form (art) prevails over narrative content (ideology), and, on the other, as a fortunate and powerful synthesis of artistic temperament and talent, a kind of auteurisme avant la lettre.

The critic for the virulently anti-Semitic Au Pilori, for example, simply says: “. . . un style ferme dès les premiers metrages sans doute [End Page 753] les meilleurs . . . du vrai cinéma et du meilleur!” 32 Audiberti, review-ing the film in Comoedia, is seduced by the film’s tragic implacability (“l’action monte et se tend dans une fatalité mathématique”), 33 while Georges Champeaux in Le Cri du peuple begins by gesturing in the direction of self-expression and goes on to discuss the film in almost exclusively formal, cinematic terms, its dark “content” (“la donnée”) displaced under the heading of genre:

C’est un film “cent pour cent Clouzot”. . . . Pour la réalisation cinématographique, elle est d’un homme qui connaît tous les trucs et en invente. Il y a dans des morceaux comme la poursuite de l’infirmière, la scène de l’enterrement, la discussion des deux médecins sous une lampe qui oscille, une étonnante certitude de main. M. Clouzot n’a plus rien et à vrai dire n’a jamais rien eu à apprendre. Il pense cinématographiquement. Qu’exiger de plus?. . . La donnée du Corbeau pose un problème qui apparente ce film au genre policier. . . . L’intrigue n’est pas moins compliquée que dans un film policier, mais la peinture du milieu prend nécessairement une plus grande importance. Film policier et film d’atmosphère tout ensemble . . . . 34

Didier Daix (surely a nom de plume?), writing in Ciné-mondial, sees Le Corbeau, formally, as “un grand film . . . riche de talent, animé d’une sève vigoureuse et d’une pensée puissante. . . . Dans chaque image . . . on sent la poigne solide d’un chef au talent solide,” and, like other critics, Daix displays a certain ambivalence towards the narrative content, finding Clouzot and Chavance “un peu trop volontairement morbide” for his taste. But he downplays—sidesteps?—the issue of topicality (the charges of “immorality”) by giving a universalist-humanist slant to this aspect of the film, seeing it as a study of “certaines tares de l’âme humaine”: “Film immoral? Il faudrait s’entendre. Si c’est être immoral pour un ouvrage . . . d’étudier certaines tares de l’âme humaine, certes, Le Corbeau est un film immoral. Mais tel n’est pas mon avis.” His major reservation, however, has more to do with what he sees as a kind of regrettable conflation of form and content, a “failure” to keep the two properly and discernibly apart: where Champeaux sees “un film d’atmosphère” that is not overly concerned with plot resolution, Daix criticizes the film’s narrative structure as “un fleuve immuable et puissant,” as a kind of narrative swamp that, instead of emerging into the clear, albeit harsh [End Page 754] light of a neatly-resolved plot, into the unambiguous “sense of an ending,” only aggravates the already powerful impression of thematic obscurity: “On a . . . l’impression d’autant de mares distinctes s’ag-glomerant pour former un vaste marécage . . . immobile, qui ne mène nulle part. Rien n’y est clair ni franc. Les intentions restent obscures, les actions n’ont pas toutes des justifications apparentes et les senti-ments ne sont pas toujours compris. Le dénouement lui-même ne parvient pas à faire la pleine lumière sur tous ces événements.” 35 Thus, what should be the clarity of narrative form is, to the film’s discredit, seemingly contaminated by the murkiness of content, and the critic frustratingly thwarted in his aestheticizing task of evaluation—although, of course, the question of thematic “content” has, nevertheless, been turned into a predominantly formal (generic) flaw (the “whodunnit” that does not properly explain who did it, nor why they did it).

Georges Bateau, in France-Europe, also bases his review on the distinction between the form (which he admires) and the scandalous content (with which he has problems):

. . . Clouzot compte parmi nos metteurs en scène les plus habiles. Ses images sont soignées, bien équilibrées et il a ce qu’il est convenu d’appeler des trouvailles qui émaillent avec à-propos l’anecdote qu’il a entrepris de nous conter. Je n’ai cependant pas aimé celle qui sert de pivot au Corbeau . . . un dénouement prévu dans sa brutalité. . . . Et la présence de quelques personnages équivoques n’ajoute rien à ce film: la femme, par exemple, qu’incarne avec beaucoup de talent Ginette Leclerc, ou cette petite portière qui, sous l’apparence d’une enfant de 14 ans, a des réflexes un peu trop avancés. On relève également, dans le dialogue, des mots, des locutions, qu’on aurait pu facilement éviter. . . . Quoi qu’il en soit, Le Corbeau ne manque pas de mérites. 36

A year later, in the midst of the Liberation, in an article symptomatically entitled “Regards en arrière,” Georges Bateau revisits the film, this time insisting even more markedly (and, one suspects, given the very tense context, entirely self-servingly) on the form/content divide: “Si sur le plan technique [Le Corbeau] ne laisse rien à desirer, je lui reproche son côté morbide et désespérant, et la crainte qu’il ne fournisse à notre égard le motif d’une désastreuse contre-propagande.” 37

For her part, Hélène Garcin also praises [End Page 755]

La maîtrise de Clouzot . . . Le Corbeau . . . est le chef d’oeuvre qui confirme la qualité de l’ouvrier. La réalisation de ce film remarquable atteste une autorité singulière dans le maniement de la matière cinématographique autant que dans la conduite des interprètes. . . . [Le film] ne manque ni de morceaux de bravoure—(l’enterrement, la messe)—ni de scènes de virtuosité (comme la fuite de l’infirmière), ni de séquences plus riches de puissances suggestives.

She too agrees that, thematically, “dans l’ensemble, comme dans le détail, Le Corbeau est un film terrible,” but form finally triumphs over—vindicates—the untimeliness of “cette peinture [terrible] de la vie provinciale française”: “que [cette peinture] soit, ou non, véridique, sinon opportune, le film de Clouzot n’en est pas moins une authentique réussite cinématographique.38

Arlette Jazarin, in Révolution Nationale, although obliquely acknowledging the film’s controversial themes (“Le Corbeau . . . n’est pas un spectacle à recommander aux sorties familiales”), adopts the tactic of seeing Le Corbeau as a “film d’auteur,” to whom both form and content can be (safely?) assigned:

Le travail de collaboration de Louis Chavance et Clouzot est conçu à la manière de Julien Green. Noirceur des âmes et des coeurs, sentiments machiavéliques, atmosphère suffocante d’intrigues odieuses et de basses machinations, rien n’a été épargné au cours de cette ténébreuse histoire pour que le spectateur puisse égarer tour à tour ses suppositions malveillantes sur tous les personnages qui en font les frais. La collaboration des deux auteurs . . . est d’ailleurs excellente. . . . Clouzot est beaucoup plus un homme de plume qu’un technicien, mais c’est un homme de plume qui pense heureusement pour le cinéma. . . . Le Corbeau . . . n’est pas un spectacle à recommander aux sorties familiales. Mais il plaira . . . à ceux qui se délectent à l’étalage des plus noirs et plus secrets agissements humains, et qui marquent une préférence pour l’obsession sexuelle, consciente ou inconsciente, qu’on trouve généralement dans les films de Clouzot. 39

Roger Regent, in a very long review, goes even further in the direction of “auteurisme.” He fis (seemingly very presciently) persuaded he has just witnessed “un phénomène cinématographique dont la portée est encore incalculable: on ne peut dire aujourd’hui ce que l’avenir réserve à ces images vertigineuses,” but it turns out that what he has in mind fis not so much the short or long-term social and political consequences of the film but rather the much more banal [End Page 756] humanist question of “comment s’accomplira dans nos coeurs et dans nos cerveaux la croissance de cette oeuvre qui est certainement la plus singulière que nous ayons vue depuis de longues années, si ses racines feront éclater la terre, si ses ramures creveront notre carcasse de préjugés et de vertus.” Certainly, Regent does not ignore the question of the political context in which the film is made and released, even if, like all the other critics, he does not—cannot?—mention outright the question of abortion:

Notre censure cinématographique dont le rôle est de veiller à ce qu’aucun scénario ne comporte d’adultère, de suicide, de personnages fous ou “immoraux,” d’assistante sociale qui ne soit pas un ange, de fonctionnaire qui ne soit pas un modèle de conscience et de vertu, de mère qui ne soit pas l’image la plus pure de la maternité, a rempli si scrupuleusement son office que les auteurs dont le talent ne s’accommode pas de la bibliothèque rose doivent fermer boutique: un film comme Le Corbeau, avec ses défauts, ses outrances, ses passions, son anticléricalisme et, peut-être, son pouvoir subversif contre une certaine conception bourgeoise de la société, nous montre la préjudice que peut causer à l’art français de l’ècran un organ-isme dont la libéralité ne dépasse pas Les malheurs de Sophie.

Ultimately, however, it is the auteur that is at stake, and it is the auteur that prevails, with form and self-expression coming together in a perfectly accomplished synthesis:

Jamais depuis la guerre et l’on peut même je pense remonter à plusieurs années avant 1939, des createurs n’avaient pu aller aussi loin dans leur propre pensée et avec une telle violence exprimer leur nature; cela confine à la nudité integrale, au don total de l’être dans une bataille dont il n’est pas sûr que l’auteur ne sorte lui-même plus déchiré que quiconque. Que l’on aime le film ou non on ne peut se défendre d’une sympathie profonde pour une crise aussi aiguë de la personnalite: elle traduit un tempérament d’une acuité extraordinaire chez le scénariste, Louis Chavance, chez le réalisateur M. Clouzot. . . . Il suffit de voir trois images de son nouveau film pour s’apercevoir que l’on se trouve en présence d’un metteur en scène authentique; il se meut dans le monde des images comme d’autres dans le monde des couleurs ou des volumes ou parmi les mots ou les alexandrins. . . . Il faut reconnaître que le scénario semble, cette fois, l’avoir servi au mieux de sa nature. 40

Thus, for all their ostensible verve and political radicality, and their often-proclaimed commitment to a new form of French cinema ade-quate to the period through which they were living, and even if Roger [End Page 757] Regent apprehends that Le Corbeau is an “historic” film, these critics show themselves singularly unable to go beyond the standard gestures and discourse of conventional humanist criticism. While the film is, they sense, at once radically new and viscerally connected to history, they are unable to find—or at least, to use—the language and criteria that would enable them to perceive and describe the film’s radical newness, its disturbing historicity.

Surprisingly, in spite of the film’s prominence, its status as, in a way, the dark, “evil” counterpart of the other film emblematic of the Occupation, Carné’s and Prévert’s Les Enfants du paradis (1944–45), Le Corbeau has received relatively little critical attention since the war. 41 And, perhaps because it is considered to be so self-evidently political, what criticism there is doesn’t really add anything substantially new to our understanding of it. Writing very perceptibly in the wake of the events of May 1968, Marcel Ohms 42 sees Le Corbeau as conveying “quatre vérités”: a “vérité nationale” that distills and attacks the debilitated bourgeois and petit-bourgeois institutions and ideologies in the France of the 1930s and the Occupation; a “vérité psych-analytique” that isolates and denounces a range of repressed and repressive socio-psychological types and unhealthy impulses characteristic of the period (“[le désir] de la délation, de la dénonciation et du mouchardage”); “une vérité historique,” namely the uncomfortably high incidence of anonymous letters of denunciation during the Occupation (thus, more generally, an unmasking of “résistancialisme” avant la lettre); and finally “une vérité éthique” (and it is here that the discourse of May 1968 is most audible in Ohms’s text), where Clouzot is said to be exposing the crushing, alienating effect that French bourgeois morality, facilely Manichean, has on “[le] sens le plus naturel de la vie.” 43

In her book French National Cinema, 44 Susan Hayward sees the film as a politically “liberal,” anti-Vichy critique of bourgeois hypocrisy and as an allegory about anonymous letters of denunciation (apparently [End Page 758] not realizing that it was perfectly feasible—indeed commonplace—to still be of the right and implacably, even scornfully, opposed to the values of the National Revolution and the bourgeoisie; the Parisian fascists adopted precisely this position). Similarly, Evelyn Ehrlich 45 sees the film as an anti-Vichy study in moral relativism, and, agreeing with Ehrlich, Alan Williams adds that Le Corbeau is generically not unlike other mystery films of the Occupation, that the theme of “a provincial community with violence, discord and often madness hidden beneath an apparently tranquil surface was anything but rare in Occupation cinema,” and that the film shares some of the same anti-authoritarian ferocity as Jean Vigo’s early work. 46 By contrast, adopting a feminist, cultural studies approach, Noël Burch finds in the film on the one hand a Vichy-inspired “natalisme” and idealization of women (“la trajectoire entière du film est consonnante avec celle des films les plus conformistes et même les plus vichystes de l’époque”), and, on the other hand, a Sorelian right-wing anarchism contemptuous of “la France profonde.” 47 While Burch’s observation on right-wing anarchism is certainly new and suggestive (although not developed), his analysis is seriously vitiated by the fact that the two ideologies he discerns in the film are clearly utterly at odds with each other. It is difficult to see how Le Corbeau can at one at the same time be promoting Vichy ideology and espousing an ideology (right-wing anarchism) that was, to say the least, utterly contemptuous of virtually everything to do with Vichy (i.e., as Burch himself puts it, “la France profonde”). Burch, whose main concern is, it seems, simply to situate the film “dans son époque,” appears to be aware of the problem, but his solution—that the film is formally (with its “réalisme noir”) on the radical right and, on the level of narrative content, on the conservative right—is less than convincing. And it is all the less convincing in that Burch ends up isolating the film’s right-wing anarchism on the level of form only after claiming a) that the char-acter of Germain, the sophisticated Parisian, is Clouzot’s textual spokesman for this right-wing anarchism, and b) seeing this right-wing [End Page 759] anarchism most forcefully expressed in one of the film’s most famous, bravura sequences, namely Marie Corbin being pursued by the ignorant mob through the streets of the town—a scene, as Burch himself says, “qui permet aux auteurs de cracher tour leur venin sur ces Français moyens qu’ils détestent.” 48 It is thus hard to see the film as profoundly “Vichyste” when it goes to such lengths to “cracher tout [son] venin” on the very constituency—“ces Français moyens”—that formed the base of Vichy ideology. 49

On the whole, after reading these critics, one feels that Le Corbeau remains still tantalizingly out of reach. However, in several suggestive remarks made by the fascist film historians Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, great admirers of the film, and by Lucien Rebatet, film critic for Je suis partout, one finds, I believe, the germ of a rigorous reading of Le Corbeau. Rebatet found a great deal of virtuosity and [End Page 760] force in it, his sole reproach being, interestingly, that the director had not gone far enough in pursuing the tragic aspect of his story: “[Clouzot] n’a pas esquivé son sujet, mais nous aurions voulu qu’il y pénétrât plus profondément. . . . La lettre anonyme, quand elle prend un tel caractère d’acharnement et de perfidie, est un ressort de tragédie.” 50 This curious remark (to my knowledge, Rebatet was the only critic who thought the film not bleak enough) can, I think, be seen as related to a very Nietzschean concern with taking negativity to extremes. For their part, Bardèche and Brasillach were entranced by the film’s “horrible poésie de l’intelligence et de la méchanceté,” seeing it as “de premier ordre,” 51 with Brasillach char-acterizing it in his November 1943 review as “le chef-d’oeuvre de la cruauté.52 It is this latter phrase that, in my view, neatly distills the essential animus of Le Corbeau, and it is probably no coincidence that these three very astute, highly literate connoisseurs of the cinema should have been completely imbued with Nietzsche. But, as suggestive as they may be, their appreciations nevertheless remain intuitive, barely articulated. It is therefore up to us to pick up where they left off, to pursue more systematically their intuitions about Le Corbeau’s “horrible poésie de l’intelligence et de la méchanceté.”


To find our way to what constitutes the properly philosophical source of the film’s obviously powerful capacity simultaneously to disturb and seduce, we are better off bypassing its commentators and turning, provisionally, to an extract of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s review of Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit:

Au-delà de sa psychologie implacablement exacte du Français et de l’homme moderne, au-delà de son pessimisme et de sa furieuse dépréciation de ce qui est moribond . . . Céline voit la vie resplendir à nouveau. Il ne tient qu’à nous de la voir aussi, et de lui donner l’occasion de chanter. 53

In these few sentences that Drieu devotes to Céline’s corrosive, ostensibly nihilistic text, whose own “horrible poésie de l’intelligence” is reminiscent in many respects of Clouzot’s, 54 we find, I think, the [End Page 761] elements of a systematic reading of Le Corbeau. Indeed, one would finally need only to substitute Clouzot’s name for Celine’s in this passage for it to serve as a precise, albeit somewhat enigmatic and condensed description of fundamental aspects of the film. For, in his own manner, Clouzot is also practicing “une psychologie implacablement exacte du Français et de l’homme moderne,” and, as paradoxical as it may initially seem to those who know the film, “au-delà de son pessimisme et de sa furieuse dépréciation de ce qui est moribond, [Clouzot] voit la vie resplendir à nouveau”—even if, for Drieu, Céline and Clouzot, the phrase “resplendir à nouveau” finally assumes a distinctly disquieting meaning, quite remote from any standard—or vichyste—utopian sense.

It is in his Notes pour comprendre le siècle (1941) 55 that Drieu deploys more or less explicitly, if not systematically, the properly philosophical discourse that underlies his admiring remarks on Céline. It is this philosophical discourse—profoundly Nietzschean in inspiration—that will allow us to carry out a serious and fruitful analysis of Clouzot’s film. To put it very schematically for the moment, Le Cor-beau dramatizes, or better, performs, a Nietzschean discourse of self-overcoming (Selbstaufehbung), in which a distressing but at the same time “joyful”—Dionysian—immersion in nihilistic “decadence” precedes and facilitates the eventual overcoming of this nihilism. In Drieu’s succinct terms: “Dans le pire, l’homme retouche terre et rebondit. Le corps et l’âme arrivés au fond de la dégradation re-naissent en même temps. . . . Au plus profond de la décheance, de la décadence, l’homme reprend pied.56

If I invoke Nietzscheanism with regard to Le Corbeau, it is because, in the closing stages of the film, a Nietzschean interpretation of decadence is openly solicited in a conversation between the psychiatrist Vorzet (the “Corbeau”) and Germain (the medico whose mysterious arrival in town triggers the epistolary epidemic). Having endured—and survived—all the sordidness, malice and scapegoating of which he has been the target, Germain observes to Vorzet: “ce genre de crise n’est pas inutile; on en sort plus confiant et plus fort. C’est terrible à dire, mais le mal est nécessaire.” In my view, it is virtually impossible not to hear in these brief lines clear—even didactically insistent—echoes of Drieu’s Nietzschean-inspired remarks on decadence in Notes pour Comprendre le Siècle, and, behind them, Nietzsche’s [End Page 762] own celebrated remark: “From the Military School of Life. What does not kill me makes me stronger.” 57 Given the privileged position of these lines in the film, the fact that they come as a kind of conclusive encapsulation of all that has happened, the film is, I maintain, thereby placing itself openly in the domain of a recognizably Nietzschean discourse on decadence.

Nietzsche sees decadence as a deficiency of the will—which for him is always will to power—in the face of a nihilistic historical situation. As Mark Warren explains, for Nietzsche, “[decadence is a] collapse of this-worldly willing.” 58 Or, to put it even more abstractly: “It is not that one who lives decadently does not engage in daily activities, but rather that . . . these behaviors are not properly actions, for they are not the result of an intentional agent possessing the resources to direct behavior toward goals. Instead, the decadent reacts adaptively to experienced powers . . . outside himself.” 59 In other words, decadence saps the possibility of significant action on the subject’s part (the most obvious example is slavery, but, as we know, the nihilistic experience is in no way limited to a forced subjection). As is well known, the most nihilistic ideology, according to Nietzsche, is Christianity, which, with its privileging of self-abnegation, assigns no substantial value to a subjectivity that seeks to realize and impose itself in the historical-material world.

As the passage from Drieu suggests, however, the nihilistic experience fis not solely negative: “au plus profond de la décheance, de la décadence, l’homme reprend pied.” From a Nietzschean perspective, as Lucien Rebatet seems to have sensed, such forces of destruction can be jubilantly affirmed, even intensified. For it is precisely because nihilism takes the form of a more or less explicit crisis, a radical disorientation facilitating a cognizance of this deficiency of the will, that it can eventually serve to instigate a creative (re)action, the active quest for a feeling of power: “[Nietzsche argues] that nihilism as an experience is an inevitable part of any creative process . . . simply because these processes include moments of interpretive disorientation.” 60 Generalized nihilistic crises thus facilitate and form a necessary part of all major cultural and political change. [End Page 763]

All of these questions are brought together and synthesized in Nietzche’s vitalistic concept of will to power. Again very schematically, this is the basic, quasi-physiological drive that impels an individual (indeed, any life-form) to strive for a feeling of mastery in the material world and more locally over one’s own life, which is envis-aged as, inherently, a struggle. The Nietzschean will to power is not to be confused with simple self-mastery; to quote Heidegger: “Will as mastery of oneself is never encapsulation of the ego from its surroundings. Will is, in our terms, resolute openness, in which he who wills stations himself abroad among beings in order to keep them firmly within his field of action.” 61

The will to power takes a largely affective, instinctive—Dionysian—form (the feeling of “jubilant mastery,” the “complex state of pleasure,” as Nietzsche puts it, that accompanies all successful actions). For Nietzsche, the Dionysian pertains to pathos, to the sensual, the affective, and to the incontrovertible fact of the body and the bodily. It encompasses “events, experiences, sufferings, emotions, and attributes; . . . as pathos, the will-to-power signifies the immediate world in which we are at all times thoroughly embodied, a world of living sensuous relations that are the material limits and possibilities of willing. . . . In Nietzsche’s words, ‘there is an essential priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions, although “adaptation” [to historical conditions of existence] follows only after this.’” 62 It is this affective dimension of the will to power that is, I think, most clearly and forcefully at work in Le Corbeau.

In the light of this, the film can minimally be interpreted as charting a dramatic Nietzschean metamorphosis in the character of Germain, a metamorphosis brought on by a kind of Dionysian “descent into hell,” an itinerary that takes him through a corrosive (but ultimately enabling) set of passions and a chaotic powerlessness, leading to the dissolution of his rationalist self-image as a man of science. This dissolution paradoxically facilitates the emergence of a new feeling of force on his part, and serves as the basis for a new form of subjectivity that is gestured toward but not developed, left waiting in the wings: “ce genre de crise n’est pas inutile; on en sort plus confiant et plus fort. C’est terrible à dire, mais le mal est nécessaire. [End Page 764]

For, throughout the film, Germain’s actions are, in reality, merely reactions, governed by a traumatic, morbid event in his recent past that precedes the diegesis of the film proper (and to which he explicitly alludes in a moment of unguarded conversation with his soon-to-be lover, Denise, expressing his desire for “l’oubli total”), namely the death of his wife and child thanks to the botched efforts of the well-intentioned but incompetent gynecologist handling the difficult labor (refusing to decide between saving the mother or the child, he ended up losing both). Germain is haunted by these “deux fantômes,” as he terms them, and in his determination to ensure that, in his own capacity as a professional of medical science, such a tragic event does not happen again, 63 he is more or less blindly acting under the impulse of what Nietzsche would characterize as “bad conscience” (a form of passivity that involves memory, guilt, a feeling of responsibility with respect to the two victims). 64 This explains the film’s opening sequence in which the camera first traverses a churchyard cemetery, followed by a dissolve to a scene where Germain emerges from a farmhouse, his hands bloodstained, having just attended a difficult birth where he has decided to let the child die in order to save the mother (and which gives rise to the anonymous letters accusing him of being an abortionist). Germain believes he is acting freely, in keeping with scientific rationality, but in reality, as the immediately preceding image of the cemetery suggests, his action is merely a passion in disguise, a barely suppressed obsessiveness. 65 Instead of turning his back on his past, Germain is symptomatically reinforcing and acting out its effects through his sober rationalism; to use Nietzsche’s words: “Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over the affects, the whole somber thing called reflection, all these prerogatives and showpieces of man. . . .” 66 This is a perfect description of Germain. Only a very powerful confrontation with “decadence,” a thoroughgoing immersion in a Dionysian irrationality, will allow him [End Page 765] to forget, to overcome both his crippling past and his (excessive) rationality. The Dionysian irrationality in question actually takes two forms, one more “healthy” or benign, the other more obviously destructive: most immediately, there is Germain’s love affair with the powerfully sensual Denise, but just as important if not more so, is the derisive failure of Germain’s efforts to flush out the “Corbeau” and put an end to the chaos provoked by the letters (which, in keeping with the “scientific” psychology on which the film’s script is based, are themselves the result of displaced, distorted sexual drives). As Nietzsche puts it: “The man in whom [the] apparatus of repression [“active forgetfulness”] is damaged and ceases to function properly may be compared . . . with a dyspeptic—he cannot ‘have done’ with any-thing. . . . this animal which needs to be forgetful, in which forgetting represents a force, a form of robust health, has bred in itself an opposing faculty, a memory.” 67

There are thus two distinct but, semiotically and ideologically, intimately interwoven plots in the film: the manifest one concerning the proliferation of letters, and the more or less implicit one concerning Germain’s traumatic past; the two are metonymically and finally causally linked by the way in which the blood of Germain’s would-be scientific rationality (his bloodied hands—“du sang qui fait couler de l’encre,” so to speak), metamorphoses into the irrational, malevolent ink of the letters that leads to bloodshed—“de l’encre qui fait couler du sang,” as the town newspaper headline has it, announcing the suicide of the cancer patient. This metamorphosis ultimately comes full circle when, in the film’s climactic scenes, we see the ink from Vorzet’s last, unfinished letter mixing with the blood oozing from his throat, slit by the vengeful mother of the cancer patient: the literal violence of the razor puts an end to the verbal violence of the pen, Vorzet’s blood inevitably recalling Germain’s bloodied hands in the film’s opening sequence. It is this “barbaric” ground-clearing that serves as a basis for the disabused Nietzschean “utopianism” that the film plays out.

In order properly to appreciate the significance of this privileging of the irrational, one needs to compare the early versions of the script with the radically different film that finally emerged from them. To begin with, the final film is infinitely bleaker and much more trenchant than Louis Chavance’s initial drafts, which dated back at least to 1933. These early versions were prompted by (at least) two [End Page 766] articles by a forensic psychiatrist, Edmond Locard, who worked for the Lyon police, specializing in cases involving anonymous letters. 68 In these preliminary drafts (variously entitled “L’Oeil du serpent,” “Aux frontières du mal,” and “La Frontière du mal”), Germain is happily married to Denise (a provincial “petite bourgeoise” who has “ambitions” for her husband), but is shunned by his colleagues at the hospital because of “une certaine liberté d’allure et d’idées, inadmissible dans une ville de province.” 69 Although apparently an outsider (from Paris), Germain’s presence in the town is not explained, but his function is clearly at least partly to serve as a stand-in for the scriptwriter, to facilitate Chavance’s overarching aim, which is to satirize “[cette] petite ville de province [mourante] . . . habitée par de petits bourgeois grognons ou cancaniers.” 70 Denise suddenly receives an anonymous letter, accusing Germain of having an affair with Laura (whose husband, in these versions, is simply “absent,” perhaps dead, perhaps in the “colonies”), and of having gotten rid of the fruit of the affair by giving her an abortion. Germain is arrested but quickly released. The letters continue, but “[elles] prennent de l’envergure,” as Chavance puts it. Everyone starts receiving them, and many start sending them, although those signed by “L’Oeil du serpent” (i.e., in these versions, Laura) remain the nastiest and the most cruel; thus, “les scandales les plus répugnants d’une petite ville de province apparaissent au grand jour.” 71

In spite of his self-aggrandizing claim that his satire of provincial life was far too somber to stand a chance of ever being produced, 72 Chavance’s early scripts actually veer dramatically away from caustic satire and develop a broadly comic, even crudely farcical quality. For example, letters are to be shown being posted at a furious rate, and, in a number of montage sequences, they pass from hand to hand, ending up in those of a scandalized nun; a woman shown holding a [End Page 767] letter makes a scene with her husband’s typist; a man comes tip-toeing home late at night, his wife waiting for him behind the door, letter in hand; at the hospital, the patients are shown passing letters to each other and laughing uproariously; letters turn up in hats, in an umbrella, a saucepan, in a pair of shoes; one is even delivered by a dog, another by a carrier pigeon, and so forth. Thus, in a note, Chavance observes that “il ne manque à ce drame aucun des petits ridicules de la vie de province.” This comic dimension was seemingly meant to serve as a dramatic contrast once the transition to the darkly tragic is made, with the suicide of the cancer patient (“les lettres anonymes qui faisaient rire ont assassiné un homme”). 73 Apparently as a result of Clouzot’s intervention, these farcical elements were eliminated and the final film, while still undeniably satirical, takes on a much more baleful cast, the little remaining humor becoming resolutely black.

There is also a very perceptible and significant shift of narrative emphasis and trajectory between Chavance’s drafts and the final film. In his 1923 article that served as a basis for the early scripts, the police psychiatrist Emile Locard had concluded that “comme les hystériques,” anonymous letter writers are overwhelmingly female, often old maids suffering from sexual repression. 74 No doubt partly in order to be able to create a love interest, this “scientific” logic of the repressed old maid is not followed in the film; in fact, it is even turned on its head, since it is now Vorzet, the impotent psychiatrist, who occupies the function of the sexually resentful “old maid.” Indeed, in the early drafts, Vorzet is a detached, scientific observer (clearly modeled on Locard) who, in his professional capacity, is eventually forced to admit that his wife (Laura) has become demented as a result of her sexual frustration: “Vorzet est un vieux mari pour une très jeune femme. . . . Le désir insatisfait est devenu de la haine.” 75 In the final film, however, while it is suggested that Laura has authored at least several of the letters to Germain, it is now Vorzet himself who is the principal “anonymographe,” prey all along to his own destructive and unswerving passions, and finally taking his venom out on Germain and the town at large. This radical shift in the characterization of [End Page 768] Vorzet is thus in keeping with the general and marked tendency in the film to debunk any and all pretensions to rationality. Indeed, both Vorzet (as a psychiatrist, specializing in cases of anonymous letters) and Germain (as a brain surgeon) initially represent a literalized, “cerebral” rationality that seemingly endows them with a certain analytical distance from the dark events unfolding around them. Vorzet’s rationality comes with a heavy admixture of aloofness and bemused cynicism, while Germain’s rationality takes an hypertrophic form, with an added air of Parisian urbanity and self-righteousness that leads him ostentatiously to denounce the town-leaders’ “sottise” and “incompétence;” his pose can be described, in Nietzsche’s cut-ting words, as “that invalid’s Phariséeisme of loud gestures that likes to pose as noble indignation.” 76 Vorzet’s rationality turns out to have been a mask, while Germain’s turns out to be less than useless—in fact, a hindrance—in the face of the tide of irrationality. 77

This subversion of rationality is also at work more structurally through the ways in which the supposedly rational inquiry into the “crime” of the poison-pen letters serves only to exacerbate the situation, to the point where the distinction between the world outside the letters and the vicious world described in the letters breaks down: the “investigation” itself only serves to augment the hysteria, paranoia and resentment, triggering a lynch-mob atmosphere. We have, for example, the scapegoating of Marie Corbin (the cold, unfeeling nurse who is Germain’s assistant, suspected of being the “Corbeau” because she expresses no sympathy for the cancer patient who commits suicide); or the attempt by the town leaders to entrap Germain by having a woman feign pregnancy and ask him for a clandestine abortion. Perhaps the clearest instance of the collapse of the distinction between the investigation and the crime it is investigating, between rationality and irrationality, comes with the famous sequence where Vorzet (who is himself, of course, the “Corbeau”), in order to compare the handwriting of the letters with those of a group of townspeople, one of whom must be the culprit, imposes a lengthy dictation session on them, the text of the dictation taken from the anonymous letters themselves. Thus, a moment ostensibly placed under the sign of “science” (the scientific analysis of handwriting) is [End Page 769] derisively appropriated by the criminal himself. This is neatly described—and foreshadowed—by Vorzet when, in a conversation at the Post Office with Germain, the old psychiatrist says to the surgeon: “graphologue et mystificateur: l’un n’exclut pas l’autre.” The supposedly rational investigation thus itself ends up reproducing—is appropriated by—the process of denunciation and suspicion-mongering that it is investigating.

Thus, every effort at rational detection is subverted: the solution becomes part of the problem, the “diagnosis” and “treatment” are themselves “symptoms.” This is perhaps most clearly underscored by the way in which the “Corbeau” is finally unmasked and punished: Vorzet is dealt with not by the forces of Germain’s insistent rationality as a man of science and detection, but by the irrational force of a mother’s desire for bloody revenge. We have the cancellation or overcoming of irrational forces by equally or even more strongly irrational forces, leaving Germain as, in many respects, a completely passive, duped onlooker. In Chavance’s terms: “[Germain] ne sait plus que penser. Les expériences qu’il vient de vivre l’ont mis dans un état de complet désarroi.” 78

We enter a domain of “pathological” reflexivity, a hall of mirrors in which one can no longer tell the difference between a reflection and what it reflects. On the stylistic level, this corruption of space itself as an effect of the “Corbeau’s” machinations becomes increasingly visible, with, for example, a celebrated shot of Vorzet’s grotesquely elongated shadow on the wall of the stairwell in Germain’s apartment (a shadow that itself resembles a raven), but it is no doubt most tangible in the long, almost paroxysmal sequence presenting the burial of the suicide case, the “bravura” sequence that so many critics and viewers at the time—and since—(have) found so compelling: recalling the contorted spaces and decor of German Expressionist cinema, the camera is jarringly tilted, bodies and buildings harshly lit in high contrast, are at an angle in the frame, culminating in Marie Corbin’s flight from the pursuing mob. She arrives home to find her apartment ransacked, the mirror over the fireplace cracked, returning a fragmented, distorted image of her face, the stylistic and psychical fracturing mirroring each other.

On the level of narrative, all of this is encompassed in the privileging of the formation of the apparently unlikely couple Germain-Denise. Indeed, whereas in the draft versions of the script the [End Page 770] narrative energy is clearly devoted to a “scientific” demonstration of the pathology of anonymous letter-writing in the context of a broad satire of small town provincial life, in the final film the narrative logic and itinerary is very conspicuously made to turn around Germain and Denise. 79 This shift away from satire and the letters as such is evident, for example, in the elimination from the film of the omnipresent flocks of ravens that populate the script, and which were to punctuate in particular the opening and closing scenes. 80 Perhaps most revealingly, in the opening scene as described in one early version of the script, we have a shot of the church spire from below, whose pealing bell suddenly startles a flock of ravens into flight, “qui tournoient en croassant autour de la flèche;” in the film, this shot is retained, but instead of cawing ravens, we see the gravestones of the churchyard—thus, by metonymy, Germain’s past, which becomes the film’s underlying motor. The shift is also discernible in the very radical change in the characterization of Denise: in the script, she is “une jeune femme très provinciale et très bourgeoise” who disapproves of her Parisian husband’s [Germain] conduct and ideas; the couple is thus clearly [End Page 771] conceived in the framework of the satire of provincial life and types. In the film, no trace remains of Denise’s provincialism: on the contrary, her dominant trait is now simply her vampish sensuality, her Dionysian instinctiveness, which is opposed to—and serves to undermine—Germain’s rigid rationality. As Denise, shown in a very tight, slightly hazy close-up, her lips moist and lipstick-covered, pleadingly says to Germain in one of the film’s visually most striking scenes: “tu raisonnes trop, Rémy: arrête de penser.

Indeed, the couple’s trajectory very explicitly frames—opens and closes—the film. In an early scene, Germain is making a house call to examine Denise (who, true to her reputation as both hypochondriac and town vamp, is feigning bronchitis in order to meet and seduce the handsome, newly-arrived doctor). On entering Denise’s boudoir, Germain’s first gesture is neurotically to close the windows of the room in order to shut out the sound of playing children coming from the schoolyard below (“ces mômes m’exaspèrent,” he says). There is thus an initial blocking out of children (i.e. Germain’s traumatic past). Right at the end of the film, this gesture is reversed, twice over: once in Denise’s boudoir, where Germain now opens the window onto the schoolyard (this is an opening onto the “future”—Germain’s child with which Denise is pregnant, the children in the schoolyard), then immediately after, when Germain discovers Vorzet dead in his study, and he opens the window overlooking the street, where he sees the murderer/avenging angel fleeing the scene of the crime, past a group of children playing in the street. Thus, through the formation of the couple of Germain and (the now pregnant) Denise, the film undeniably presents a clear sense of resolution, of catharsis, only not on the terrain of reason, but on the terrain of the instinctive, the sensual. Through its structuring around these insistent semiotic details, one can argue that the anonymous letters plot actually functions, in the first instance, subordinately as a catalyst for Germain’s overcoming of his past, the debunking of his rationality and his birth as a proto-Nietzschean subject, where passion and passion-for-change, for “becoming,” are one and the same thing. 81 [End Page 772]


A few remarks on the political implications of the Nietzscheanism at work in the film, and on the way in which it brings the political and the aesthetic together into a kind of unholy, if still inchoate, alliance.

First, the discursive context from which the film emerges. Even though Drieu, for whom Nietzsche was “le prophète du 20e siècle,” 82 was certainly one of the most prominent exponents of the discourse on decadence, we know that Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism and his notion of will to power had long been assimilated in one form or another by many proto-fascist or openly fascist French intellectuals—minor and major—obsessed with the question of decadence. Zeev Sternhell has argued that Nietzsche’s vitalism was one of the key elements that distinguished the so-called “new right” (that of the Third Republic, the era of mass politics) from earlier, post-Revolution, right-wing groupings:

Ideologically, the new right reflected the great intellectual revolution of the turn of the century, combining social Darwinism, racism, the social psychology of Le Bon, and Nietzsche’s philosophical revolt. . . . In the sphere of ideas [the end of the nineteenth century] was already deeply affected by a resurgence of irrational values, by a cult of instinct and sentiment, and by an affirmation of the supremacy of the forces of life and the affections. . . . Nietzsche had a considerable influence on the “new school” [e.g., Edouard Berth], as he had formerly had on Barrès, and it is therefore not surprising that their successors in the thirties should also be very preoccupied with him. 83

But Nietzsche came most strongly to the fore during the thirties and into the Occupation. Robert Soucy has recently discussed, for example, Bertrand de Jouvenel’s admiration for Nietzsche’s “austere pessimism,” and shown that, like Nietzsche, de Jouvenel saw the world in Darwinian terms, with the strong not only triumphing over but deserving to triumph over the weak, and for whom the will to power enabled “the individual to surpass himself and overcome the decadence of his times.” 84

Similarly, in his recent work on French Literary Fascism, David Carroll brings out the typically Nietzschean synthesis of “[aesthetic] form and [End Page 773] force” championed, in one configuration or another, by French right-wingers from Maurras to Maulnier, Rebatet and Brasillach, concluding that, even though distinctions must obviously be made and main-tained between the various ideologies advocated by individual figures, one can nevertheless generalize to the extent that they all proposed “an amalgam of not just the aesthetic and the political, but of the traditional and the modern, of a classical aesthetics of form and a post-Nietzschean aesthetics of force.” 85 Carroll brings out in detail the—at first glance—startling, seamless fusion of, in some cases, hard-line, even rabid fascism and the refined, highly cultivated artistic sensibilities characteristic of these figures (Lucien Rebatet being perhaps the most extreme case).

Indeed, Rebatet’s nigh-on visceral Nietszcheanism, especially as woven into his film criticism, has been studied by Robert Belot in his recent biography. Rebatet’s high regard for the unrestrained, instinctual violence and amoral ethos of American gangster films such as “Scarface” is explained by Belot in terms of Rebatet’s quest for a properly Nietzschean vision of Man, “celle du surhomme libéré du ressentiment judéo-chrétien et des vertus de modération de la culture démocratique. . . . Il y avait là . . . l’expression d’une morale supé-rieure faisant vertu de la violence et la beauté du mal.” 86

It is not difficult to discern why and how fascist aesthetes such as Rebatet were able to draw so much inspiration from Nietzsche when formulating their gleefully brutal vision of the so-called beauté du mal. While Nietzsche uses a series of key binary oppositions to characterize artistic production and reception, most notable are those between the masculine and the feminine on the one hand, and the Overman and the Herd Man on the other. But it is the latter, between the Overman and the Herd Man, that is arguably most primordial, since here it is not just a question of binaries, but of hierarchies. For whereas woman still plays a key, if secondary role in that she [End Page 774] emblematizes beauty and some of the sexual-physiological qualities of artistic creation and reception, the Herd Man is cast out as a decadent threat that saps the force of the true creative artist. Indeed, in Nietzsche’s discourse, the very distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, or at least the capacity to retrieve the terrible and the ugly in and for the aesthetic domain, automatically entails the political distinction between the Overman and the Herd Man, and is thus linked to his general contempt for democracy: “the beau-tiful and ugly are recognized as relative to our most fundamental values of preservation.” 87 By relative, Nietzsche means that the beautiful and the ugly can only be determined in relation to “what is useful, beneficent, life-enhancing,” the “feeling of the beautiful” being, in these terms, nothing other than an “increase of the feeling of power,” this perspectivism extending to the qualitatively different ways the Herd Man and the Overman “experience the value feeling of the beautiful” in the presence of different objects and artifacts:

It is a question of strength (of an individual or of a people) whether, and where the judgement “beautiful” is applied. The feeling of plenitude, of dammed-up strength (which permits one to meet with courage and good-humor much that makes the weakling shudder)—the feeling of power applies the judgement “beautiful” even to things and conditions which the instinct of impotence could only find hateful and ugly. 88

Moreover, as we know, the intrasubjective economy of “conscience,” “duty,” “responsibility,” guilt and debt is, on Nietzsche’s speculative genealogical reading of it, a “perverse,” ascetic internalization of what used to be an intersubjective economy of debt and the exaction of payment, an exaction that, in the case of default, could lead to the imposition of a physical forfeit, not infrequently cruelly painful. The payment thus took the form of providing a pleasurable spectacle, a certain delight, for the creditor. As Nietzsche puts it in the Genealogy of Morals, “To see others suffer does one good; to make others suffer, even more . . . [I]n punishment there is so much that is festive!89 Bourgeois conscience and responsibility are, then, to be viewed as a regrettable domestication, an internalization within the individual subject, within the “tame domestic animal,” of this economy of punishment and suffering, thus placing oneself simultaneously in the [End Page 775] position of debtor and creditor, so to speak. A joy in cruelty has metamorphosed into a contemptible, resignative joy in suffering, in self-torture: “Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of bad conscience.” 90 One of Nietzsche’s fundamental goals in his genealogical analysis of bourgeois subjectivity is thus to facilitate the retransformation of this intrasubjective moral economy back into an intersubjective, political relation of rank and domination, although not with a view to restoring an ancient order but rather with view to inaugurating a new, post-moral, aesthetically-based order. And in Le Corbeau, Germain is poised on the threshold of just such a realization, just such a project—a turn away from an “unhealthy” intrasubjective past based on bad conscience and an overdose of rationality, toward a “healthy,” intersubjective, instinctually-driven future. Hence, it seems to me, Robert Brasillach’s perceptive description of the film as “le chef-d’oeuvre de la cruauté.91

But the interest of Le Corbeau is not confined to this Nietzschean fable with Germain as its main agent/patient: for one can argue that this fable is, in the final analysis, simply a kind of allegorization of the aesthetic force of the film itself, as a whole, a fable of its own destructive, Dionysian creativity, its own advocacy and practice of “la beauté du mal.” For, as Nietzsche declares, “to represent terrible and questionable things is, in itself, the sign of an instinct of power and magnificence in the artist.” 92 Thus, the steady—remorseless—spread of the letters through the town can be read as allegorizing the way in which the film itself, as a kind of poison-pen letter writ large, expands and reaches out, bringing as much into its sphere of influence as possible. Indeed, the film as a whole can be construed as a kind of willful crystallization and even perverse exacerbation of the sense of social and cultural decadence, of malaise, that imbued the French psyche from the mid-1930s through the period of the Occupation. It pushes the sense of powerlessness to the limit, in the process implicitly transforming this extreme form of passivity, of reaction, into a kind of fuel for a new, rejuvenated form of action.

Le Corbeau thus does not content itself with representing or allegorizing a deplorable historical situation; rather, it constitutes a diagnosis of this situation and, moreover, carries out a radical quasi-surgical intervention in it. Or, to put it differently, recalling the interdependence [End Page 776] between nihilism and its overcoming, it is as if the film were functioning as a kind of vaccine, comprised of the same ostensibly deleterious elements as the epidemic of decadence it sets out to cure, paradoxically, intensifying it. For just as, in the pragmatic domain of historical action, Selbstaufehbung is paradoxically enabled by decadence, so in the aesthetic domain creation is enabled by and dependent on a kind of laying-waste, a Dionysian, ground-clearing destructiveness 93 that, since art is held to be the counter-agent to decadence, does not preclude a passage through ugliness, the repugnant: “How can even ugliness possess [the] power [to enhance the feeling of life]? In so far as it still communicates something of the artist’s victorious energy which has become master of this ugliness and awfulness; or in so far as it mildly excites in us the pleasure of cruelty.” 94 It is here, in the importance he assigns to the pleasure afforded by cruelty in the overcoming of “ugliness” (another word for decadence, the herd mentality), and the sense of power that flows from this overcoming, that Nietzsche’s aesthetic discourse directly overlaps with his political-genealogical discourse, and the Nietzscheanism of Le Corbeau becomes most unsettling. As Tracy Strong observes, “Those who want a politics without the Dionysian would then not really want politics, but only the security of a story with an ethical ending.” 95

Indeed, in Nietzsche the aesthetic and political domains share a common language that revolves around the imposition of form: “‘What is active? Reaching out for power.’ Appropriating, possessing, subjugating and dominating are the characteristics of active force. Appropriating means to impose forms, to create forms by exploiting circumstances.” 96 Over against Kant, who envisages the work of art as the domain of disinterested contemplation, Nietzsche claims that a work of art worthy of the name can only be profoundly and actively (self)-interested. 97 “For Nietzsche,” writes Mark Warren, “some kinds of [End Page 777] violence are intrinsic to any creative process.” 98 On the other hand, even though Nietzsche rejects the notion of art for art’s sake, the will to power has an inherent, intransitive “aestheticism” about it, in that it constitutes an end in itself, or rather is the ultimate end, the end that justifies all means:

“Useful” in the sense of Darwinist biology means: proved advantageous in the struggle with others. But it seems to me that the feeling of increase, the feeling of becoming stronger, is itself, quite apart from any usefulness in the struggle, the real progress: only from this feeling does there arise the will to struggle. . . . “Play,” the useless—as the ideal of him who is overfull of strength . . . 99

It is thus not surprising that art should, according to Nietzsche, be the ultimate form of the will to power.

By way of a conclusion, a remark or two on interpretive methodology and the question of mimesis. I said that Le Corbeau cannot be seen as limiting itself to representing or allegorizing its historical situation. In fact, one is obliged by the very nature of Nietzsche’s aesthetic theory, indeed, the pre-eminence of the aesthetic as such in his thought generally, to go beyond the distinction between text and context, and certainly to forego all recourse to allegory in interpretation. For it is entirely inimical to a Nietzschean aesthetics for a work of art to be assigned the subordinate task of mere representation. In keeping with the general stress Nietzsche places on action, on (self)-transformative practice, we are dealing with “a transformed aesthetics that no longer conceives of art as the imitation or representation of that which is not art, but now as an activity that builds the very world to which it has reference.” 100

I think this reading of Le Corbeau through Nietzsche allows us to grasp the very powerful coherence of the film at all levels, to see the way in which it opens not onto a nicely palatable “moral relativism,” as [End Page 778] many critics have argued, but rather onto a beyond of good and evil that, in light of the French fascist intellectuals’ reception of the Nietzschean doctrine of the will to power, and in particular their enthusiasm for the virulently anti-democratic aspects of Nietzsche’s discourse, 101 serves radically to intensify the sinister dimension of this pitiless work. 102

Gregory Sims
University of Melbourne, Australia
Gregory Sims

Gregory Sims is a lecturer in French studies at the University of Melborne, Australia. His publications include work on Montaigne and a series of articles on aesthetics as ideology in the French art cinema of the Vichy period. He is currently working on a monograph in the latter field. His other research interests include French erotic literature and Port-Royal.


1. These controls are studied in detail by Jean-Pierre Bertin-Maghit in his Le Cinéma sous l’occupation: Le Monde du cinéma français de 1940 à 1946 (Paris: Olivier Orban, 1989).

2. For example, Jacques de Baroncelli’s Haut le vent (1942), Jean Stelli’s Le Voile bleu (1942), Jacques Daniel-Norman’s La Loi du printemps (1942), Pierre de Hérain’s Monsieur des Lourdines (1943), Jean Choux’s Port d’Attache (1943), Léo Joannon’s Le Carrefour des enfants perdus (1943), Guillaume Radot’s Le Bal des passants (1944), along with other, even less distinguished efforts.

3. Indeed, Alan Williams argues that, paradoxically, it was the need to match the emphasis on high production values at Continental that, at least in part, led to a general insistence on “professional craftsmanship” in the French cinema of the period (Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking [Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992], 257–58).

4. Louis Cuny’s Mermoz (1943) and Léo Joannon’s Le Carrefour des enfants perdus (1944) would be perhaps the clearest examples of films that are unambiguously fascistic, to which I am inclined to add Le Corbeau.

5. Williams, Republic of Images, 259.

6. “[En étudiant ces films] un bien curieux paradoxe . . . apparaît. En effet, le basculement du pays dans sa période la plus sombre correspond au surgissement d’un cinéma idéologiquement propre, moralement irréprochable. Au moment où tous les véhicules d’idées (la grande presse, la radio, une bonne part de l’oeuvre romanesque) donnent dans l’air du temps le plus vil, le cinéma, lui, se taît. Et il se taît sur des questions sur lesquelles il était, jusqu’alors fort disert. Et bien cruel” (François Garçon, De Blum à Pétain [Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1984], 11; my emphasis).

7. Evelyn Ehrlich, Cinema of Paradox: French Filmmaking under the German Occupation (New York: Columbia University Press), 109.

8. The French cinema underwent a radical restructuring during the Occupation: one moves from a situation during the 1930s where film production was carried out by a multiplicity of small, often ephemeral and poorly-run production companies—“le règne du magouillage,” as Jean-Pierre Bertin-Maghit describes it (Le Cinéma sous l’occupation, 12), to a situation (with the establishment of the Comité d’Organisation de l’Industrie Cinématographique in November, 1940) where film production was more or less centralised and carefully supervised, with the State, through the newly-created Crédit National, actually funding production by granting low-interest loans (up to 65% of a film’s budget), allowing for “the re-establishment of a commercially healthy French film industry” (Roy Armes, “Cinema of Paradox: French Film-Making during the Occupation,” in Gerhard Hirschfeld and Patrick Marsh, eds., Collaboration in France: Politics and Culture during the Nazi Occupation, 1940–1944 [Oxford, N.Y. and Munich: Berg Publishers, 1989], 137); from a situation where, even under the Popular Front government, the State had largely left the cinema to languish, to a situation where, in order to encourage “quality productions,” the State established the Grand Prix du Film d’Art Français, set up the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques and gave generous financial assistance to Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque française. As Alan Williams explains, “it is no exaggeration to say that the C.O.I.C., . . . with the support of the Service du Cinéma, rescued the French industry from near-collapse” (Republic of Images, 259).

9. The emphasis on quality was a constant theme of Le Film, the official Vichy organ on the cinema; the following passage is indicative: “‘Qualité d’abord’, tel sera le motif de la production française 1942–43. . . . Il ne suffit pas de faire des films dans un but de spéculation pure. Il faut que ceux-ci répondent à des exigences de qualité tant sur le plan technique et artistique que sur le plan national et spirituel. . . . Le gouvernement encouragera des films de prestige artistique ou d’utilité nationale” (Pierre Autré, 23 May 1942). As fis clear here (“les dirigeants du cinéma ont opportunément rappelé que le Cinéma est un élément primordial de la propagande nationale”), there fis no doubt, however, that quality and ideological correctness were, if not synonymous, then at least intimately related. This fis made even clearer in the original text of the declaration that Autré fis reporting: “Le Gouvernement du Maréchal Pétain est prêt à encourager une production cinématographique française d’envergure et de qualité, digne de notre patrimoine artistique, et reflétant le vrai visage, les vrais talents de notre pays. . . . Nul ne doit perdre du vue que le Cinéma est un élément primordial de la propagande nationale. Chacun doit penser au rôle national et social que doit jouer le Cinéma dans le redressement de notre pays” (Louis-Emile Galey and Raoul Ploquin, Le Film, 9 May 1942, 2).

10. This viewpoint fis advanced notably by Marcel L’Herbier, in a 1979 interview: “C’est à partir de ce moment-là [late 1941] qu’une pensée me surprit qui ne me quittera plus. Nous, les auteurs de films, nous avions travaillé pour la plupart, depuis 1930, dans un climat d’esclavage cinématographique et pourtant alors la France était libre. Désormais, elle ne l’était plus. Et voilà que les choses se contredisaient sous la férule allemande: la liberté de création reprenait pour nous tous ses droits et pour moi, le libertaire, c’était un tel ensoleillement, une telle promesse de me retrouver moi-même à travers des sujets qui m’aillent que j’en oubliais presque toutes les autres frustrations de ma vie quotidienne.” (in Bertin-Maghit, Le Cinéma sous l’occupation, 151). L’Herbier’s view fis echoed by another director who came into prominence during the early 1940s, Claude Autant-Lara—only now the links between this cinematographic “ensoleillement” and the politics accompanying, or even facilitating it, come into clearer focus: “Pendant l’Occupation, nous avons été débarrassés d’un certain nombre de parasites; c’est à cette époque que le cinéma a pu s’épanouir et que s’est créée une sorte d’école française avec ses réalisateurs qui ont pu enfin travailler. . . . Des Français travaillaient pour des Français, de cela est née une école française de cinéma!” (Bertin-Maghit, Le Cinéma sous l’occupation, 10). By “un certain nombre de parasites,” Autant-Lara means, of course, Jews in the industry, who were subject to a purge and whose cinemas and production facilities were confiscated, beginning in early October, 1940.

11. Williams, Republic of Images, 262.

12. André Bazin was the one of the first succinctly to encapsulate this reciprocal link between political probity and aesthetic value: “Three years of wartime production today [late 1944] reveal themselves as not only honorable but of an exceptional richness” (André Bazin, French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Aesthetic, trans. Stanley Hochman [New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981], 95; my emphasis). Thus, just after the Liberation, a two-week festival was organized, intended to demonstrate that the French cinema had not only preserved its political integrity but had in the process forged an admirable new aesthetic. The festival would demonstrate, wrote Jean Painlevé in December 1944, “le tour de force du cinéma français pour subsister et ne pas se laisser prendre par les manoeuvres de l’occupant et des fascistes. Le cinéma français a été à la hauteur de la France. A part quelques rares exceptions, tous les techniciens du cinéma n’ont pas cessé d’annihiler les efforts de l’ennemi. A l’examen des faits les artistes mêmes (dont pourtant la vie est loin de la lutte militaire ou sociale) ne donnent pas prise, dans leur grande majorité, au triste mot de ‘collaborationisme’” (Le Film français, 8 December 1944). The list of films (from which Le Corbeau fis conspicuously absent) was as follows: L’Eternel Retour (Jean Delannoy, 1943), Les Visiteurs du soir (Marcel Carné, 1942) Goupi mains rouges (Jacques Becker, 1942), Lumière d’été (Jean Grémillon, 1942), Le Ciel est à vous (Jean Grémillon, 1943), Douce (Claude Autant-Lara, 1943), Pontcarral, colonel d’empire (Jean Delannoy, 1942), Nous les gosses (Louis Daquin, 1941), Les Anges du péché (Robert Bresson, 1943), L’Inévitable M. Dubois (Pierre Billon, 1942), Carmen (Christian-Jaque, 1943 [released December, 1945]), Félicie Nanteuil (Marc Allegret, 1942 [released June, 1946]), La Nuit fantastique (Marcel L’Herbier, 1941). There were two other films whose inclusion was recommended but it is doubtful that they were screened: Le Mariage de Chiffon (Claude Autant-Lara, 1941) and Les Enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1944–45), the latter because it was still in post-production at the time of the festival.

13. From the title of Evelyn Erhlich’s influential study (the only book-length treatment in English of these films), Cinema of Paradox (n. 7 above). Perhaps the clearest and most succinct statement of the “paradox” school of criticism comes from Roy Armes, in his article “Cinema of Paradox” (loc. cit.). Like the critics whose work he is drawing on, Armes attributes the general absence of overt propangandizing in the French cinema of the period—“[its] apparent autonomy from the mood of the times,” as he puts it—first of all to a “refusal of immediacy”—in other words, to the fact that a good many of the films in question are set in the historical or legendary past, or at least in “le contemporain vague,” to use Jean-Pierre Jeancolas’ term (Quinze ans d’années trente: Le Cinéma des Français, 1929–1944 [Paris: Editions Stock, 1983], 321); and second to their having, for the most part, no pretentions beyond that of popular, escapist entertainment. Armes simply takes the validity of the paradox hypothesis for granted, since he does not analyse any particular film.

14.Tristan en chandail: Poetics as Politics in Jean Cocteau’s L’Eternel Retour (1943),” in French Cultural Studies 9, pt. 1 (February 1998): 19–50. For a more detailed account and critique of the “paradox” hypothesis, see my “Démons et merveilles: Fascist Aesthetics and the ‘New School of French Cinema’ (Les Visiteurs du soir, 1942),” in Australian Journal of French Studies 36, no. 1 (Feb. 1999): 58–88.

15. Henry Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy, 2nd ed. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1990).

16. Two good examples of this allegorical approach are Alan Williams’ Republic of Images (245–71), and Edward Baron Turk’s Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989). Williams sees the stylistic tendency towards the “cultivation of stillness” and “immobility” in the cinema of the Occupation as signifying “the first stage of a possible dissolution of the body politic” (Republic of Images, 265). But even in its own (allegorical) terms, Williams’ account is inconsistent. For example, he states on the one hand that the major spatial trope in the cinema of the Occupation is isolation and a sense of enclosure: “[a] closed setting for stories of violent social and familial conflict became a kind of stereotype during the period” (259); a few pages later, however, he describes this same cinema as being characterised by “an oppressive openness,” by “a troublingly open, almost abstract space” (266–67). This is a good indication, I think, of the sheer arbitrariness of allegorical (de)coding systems, and of their tendency to move, in too swift and unmediated a fashion, from signifiers to referents.

17. François Garçon’s De Blum à Pétain is probably the most egregious example of this positivistic approach: he simply takes the ideological triad of “Travail, Famille, Patrie” as an analytical grid, and, using an entirely thematic methodology that disregards formal, specifically cinematic analysis, categorizes films on the basis of the closeness of their fit with official Vichy ideology.

18. Bertin-Maghit, Le Cinéma sous l’Occupation, 151.

19. Ibid.

20. Roger Regent, Les Nouveaux Temps, 9 October 1943; my emphasis. Like all other critics at the time, Regent does not—cannot?—specify exactly what he means by “un tel sujet.”

21. “Voilà exactement pourquoi j’ai fait cela: j’en avais par dessus la tête des lettres anonymes; on vivait sous un régime affreux de dénonciation.” (in José-Luis Bocquet, Henri-Georges Clouzot, cinéaste [Paris: La Sirène, 1993], 33).

22. “Vichy, ce fut l’effort délibéré, persistant et vain . . . de reconstruire un esprit national dans lequel la mémoire d’un passé mythifié moulerait la perception du présent dans une maniére unitaire d’éprouver, de penser et d’agir. . . . Tout dans la vision pétainiste exprime une formidable aspiration à sortir du temps.” (Philippe Burrin, “Vichy,” in Pierre Nora, ed., Les Lieux de mémoire [Paris: Gallimard, 1992], vol. 3, pt. 1, 335–36).

23. Gilles Jacob, preface to Raymond Chirat, Le Cinéma français des années de guerre, 3–4.

24. Cf. Le Film, no. 75 (23 October 1943): “Dans la seule journée du dimanche 10 octobre au “Normandie” [Paris]: Le Corbeau [attire] 8.243 spectateurs . . . records pulverisés partout.” One also notes in the newspapers of the day reference to the film’s success (e.g.: “Dimanche en raison du succès du Corbeau au Normandie, ouverture des caisses à 13h.” [Le Cri du peuple, 2–3 October 1943]). However, as any reader of Le Film (the official organ of the cinema at the time) knows, almost every film at the time seemed to “pulverize” audience records.

25. Cf. infra. This negative reception did not extend to the critics of the collaborationist right, who were enthusiastic about the film, even if their reviews are generally uninsightful.

26. Hélène Garcin, Aujourd’hui, 9–10 October 1943.

27. From “Le Corbeau et la Presse,” in L. Chavance, Le Corbeau, scénario de Louis Chavance. Adaptation et dialogues de L. Chavance et H.-G. Clouzot (Paris: La Nouvelle Edition: 1948), 208.

28. In fact, we know from the large legal dossier on the film (the result of the enquiry into the film by the “Comité de Libération du Cinéma Français”) that Clouzot had considerable trouble convincing Alfred Greven, the German head of Continental, to go ahead with the project; Greven and his director of production, a certain Bauermeister, both found the script dangerous. See Jean-Pierre Bertin-Maghit, “1945, L’Épuration du cinéma français. mythe ou réalité?” in Marc Ferro, ed., Film et histoire (Paris: Editions de L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes, 1984), 136–38.

29. Les Lettres françaises, 3 May 1946 (reproduced in L. Chavance, Le Corbeau, 218–19).

30. “Le Corbeau est déplumé,” in Les Lettres françaises, 10 March 1944 (reproduced in Olivier Barrot, L’Ecran français, 1943–1953: Histoire d’un journal et d’une époque [Paris: Les Editeurs Français Réunis, 1979], 13–15).

31. Georges Sadoul, “Faut-il autoriser le Corbeau?Les Lettres françaises, 1 December 1945.

32. Au Pilori, 7 October 1943.

33. Comoedia, 9 October 1943.

34. Le Cri du Peuple, 4 October 1943; my emphasis.

35. Didier Daix, Ciné-mondial, 15 October 1943.

36. France-Europe, 9 October 1943.

37. France-Europe, 16 August 1944, 3. Given the context, one suspects the article should more honestly have been entitled “Regards en avant et autour.”

38. Hélène Garcin, Aujourd’hui, 9–10 October 1943.

39. Arlette Jazarin, Révolution nationale, 9 October 1943.

40. Roger Regent, Les Nouveaux Temps, 9 October 1943.

41. By contrast Les Enfants du paradis fis the object of, for example, an entire monograph (Geneviève Sellier, Les Enfants du paradis: Etude critique [Paris: Nathan, 1992]), and an extensive chapter in Edward Baron Turk’s Child of Paradise (186–218).

42. Marcel Ohms, “Le Corbeau et ses quatre vérités,” in Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque 8 (Winter 1973): 58–61.

43. “Dans les différents efforts d’unanimité nationale qui ont marqué la vie politique française de 1914 à 1960, c’est toujours à la même conception monolithique de l’homme, toujours à la même imposture manichéenne de l’action que l’on a fait appel” (Ohms, “Le Corbeau et ses quatre vérités,” 61).

44. French National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1993), 126–27.

45. Cinema of Paradox, 185ff. Curiously, Ehrlich mentions the Nietzschean Ubermensch as a way of understanding Germain’s initial “haughty” posture vis à vis the town and the scandal, but it seems to me that this is to overlook completely Nietzsche’s scathing critique of rationalism, and his concomitant celebration of the instinctual (i.e., the Dionysian). Germain’s initial moralising rationalism would thus be the anthithesis of the Nietzschean Ubermensch.

46. Republic of Images, 259–62.

47. N. Burch and G. Sellier, La Drole de guerre des sexes du cinéma français: 1930–1956 (Paris: Editions Nathan, 1996), 191–96.

48. Ibid.

49. Even if one agreed with this “dualist” interpretation, there remain other, more damaging problems with Burch’s analysis. For example, it is not at all clear that, apart from some superficial affinities, such as an obsession with “la bêtise” and a fascination with “la pourriture,” Le Corbeau can be considered a genuine case of right-wing anarchism. A careful reading of the critical work on the subject, which Burch himself refers to in his bibliography, namely Pascal Ory’s L’Anarchisme de droite (Paris: Grasset, 1985) reveals that there are key features of this ideology that are quite simply absent from Clouzot’s film—most notably, hard-line misogyny and its corollary, “l’amitié virile” (L’Anarchisme de droite, 148); indeed, the very point of Burch’s analysis is to demonstrate that the film goes out of its way to idealize women. Moreover, even though Ory’s survey covers more than a century of French cultural and political history, mentioning a plethora of filmmakers (Claude Autant-Lara, for one), playwrights, actors and novelists whose work bears, in his view, the hallmarks of right-wing anarchism, Clouzot—hardly a minor figure—is nowhere mentioned in Ory’s book.

There is also the issue of Burch and Sellier’s questionable methodology, where, no doubt in keeping with—and symptomatic of—their book’s cultural studies methodology, narrative “content” seems simply to take unargued precedence over form. Thus, claiming that the authors of the anonymous letters are not intratextual but rather extratextual (i.e., Clouzot and Chavance themselves), and that the whole film is nothing but a thoroughgoing semiological manipulation of the spectator, Burch nevertheless refrains from offering an analysis of this “manipulation”: “Une analyse sémiologique de cette manipulation—d’une perfection téchnique extraordinaire . . . —dépasse les limites de cette étude” (La Drole de guerre, 194). Indeed, Burch fis right when he says “dépasse les limites de cette étude,” since, by the authors’ own admission, there fis a systematic lack of attention to form and style in La Drôle de guerre des sexes . . . :On pourra nous reprocher . . . un recours trop systématique aux analyses des scénarios aux dépens des caractéristiques formelles des films, qui participent également à la production du sens” (309; my emphasis). This lack of attention to form is particularly curious in the case of Le Corbeau, since, as we have seen, Burch is precisely claiming that it is on the level of form that the film’s supposed right-wing anarchism is at work. For a strong discussion—and critique—of this “turn away from a politics of the signifier to iconographies of content” in contemporary criticism, see “The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennnial,” in October, no. 66 (Fall 1993): 3–27.

50. “Lettres Anonymes,” Je Suis Partout, 8 October 1943.

51. Histoire du cinéma (Paris, Les Sept Couleurs, 1964), 2:159.

52. Echo de la France, 20 November 1943.

53. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Nouvelle Revue Française 55, no. 327 (May 1941).

54. Indeed, the (very hostile) Georges Sadoul describes the film as displaying “[un] pessimisme célinien” (“Faut-il authoriser le Corbeau?”).

55. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Notes pour comprendre le siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1941).

56. Ibid., 105–6; 131; my emphasis.

57. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows,” 8 (Harmondsworth, Penguin: 1974), 23.

58. Mark Warren, Nietzsche and Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press, 1988), 31.

59. Ibid., 31–32; my emphasis.

60. Ibid., 26.

61. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. with notes and analysis David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979–1987), 2:48.

62. Warren, Nietzsche and Political Thought, 130; 144 (quote from On the Genealogy of Morals, edited, translated and annotated by Walter Kaufmann [New York: Random House, 1968], sec. 2, pp. 12, 79).

63. Germain to Denise [who has just propositioned him]: “Il ne peut pas y avoir de femme dans ma vie. Il y a quelque chose de beaucoup plus important.” Denise: “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Germain: “Je ne peux pas vous le dire.” Louis Chavance, Clouzot’s co-scriptwriter, comments: “La réponse de Germain reste mystérieuse. C’est le secret de son passé. Un événement qui a réagi sur toute son existence et qui lui impose une ligne de conduite inflexible. Il faudrait une grande catastrophe pour l’en détourner” (this quotation comes from one of the early versions of the script, in the “Archives scénaristiques,” held at the Bibliothèque du Film et de l’Image in Paris; my emphasis).

64. Cf. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (in particular, sec. 2, pp. 493–532).

65. This opening shot of the cemetery also foreshadows the funeral scene (the cancer patient who commits suicide).

66. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, sec. 2, p. 3.

67. Ibid., sec.2, pp. 1–94.

68. E. Locard, “L’Affaire de Tulle: Un cas typique d’anonymographie,” in L’Avenir médical, July 1923. Louis Chavance’s copy of this article, along with newspaper clippings reporting other cases of anonymous letters, are included in the dossier with the early versions of the script held at the Bibliothèque du Film et de l’Image (hereafter B.I.F.I.) in Paris. A second article by Locard, “Les Anonymographes” (Extrait de la Revue de Droit Pénal et de Criminologie et Archives Internationales de Médecine Légale, March 1923) fis quoted by Chavance in his notes for the script.

69. Notes from script entitled “L’Oeil du serpent,” B.I.F.I., Archives scénaristiques.

70. Chavance, “L’Oeil du serpent.”

71. Ibid.

72. “C’est un film qui ne verra jamais le jour parce que les personnages y sont pour la plupart méchants ou laids et parce qu’on y voit s’agiter quelques uns des sentiments les plus mystérieux et les plus [sombres?] de la nature humaine” (“L’Oeil du serpent”).

73. Chavance, “L’Oeil du serpent.”

74. From Chavance’s notes: “Le ressort fondamental de toute l’histoire est que Laura se trouve secrètement amoureuse du jeune docteur [Germain]. Son mari est on ne sait où. Elle devient nettement refoulée” (“L’Oeil du serpent”).

75. Chavance, “L’Oeil du serpent.”

76. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, sec. 3, p. 14.

77. That there is something excessive—obsessive—about Germain’s rationality is clearly signalled in the scene in the Post Office, where Vorzet, in his capacity as a “graphologue,” comments on Germain’s handwriting: “Beaucoup d’intelligence—plutôt trop.”

78. Chavance, “L’Oeil du Serpent.”

79. Indeed, as Arthur Goldhammer has very perceptively observed, the characters seem generally to be grouped in pairs. I quote from Goldhammer’s [unpublished] notes, which he has been kind enough to communicate to me: “Reinforcing this theme of the intermingling of opposites is the formal structure of the film, whose central characters are all paired. We have Germain and Vorzet, intelligence as stiff-necked and intelligence as cynical, or the misanthrope and Tartuffe. We have the sisters Laura and Marie Corbin, the sweet and the sour sides of the ‘eternal feminine.’ We have the médecin-chef and the économe, or le bon vivant and l’avare. And we have the two wicked sisters, Denise and Rolande, the giving and the grasping. In each case, our initial perception of the couple is undone by the film’s development. The unbending Germain bends in the end to become le roseau pensant, while the detached and ironic Vorzet is shown to have been prey to a destructive and unswerving passion. The good Laura turns out to have been the devil’s disciple, while pitiless Marie goes to prison for a crime of compassion (she has stolen drugs to feed her former lover’s morphine addiction). Denise, rather unpersuasively, is transformed from vengeful garce to devoted mother-to-be, while Rolande la voyeuse collapses in tears of jealousy. In none of these pairs is one member good and the other evil.” Like other critics before him, Goldhammer accordingly takes the “swinging light bulb” scene between Germain and Vorzet as “an epitome of what Clouzot intends by [this insistent structure],” namely a “moral relativism.” For my part, the key pairing, the overarching and structuring pairing is the very one that Goldhammer omits from his list, namely that of Germain-Denise, a pairing that involves not the (blurring of the) opposition between the moral and the immoral, but between ratio and pathos.

80. The opening scene is described thus: “La campagne. Un paysage d’hiver assez sombre. Des bandes de corbeaux partent croassant des champs dépouillés et tournoient sur un ciel chargé de nuages plombés”; and the closing scene thus: “Germain lève les yeux et voit dans le ciel une bande de corbeaux qui s’éloigne . . .” (L. Chavance, “Aux frontières du mal”).

81. In Drieu La Rochelle’s terms: “[Nietzsche] jette un anathème écrasant et bientôt définitif sur tout le rationalisme. . . . Il [le] brise et [le] rejette . . . [et] il brise la morale en tant que refuge truqué du rationalisme” (Notes pour comprendre le siècle, 143–44).

82. Drieu la Rochelle, Notes pour comprendre le siècle, 48.

83. Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, trans. David Maisel (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1986), 26; 33; 87.

84. Robert Soucy, French Fascism: The Second Wave, 1933–1939 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 284.

85. David Carroll, French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism and the Ideology of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 261.

86. Robert Belot, Lucien Rebatet: Un itinéraire fasciste (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1994), 129; 128. cf. this passage from Rebatet’s Les Deux étendards: “[Nietzsche]: abordé avec précaution, puis bientôt dévoré en entier, criblé dans les marges de points d’admiration. Nietzsche le philosophe qui culminait au-dessus de toutes les philosophies, qui s’en moquait avec une splendide férocité, qui proclamait avec la voix de la foudre tout ce qu’on balbutiait confusément, qui illuminait d’un tel incendie vos idées passées et vos idées à venir, qu’ébloui et accablé on se demandait ce qui pouvait vous rester à dire” (quoted in Pierre-Marie Dioudonnat, Je Suis Partout, 1930–1944: Les Maurrassiens Devant la Tentation Fasciste [Paris: La Table Ronde, 1973], 68).

87. Nietzsche, Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), sec. 804, p. 423.

88. Ibid., sec. 852, pp. 449–50.

89. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, sec. 2, pp. 6, 67.

90. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 85.

91. Echo de la France, 20 November 1943.

92. Nietzsche, Will to Power, sec. 847.

93. “The desire for destruction, change, becoming, can be the expression of an overfull power pregnant with the future (my term for this, as is known, is the word ‘Dionysian’).” (Will to Power, sec. 846, p. 446).

94. Nietzsche, Will to Power, sec. 802, p. 422.

95. Tracy B. Strong, “Nietzsche’s Political Misappropriation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, ed. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen Higgins (Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 142.

96. Gilles Deleuze, “Active and Reactive,” in The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation, edited and introduced by David B. Allison (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 83.

97. “Kant thought he was honoring art when among the predicates of beauty he emphasized and gave prominence to those which establish the honor of knowledge . . . impersonality and universality. . . . This is beautiful, said Kant, which gives us pleasure without interest.” (Nietzsche, Will to Power, 539–40).

98. Warren, Nietzsche and Political Thought, 231.

99. Nietzsche, Will to Power, sec. 649, p. 344; sec. 797, p. 419 (my emphasis). A passage that illustrates well this notion of will to power as an end justifying all means is found in The Gay Science: “He that is richest in the fullness of life, the Dioynsian god and man, cannot only afford the sight of the terrible and the questionable, but even the terrible deed and any luxury of destruction, decomposition, and negation. In his case, what is evil, absurd, and ugly seems, as it were, permissible, owing to an excess of procreating, fertilizing energies that can still turn any desert into lush farmland” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann [New York: Random House, 1974], Book 5, 328).

100. Tracy B. Strong, “Nietzsche’s Political Aesthetics,” in Nietzsche’s New Seas, 160.

101. In the eyes of the French fascists, as Sternhell reminds us, “democracy [was] the natural enemy of spiritual values” (Neither Right nor Left, 229).

102. My sincere thanks to the staff at the Bibliothèque du Film et de l’Image in Paris (and especially the archivists Valdo Kneubühler, Caroline Fieschi, Delphine Warin, Nadine Tenèze and Asghar Hassanzadeh) for their friendly and very professional help with the research involved in preparing this article and the larger project of which it is a part. Mme Michelle Aubert, Chief Conservator at the Centre National de la Cinématographie, Service des Archives du Film (Bois d’Arcy), and M. Daniel Courbet, also of the C.N.C., provided extremely courteous and exemplary professional service. Thanks also to Professors Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar at the University of Iowa for their perceptive remarks on the very first draft of this article (in the context of their stimulating N.E.H. summer seminar in 1994, devoted to French cinema and culture in the 1930s), as well as Arthur Goldhammer and Colin Nettelbeck for their constructive criticisms of later drafts. The research was partly funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council.

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