Directed by Jean Bodon
Distributed by First Run Features
Jean Bodon’s cinematic chronicle of the life and career of former French premier Leon Blum is, in itself, a historical remembrance of temps perdu. Although Blum served as premier in three governments, both in the volatile 1930s and after World War II (in reconstructed France of the Fourth Republic), he has not received the historical consideration expected for a figure of his stature or impact.
Bodon’s film tells the story of a complex politician and public intellectual. Born in the Garment District of Paris, on April 9, 1872, into a family of five brothers of Alsatian Jewish origin, Blum came of age during the Alfred Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s. Studying law at the Sorbonne, he supported Dreyfus and fought for the equality of Jews and women. Blum joined with Socialist Jean Jaures in 1904, and stayed with him until his assassination in 1914, on the eve of World War I. After joining with Jaures in advocating for [End Page 75] peace in the pre-war period, however, Blum shifted his stance during the war, and worked for the Ministry of Infrastructure. Many socialists, and later communists, could not forgive him for this change of position.
Blum ran into additional trouble when his book On Marriage (1905) was heavily criticized as being too pro-women. During the course of the film, one of Bodon’s on-screen authorities, writer Jean LaCoutoure, affirms that many could not see Blum as premier material after that because he wrote “that trash.”
Blum maintained his select brand of socialism throughout the war and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1919. As his political career continued, he labored through a number of ups and downs: At the Congress of Tours in 1920 he tried to reconstruct the Socialist party after its split with the Communists after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and then found himself in the political wilderness in a series of ministries in the 1920s, but was returned to the Chamber of Deputies from Narbonne in 1932. At this time France was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and Blum fought the advent of fascism and royalism in France. He was split between the communist policies of the proletariat represented by Stalin in the 1933-35 period and the anti-fascist elements versus Hitler and Mussolini.
Bodon uses many devices to portray Blum effectively in the narrative: old newsreels entitled “France actuelles,” which combine with Blum’s old diaries and speeches (shown visually and heard on audiocast); mini-interviews with those who knew him and studied him; historical footage of Hitler and Mussolini; marches of socialists and communists; Blum in the streets and in the Chamber of Deputies. Historian Stephen Miller adds that Blum was a writer and sportswriter before the First World War and in the 1920s got to know writers Andre Gide and Anatole France, while developing a passion for Stendahl. When Blum later was taken from his apartment, he regretted not taking care of his books better, as his brother Rene had asked him. This regret deepened when he was imprisoned in castles in France and in 1943 deported to Buchenwald, because in his absence the Gestapo tore up his apartment and destroyed his books, speeches, personal papers and remembrances of his late wife.
In February 1934, during the Stavisky scandal, he led demonstrations against the government and managed to unify Communists, Socialists, and Radicals in the “Front Populaire.” By February 1936, he had survived an assassination attempt by Royalists and later led the Socialists to victory June of that year. His platform was workers and women’s rights, pacifism, nationalization of French industry, and measures against unemployment. He was named premier of the new government and established revolutionary terms for workers that included the 40-hour work-week, collective bargaining, and paid vacations.
What was remarkable in this period was that Blum was able to come from outside government, in a period when employment reached five times the normal average during the Great Depression, and build on his work...