2017-01-06

sovay: (Claude Rains)
I am beginning to think I may have had the flu. Exhaustion, fever, headache, literally spent a day in bed, spent the next day out of bed and fell over before midnight, more fever, slept twelve hours at the end of which I am still hallucinatorily tired, I have to travel tomorrow (come hear me read classically-themed poems in Brooklyn!) and I'm having trouble with the concept of sitting upright. Nonetheless, I can type: I can talk about film.

I'd wanted to see The Moon Is Down (1943) since May, when I had a dream that made me wish the novel wasn't packed away with the rest of my books. All paperback fiction after G is still in storage, but the film did me the favor of turning up on TCM on Monday night. I had not planned in advance for my first movie of 2017 to be a story of resistance, but I don't mind.

When the idea of a novel on the themes of occupation and resistance first occurred to John Steinbeck in the fall of 1941, he was working for a variety of government agencies and his own country was neutral; by the time The Moon Is Down saw print in March of 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II and the prospects for the Allies looked grim. On publication, the novel met with commercial success, dramatic adaptation, and critical controversy. Steinbeck was careful to identify no nationalities in his short fable of a small mining town under military occupation by a belligerent foreign power—the characters are divided into "invaders" and "townspeople" with vaguely European names on both sides, the terrain is mostly defined by mountains and winter and the nearness of the sea, and external references to England, France, Belgium, and Russia still leave a lot of the globe unclaimed—but only so that it would have the widest possible range of identification for readers in Nazi-occupied Europe. In the U.S., it was criticized for its melodrama, its optimism, its naïveté, and especially its sympathetic portrayal of the invaders, including the war-weary veteran at the head of the occupying battalion who knows that "there are no peaceful people . . . no friendly people" in a nation taken and held by force. In Europe, where audiences understood that not every enemy comes with a cartoon mustache and an affidavit of recently eaten babies, the novel became a classic of the resistance. It was translated—clandestinely—into Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, even German; there were two serialized versions published in the USSR and another in China. After the war, Steinbeck was awarded the Haakon VII Freedom Cross by the king of Norway himself, for outstanding service to the country during the war. The lack of proper names had not prevented readers all across Europe from identifying the novel's invaded country as Norway. I was introduced to the novel by a friend whose father had grown up in Fredrikstad during the German occupation. It didn't matter that it was written by an American author who had known refugees and members of different resistance groups but never lived in an occupied country himself; to Norwegians, it rang true.

In any case, despite the critical flamewars, The Moon Is Down—its title taken from Macbeth, which never stops me from thinking δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα and inappropriately associating it with Sappho—was not so unpopular at home that it didn't get optioned by Twentieth Century-Fox, adapted and produced by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Irving Pichel. On the whole it's a faithful version. The novel is quiet, omniscient, compassionate, and impossible to read without feeling a little cold; the deep, waiting winter closes around the reader as much as it does around the town and its inhabitants, and whether you find it a comfort or a horror depends on whose perspective you're in. The film is more exciting, which means that it feels more episodic and the stakes are raised on some of its significant events, although not so much that I think the point is lost. I would love to know its reception in Norway, because the national identity of the nameless little town is unambiguous from the opening image of Hitler's fist pounding on a map of Scandinavia while a harshly rising voice rants about Norwegen, Norwegen to the choral singing of "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Anglicized to "Yes, We Love This Land, Our Country") underneath the final scene. In between it is nowhere near as programmatic as these two examples make it sound, since the script is, despite Steinbeck's reassuring but specious distinction between the "free men" of democratic countries and the "herd men" of authoritarian regimes, as conscientiously complicated as the novel in its depiction of both sides of an occupation.

I don't just mean that the German characters are human, although it's important that they are, since it is one of the ways they can be defeated. But they are more interestingly human than the conventional sympathy for the villain; the townspeople resist them in ways that do not always look like recruiting posters. For us the war lasted exactly two hours. )

So that was a very interesting movie to see in the same week that Trump tweeted about his enemies and I am thinking about resistance in general, Nazis optional. It has its flaws—primarily I think its score is a little too dramatically on-the-nose and could have relied more on folk motifs like the Norwegian national anthem, as composer Alfred Newman had done successfully with his scores for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941)—but it preserves all the things I remember liking about the book and adds some I didn't know I was missing, like Henry Travers and occasional striking cinematography. Other films that may deserve a rewatch in the near future are Jean Renoir's This Land Is Mine (1943) and Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley's The Silver Fleet (1943). This course of study brought to you by my organized backers at Patreon.
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