Classic Foreign Films of Human Drama: Rx for Our Fraught Times

After enduring over a year-and-a-half under the “leadership” of the anti-democratic and amoral Donald Trump, many Americans barely recognize their own country. We gape at the sight of swastikas flying on American soil, we see “compassionate conservatives” scapegoating “the other,” we see truth and the law under severe assault, we mourn America surrendering the mantle of “Leader of the Free World.”

By no means is America vanquished, of course. The Resistance resists, protesting all the above. Record numbers are running for elective office, regenerative movements are on the march (#MeToo, March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter), people are “woke” like never before. On many fronts, we are working toward a reckoning.

In this mighty struggle, contemporary culture does not help much, with its penchant for the dystopian, the pathological, the wild and crazy. In low times, why indulge in low fare? More nourishing than anti-heroes “acting out” are protagonists pursuing higher purpose, humanity at its richest — -seeking freedom, justice, honor, dignity, doing the right thing, and, no small matter, being serious.

In films of the classic period — -the 1930s through the 1960s — -both in America and abroad, characters seeking this “upper air” seemed more abundant. Which is why, in the following listing of ten classic foreign films of human drama, major auteurs like Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Bunuel, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fassbinder, Godard, even Truffaut, go missing: They do not nourish the human heart or steel the spine. This list does. (Films of the great Italian humanists Roberto Rossellini, “Open City,” and Vittorio de Sica, “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Children Are Watching,” were reviewed earlier.) All these films (but one) are in black-and-white, which enhances the drama. There are spoilers, but that should not detract from your viewing pleasure.

A MAN ESCAPED (France, 1956; dir. Robert Bresson)

At a time when autocrats are being normalized and the oxymoron “illiberal democracy” is become reality, this film — -of a man single-mindedly bent on escaping a Nazi prison to regain his freedom (photo at top) — -is tonic. Even though we know from the title he escapes, the drama lies in seeing how Fontaine does it, how he overcomes despair, quells fear. As he picks away at his door with a flattened spoon, he must suss out who among his fellow prisoners could give him away, who will help. Whispered communication in the communal washroom becomes theological: When a priest-prisoner assures him God will save them, Fontaine says, “He’ll save us if we give him the chance.” Just as he is ready to make his break, he is assigned a cellmate: Does he enlist this man in the escape or does he kill him? It’s exhilarating to see Fontaine opt for humanity and lead the two of them to freedom.

Based on the true story of French Resistance fighter Andre Devigny, Bresson, who himself was a P.O.W., relates the tale “sans ornements” — -the same few spaces (mainly Fontaine’s cell), the same strains of Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor,” and non-professional actors, although his lead, Francois Leterrier, went on become a director himself. (His cellmate is a Matt Damon look-alike). This powerful film resonates in our moment: Acts of kindness are miracles, humanity is ultimately embraced, and, importantly, we see Fontaine grieve for his prison neighbor who was executed — -a man he never met face-to-face, only exchanged messages with, tapped on the wall dividing them. Mind that metaphor, Americans. (Film clip here. Another Bresson classic, Diary of a Country Priest, I discuss here.)

THE GRAND ILLUSION (France, 1937; dir. Jean Renoir)

The power of cooperation across barriers of class and ethnicity, portrayed in the story of another great escape — -this time in World War I — -makes this film apt now. Captain Le Boeldieu, an aristocrat (Pierre Fresnay), and lieutenants Rosenthal, a Jewish scion (Marcel Dalio), and Marechal, of the working class (French icon Jean Gabin), are captured and transported to an officers’ POW camp in Germany. There, the camp commandant, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), affects an alliance with Le Boeldieu over the prospect that, when this war is over, so is their aristocratic kind.

The question becomes: Might Le Boeldieu, out of some aristocratic code of honor, reveal that his fellow Frenchmen are building a tunnel to escape? Not at all; he sacrifices himself, taking von Rauffenstein’s bullet, allowing Rosenthal and Marechal to escape. (When the German learns the escapees’ identity, the pfennig finally drops.) Once free but deep behind enemy lines, Rosenthal, wounded, becomes a perilous drag. Having endured so much together, it’s truly shocking when Marechal turns on his comrade, calling him “dirty Jew.” The rest of the film is about reconciliation (and making it into Switzerland). The point here: While the film cites various things as “illusion” — -the end of the war, a wife’s faithfulness — -there is no illusion about the need for cooperation for survival. However, the 1% sacrificing for the 99% remains fiction. (Trailer here; clip of Renoir introducing the film here.)

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (Italy, 1966; dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)

Westerners seem still not to understand the Arab world. This film, about the efforts of the National Liberation Front (FLN) to throw off French colonial rule in Algeria, movingly portrays Arab humanity, while casting a critical eye on French tactics — -and Western blindness. After a period of increasing unrest in the Casbah, the formidable veteran of both World War II and Indochina, Lt. Col. Philippe Matthieu (Jean Martin), is sent to re-establish control. It is Matthieu’s tragedy, and the West’s, to see the FLN strictly as a foe to be strategically outmaneuvered. He succeeds — -at first: The film begins with the last remaining FLN member at large, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), cornered, along with a little boy who’s acted as courier. The film unfolds in flashback, and we see tragedy develop and play out — -both sides resorting to terrorist measures — -culminating in the death of Ali and the boy. And yet, two years later, as the film tells us in an end-note, when the whole population rose up and demanded it, Algeria achieved its independence.

While America is not a colonial power, it has been an occupying power. To the extent we perceive the Arab world strategically and not as human beings seeking freedom and dignity, we will fail. The film shows the ugly face of colonialism/occupation in indelible scenes of torture, epithets of “dirty Arab.” O, humanity…. (Trailer here. Saadi Yacef, FLN leader who wrote the book on which this film is based and acted in it, and later served in Algeria’s Council of the Nation as a senator, is interviewed here.)

THE APU TRILOGY (India, 1955–59; dir. Satyajit Ray)

The humanity of the invisible poor is at the beating heart of this coming-of-age saga of a young Bengali boy named Apu. This trilogy brilliantly portrays, amidst grinding poverty, the questing of the individual soul. In Part One, “Pather Panchali,” the young Apu discovers the world through three strong women — -his mother, sister, and aunt. In Part Two, “Aparajito,” the family suffers both devastating loss — -the death of the father, a dreamer — -but also the promise held out by education, as young Apu proves an apt pupil. In Part Three, “Apur Sansar” (my favorite), Apu, now in his twenties, married, and aspiring to become a writer, suffers a double blow — -the deaths of his mother, from whom he had grown apart, and his wife, whom he adored. After great struggle, he does the soul-work enabling him to carry on.

At the outset of filming, neither the director, the photographer, or the actors (except the one playing the aunt) had ever participated in filmmaking before. (Music is by Ravi Shankar.) When Part One, “Pather Panchali,” won the “Best Human Document” award at the Cannes film festival, Ray, funding generated, was inspired to create the rest of Apu’s story. Today, with severe political dysfunction and ever-greater income disparity, the poor loom lower than ever. This trilogy reminds us of the humanity of the masses. (Trailer here.)

TOKYO STORY (Japan, 1953; dir. Yasujiro Ozu)

Family relations are the focus of this film set in postwar Japan. Father (Chishu Ryu) and mother (Chieko Higashiyama) journey from their small village to the big city, Tokyo, to visit their grown children. But the children, a son who’s a doctor and a daughter who’s a hairdresser, are too busy to see to them. Another son, a railroad functionary, sees them briefly enroute. Left alone, the parents trudge around Tokyo, at one point wandering into an industrial zone. At a loss of what to do, the children pool their resources and send their parents to a resort, but they return early. It is the daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), widow of their son who was killed in the war, who emerges as the figure with true family feeling, taking time off from her job to serve as guide and, importantly, enjoying their company.

After the mother dies — -she shows signs of illness on the trip — -the children finally show some family feeling, attending to the rituals for the dead. But, very soon, they revert to their selfish ways, putting dibs on Mother’s things, leaving for a baseball game. Once again it is the daughter-in-law who shows most tenderness, leading to a moving climax between her and her father-in-law. Acting on an observation he and his late wife made — -that Noriko still venerates their late son, with a shrine to him in her apartment — -the father acts to bury his son (“Forget him”) and enable Noriko to remarry. The deed needed to be done — -Noriko masks her sorrow with kindness — -and he executes it lovingly. In sum, this is a film about a family member doing right by a beloved — -something rare in contemporary cinema. Critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times calls it “perfect.” (Trailer here; full film here.)

LATE SPRING (Japan, 1949; dir. Yasujiro Ozu)

Like Tokyo Story and made by the same director, Late Spring also shows a family member doing right by a beloved. Featuring the same wonderful leads as in Tokyo Story, this time as father and daughter, it is the story of a widowed father, a professor, and his 27-year-old daughter, again named Noriko. Lovely and lively, Noriko truly prefers her father’s company over anybody else, and the father truly enjoys her attentions. It is Noriko’s aunt who intercedes with her brother — -Noriko should marry — -and she has candidates. In parallel, the father concocts a story about wanting himself to remarry. Noriko is stung. The scene at a Noh performance where the father nods to his prospective bride, and the figurative daggers thrown by Noriko in the same direction, is a gem. Earlier, with a divorced colleague of her father, Noriko castigates him for remarrying a younger woman.

Finally, Noriko does meet with one of her aunt’s candidates and finds him O.K.; she agrees to marriage. But in a final outing to Kyoto with her father, she makes a last plea to keep things as they are. He gently refuses, saying it’s “the order of human life and history” to leave the family and marry. On her wedding day, in traditional garb, Noriko kneels to her father, thanking him for his love and care over the years, and he kneels to her. In a bar later, the father laughingly confesses to Noriko’s girlfriend and confidante his ruse: “biggest lie I ever told in my life.” He returns to a quiet house, a lonely future. But he did right by his daughter. The order of human life and history. (Trailer here.)

THE BROWNING VERSION (England, 1951; dir. Anthony Asquith)

Modernity does not much esteem the classics, like Greek and Latin. Certainly this is the feeling of Andrew Crocker-Harris, who’s taught these subjects at a boys’ school, to little enlightenment, for decades. At the open, Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave in a skilled recessive performance) has been let go, fired, without pension. With their pending departure, his wife Millie (Jean Kent) is in a state over how to carry on her affair with the school’s science teacher, Hunter (Nigel Patrick). It has all been a failure, as Crocker-Harris confesses to his successor Gilbert: He didn’t have “the knack of making myself liked,” thus he failed to convey the beauty of the classics; at first his epigrams dazzled the boys, but soon he grew tiresome, not even tolerated as a joke, gaining instead a reputation for discipline, “the Himmler of the lower fifth” (scene here).

There’s one boy, though, Taplow (Brian Smith): While he pities “the Crock,” he also gets it about the classics. In a beautiful scene, Crocker-Harris opens up to the boy how, when he was his age, he became so excited by The Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, that he composed his own translation — -in verse; it was, he thought, “very beautiful.” But, he didn’t finish the manuscript. At Taplow’s urging — -after palming the manuscript, he reads it and deems it superior to renowned poet Robert Browning’s version (“Yours is more modern, Sir”) — -Crocker-Harris might now finish his epic. Earlier, in a wicked scene, at a fraught moment between Millie and lover Hunter, Taplow outlines to Hunter, a man of science not familiar with the classics, The Agamemnon: Woman kills her husband, she has a lover — -“Bloody good plot, Sir!” In our Brass Age, this richly human film, written by playwright Terence Rattigan, translates well.

THE WINSLOW BOY (England, 1948; dir. Anthony Asquith)

Based on a true story from the early 20th century, this film is about a 12-year-old boy, Ronnie Winslow, who, as a cadet at the Royal Naval College, is expelled for allegedly stealing a postal order worth a small sum. His family believes in his innocence and, after a rough grilling of the boy that nearly puts the family off, so does his lawyer (Robert Donat) — -“The boy is plainly innocent” (scene here). The first hurdle to clearing the family name is the law: Until this precedent-setting case, citizens could not sue the King. The lawyer, the famous Sir Robert Morton, forces a debate in Parliament and wins, gaining the historic “right to petition.” Then to trial, where he also succeeds.

More than court drama, this film is about the sacrifices the family and lawyer make to establish the boy’s innocence. His father Arthur (Cedric Hardwicke) sacrifices his health and, newly retired as a banker, the family’s not-large savings, causing a strain with his wife. Sister Catherine (Margaret Leighton) loses her fiancé, whose father is shocked at the Winslows’ disloyalty to King. And Sir Robert: A snob in manner, he is a demon not only for justice, but, better, for right: “Let right be done.” He sacrifices appointment as Lord Chief Justice. Not all is sacrifice, though: The struggle brings Sir Robert and Catherine together (their last exchange is golden). This film is another collaboration of Terence Rattigan and Anthony Asquith, so good on human drama. And good for our law-bending time is the banner motto, “Let right be done.”

I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! (England, 1945; dirs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger)

With a title that shouts emphatic intent, complete with exclamation point, you know the hero is in for comeuppance. In this film featuring (refreshingly) a heroine, introduced as headstrong child, teen, then adult, Joan Webster announces to her father that she’s engaged to the head of the company she works for, Consolidated Chemical Industries, and is heading to the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland, to marry him. Father protests that her fiancé is as old as he is, but, no matter, she’s off.

In her quest, though, Joan meets nothing but obstacles — -bad weather, missed connections, and a young Naval officer home on leave from the war (World War II), Torquil MacNeil. Torquil is immediately taken with Joan, but Joan doubles down on her quest — -and nearly gets them killed when she insists a young seaman take her over to the island in a gale (Torquil jumps into the boat at the last minute). Back on land, Joan gets a tongue-lashing from the young girl who loves the seaman, thus beginning her humanization, also new sight: She recognizes Torquil as true love. Played with real feeling by Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey, this film speaks to our turbulent times: You may be knocked off your stated course, but you just may find something better instead. (Clip here; full film here.)

VANYA ON 42nd STREET (France, 1994; dir. Louis Malle)

Technically, this film might be considered American — -it’s in English, set in New York, with an American cast — -but the director is French and the material is Russian, Anton Chekhov’s play, “Uncle Vanya.” It is included in this listing mainly for Sonya’s benediction at the end — -a benediction sorely needed by all characters, and perhaps us, too.

Vanya (Wallace Shawn), an educated man, toils as overseer of a large estate for its owner, a professor he hates for his pedantry. Astrov (Larry Pine) is an overworked doctor, who also tends his forests; a proto-environmentalist, he’s trying to counter society’s ravaging of the land. Yelena (Julianne Moore), married to the professor, is beautiful, but idle and bored. And there’s Sonya (Brooke Smith), her uncle Vanya’s niece and the glue that keeps the estate and household going. But, like all the principal characters, Sonya is unhappy: She loves Astrov, who doesn’t even know she exists. Meanwhile Astrov and Vanya are both in love with the beautiful Yelena, who doesn’t really know what she wants.

This film, set in a once-grand theatre, opens with the cast arriving, then seamlessly carries us into the play (staging is by theatre director Andre Gregory). A tale of failed ambition and unrequited love, this eminently human story speaks for all time. As does Sonya’s benediction —“All we can do is live”: that our part in this life is to do our work and do our duty, with the assurance that, in the beyond, “We shall rest.” We Americans still somehow believe that, even in dark times, we can do better than rest, we can be happy in this life. Let’s take Sonya’s benediction, for good measure, and run with it. (Trailer here.)

For my commentary on classic American films of human interest, see here. For my other posts about films, see here, here, and here.