Considering that by the end of 1933 the Nazis had all but shuttered the German film industry and that the Depression had crippled the rest of Europe's studios, the field of contenders for best foreign language picture of 1932-33 is remarkably deep:
●Boudu Saved From Drowning, a comedy by Jean Renoir, is ostensibly the story of a suicidal bum fished from the waters of the Seine, but is really a biting satire about the unsatisfying nature of charity when the object of your care won't transform himself into your image.
●Also released in 1932 was Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr, which our friend Erik Beck of the Boston Becks ranks seventh on his list of the all-time greatest horror films, writing "Dreyer does far more with mood and atmosphere than with the kind of effects laden vampire crap that modern directors use."
●Liebelei is an exquisite romance by the master of moody, doomed love, Max Ophüls, who would go on to direct such masterpieces as Letter From An Unknown Woman and The Earrings Of Madame de ....
●And then there's The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang's sequel to his 1922 film Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. The Nazis took Lang's story of an insane criminal mastermind who controls his victims through hypnosis as a criticism of Hitler and his henchmen—it was—and Lang fled Germany shortly after production was completed.
I'm a fan of each of these films and, depending on my mood, I could champion any of them—you might particularly want to track down Vampyr as Halloween approaches—but this week I'm going with Jean Vigo's funny, poetic and influential look at life in a boy's boarding school, Zero For Conduct.
If you put the Our Gang comedies, Animal House and The Dead Poets Society in a blender, strained out the sentimentality and added a dash of Jean-Paul Sartre, Charlie Chaplin and Luis Buñuel, you'd get either a really awesome smoothie or Zero For Conduct (Zéro de conduite). The film's French subtitle, Jeunes Diables au Collège—"Little Devils At School"—is a pretty accurate description of the story's nominal heroes, three scamps, maybe age ten, who plot to take over their rundown school during a Commemoration Day ceremony and pelt the faculty with garbage.
"War is declared! Down with teachers! Up with revolution!"
And revolution is just what this school needs. With the exception of a newly-hired instructor (Jean Dasté) who imitates Chaplin and does handstands in class, the boys' teachers—led by a wizened dwarf with a preposterous beard and a hat he keeps under glass—are a wholly unsympathetic collection of spies, toadies, dimwits, bores and martinets, as small in spirit as the dean is in body. The boys rebel at every turn, instigating food fights (the cook serves nothing but beans) and pillow fights before finally leading the full-scale insurrection that caps this brief forty-one minute film.
"Zero For Conduct," wrote Terrence Rafferty for New Yorker magazine in 1990, "was a celebration of the pure freedom of children's imaginations, a stirring expression of resistance to the forces of authority and order—to anything that would impose discipline on the diverse, unruly energy of play." Nearly eighty years after it was made, "Zero For Conduct still seems ... like one of the few truly subversive movies ever made."
But while planning for "revolution" provides a unifying theme, the narrative of Zero For Conduct is primarily episodic, as life generally is at the age of ten, with director Vigo taking time to remember moments that a kid would find important—playing a toy trumpet with your nose, smoking purloined cigars, following an absent-minded teacher through the streets, chasing him as he tries to introduce himself to a pretty woman, then somehow getting sidetracked as they mistake a priest's flapping cassock for the girl's skirt.
At times Zero For Conduct reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But ..., the 1932 Japanese silent film about two school age brothers who play hooky, fake test scores and bribe a delivery boy to beat up the local bully. Of that movie I wrote "It's not that nothing happens, it's that nothing feels as if it's made to happen simply to satisfy the mechanics of plot."
Think of how the quest for the Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story pulls together what are otherwise unrelated episodes in the life of little Ralphie Parker, and you'll get an idea of how Vigo uses talk of revolution to weave the various threads of Zero For Conduct into a single tapestry.
Visually, Zero For Conduct almost plays as a documentary, with most of the movie shot on location. Vigo comments on the action and the players with the placement of his camera, often photographing the students from below, emphasizing their oversize sense of their own maturity, while shooting their instructors from high-angle positions which tends to diminish them in our eyes. Vigo was a key figure in a loosely-defined movement called "Poetic Realism," which focused on marginalized characters, told stories tinged with nostalgia and fatalism, and relied on "heightened aestheticism" to emphasize the "representational aspects" of the film. No, I don't know what that means either, but I do recognize that there is a look and feel in the films of Jean Vigo that reminds me of Jean Renoir, Julien Duviver and Marcel Carné—like Vigo, members of the Poetic Realism movement—whose films were highly naturalistic in their look yet which featured action that clearly was scripted and staged.
As the film continues, though, Vigo also plays around with surrealism, which was still a hot ticket item in Europe. In addition to the films of Luis Buñuel, several directors working in France had taken stabs at the form including René Clair, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, and Jean Vigo underscores his theme of rebellion against convention with several surreal scenes—a teacher's drawing comes to life, sheepishly transforming itself, as the lone sympathetic teacher is rebuked by a colleague, from a man in swim trunks into the cloaked visage of Napoleon; a student does a slow-motion backflip into a chair; and a professor is tied to his bed and suspended from the wall while he sleeps. There's also one brief, surprising shot of full-frontal male nudity, not in the least sexual, more in the tradition of "I wave my private parts at your auntie," which I suspect was Vigo's way of giving French authorities the finger.
The spirit of rebellion that infuses Zero For Conduct was not lost on French authorities—after the film's premiere on April 7, 1933, it was banned and was not shown again in France until February 1946, nearly twelve years after Vigo's untimely death.
I confess it took more than one viewing for me to appreciate Zero For Conduct—I carried into my first viewing certain Hollywood-bred expectations of what should/would happen and I kept waiting for the predictable plot-twists and the ending wrapped up with a bow. It wasn't until the second time through that I allowed myself to enter into the spirit of the thing and remember what it was really like to be a kid. Sometimes as adults we forget how momentous little episodes are to children and to their development, and while you know that in one sense nothing will change after the boys have taken over the school, in more important ways, everything will change as their perceptions of themselves will forever be altered—there's a big difference between being someone who "could" do a thing and being someone who "has done" that thing.
Zero For Conduct was a flop at the box office, won no awards and was barely seen outside of Paris until after World War II, yet it directly influenced Francois Truffaut's greatest film, The 400 Blows, and the French New Wave generally. That's pedigree enough for me.
Born in Paris in 1905, Jean Vigo was the son of the French anarchist Eugeni Bonaventura de Vigo i Sallés, better known as Miguel Almereyda. When Vigo was twelve, his father was arrested and later murdered in his prison cell, presumably by his jailers. Hustled out of Paris, Vigo was educated under an assumed name in the south of France, yet despite the outrage he felt for French authorities, Vigo found things to love—his fellow students, later his wife and friends—and he found ways to translate that tenderness into film. Suffering from the tuberculosis he had contracted at the age of twenty-one, Vigo literally worked himself to death, directing his follow-up film, L'atalante from a stretcher and dying a few months after its completion in 1934.
Postscript: To my knowledge, Zero For Conduct is not readily available in the U.S. There are better copies floating around the internet, but at least I can show this battered, murky print legally.