I grew up on the 1935 Hollywood version of Les Misérables that starred Fredric March and Charles Laughton, and I still think of it fondly. I also like the Claude Lelouch film of 1995, a variation on Victor Hugo’s novel with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the leading role. But I just viewed an epic three-part French adaptation from 1934 that’s in a class by itself. It runs four hours and forty-one minutes and is well worth the investment of time. The Criterion Collection released it five years ago in an Eclipse set honoring director Raymond Bernard; the companion feature is his 1932 anti-war film Wooden Crosses.
To quote the Criterion liner notes, “It was Bernard who proposed adapting Hugo’s hefty book into three parts—“Une Tempête sous le crane” (“Tempest in a Skull”), “Les Thénardier” (“The Thénardiers”), and “Liberté, liberté chérie” (“Liberty, Sweet Liberty”)—to be screened as separate feature-length films, thus allowing him to include as much of the original narrative, characters, and details as possible. And because of the great success of his previous film, the forty-two-year-old director got the screen time (nearly five hours) and resources he needed to realize his vision. As his coscreenwriter he again chose critic and playwright André Lang, with whom he had so successfully brought Wooden Crosses to the screen. The influential Swiss composer Arthur Honegger gave the film its majestic score, later so admired by Miklos Rosza and Charles Koechlin and still available on CD in the United States today. And for his cameraman Bernard selected the German-born cinematographer Jules Kruger, who had shot not only Bernard’s first sound film, Faubourg Montmartre (1931), but also Abel Gance’s astonishing silent epic Napoleon (1927).
“Kruger’s penchant for uniquely styled and canted framing, highly influenced by German expressionism, was perfectly complemented by the dazzling art direction of Bernard’s exclusive production designer, Jean Perrier, who fully re-created sections of nineteenth-century Paris on exterior locations (the set was built near the southeastern resort town of Antibes), in addition to incorporating lovely matte paints and breathtaking miniature work.”
Bernard’s Les Misérables was never seen in the U.S. in its original form, although even in a shortened feature version it was well received. Even in France, it existed only in truncated form for decades. It was finally restored in the 1970s, toward the end of the director’s life. There are still missing scenes, and some grainy shots were obviously taken from the only surviving materials. The restoration opens with a likeness of Victor Hugo and this quote: “So long as poverty and misery still exist on earth, works such as this may not be in vain.”
Knowledgeable film buffs speak of the film’s star, Harry Baur, in reverential tones. A stage actor, he made his first movies in 1909 and went on to become a celebrated figure in French cinema. He was a favorite of director Julien Duvivier, and tackled such formidable characters as Taras Bulba, Rasputin, and Beethoven, to name just a few. In Les Misérables he brings weight—both literal and figural—to the character of Jean Valjean, and has a tour-de-force courtroom scene in which he portrays a simple workman who has been mistaken for the ex-convict.
Some parts of the extended film play better than others, and the denouement is not as effective as one might like. Javert’s suicide is especially abrupt, at least in this surviving print. But there are other passages that are simply magnificent. I won’t soon forget the staging, setting, lighting, and astonishing hand-held camerawork for the storming of the barricades. (It isn’t hard to draw a through-line from Gance’s Napoleon to this vision of Les Misérables.)
When the three-part feature was released on DVD in 2007, Dave Kehr wrote in The New York Times, “This is very likely the best adaptation of Hugo’s novel, and certainly the best I know (though I would be curious to see Riccardo Freda’s version, made in Italy in 1947). That’s partly because Mr. Bernard avoids any trace of the literary; this is a film that vigorously expresses itself through performance and visual style.”
If, like me, you have never experienced this milestone in French filmmaking, I urge you to do so. I look forward to watching Bernard’s Wooden Crosses as well—France’s “answer” to All Quiet on the Western Front.