Posts Tagged ‘Nazism’

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.


50 films: #8. Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974)

August 21, 2014

The next feature film Louis Malle made after Le Souffle au Coeur is about as different a film from that social comedy as can be imagined. Lacombe Lucien is an uncompromising drama set in occupied France in 1944 about a peasant boy, Lucien Lacombe, who joins a group of collaborators.


The film opens with the teenage Lucien (Pierre Blaise) working as a hospital orderly. He washes the floors and empties the patients’ chamber pots. A bird tweets innocuously outside the window. Lucien takes a slingshot from his overall, takes aim, and kills the bird. Written down, the symbolism of this act seems heavy-handed, but it’s an effectively concise encapsulation of the paradoxes of this character. His job is to care for people, yet he takes pleasure in destruction. He is neither still a boy nor yet a man. Who carries a slingshot around?

Having finished work, Lucien cycles home to the farm where his mother lives. His father is a prisoner of war, and his mother is having an affair with the landlord, M. Laborit. Lucien brings money to his mother, and performs tasks around the farm. He helps a group of men to attach a dead horse to a cart, and strokes the horse’s head tenderly. He takes potshots at rabbits with a rifle while a younger boy attends him. He catches a chicken and, holding it upside down, chops its head off with his hand. This is all presented in the most unsentimental, matter-of-fact way. We see Lucien as an uncomplicated person, a blank canvas. What occupies his mind? What motivates him?


Laborit’s son has joined the Maquis, and perhaps this plants an idea in Lucien’s head to do the same. Lucien goes to see a schoolteacher, Peyssac, the leader of the local Resistance, and asks to join, but he is rejected as too young. Travelling back to the hospital, his bike gets a puncture. Diverted from his normal route, he happens upon a dilapidated hotel now used as a base by a group of collaborators. Taken in and plied with drink, he is quizzed about the Resistance presence in his home town of Souleillac. Naively, he tells them of Peyssac, who is apprehended the next morning. Lucien falls under the spell of the collaborators. Glamorous and attractive, and including an actress and a cycling champion, they are unlike anyone else he has ever met.

One of the collaborators, Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), takes Lucien to a middle-aged Jewish tailor, Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler), to have a suit made for him. Formerly a friend of Jean-Bernard’s father, Horn now pays Jean-Bernard protection money for not handing him over to the Gestapo. He lives in semi-reclusion with his elderly, nearly silent mother, Bella (Therese Giehse), and a daughter of about Lucien’s age, France (Aurore Clément). Lucien falls in love with France, and, despite her reservations about the people he works for, she finds herself doing the same.

This is a dangerous game for Lucien to play. When he brings France to the hotel for a party, she is viciously abused by the jealous hotel maid, Marie. Meanwhile, the longer he spends at her family apartment, the more intolerable life becomes for her father. Horn calmly hands himself in. When German troops come to take France and Bella away, Lucien intervenes to help them escape to the country. A caption relates that Lucien was later tried and executed.

Lucien and Horn

The phrase that recurs in descriptions of the film is ‘the banality of evil’, a phrase first used by Hannah Arendt in reference to Adolf Eichmann, whose trial for war crimes she attended in 1961. So much of the evil that happens over the course of the film is the result of apathy. Lucien’s heart, one senses, isn’t in helping the Gestapo. He has no interest in their principles. He simply wants something to do, and the Resistance won’t take him. Early on in his apprenticeship, the maid Marie takes Lucien to one side and advises him to abandon the Gestapo, as the Americans will win the war. It’s a test of how far he has been indoctrinated. Will he reject the collaborators as a result of her advice, or will he expose her to them as a traitor? In the event, he does nothing: it’s the easiest course.

That said, Lucien’s involvement with the collaborators gives him licence to exercise the cruel streak shown in the first scene of the film. Most of what goes on at the hotel is bureaucracy — receiving and replying to letters — and the most malevolent character in the film, the humourlessly dogmatic Faure (René Bouloc), is essentially a penpusher — the genuine face, you feel instinctively, of the Gestapo. That makes the rare occasions where the sadism of Nazism is shown explicitly all the more shocking, in scenes of water torture upstairs in the hotel, and in one chilling scene at a doctor’s country house.

Jean-Bernard, aided by Lucien, limps up to the house, feigning a leg injury and asks for Dr Vaugeois, a man he knows to be working for the maquis. The doctor cautiously takes him in. When the doctor removes the bandage from Jean-Bernard’s leg and finds no wound, he knows the game is up. Lucien and others go through the doctor’s trinkets, taking the best pieces; the doctor’s brother phones up, and is told by a collaborator, Hippolyte, that the doctor is going to be shot; Lucien and Jean-Bernard ask the doctor’s teenage son Patrick about an impressive model ship he has made during the past year. Jean-Bernard snaps the mast in two, and Lucien breaks off the upper deck. Throughout this scene, the potential for violence that seethes below the surface is as horrifying, if not more so, than the small outbreaks. As Lucien calmly breaks up the boat, he stares into Patrick’s eyes, his own swimming with malevolence, and also with wonder at the power he is just beginning to discover in himself.


The small act can be as devastating as the large. In a later scene, Lucien visits the Horns’ appartment and finds France playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Horn says he feels that his whole life has been lived to the beat of this music. After France’s departure from the room, Lucien threatens Horn with exposure unless he gives permission for France to attend a party at the hotel, and sits on the piano keyboard. The tiny gesture of sitting on the piano, the huge implication of cultural rape and desecration.

Related to the banality of evil is the element of chance in the film’s plot. A character in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys talks of subjunctive history — ‘moments when history rattles over the points.’ An example given there is that Halifax might have taken over as Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940, but at a key moment went to the dentist. If he’d had better teeth, he might have been made PM, and the Germans might have won the war. Pascal expressed a similar thought: ‘Le nez de Cléopâtre: s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.’

Lacombe Lucien is a huge ‘what if’. Lucien, broadly speaking, is not someone who does things, rather someone things happen to. If he had been taken in by the Resistance, or if his bike hadn’t suffered a puncture, he would not have encountered the collaborators. Late in the film, with the hotel sacked and the collaborators decimated, Lucien comes across a prisoner upstairs in the hotel. The prisoner appeals to Lucien’s youth, and promises that he will help Lucien to escape if he releases him. It’s another turning point: if Lucien lets the man go free, he has a chance of making it out alive himself. Instead, Lucien gags the man and draws on a lipstick mouth. It’s his own pathetic show of resistance.


It doesn’t seem to be until Horn sacrifices himself, maintaining his dignity to the bitter end, that Lucien begins to appreciate the value of life. He redeems his past actions with one heroic act, but too late to save himself. The final scenes of the film, which pulsate quietly with energy, show Lucien, France and Bella establishing a way of living in a deserted farmhouse. Lucien sets traps for food, kills animals, cleans his gun, counts his money, makes love with France; Bella wanders in the fields, watches a cricket on a leaf, plays patience. Lucien’s return to the simplicity of rural life is a return to blamelessness.


I didn’t write about the performances in Le Souffle au Coeur, but one has to write about the performance here of Pierre Blaise, perhaps the most notable of the many non-professional actors Malle worked with. (The performances of Holger Löwenadler and Therese Giehse are also remarkable, to a degree that I am not capable of expressing.) That one feels no sense of justice at the fate of Lucien, just one of pointlessness and pity, is down to the power of this one performance. Malle, quoted in Philip French’s exemplary Malle on Malle:

I could see from the first rushes that on the screen there was something so powerful, so ambiguous about him. In a way, you could look at him as the ultimate villain, but at the same time he was incredibly moving, as he was discovering power and money and how you can humiliate people who have been humiliating you for years. Pierre Blaise was so good, he got me into trouble. A lot of people saw the film almost as an apology for a collaborator because Blaise was so moving and disturbing that you could not completely hate him.

The character of Lucien seems to have been an extension of Blaise’s own. It is clear that his own influence on the film was profound, and welcomed by Malle.

He was very wild, he was seventeen, had left school at fourteen and had gone to work with his elder brother, who was cutting trees in the woods … Something that fascinated me from the beginning — he had a natural culture. He was a passionate hunter; he would talk about birds, about birds in certain seasons, how to find them, how to hide yourself to shoot them. He had this intimate relationship with nature — not only being a peasant, but also he’d spent the last two years of his life in the woods.

I did something that I had already done with Le Souffle au Coeur. We were going through the script and he was reading the scenes, and [Patrick] Modiano and I would listen to him. We adjusted the script because when he had a problem with a line he was usually right and we were wrong. I could see right away that he knew much more about the character than I did; he was not only playing the part, he was also my technical consultant on everything that had to do with the character’s background, his emotions, his behaviour. He agreed to do the film somewhat reluctantly, I think he was interested in the money and I liked the fact that he was not really interested in becoming an actor.

As with Lucien in the film, we can play the ‘what if’ game with Pierre Blaise. He died the year after the film’s release, barely twenty years old, crashing a car he had bought with the money from his acting work. If he’d never met Louis Malle… But there is no what if in life. It’s history — just one fucking thing after another.

I don’t have any grand thesis about this film. Just watch it, is what I say. Alan Bennett again, writing about perhaps the film’s greatest asset, its avoidance of didacticism, in the London Review of Books:

To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as clichés. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien … The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences — witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl — as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront. That would be the convention, and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction in the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.