Leon Blum For All Mankind.
Directed by Jean Bodon
Distributed by First Run Features
Jean Bodon's cinematic chronicle of the life and career of former French premier Leon Blum is, in itself, a historical remembrance of temps perdu. Although Blum served as premier in three governments, both in the volatile 1930s and after World War II (in reconstructed France of the Fourth Republic), he has not received the historical consideration expected for a figure of his stature or impact.
Bodon's film tells the story of a complex politician and public intellectual. Born in the Garment District of Paris, on April 9, 1872, into a family of five brothers of Alsatian Jewish origin, Blum came of age during the Alfred Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s. Studying law at the Sorbonne, he supported Dreyfus and fought for the equality of Jews and women. Blum joined with Socialist Jean Jaures in 1904, and stayed with him until his assassination in 1914, on the eve of World War I. After joining with Jaures in advocating for peace in the pre-war period, however, Blum shifted his stance during the war, and worked for the Ministry of Infrastructure. Many socialists, and later communists, could not forgive him for this change of position.
Blum ran into additional trouble when his book On Marriage (1905) was heavily criticized as being too pro-women. During the course of the film, one of Bodon's on-screen authorities, writer Jean LaCoutoure, affirms that many could not see Blum as premier material after that because he wrote "that trash."
Blum maintained his select brand of socialism throughout the war and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1919. As his political career continued, he labored through a number of ups and downs: At the Congress of Tours in 1920 he tried to reconstruct the Socialist party after its split with the Communists after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and then found himself in the political wilderness in a series of ministries in the 1920s, but was returned to the Chamber of Deputies from Narbonne in 1932. At this time France was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and Blum fought the advent of fascism and royalism in France. He was split between the communist policies of the proletariat represented by Stalin in the 1933-35 period and the anti-fascist elements versus Hitler and Mussolini.
Bodon uses many devices to portray Blum effectively in the narrative: old newsreels entitled "France actuelles," which combine with Blum's old diaries and speeches (shown visually and heard on audiocast); mini-interviews with those who knew him and studied him; historical footage of Hitler and Mussolini; marches of socialists and communists; Blum in the streets and in the Chamber of Deputies. Historian Stephen Miller adds that Blum was a writer and sportswriter before the First World War and in the 1920s got to know writers Andre Gide and Anatole France, while developing a passion for Stendahl. When Blum later was taken from his apartment, he regretted not taking care of his books better, as his brother Rene had asked him. This regret deepened when he was imprisoned in castles in France and in 1943 deported to Buchenwald, because in his absence the Gestapo tore up his apartment and destroyed his books, speeches, personal papers and remembrances of his late wife.
In February 1934, during the Stavisky scandal, he led demonstrations against the government and managed to unify Communists, Socialists, and Radicals in the "Front Populaire." By February 1936, he had survived an assassination attempt by Royalists and later led the Socialists to victory June of that year. His platform was workers and women's rights, pacifism, nationalization of French industry, and measures against unemployment. He was named premier of the new government and established revolutionary terms for workers that included the 40-hour work-week, collective bargaining, and paid vacations.
What was remarkable in this period was that Blum was able to come from outside government, in a period when employment reached five times the normal average during the Great Depression, and build on his work in Tours in 1920 to bring together the disparate elements of socialists, communists, and radicals in 1936. Women shown in the film in the 1930s stated if they had had the vote, they would have voted socialist and for Blum, for he was the one man who stood up for them as women and workers.
Blum ran into trouble after July 1936, when he split with Stalin's call to support the Spanish Republicans in the Spanish Civil War versus Franco's Nationalists. He felt that such a gesture would end French democracy and cause a civil war in France. Instead, he called for a policy of non-intervention and pacifism/neutrality. After this, Blum was unable to sustain power and resigned in June 1937, ceding to a conservative majority. He later served as vice-premier, and then briefly again as premier in March 1938.
Blum rejected the defeatist attitude of Petain and the Vichy government after the collapse of the Third Republic in France (June 1940), and was targeted by Vichy as a symbol of the "Jewish politics" that destroyed France and betrayed its trust in the 1930s. He was put on trial at Riom in 1942, but defended himself, revealing to the resistance the collaborationist Vichy regime's continued loyalty to the victorious Nazis. The trial was suspended, but Blum was taken in 1943 to Buchenwald concentration camp. Unknown to him, two of his brothers were victims of the Holocaust. Blum himself survived only due to the compassion of locals in Tyrol who refused direct orders to execute him in the final month of the war.
Bodon effectively illustrates how Petain and the Vichy labeled Gamelin, Daladier, and Blum as the politicians and military leaders responsible for the "great defeat" of France in 1940 by the Nazis. Especially effective at the time were propaganda cartoons of Jews who looked like "rats" covering the globe marked "France," followed by scenes of rats running in packs while commenting that "les juifs" were really responsible for the current predicament. This makes Blum's defense at his Riom trial all the more remarkable, as he was able to turn the trial against the Vichy to the point the Nazis had to suspend it out of embarrassment, as the truth of his speeches was disseminated via the remaining socialists and the Resistance. Significantly, Blum made peace with De Gaulle at this time, and recommended him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a future leader for France. He was highly regarded by Churchill as well, as is noted in Churchill's praise at Blum's funeral in Place de la Concorde in 1950, which is shown in the film.
Blum returned to France triumphant, and again ran the country, briefly, in 1946, after De Gaulle and the Free French established the Fourth Republic. He negotiated an economic aid agreement with the United States (Truman), and made that relationship an integral part of post-war Europe. He also supported the creation of the state of Israel. Blum then resigned and retired to Jouy-en-Joses outside Paris, where he died on March 30, 1950, at age 77.
Bodon depicts Blum as a heroic, yet tragic, figure in modern French history. Blum championed women's rights as early as 1905, long before they were granted the right to vote. He rose to power as the first Jewish premier and was known as the "father" of the Popular Front, battling royalist and fascist elements in government and the streets, and always supporting the workers' movement. Most significantly, in France's darkest days of Vichy and Petain, when his closest friends and colleagues had been ruined or killed, he maintained his beliefs and refused to collaborate or be defeated, despite the obvious risk to his life. For this, he is often viewed as a hero in a French novel, yet it was his everyday life that was heroic, and it is in this film that friend and foe alike are able to see Leon Blum in historical perspective.
Andrew M. Mayer, College of Staten Island
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|Author:||Mayer, Andrew M.|
|Publication:||Film & History|
|Article Type:||Movie review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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