April 12, 2017

Life, Death, and Cinema: Harry Baur Contains Multitudes in “Les Miserables”

Every week I spin the online roulette wheel. Round and round it goes and where it stops I always know because what I’m metaphorically spinning is the date of next week’s column. The real game of chance begins with the names that show up on that date, actors, writers, artists, major celebrities, world, or national events. While the second spin sometimes leads nowhere, this week’s number brought up two actors: France’s Harry Baur, who was born on April 12, 1880 and died mysteriously in 1943; and Homeland star Claire Danes, who was born in Manhattan on April 12, 1979, almost exactly 100 years after the man who played the most memorable Jean Valjean came into the world. I might have passed Baur by had I not recently viewed five of his films, all from the 1930s. Once you’ve seen Harry Baur doing what he so formidably does, there’s no way you can pass him by. It would be like trying to get around a gale-force wind. Nor is it easy to pass by Claire Danes, alias Carrie Mathison, whose famously expressive face is a force of nature in itself. This past Sunday she wrapped up the sixth season of Homeland with the nation sinking into a level of chaos that makes the Trump presidency look like a walk in the park.

The real winnings of this weekly gamble come as soon as you begin looking more closely at the people who turn up on the second spin: finding out, for instance, that Claire Danes played Cosette to Liam Neesen’s Jean Valjean in the 1998 Bille August version of Les Misérables. Look deeper into Baur (and he has depths not to be believed) and you discover a devoted fan in Oscar Winner Rod Steiger (1925-2002), who was born, as it happens, on April 14. Steiger’s way of describing the magnitude of his favorite actor’s Jean Valjean was to say he could “stand still and make a universe around himself.” In an interview given after the release of Al Capone (1959), Steiger claimed that the method behind the ferocity of his Capone was to enrage himself by recalling how the Nazis had tortured and murdered Harry Baur.

Any discussion of Baur’s career has to take his grim fate into account. In David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, Baur is “a great, noble actor” whose story “is the more memorable because of his tragic end.” In Thomson’s simplified and not entirely accurate version, the catastrophe centered on the actor’s Jewish wife and the fact that he made his last film in Germany, where he was arrested, tortured, released, and “found dead” shortly thereafter.

Deeper Into Jean Valjean

Unlike Jean Valjean, who dies beloved and in bed, Harry Baur died after suffering physical abuse it’s painful to imagine, a casualty of the Occupation; even so, there is an epic Valjeanesque grandeur to Baur’s journey as an actor, transitioning from the stage and silent pictures to make his sound film debut at 50, around the same age as Valjean’s when he’s released after 19 years hard labor as a galley slave. According to the notes accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD of Raymond Bernard’s almost-five-hour-long 1934 Les Misérables, the key to the movie’s extraordinary popularity in France was “the brilliant Baur, who embodies cinema’s most unsentimentalized incarnation of Valjean” and “carries the film on his brawny shoulders, his face transforming gradually from the scowl of a convict to the benevolent smile of a loving father.”

When Baur appears as the ex-convict Jean Valjean in the opening scenes of Bernard’s film (and, in effect, Victor Hugo’s novel), you don’t need paragraphs or even pages of heightened prose to imagine the world of misery this man has been through. It’s there to wonder over and gaze into as he looms in the doorway of the Bishop’s residence looking for food and shelter. In Hugo’s novel, Valjean is “a gallows bird with a terrible face” who appears at the Bishop’s door with a “rough, audacious, weary, and violent expression in his eyes.” Baur’s massively ravaged countenance and the towering devastation of his presence express all that and more; to the Bishop’s terrified sister, he’s “hideous … a sinister apparition.”

Meanwhile Baur makes his deep-set eyes convey the thought process described at length in Hugo’s narrative, as in the moments before Valjean makes off with the Bishop’s silverware: “There was a sort of dark confusion in his brain. His memories … mingled confusedly, losing their proper forms, becoming disproportionately large, then suddenly disappearing.” While the reader receives a detailed account of the theft, it’s a fait accompli in the film as the gendarmes march Valjean back to face his apparent victim. Baur’s posture, his vast stricken face as he stands there before his benefactor says everything we need to know. As he suffers the sublime magnanimity of the Bishop’s lie, as he tells the gendarmes, “I gave him the silver,” Baur’s Valjean remains stupefied. Only when the Bishop presents him with the pair of silver candlesticks he’d coveted does Valjean begin to fathom this gift of grace and faith, staring at the Bishop with, in Hugo’s words, “an expression which no human tongue can render any account of”; when the candlesticks are actually placed in his hand, he’s “trembling in every limb.”

With Baur’s Jean Valjean, there’s no need for conventional phrases for inexpressible emotion. You can feel it happening to him as he gazes into the Bishop’s eyes, as if staring into the sun. A lesser film would have Valjean kneeling or kissing the man’s hand, or offering devoted thanks as he does in the novel when he understands that the Bishop means to give him food and a bed. In the film, Valjean’s primally eloquent stupefaction is sustained right up to the moment the Bishop sends him on his way, urging him to “use this silver to become an honest man.”

What Baur is doing in his scenes with the Bishop is giving expression to the plural implications of the title, making us know that this is more than one man’s story, it’s about not one “miserable,” but “les miserables.” Baur contains multitudes, suggesting, as Steiger said, “a universe around himself,” and though this is only the beginning of the story, the impression resonates right through to the end when he dons workman’s clothes for the rescue of Cosette’s beloved Marius, carrying the wounded man on his shoulders through the sewers of Paris, in filth up to his chin, merged with his human burden like some mythical creature emerging from the mire. Both times Valjean is not one man but all men, all France.

Given the popularity of the film, it’s not surprising that Baur’s death inspired an extraordinary demonstration of anti-German feeling among the thousands who attended his funeral. They were celebrating the spirit of Jean Valjean in Harry Baur.

The Wonderful Boy

Of the four Julien Duvivier-directed films starring Baur that I’ve seen, Poil de Carotte (or Carrot Top) is the one that won’t let me alone. This at once lyrical and harrowing film about an embattled child overflowing with life and spirit is lifted into a special cinematic realm by Robert Lynen, the 12-year-old actor whose manic genius infuses the title character. The boy’s given name is François, but everyone calls him Poil de Carotte in varying degrees of affection and dismissal, to the extent that the name becomes a dehumanizing synonym for his miserable lot as the scapegoat in a dysfunctional family ruled by a mother from hell (Catherine Fontenay) and a father (Harry Baur) who has lost sight of his child’s despair. Baur brings the same stature to Msr. Lepic that he brings to Jean Valjean, and there’s emotional magic in the sequence when he finally comprehends his son’s misery and the two bond. After Msr. Lepic becomes mayor, however, the boy feels abandoned as his father is swept up in the town’s celebration of his victory. The final scene, in which Baur rises magnificently to the occasion to save his son from self-destruction, apparently moved a nation, for the film proved to be even more popular than Les Misérables, running for a full year in Paris.

In Real Life

After a decade of success in the cinema, Robert Lynen joined the Resistance, performing numerous missions before being arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. He was tortured, deported to Germany, and after several months in prison and two escape attempts, he was sentenced to death by a military tribunal and executed, along with 14 other Resistance members, on 1 April 1944 a year and a week after Harry Baur died following his own ordeal at the hands of the SS.

The saving grace of cinema is the way it brings back to life two actors gifted with transcendent powers of expression: Lynen’s virtuoso depiction of a boy illuminated by the genius of childhood, full of wild joy and infectious delight, yet able to fall in an instant into seizures of heartbreak and despair. With Baur, the expressive power comes from some inner force, a sort of emotional epicenter. The subject of expressive power brings thoughts of Baur’s birthmate Claire Danes, with her extraordinarily mobile face, so openly acutely expressive that she’s been parodied on Saturday Night Live (“tour de face”) to the point where she’s had to speak up in her defense to those “who are made uncomfortable by uncensored expressions of emotion.”

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The Criterion Collection DVD of Raymond Bernard’s Les Misérables is available at the Princeton Public Library. Criterion’s Eclipse series 44 Julien Duvivier in the Thirties is a 4-DVD set of films all featuring Harry Baur, among then Poil de Carotte.