‘Le Corbeau’ – hypocrisy in occupied France on Criterion Channel

French filmmakers continued making movies during the German occupation under the control of a Nazi-approved mogul. Astoundingly, some of these film remain classics, untainted by propaganda or even Fascist sympathies, but Henri-George Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (France, 1943) is in a class by itself.

The surface of postcard-pretty images of a lovely rural town is pulled back to reveal a petty, conniving, pitilessly judgmental community quick to turn on its own when a flood of poison pen letters arrive with vicious denunciations and smears. Most of these are aimed at the seemingly callous Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a stiff, dour man doctor who is assumed to be having an affair with the young wife (Micheline Francey) of a senior doctor (Pierre Larquey), accused of performing abortions, and pursued by a bitter, vengeful beauty (Ginette Leclerc) in his rooming house. But no one is spared the accusations that arrive daily by post and even drop from the gallery of the church, as if the devil has corrupted the house of God.

It’s a brutally misanthropic portrait of small town culture for a country under occupation. Attacked by the right-wing Vichy regime (for giving anonymous informers a bad name), the left-wing Resistance press, and the Catholic Church, and banned after the liberation for many years, it was branded as an attack on France. But it was also championed by Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, who saw a merciless anti-informant, anti-Gestapo message under the misanthropic caricatures. Is the film an indictment or a warning? With Clouzot it’s hard to know for sure.

What’s not at issue is his mastery in creating vivid, troubled characters who protect themselves with hard, impenetrable shells, and in creating an atmosphere of suspicion and self-righteous piety that poisons the culture around it. The atmosphere of corruption and hypocrisy is thick, and Clouzot’s direction is crisp and taut.

Seen on its own, Le corbeau is a terrifically entertaining thriller. Considered in the context of its making (funded by a German company in Vichy France) it’s downright daring.

Black and white, in French with English subtitles

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Le Corbeau (The Criterion Channel) [Blu-ray]
Le Corbeau (The Criterion Channel) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection DVD is long of out print. The Kino Blu-ray and DVD release presents a 4K master of the original camera negative and carries over the supplements of the first release: a video interview with Bertrand Tavernier and an excerpt from a 1975 documentary on Vichy-era filmmaking.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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