Famed French film director Jean Renoir fled France when Germany invaded in 1940. The son of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir found refuge in the United States, but struggled to adapt to the Hollywood system. In 1943, RKO agreed to finance and distribute his latest film, produced together with Dudley Nichols. Set in an unspecified country that is easily identified as France, This Land is Mine tells the story of Albert Lory (Charles Laughton), a cowardly school teacher who lives with his overbearing mother (Una O'Connor) and is enamored of his colleague Louise (Maureen O'Hara). Lory slowly finds the courage to stand up to the occupying Germans.
From the beginning of the conflict in Europe, the United States and Hollywood were very sympathetic to Europe’s plight, albeit unsure at first how to portray what was happening overseas. An attractive topic was the resistance, which led to such canonical films as Casablanca (1942) and Passage to Marseilles (1944). The story of everyday French men and women, suffering from, and often collaborating with, the occupation forces was harder to turn into a compelling narrative. Renoir knew this and he explained in an interview that he wanted to make this film, as he put it “specifically for Americans, to suggest that day-to-day life in an occupied country was not so easy as some of them thought." It was a prescient effort, as Americans GIs were training to liberate a country whose inner politics, tensions, and conflicts they knew little about.
The film opens with a shot of the town’s WWI memorial, featuring a (French soldier) on his knee and the inscription “In Memory of Those Who Died to Bring Peace to the World.” In a few scenes, we witness how the German army is taking over the town, encircling it and basically making the statue disappear. After a handshake with the French mayor reminiscent of Marshal Pétain’s infamous handshake with Hitler, the Nazi flag is raised on the roof of the city hall. The fall of the town, and by extension France, is depicted in a succession of short scenes, marked by the absence of fighting and even more dramatically by the absence of any dialogue. We only hear the sound of tanks and marching soldiers. Like France itself and the inhabitants of the town, viewers are stunned and speechless.
Life tried to go back to “normal” under Nazi occupation, but everything has changed: the mayor and the schoolmaster debate about which books should be burned while German soldiers patrol the French street. First introduced as a weak man living with his mother and only interested in his own wellbeing, Lory is moved when flyers are anonymously distributed in the village, urging inhabitants to resist the Germans.
This Land is Mine portrays a country that is torn, where acts of bravery occur side by side with denunciation and everyday cowardice. While the schoolmaster goes calmly to his death and Louise’s brother Paul works for the resistance, the mayor eagerly collaborates with the Germans as a way to secure food for the city and increase his own fortune. Louise’s fiancé George Lambert (George Sanders), the owner of the railroad company, dislikes the occupation, but he shares the Germans’ anti-union politics. Even Lory’s mother, who does not hide her contempt for the Germans observes that “at least we have order” under their rule and that we shouldn’t complain so long as “things are quiet in the town.”
Unlike most American films, This Land is Mine also depicts the Germans as multidimensional. Rank-and-file German soldiers are seen enjoying a good meal, sharing a cigarette with Paul and joyously singing with the local French. The ranking German military official, Major Erich von Keller (Walter Slezak) is a cultivated man, who prefers to use politics rather than force to get what he wants: “I don’t like to shoot people and I don’t like to make martyrs.”
Thus, the film tries to stay away from black-and-white characters. It depicts collaboration as a way to secure personal gain but also as a real ideological choice. In addition, resistance is presented as a courageous but ethically difficult choice when killing one German leads to the death of 10 French citizens.
The film is successful in showing Lory’s (and many other French men and women’s) struggles between fear and responsibility as a civilian living in a WWII-era occupied town. In the climactic scene of the film, Lory stands trial for the murder of George Lambert (which he did not commit). He finally finds the courage to stand up and speak up against the Germans and makes a case for why everyday French men and women should find ways to resist. Fully aware that he will probably be killed for it, Lory gives a passionate speech that many film viewers and reviewers considered too propagandistic. Seventy-plus years later, the film, especially the trial scene, remain emotional. What makes it impactful, however, is the way Renoir cuts away from Lory and Charles Laughton to the faces of the audience, a simple editing technique that increases the audience’s participation in the action, leading them to empathize.
As a viewer, I was even more moved by the very last scene where Lory, declared not guilty by the French court, goes back to his classroom. In a dramatic change from the beginning of the film, his students now look up to him, having gained a new respect after his speech in court. Aware that he will soon be picked up by the Germans, Lory wants to impart one last, and hopefully lasting, lesson to his students. He calmly pulls up a book, one that the Germans wanted to burn that he had hidden under his bed: “Men are trying to destroy this copy, maybe this copy will be burned, but they can’t burn it out of your memory.” He then reads the first articles of A Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen as we hear the marching German soldiers coming to get him.