"When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war - and in this particular case of the intrigues, the persecutions, the lies and the misunderstandings - there is always the temptation to say: 'One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral.' In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, Blimps and what not would in itself be enough to show one how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened. It was lost, and the dividend-drawers all over the world rubbed their hands. That was the real issue; all else was froth on its surface." George Orwell (1)
In the first feature films of Alain Resnais, the past and the present seem to occupy the same space. The characters in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre est Finie cannot forget the past - they are as much defined as they are impeded by it. They move through the present as if by inertia, in a direction and at a pace determined by the past.
Diego, the hero of La Guerre est Finie, is a soldier fighting in a war in 1966 - despite the fact that the war was offically over in 1939. The Spanish Civil War, in which half a million Spaniards died, ended with the usurpation of the democratically-elected Republican government by the forces of Fascism led by Francisco Franco. The many thousands of Spaniards who fled across the border into France before Franco could seal it, either resigned themselves to living in exile or organized into resistance groups. For many of them, whether they engaged directly in the resistance or not, the war never ended.
Resnais relied on the integrity of his scripts, which were written by leading writers of the period: Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol (who had also written the script for Resnais's short film Night and Fog). For his fourth film, Resnais commissioned a script from Jorge Semprún, who had recently been expelled from the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). Born in 1923, Semprún was the son of Spanish exiles living in France since the fall of the Spanish Republic, and, after the German invasion, joined the French Resistance to the German Occupation.
Captured by the Germans and tortured, at the age of 19, Semprún was sent to Buchenwald where he spent eighteen months. On his return to France, he joined the Spanish Communist Party in exile, while using his work as a translator for UNESCO as a convenient front. Between 1957 and 1962, using the nom de guerre Federico Sanchez, Semprún began crossing into Spain clandestinely, dividing his life between Madrid and Paris. (If one didn't know how perilous his work was, his replacement, Julian Grimau, was arrested in 1962, tortured and executed.)
In 1964, Semprún was expelled from the communist party for his open criticism of Stalin. He had already published his first novel, Le Grand Voyage, which tells the story of his five-day journey to Buchenwald, mixed up with his memories and with incidents that took place during his imprisonment. His narrative style mixed autobiography with fictional elements, which made some critics (like Claude Lanzmann, creator of the landmark documentary Shoah) cry foul. In 1988, a Socialist government in Spain asked him to be the country's Minister of Culture. I wonder if he recalled the moment near the end of La Guerre est Finie in which a French police inspector who is looking for Diego tells Nadine, "Anyway, politics are always a tricky affair. Some of the underground characters turn up one day as cabinet ministers."
The hero of the film is Diego (Yves Montand, looking his hangdog best), a beloved veteran of the endless war. His life is constituted almost entirely of subterfuge. He is either arriving or departing, never in one place for more than a day or a night. Most of what we see in the film is his comings and goings, a few rushed encounters with fellow communists or those who are in sympathy with their cause. Even the love scenes that Semprún gives him, artfully staged and shot - as always - by Resnais, are fugitive, surreptitious. Diego acts throughout them like there is somewhere else that he needs to be, always somewhere else. The two women, the loving mistress Marianne (a radiant Ingrid Thulin) and the young partisan Nadine (a fiery Genevieve Bujold), seem alluring reminders of the private life he had long ago forsaken. In their lovemaking scenes, time and space seem suspended.
If you are going to make a film on such a subject, Resnais's approach is by far the most sound. His distillation of all action into its fleeting elements, with the more violent moments consigned to brief, soundless shots shuffled throughout the passing narrative like tiny shocks, is fascinating, if somewhat antiseptic. Nothing is sensationalized by Resnais, nothing is given undue emphasis. La Guerre est Finie is not a thriller - nothing like the two films Semprún later wrote for Costa-Gavras, Z and The Confession, despite the reappearance of Yves Montand in both of them. Resnais isn't out to thrill us. He wants only to show us. The film reminded me of Antonioni's The Passenger, in which a reporter on a sleeveless assignment in North Africa finds the man in the hotel's next room dead, and switches identities (for no apparent reason). He discovers that the identity he's assumed is much more interesting. On the way to the film's murky conclusion, Antonioni is diverted by the beauty of the physical world through which his hero moves (the North African desert, a baroque German church, Gaudi's Barcelona). To his credit, Resnais's imagery is more functional.
But I think La Guerre est Finie is impaired by its obvious love for Diego. The love scene between Diego and Marianne is staged like it's the centerpiece of the film, a lovely idyll toward which all of the action of the first half of the film seems to push us, and away from which the second half drags us. It's certainly worth it to see Ingrid Thulin in the altogether, especially since Resnais deprives us of Genevieve Bujold's nude beauty by his strategically-framed shots during the earlier love scene.
Diego meets with the Spanish underground in Paris, who are hungry for news of events in Spain. He is introduced to a group of young fighters who are plotting a terror attack. But when he tries to talk them out of it, that, based on his experience, it will probably end in their capture, they dismiss him as a has-been. Diego is ordered back to Spain, but the French police already know his identity. The film's last moments gently suspend the fate of Diego, on his way in a speeding sports car to the border, toward a trap that the agents of Franco have already set for him. We see his face through the windscreen, superimposed with Marianne's face as she runs to catch a train bound for Madrid to warn him. Semprún was clearly telling his own story - else why did he choose to speak the first-person narration himself? At last freed from the life of fear and suspicion, of loyalties and betrayals, of always being on his guard, it was perhaps his way of saying goodbye to a war that could never, and perhaps will never, end.
[Postscript: Richard Blair, the adopted son of George Orwell, recently voiced his support for a museum of the Spanish Civil War proposed for a location in Barcelona ahead of the 80th anniversary of the start of the war in July. On behalf of the Orwell Society, Blair said: "We are wholly in favour of this and wish the project every success. Many young people in Spain have not been taught in depth about the civil war and don't really have an understanding of what happened from 1936-39 or of the dictatorship that followed." The Guardian, "Campaign for Barcelona museum to tell at last full story of Spain's civil war," by Julian Coman, May 29, 2016.]
(1) George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War," [1942?].