Le Retour

On Facebook today, Rina Sherman whose Ovahimba Years project I wrote about recently posted a link to a film made by Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘Le Retour‘ (1946) which you can watch in full on YouTube.

In the film, about the return of French prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps at the end of the war, H C-B is credited only as technical consultant, but he was also the director, script-writer, as well as the editor and cameraman for much of the footage, working along with others from the US Army Signal Corps and with Claude Renoir also for the cinematography which includes some earlier wartime material by the US Signal Corps.

It is a remarkable documentary, and you will recognise at least one scene in it from one of Cartier-Bresson’s best known still images, and there are other scenes that reminded me of some of his framing.

Cartier-Bresson studied cinema with Paul Strand in New York in 1935 and worked as second assistant director to Jean Renoir for ‘La vie est à nous‘ and ‘Une partie de campagne‘ in 1936 and the 1939 ‘La Règle du Jeu‘ as well as directing two documentaries about the Spanish Civil War, ‘Victoire de la vie‘ (1937) and ‘L’Espagne Vivra‘ (1938.)

Cartier-Bresson was working for a French Army film and photography unit when taken prisoner in 1940. He managed to escape at his third attempt in 1943, and this and his work then for the Mouvement national des prisonniers de guerre et déportés, part of the French resistance, experiences which made him an ideal director of Le Retour.

The film deals with both the return of captured French soldiers and of civilians deported by the Nazis for political or racial reasons and has been criticised for failing to distinguish between these two very different groups who had been very differently treated. In this it was following the French government line of the time, and it concentrates on recording the human experiences of those held captive and their liberation and reunion with families and friends. The simplicity of the camera work and a minimal commentary combine to make it a powerful statement.

If, like me, you find the French at times difficult to follow, you may prefer to watch a version with English subtitles, though these are perhaps a little distracting. There is also a shorter US version made from the material under the title ‘The Reunion’.

2 Responses to “Le Retour”

  1. ChrisL says:

    He made two films later, for completeness, in 1969/70 in America for CBS News, “Impressions of California” and “Southern Exposures”.

  2. Thanks for the addition.

    I meant to mention these two TV films as had read about them in the Filmography on the H C-B foundation site, but got interrupted by lunch while writing and forgot to do so. Both are included on the Henri Cartier-Bresson (Two-Disc Collector’s Edition) DVD but don’t seem to be available even in part on-line.
    California Impressions (1970, 25:03)
    Southern Exposures (1971, 25:13)
    And for absolute completeness, Contre l’oubli: Lettre Mamadou Bâ, Mauritanie (1991, 3:04) made for Amnesty International in protest over the police killing of two young Mauritanian shepherds, is described in both the French and US editions of the DVD as by Martine Franck and Cartier-Bresson though the Fondation filmography lists this as being by Franck alone.

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