Binge-Worthy #10: The Films of Henri Cartier-Bresson (Le Retour and California Impressions)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“For me, photography is sketching. On the other hand, to make a film is to make a speech.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson completed just six documentaries during his legendary career. But they are significant additions to his body of work that also shed insight into his photographic practice.

In 1935, Cartier-Bresson learned the basics of documentary filmmaking with Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz at NYKino in New York. NYKino’s approach to documentary filmmaking was rooted in Left Wing activism, progressive politics, and social change.

That influence is highly apparent in Cartier-Bresson’s first efforts, a trio of activist documentaries made during the Spanish Civil War, starting with Victoire de la Viein 1937. (He collaborated with the Photo League’s Herbert Kline on several of these.) The films were made with the intention of increasing support and funding for the Loyalist cause. Viewed through the prism of Cartier-Bresson’s career, they are formative works made by a young artist still striving to find his voice.

Around the same time, Cartier-Bresson began assisting French director Jean Renoir, working on La vie est à nous and Une partie de campagne. In 1939 he was second assistant director—and made an onscreen appearance as well—in Renoir’s masterpiece, La Règle du Jeu.

As France found itself caught in the throes of World War II, Cartier-Bresson enlisted in the French Army’s film and photography unit. In 1940, he was captured by the Germans. He spent three years, 1940-1943, in a Nazi prison camp before escaping – on his third attempt, no less.

In 1944, the United States Office of War Information commissioned Cartier-Bresson, along with several other former French prisoners of war, to make Le Retour, a half-hour documentary about the liberation and repatriation of French prisoners of war. French author and poet Claude Roy provided the voiceover narration.

Although Le Retour was funded by the United States government, it is far from a propaganda effort. The finished work is largely the product of Cartier-Bresson’s vision and the cause was one that he was passionate about. Furthermore, the theme of the film—the desire to return to normal life after enduring such a traumatic experience—sets it apart from other films sponsored by the U.S. government at that time.

Accompanied by narration and a symphonic score, Le Retour’s structure generally follows the journey of the displaced from the newly liberated camps to their home countries. The film concludes with a homecoming celebration in Paris. The chronology is a little muddled at times, but the images captured on film are undeniably powerful and, at times, difficult to watch. It’s worth noting that some of the most dramatic footage from the camps was taken by the United States Signal Corps prior to the start of the project. Additionally, to capture some of the exhilaration around the soldiers’ arrival at Gare de l’Est in Paris, Cartier-Bresson enlisted Jean Renoir’s nephew Claude Renoir as a cameraman.

Le Retour is especially noteworthy for a scene that was also memorialized in one of Cartier-Bresson’s best-known photographs from that era. It takes place at Dessau, after the United States and Soviet armies repurposed the camp as a shelter for war prisoners and refugees. A Belgian woman who had acted as a Nazi informer—and who apparently hoped to pass through the repatriation process unnoticed—is recognized and denounced by another woman.  

from Le Retour
Gestapo informer recognized by a women she had denounced, deportation camp, Dessau, Germany. Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Le Retour captures the moment when the woman on the right identifies the informer and slaps her hard across the face. The camp commandant keeps his composure and sits calmly as the scene unfolds in front of him.

Cartier-Bresson’s image preserves a slightly different moment: the almost gleeful antagonism of the woman who not only recognizes her former tormentor but now has seized the opportunity to hold her accountable and bring her to justice. The photo also preserves the humbled expression and defeated body language of the woman as she appears before the commandant. (Is the woman genuinely penitent or simply trying to appear so, in an effort to gain clemency?) The man on the far left, still clad in a striped prisoner’s uniform, serves as a reminder of the recent ordeal that these prisoners have undergone. This marks a rare and fascinating instance of overlap between Cartier-Bresson the photographer and Cartier-Bresson the filmmaker.

After Le Retour, Cartier-Bresson put aside the moving image for several decades. During this time, he shifted away from war photography as well, preferring to focus his Leica on everyday life. Yet, the connective tissue remains. The countries he documented, such as India, China and the Soviet Union, were often in a state of cultural and political upheaval not dissimilar to postwar France.

Cartier-Bresson didn’t accept another filmmaking assignment until 1969. Around the same time, he started to wind down his photography career to focus more on painting and drawing. Still, his final two films—both half-hour slotted documentaries made for CBS News—are the first that truly feel like they are made by the same person who wrote the landmark 1952 essay “The Decisive Moment.”

 CBS News added a brief prologue to “California Impressions,” the first of the two short documentaries. Over a montage of Cartier-Bresson’s best-known photos, a news anchor informs the TV audience that the network gave Cartier-Bresson the leeway to make a film on any subject of his choosing, anywhere in the world. Their only stipulation was that the work must be in color—“instead of his usual black-and-white.” Cartier-Bresson chose to portray the place that most encapsulated the cultural changes happening around the United States during the 1960s.

“California Impressions” opens with surfers riding the waves, the ultimate West Coast fantasy-cliché, with the sounds of a church choir singing “Joy To The World” incongruously overlaid. A jump cut to a ladies’ church luncheon reveals the source of the music. From there, Cartier-Bresson’s camera skips around to a variety of situations, providing glimpses into peoples’ lives.

The freeform, open-ended structure of “California Impressions” is more reminiscent of a photo essay than a linear film. And it’s incredibly avant-garde for a television program. Nothing is staged, there’s no narration, and the scenes are filmed in a purist documentary style comparable to Frederick Wiseman’s. (The exception might be a short satirical montage focusing on Americans’ consumption habits that comes across as overly judgmental and a little mean-spirited.) For this film. Cartier-Bresson hired Jean Boffety, a French New Wave cinematographer who had worked with William Klein on Polly Magoo several years prior, to assist with the camerawork.

Cartier-Bresson made sure to place commonplace activities, such as high school cheerleading tryouts, in a larger context, portraying them side by side with the social struggles of the day. Anti-war protesters march while a mob of counterprotesters heckle them. Organizers speak at a United Farm Workers meeting during the Delano grape strike. A group of Black women receive assistance at a local welfare office.

Themes of racial and class disparity are interwoven into the proceedings. Still, Cartier-Bresson places the focus on the individuals first and foremost. Rather than shooting wide, he consistently frames peoples’ faces in extremely tight close-ups. In the midst of everything, the individual expression is what holds the greatest interest.

from California Impressions
from California Impressions

Towards the end, an encounter group session at Esalen provides a kind of climax. Guided by a group leader, a husband and wife engage in a tempestuous “game” that is both literally and figuratively bruising. It’s a standout moment emotionally and visually, presented without judgement and with the curiosity of an onlooker.

This scene gives way to perhaps the second most memorable part of the film. On a hippie commune, a handful of musicians noodle around in an impromptu jam session while members do Sufi-esque spinning dances—the kind that would become a mainstay at Grateful Dead shows over the decades. Nearby, a young woman breastfeeds her baby. As the music continues, the scene crossfades from an Edenic forest grove to a freeway at night. Only car headlights are visible. These machines in the garden, like fireflies at night, dot the frame and move around, forming patterns and transforming into a Modern art piece. The moment is both beautiful and surreal–and in this way, too, of a piece with Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre.

from California Impressions
from California Impressions

Is it possible that one of the world’s greatest photographers, who could never overcome his feelings about the limitations of the still camera, might have made more films if the opportunities had presented themselves? Sadly, this is a question without an answer.

Regardless, it’s highly worth tracking down these films, which were collected and released in somewhat-restored condition on a two-disc DVD set, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector’s Edition, in 2010 by a now-defunct DVD company called Arthouse Films, along with some impressive extra features.

Le Retour (directed by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Richard Banks). B/W, 33 min., 1945.

California Impressions (directed by Henri Cartier-Bresson). Color, 25 min., 1970.

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