This week, I’m trying a bit of an experiment(although now that I think of it, this whole thing is an experiment). This week, I’m covering the same story from two different perspectives. This week’s films are:
Jean Renoir – The Lower Depths (1936)
Akira Kurosawa – The Lower Depths (1957)
The two films are based on a play by Maxim Gorsky, a Russian playwright. The play is generally regarded as a classic Russian play, and there have been many film adaptations. However, seeing these films from two of the all-time great directors piqued my interest.
The structure will be a bit different this week,and the post will be a lot shorter than I normally make it. I’ll cover the broad strokes of the story and then cover how each film treats those differences.
The Lower Depths
The Lower Depths is a look into a slum in Russia where the residents deal with their day to day lives, trying to survive. There’s a wide cast of characters: an alcoholic actor, a gambler, a tinker and his sick wife, a prostitute, and a thief, who is among the most successful of the group. They all must deal with the landlord, who owns the property, and his wife, who is having an affair with the thief, and hopes he will take her away. Unfortunately, the thief is in love with her sister, creating tension between the group.
The story doesn’t have too much of a plot, showing a lot of scenes between the characters living their daily lives. The characters worry and grouse about the sick woman in their midst, they ask each other for loans, the prostitute tells the story of the man that once loved her. These events occur as the thief tries to push the landlady away, who desperately wants him, and tries to get closer to her sister, who comes up with any excuse to convince herself she shouldn’t be with him. Although she refuses him for good reasons, we see her own longing as well.
The story between the thief, the landlady and her sister is the only thing in the film that follows a standard plot structure. Everything else is just following the characters through their daily lives.
The thief’s story comes to a head when the sister is attacked, and he tries to defend her. The entire slum joins the fight, and the landlord is killed. The landlady accuses the thief of the murder, but the tenants defend him, claiming that no one knows who might have killed him. The thief escapes, and life goes on for the tenants. They go back to their daily routines.
The Double Feature
I’ve seen plenty of films that are versions or remakes of other films, or are based on the same source material, but I’ve never done them back to back like this before. The films are actually fairly different. The Renoir film was made in 1936 in the pre-WWII era, while the Kurosawa film was made in the post-WWII era.
The films are also made from the perspective of wildly different cultures. Renoir is a French filmmaker, and his film takes place in a Russia heavily colored by his perspective. Kurosawa is a Japanese filmmaker, and his film is set in rural Japan in the feudal period.
In the research I did on the film versions, it appears that the Renoir film took a lot of liberties with the story, while Kurosawa stayed very true to the source material. This is fairly evident in the Kurosawa film, as almost every scene takes place in the slum itself, almost like a stage play, while Renoir’s film visits many different locations, but centers on the slum.
The tone of the films are wildly different as well. Renoir’s film is humorous, playful, even optimistic. The thief character in this film is named Pepel played by Jean Gabin, and he jokes, makes friends easily, and takes others under his wing. The other characters in the film look up to him, and depend on him.
The tone of the Kurosawa film is dark. These are characters at the edge of society, forgotten. The film actually opens with people dumping their trash into the slum from above, ignoring the fact that people live there. The thief character in this film is named Sutekichi, played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune. Sutekichi is obviously the most successful person living in the tenement, as he has his own room to the side while everyone else sleeps in a communal room. He also is the only one willing to stand up to the landlord, who is also his fence, so he gains respect that way.
The biggest difference between the films is with the character of the Baron (in the Kurosawa version, The Lord). This character is a former noble who ended up in the slums through bad luck and bad management. In the Kurosawa version, the Lord is in the slums at the start of the film, we hear his story later, but it’s a mystery whether he was actually a Lord, or if he is just making it up to try to impress others.
But In the Renoir version, this story is made explicit, and the Baron is one of the main characters. The film actually opens with him in a meeting with his superior, being chastised for losing 30,000 rubles during his tenure in the position. His superior almost apologizes to him for having to bring him in for a meeting, and the Baron takes the chiding with good grace. We see him live in his upperclass world, visiting a high class gambling club, where the attendant asks him not to gamble because he has so much debt. He ignores the advice and gambles anyway, losing everything he has left.
As he returns home, he discovers Pepel the thief in his home, rummaging through his things. He’s found a gun that he keeps in his room. Instead of being angry, or scared, the Baron simply starts talking to Pepel. Suddenly, they become friends and wile the night away. The Baron knows that all of his possessions are about to be taken by the bank anyway, so he gives away some of them to Pepel.
Later, when the Baron is waiting for the bank to catalog his possessions, he learns that Pepel has been arrested for stealing the items he freely gave away. He rushes to the police station to help, freeing Pepel, and telling him they might meet again soon. The last of his wealth is gone, and he knows he will end up in the slums too. Several scenes later he arrives, and Pepel takes him under his wing, ensuring he gets a good spot in the slum and is treated well.
This is one of the most interesting aspects of the Renoir version. While the Kurosawa version shows the desperate situation faced by the residents of the slum, the Renoir version contrasts that with the upper class in the city. We see that the rich and poor are not that different. The friendship between Pepel and the Baron proves it. They are both set in their station from birth. The only difference is that it’s much easier for the Baron to get to the bottom than it is for Pepel to get to the top.
This contrast doesn’t exist in Kurosawa’s film. While the character of the Lord tries to tell others about his life before being poor, but no one really believes him. The Kurosawa film focuses entirely on the slum itself.
The film also treats the relationship between the thief and the landlady differently. In the Renoir film, the landlady wants to be with the thief, but that’s all. In the Kurosawa version, the landlady Osugi goes further, telling Sutekichi that he can kill her husband and then take over the slum. In another scene the other tenants suggest the same thing to him. At the end of the film, when the landlord dies, this makes it much tougher for Sutekichi to get out of it. Both Osugi and her sister Okayo accuse him. Osugi accuses him of killing her husband, while Okayo accuses him of working with Osugi to kill him.
While in both films the thief and the sister are eventually united, only in the Renoir version do they have a happy ending.
Between the two films, I greatly prefer the Renoir version. The optimism is certainly a factor, but more than that is the contrast between the rich and the poor. I found that a really powerful statement by Renoir that Kurosawa passed over, only hinting at it.
Both films are great, but the Kurosawa film seems to meander around a bit too much. The slice of life scenes are interesting, but there is almost 20 minutes of material after the climax of the film. The statement appears to be that life goes on, but the same statement could be made with a lot less screen time.
This has been a really tough week. I’ve gotten some extraordinarily bad family news, which I’m not quite ready to share here, but I’ve also been offered some great opportunities. But I’m not breaking down, and I’m not overly stressed. I believe I can do what needs to be done to help out my family. It’s going to be tough getting there, and I’m scared of the future, but I think this summer helped me improve my life skills to where I can handle things when they need to be handled, and keep from dwelling on problems, and letting them overwhelm me. Definitely still something to work on, and there are a lot of problems to work on over the next few years, but right now, I feel like I can manage.
So, let’s talk about next week’s films. I’m tempted to do some big epic films, or just something in the 3-4 hours range. But I’m not quite comfortable enough with my upcoming schedule to commit to that. So I’m doing a couple of films that I’m thinking will contrast a bit:
John Ford – My Darling Clementine (1946)
Billy Wilder – Ace In the Hole (1951)
I haven’t done a John Ford film yet, which is definitely an oversight on my part. I’m not going with my favorite Ford film, or even the one I think is best, but I’m contrasting it with Ace In The Hole. I haven’t seen either for awhile, but I know that Ace In The Hole is a bit more pessimistic on American culture, while My Darling Clementine centers on Wyatt Earp, the American hero. Will we get two contrasting views of American culture? Or will they both take the same stance?
We’ll see next week.