The Stars and the Okefenokee: Swamp Water by Jean Renoir

I was drawn to watch Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water because I read it was filmed in the Okefenokee, a huge swampland in Georgia, not far from where I grew up. I’d been there once as a kid with my dad on a canoeing trip and we saw lots of gators. It’s an eerie, desolate, and inhospitable place. But in Renoir’s film a character, Tom Keefer, manages to live there. We first see him lurking around in the shadows, watching a group of trappers traveling through, looking for game. One of the trapper’s dogs gets spooked and runs away. Its owner, a young man named Ben, goes into the swamp to find him. Keefer assumes Ben is trying to track him down and knocks him out. When he comes to, Ben explains that he was just looking for his dog. He lives in the town Keefer is from, and heard stories about Keefer having murdered someone and broken out of jail, so when he figures out the identity of the mysterious man who kidnapped him, he is naturally very scared. He says everyone in the town thought he ran away to Savannah. It’s inconceivable that anyone would live in the swamp, and the danger isn’t just the cotton-mouths, gators, panthers, and bears, but the danger of getting lost. The Cyprus trees form an enormous, disorientating labyrinth. Keefer tells Ben, “You can get lost, and go plain crazy trying to find your way out. And you gotta know the things that live here before you can get along with them.” Keefer has become immune to these dangers, because he’s one of these epic characters who has been wronged and lives beyond fear. He adapted himself to the harsh, inhuman climate after being spit out by a corrupt society; he was falsely accused of murder by the the two men who committed the murder themselves. He explains that the reason he stays in the swamp instead of running away to another town is to be close to the daughter he was forced to leave behind. 

The film was mostly shot in a studio, but Renoir insisted on shooting a few scenes on location. This was one of the concessions Renoir was given by the executives at Fox. It was the first film he made in America. He later disowned the film, claiming it was “was Mr. Zanuck’s film, not mine.” He wasn’t allowed to have a hand in writing the screenplay, was only able to cast a few actors for the roles he wanted, couldn’t choose the music, was reprimanded for lagging behind schedule because his directing style took too long, and had zero say in the editing process. The studio system was very different from what he was used to in France, and the executives there were nothing like the bourgeoisie of his homeland. Fox wanted him to make films about the French, but he insisted on making a film about Americans, and was given the opportunity to direct Swamp Water. He went to Georgia to scout locations and make research photographs for set designs. The people living there were the first Americans he met outside of Hollywood. He felt a great affinity with them and wrote fond and sincere stories about his encounters in his autobiography. They reminded him of the peasants in Brittany “Georgians think of Hollywood as a much more bizarre and distant place than France.” He respected how rooted they were in their homes; “The families have no idea of leaving their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor. There are peaceful conversations while swaying on the swing hung by ropes from the beams of the flat roof.” Southerners can be hostile to outsiders, I’m surprised anyone talked to Renoir. They clearly must have sensed the deep humanism within him.

The only shots he was able to make in the Okefenokee were with Dana Andrews, who played the character of Ben. Renoir and his cinematographer, John Peverell Marley, shot Andrews poling his canoe around while looking for his dog, deep in the thick of the cypress trees, just before stumbling upon Tom Keefer. There is a realism to the images in these scenes, a realism beyond the scenography and acting. Zanuck later reprimanded Renoir: “You are wasting entirely too much time on non-essential details in your background.” But for Renoir the background wasn’t a superfluous geography to give a local accent to otherwise universally applicable stories. And shooting on location wasn’t just about the visual authenticity of the place, either. There was the dream of cinema being able to represent something essential; a linkage between a people, a place, and a time. This relationship was being undermined and uprooted by the movements of industry, and films couldn’t put back together the pieces torn apart themselves, but they could at least make its alienation felt. Ben and Keefer reflect on the mystery of the place they found themselves in after making peace with one another. They’re sitting by the campfire and looking into the night sky: “Like another world in here, ain’t it?” Ben asks. Keefer responds, “I heard tell that stars is other worlds too. Big, shining rafts a-floating in the ocean of God’s night. With living things on every raft, just like there is on this one they call the Earth. Living alone in this swamp’s just like living on another star.” Swamp Water, in its failure, embodies Renoir’s conviction to craft a story with a commitment to a place, and to render this place as strange and beautiful and complex as though it were another planet in another solar system revolving around a distant star.

Shared Experience

Cruel sometimes, but only out of tenderness.”[1]

André Bazin

“Just as in the theatre the lightning, the set, faithfulness to nature and other incidentals must play a subordinate role to the word, so in films the words, the technology and the technique and the logic of the visible must be secondary to the image, subordinate to the vision containing untold wonders within it, which, in cinema, can be the bearer of artistic truth.”[2]

Max Ophüls

Ist das vermessen, mein Gott, vergieb.

Aber ich will dir damit nur sagen:

Meine beste Kraft soll sein wie ein Trieb,

so ohne Zürnen und ohne Zagen;

so haben dich ja die Kinder lieb.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Alles noch nie Gesagte, excerpt)


In Jean Renoir’s The River the life of an English family peacefully rolls on along the Ganges, until war veteran Captain John arrives in their home. The life of Harriet, the young lady of the house, is turned upside down, and the presence of this charming young man has an impact on her friends Valerie and Melanie, too. The girls’ coming of age story is set in Indian gardens of tender romances and low-key quarrels, but the death of Bogey, Harriet’s brother, a young explorer casts a dark shadow on their worriless days.

Being a student of Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola in the Basque Country, I was glad to be in the extremely privileged position of watching The River in a cinema-screening despite all the restrictions last year. Surrounded by film students, remembering their impressions of other films we have recently watched, having in mind all the movie experiences I had during the Fassbinder and Rohmer programmes of the Basque Film Archive in Donostia, my head was full and I felt rather agitated, but still, the film immediately swept me away.

Many of my film-going-experiences from last year took place as part of university projections. Learning more and more about their taste and what other film students deem important, the presumption of their potential reception of the film started to impact my own anticipation before the screenings. The significance of watching cinema as a shared experience and getting to know the others’ perspective revealed – perhaps with even greater contrast than many other aspects I was already aware of – the immense difference between one film studies program and another. It made me think about the aching, nonsensical situation of many schools – my former, Hungarian university among them – which can’t or don’t even make the effort to organize screenings and subsequent events, to provide a possibility for students to acquire an understanding of one another.

On a big screen, the meandering choreography prevailed along the nuanced settings, the film came alive in its original duality – the plot was streaming to several different directions, nestling the audience in the beauty of everyday life while the details obliged us to keep an eye on every gesture and movement. This quality, the symbolic Technicolor and the unexpectedly changing tone of the film reminded me of another film I first saw for a university class as well. As I recall, the experience was quite confusing. The Trouble with Harry was presented as an atypical Hitchcock film, as a film of minor importance in his oeuvre, which can be best appreciated by searching for the narrative units which structure it. The impossibility to categorize and label a film within a genre or frequently used terms blocks everybody, including teachers, which inevitably results in treating films like a riddle, ignoring their richer aspects. Fortunately, the incapacity of a Hungarian university class didn’t deprive The Trouble with Harry of its complex set of virtues.

While at first glance the two films might seem very different (and maybe they are) the dominance of imagination and the simple principle that death enlists the creation of life tangle them on a deeper level. Imagination is the basic motor of the two films. In The River, India instead of representing itself serves as the visually rich scene of childhood imagination, and in The Trouble with Harry the story is building upon the fantasies and speculations of all the characters. All the nuances, like the carefully painted leaves[3] in The Trouble with Harry or the arranging of the characters in The River, and the decision of making a movie in Technicolor point to a differing intention from the documentary-like exploration of reality. That being said, the on-location photography and the non-professional cast of The River carry the film with palpable urgency, preserving an atmosphere of India – India, whose truth remain undiscovered for the English people, except, as Bazin writes, Bogey.

There is at least one character who incarnates the mystical temptation of the Orient, and this is Bogey. Remember his games with his little native friend, as a mysterious and taciturn as a bronze statue? He is the only witness to Bogey’s death, and he is the only one at the burial who does not grieve, because he alone understands the vanity of the tears and the ignorance which the Westerners’ love conceals: ignorance of the profound secret to which ‘The Unknown’ has initiated Bogey for eternity.”[4]

There is truth in The Trouble with Harry too, the tension that makes the black comedy charming and restlessly intense at once, is the constantly present idea of rebirth which comes from the tragic certainty of death. „From the opening credits, virtually every detail figures forth the renewal of the natural and human world.[5]

The universal thought of renewal and constant change in The River becomes unmistakably clear in the depiction of the Bengal, done with the directness of a documentary. It reminded me of a Hungarian poem, A Dunánál (József Attila), one I have first read in a dusty high school class but nonetheless I memorized with great enthusiasm and joy, as the romantic idea of seeing, understanding and uniting with past generations through the image of the river had a great impression on me, and as I remember, all the other youngsters of my class.

József Attila: By the Danube[6]


I sat there on the quayside by the landing,

a melon rind was drifting on the flow.

I delved into my fate, just understanding:

the surface chatters, while it’s calm below.

As if my heart had been its very source,

troubled, wise was the Danube, mighty force.


Like muscles when you work and lift the axe,

or harvest, hammer, excavate a grave,

so did the water tighten, surge, relax

with every current, every breezy wave.

Like Mother dandled, told a tale, caressed,

laundered the dirt of all of Budapest.


A drizzle started, moistening the morning

but didn’t care much, so it stopped again.

And yet, like someone who under an awning

watches the rain-I gazed into the plain:

As twilight, that may infinitely last,

so grey was all that used to shine, the past.


The Danube flowed, and like a tiny child

plays on his fertile, dreamy mother’s knee,

so cradled and embraced and gently smiled

each playful wave, waving hullo to me.

They shuddered on the flood of past events

like tombstones, tumbling graveyard monuments.



For hundred thousand years I have been gazing

and suddenly I see what’s there to see.

A flash, and time is fully-grown, embracing

what generations scan, and show to me.


I see what they’ve not seen, for they defended,

embraced, dug, murdered, their living to ply,

and they see now, in cold matter descended,

what I can’t see when I’m to testify.


We all relate, like blessed to the damn’d,

Mine is the past and theirs is the today

We write poems-my pencil in their hand,  

I sense them and remember what to say.



Mother was Kun, Father was Szekely, partly,

and half, or maybe, pure Romanian.

From Mother’s lips the food was sweet and hearty,

from Father’s lips the truth was radiant.

They embrace again when I am stirring.

This fills my heart with deep melancholy-

we are all mortal. It’s me, re-occurring.

„Just wait, we’ll soon be gone! …“ – they talk to me.


They call, I know we are now one: this one-ness

has made me strong, for I remember well

that I am every parent in the boundless

succession to the primal lonely cell.

I am the First, who splits, proliferating

till I become my father and mother,

then father splits and mother, procreating

the multiplying me and none other!


I am the world – the ancient, endless story:

clan fighting clan for creed or crazy greed.

I march among the conquerors in glory,

I suffer with the conquered in defeat. Árpád and Zalán, Werbőczi and Dózsa –

Slavs, Mongols, Turks and other variants

in me, we shall redeem the long foreclosure

with gentle future-new Hungarians!


…I want to work. It’s hard for human nature

to make a true confession of the past.

The Danube, which is past, present and future

entwines its waves in tender friendly clasps.

Out of the blood our fathers shed in battles

flows peace, through our remembrance and regard,

creating order in our common matters,

this is our task, we know it will be hard.


There is only one particular detail in the contemplation of the present moment, the descending melon-rind, then the Danube is evoked by associations and emotions structured in different rhythmical unities displaying the waving and streaming rhythm of the river.

In Renoir’s film Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the poet writing about the river. Her role and the director’s relation to it is quite similar to the young female characters in the universe of Éric Rohmer, which I got close to again during the retrospective dedicated to him in the Basque Archive last year. As for instance in Rohmer’s Le genou de Claire or Pauline à la plage Laura (Béatrice Romand) and Pauline (Amanda Langlet) are presented as morally integrated personalities, in The River Harriet and Melanie (Radha Burnier) are undoubtedly the most mature ones. While the young girls’ uncontaminated morals and innocence prevail in the frustration of the adult world, they possess a lot of qualities that come from their position and age, which seems close to the directors’ own emotional positioning in their stories. Besides, in these films the conversations are depicted in a classical, theatrical way – the actors are positioned comfortably for the spectator, in the middle of the composition and in front of the camera. This technique results in wild openness as it allows us to see through the people’s pretentions.

Another crucial similarity was the current reception of the films that I experienced in the company of a film student audience. Unfortunately, the exclusive will to detect white-male misbehaviour would leave a mark on the post-screening discussions, which in case of Rohmer emerged in the form of unforgiving rigidity. In The River, Captain John’s character was excused because of the actor, Thomas E. Breen’s actual disability. While our personal background naturally defines our elemental stance in the process of reception, to enable a true appreciation of a film’s inner rules and world, we must let go of prejudices and look for experiences beyond what we know, experiences that don’t only mirror a version of ourselves on the screen. All the central characters have to say goodbye to their innocence, including Captain John, who is stripped of his childhood by the war. For Valerie (Adrienne Corri), the kiss with the Captain means the fracture in her world while, for Melanie, it means understanding her position between different cultures means the change. Harriet’s drama gets to be emphasized, as losing Bogey is a trauma for all of the family. As viewers we follow Harriet’s personal path from the idyll of the gardens and her facing the cruelty of everyday life.

The other criticized facet of The River was the depiction of India, even if the film is clear about its own take on the country. What geography adds is more a „religious spirituality”,[7] not a sociological aspect. While Renoir’s amusement and attraction to India is obvious, he remains more interested in morals and in the world of youth. It becomes especially clear when Harriet tells the story of Krishna, her story, which feeds upon the mysterious traditions and land of India, but is entirely liberated from any coercion of telling the truth.

The figure of the young poetess, the overwhelming emotions of youth, the actual colliding into the universal makes me think of the Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), a figure of a woman narrating the images in Marguerite Duras’ voice. Aurélia Steiner is an 18-year-old Jewish girl, writing letters to someone, who, in the Melbourne letter, seems to be her lover, but later, in the Vancouver letter the addressee reveals the recipient to have been her father, murdered in Auschwitz. In Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), the reading of the letter is accompanied by the pictures of a river. While at first glance we might think that the drifting tracking shot of the river result in discrepancy, the conflict between the agitated state of mind of the writer in sound and the fluent image, the river gives a shape to the rhythm of the poem and the sweeping sound of Marguerite Duras’ recitation. The river is not an evident symbol of Aurélia’s solitude and her feeling of undefined absence, it rather makes us sense the desire to get to know the invisible. The letter invokes the tragedies of history on a macrocosmic scale – at the same time an intimate dimension is given voice, a devotion to an addressee unknown to the writer and the audience alike. The real conflict lies between the temporal and the permanent, the concrete words and the constantly changing river, the body and the soul. We feel the need of a young girl to identify herself, somehow lost in the middle of the contradictions of all, becoming one with the river, with the world, searching for someone to answer her loneliness.

This film I watched alone, on the screen of my laptop. Aurélia Steiner stayed with me for a while, Marguerite Duras’ voice gave the rhythm of my next few days. I remembered it as a personal experience, I haven’t talked about it with anyone, maybe with the intention of keeping the experience to myself, or because I just didn’t have any articulable thoughts about it. Months passed by, when on a chilly day I had bumped into a friend on the street, and in a short conversation somehow the title came up. We barely touched upon the film, just mentioned that it is a beautiful piece which we both really liked.

I was so glad this encounter recalled this facet of films, poems and art in general, I tend to forget. Artworks give a ground for our discussions, these experiences self-evidently link us with people around us, and even from the past and from the future. Although Aurélia’s questions come from her uncertainty, by watching the film, we reassuringly answer them.

Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne)[8]

I’m writing maybe a thousand letters
you, to give to you
letters of my present life.
And you, you’ll do with them
what I’d like…
you to do with them
which is, whatever you want.
That’s what I desire.
That this be delivered to you.
Where are you?
How to reach you?
How can we come close
in this love,
cancel this apparent fragmentation
of time
which separates us,
one from the other?
I’ll never separate you from your body.
It’s three in the afternoon
The sun is out behind the trees
the air is cool.
My name is Aurelia Steiner.
I live in Melbourne
where my parents are teachers.
I’m 18 years old.
I write.



[1] Bazin, André: A Pure Masterpiece: The River. In: François Truffaut (ed.): Jean Renoir. (trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 108.

[2] Ophüls, Max: The Pleasure of Seeing: Thoughts on the Subject Matter of Film. In: Willemen, Paul (ed.): Ophuls. London: British Film Institute, 1978. pp. 33-34.

[3]Hitchcock had leaves painted different colours and pinned to artificial trees in the studio to create his own version of autumn in Vermont.” Haeffner, Nicholas: Alfred Hitchcock. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005. p. 37.

[4] Bazin, André: A Pure Masterpiece: The River. In: François Truffaut (ed.): Jean Renoir. (trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 114.

[5] Brill, Lesley: The Hitchcock Romance. Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988. p. 283.

[6] József Attila: By the Danube (trans. Peter Zollman), Reprinted by permission of Corvina Kiadó, 1997

[7] Bazin, André: Jean Renoir. (ed. François Truffaut, trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 113.

[8] Marguerite Duras, 1979. (unknown translator)

The End of Summer/Early Spring

The sun from two hemispheres.


„Here’s a song about the sunshine, dedicated to the sunshine“

Health and Efficiency, This Heat



The sun flared and died

beyond my horizons.

The earth rotated

unnoted in my notebooks

– May 16, 1973, Wisława Szymborska


I say it is the moon.

I know it is the moon.

Nay, then you lie; it is the blessed sun.

Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun

– – The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare


Then tracks were lain
across the plain
By broken old men
in torrid rains
The towns grew up
and the people were still
Sleeping in the midday sun
Sleeping in the midday sun
Sleeping in the midday sun
Sleeping in the midday sun
Buffalo Ballet, John Cale

The Middle Distance

Pierre Bonnard Autoportrait

Pierre Bonnard autoportrait

Bonnard Examining Leaves, Marthe Bonnard, 1900


„Bonnard, the great master of the blur. To create the blur in art, the hand must be precise, firm, like that of a surgeon.“

– David Perlov


„It is necessary to see them in the middle of the field, moist fingers raised to catch the wind and ears pricked up to hear what it’s saying. So the most naked sensations serve as a compass. Everything else, ethics and aesthetics, content and form, derives from this.

–  Serge Daney on  Trop tôt / Trop tard  (trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum)


Some Notes on the New York Diaries of Jonas Mekas, I Seem to Live, 1950-1969

Jonas Mekas with Bolex

Jonas Mekas with Bolex


Several years ago I watched Jonas Mekas’ diary film Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) on 16mm at Anthology Film Archives in downtown Manhattan. It was the end of December; the city was cold and when I stepped out of the theater three hours later onto 2nd Avenue I remember how snow flurried down the street, the first flakes of the year chasing after cars in the wind and disappearing into the lights of nighttime traffic. This image came to mind while reading the first volume of Mekas’ recently published New York diaries, which I am nearly halfway through now. Descriptions of winter weather abound in his entries; reading them I think back to Lost, Lost, Lost, which, like the book, covers his first 20 years in New York after arriving with his brother Adolfas in 1949 as a Displaced Person from post-war Europe. I remember the scenes of snow falling over Central Park, the crowds of people gathered together in beautiful white fields and shots of wintry Williamsburg streets where the brothers spent their first penniless years in the city. Reading Mekas’ diaries has caused these images from the film to resurface; images that have nothing to do with cinema, but with life itself as it is momentarily lived in the present before it is subsumed by the past. And what is a diary – written or visual – among many things if not the fragile attempt to hold still the present moment by trying to shelter it within the protective fold of a medium, a feat as difficult as it is to prevent a snowflake from melting away by cupping it between the palms of your hands.

“November 26, 1959: Snow patches, and scattered leaves, now frozen, stood out in the huge, peaceful vastness stretching to all sides. And as I looked at this landscape, it had such a strong personality that it was impossible not to get lost in it. It overcame me, its cold, wintry purity and truth. A deep peace and serenity came from it and it was purifying, it forced me to abandon all pretense, all officialdom and just be myself – just as this landscape was its bare self…I want to shout, as I used to do in my childhood SNOW SNOW SNOW! – be again with it, be again!“


Invoking the textures, colors and smells of the seasons is a way of returning to the lost landscape of his childhood, back to Semeniškiai, Lithuania where Mekas spent the first 22 years of his life before fleeing the Soviets with Adolfas in 1944. They were subsequently captured by the Germans en route to Vienna and sent to toil away in a forced labor camp for the remainder of the war near Hamburg. And I remember too now watching Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) last January in Vienna; all those single-framed images of birch trees and birds, flowers radiant in the sun, and the green fields that surround his home come to mind as I read:

 “ July 20, 1953…we two are attached only to Semeniškiai, to our little village, to the countryside and the people and the objects there. It has nothing to do with nationalism…No rain, no wind, no snowstorm, no April is like that of our childhood, in Semeniškiai, nowhere…Our movements, the way we walk. Our accents, the way we talk. Everything is determined, marked by the climate, landscape, sun in which we grew up, lived.”

Mekas frequently drafts brief verbal sketches of nature, descriptions that are like the calm light-handed brushstrokes of a watercolor painter out in the open country…

“June 16, 1961: I just want to go out, somewhere, and sit under a tree, and look at the blue sky, and do nothing, and see nothing but that blue sky, look at the eternity…”

 …or that resemble the expansive minimalism of a haiku poem…

“No date, 1960: A FILM: He sits under the tree, in the park, listening to the leaves in the wind.”

 …a string of words that evoke the soothing lightness of a late summer day, the tenderness of being in the world.


The diary is the kind of book you want to take with you on long walks through an unfamiliar city, to carry all of its 813 pages under your arm the same way Mekas lugged his 16mm Bolex on his endless rambles through New York. Stand on a street corner, open to a page at random and read:

“August 18, 1950: For hours I wandered through the city. I dissolved into it, I got drunk on it, I drifted deeper and deeper into it, without any control. I walked from street to street. I stood in crowds, I sat in cafeterias, in pokerinos, amusement parlors, jazz bars. I drank the rhythm of Times Square, I felt I was part of it, part of the Times Square night. Then I took a subway and rode for half an hour. I had nothing to do. I was drinking the night, the emptiness and the loneliness of the city.”

An obsessive preoccupation with the peripatetic and the perambulatory, Mekas’ itinerant writing and cinema is that of the Homeric drifter traveling through a country, a city, a street wherein he casts himself as an exile at home nowhere, as a nobody always on the move, a fate linked to his status as a Displaced Person.

“January 11, 1950: There are moments and places during which I feel that I would like to always remain there. But no: the next moment I am gone…So I keep moving ahead, looking ahead for other moments. Is it my nature or did the war do that to me? The question is: was I born a Displaced Person or did the war make me into one? Displacement, as a way of living and thinking and feeling. Never home. Always on the move.

 “No date, 1951: Ah, this goddamn desperation of a DP, that’s what it is, I said to myself. I walked out of the subway and started walking down 50th Street, west. The street must have an end somewhere…I’ll walk until I see its end, that’s something, and this is Friday evening and I have nothing else to do and nobody to see.”

Walking becomes a way of probing unknown territory, a process of transforming a strange place into familiar terrain where new personal memories are inscribed onto the geography of the city:

“Note date, 1951: I was walking today, looking for work. After sitting five hours in the Warren Street employment agency I got lost among the downtown streets. People, streets, shops. Strangely, for the first time in two years of my New York life, here on these streets, I could perceive a touch of memory, of something familiar, here, on this corner of Chambers Street and Broadway I have spent so much time around Warren Street that there is now a little part of myself here, too in these dingy rooms, luncheonettes, bars…This was my New York. I almost felt as if I was home. Like a cat being stroked.”


His walks often lead him to the movies – the cheap playhouses on 42nd Street and the different film clubs around town, such as Cinema 16 founded by Amos Vogel. Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Howard Hawks – these are some of the names that continuously reappear like musical refrains in the early years of the diaries, before his turn towards the avant-garde and what eventually became known as the New American Cinema.

“August 8, 1950: …we absorb in Hawks everything equally, everything is important here, no close-ups here, no morality of selected virtues or wisdom: the morality of Hawks’ style (approach) is open, all-embracing…That’s what Hawks’ art does. It doesn’t even look like art. It’s so simple.”

 “December 15, 1952: Jean Renoir spoke at Cinema 16. Screening of Le Règle du Jeu. Even after eleven years in America he looks 100% French, in his short grey suit, his continuously gesticulating arms, and his whole body, moving and swinging when he speaks. He speaks freely and in an improvisational manner, a stream of consciousness. He likes to talk, just talk, simply and without fuss.”

 Reading these entries makes you want to return to those films you saw years ago when you were first discovering cinema, when it wasn’t yet elevated to an art form, but was a natural part of living, like the music you listened to as a teenager…

…The other day I re-watched Le Grande Illusion (1937) by Renoir at home. Outside it was dark, the middle of December and as the movie was ending somewhere nearby a church bell was striking seven o’clock …The final shot shows Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio fleeing Germany into neutral Switzerland by crossing a field of untouched snow, its whiteness gleaming forth like an apparition vaguely seen during an afternoon nap, while the two escapees appear as two small figures in the landscape, their backs towards us…

Le Grande Illusion-Jean Renoir

Maigret und der Regen

von Rainer Kienböck

„Am Sonntag – es war der 4. April – hatte es um drei Uhr nachmittags in Strömen zu regnen begonnen.“ Das ist der zweite Satz in Le charretier de la «Providence» (Der Treidler der Providence), dem vierten Band in der Reihe von Georges Simenons Maigret-Romanen. Es ist nur ein willkürlich gewählter Satz, ein Detail, aus einem der Kriminalromane rund um den Pariser Kommissar Jules Maigret. Ebenso gut hätte man aus einem anderen der insgesamt 75 Romane und 38 Erzählungen zitieren können. Die Wahrscheinlichkeit wäre dabei nicht gering, eine andere Stelle zu erwischen, in der Kommissar Maigret den Samtkragen seines Mantels hochklappt, um einem Wolkenguss zu trotzen; oder in seinem Büro am Quai des Orfèvres Holz in den gusseisernen Ofen legt, um sich nach einem langen Außeneinsatz zu wärmen; oder in irgendeiner Hafenstadt an der Atlantikküste im dichten Nebel einen Verdächtigten beschattet. Es wäre tatsächlich keine große Herausforderung, eine Collage mit solchen Textstellen zusammenzustellen. Kein Wunder, bei einem Autor, der sich an anderer Stelle (in Le prix d’un homme um genau zu sein) folgendermaßen geäußert hat: „Ich habe mein Leben lang den Nebel geliebt, weil er die Stadt oder das Land, die Flüsse oder das Meer geheimnisvoll umhüllt.“

Kurzum, es ist nicht übermäßig viel Assoziationsgabe vonnöten, um Simenons Kriminalkommissar mit Regen, Nebel und Schlechtwetter in Verbindung zu bringen. Man findet Verweise auf diesen Zusammenhang in zahllosen Texten über das Werk Simenons, ob in Stanley G. Eskins Biographie über den Autor (Simenon. A Critical Biography), oder in Patrick Marnhams biographischem Machwerk The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret, oder im Nachwort zur kürzlich erschienenen deutschen Erstausgabe des Proto-Maigrets La maison de l’inquiétude. Dort beschreibt Daniel Kampa – der frühere Leiter des Maigret-Programms bei Diogenes, und nach Gründung seines eigenen Verlags nunmehriger Rechteinhaber und Verleger Simenons im deutschsprachigen Raum – die Entstehungsgeschichte der Romanfigur. Kampas Text, ein feines Stück philologischer Detektivarbeit, ist aber nicht nur deshalb interessant, weil er die These bestätigt, dass Maigret eine Figur des Regens und des Nebels ist, sondern auch, weil er implizit eine Erklärung dafür mitliefert.

Die (von Simenon selbst verbreitete) Legende besagt, dass er die Figur des Kommissars Maigret während eines Aufenthalts im niederländischen Küstenort Delfzijl erfunden hätte (aus diesem Grund gibt es dort eine Maigret-Statue). Ende 1929 war er mit seinem Boot auf den Kanälen Frankreichs, Belgiens und der Niederlande unterwegs. Aufgrund eines Lecks musste er in Delfzijl eine längere Pause für Reparaturen machen. Während er dort in einem Café saß, wäre ihm die Idee für den bulligen Polizeikommissar mit Pfeife, Melone und dicken Mantel gekommen. So sei der erste, offizielle Maigret-Roman Pietr-le-Letton entstanden.

Nun muss man wissen, dass es Simenon mit biographischen Details seines Lebens nicht immer so genau nimmt. Wenn man sich – wie es seine diversen Biographen getan haben – durch die tausenden Seiten autobiographischer und semi-autobiographischer Schriften wühlt, stößt man auf zahllose Widersprüche. Minutiös schildert Kampa im oben genannten Nachwort, warum Simenons eigene Geschichte nicht stimmen kann. Pietr-le-Letton sei vermutlich in Paris entstanden und die Figur des Maigret war nicht das Ergebnis eines Geistesblitzes, sondern wurde von Simenon in mühevoller Kleinarbeit konstruiert: Vorgänger Maigrets, die seinen Namen oder zentrale Merkmale mit ihm teilen, kommen schon in zahlreichen früheren, noch unter Pseudonym veröffentlichten Romanen vor.

Das niederländische Delfzijl kann somit nicht wirklich als Geburtsort Maigrets bezeichnet werden. Aber die geographische Richtung stimmt. Maigret ist eine Figur des Nordens. Entstanden auf langen Fahrten durch die Kanäle des nördlichen Kontinentaleuropas, entstammt er einer (Parallel-) Welt, wie sie Simenon in seinen Werken so lebendig beschreibt. Er kommt aus Orten wie dem Canal latéral à la Marne, dem Schauplatz von Le charretier de la «Providence», oder des Ardennengrenzstädtchens Givet an der Maas aus Chez les Flamands oder den Hafenkneipen von Delfzijl aus Un crime en hollande.

In diesen Milieus ist Maigret zuhause, während er im Speisesaal des Nobelhotels Majestic (ein zentraler Schauplatz in Pietr-le-Letton) oder den mondänen Villen und Casinos an der Côte d’Azur (wie sie beispielsweise in Liberty Bar vorkommen) immer ein wenig fehl am Platz wirkt. Maigret ist eher eine Figur, die in einem Hinterhof eines heruntergekommenen Wohnhauses einen Verdächtigen beschattet, sich im Nieselregen zunächst stoisch die Pfeife stopft und dann zu rauchen beginnt, bis der Pfeifenqualm sich mit dem Nebel vermengt. Maigret und seine Pfeife haben etwas Gemächliches. Wie, wenn man auf der Veranda sitzt, und in den Regen stiert.

Die Figur war von Anfang an so gezeichnet. Bereits in Pietr-le-Letton findet man alle oben beschriebenen Charakteristika. Der Fall führt den Kommissar unter anderem in die Normandie – stundenlange Observationen in nordfranzösischem Dauerregen inklusive („Jetzt schwappte bei jedem Schritt schmutziges Wasser aus seinen Schuhen, sein Hut war deformiert, Mantel und Jacke waren klitschnass“). Nicht dass das Wetter in Paris signifikant besser wäre – aber dort wartet immerhin das wärmende Ragout seiner Ehefrau und die wohlige Hitze des Kanonenofens in seinem Büro auf ihn.

Simenon war immer davon überzeugt, dass Maigret eine ideale Filmfigur abgeben würde. Die zahlreichen Adaptionen der Maigret-Romane zeugen davon – er selbst war jedoch mit kaum einer davon zufrieden. Die lange Reihe der Maigret-Verfilmungen erreichte früh ihren Zenit. Kurz nach Erscheinen der ersten Romane, wurde Simenon von seinem Freund Jean Renoir kontaktiert, der die Filmrechte für La nuit du carrefour erwerben wollte. Simenon willigte ein. Es folgte ein langes Produktionschaos an dessen Ende ein Film steht, der nie in der von Renoir intendierten Form das Licht der Welt gezeigt werden konnte, sondern so zerstückelt ins Kino kam, dass der Großteil des Publikums nicht der Handlung folgen konnte. Nach dieser unschönen Erfahrung war Simenon Haltung der Filmindustrie gegenüber, bis zu seinem Lebensende ablehnend.
Dabei wusste das Endresultat durchaus zu gefallen. Jeans Bruder Pierre schlüpfte in die Rolle des Kommissars und machte seinen Job so gut, dass er bis zuletzt Simenons Lieblingsiteration der Figur blieb. Nicht einmal als später Schauspielgrößen wie Michel Simon oder Simenons Freund Jean Gabin Maigret spielten, rückte er von seinem Urteil ab. Gabin und Simon mussten sich mit den Plätzen zwei und drei in Simenons Maigret-Hierarchie zufriedengeben. Nicht nur die Interpretation der Figur Maigrets ist in Renoirs La nuit du carrefour brillant. Auch die in Nebel und Regen getauchte Landschaft der Île-de-France trifft den Geist der Maigret-Romane perfekt. „Ein Film wie der weinende Nebel einer unwirklichen Nacht“, wurde es schon vor einigen Jahren auf Jugend ohne Film formuliert.

In Renoir hat Simenon in jedem Fall einen Regisseur gefunden, der einige essentielle Eigenschaften mit ihm teilt: ein scharfer Blick für Lebensumstände und Milieus, eine grundlegende Sympathie für den „kleinen Mann“ und ein Stil, der eher nüchtern beschreibt als barock ausschmückt. Im Laufe der Jahre wollte Renoir wiederholt andere Simenon-Adaptionen umsetzen – keines dieser Projekte konnte je umgesetzt werden.

Eine weitere Verfilmung eines Simenon-Romans konnte der Autor selbst nicht miterleben. Als Béla Tarr sich 2007 an L’homme de Londres versuchte, war Simenon bereits seit fast 20 Jahren tot. Der Nebel ist in A Londoni férfi ein entscheidendes Stilelement und trägt wesentlich zur Atmosphäre des Films bei. Aber nicht nur das, er ist ein Akteur, der wie willentlich die Handlungen einzelner Figuren verschleiert und aufdeckt. In A Londoni férfi sind das zu Sehende und das Verborgene ebenbürtig. Der Nebel steht genau für diese Ambivalenz von Sichtbarkeit und Verborgenheit. Maigret navigiert in den Romanen Simenons ebenfalls in dieser Zone. A Londoni férfi ist somit womöglich der essentielle Maigret-Film, obwohl Maigret darin gar nicht vorkommt.

Es ist aus dieser Warte betrachtet nur folgerichtig, dass der große Showdown von Tarrs Film im Verborgenen stattfindet, hinter einer geschlossenen Tür. Nur Kampfgeräusche dringen nach außen. Über 70 Jahre zuvor hatte sich Henri Decoin bei seiner Verfilmung des Romans noch weniger radikal für eine halb ausgeleuchtete Szenerie und eine orientierungslose Kamera entschieden, um die Szene einzufangen. In beiden Fällen ist es aber gar nicht so entscheidend, was sichtbar ist. Genauso, wie es in den Romanen Maigrets in den seltensten Fällen darum geht, möglichst pragmatisch einen Plot zu erzählen. Es geht auch in keiner Weise darum, Gräuel, Horror oder Action einzufangen. Das Lesen dieser Bücher – und in den besten Fällen schaffen die Verfilmungen des Materials einen ähnlichen Effekt – gleicht der Stimmung eines verregneten Herbsttages. Alles wird langsamer, genügsamer, nüchterner.