One of the famous film controversies of the thirties was whether Chaplin stole the story of ”Modern Times” from René Clair’s “A Nous la Liberté” (Freedom for us). Rene Clair and his group thought so and sued Chaplin’s camp, but lost, and thank you for that. Should the world have missed one of these two films it better not be “Modern Times”.
“A Nous la Liberté” is in my opinion far inferior to “Modern Times” and frankly I have some difficulty seeing the plagiarism here. Okay, they both accuse the mechanized industrial society to be demeaning to humans, who find themselves slaves at the conveyor belt and they make a comedy out of it. Well, this is a fairly important issue and would surely require more than one picture. Consider how many WWII movies there are? Is it all plagiarism? Did somebody buy the rights from Adolf? No, I think these are two very different stories, so let us for now just forget about “Modern Times” and focus on “A Nous la Liberté”.
The story is about two cell mates, who are free spirits and bent on getting out of the restriction of prison. They make a dash for it in the night, but Émile (Henri Marchand) lucks out and has to abort. Meanwhile Louis (Raymond Cordy) starts selling records and in time he has created an industrial empire with factories, retail, brand and all.
Then Émile gets out and somehow gets involved in the factory. Actually he is taking a nap on a meadow outside a factory and two guards from the factory (fascist types with a white band about the arm) thinks he is slacking and put him in a cell. If you do not work you are a criminal. Émile tries to hang himself, but in the attempt actually frees himself and so he is out again. He tries to hide from his pursuers by standing in line for job seekers at the factory and voila, he is an employee at the conveyor belt.
His attempts at telling the guards that really he has no intention of working fails and when he finds out that a pretty girl he saw earlier from his cell also works there he accepts.
At the conveyer belt he is a disaster. His total lack of discipline makes him hopelessly unsuited for the tedious and really inhumane job of putting screws into boxes. Factory life is exactly the same as prison life and they have gone to some length at describing a WWII forced labor camp, only this is several years before the Nazi came to power in Germany. This makes me think that maybe the German prison camp concept was not entirely unique. There was a certain fascist element around also in the years prior to Nazism. The guards at the factory just need a swastika and a gun and they are complete.
In any case Émile becomes massively unpopular among the guards and escapes in a wild chase to the offices of upper management where he comes face to face with the top dog himself, Louis.
Louis at first pretends not to recognize him. Any association with his past could be disastrous for him. He and Émile retreat to his office and Louis tries to buy him off then threatens him with a gun, but then they reconciliate and are chums again. I did not really get that part. It is as if all through the movie they are afraid to speak up and so we have to guess what is going on between people and this is a transition I did not get at all.
Émile comes home with Louis and is just as big a disaster here. He makes himself and Louis unpopular among the snobbish upper class guest Louis’ wife has assembled and she too leaves with her lover and Louis and Emile are alone again.
The picture is getting clearer that Émile has to bring Louis out of this prison wealth and earthly prestige has created for him and return to the freedom of the dispossessed. I do not really see that Louis is in such big trouble. His life seems quite sweet. The changes Émile brings are only for the worse, especially when he leads a gang of bandits on Louis trail and they come to blackmail him threatening to reveal his past. Now the deroute speeds up and Louise tries to get away at least with his money, but even that fails and it all ends with a chaotic scene at the opening of the new full automatic factory where a sudden storm sends hats, money and bonds flying around causing all sorts of chaos and Louis and Emile escape to return to the road as tramps.
Happy end, no?
I do not really think “A Nous la Liberté“ is funny. Yeah, in moments it is okay, but it does not really work for me. Also the message about freedom and poverty to be preferred for fascist work ethos seems a bit forced, especially when the man freed is the dude running the show. Why does he need to be saved? Then in the end as the full automatic factory sends out gramophones en masse the former employed are fishing and dancing. Do they really think they can keep their jobs and just do nothing? If anything a full automatic factory would create unemployment and poverty and only riches for the shareholdes. I do not really get the logic.
But then maybe the logic is that humans are not cattle. We are free spirits and modern (thirties) factory life is not the thing. It ruins people. I get that point and will try to stick to that.
There is a modern parallel to this movie: “Office space”. It is not on the list, which is a crime. It is basically the same story but way better: “I did nothing all day and it was all I ever thought it could be”. “Did you get the memo about the TPS reports?” Now THAT is a cool movie!