My review of Marcel L’Herbier’s excellent silent film L’Argent has gone up over at Videovista.
One thing that occurs to me looking back at the review (aside from the fact that I needed to do another pass through it in order to tidy up the prose… oops) is that I think that in the film version of the story, Saccard is supposed to be Jewish. In the original novel by Zola, Saccard is presented as an anti-Semite who manipulates the market in order to ‘put one over’ on the Jewish bankers represented by Gunderman. However, in the film, Gunderman is not Jewish but, if anything, Aryan; a blond-haired man with a Germanic name.
Looking at the cover of the DVD, Saccard certainly seems to be presented in a pose reminiscent of anti-Semitic caricatures as a greasy, swarthy looking man grubbing a huge pile of gold.
L’Herbier clearly played around with the moral centre of the story. He champions Gunderman as an ‘ethical capitalist’ whilst in truth Gunderman pursues vendettas and enriches himself at the cost of others while masking himself behind a veil of moral righteousness. Meanwhile, Saccard is decried for being unethical while is truth he is completely open about his nature.
This distinction is arbitrary to modern eyes but I suspect that in the 1920s hypocrisy was seen as a lesser sin than being openly mercenary. It is one thing to work for a living but quite another to be ‘trade’. Similarly, in the book, Saccard’s anti-Semitism is a reflection of Zola’s dislike of that tendency in French public life. Let us not forget that this is the same Zola who wrote the famous J’accuse… article in light of the Dreyfus affair. Zola was undeniably ahead of his time in his opposition to anti-Semitism and I suspect that he was just as much ahead of his time in 1920s France where being a Jew was probably a greater sin than being an anti-Semite and so Gunderman is presented as a moral paragon for his attempts to rid French high-finance of what is, in the poster at least, a money-grubbing Jew.
While I do not necessarily think it is fair to label L’Herbier as some kind of bigot, I do think that his moralising is very much ‘of its time’ and the time in question was a good ten years before, according to Pierre Mendes-France in Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, many French military officers preferred the idea of being ruled by Hitler to being ruled by Leon Blum, a notable French Jewish politician of the time. So I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that certain anti-Jew ideas might have crept into the production.