PRINT April 2020


Jean Cocteau, Orphée (Orpheus), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. Heurtebise (François Périer) and Orpheus (Jean Marais).

GIVEN THE HELLENISTIC BOMBAST of fascist kitsch—ersatz Parthenons and nude Übermenschen; Giorgio de Chirico’s Gladiators at Rest, 1928–29; Leni Riefenstahl’s partly staged documentary Olympia (1938), Julius Evola’s political manifesto Pagan Imperialism (1928)—it’s no wonder that modernism’s own flirtation with classical antiquity would be regarded as suspect. Mussolini had barely marched on Rome when, in 1926, Jean Cocteau hailed this classicizing tendency as “le rappel à l’ordre” (the call to order); a quarter of a century later, he produced the movement’s belated epitome with his 1950 masterpiece, Orphée.

With the divinely inspired Orpheus incarnated by Cocteau’s hunky former lover the film star Jean Marais, ancient Greece was reborn in midcentury Paris. Of course, some believed that movies were already inherently pagan—see Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (1965) or the writings of Parker Tyler. In his preface to Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947), published around the time Cocteau began raising funds for Orphée, Tyler asserted that “the true field of the movies is not art but myth.”

Cocteau was not the only filmmaker who in the aftermath of World War II proposed new or refurbished myths suitable to what, in a 1946 essay, Albert Camus called the century of fear. Charlie Chaplin followed The Great Dictator (1940) with another portrait of a mass murderer, Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Sergei Eisenstein moved from celebrating a heroic patriot in Alexander Nevsky (1937) to pondering the paranoid tyrant of Ivan the Terrible (1944–48). Orson Welles abandoned the Americana of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to evoke Nazi war crimes in The Stranger (1946) and the atomic bomb in The Lady from Shanghai (1947).

Unquestionably Cocteau’s strongest film (and arguably his most resonant work in any medium), Orphée has lost none of its capacity to enthrall the viewer with its ingenious, economical effects, based primarily on the deployment of duplicate sets, rear-screen projection, and clever match cuts, as well as negative imagery and reverse motion. Welles’s influence is everywhere apparent, and indeed, in its confidence, energy, and inventiveness, Orphée is among the greatest cinematic works made in the decade following Citizen Kane. A movie in which an enchanted mirror serves as the portal between the realms of the living and the dead, Orphée is itself an unnerving enchanted mirror, refracting historical trauma through the filmmaker’s own psyche—a portal between mundane reality and the haunted inner worlds of those who have lived through mass atrocities.

Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai, 1947, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 87 minutes. Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) and Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth).

In The Lady from Shanghai, a movie far more appreciated in France than in the US, Welles fused his personal mythology with a collective crisis. Cocteau would do the same with Orphée, which in addition to drawing on classical myth mined aspects of popular culture. He described Orphée as a “detective film,” while critic Raymond Durgnat saw it as a sort of Saturday-afternoon adventure serial, “Countess Dracula Versus the Gestapo”—referring to the character of the Princess, a glamorous psychopomp who bears the dead to the underworld in her chauffeured Rolls-Royce and who on one such trip invites confused Orpheus along for the ride, then falls in love with him and has her goons assassinate his wife, Eurydice.

Jean Cocteau, Orphée à la lyre (Orpheus with His Lyre), ca. 1958, crayon on paper, 12 1⁄4 × 9 1⁄2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pauline Kael found similarities to Mitchell Leisen’s supernatural comedy-drama Death Takes a Holiday (1934), in which a living woman and the personification of death fall in love. There are visual affinities to such varied films of the fantastic as Michał Waszyński’s The Dybbuk (1937), the Powell-Pressburger Thief of Bagdad (1940), and Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir (1942; released in the US in 1947 as The Devil’s Envoys). But Orphée is also highly topique. According to Cocteau, the Princess’s helmeted, dark-goggled, leather-jacketed motorcyclists of doom were inspired by a Paris Match photograph of a general’s funeral procession. Kael called the bikers “part of a new mythology” that included secret police and aliens from outer space; she might have been channeling Camus (or channeling Cocteau channeling Camus) when she added that these “anonymous and impersonal” agents of unknown authority were “the men you can’t reach and you can’t deal with; they stand for sudden, shockingly accidental death”—the Absurd. 

More or less ubiquitous from the 1920s through the ’50s, the multitalented Cocteau was the Zelig of French modernism. A contemporary of the Surrealists, whom he displeased by popularizing a number of their ideas, Cocteau was variously a poet, a dramatist, and a graphic artist as well as the maker of a highly influential avant-garde movie, Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930). He thrived during the German occupation of France, staging plays and courting German culturati while enlarging the Cocteauvre by reinventing himself as a commercial screenwriter.

Jean Cocteau, Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet), 1930, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 50 minutes. Poet (Enrique Rivero).

Germans ruled Paris for four years, from the summer of 1940 to that of 1944. The novelist Ernst Jünger, one of the most sympathetic occupiers, compared the city to a “dead planet.” With the clocks set to German time, some artists danced to a German tune. Others, like Picasso, took refuge in their studios. (The drab colors and claustrophobic compositions, as well as the images of skulls and wounded animals that characterize Picasso’s early-’40s work, may reflect his state of mind.) Still others disappeared.

There is evidence that Cocteau’s cozying up to the occupiers was driven by actual sympathy as well as by his instinct for self-preservation. In the spring of 1942, he wrote in his journal that “the honor of France may one day lie in the fact that it refused to fight” and later mused, “In Hitler, we have a poet beyond the comprehension of souls of drudges.” In between, the culture newspaper Comoedia published his front-page homage to Arno Breker, the supreme Nazi artist, whose retrospective opened at the Orangerie in May 1942, the same month that saw the first deportations of foreign-born Jews to death camps.

Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia, 1938, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes. Production still. Photo: Kobal/Shutterstock.

Cocteau’s well-documented enthusiasm for Riefenstahl—“you are the genius of the cinema, and you have brought the cinema to heights that it has seldom ever attained”—seems to have been a postwar phenomenon, although both Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia were shown and celebrated in prewar Paris. Breker exemplified the return to order, perverting Greek antiquity to sculpt exaggerated, near-cartoonish Aryan icons of muscle-bound brutality—according to Joseph Goebbels, he was anointed by Hitler as “the greatest sculptor of our time.” (Among other classical subjects, his work included a 1944 Orpheus and Eurydice.) Cocteau regarded the German sculptor as a new Michelangelo and hoped that he would take Marais as a model. It was thanks to Breker, writes Cocteau’s biographer Claude Arnaud, that the filmmaker was able to imagine Hitler “a marvelous patron who only abolished nations to bring artists closer together.”

Even more Germanophilic than the paean to Breker was Cocteau’s screenplay for L’éternel retour (The Eternal Return, 1943), a contemporary version of Tristan und Isolde, its Wagnerian theme suitably matched with a Nietzschean title. A popular and critical success, The Eternal Return made Marais, hair peroxided platinum for the role, not merely a star but the subject of a cult. (Arnaud describes Cocteau’s apartment building as overrun by proto-teenyboppers frantic to get close to their Aryan-blond idol.)

Postliberation, Cocteau, an object of suspicion on all sides, faced two purification committees, one for writers, the other for those working in the film industry. He was cleared. If his taste was questionable, his work and writings were generally untainted by anti-Semitism. (The stereotypical Jewish usurer in La belle et la bête [Beauty and the Beast, 1946] is an exception.) In any case, Cocteau did not denounce his colleagues and may have protected a few. (Even under the Germans, he kept himself near the center and even the cutting edge of French cultural life—writing dialogue for Robert Bresson’s second feature, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, fraternizing with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and, as Arnaud suggests, casting himself as an Orpheus searching for “his heart’s dearest in the underworld” by devotedly championing the rough-trade jailbird genius Jean Genet, whose clandestinely published Our Lady of the Flowers [1943] circulated among the literati hand to hand.)

Still from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. Heurtebise (François Périer) and Orpheus (Jean Marais).

Having survived the occupation, Cocteau set about processing it. His fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, with Marais as the Beast, can be read as an allegory about breaking the occupation’s evil spell—and proved an even greater success than The Eternal Return. Nonetheless, Cocteau had difficulty lining up financing for Orphée, which, conceived in 1947, did not begin shooting until 1949. Approaching sixty, Cocteau feared he had become passé. Throughout his career, beginning with a mock-Dada play staged in 1926, he had repeatedly looked to the Orpheus myth for inspiration; it was his own eternal return. Now he would reimagine Orpheus as a renowned artist held in contempt by the young.1

Throughout his career Cocteau had repeatedly looked to the Orpheus myth for inspiration; it was his own eternal return.

Orphée is so self-reflexive that it might be considered a psychodrama in the mode of Maya Deren’s early films, Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947), or Stan Brakhage’s Flesh of Morning (1956). Cocteau did not merely cast his former flame Marais in the title role; he heightened the tension by featuring his then-current companion, Édouard Dermit, as Orpheus’s rival, the young poet Cégeste, who, with his pompadour and turned-up collar, seems an avatar of James Dean. The resemblance would have been lost on Orpheus, a poet who tolerates contemporary Paris, a postwar metropolis saturated by mass culture, but lives in an exalted antiquity. His villa is filled with Neoclassical statues somewhat more tasteful than Breker’s, and what seems to be a lithograph of the Parthenon is on display as well.

The poet is burdened with a notably banal Eurydice (Marie Déa) and, as if in acknowledgment of Marais’s experience after Eternal Return, is beset by mindless female fans. The contempt visited on him by self-important literati seems to allude to Cocteau’s own life, echoing his treatment by the Surrealists—the leader of an anti-Orpheus demonstration resembles the leonine André Breton—as well as by newer gangs such as the existentialists and the Lettrists. (Either group might plausibly have been the target of one of the film’s droller satirical touches, the review Nudisme, a portfolio of blank pages that Orpheus declares “absurd,” only to be told that that’s the point.)

Still from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. The Princess (Maria Casarès).

In fact, facile as Cocteau was, he had weathered the winds of fashion better than the Surrealists, who had largely exiled themselves to America during the war and were regarded as old hat on their return. Cocteau, by contrast, was praised in existential hipster Boris Vian’s Manual of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, published around the time Orphée was released, for creating a poet’s café worthy of “the quarter.” (“Did he not kidnap half of the youth from the cellar clubs in order to film the bacchanals?”) For the role of Aglaonice, leader of the bacchantes, Cocteau had co-opted the muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Juliette Gréco. A teenage member of the Resistance turned cabaret singer, Gréco, with her long, loose hair, black clothing, and disdainful affect, anticipated the Beat chic of late-’50s Greenwich Village. Even more shrewdly, Cocteau recruited Maria Casarès to play the Princess. A refugee from Republican Spain who became France’s leading tragic actress, Casarès was the love of Camus’s life. Her association with the reigning philosopher-idol of the Left Bank further legitimated Cocteau. (According to Jean-Pierre Aumont, Cocteau wrote Orphée for Aumont and his wife, Maria Montez, which would have placed the movie in another category altogether—A Cobra Woman in Paris.)

Cocteau strove to dramatize a situation that would illustrate Camus’s definition of the absurd: a condition arising from the confrontation between rational thought and the “unreasonable silence of the world.”

An inveterate popularizer, Cocteau strove to dramatize a situation that would illustrate Camus’s definition (expounded in The Myth of Sisyphus, a book the philosopher wrote during the Nazi occupation) of the Absurd: a condition arising from the confrontation between rational thought and the “unreasonable silence of the world.” But he had difficulty incorporating existentialism into his Orphic mythology. Orphée doesn’t articulate a philosophy; it’s more bricolage than synthesis, a beguiling bag of tricks. The viewer should bear in mind the Princess’s admonition of Orpheus: “You try too hard to understand and that is a mistake.”2

Four stills from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. From left: The Princess and Cégeste (Édouard Dermit). The Princess.

The film’s midcentury Orpheus may be preoccupied with antiquity, but his compositional methods are modernist: His poems are dictated by the radio. According to Cocteau, this element of the plot was inspired by British broadcasts to France during the war. In that sense, they might be understood as unconscious transmissions from the filmmaker’s psyche, the wartime past infiltrating the present. That Orphée is suffused with Cocteau’s anxiety over his role in the occupation and his status in the eyes of his contemporaries surely accounts for the almost compulsive brio of the filmmaking.

Movie magic is the real subject. While waiting for funding to make Orphée, Cocteau publicly advocated for 16 mm—particularly as used in America, where the cameras were “little marvels” offering a new, inexpensive means of miracle making: “A close-up, an unexpected angle, a false movement, a slow-up or reversal may cause objects and forms to follow and obey us as the animals did Orpheus.” Among other things, Orphée demonstrates the filmmaker’s power to empty (or occupy) a city. In one sequence, a veritable textbook for creative geography, Orpheus chases the Princess through the Billancourt market and the Square Bolivar and into Place des Vosges.

Four stills from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. Clockwise, from top left: Heurtebise (François Périer), Orpheus (Jean Marais), The Princess (Maria Casarès). Center: Writer (Roger Blin). Orpheus. Orpheus.

Just as wartime France was divided into a zone libre and zone occupée, so is Orphée. In a general sense, the daytime belongs to the present, to Orpheus’s workaday life and the Saint-Germain-des-Prés of the late ’40s. The nighttime, more mysterious, is the realm of the past, the occupation with its arrests, interrogations, confessions, and betrayals; the war; the youthful dead, here embodied by Cégeste and the Princess’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer, a favorite actor of Sartre’s). The epicenter of this nocturnal world (which is called the Zone in the movie) is, in fact, the bombed-out ruins of a former military academy, Saint-Cyr, near Versailles.

Orpheus defines a poet as one who writes without being a writer. Orphée is a war film without war. Cocteau evokes the nexus of Nazi terror, including the nightmare of his own complicity. By rescuing Eurydice a second time, this time successfully, Orphée consigns the terror to oblivion, making way for an unconvincingly upbeat conclusion in which the Princess and Heurtebise are arrested and condemned by the authorities in Hades, while Orpheus returns from the underworld to his pregnant wife and blissful domesticity.

The poet prevails. Yet this parting message is less persuasive than the film’s suggestion that to live under military occupation is to be rendered helpless, compelled to choose between collaboration and resistance; to navigate a world where the familiar has been made strange and death familiar, where terror, as Camus wrote, is commonplace.

THE FIRST FICTION FILMS to represent the terror European Jews faced during the Holocaust were made in Eastern Europe, typically by survivors. These movies had aspects of psychodrama, docudrama, and documentary. The greatest example is Alfred Radok’s Distant Journey (1949), a movie that is in some ways Orphée’s analogue and in others its negative image.

Here, too, are the secret radios, destroyed buildings, and midnight arrests. But where Cocteau begins by maintaining that “a legend is entitled to be beyond time and place,” Radok uses both newsreel clips and dramatic scenes to establish the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in deft strokes: anti-Semitic graffiti, queues outside embassies, a wedding dinner at which the proper bourgeois guests are marked for death with mandatory yellow stars. Moreover, clips from Triumph of the Will and other examples of Nazi propaganda elucidate a ready-made iconography of death.

Still from Alfred Radok’s Daleká cesta (Distant Journey), 1949, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes.

Welles’s influence is evident here too. Distant Journey is filled with looming angles and outsize shadows, as well as with compositions in deep space. A long scene in which the camera prowls around the baroque clutter of a warehouse crammed with confiscated Jewish property cannot but evoke the last shots of Citizen Kane (1941). The sound design is also Wellesian—the deportation, set to a terrifying martial bolero, becomes a danse macabre. Like Citizen Kane, and no less than Orphée, Distant Journey is a movie that dramatizes moviemaking. Like Orphée, it shows the impact of the other great tendency of post–World War II cinema, Italian Neorealism.

However boldly stylized, Radok’s nightmare is grounded in reality. Who could imagine an underworld in which a line of new deportees enter its gates as the dead are carried out?

The most disturbing parts are based on actual events. However boldly stylized, the nightmare is grounded in reality, with scenes shot in Theresienstadt itself. Considering that the Nazis’ “model” concentration camp was used as a movie set for wartime propaganda, Radok’s recourse to the fantastic could be seen as a function of verisimilitude. Who could imagine an underworld in which a line of new deportees enter its gates as the dead are carried out?

Still from Alfred Radok’s Daleká cesta (Distant Journey), 1949, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes.

Withdrawn after a brief run in Czechoslovakia, Distant Journey was released abroad in 1950. The New York Times critic took the film as arty atrocity footage (“the faint of heart, however curious, are advised to see it at their own risk”) but later named it among the year’s best foreign films. When Distant Journey opened in Paris in late 1951, André Bazin wrote that in its “metaphysical fidelity to the universe of the [concentration camp], it evokes the world of Kafka, and, more strangely, that of de Sade.”

Orphée, meanwhile, was released in September 1950, winning the International Critics’ Award at that year’s Venice Film Festival. The movie was received indifferently by most French critics and with genial incomprehension by most Americans. The New York Times joked that it was “more Morpheus than Orpheus.” It was, however, greatly appreciated by Jean-Luc Godard, who saw it as a proto–New Wave documentary with “Orpheus listening to Radio London, drinking a beer on the terrace of the Café de Flore, and following to the Monge Métro the love of his life.”

Parker Tyler found it inferior to The Blood of a Poet, but Orphée might almost be the movie he’d imagined when he characterized cinema as an occult practice: “You see the object, yet it isn’t there.” Orphée exemplifies cinema as an atavistic realm of “ghosts, secret force, telepathy.” The movies bring the dead back to life—just so long as we keep our eyes fixed on the screen. 

J. Hoberman was a Village Voice film critic for thirty years and has been contributing to Artforum for even longer. His most recent book is Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (The New Press, 2019).



1. In addition to Cocteau’s own work, Orphée’s antecedents include the play Eurydice, Jean Anouilh’s 1942 transposition of the myth into contemporary France, and Alexandre Astruc’s 16-mm short film Ulysses ou les mauvaises rencontres (Ulysses and the Evil Encounters), also known as Aller et retour (Back and Forth), which was made in 1948, never released. The cast included Juliette Gréco as Circe and Boris Vian as part of an ancient chorus, as well as Sylvia Bataille, Jean Marais, Raymond Queneau, and Simone Signoret. Cocteau designed the costumes and played Homer. Genet, who had been cast as the Cyclops, withdrew before production. The film itself appears to have been lost.

2. The Plague, Camus’s allegorical novel of the Occupation, published in 1948, includes a performance of Gluck’s Orpheo ed Euridice during which the actor playing Orpheus collapses onstage in the manner of a plague victim just as Eurydice is taken back to the underworld. By refusing to act in bad faith, the actor compels the audience—initially calm but soon stampeding for the exits—to recognize the actual danger threatening them.