René Clair’s exuberant anti-capitalist satire À nous la liberté was one of the early triumphs of sound cinema and is still considered one of the all-time greats of French cinema. The film is a light-hearted comic tour de force, erupting into unbridled farce in a few places, and yet it also offers an intelligent reflection on one of the major social preoccupations of the time: the gradual dehumanisation of mankind through technological progress. In characteristically humorous vein, Clair gives us a speculative glimpse of the future in which human beings are reduced to quasi-machines to meet the remorseless capitalist imperative for ever greater efficiency and increased output. The demoralising repetitiveness of life on the factory production line mirrors the endless monotony of the prison scenes at the start of the film, and both contain echoes of the Fascistic nightmare that would overrun most of Europe in the 1930s. In an era of immense social and technological change, Clair poses a timely question: what is man’s destiny, to be a free individualist or a robotic slave to corporate greed?
What is perhaps most surprising about this film is, that having conjured up a truly horrific Dystopian vision of the future, one of Art Deco-flavoured uniformity, Clair demolishes it with casual ease, so confident is he that mankind’s natural inclination for freedom will prevent him from ending up as a mindless mass of components in a soulless capitalist machine. The film ends with the factory fully automated, allowing the proletariat (not the industrialists) who now own it to spend their days doing the things they enjoy, like fishing and singing. Today, Clair’s version of Utopia appears absurdly naïve, a far cry from the more likely outcome that is portrayed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), where humanity is split into two totally separate strata, the wealthy elite and the toiling lowlife.
As in René Clair’s previous two films – Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and Le Million (1931) – À nous la liberté’s most striking aspect is its highly inventive use of sound. Whilst many of his contemporaries were content to limit their films’ use of synchronised sound to recorded dialogue, Clair employs sound far more imaginatively to consolidate the images on the screen. The repetitive aching thud-thud-thud of clogs and hammers in the opening sequences drives home the monotony of prison routine, and is reprised in the factory scenes, the never-ending clunk-clunk-clunk on the production line becoming a powerful aural motif for the dehumanisation of mankind by the twin demons of capitalist greed and technological advancement. This grim expression of grinding mechanical drudgery is effectively counterpointed by Georges Auric’s uplifting music, which, in its glorious celebration of freedom and friendship, evokes those nobler human qualities by which the ordinary man will (in Clair’s view) ultimately overcome bondage and exploitation. The profit-hungry capitalists dance to an altogether different tune, the sound of a howling windstorm, as they go chasing after banknotes in a mad self-interested frenzy.
Charlie Chaplin is reputed to have been influenced by À nous la liberté when he made Modern Times (1936), which repeats many of the themes and situations of Clair’s film, most notably its strident anti-capitalist subtext. Shortly after Modern Times was released, Tobis, the German-owned company that financed and distributed Clair’s film, threatened to sue Chaplin on a charge of plagiarism unless he withdrew his film from circulation. Clair himself played no part in the ensuing legal battle and was flattered by the idea that Chaplin, whom he greatly admired, should be inspired by his work. After years of persistent threats of legal action, Chaplin finally paid Tobis a sum of money to end what he regarded as unjustified harassment. Although Chaplin vehemently denied the plagiarism charge (and even claimed never to have seen Clair’s film), there are some striking similarities between Modern Times and À nous la liberté. The production line sequences in both films employ very similar gags and the two films end in an identical fashion, with the two main characters setting off down a country road to a better life. Was Chaplin really copying Clair, or is this simply a case of two great minds thinking alike?
James Travers, Films de France.com