A Chilly Early Christmas: L’assassinat du Père Noël (1941)

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First of all, let it be said that this film has one of my all-time favorite opening credit sequences. It’s almost a lost art these days how much impact you can have on an audience the first time they see a film’s title blasted on a theatrical screen stretching from floor to ceiling, and the one here is just killer. Sure, it’s always cool to see the words Gone with the Wind (1939) scrolling across in huge letters or Star Wars (1977) blasting in your face with the full John Williams musical treatment, but there’s something about the opening minute or so of L’assassinat du Père Noël (1941) that really grabs you by the throat as a lurching figure carrying a sack loaded with gifts stumbles to the camera in moody lighting, his hood and beard picking up an eerie glow from behind as he gets closer to the camera. It’s both sinister and charming, a perfect opener for a film that mixes those two qualities in great abundance. I don’t care if Woody Allen’s been recycling that same black background and Windsor font for decades now in his opening credits; I’m a sucker for a riveting curtain raiser like this, and hopefully you are, too.

So, chances are you’re still wondering, what the heck is L’assassinat du Père Noël (or as it was originally released in English, Who Killed Santa Claus?, or more literally, The Murder of Father Christmas)? Well, superficially it’s a stylish, highly engrossing murder mystery set in a snow-laden French town in the Alps where the children, called potential “dunces and duncettes” by their politically leftist schoolteacher, are overjoyed to be out for the holidays. That spirit is shared by the older townspeople, but intrigue is afoot when a mysterious, black-gloved Baron has made his delayed return to town and claims to be suffering from leprosy. Crime soon rears its head as the holidays approach, ranging from a mugging and stolen ring to the murder of someone dressed in a Santa Claus outfit. The dead man first appears to be the town’s beloved globe maker, but something stranger and even more nefarious could be afoot.

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That may sound fairly straightforward, and on a superficial level, this film is quite fun in the same vein as René Clair’s exceptional And Then There Were None four years later. However, since this is currently running in the FilmStruck theme “Sold Out! Films Made during the Occupation of France,” there’s obviously more going on here. In fact, this film is most often discussed by European film critics (or a very tiny handful of American ones) for its status as the first feature to be shot and released under the Vichy government, which makes it tempting to read a resistance message into nearly every single line of dialogue and plot twist. Adding to the strangeness is the fact that the opening logos include Continental Films, a German-financed production company that kept a close eye on the content of its films. That’s a rocky set of circumstances for any film artist to spin into gold, but that certainly did happen over the course of the company’s five-year existence with little classics like this, Le main du diable (1943) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942) and Le corbeau (1943) (perhaps the most legendary example of anti-collaboration cinematic subterfuge).

So where does that leave this film? It doesn’t seem to tweak the noses of the Nazis with intellectual references as much as some of its peers; instead what we have is a film that emphasizes culture, perception and just plain old smarts as forces greater than any criminal undertakings simmering within a society. The church is one bedrock element here tied visually throughout to the youngest generation (“The children will guide us” is one key line), which could be extended to the Christmastime setting as well with its implications of annual celebration and union among the townspeople. It’s interesting to see just how dark Christmas became during and just after World War II, with films like Robert Siodmak’s misleadingly titled dark noir Christmas Holiday (1944) and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) painting more anguished takes on the holiday season than what you’d find a decade later. Even the first British horror film allowed to be made after the war, Dead of Night (1945), had to put a chilling Christmas smack in the center of one of its stories.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call this a creepy Christmas film, but it comes really close at times (like in those aforementioned opening credits). A sequence with two young boys wandering through snowdrifts at dusk calling out for Father Christmas is otherworldly in its delicate lighting and desolate setting, and the sight of villagers dancing hysterically in circles with flashing tinsel around one particularly distraught character isn’t exactly the kind of thing to put you in the holiday spirit. The effective use of young characters here is undeniably the trademark of director Christian-Jaque, a prolific director who remained active until 1985 with crowd-pleasing entertainments like The Legend of Frenchie King (1971) and the beloved Fan-Fan the Tulip (1952). However, it’s his earlier, more stylized output that really fascinates today like this film’s closest cinematic cousin, Les disparus de St. Agil (1938), known in English as Boys’ School. Both of these films were nearly impossible to see in good condition or even any kind of English-friendly versions for decades after their initial theatrical runs in the U.S., and in fact, I never had a chance to see either of them until Pathé undertook complete restorations of both and gave them English-subtitled Blu-ray and DVD releases in France. It was a real treat to discover both of them this way, but now you lucky folks can watch Christian-Jaque’s unique, potent Christmas mystery right here without having to worry about any disc importing or region code checking. December may still be a month or so away, but you can still pop this one on late at night and settle in for a night of stylish, moody entertainment with more than a bit of historical value.

Nathaniel Thompson

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