We turn today to one of the great forgotten filmmakers of France: Raymond Bernard, who along with Rene Clair was primarily responsible for bringing sound to the national cinema, and along with Clair was almost completely forgotten once the Cahiers du Cinéma/Nouvelle vague kids came along to disparage anything in their country's cinematic history that wasn't outrageously avant garde. The last ten years or so have seen Clair's films slowly regain an audience, but I think it's fair to say that only the really hardcore '30s cinema buffs in this country have been aware of Bernard's films (hell, I'm a really hardcore '30s cinema buff, and I'd never heard of him).

This isn't a shame: it's an outright sin against art. For Bernard turns out to be one of the strongest craftsmen and most original thinkers of the early sound era in any national cinema. I offer into evidence Pathé-Natan's 1932 answer to Universal's Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front, the adaptation of Roland Dorgelès's autobiographical novel of life in the WWI trenches, Wooden Crosses. A film that was snapped up by 20th Century Fox for a princely sum and used only for stock footage; a film that was lost when its studio collapsed in the run-up to WWII; a film that has only become known again in the world in the last twenty-odd years, and even then only erratically to tiny audiences.

First thing first: I adore All Quiet on the Western Front. It's the single great example of an American film that uses sound in an unexpected and compelling way in the early years of the talkies, one of my five favorite American films from 1930-35, and one of two films that I'm simply mortified to have forgotten when I was making my list of great American films back in June. I mention all this so the following statement can have the proper context for its full terrible import to be apparent: Wooden Crosses is at least as good as All Quiet on the Western Front.

Frankly, it's a little gross to compare the two of them, and after this thought I'm going to stop doing it. The American film works because it pushes all of the techniques developed in ten years of making increasingly passionate anti-war films to their fullest extent; the French film works because it invents techniques. I do not know all there is to know about film history, true, and therefore I do not "know" that Wooden Crosses made the particular jump that I'm about to credit it with, but that fact is that it's the earliest film I know by some 25 years to use the visual language of documentary filmmaking in an unambiguously fictional setting. Really, it's not competing with All Quiet and the like at all; what it's really doing is predicting Saving Private Ryan and its numerous clones by well over 60 years.

The film has the same plot that just about every WWI film has in one way or another: young men join up flushed with patriotism, expecting the war to last a month or two at most. Their enthusiasm is cut violently short when they arrive on the front lines to find themselves dropped in cramped, squalid, dangerous, deadly trenches, then and now the most hellish physical place that war has ever been waged. They proceed to spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing, a bit of time visiting the nearest town to drink and dance, and more time than anyone should ever have to being shot at the young men in the opposite trench, across a particularly worthless patch of blood-soaked ground. The battles get increasingly vicious as the war wears on; or perhaps it's just the soldiers' patience wearing thing.

There are generally two ways that war films present their characters: as sharply drawn individuals, so that their suffering engages us deeply and personally; or as mostly anonymous ciphers, to underscore the awful universality of war. Wooden Crosses tends towards the latter style: broadly speaking there are three soldiers that we mostly follow, Demachy (Pierre Blanchar), Sulphart (Gabriel Gabrio) and Bréval (Charles Vanel), but other than their professions and a few random details about their relatives we learn very little about them. That's not true. We learn a great deal about them, in fact, but none of it has to do with who they are as humans but who they are as soldiers. Those two things are decidedly not identical, as the film makes very clear; when Demachy speaks of his family or Breval is given a chance to show off some tricks he picked up here and there in the decades of his life, the other characters - and by extension, the audience - are quite surprised and shaken up by this sudden reminder that there was a world before this war.

That sense of the good and beautiful parts of life losing its form in the face of seemingly endless war is the melancholic underpinning for almost all of the action within the film, which is mostly comprised of a wavy pattern of dullness and horrible bursts of violence. Generally, it's the violence that sticks once the film is over; while hobbled by the technical (and censorial) limits of early-30s cinema, the battle scenes are as terrifying and brutal as anything without a trace of blood can possibly be. Partially this is because Wooden Crosses, like its American model, uses its soundtrack as a blunt instrument to fill our ears with increasingly unbearable cacophonies of bullets and mortars and men's screams. Much more it's because, like the war films that would start cropping up in the 1980s and really hit their stride in the early '00s, Wooden Crosses uses a deeply immersive handheld camera to capture the gunshots and explosions in a way that reads instantly as "this is documentary; this is true" to the modern eye just as much as in 1932 (when audiences were quite able to remember newsreel footage of the actual war playing in movie theaters). As I said, it's a trick that Spielberg would use almost without change (save the addition of top-notch gore effects) 66 years later, although I somewhat doubt that Spielberg would have ever seen this film, if indeed he was aware of its existence.

The big centerpiece of the film is a ten-day battle coming in the final third, and lasting for something like 15 minutes (give or take 5, I didn't have the presence of mind to time it). This sequences opens with a series of title cards that could have been potential alienating: as the gunshots begin, text appears over the action: "This went on for ten days." A moment later, as the violence increases: "Ten days." And a moment later: "TEN DAYS." And endless minutes pass until the battle ends, having taken with it more than a couple familiar faces from earlier in the movie. This could have been a silly violation of our willing suspension of disbelief, but somehow, it's just the opposite: by insisting on the grinding reality of the ten days of fighting, the cards insist on the accuracy, rather than the artificiality, of what we're seeing onscreen.

If it's the battle scenes that give the film its punch, it's the moments in between that give it humanity; here are moments of poetic beauty, punctuated by haunting, Impressionist editing. There was no way to make that sentence not pretentious, and I'm sorry. But the use of the dissolve and the double-exposure and the fade-out reach titanic proportions in this film, and from the moment of the very first image, a squad of soldiers dissolving almost imperceptibly into a field of wooden crosses - hey, that's the name of the film! - it's undeniably apparent that the transition from one image to another is a matter of paramount importance to the film's effect. Specific moments literally blur into one another in Wooden Crosses, and every portion of time is set off by a gentle fade in and out that makes them feel like remembered dreams. You can't describe how this works to someone who hasn't seen it without the risk of breaking it.

But it's beautiful in an almost mystical sense, and the imagery filling the movie, when it does not strive for documentary realism, finds instead a meshing of light and dark and unexpected angles and compositions that feels like the stuff of nightmares (one of the two cinematographers, it must be noted, had studied under the German Expressionists). I'm going to break with my common practice and end with a frame from the movie, because no number of words could explain the loneliness and loss present in this moment in which a man buries a friend and compatriot, killed senselessly defending a patch of dead grass. Within this image, I think, lies the whole experience of Wooden Crosses, one of the most traumatic and meaningful anti-war films imaginable.