The Last Metro is director Francois Truffaut's meditation on the cultural climate during the Nazi occupation in France during WWII setting it around a theatre company in Paris.
Given that Francois Truffaut spent part of his childhood living in Nazi-occupied France, he had long wanted to make a film set during this era; he settled upon this fictionalized tale, albeit one loosely based on various real-life scenarios.
François Truffaut's personal feelings and memories drove his 1959 semi-autobiographical character study, ‘The 400 Blows’. It would be perhaps true to say that ‘The last Metro’ does represent somewhat of a view of the period from that childhood memory. While the film portrays a time of hiding, struggle and compromise, it does so with a sort of dark nostalgic affection.
One of the inspirations for making the film at the time was that he was writing the preface to Andre Bazin’s first articles, called ‘Cinema of the Occupation’. Truffaut said he was flooded with memories of early film-going…
One of the joys of the film come from Truffaut's fond portrayal of this theatrical family forging on despite these hardships. Each member of the Théâtre Montmartre has distinct stories, secrets, and issues, and Truffaut gives us a glimpse into each one to create characters worth remembering.
The superb cast includes Heinz Bennent as the theatre’s Jewish artistic director, the matriarchal Catherine Deneuve as his wife and budding star and womanizer Gérard Depardieu as one of the acting troupe.
The film’s title, ‘The Last Metro’ comes from the importance of catching the final train of the night for Parisians living under a Nazi-imposed curfew, which connects directly to the constant state of anxiety of life during wartime under an oppressive regime. The title also references where Jews were forced to sit on the train – in the last car, at the very back, not unlike African American citizens being forced to sit at the back of the bus during the Civil Rights era.
Paris is portrayed as keeping something of a superficial normality, but one constantly punctuated by the reminder that the enemy had arrived, the neighbours might be collaborators, and survival might demand unthinkable compromises from everyone. Truffaut spends most of the time exploring the dynamics in the relationships between the members of the company in a mood of hostility and fear.
The dark atmosphere of the backstage life of the crumbling Montmartre theatre resonates with the turmoil and supression of the outside world but it also operates as a mechanism for solidarity among the theatre company members. The telling tale of wartime occupation was enormously popular with both American and French audiences upon its release, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film of the Year.From the film's first moments of archival footage running under a narrator's rapid stage-setting, it's clear that Truffaut wants you to know that you're being told this story.
"The use of a (distancing) narrator became one of Truffaut's favorite techniques; it's a way of signaling to us, the audience, that the story is over and its ending known before it even begins." Truffaut became obsessed with cinema at an early age and was known first as the enfant terrible of French film criticism (working for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinema). His essays focused on what he perceived as rigid traditionalism in the French film industry, and resulted in his transitioning into an essential figure of the French New Wave.
However here instead of the naturalistic mindset of the ‘New Wave’, ‘The Last Metro’ aims for the "soundstage feel" — and it works in an appropriately theatrical way. With the acting, sets, and confining camera angles, it sometimes feels as if we're watching a stage production. It has something of Joseph Mankiewicz’s ‘All About Eve’ or Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’ about it…
‘The Last Metro’ might be considered by critics to be his most classical approach to filmmaking. He seems reverent and respectful of film and film history, while still remaining truthful to his own idiosyncratic, highly-identifiable signature style of filmmaking. The film carefully shuns politics and ideology to instead become a character-study and a mood picture that portrays a bleak look at the times, which was an ugly period in French history.
There is a refreshing sense of magic realism at play that is absent from most films which examine the Holocaust or Nazi occupation, Truffaut shares a point of view that is neither overtly reverential or sentimental towards its subject matter, nor to any particular “formula”. Truffaut finds some warmth in the chilliest of settings – he is concerned with artistry, compassion, and commitment. This struggle to balance art, commerce and nationalism are recurring themes in his body of work, making for a beautifully proper thematic cohesiveness. All in all it's an uplifting humanistic film.