Gorky, Renoir and Kurosawa
In 1902 the Moscow Art Theater staged the first production of Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths, which is about a group of people living in a flophouse in Czarist Russia. Two of cinema's greatest filmmakers have made movies based on that play: Jean Renoir (Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) in 1936 and Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Rashomon) in 1957. On DVD, Criterion Collection produced a two-disc set containing both Renoir's and Kurosawa's film versions of The Lower Depths. The two movies are very different, yet each is in its own way quite good. Seeing both is a rich and rewarding experience.
Renoir's movie is set in an imaginary place that is part 1902 Russia, part 1936 France, and the filmmaker took many liberties in adapting Gorky's play to the screen. Renoir's version of the story is concerned almost entirely with only two men: a thief named Pépel (Jean Gabin) and the baron (Louis Jouvet). They meet when Pépel burglarizes the baron's luxurious house just after the aristocrat has gambled away all his money. Their encounter leads both men to new possibilities.
Although the movie spends some time in the squalid flophouse dormitory where the lodgers reside, there are also scenes set in a mansion, a casino, a tidy bourgeois apartment, on the banks of the Marne and in a pleasant park. Renoir uses humor and music to keep the mood of his film upbeat.
Despite the many differences between Renoir's movie and Gorky's play, the filmmaker remained faithful in spirit from a sociopolitical point of view. Gorky wanted 1902 Russian theatergoers to accept that there was something wrong with a society in which people's lives were as wretched as those of the lodgers in the flophouse. Renoir strove to have the same effect on 1936 French moviegoers.
In Kurosawa's version, Gorky's setting is transplanted from a river town in 1902 Russia to mid-19th-century Edo (now called Tokyo), but the Japanese filmmaker preserved the play's structure. As a consequence, his movie is an ensemble piece where a dozen actors have roles of roughly equal importance. The most famous actor is Toshiro Mifune, who plays the thief. Viewers who have seen Seven Samurai should also recognize Bokuzen Hidari, who portrays the pilgrim, and Minoru Chiaki, who plays the ex-samurai.
Kurosawa chose to honor the story's stage origins, so this is a very theatrical film with lots of dialogue. There is no musical score, and most of the scenes take place inside the miserable flophouse, giving the movie a claustrophobic and bleak feel. But ultimately we, the viewers, do not despair because we are buoyed by the vitality of the filmmaking.
It doesn't seem as though Kurosawa was much interested in sending any particular sociopolitical message in his version of The Lower Depths. On the DVD, Japanese cinema expert Donald Richie gives an audio commentary in which he describes the movie as being about the conflict between illusion and reality.
As good as Renoir's The Lower Depths is, Kurosawa's is far and away the more profound of the two films, but it is also more challenging.
The DVD contains Jean Renoir's six-minute video introduction to his version of The Lower Depths. He claims that before shooting, he sent a copy of his script to Gorky, who approved of it. Renoir states that his "main problem was to avoid looking Russian." What he presumably means is that if his movie had looked too foreign to 1936 French audiences, they would not have perceived that the film's sociopolitical message was relevant to them.
DVD Review Continues on the Next Page