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Ein Triumph / The Big Hit

Director: Emmanuel Courcol (France). Year of Release: 2020

A man entering a high security prison. The process is long and intended to intimidate with metal detectors and several security checks. A guard reminds him to keep his security pass visible at all times. Eventually, he enters a room to see a small group of men – the Black-Blanc-Beur of the French working class. Incidentally, although the film is based on a true story, this was in Sweden. When photos of the original protagonists run over the closing credits, they are all white and Aryan.

Étienne is a failed actor. He’s been in some stuff, but nothing that anyone has ever heard of, and his last gig was 3 years ago. Now he spends his working time dressed in an All Blacks shirt, teaching people attending corporate seminars how to do the Haka. Étienne has a hangdog expression, and has a troubled relationship with his student daughter. His ex-wife, her mother, has left the scene some time ago.

Étienne’s latest job is to teach some prisoners how to be actors. This has not attracted a whole lot of interest, and most of the prisoners who do turn up are more interested in stand up comedy than in acting. Étienne asks one of them, any of them, to perform a comedy routine, but none is ready. The prison governess wants Étienne to work for a couple of weeks on something which will look good and win the prison some funding. Étienne’s vision is of something much more ambitious.

Maybe it’s the endless waiting that Étienne experiences in the prison, maybe the idea was already in his head, but he tries to excite his pupils with the idea of putting on a performance of Waiting for Godot. There is a degree of sense in this. What better exemplifies the absurdity of existence than sitting around in a cell all day? And, notwithstanding the snobbery of some élitist critics who can’t believe that working class people could enjoy Beckett, his works are simple and hilarious.

Another reason for staging Godot is the lack of prisoners interested in Étienne’s project. Godot has four principle characters, plus one smaller part. Étienne’s production also finds a part for the elusive Godot, partly to accommodate someone who wants to get involved, but also because after they try it once, the appearance of Godot – looking not unlike Death in the Seventh Seal – somehow seems to work.

We are gradually introduced to the different characters who are to star in the play. Étienne feels that the only one who instinctively gets Beckett is Moussa as Vladmir. Moussa came to France on foot from West Africa, and embodies the suffering implicit in Godot. Hs presence helps convey the essence of the play, whose characters may be statusless tramps, but they are also noble and tragic. Their waiting is not foolish, but for want of any other role given to them by life.

Jordan is barely literate and has a short fuse, largely triggered by the impatience of other people. In the opening auditions, he looks the least likely to see the play through to the end. He has particular difficulty learning Lucky’s 3 page monologue, and his early attempts get lost in a barrage of forgotten lines and stuttering. When he has had enough and leaves the stage, the other 3 drag him back. This triggers audience laughter, which shows Jordan that he is able to reach them.

Patrick, as Pozzo, is a natural. Unlike the others, Patrick does not look like a gangster – he is corpulent and probably can’t hold his own in a fight. But as the tyrannical Pozzo, whipping the hapless Lucky forward, he overturns the daytime power relationships between the inmates. It is a sense of the amount of respect that the actors show to their joint project, that Patrick/Pozzo’s on stage brutality is not seen as being at all strange.

Kamel is the last on the scene. One day, when Étienne is leaving the prison, Kamel beckons to him, effectively saying “Gizza Job”. Kamel says that he knows Beckett already – if he doesn’t, he is a tremendous bluffer. The prison governess warns Étienne that Kamel may not look dangerous, but he has serious links with organised crime. Étienne does not want to know why any of his actors are in the prison. Nonetheless the suspicion always hangs over Kamel, that he’s planning a breakout.

Ein Triumph contains very few surprizes, and follows a typical pattern for films of this sort. A teacher is put in charge of a group of “unteachable” pupils who just don’t want to learn. And yet, largely due to incidents which happen off-screen, the pupils turn out to be half-way interested after all, and their performance at the “proper” Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse in Lyon means that they are invited on a nationwide tour, ending in Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe.

Not everything goes there way, of course, and an evening which naturally ends with all of them naked, means that they are banned from travelling to Paris. Will they, won’t they manage to perform in a theatre whose significance is only clear to their director Étienne? I think we know how this sort of film always ends. This sort of painting by numbers plot is the weakest part of Ein Triumph, but the film is always socially aware enough to show us much more beneath the surface.

The events on which the film is based took place in the 1980s, while Beckett was still alive, and the end credits tell us that he thoruughly approved of what happened (if you want to know what that was, you’ll have to either watch the film or do some Googling, as there’s some serious plot spoilers in there). It is part of the charm of the film that it sees Beckett not as the unreachable academic of some people’s visions but as the champion of working class ambition that he really was.

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