April 1, 1996

Talking Head: The Champagne Safari's George Ungar

As with Oskar Schindler, most audiences won't have heard of Charles Bedaux prior to seeing the film based on his life. Despite obvious formal differences between Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's Hollywood epic, and The Champagne Safari the comparison between the films makes perfect sense in light of the moral ambiguity surrounding their subjects' actions prior to and during World War II. Bedaux was an ardent capitalist who first gained prominence through his theories of labor and improvement of worker productivity. Suffice it to say, if Bedaux were alive and selling his package today, he'd be doing it on infomercials aimed at business people who want to slave-drive their workers just a little bit harder. (Bedaux's programs were later mocked by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times).

Bedaux loved his notoriety and milked it liberally. He became an ambitious socialite, mingling with the likes of King Edward VIII and, later, the Nazi leadership in Germany. A megalomaniac, he soon became enamoured with the idea of being a world-famous explorer. One ambitious trek led him across much of western Canada in an effort to be the first to make it from Edmonton across the Rockies through to the coast. The cargo included crates of champagne, caviar, books-even a horse-load of shoes for Bedaux, his wife, and his mistress. Never wanting to miss a photo op, Bedaux took Floyd Crosby, an Oscar-winning cinematographer (Talm, High Noon), along to film the whole event.

Filmmaker George Ungar, perhaps best known for his delightful animated short The Wanderer, first came across the Bedaux paradox by chance. While searching for animation graphics, he stumbled upon an article on "the champagne safari" in an article in a Maclean's magazine from the mid 1950s. Thus began Ungar's 16-year love-hate relationship with the entrepreneur, and the density of the film reflects the massive amount of information the filmmaker has uncovered. Ungar was apparently perplexed over the form the film would take; he has opted for a straightforward traditional doc style, with voice-of-God narration and talking-head interviews, intercut with archival footage. The film jumps between two principle narratives: the story of Bedaux life, which begins with his adept self-promotion, his hobnobbing with the rich and dubious, a story which descends into nastiness for Bedaux as he meets his ends, an apparent suicide during investigation by American intelligence agents concerning Bedaux's ties with the Nazis. The second narrative is about the 1934 western Canadian safari itself, which was eventually aborted after it became clear to Bedaux he and his crew could not make the trek as planned.

The Crosby footage of the safari is breathtaking, and Ungar's unearthing of the film stock—which was presumed to be lost—is the film's standout coup. Much of it is simply surreal; one segment has the staged smashing of Citroen tank cars brought along for the journey, as they were driven off cliffs­ Bedaux made certain Crosby captured everything.

In an article in Saturday Night last year, Mordecai Richler attacked Schindler's List, pointing to historical facts left out by Spielberg in his dramatic and sentimental depiction of Schindler. Ungar has taken the opposite route to Spielberg's, delivering an enormity of information to his audience, while never delivering a verdict on his subject's character. At film's end, Bedaux's mysticism is left intact, and the uncertainty surrounding his apparent suicide is maintained.

The Champagne Safari premiered at the 20th Festival of Festivals in Toronto and was on tour at various international film festivals over the fall. On May 25, it launches "Daring Documentaries/Fearless Filmmakers," a new screening series of provocative contemporary documentaries presented by the IDA and the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.

-Matthew Hays

 

Matthew Hays is a Montreal freelance writer and contributing editor on film for Montreal’s Mirror, and is the editor of MagNet, the Virtual Film Festival online film magazine.

 

INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE UNGAR

George Ungar took 16 years of exhaustive research to reconstruct the mysterious life of Charles Bedaux. The following are excerpts from an interview journalist Martine Rainville conducted with the filmmaker.

 

What was the spark that initiated your research on Bedaux?

I found a story in an old, 1956 issue of Maclean's magazine. It was about this crazy French man who went to the Rockies with his Citroen cars. The story was superficial, and I thought it would make a good vignette. At first, I believed I was researching a story about an expedition into Canada's wilderness. But what became apparent very quickly was that I walked in through the side door of a much larger story, that it was a kind of Citizen Kane. First of all, it took years to sort out the facts. We had to get to the bottom of what was true, what was half-true, and what was exaggeration and hyperbole.When examining the existing literature on Bedaux, there was no seminal work from which to draw. The 1945 New Yorker article entitled "Annals of Collaboration" by Janet Flanner makes conclusions that are the complete opposite of those found in the 1984 biography of Bedaux by Jim Christy, The Price of Power.

For a long time there was a theory in Canadian journals that Bedaux's journey was undertaken at the behest of the Nazis to determine if a land route into North America from Alaska was feasible. Like a spy novel, this theory had all the elements of mystery and espionage, and many journalists wrote about it. I tried to get to the root of this allegation and, after many frustrating dead-ends, came to the conclusion that it was total nonsense. It was an idea born in the 1950s that made for good press. Maclean's was the main source of the hype, and other Canadian media backed it up. In the 1960s, CBC radio even did a radio drama based on the Bedaux expedition. The script is ludicrous.

Everyone was wearing black leather boots and carrying pistols and speaking with German accents. But believe it or not, it was the going "take" on Bedaux.

I was surprised that no one had ever bothered to examine the story properly. It's a lesson, I guess, about the herd instinct of journalists.

 

After researching Bedaux's life, how do you feel about the man and how did that influence your film?

It was a love-hate relationship. First I loved him, then I hated him, then I loved him and so on.... I admired his strengths but also find him loathsome. On the moral level, he was extremely complex. For example, he helped those Jewish clients that he could by temporarily incorporating their businesses under the Bedaux Company in order to save them from expropriation by the Nazis. At the same time, he collaborated on an industrial and social level with the Germans. There are many contradictions and no simple explanations. We went through many versions of the script in which first he was evil and then he was not so bad. Neither worked. If he is evil, then why should anyone care about him? On the other hand, if we portrayed him as a good guy, that too would be irresponsible.

So we decided to take a neutral stance and let the viewer decide. The facts speak for  themselves; we did not need to make any explicit statements.

 

In what sense was Bedaux a Nazi collaborator?

He was an industrial collaborator, but I don't think he was a Nazi ideologue. His collaboration was similar to that of Oskar Schindler, who also played both sides, but unlike Schindler, who ended up a hero, Bedaux got caught. His is a story about the morality of "business as usual" that perhaps reflects the zeitgeist of his times. Recently, Hollywood films like Schindler's List and Remains of the Day have explored similar themes. But they are somewhat different from Bedaux's story. Schindler turned his fate around, and unlike many of the British aristocrats, who supported Hitler's ideas from behind the scenes but were never really made to answer for their actions, Bedaux was an independent operator who became entangled in forces greater than himself. He tried to play both sides against the middle for his own financial and ideological interests. After all, he was rich and had a fortune to protect. He also had this peculiar industrial vision which maintained that the world could be saved through technology and industrial efficiency.

To label Bedaux an ordinary collaborator would be inaccurate. Many major western corporations were tacitly supporting what the Nazis were doing until much later in the war, when they had to choose a side.

 

So what conclusions can we make about him and his kind?

Bedaux remains a lesson in the universal human conflict between ambition and opportunism. What is fascinating about Bedaux and others like him-the Schindlers, Riefenstahl's and Gerald Bulls-is that they all operated as if they were immune. It's Like surfing on a sea of hydrochloric acid and actually believing not a drop will touch you. It takes an incredible ego to think you can play this kind of game and win. In a word, it's insane.

 

So why has it taken so long to get this story on film? Ignoring for the moment the 1934 Crosby footage, why wasn't a movie about Bedaux made years ago?

Well it was, in a way. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and Rene Clair's A Nous la liberté—both produced in the 1930s—depicted Bedaux economic utopia as a vast industrial prison. But they only deal with the single issue of scientific management or industrial efficiency and its effects on workers.

As for the rest, it surprised me that Bedaux's story was pretty much forgotten. He was an industrial pioneer at the center of business; he was creative and intelligent—an inventor, explorer and powerbroker; he dealt with kings, presidents, and captains of industry. His life touched upon so much that was central to the mid-20th century—the attempt to harness the unprecedented power of the modern mass labor force and the notion of an elite of engineers and social arbiters who would be the messiahs of this new age. And, of course, the political "isms" at play in the world had their roots in this conflict between efficiency and social justice. Bedaux incorporated all of these strands into his own strange journey, leading, unfortunately for him, to a deadly marriage of convenience with the Nazis.

And in examining his story, one becomes more aware of the nature of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, which is one kind of power we should study much more closely.

But I guess his story has been forgotten until now because neither France nor the United States are particularly proud of him. It is easier to forget. If it hadn't been for World War II, Bedaux would be remembered as one of the great industrialists of his age. He'd be in the same league as Henry Ford.

 

Martine Rainville is a Montreal journalist who writes on film and also does French adaptations for documentaries and animated films. She can be reached at (514) 529-8809.

These articles were first published in the Canadian magazine Point of View, winter 1995/96.

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