Movie Review: Hunchback Oppression, Isolation and World War II

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Hunchback

Oppression, Isolation and World War II in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

In 1939, the world was a place in the immediate throes of what would become one of the deepest, darkest and deadliest periods in human history. With the escalating violence of World War II and the Holocaust, the period proved a particularly suitable contexts for the cinematic adaptation of Victory Hugo's the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though based on a novel that was published in 1831 and revolving on a plot which occurs in the late 15th century, it is remarkable how well the film succeeds as an allegory with relevance not just to World War II but also to life in the present day. Most particularly, the themes of oppression, prejudice and authoritarian cruelty depicted in the film translate with tremendous relevance to these latter periods of history. As one watches a film that betrays many of the limitations of the cinematic form in its time and place, one remains directly effected by a set of themes that truly encapsulate something more permanent and universal about the human condition.

Particularly, in the figures of Esmerelda and Quasimodo, we are presented with both a victim and a martyr. The two figures draw us directly into a broader class conflict, serving to demonstrate the stark experiential differences between life as an aristocrat or life as a social 'other.' The film, directed by William Dieterle, appears to play up the relevance of many of these themes, perhaps because of their adaptability to the big screen or perhaps because of their mounting relevance at the time of the film's release. According to the analysis by Miller (2010), "fifteenth century Paris is a city of contrasts with an aristocracy living in glittering luxury while the poor endure almost unimaginable squalor and all the while the church offers spiritual salvation while its leaders wallow in corruption and decadence." (Miller, p. 1)

This corruptive wallowing is perhaps best embodied by the character of Jehan, who is both brother to the archdeacon Claude Frollo and close confidante to King Louis XI. Here, the viewer finds a loathsome character who best embodies the hatred, exploitation and hierarchical oppression of the aristocracy while boasting inextricable ties both to the Church and the Crown. Here, the viewer gains some understanding of the influence of corruptive power as a driving theme in the film. That Esmerelda's gypsy ethnicity is generally used as the basis for allegations of witchcraft is an important fact, especially as we consider its relevance to the global conflict raging just as the film hit movie theatres.

Particularly, the theme of authoritarian abuse was coming into strong visibility as fascism swept through Europe. The France of Hugo's novel was now ensconced by the totalitarian rule of Spain, Germany and Italy. And in all contexts, an aggressive quashing… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Hunchback Oppression, Isolation and World War II."  Essaytown.com.  May 22, 2013.  Accessed July 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/hunchback-oppression-isolation-world/6613805.