Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Frenchman in ‘God’s Country’

Louis Malle’s fondness for small-town Minnesota shines through in his 1985 documentary.

Film "Viva Maria" Of Louis Malle In Mexico In 1965

Forty-five years ago, a French filmmaker booked a trip to Minnesota. He had been a leading figure in world cinema since the late 1950s, and his films had won prizes at all the best festivals: Cannes, Venice, and so on. He had given signature roles to actresses such as Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. He had previously worked in the United States, but his natural artistic habitat was on the continent. In short, there was no reason to assume that this filmmaker would have any affinity for the inhabitants of a town in a region colloquially known as the Corn Belt. 

Against all odds, Louis Malle—maker of such striking, often startling features as Elevator to the Gallows, Viva Maria!, and Lacombe, Lucien—found that he savored the company of the residents of Glencoe, Minnesota, the off-the-beaten-path farming town he first encountered in 1979 making his documentary God’s Country. The film, Malle explained in an interview in 1987, was intended to launch a series provisionally titled “America Seen by Louis Malle.” “It was for public television, which is excellent but with no financial resources,” he explained. 


Malle pursued the project with exceptional tenacity considering that, during the same period, he was also at work on such future classics as Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre. After filming in Glencoe in the summer of 1979, Malle held off on assembling the material, partly because of the expense of editing and partly because he felt a yearning to make a return visit—to, in a sense, go home to a place nothing at all like his actual hometown in northern France. “I had stayed in contact with those people, with whom I had become friends. I came back to see them with a camera,” Malle explained. “In the time since I had been there before there had been a terrible financial crisis in the U.S., and the farmers had lost their land.” The film was first shown on public television in December 1985, and it remains available as part of a box set of Malle’s documentaries from the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on the Criterion Channel.

In its final form, God’s Country pays quiet respect to a community of mostly decent, largely honorable-seeming, and frequently humorous Americans. The film laments the forces that chipped away at their way of life: the farm crisis of the early 1980s and the more general flight from farming, changing manners and mores when it came to family values, religion, and drug use. If the documentary has a rueful, even funereal tone, it is because Malle had grown fond of the people whose lives he was documenting; it is impossible to mourn that which is not loved. 

Today, the long shadow of Michael Moore has left audiences conditioned to expect sarcasm when watching a documentary about ordinary people. Despite his commendable populism, Moore tends to approach his subjects with an attitude of superiority. In Roger & Me, Moore may not be instructing us to laugh at the beleaguered residents of Flint, Michigan—whose side he is ostensibly taking—but something in his supercilious manner encourages condescension. This was confirmed in later Moore productions in which his contempt for Charlton Heston or George W. Bush was not submerged but was, essentially, the feature attraction. 

It is, then, surprising to encounter the ethic of empathy Malle practices throughout God’s Country from its very first scene. Before we know where we are or who the people are, Malle—who operates his own camera throughout the film—ambles over to a tiny, mildly hard-of-hearing old woman, Miss Litzau. She is toiling in her flower and vegetable garden, which, despite her insistence that it has been overtaken by weeds, appears well-tended and verdant. The day looks splendid in that particular Upper Midwestern way: cool, overcast, comfortable. Then, over the course of several minutes, Malle gently (though loudly) prods Miss Litzau about her life, her family, and her hobbies. He asks whether she likes living in Glencoe. “My sisters wanted me to come to the cities, but I would not go to the cities,” she says. “Well, it’s so nice out here, seeing all these flowers grow. I love that. I don’t care much for the city.” 

This is how the rest of the film is constructed: a series of encounters, usually one person or one family at a time, between Malle and the locals. He spends time with a banker, a Dairy Queen proprietor, and the minister at one of the nine churches in town, the last of whom particularly impresses Malle. “Reverend Chapman, head of the First Congregational Church of Glencoe, is an amiable gentleman—very open-minded,” Malle says in a slightly quizzical tone that sometimes suggests he is reporting from Mars. 


Malle asks Chapman whether the divorce rate is up even in Glencoe. “Many marriages twenty years ago were in trouble, but they stayed together,” Chapman says. “And fifty years ago, divorce was almost unheard of. But the problems within the home and the marriage were still there.” In other words, the minister acknowledges that man’s fallen nature is not unique to any one time or place—it is as fallen in Glencoe as it is anywhere else, and as fallen in 1959 as it is in 1979. In the past, duty and propriety kept marriages intact. That’s a good thing, not a sign of hypocrisy.

Yet Malle has not come to Glencoe to talk about statistics or trends. He has come to meet people. One of his favorites is Jim Mackenthun, a wiry, mustachioed 28-year-old farmer who speaks with convincing sincerity about his life’s work. “I can remember, ever since I was old enough to think, farming is all I ever wanted to do,” he says. “I’m my own boss. I don’t have to go and punch a timeclock and have somebody get mad at me. I get up in the morning, and I know what I’ve got to do.” 

Jim, who has three children with his wife Bev, takes Malle on a tour of their modest home, which Jim presents as though Malle has never before seen a house of any sort. “This is what’s called the living room in here. This is where we watch the TV, if there’s any TV to watch, or just to sit and read the paper,” he says, noting that he only has time to watch TV in the wintertime. In the narration, Malle comments, “Jim and Bev’s hospitality is so gracious, I feel I’ve known them all my life.”

Like the Congregational minister, Bev perceives cracks in the wholesome surface: She got married when she was 18, but nowadays, she says, young women are waiting until they are 20, 21, or even 22—a stunning development. What must she think of the average age of marriage today? These are smart, sensible people who are aware that the values that stitch a community together can grow thin. The assistant chief of police proudly notes that, while young people in larger cities are avid consumers of marijuana, the kids in Glencoe might drink an occasional beer but don’t get drunk or high “on a regular basis”—a perhaps questionable source of pride. One young man in his early thirties revels in the single life, boasts of his lack of church membership, and expresses no problem with cohabitation. Times are changing, he says—they sure were.

Yet pillars of the community remained. Malle found he had a particular rapport with Arnold and Millie Beneke, an attorney and his wife, whose son, during the Vietnam War, was one of the so-called “Minnesota Eight,” a cadre of students charged with plotting to destroy draft files. Arnold and Millie express pride in their son’s commitment to his principles. “[We were] not supportive of breaking the law, but supportive of doing whatever he could to end the war,” Millie says. Here we have a reminder that antiwar sentiment was robust in the Midwest decades before there was a president named Donald Trump. Talking about Vietnam, Arnold says: “Talk about a fraud on the young men of America.” 

Malle does not strike a pious or sentimental tone in the film. He has fun at the expense of the seemingly perpetual lawn-mowing in Glencoe (“At all hours, men, women, children chop furiously every bit of grass that sticks out—maybe a vestige of the pioneer spirit”), and he seems somewhat overwhelmed by the overly effusive members of a ladies’ softball team who celebrate a win with repeated calls to go to the Pizza Ranch. Yet, just as he did with Miss Litzau, Malle gives himself the freedom, time and again, to be won over. 

We sense that Malle may be faintly annoyed with a pharmacist who wants to direct Malle’s camera to notable spots inside his drug store (“The horse may be of interest up above there”), but then he encounters the man’s wife, the very picture of Midwestern mannerliness, who asks, unprompted and sounding genuinely curious, “What part of France are you from?” The shell is cracked. Best of all is little Brian Thalmann, an extremely polite 10-year-old who answers Malle’s questions about his family’s enormous tractor. “It’s the biggest that John Deere—this brand name—makes,” he says, tactfully explaining that John Deere is a “brand name” on the assumption that Malle would have no idea who or what a John Deere is. 

Of course, Glencoe is far from actually being “God’s country.” No place on earth could live up to such a designation. In the film, several people make racist or anti-Semitic comments. There are examples of the smallness of a truly small town, including talk about the purportedly too progressive members of a theater group. At one point, Malle encounters an old man aimlessly shuffling along a sidewalk who speaks not of the glories of Glencoe but of the bleakness of being sent off to a nursing home. When Malle asks him where he would like to be, he says, “In the graveyard.” His face gives no indication that he is kidding.

If Malle did not find saints in Glencoe, he did find, as he put it, some friends. His return in August 1985 unfolds over the film’s final 20 minutes. At 91, Miss Litzau remains committed to her garden. Jim Mackenthun is so distressed by the farming crisis that he no longer wants his children to follow in his footsteps; his wife now has a job. Another struggling farmer comments, “You can only work so many hours a day and so many days a week, and when the return isn’t there, it’s not going to benefit you at all.” 

Then Malle settles down for dinner with Arnold and Millie Beneke, who put things into context. Millie says that despite the town having enthusiastically supported Reagan for reelection, economic prosperity is not, in fact, trickling down; local use of the food bank is up, she says. “The things that are going on right now can only be characterized in my mind as an obsession with greed, and a nation doesn’t live long with that obsession,” Arnold says. The news is grim, but Malle ends with an affirmation: “Millie and Arnold, I am proud to have become your friend. For me, you represent the best of this country—generous, smart, dedicated, unpretentious. Great Americans.”

What led Malle to approach the townspeople of Glencoe—even with their quirks, their flaws, their limitations—with such startling grace? Perhaps Malle had a reservoir of good feeling for Americans in the same manner that his fellow French cinephiles adored popular American directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jerry Lewis. Or perhaps Malle had developed personal attachment to the country because of his marriage, in 1980, to actress Candice Bergen, on whose television sitcom, Murphy Brown, he later logged a guest appearance.

In the end, I don’t think any of these explanations are satisfactory. I think Malle simply took the people he met on their own terms and refused to limit his impressions with any preconceived notions or personal political judgments. 
The comedian Bill Maher, of whom I am no particular fan, recently said that while it is permissible to hate Donald Trump, “you can’t hate everybody who likes him.” He is correct. Maher said, “I don’t want to live in the country where I hate half the country, and I don’t hate half the country.” No one in their right mind would, but if anyone belonging to the present-day left wants to learn how to practice actual empathy, they shouldn’t just listen to a late-night television personality. Instead, they should watch God’s Country.