The French Occupation on film – a reliable guide or an unreliable whitewashing?

Whenever a ‘historical film’ is released, much critical ink is spilt by cultural commentators, academics and film critics. From D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) through to Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) via Disney’s recent interpretations of the Hercules and Pocahontas legends, films have been regarded as unreliable documents to the past. Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) had recently been lambasted for its facile rhetoric and sledgehammer sentimentality, while in 1997, Titanic’s attempts at vraisemblance stretched only to jarring and erroneous references to Picasso and Freud. The filmmaker is generally denounced by WASPy liberals as a contorter of the truth, or regarded as a faux-moralist (criticisms levelled at Spielberg again after the release of Saving Private Ryan (1998), whose didacticism is seen not as an enhancing of the mythopoeic themes but as a paean to the Good Ol’ Boys who fought on Omaha Beach to secure the freedom of the entire Western World.

Yet when was history ever a completely objective science? It was Macaulay who saw history as a mixture of philosophy and poetry, while Ranke described Michelet as someone who ‘wrote history in such a style that it was impossible to tell the truth’. Recently, historian Gerald Brenan wrote that ‘I’ve given up on history. You can’t get the truth by writing history. That only a novelist like Scott can achieve’.

Thus it seems a small step from Ivanhoe to In the Name of the Father. Jim Sheridan’s 1993 film does take liberties with the truth by inventing new characters and neglecting key events. Yet does this make the film a lesser work? Any film dealing with the past, especially one from Hollywood, will be accompanied by all the regular brouhaha that surrounds the thorny issues of race, war, miscarriage of justice and social turbulence. Ken Loach is one such filmmaker who is regularly criticised for what observers see as historical fabrication and conflation. To counter-balance that argument, he argues that historical films should illuminate the present, but not to the extent that the whole fabric of the film then becomes overburdened with clinical accuracy. Moreover, do we now start denouncing Shakespeare because his history plays depart from the accepted truth (did Richard III really do all those bad things?), or Herodotus’s Histories which notoriously mingled fact and fiction? The past should never be a different country, but a living, breathing re-creation of a bygone era that can at once entertain and instruct.

It is axiomatic that a work of art can reflect or encapsulate the concept of nation and national history – think of Shakespeare, Goethe and W.B. Yeats – but at the same time the dominant political ideology may demand a white-washing of the past, a kind of artistic amnesia that requires the less salubrious elements of a nation’s past to be airbrushed out of any potentially revolutionary or inquisitive work of art. The positive effect of such a policy can be seen in Germany with the initiation of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the philosophy of ‘coming to terms with the past’ that was reflected in the literature and art produced in post-1945 Germany. Poets, writers and artists, along with filmmakers like Fassbinder and Wenders attempted to exorcise their own personal uneasiness with their own nation’s history through works that explored the themes of isolation and hope. Yet whereas the German cultural and political elite have been able to address the legacies of the past, the French, and in particular the French intelligentsia, have been reluctant to examine the issues of the Resistance and Franco-German collaboration during the Second World War.

The most recent French films about the Resistance (Lucie Aubrac (1997), A Self-Made Hero (1995)) are necessarily revisionist accounts which attempt to placate present day French attitudes to the past which, when it comes to the subject of the Occupation, shift uneasily between national shame at collaboration and the glorification of Resistance heroism. One of the prevailing criticisms of these film accounts is that the works adopt a too facile and one-dimensional portrait of French attitudes in 1940, airbrushing out any inconsistencies that may jar with the intended depiction of ‘how it really was’. As one critic wrote of Lucie Aubrac, ‘the film sacrifices much needed suspense in order to generate the oceanic feeling of the French as one big anti-Nazi family’.

However, it was not always thus. Given the explosion of iconoclastic films in the 1970s that dealt with the effects of the Occupation on the French psyche, what is incongruous is the way in which cinematic depictions of the Occupation in recent years have regressed back to monochromatic distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The predominant Gaullist myth of post-Liberation France (i.e. that the Resistance struggle is defined as the ‘great majority of men’ against ‘a few traitors’) was severely questioned in Ophüls’s Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1971) and Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974), both of which displaced the Gaullist narrative by portraying collaboration as a widespread phenomenon during the Occupation.

Post-1968, film-makers had begun to ‘film things differently’ and ‘film different things’ which had enabled the development of a new way of writing history and move away from what Foucault called ‘the only way of writing history’. By dismantling Gaullism not just as a political system but also as a cultural style that had viewed all art as a reinforcement of an ‘honourable nationalism’, both Ophüls and Malle sought to openly expose various degrees of collaboration and resistance. However, whereas Le Chagrin et la Pitié raises the notion of collaboration from a firm moral judgement, the shades of good and bad in Lacombe, Lucien are absent – it is absence of coherent moral perspective that runs through the film. It was an important work in that it offered a new form of history, a new narrative. The camera was detached, there was little moral coherence and psychological motivations were never explained. In this way, the film’s narrative is profoundly Brechtian in that it celebrates the triumph of the personal over the public. In Malle’s own words, his anti-hero was ‘a young peasant who might just have well become a resister and who enters the service of the Gestapo by accident.’

Thus the director forces us to address and reconsider conventional ideas of the Occupation (i.e. collaborator as monster) and instead asks the question "Was Lucien really aware of what was going on?" Malle regards the definition of a collaborator in Occupied France as an ideological sympathiser with fascism, yet Lucien is depicted as politically naïve and merely the victim of chance. When such monochromatic categories begin to blur, who is to say what a collaborator really is? Thus the prophylactic spell of the Gaullist narrative is broken – anyone might be guilty.

Public reaction to the film is a useful starting point in any debate on the historical presentation of the Occupation. Right-wing commentators in 1974 resented the fact that the collabos were represented as marginals devoid of ideological commitment and were instead driven by latent brutality, whilst the Left criticised the film’s portrayal of the Resistance as petty murderers, and the notion that collaboration was widespread. Yet this collaboration was something that was far more widespread than French historians would admit, whilst records have shown that up to 95% of the population at this time were just keeping their heads down and waiting for the impending Liberation. This ‘attentisme’ already begins to fly in the face of the dominant Gaullist discourse. In parts of France where collaboration had gone on and had been accepted (especially in the southern, Non-occupied Zone), the film was welcomed as an honest portrayal of provincial life, whereas for Parisian left-wing intellectuals, the film was an apology for collaboration. The editorial of Le Monde declared: ‘We are told that he might just as well have been a resister – it was due to bad luck. Resistance, Gestapo – it’s all the same.’ This whole debate highlights the deep unwillingness along the political and cultural spectrum to demystify the Resistance or to delve into the logic of collaboration (a debate recently reanimated by the Papon trial in Bordeaux).

‘History’ is present in the film, if by that we mean ‘real life’ and the creation of vraisemblance: the opening shot sees a picture of Pétain draped with rosary beads and we hear a radio broadcast from Henriot, the Minister of Propaganda. Moreover, Malle sets up the chain of events leading to Lucien’s arrest and assimilation into the Gestapo against the background of historical verisimilitude – Lucien’s father is absent, working in Germany, while his mother has taken up with another man (such ‘horizontal collaboration’ was endemic). Similarly, Lucien is rejected from the local Resistance group because he is ‘trop jeune’ – this is also historically accurate (as can be gleaned from contemporary sources). Yet because the film adopts this passive, detached constancy and eschews any psychological analysis, we never learn whether or not ‘History’ is the cause of Lucien’s behaviour.

Malle seems to posit the idea that this period of French history cannot be simply explained or rationalised. It is not some kind of Manichean truism in which this group of people collaborated and that group of people resisted – as the film shows, the moral and political boundaries are blurred, and no ideological battleground is ever sketched by the director or his actors. Perhaps we can detect Marx here somewhere – the belief that members of the lumpen proletariat would always collaborate with the repressive forces in society because they were not politically informed. This echoes Malle’s view in which he asserts that Lucien ‘was not morally aware of what he was doing’ as well as one of the original reviews of the film: ‘by chance he finds himself on the wrong side, not by conviction.’

Thus the collapse of explanatory paradigms in the film is a metaphor for the notorious difficulties in explaining the past. This period in France’s history saw the subversion of all accepted norms, and Malle proves that any accurate, logical portrayal of behaviour at this time can never escape from the subject matter’s own tortuous circumstances. Unlike the works of Eisenstein, in particular Alexander Nevsky (1938), wherein montage is used to create meaning and ideological sympathy, Lacombe, Lucien eschews the obvious, the blatant. The only overt didacticism in the film is the super-imposed words of Santayana in the opening shot – ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it’. Thus it would seem clear from the outset that Malle is offering some kind of morality play, and yet despite this pre-emptory warning, the subsequent events suggest that History was not responsible for the anti-hero’s actions, but rather a chance incident.