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In this sprawling, star-laden film, we see the struggles of various French resistance factions to regain control of Paris near the end of World War II. The Nazi general in charge of Paris, Dietrich von Cholitz (Fröbe), is under orders from Hitler himself to burn the city if he cannot control it or if the Allies get too close. Much of the drama centers around the moral deliberations of the general, the Swedish ambassador (Welles), and the eager but desperate leaders of the resistance. Written by
Carl J. Youngdahl <email@example.com>
This film was a notorious turkey in 1966, but thanks to the recent DVD release it can be re-evaluated. It still doesn't come anywhere near classic status, but now we can see it in a format at least a little closer to how it should have been seen in the first place.
First, the dubbing -- the original theatrical release, which is the version released on VHS, is the single greatest case for subtitles in the history of film. It was execrable. On DVD, in French with English subtitles, the rhythms of the language are preserved and the distraction of having lip movement and the soundtrack so totally at odds with each other is gone. Unfortunately, the French track runs through the sequences featuring American stars, and that's a little disconcerting (though the French actor who dubbed Orson Welles does a very good Orson Welles impression). The solution of switching language tracks is inelegant, but useful. And there is no German track for the sequences featuring Gert Frobe. A better solution would have been to go the route of THE LONGEST DAY and run each sequence in the appropriate language with appropriate subtitles, but this film did not have a Darryl F. Zanuck producing it, willing to make those hard choices.
Second -- the screen format. Again, the VHS release was not letterboxed, and many of the shots and sequences demand the 2.35:1 ratio, particularly in the shots when the Resistance raises the French flag over the Prefecture of Police and Notre Dame. The VHS version is like going to Paris and looking at everything you see through a cardboard toilet paper tube.
What they couldn't do anything about in the DVD release was the "all-star" American actor casting. Kirk Douglas looks nothing like George Patton, and they made no effort to even try. Glenn Ford could have looked more like Omar Bradley with a little more attention to makeup, but when you're only in a couple of shots, and maybe working a couple of days, hey, why bother, right? At least with Orson Welles as Nordling and Robert Stack as Sibert we don't have the baggage of comparing a historic image to the image of the actor.
The biggest complaint about this movie was that it was confusing -- well, yes, but they were confusing times, which this movie brings out very well. But to the French a lot of the characters like Colonel Rol and General Leclerc are legendary. No real explanation of who they were and what they did is needed, like Patton would be to an American audience. So you really do have to know some of the background already. But for an American audience it is a lot easier if you don't try to keep straight who's who among the Resistance as long as you get the point, which IS clear, that there were several groups at odds with each other in the days before the Liberation and finally they were able to force the hand of the Allied generals and get them to change their strategy.
This film is basically a victim of American ethnocentrism. As an illustration: a while back I was visiting England not long after the film version of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN had been released, and it was shown on the flight over. At one point while I was there I was discussing the film with our English hosts, and they made the telling point that they never could understand what all the fuss about Watergate was about anyway. In Great Britain, a simple vote of no confidence would have been put to Parliament and the government would have been turned out in a Knightsbridge minute. In IS PARIS BURNING?, Americans have no idea of what Nordling (Orson Welles) is talking about when he asks the German General Choltitz (Gert Frobe) if he is prepared to take the responsibility for destroying a thousand years of culture, and mentions Notre Dame and Sainte-Chappelle. We all know Notre Dame (or think we do, hunchbacks and all that), but Sainte-Chappelle? Ay, there's the rub. Most Americans don't know that Sainte-Chappelle is the absolute jewel of High Gothic (13th century) architecture. Where Notre Dame is imposing and overwhelming, Sainte-Chappelle is elegant and delicate. And most Americans are not aware that Choltitz is one of the most interesting figures of the war. He had a reputation for being a very efficient destroyer of cities, which is why Hitler gave him the job in the first place -- Rotterdam is not mentioned in the film, though Stalingrad is -- but his face-to-face interview with Hitler when he was given the assignment for Paris convinced him that Hitler had completely lost his mind. His disobedience of the Fuhrer's order meant he was shunned by Wehrmacht veterans after the war, but he saved Paris.
But if you forget the "hey-there" stunt casting ("Hey there, it's Kirk Douglas! Hey there, it's Orson Welles!") and forget trying to identify every single character in every single plot thread, and instead view Paris itself as the central character around which everything else revolves, then IS PARIS BURNING? can be a very rewarding film.
Paul Wilson, Theatre Department, Methodist College, Fayetteville, NC
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