In occupied France, German-run Continental Films calls the shots in the movie business. Assistant director and Resistance activist Jean Devaivre works for Continental, where he can get "in ...
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In occupied France, German-run Continental Films calls the shots in the movie business. Assistant director and Resistance activist Jean Devaivre works for Continental, where he can get "in between the wolf's teeth and avoid being chewed up". Fast-living screenwriter Jean Aurenche uses every possible argument to avoid working for the enemy. For both, wartime is a battle for survival. Written by
This film's dedication states that it is "Dedicated to those who lived through these events" [as depicted in this movie]. See more »
The film credits include references to a Lysander and a Dakota but Devaivre flies out in a de Haviland Dragon Rapide, and is parachuted back into France from what looks like a Lockheed Hudson (as it has twin tailfins, it cannot be a Dakota). See more »
Explaining France: A Purgatory for an entire nation.
This deeply humane film is the first that I, as a child of a British generation who once faced the real and imminent possibility of life under Nazi dictatorship, have ever seen that allows me to understand just what a nightmare it was, to actually live in the collaborationist state of Vichy. How could the human soul survive such radical compromises as were required of the French every day of their war-time existence? How, except by a unique form of cultural prostitution, could people negotiate for the temporary return of their own lives, which was the best accommodation for which they could hope?
Without the obvious and utterly stylized heroism beloved of the Hollywood dream-factory, and of communist ideological fantasists, alike, this film reveals and communicates more of the agony of ordinary lives under Vichy - largely through the microcosm of the 'film family' - than any other I know. The gains in such directorial and authorial humility are in the honesty this permits in the observation of the shifts people are put to to survive: Such as the dog-end scam of a floor sweeper, who encourages harried fumeurs to stub out barely-smoked cigarettes on their way to the air-raid shelter; or the retrieval of river fish, stunned by the repercussions of British bombs, detonated nearby, and their free distribution to the film crew. This process of adaptation to extreme situations comes over as deeply sympathetic. Indeed, the whole business of earning your living (for that is what it amounts to when the means of life are so scarce and so insecure) by making films to pander to your conqueror's debased notions of your culture - which films yet contrive to be, in some residual sense, an expression of your innate and irreducible Frenchness - seems to me to be all of a piece with such simple, even seedy, everyday strategies for survival, that also, and despite appearances to the contrary, permit a conquered nation to retain some semblance of its pride and integrity. Thus a captive people secretly harbours dreams of what it once was, and must be again. 'The wind must change one day' says one of the lesser characters who teem through this film.
The insistence on sheer craftsmanship as a value in itself, despite the malign vagaries of German-sourced film-stock, material, and equipment, is a most eloquent rebuttal of Truffaut's somewhat facile and intemperate post-war Cahiers du Cinema rejection of most of the ill-starred war-generation of French film-makers. The fact remains that he was the talented if disturbed son of these tragic fathers, whether he chose to acknowledge them or not. (And he did have a lurking affection for some of them - Guitry, par exemple.) Of course, his rebellion has value - as who can possibly deny who appreciates the fruits of the Nouvelle Vague? We should make the effort to understand this paternity, albeit it is one that appeared only negatively influential in terms of cinema history. Indeed, Tavernier sees that it is time that justice was done to this lost generation of film makers. Further, he divines that their metier was a microcosm of a France effectively governed by Germany.
Therefore, it is with a shock, that, towards the end of the film, we are introduced, during Devaivre's unexpected debriefing session in England, to a proud and still independent people who are clearly managing to hold their own against Hitler; a people whose straightforwardness - even bluntness - grates unavoidably against the psychologically complex reality of the Occupation, which the Frenchman despairs of communicating to them. This wonderful scene, which is full of a balanced, good-natured satire, and is reminiscent of the style of Powell and Pressburger's great wartime films, has been carefully cast with English actors, and reveals Tavernier as an artist of international stature. The complexity of the course of the obscure affairs of ordinary flawed mortals towards an illumination of all that is best about human beings is almost miraculously realised. Out of the very particular, even embarrassingly private, troubles of his country in those dark days, he has fashioned both a detailed account of the experience for his fellow-countrymen (and francophiles!), and a moving drama of the human spirit under adversity, that should rank this work amongst the greatest films of war-time.
To understand is (indeed) to forgive. This film allows us to comprehend a very dark chapter in the history of France. This is how most British people would have lived, I'm sure, if the whole of Britain had gone the way of the Channel Islands. I really don't see any reason for the French to be embarrassed by such a film: It explains them to the world, in terms of their own experience.
Clearly, collaboration was no cake-walk - more a Purgatory for an entire nation.
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