In a French village in the winter of 1941, the river forms the line of demarcation between the German-occupied zone and the Vichy zone. Over the bridge comes a released prisoner of war, Count de Damville, who is physically wounded and mentally defeated. His château has become the headquarters of Major von Pritsch and he accepts German rule. His English wife the Countess (Jean Seberg. looking more attractive than in any other film of hers I can think of) has meanwhile joined the Resistance and is helping downed Allied airmen escape over the river.
We meet many other inhabitants of the village, mostly patriotic, altruistic and brave but some selfish, cowardly and traitorous. We meet various people they are smuggling over the river, including an unfortunate Jewish family. We meet Resistance fighters, ready to take on the Germans with guns and grenades. And we meet many of the Germans, with von Pritsch and his soldiers doing their job relatively honestly while the Gestapo go about their sordid business with characteristic ruthlessness.
Chabrol's black and white camera repeatedly scans the deserted car-free streets and shuttered houses of this bleak wartime winter. Human warmth, where people show love and support for each other, relieves the gloom but human treachery and brutality intensifies it. No laughs and little joy in the film, but that was true of much of Europe at that unhappy time.
Overall well worth seeing for the mounting tension, the wide range of vivid characters, the depiction of a small community under huge stress and the ultimate, admittedly muted, optimism that the suffering and sacrifices of the villagers will prove worthwhile.
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