1971 : The Nazis in France: myths and reality…
Published in Socialist Worker, 21 August 1971
A film that has been causing a lot of controversy in France is Ophüls’ Le Chagrin et la Pitié (Grief and Pity), an account of the German occupation of France seen in terms of its effects on the town of Clermont-Ferrand, famous for the Michelin rubber works.
If art is the imposing of form onto shapeless reality, then this film is not a work of art. It is simply four hours of interviews conducted in 1969, illustrated with bits of war-time film, sometimes boring and repetitive, but often brilliantly illuminating.
The main job of the film is to demolish the mythical versions of the Occupation that have flourished since the war. We see films of crowds cheering Marshal Pétain (Hitler’s senile puppet dictator) and hear sleek, middle-aged men justifying their own war-time compromises and inactivity.
We also meet the German commander of Clermont-Ferrand, seen presiding at his daughter’s plush wedding, and smugly asserting that the deportation of the Jews was the responsibility of the Gestapo and had nothing to do with him. Whoever lost the war, it was not the ruling class of either country.
A particular joy for British spectators is the toothless Anthony Eden mumbling (in the sort of appalling French that results not from ignorance but from contempt for foreigners) his indifference to the lives of thousands.
The Resistance is seen mainly through such leaders as Georges Bidault (later an ardent supporter of French colonialism in Algeria). Though tribute is paid to the role of the workers, we see little of them. But we do meet two peasants who were active at the very origin of the Resistance. They tell us how “we were not Communists. But since Pétain was singing the Marseillaise, we had to sing the Internationale”.
What is striking in most cases is how fragile the reasons for resisting were. Nazism was seen essentially in national terms, rather than as a social system. But the merit of the film is not in the political analysis it offers, it is in the way it recreates the total texture of life in the period, and so helps us to make such an analysis.
Ophüls recaptures the way in which the war cut across individual destinies, as in the story of the homosexual British secret agent who fell in love with a German officer. And the whole irony of the period is summed up in shots of the grovelling Maurice Chevalier, singing the same idiotic, tuneless refrains whoever was in power.
It is to be hoped British cinema-goers will get the chance of seeing this film. Anyone who thinks the British middle class would in similar circumstances have let a few Jews come between it and a friendly understanding with Hitler, should see this film and think again.