French Cinema and World War Two
French Cinema in World War Two
The Nazi invasion of France and the rapid capitulation of the French resulted in the division of France into an occupied zone in the north and west with an unoccupied Vichy controlled collaborationist zone in the south. The Vichy period lasted from 17th June 1940 - 24 August 1944.
Map of France showing the arministrative set up after the occupation by the Nazis. The Vichy part of France was administered by Marshal Petain. The main parts of France were under direct Nazi control.
(Map sourced from Michael Williams' website on Oradour-sur-Glane)
After the fall of France approximately 1,500 artists and intellectuals escaped into exile helped by the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) a privately funded American organisation. Many within the film industry including Jean Renoir, Rene Clair and Max Ophuls benefitted from this. Many important figures in the French film industry stayed in France and worked relatively smoothly under the new regime, suggests Vincendeau (1). There were political differences about whether it was better to stay. The Communist run Resistance paper L’Universite libre argued that France’s culture shouldn’t be left to the Nazis. It must, of course, be remembered that at this time the Soviet / Nazi pact was still operational seriously distorting the political field.
The complexity of the situation is epitomised by nationalists supportive of Petain such as the Catholic playwright Paul Claudel. Claudel was nevertheless highly critical of outright collaboration and castigated the open support of the Nazi anti-Semitic programme, only allowing a play of his to be performed providing the music of the Jewish Darius Milhaud could be performed (2). Claudel became increasingly critical of Petain.
Whilst many argued that no work should be published under the Nazis even Sartre had a play performed in Paris. There were also different attitudes dependent upon which zone people were in. Louis Aragon had developed a notion of ‘contraband literature’ which argued for creative work to be coded with messages of resistance.
Nazi Attitudes to Cultural Production
The Nazi attitude to cultural production emanated from the basic positions that no anti-German sentiments were allowed and that any Jewish presence should be eliminated. French cinema prospered but few of the films were direct propaganda. This is consonant with the argument that the Nazi use of popular narrative features were deliberately kept away from real issues.
To gain a fuller understanding of the times the whole context of viewing needed to be taken into account (3) . Vincendeau comments on the emergence of the rare appearance of the ‘fantastic’ trend in French cinema which in fact accords with the content of Nazi feature films made in Germany especially as the war progressed and the general construction of narratives needs to be seen within this Nazi context.
The complicity between the Nazis and the French film industry can be read either as a survival strategy for the industry or opportunism, for French cinema did well under the temporary hegemony of Nazi cinema in mainland Europe in terms of producing films and generating audiences. The French industry was clearly not unaware of the likely industrial outcomes of any invasion.
Many French directors had been working in Germany since 1933. The fact that there was significant collaboration on co-productions is evidence that many in the French film industry were strongly aware of the sort of conditions which pertained in Nazi Germany and that would ensue in France with the onset of occupation. Yet it appears that relatively few members of the French cinema industry chose to flee to America rather than collaborate with Nazi cinema. The fact that some did flee especially Jewish personnel focuses on the need to study the motivations and opportunities for those who remained.
Film production and audiences during the period
The Vichy government under Petain created a new ruling body for the cinema, the Committee for the Organisation of the Cinematographic Industries (COIC) based in Paris. Vincendeau maintains that this was part of an endeavour to limit German control over the industry however it did impose the elimination of all Jews from the cinema, as well as overhaul the industrial organisation of French cinema making it far more efficient.
Very few films were produced in Vichy France the vast majority were produced in Paris. This was partly because initially no French films were allowed to cross the demarcation line. When the ban was lifted in 1941 films passed by the German censors could be distributed in the South without any restriction. But this created a difficulty for films initially produced in the South and only 35 were produced there. The Germans also established Continental films in Paris, which made 30 features out of the total of 220 made in the course of the war. By comparison only 22 were produced by the Pathe and Gaumont companies which were still the largest indigenous French companies.
American and British films were banned and French movies dominated the screens, so, although output was lower, there was increased profitability. German film distribution grew from 5% of the market during the previous decade to 56% in 1941, settling to 22% by 1943. Attendance was very high as cinemas were warm and relatively safe places to be. In 1938 attendances were 220 million rising to over 300 million in 1943.
The strategic film policy established a sounder financial framework, control of the box-office and a boost for short film production were amongst the measures introduced. How far this was shaped by the Nazi exhibitionary policy of newsreel and documentary shorts as an accompaniment to feature films is something else which needs greater research. Armes comments that these were so unpopular that to deter disruptions the lights were left dimmed so that troublemakers could be spotted.
Regulations requiring professional accreditation were part of the legislation designed by the Vichy government to exclude Jews. Other measures included censorship to protect under 16s, the double-billing of features was eliminated and fostered short and documentary production. A grand prize for artistic film was established as was the national film school IDHEC initially under director Marcel L’Herbier.
Poster of La Main du Diable by Maurice Tournier (Father of Jacques Tournier), a 1942 horror film
The content of the films produced during this period is best understood as ambiguous and paradoxical. In common with much of the German cinema of the period Jews were not represented whilst hostile representations of Jews were common during the 1930s. In Germany anti-Semitic sentiments were projected onto particular characters who were developed in a very unpleasant way such as intellectuals and small businessmen.
Detailed comparative research with cinematic output of France and Germany during this period might reveal homologies between the projections and structured absences regarding Jewish people in both countries. General antagonism towards foreigners was considerably reduced. Many films can be read as representing Vichy conservative values.
The shift to the genres of the fantastic was important utilising magical and legendary subjects such as Carne’s Les Visiteurs du soir and Cocteau’s L’Eternal Retour (1943) directed by Jean Delannoy which was a reworking of Tristan and Isolde while the former was about the devil visiting a mediaeval court . The positions taken in regard to this generic outpouring range from Bazin’s notion of a Cinema of Evasion, to allegory, to approval from collaborationist critics such as Rebatet who supported this trend as a return to a ‘pure’ French cinema free of foreign influences such as Jews and Hollywood.
A new genre was the rise of the ‘woman’s film’. These were melodramas from well established directors such as Gance’s La Fille du Venus aveugle (The Blind Venus, 1940), Jean Gremillon’s Le Ciel est a vous (The Sky is Yours, 1943), Pagnol’s La fille du puisatier (The Well-digger’s Daughter, 1942). Readings of these films vary: some see these films as reactionary representations of women as they represent the Vichy ideology of domesticity, sacrificial motherhood and patriotism a new form of oppressed role.
Other readings argue that they are positive films because they featured strong women which wasn’t the case pre-war. Perhaps the reason for this, ventures Vincendeau, is because of the larger numbers of women in the audience. Women tended to become the centre of the narratives of the comedies produced at the time for example.
In the case of the Vichy style melodramas strong women would have been necessary to the plot, and their roles require further analysis than merely evaluating the position of women in this way. These could be seen as mirroring the changing status of women in Nazi genre cinema After the war the representation of women slipped back to a pre-war mode.
It has also been argued that high quality production of French cinema was an assertion of vitality of 'Frenchness' against the odds. As Jackson points out this needs to be read against Nazi cultural policy objectives. For them it was necessary to try an ensure docility of the local populus however there were dreams of establishing a challenge to the previous Hollywood stranglehold over the European film industry. Jackson following Erlich argues that :
Conscious of the greater popularity of French over German films the Propaganda Ministry authorised the export of French films to other Axis-controlled countries: France would play the role of entertainer in a Europe where power lay with Germany.
This suggestion needs to be evaluated in the context of long-term industrial links between the German and French film industries going back to the days of UFA in the Weimar during the 1920s including attempts to establish ‘Cinema Europe’ to determine the exact strategy being developed to oust the power of Hollywood. Jackson sees the Continental film company under Greven as a strategic player in this ambitious strategy.
Laissez Passer Bertrand Tavernier (France 2001) provides an excellent introduction to the role of the German run Continental Films in occupied France. As such this film is a metacinematic one.
Continental films was established under the leadership of Dr. Alfred Greven in 1940 once the occupation was established, Greven remained there for three years. Greven established himself as the central producer allocating groups of films to directorial teams based upon year long contracts. (Crisp p 280). Crisp argues that Continental clearly moved towards the central production concept with the main directors Henri Decoin (3 Films), Maurice Tourneur (4 films), Andre Cayette (four films ), and Richard Pottier (5 films). Greven would read all production reports and scenarios.
Continental was better resourced and ironically was less censored than the French companies. More liberal sexual attitudes were allowed and films such as La Symphonie fantastique had French patriotic overtones. There was a complex battle to develop the dominant discourse. Jean Gremillon’s Le Ciel est a vous for example was very warmly received by both Vichyites and the Resistance press with the conjunction of approval being distinguished upon lines of French identity.
By comparison Le Corbeau was based on real events in the conservative provincial Tulle in 1922. At this time poison-pen denunciatory letters were being circulated about the inhabitants. The Vichy authorities saw this as an unhealthy representation of Frenchness furthermore the Vichy was dependent upon these denunciatory letters to help maintian control through fear. Louis Malle's representation of this aspect of Vichy life can be seen in Lacombe Lucien (1974), a film which touched raw nerves when it was released. In Germany it was considered as a critique of delation - an essential aspect of Nazi control - and remained unreleased. It may well be that the Vichy response was underpinned by this although it was left unstated. The resistance press were also highly critical on the grounds of representing 'Frenchness' unfavourably.
Ambiguities in production and reception
Armes argues that there were a considerable number of ambiguities contained within the films produced in the Vichy period and that it is important to avoid over-simplistic evaluations. Some directors, like Daquin, were working but were also members of the resistance within the industry. In the post-war period Daquin became a militant trade-unionist. Daquin’s fourth film of the period Premier de cordee ( 1944 ), involved making a mountain film, a tale of courage against diversity. It can be seen as an expression of French resistance but it also contains elements of Petain ideology, with return to the land and a struggle against nature.
Armes argues that the output can’t be usefully taken on a film by film basis but is better evaluated over the range of films produced by any one film maker. Delonnay for example produced one film hailed as a fine resistance film Pontcarral (1942), while L’Eternal Retour (1943) was received as an apologia for Aryanism.
What place should the documentaries have in film history of the period?
Jackson raises the issue of the content of the documentaries produced during this period. Over 400 were made however few seem to have survived:
... they remain the hidden face of the Occupation cinema. The available evidence suggests they were fairly anodyne, but not without ideological significance.
A fuller picture of developments within French cinema of this period requires considerably more audience research whilst those of the period are still alive to provide ethnographically based accounts.
Le Corbeau (1943): A Case Study in Cultural Schizophrenia
The place of production, the content, and the importance of the surrounding political and social context, particularly in matters of an ideological nature are all factors which can influence the reception of a film and the construction of its dominant readings. These factors played an important role in the critical reception of Le Corbeau ( The Raven, 1943 ) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. On release it became popular amongst the occupation French film-goers. It was immediately banned after the liberation. More controversially there were punishments meted out to most of the people involved in the film’s production. Amongst the most vituperative critics there were calls for execution of the most important people involved. The recent release of the film on DVD with an English commentary by Ginette Vincendeau brings in a range of possible readings which are not raised in the main general histories of French cinema. At the time of writing a forthcoming monograph on Le Corbeau in the new but excellent Cinefiles: French Film Guides series should prove very interesting.
These attacks were the result of two major political forces playing for the hearts and minds of the French people. They had little to do with the content of the film which can be read as the most strongly anti-facist film of occupied France. The film is also opposed to the authoritarian moral and political values of the French Right. It does not offer any solutions to the corrupt society it depicts - it was after all, produced under conditions of occupation. Fictional films and other art forms are not political programmes and do not have to be prescriptive, arguably they can be more powerful when they are not prescriptive but raise issues to be worked through. People who can reach their own conclusions about subsequent proceedings.
Le Corbeau’s content was anti the authoritarian right. It also struck a sour note with the voices of the French resistance which had a very strong core element belonging to the Stalinist communist party and the aesthetic of socialist realism. For both Communists and Gaullists the immediate post-war aims were to excise the shame of occupation. Anything which could be deemed to have been an aspect of collaboration was seen as anti-French. The Stalinist left considered the film as ‘decadent’ and ‘demoralizing’.
‘Clouzot’s image of a France in which only a few outcasts and malcontents could behave with a semblance of morality and good will was completely unacceptable for those trying to promote a very different image of a nation capable of unity, collective heroism and self-sacrifice in the face of a powerful enemy.’
(Williams, 1992: p 261 )
As a result of this criticism Clouzot was banned from film making for two years after the war. He made a successful return making popular suspense thrillers which owed much to the style of Le Corbeau which Williams (1992) describes as a ‘masterpiece’.
The initial reception of the film and the continued popularity of Clouzot after his exile show that a significant membership of the French public was voting favourably with its feet. They were making readings of the film which fitted neither Nazi, Stalinist nor traditional French authoritarianism. Artistic considerations of life do not always fit easily into ideological schemas and a wide range of readings of a cultural object can be produced. The conditions of reception influence the creation of a dominant reading.
The film was produced by Continental Films, the German run production company established in the early months of the war. Films produced by this company received constant criticism from the underground press organised by the resistance.
The film itself consistently denounced bourgeois values by mocking the leading citizens of a small town in France. The scriptwriter Louis Chavance had worked with Jean Vigo the anarchist filmmaker on L’Atlante as the film’s editor. The script had first been drafted by Chavance in 1933. The production designer was In 1943 André Andrejew. It was based upon a true story of a woman in a small town who had deluged it with poison-pen letters. It was continuously rejected as too risky on commercial and political grounds. Ironically if it was not for the existence of Continental films and its policy of creating and supporting a strong French film industry the film would never have been made. Filmmakers working with Continental suffered less censorship and had better budgets than the Vichy controlled production companies.
The contents of the film would have been unlikely to pass French film censors as the film was anti-authoritarian, anti-Vichy as well as anti-Nazi in a number of ways. The plot features a doctor who was an abortionist as its leading actor, this in itself could only offend the Catholic right. The doctor’s lover who was rather promiscuous had a minor deformity of the foot. These meant that the film offended both Vichy moralism and Nazi eugenics theories and practices. The plot is about a person in the village who writes anonymous letters which eventually lead to suspicion, a suicide and ultimately a murder.
The perpetrator of the letters -a seemingly respectable citizen- is finally revealed as a mad intelligence in the form of the psychiatrist. The film openly asks a question which many in France may have found difficult to stomach at that time. Questioning the easy division of life into issues of good and evil a lamp is swung which creates differing patterns of shadow and light. The commentary asks where the borders between good and evil are, asking whether people know which side they are on ?
Any film at the time would be seen as having an allegorical reference to the occupation. It could be seen as avoiding crucial issues which combined with the gloomy mise en scene and the atmospherics of violence present within the film were interpreted as very pessimistic by many left film critics. Perhaps its popularity at the time of release struck a chord with the French viewing publics who had to adjust to the realities and difficulties of occupation, which threw up in real life a continuous series of unwelcome situations requiring decisions to be made about the depth and breadth of compliance necessary.
The film certainly touched upon the reality of the Occupation. Many millions of letters of denunciation were sent to the Vichy and Nazi authorities. The issue was to remain a highly sensitive one for decades. In the early 1970s a representation of this in Louis Malle’s film Lacombe Lucien raised a storm of protest not least from critics such as Foucault who dubbed the film as a right-wing plot. Foucault’s libertarian politics has always been suspect and showed just how difficult it was for the French to work through the realities of the occupation years.
A Film Noir
Film Noir is renowned for its occluded mise en scene many shots taken with blinds, through fencing which distances the subject of the camera adding to the chiascuro effects, making all not seem quite as it is.
Le Corbeau can be read as a film noir style thriller . What is interesting about the concept of Film Noir is that the original term was invented by French film critics who viewed the backlog of American thrillers such as Double Indemnity and Laura immediately the war was over. They considered it as an American ‘genre’ with antecedents in German expressionist cinema. This ignored the development of the French poetic realist pre-war films and also ignored the fact that many German film makers spent some time in France before going to Germany. Europe can be said to have made a strong contribution to the development of film noir during the war through Clouzot’s Le Corbeau and also Visconti’s Ossessione. Arguably the French critics of the time were in denial of the French wartime experience and with Clouzot in the dog house they preferred to ignore these strands to the genre. The existence of this European strand of noir in Europe itself and the ways in which it developed allow us the opportunity to develop a reading of the noir thriller as being not a so much a critique of modernity and the city as an allegory for the shadow of fascism and Nazism which fell over the whole of Europe.
Paul Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc (Filmography)
Vincendeau’s 2005 comments on the DVD develop an interesting range of comments on how the film can be read as a crisis of masculinity for the French male. Neither the Doctor played by the important star Pierre Fresnay nor the psychiatrist come across as powerful men in control of their work, destiny or the situation. The psychiatrists betrayal of the town and his wife could easily be linked to Vichydom whilst Dr. Germain could be seen as a failed example of French leadership. The character of the town playgirl played by another French star Ginette Leclerc is a spirited one and far from being a typical femme fatale who is ultimately punished for her ways it is she who realises who the Raven actually must be. Her sexuality, intelligence and honesty about herself shine through in the film against the weaknesses and dishonesty of the male characters.