This famous French documentary, which looks at the town of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region during the German occupation in the Second World War, was made in 1969 but was withdrawn from distribution and not generally seen till 1981.
Why was the film so controversial in France? It has the reputation of having exposed the extent of wartime collaboration. But I don’t believe that it revealed much that wasn’t known already. A simple answer to the question is that it showed participants in the events of 1940 to 1944 discussing things that most of the people who had experienced them preferred not to discuss. And there was a new generation ready to hear what their parents might not have told them.
Particularly inflammatory, I would guess, were two allegations that the film makes impossible to ignore. The first of those, insinuated with bitter humour by ex-members of the Resistance, but made more mildly and explicitly by British agents, is that in France the workers were inclined to resist while the bourgeoisie preferred to keep out of trouble. As for the aristocracy, representatives are on hand to testify to their predilection for active participation in the fascist project, even to the extent of fighting in a German uniform on the Eastern front.
The other allegation that haunts this film is that there was a higher level of collaboration in France than in other conquered countries. This accusation is hard to substantiate, but it leaves a taint.
We should not be too quick to indulge in the satisfaction of sitting in judgement, particularly when it comes to sins of omission or accommodation in war. It is easier for many of us to sympathise with the Frenchwomen who consorted with Germans than with those who humiliated them afterwards. As this film makes clear, the urge to respond to some of the German occupiers as fellow human beings could be strong. Not the Gestapo: the interviewees consistently distinguish between them and the ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht. An old boy called up late on to fill the depleted ranks of the latter is remembered kindly by a Resistance member to whom he slipped an apple on a forced march.
For some private citizens there may be extenuation and condonement, but for the French establishment, the governing classes, there is no escaping condemnation. Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was still admired by many interviewed in the film; but he was justly convicted of treason in 1945. As head of state, he did an enormous service of legitimisation to Nazi Germany by urging French citizens to collaborate. For Hitler he was surely a useful idiot, to borrow Lenin’s cynical phrase. Laval, head of government from 1942 to 1944, fares worse: the interviewer breaks into the disingenuous protestations of Laval’s son-in-law to give the statistics that reveal the consequences of the deals struck by his father-in-law with the Germans. But this is a rare case where we are given the quantitative information necessary to make substantial historical judgement. For the most part, what the film offers instead is insight into diverse personal experiences of the Occupation.
The British participants provide many of the most illuminating moments. Anthony Eden recognises with some emotion the human cost of the destruction - essential to the Allied cause - of the French navy at Mers-el-Kébir. A pilot who crashed in the Auvergne recalls the perilous generosity of the farmer who took him in. A homosexual entertainer turned spy speaks tenderly of his German officer lover. The courage of this spy is praised by his bowler-hatted controller, striding through Westminster; but the spy himself merely notes that he was willing to take on this dangerous role because he had nothing to lose - and he suggests that this is the key to understanding the differing responses of the French social classes to occupation.
Aesthetically, the film has little merit. Perhaps that is a frivolous thought. But when we switch from the ill-framed headshots, loose structure, and explanatory gaps of the documentary to the confident images and vigorous conviction of the wartime propaganda films, we are reminded that aesthetics matters. The film does, however, exert a cumulative power, as apparently banal reminiscences gradually give place to admissions of shocking candour, and to denunciations whose rancour was still undimmed 25 years after the war.