Inside Story

Fortunes of war

A rediscovered memoir and a multi-season French drama point to new ways of thinking about the second world war

Jane Goodall 14 June 2017 2867 words

Bold and original: Robin Renucci, Audrey Fleurot, Maxim Driesen and Nicolas Gob in Un Village Français.

No Place to Lay One’s Head
By Françoise Frenkel | Translated by Stephanie Smee | Vintage | $34.99

Un Village Français
Created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit | Hi Gloss Entertainment

Françoise Frenkel’s No Place to Lay One’s Head describes her chaotic odyssey through Germany and France during the second world war, which had broken out when she was fifty years old. Shuttled from pillar to post in a series of increasingly fraught attempts to escape deportation to the camps, Frenkel spent those years in borrowed dresses, carrying just a few salvaged essentials as she tramped the streets in broken shoes.

So it’s surprising to find that the cover of the English-language edition of this memoir shows a young woman dressed in a voguish 1940s ensemble. Perfectly coiffed and made up, she looks like something out of one of those TV series built around the persona of a retro “style icon.”

Inappropriately generic book covers have become so prevalent that this would hardly be worth commenting on, except for the fact that it points to a central question about any attempt to engage with history through story. How much reality do we want? Or, to put it in a more searching way, what kind of reality do we want?

Some highly successful popular writers (Hilary Mantel, Peter Ackroyd and Jeanette Winterson spring to mind) wallow in the sordid and often sadistic particulars of life in times past. Some television producers are lauded for the gritty historical accuracy of their sets. It seems like readers and viewers can’t get enough of the special forms of violence practised by the Vikings, the Romans or the Elizabethans.

Yet traditional psychological barriers remain strong. We like to see certain shapes emerge in the relationships between character and destiny. If the wheel of fortune takes a downward turn and good people experience bad things, we need an upward course to restore order and moral balance. Perhaps this explains why the second world war is such a persistent source of stories in the former Allied countries, where a culminating sense of victory over evil forces is embedded in the national psyche.

Frenkel’s memoir provides the classic narrative shape. Born in Poland, she studies at the Sorbonne in Paris during the years of the first world war, and there discovers her calling as a bookseller. She reads deeply in the byways of esoteric and avant-garde French literature, and takes pride in making these books available to a growing community of readers. In 1921, she and her husband decide to move the business to Berlin and become ambassadors for French literature and culture in the German capital.

There, they attract a clientele of foreigners from Poland, Russia, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Sweden and Austria. They organise lectures and dramatised readings. Frenkel is pleased to declare herself to German authorities as someone working in the cause of Franco-German rapprochement, though “on purely intellectual grounds.”

With the rise of the Nazi party, the enterprise starts to become precarious. Frenkel is called in for her first interview with the Gestapo in 1935. Her husband, a German Jew, goes into exile in France (and, curiously, is never mentioned again in her account). At night, Brownshirts gather in the courtyard outside her building. Boys from the Hitler Youth daub slogans on her windows. And, when the lootings and assaults of Kristallnacht take place on 10 November 1938, she is in the midst of the tumult.

With the outbreak of war, she leaves for Paris, and then travels south to Avignon in the hope of escaping constant questions about her identity and citizenship. For a time, she finds herself living through a kind of hiatus in a city of “sleepy peacefulness,” but the encroaching reality of war filters through via radio news broadcasts. She takes the train to Vichy to join some cousins who have found their way there, and arrives in an occupied town where everyday life has fallen under a dark shadow. Cafes are deserted; shops are closed. Trains arrive, packed with refugees. She returns to Avignon, now also occupied, then moves on to Nice, where she finds herself in company with other displaced people from all over Europe.

Tensions ratchet up again with the call for a general census that identifies foreign Jews for deportation. She witnesses Jewish children being separated from their parents. Her own ethnic status is uncertain, and identity papers are called for at every turn. On advice from friends, she flees the town and hides in a barn in the mountains. This fugitive phase continues as she makes her way to Annecy near the Swiss border, where she is detained while undergoing repeated interviews and assessments. The prospect of being deported to the concentration camp at Gurs is just as likely as that of being granted a pass across the border. She is one of the lucky ones, and the narrative ends with her arrival in Switzerland.

Frenkel returned to Nice after the war and lived there until her death in 1975. A copy of her memoir, completed in 1945 and sent to a Geneva-based publishing company, turned up in an attic in 2010, and was subsequently picked up by the leading French publisher Gallimard. This Vintage edition, translated by Stephanie Smee, is its first publication in English. It’s a well-written narrative, spare and confronting in its account of day-to-day conditions in regional France under the occupation, and has the added allure of being a first-hand testimonial unearthed after half a century.

Only one document has been found from Frenkel’s life after the war: her application for compensation for the contents of a trunk confiscated by the Gestapo in 1942. The inventory, which includes a fur coat, two tailored suits and a range of accessories, suggests that they belonged to a woman of style. That such a person – educated, prosperous and cosmopolitan – should find herself on the downward turn of the wheel of fortune in a sinister and violent world is part of the allure of her story, which satisfyingly follows through to the upward turn of fortune’s wheel.

Our fascination with second world war stories shows no signs of diminishing. And why should it? This is a massively traumatic period of our recent history, and the rise and fall of Hitler’s Reich is surely one of the greatest moral dramas of all history. But perhaps we should ask some sceptical questions about the persistent public appetite for stories of endurance and survival under the Nazis. At this distance in time, isn’t it becoming something of a narrative comfort zone for those from nations that were on the winning side?

How often in political debate do we refer to the sins of the Nazis as a way of resetting the moral compass? It’s ennobling to identify with staunch survivors and the courageous people who helped them, and to revisit the scenes of persecution that are now so pervasively condemned, knowing that the perpetrators lost the war. These protagonists start out as citizens like ourselves, confident of their resources and their place in the world, lose everything, and are then restored to lives of order and security at the end of the narrative.

There’s also a gratifying dramatic economy in the fact that this full turn in the global wheel of fortune took place through the course of only six years. The other great wars of our era are far more protracted, and less decisive in their conclusion. The war in Vietnam (1955–75) dragged on for twenty years, the troubles in Northern Ireland for thirty (1968–98). The first phase of the Iraq war ran for eight (2003–11) and heavy combat has continued to break out. It’s the same story in Afghanistan, where the major war began in 2001 and lasted for thirteen years, with a second phase still raging.

If we are seeking moral education in narratives of the second world war, we need to let go of our attachment to the reassuring wheel of fortune. The ambitious French television series Un Village Français certainly does this, and in the process unravels some fiercely sustained national myths about the occupation and the resistance.

It is set in the fictional village of Villeneuve, in the Jura region on the Swiss border (just north of where Françoise Frenkel underwent the most dangerous phase of her adventures), and is being broadcast in France over seven years, between 2009 and 2017. The seven seasons unfold across the same expanse of time as the sequence of historical events, so that the actors age in parallel with the characters. “I lived with him for six years. I was acting as him, as he was acting as me,” says Robin Renucci, who plays Daniel Larcher, the mayor and also the town’s sole doctor. Maxim Driesen, who plays Larcher’s nephew Gustave, grows through the story from a spindly nine-year-old to a lanky teenager.

Writer Frédéric Krivine, who scripted the dialogue and planned the dramatic structure of every episode, says he envisaged the characters as “a human kaleidoscope.” Although Larcher remains central throughout, the storylines follow the increasingly confused fortunes of more than a dozen people. This involves some serious work in narrative design. Strands are woven between the Larcher household, the school, the police station, the German command centre and, later, a communist resistance group camped out in the forest.

Conscious of the need to avoid “soap-operisation,” Krivine develops extended narrative lines in which scenes from increasingly disrupted everyday lives are fraught with tensions from the expanding theatre of war. The village becomes a microcosm of a world in crisis, and individual characters are caught between conflicting frames of morality and reason. Everyone is torn, and in many ways. Marriages come apart as new attachments form, families are separated, loyalties are stretched to breaking point.

Under the pressures, people become denatured. Those with a more fragile sense of self lose their anchor more easily than others, with children being especially susceptible. In the early series, Larcher’s nephew Gustave is a self-possessed child who quickly learns not to speak about what he sees and hears, and is capable of taking brave initiatives. But after the execution of his father, resistance leader Marcel Larcher (Fabrizio Rongione), he develops a brutal streak. He turns on the uncle who has tried to care for him, and participates in the public shaming of his aunt Hortense.

Hortense Larcher (Audrey Fleurot) becomes fascinated by the officer who heads the German contingent, Heinrich Müller (Richard Sammel). She is a glamorous redhead, no doubt drawn to the uniformed machismo authority, but Müller is a complex figure with sophisticated motivations. They fall into a kind of mutual addiction, which puts her in a position to engage in some of the worst betrayals. It’s not that she is intentionally malicious. As an opportunity occurs to her, you see the expression vanish from her face. She stares like a deer in the headlights, as if she knows she cannot but follow it through.

The young schoolmistress, Lucienne (Marie Kremer), also becomes involved in a relationship with a German. Theirs is an innocent romance, destined to come apart as he is drafted to another region. She marries the headmaster, Jules Bériot (François Loriquet), but distress and confusion eventually leave her psychologically wrecked.

Stoic personalities hold up better. Daniel Larcher – the “good man” in all this, if there is one – continues to treat patients, respond to emergencies and hold his family together to the extent that is humanly possible. He makes good decisions where he can, and compromises when he has to. Müller is the darker version of the stoic, for whom tyranny and cruelty have become forms of pragmatism.

Director Philippe Triboit’s decision to employ Violaine Bellet as a consultant psychologist to the series has clearly helped to give depth to the interplay of personalities and relationships. Historical adviser Jean-Pierre Azéma, a leading authority on the Occupation, contributes to the unflinching realism by helping to tie the dramatic structure of episodes to real events. Many of these incidents play out across the whole series, reflecting escalating levels of danger, conspiracy and internal conflict.

After Marcel Larcher and a companion rashly assassinate two German officers in the pharmacy, a chain of repercussions sets in. The two resistance fighters go into hiding, and Marcel eventually becomes the leader of a resistance camp based in the woods. The French police, under orders to co-operate with the German command, are instructed to round up hostages from the village. This process is managed by Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob), an officer recently promoted on the basis of his readiness to collaborate.

At every turn, people are offered versions of Sophie’s choice: they can save one person by betraying someone else. The freedom to make ethical decisions is lost. Jews, resistance workers and other fugitives are always conscious that if those who know their whereabouts fall into the hands of the Germans, betrayal is inevitable. Some may resist torture, but being threatened with the torture of family members is another matter.

Sooner or later, someone is bound to be coerced into disclosing the location of the resistance camp, and the concluding episodes of series five show German forces closing in. This sequence is based on a historical event, the massacre of the Maquis de Chaumard in July 1944,but the fictional version unfolds differently, with its own repercussions.

Series six and seven, which track the break-up of the occupation and the reversal of fortunes that puts the resistance in charge of meting out justice, give us anything but the conventional moral satisfaction associated with the upward turn of fortune’s wheel. Horrible scenes show the villagers taking out their pent-up anger and frustration on women accused of relationships with German officers. New positions of authority attract competition from people who have lost their social connections in the village and simply want status.

After years of living with vicious perversions of justice, attempts at formal adjudication of the rights and wrongs of the past five years only produce another order of perversion. The trial scenes involving two major characters are some of the most painful to watch. The prosecutor, played by distinguished theatre actor François Chattot, treats the courtroom as his stage, engaging in flights of rhetoric about the fate of innocent victims, the persecution of Jewish citizens, the scenes in which children are torn from their parents.

But even as he does this we are made to hate him, because he is distorting the facts of the particular case. It is all in the cause of finding an outlet for righteous indignation and a necessary sacrifice to appease the collective need for vengeance. Ultimately, there must be another batch of executions, and this is just an exercise in arbitrarily choosing victims. One of the remaining résistants quotes La Fontaine: “Man is of ice for the truth, of fire for lies.”

Watching six-and-a-half series of Un Village Français in quick succession, as I did (the final six episodes are yet to be screened in France), is an extraordinary and demanding experience. If there is a moral theme, it is that there are limits to personal capacity and responsibility. This is a very different view of history from that afforded by narrative dramas that divide people into heroes and villains, and it makes much sterner demands on a contemporary audience.

When the fabric of a society is destroyed, moral decomposition is like a contagious disease; people become estranged from themselves. Extensive flashback sequences in the final series help to convey the sense of individuals trying to reconnect with what they once were.

Un Village Français features some of the best-known television and film actors in France, but the demands on them are exacting and intense. There are no gratifying emotional “moments.” This is a world in which reactions are suppressed, feelings displaced. Those in the lead roles have a repertoire of micro-behaviours that they use to speak volumes.

While this is very much an ensemble cast, and it may be inappropriate to identify a stand-out performance, anyone wanting a masterclass in this art form should study Nicolas Gob’s portrayal of Marchetti. There is a whole secondary language here, in the flickers of nerve tension that move through the face or the hands, the subtle shifts in rhythm. Marchetti, as the actor has said in interviews, is a character who reacts in the moment, determining the options in a situation and acting accordingly. Yet as the story builds he develops powerful human attachments in spite of himself, and his final scenes are gut-wrenching.

The series is up there with the best of the best in contemporary television drama. It sets the highest standards in psychological realism, historical accuracy and scenic verisimilitude. The costumes by Thierry Delettre are authentic to the last detail: cardigans are knitted from the yarn of the period, handbags never opened on screen have carefully assembled contents.

In dramatic terms, Un Village is not perfect. Some of the storylines go off the rails. Small children who are central to the action in one series are hardly mentioned in the next. There are too many romances, and some of them are neither convincing nor interesting. But ambitious ventures rarely produce perfection. What the series does achieve is a bold and original form of moral insight. •