Inside Story

Who knows, and who can judge?

Resistance and collaboration were rarely clearcut in occupied France

Sylvia Lawson 7 April 2011 3084 words

Pablo Picasso, who spent the Occupation in Paris, wrote a surrealist play, Le Désir Attrapé par le Queue (Desire Caught by the Tail), which was performed privately in Michel Leiris’s home on 19 March 1944. In this photo, Simone de Beauvoir is holding a book, Albert Camus is engaging with the dog below him and Jean-Paul Sartre, with pipe, is sitting on the floor. Estate Brassaï/RMN

And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris
By Alan Riding | Knopf | $40.95

Résistance: Memoirs of Occupied France
By Agnès Humbert | Translated from the French by Barbara Mellor | Bloomsbury | $24.99

Sarah’s Key
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner | On general release

Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard)
Directed by Alain Resnais

For today’s appalled and fascinated investigators of French life under the German Occupation of 1940–44 — les années noires, the dark years — the first thing to acknowledge is that we can’t imagine it. Empathy is impossible. We can acknowledge its components: constant armed surveillance; the penetration of every corner of society in the pursuit of Jews and friends of Jews; the wholesale appropriation of food and shelter; the impoverishment of the French population, many coming near to starvation; the parade of the conquerors in public spaces, theatres, cinemas, restaurants; the peril involved in harbouring known resistants, in providing a basement, a typewriter, or hiding newsletters in shopping baskets. After seventy years, the storytelling goes on, and with it the insistent probing of the issues: where did resistance and collaboration begin and end?

Between those poles the large areas of accommodation and attentisme (waiting to see how things turn out) were all most of the population could manage; but through the postwar decades when de Gaulle dominated the state, his version of the resistance amounted to something like a secular religion. At the Liberation he trumpeted that France had been freed by the French themselves — la France résistante, la France combattante! — as though D-Day, the Allied landings and the multinational roles in the defeat of Germany had never happened. Eisenhower publicly confirmed the moral force of the resistance; it was, he said, worth fifteen divisions.

But de Gaulle’s insistence on résistancialisme and the unity of France worked against national acknowledgement of the deepest conflicts of wartime: the struggles of resistant life against the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshal Pétain, and against the persecution and deportation of almost 76,000 Jews. The French contribution to the Holocaust was not imposed by the occupying Germans; Vichy’s police and militias did their work for them.

In recent decades the end of the Gaullist myth, and a developing realism about the Occupation period, have generated lifelong projects for such historians as Robert Paxton (Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944) and Henry Rousso (Le Syndrome de Vichy) among others. In their work, memory and memories are particularly important; Vichy won’t go away. Rousso coined the phrase un passé qui ne passe pas, the past that doesn’t pass; there’s too much inherited shame hanging around. Before Paxton’s work began appearing in the 1970s, there was the major scandal created by Marcel Ophüls’s four-hour documentary Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), an enormous orchestration of interviews and archival gatherings from notables including Pierre Mendès-France, Anthony Eden and Hitler himself, plus numerous ordinary citizens and stars of stage and cinema, uncovering the ambiguities, indecisions and compromises of life under the Occupation in one city, Clermont-Ferrand. One unforgettable interview is with a citizen called Marcus Klein, who placed a public advertisement to assure everyone that despite his name he had no Jewish connections.

That film is marvellous, and for us now it’s an indispensable primary document, if not a whole set of them; but in 1971, and a quarter of a century on from the Liberation, it was still too soon for the French to accept the ways in which collaboration and resistance had been entangled. Ophüls had great trouble finding distribution; the film was banned for TV for a full decade after its completion, though one small Left Bank cinema picked it up. Then in 1974 an unforgettable feature film, Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, appeared to show how an ordinary, unschooled individual, a boy who had tried and failed to join the resistance, could be caught up in collaboration. Perhaps Malle’s film contributed decisively to a tidal turn in understanding; in any event, from 1981, when the TV ban was lifted, Le Chagrin et la Pitié began gathering audiences, and continues to do so.

THAT shift in historical consciousness stands behind Alan Riding’s work in And the Show Went On. Riding has lived in Paris for twenty years or so, long enough to discover that the Occupation, Vichy and the forced deportations remain close in popular memory, the days before yesterday, as areas of high sensitivity: the issues are still alive. Riding modestly identifies himself as “a journalist [and] an intruder in the world of historians”; but when the investigator is faced with an array of very aged interviewees, all struggling in the toils of memory and forgetting, journalistic skills can help to find the triggers. And although his account doesn’t reach back into the interwar decades, he is historian enough to see the lines of connection between Vichy and anti-Semitism on the one hand and the inheritance of the Dreyfus case on the other.

He is concerned mainly with one burning question: how did those with cultural privilege negotiate life with the enemy? Attending to a great repository of spoken recollections, diaries and memoirs, to the dominant collaborationist press and the imperilled, mainly clandestine journals of the resistance, he has provided a new map of the period. Following its trails, you can find out, for example, which of the great modern painters took up Goebbels’s invitation to visit the Third Reich in late 1941; among the chosen eleven were Derain, Vlaminck and Van Dongen, great colourists and leaders among the Fauves; and the sculptors Charles Despiau,

Henri Bouchard and Paul Belmondo (he was Jean-Paul’s father). Before their train left the Gare de l’Est, the artists were photographed with uniformed German officers, thus feeding the Nazi propaganda machine. During their two-week tour, they looked at Albert Speer’s plans for the new Berlin of Hitler’s fantasies, and spent time with his favourite sculptor, Arno Breker. In the following year Breker’s retrospective at the Orangerie, a major event, was supported by leaders of the Vichy government, certain fascist writers, and celebrities like the dancer Serge Lifar, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry and Arletty. The opening and later reception were huge events, and Riding shows, adroitly, how such occasions could be received: this could be Parisian society collaborating, or else France on show in elegant defiance, carrying on regardless. There was the same kind of ambiguity about all of the city’s legendary night life; cabarets, music halls, brothels stayed open and busy. The population, and the German soldiery along with them, all needed distraction. From the resistants’ point of view, or among the Jewish artists and performers being excluded from the galleries, the stages, their workplaces and markets, there were no two ways about it.

Riding opens a wider window on the fields of theatre, painting, cinema and literature as they were in those years. We can look through it at Chevalier and Piaf singing to the Germans, and eavesdrop on those soirées, so high-handedly assembled by the wealthy Florence Gould, where French writers and artists fraternised with art-loving German officers. We can estimate the price of wartime survival for a journal like the Nouvelle Revue Française and its publisher, Gallimard: they had to accept a pro-Nazi editor, Drieu la Rochelle. Hundreds of films were made; one, Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, has survived above the rest and, though it was shot during the dark years, wasn’t screened until the end of them. Riding says that it was the only film shot during the Occupation to take an important place in cinema history; on that he is wrong — Robert Bresson, for one, began filming in those years, and scores of films permitted by the Nazi propaganda machines have their own claims to attention, if only for that reason.

In that as in other fields Riding finds resistants and collaborators living and working cheek by jowl, refusing to let their differences destroy friendships and family links; he explores the famous ambiguities in the careers of Arletty, Maurice Chevalier, Colette and Marguerite Duras; he marks their paths, and holds judgement in the balance. He tells of the struggles of French musicians to be heard when German music was swamping the radio channels, and the irony in a story like Olivier Messiaen’s: he completed the Quartet for the End of Time in a German prison camp, but after being released was obliged to take the place of a Jewish musician at the Conservatoire de Paris. Duras worked in publishing for Vichy, and for a collaborationist office concerned with approving allocations of paper for new books; but then she, along with both husband and lover, joined François Mitterrand’s resistance group and became active in giving shelter to fugitives and gathering information — from a collaborator who might, or mightn’t, have been another lover. Who knows, and who can judge?

That question is posed in a scene in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film Sarah’s Key. A journalist, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is at work on an article on the scandal of the Vélodrome d’Hiver in 1942, when some 13,000 Jews were arrested and packed into the stadium, in appalling conditions, before being deported to concentration camps. She is shocked to find that her younger colleagues in the magazine office know nothing of that history. Someone says that of course he can find images for Julia’s article, since the Nazis, notoriously, filmed everything; Julia reminds him that the roundup was the work not of the Nazis but of the French themselves. The younger people express revulsion; Julia asks how they know what they’d have done.

The question has often been raised in the famous cases of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who at the outset were involved in a resistant cell called Socialisme et Liberté; it floundered and then, as the philosopher comrade Merleau-Ponty said, simply expired “from not knowing what to do.” For the duration, they kept their heads down and wrote. There was no avoiding the Germans in the cafés where Beauvoir would set up her writing spot — somewhere near the stove, to keep warm — every morning. She had a teaching job; to keep it, she had to sign a declaration that she was neither Freemason nor Jew. Sartre rebuked her for this, and then when it emerged that the journal Comoedia, to which he had contributed an article, was under covert German control, it was Beauvoir’s turn to admonish. Both resolved not to publish while the Occupation lasted, but Sartre did have two plays produced; resistant plays, he insisted. Beauvoir’s biographer, Deirdre Bair, wrote that “their record is not scrupulously clean, but neither is it clearly soiled.” Again, who adjudicates?

You could leave Paris, and hide out in a remote country village, as certain painters did — but not if Paris was home, milieu, and therefore the only meaningful site of resistance and survival; the place from which, as a writer, you must witness your own patch of history.

Alan Riding has done a lot for our knowledge of the dark years and the people who found, or lost, their ways through them. He gives back one of the major stories, that of the early resistance network formed by the ethnographers and other specialists of the Musée de l’Homme. This was the first cell formed by professionals; their resistant action was based in their work. They were led by a young Russian-born ethnographer, Boris Vildé, his colleague Anatole Lewitsky and the museum’s chief librarian, Yvonne Oddon, and assisted by the art historian Agnès Humbert, whose vivid chronicle of her life under the Occupation, Notre Guerre, emerged only in 2004; Barbara Mellor’s excellent translation, published as Résistance: Memoirs of Occupied France, appeared in 2008. Vildé emerges from Humbert’s account, and now from Riding’s evidence, as a valiant networker, a man of exceptional charm and cunning, who managed to travel undetected around France, linking small resistant cells together to get information out to London. At the same time, the anthropologist Germaine Tillion came home to Paris from her fieldwork in Algeria, also determined to work against the Occupation by whatever means.

All that the scattered groups knew of each other was that they opposed Vichy and supported the distant, still-unknown de Gaulle and the Free French. Vildé named the fragile network the Comité National de Salut Public (the National Committee of Public Safety, a piece of anti-authoritarian irony). They began producing a journal, Résistance, the first with that name. Of course, Humbert noted mischievously, “I was the typist.” What she typed can be read now on the endpapers of her book: Vildé’s front-page call to resist, not to be resigned, not to submit to the sense of isolation and impotence, to find allies, learn the skills of working underground, identify ways to act. An informer found them out; Vildé and six of his colleagues were shot in February 1942. The women went to prison camps and to forced labour; Tillion, who survived until 2008, aged nearly 101, wrote of Ravensbrück, Humbert of her time in abysmally cruel conditions in a German rayon factory. Each of them practised the crucial strategies: find allies, connect with the others.

One story traced by Riding is that of Rose Valland, who, in her curatorial role at the Jeu de Paume, assisted the long-term salvaging of work by Jewish artists by keeping a secret record of the paintings being sent off to Germany, and then by alerting resistance saboteurs to the trains that were not to be blown up. Riding describes her as a hero of the resistance, but also, in an unconscionably sexist moment, as “a frumpy-looking forty-two-year-old spinster” — please, where was his editor? He patronises Agnès Humbert, “who at times seemed to think she was acting in a thriller.” Indeed, why not? — the sense of theatre carried people through. Germaine Tillion triumphed by writing an operatic satire while she was in Ravensbrück; sixty years later, a group of young musicians performed it for her on her one-hundredth birthday.

SARAH’S KEY has been much praised, taken as a film of great seriousness; in the words of one promo, “moving gracefully across the decades and people’s hidden histories.” Julia’s investigation is happening in the present; in 1942, the Jewish child Sarah Starzynski seeks to protect her little brother from the Germans when they arrest her family; she hides him in a cupboard and manages to keep the key. Since this is a Holocaust story, the plan goes very badly wrong, and when Julia gets carried beyond her journalistic brief sixty years later, she can only uncover further tragedy. She has her own problems — this is solid, middle-class, French–American melodrama — and another child named Sarah must give us all a bit of hope (for what, exactly?) at the end.

If acting alone could make cinema then Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance as the ten-year-old Sarah, and the extraordinary Niels Arestrup as a gruffly reluctant resistant, with others, would bring this one home. They’re brilliant, and their performances are driving at truth. But we have to deal with the film’s guiding concepts. The whole drama, with its double timeline, is offered as realistic re-enactment. The Vel’ d’Hiv story is conveyed in quasi-documentary style, the screen filled with mayhem and panic as mothers and children lose each other and helpless prisoners bend over buckets — the overcrowded stadium had no toilets for the 13,000 Jews who were herded into it on their way to the camps. Julia goes to work on history, and the audience is offered a sort of redemptive pattern; in solving her own conflict, seeking out one particular victim of the past, she is somehow dealing adequately with a massive public tragedy which too many have forgotten.

The whole idea is a gross sentimentality. It is as though invoking the Holocaust is a guarantee of seriousness, even of art. There have been scores of films like this (for recent years, think of Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). Not for nothing has the New York critic Stuart Klawans, himself Jewish, called for a moratorium on such works; they are, he wrote in Tablet in December 2008, “starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Even if Sarah’s Key were better than it is on its own terms — the plot creaks and meanders, the American sequence looks like something out of Days of Our Lives — we could still ask whether, at this date, naturalistic melodrama can address that history in any way to advance its claims on the present.

At most it can be a reminder. From that, we should turn back to Agnès Humbert’s journal for — to put it very mildly — a reality check. At unbearably close quarters, she describes day-to-day life between the prison camp and the rayon factory where the women prisoners — variously old, sick, pregnant, crippled — were made to stand, eight hours a day, dealing with fast spindles and burning acid. No gloves or other protection, no washing, few toilet breaks, little food or drink, sadistic supervision. Humbert’s survival skills are palpable in the vitality and wit of her writing; she never lost her sense of the grotesque and the absurd, or her response to the personalities around her, pitiable, stalwart, defiant, under persecution of unlimited cruelty. Her book must be read; it belongs beside those of Primo Levi.

For cinema, the thirty-two minutes of Alain Resnais’s 1955 film, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), say it all. The script is by Jean Cayrol, the music by Hanns Eisler, both survivors of the camps; many of the images come from stock footage of the cattle trucks, the mass starvation, mass extermination, mass burial; film shot by the Nazis themselves. Others are from documentary records of the camps as the Allies found them at the liberation. Only ten years on, Auschwitz was already a tourist site; the camera moves over peaceful green fields to find the barbed wire, the abandoned barracks, the grass growing in the rail tracks. There is no personal drama, no cast of actors, no fiction, no moralising; the narration asks what can be known, how different are the murderers’ faces from our own? The questions draw the audience in, and Cayrol finally refuses consolation: he says that as these images recede, we can pretend it’s all over forever, that all this happened only then, and only there. At the price of being blind and deaf to the world as it surrounds us now, we can keep that pretence. More than half a century on, Nuit et Brouillard remains stunningly contemporary. •