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Vichy and the occupation in film

Cinema is important to the French. As the birthplace of the motion picture, the country shares a special relationship with the medium. Over the decades it has produced wonderful filmmakers and wonderful motion pictures; stories have been told on celluloid that expertly portray not just visually but also emotionally some of the most extraordinary periods in the country’s past. ‘Les années noires’ have been represented on film on numerous occasions and here I present those films that I would recommend if you are planning on reading my book or just interested in the period. In no particular order these are:

L’Armée de Crime, Robert Guédiguian (2009) Starring Virgine Ledoyen and Simon Abkarian this film tells the story of the early activities of the FTP-MOI group led by Missak Manouchian. The famous ‘Affiche Rouge’ that painted the arrested group as foreign communists was extremely important in the early story of repression. This striking film tells the tale of these very early days of direct action and their consequences.

Ici-bàs (Here below), Jean-Pierre Denis (2012) – Certainly not the best known of the films on this list but the only one that directly portrays events in Defying Vichy. The story of Soeur Luce Million is much changed here in order to fit the needs of a love story. However, much attention was paid by the film maker to the representation of the maquis, the role of the church and the collaborationist police. Filmed on location in and around Périgueux it is as authentic in feel as its main story is far from the truth.

Lacombe Lucien, Louis Malle (1974) – Pierre Blaise (below), who tragically died soon after the release of the film, gives a moody performance as a young man of limited abilities turned away by the maquis, and who becomes a milicien. Provocative and disturbing, this film gives an insight into what prompted people to decide to actively collaborate.

L’Armée des Ombres, Jean Pierre-Melville (1969) – One of two Melville films on this list, this stars Simone Signoret and Lino Ventura in a depiction of men weighing up good and bad while working in 1942-43 pre-maquis networks. Based on Melville’s own wartime exploits few films better depict normal men and women placed in extraordinary situations and the stomach-churning decisions that they had to make.

Lucie Aubrac, Claude Berri, (1996) - I watched this in a Périgueux cinema when it was first released and remain surprised that it is little-known outside of France. Of course the film, based on Lucie Aubrac’s memoirs Ils partiront dans l’ivresse, suffered from debates over its veracity. Some issues exist with its representation of certain people and places, including Lucie’s actions in freeing her husband. However, for a feel of the time and place, and for the story of the end of Jean Moulin at the hands of Klaus Barbie, this film is a tense and informative watch.

Un Sac de Billes, Christian Duguay (2017) - This recent adaptation of Joseph Joffo’s autobiographical book is heart-wrenching and emotionally draining. It is a big budget production and quite a lot of differences exist between the story told here and that in the book, but what I thought was excellent was the authenticity of the time and place. Jewish boys crossing the demarcation line, seeking safety against a regime that would have them deported is a story that has to be heard. French children simply did not come back from the camps. The actions of characters within the story who help save the lives of the boys, often on a whim, represent resistance in its purest form.

Au revoir les enfants, Louis Malle (1987) Another semi auto-biographical work, Louis Malle’s film is another that tells of the persecution of the Jews. It centres on a friendship between a boy from a conservative family and a Jew, brought to a Catholic school for protection. The hiding of Jews was an immense risk, and not even churchmen (such as Père Jean in the film) were exempt from subsequent deportation. The story also asks questions of collaboration, the black market and relationships with the occupying Germans.

Monsieur Batignole, Gérard Jugnot (2002) Another film about a rising realisation of France’s moral dilemmas at the time of occupation. Directed by and starring Gérard Jugnot (Les choristes), this is a story of a typically apathetic man who does his best not to care and actively works with the occupiers as long as his own life remains unffected. He intervenes when his own values of humanity refuse to accept what is going on around him. Sentimental but thought-provoking.

Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville, (1949) Based on the famous clandestine novel by Vercors this early Melville film, filmed soon after the war had ended, shows a quiet and non-violent means of resisting; silent protest. With protest and refusal so important as an early means of resisting, Melville’s film asked questions of how the majority of French had dealt with their situation, long before it was fashionable to do so.


Le Dernier Métro, François Truffaut (1980) Starring Cathérine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu and set in Paris of September 1942, the film is a love story set against the difficulties of occupation and the persecution of those Jews with influence in the cultural sphere. Atmospheric and one of Truffaut’s biggest successes.

Un Sécret, Claude Miller (2007) – Adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s novel of the same name. An exploration of a Jewish family’s tragic past.

Elle s'appelait Sarah, (Sarah’s Key), Gilles Paquet-Brenner (2010) – Partially set amongst the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up.

Le Rafle - Roselyne Bosch, (2010) – Starring Jean Reno, tells the story of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ and subsequent deportation.

*Further posts will look in more detail at both Le Rafle and Le Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity).

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