The importance of filmmaking in occupied France was sometimes criticized as being the product of a hidden collaboration with Nazi Germany and on other occasions defended because these films did not promote Nazi viewpoints and because without them French film history would have been much poorer
Even though France was occupied during WW II, and some of France’s most important authors and actors (Jean Renoir, René Clair, Jean Gabin) fled France, about two hundred outstanding feature films were made during that time and this became one of the most fruitful periods in French film history. At the time audiences wanted to see more domestic films because the majority of films shown in theaters were German and Italian and understandably they were not very popular. This was a consequence of the fact that the Germans allowed the French to make films without too much control over their content, except for not allowing them to show Germans as negative characters. Even the biggest production company in Paris, Continental film, was financed by German capital. The Germans calculated that if films appeared to have been made in a “normal” country, relations with the French would improve and therefore help control the situation in a country that was forced to exist under Nazi rule.
These unusual conditions later caused strong arguments about the importance of films made in occupied France. Some viewed these films as products of a hidden collaboration with Germany while others defended them claiming that they never promoted Nazi viewpoints and swearing that French film history would be much poorer had it not been for masterworks made during the German occupation of France. They even questioned whether such a purist approach of accusation should condemn work of doctors, postmen, plumbers or any workers. No matter which argument is closer to truth, this period in French film history undoubtedly resulted in a number of films that belong to the international film treasure and heritage. This program is the best proof for that.
The film Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945) represents the peak of Marcel Carné’s collaboration (on eight films) with the popular poet Jacques Prévert. This film was often included in lists of the best films of all time from the early 1960s when young film critics who worked for Cahiers du cinéma (especially François Truffaut) often attacked films made during the German occupation of France. The reason for film critics’ hostility towards films made during the 1940s and 1950s was not because of their ideology but rather for their academism and heavy reliance on literature and dialogue as well as for their lack of authorial modus operandi. Such exaggeration may have been necessary as a prerequisite for the revolutionary changes that were brought on by the New Wave and certainly helped hone those critics into outstanding film authors. However, these critiques brought injustice to many valuable films and their directors. The film critics were also unjust towards the film Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945) and its extravagant production conditions that necessitated the hiring of two thousand extras and building many convincing set designs in order to recreate Paris in the 19th century as a backdrop for a poetic story about an impossible love in the world of folk theatre that intertwines reality and theatre illusion. The second great masterpiece shown in this program is Le corbeau (The Raven, 1943) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a thriller about anxiety and fear, with a heavy and threatening atmosphere caused by anonymous letters that reveal the hidden squalor in a seemingly peaceful provincial town full of bigotry. Even though many authors who made films during the occupation were criticized, only Clouzot was banned from making films two years after the war due to the fact that his film Le corbeau (The Raven, 1943) (in which these days it is hard to find anything unsuitable) was shown in Germany during the war and advertised as “a realistic portrayal of French people”. Two other directors whose films we will see in this program are Claude Autant-Lara and Marcel L’Herbier. Both are masterful directors who made many films on commission, but made their most interesting films during 1940s and 1950s. The only director recognized by the Cahiers du cinéma was Jacques Becker who established his directing skills with the film Goupi Mains Rouges (It Happened at the Inn, 1943). His film Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands Off the Loot) made in 1954 already contains many stylistic elements that were further developed in the New Wave.
The film Laisser-passer (Safe Conduct, 2002) by Bertrand Tavernier represents a great framework for understanding the situation in which French filmmakers were during the German occupation - they often described it as “life in a wolf’s throat so that the wolf’s teeth could not grab them”. Tavernier is the most important filmmaker that appeared after the New Wave in French cinema and even though there are clear influences of New Wave directors present in his work, unlike them he very much appreciated French film of the 1940s and 1950s. In Laisser-passer (Safe Conduct, 2002) Tavrenier deals with the destiny of two filmmakers in the time of the occupation - Jean Devaivre (1912 - 2004), whose memoirs served as an inspiration for this film and who worked as an assistant director and member of the French resistance, and Jean Aurenche (1904 - 1992), one of the most fruitful and well esteemed (except in the magazine Cahiers du cinéma) screenwriters. The film portrays the individual destinies of protagonists and many episodic characters and provides a human dimension to the dilemma of people who worked in the French film industry during the German occupation of France in WW II. (Tomislav Kurelec)