Le Chagrin et la Pitié

Anyone who wants to think about the politics of memory in the twentieth century can’t do better than watch the DVD of Le Chagrin et la pitié, Marcel Ophuls’ documentary about France during the Vichy years. Made twenty-five years after the events it describes, it is mostly made up of interviews – with French, Germans and English, with collaborators and resisters, with those who remember and those who prefer to forget.

As I watched the film this afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing how the memory of the First World War was crucial to people’s understanding of what happened. Most importantly, it was Petain’s reputation as the hero of Verdun that allowed the majority of the French to believe that their separate peace was honourable. There is a snatch of interview near the start of the film that suggests that ex-poilus’ organisations were used to buttress the Vichy regime.

The film includes archive footage of Hitler touring the sights of Paris, after the French had surrendered, and memory of Versailles is clearly adding to his satisfaction. For the French, on the other hand, the memory of Versailles was a bitter one. they had fought in the trenches for four years, for a peace that had not solved the Europen problem, but had brought them to their current position. No wonder Petain’s rhetoric of peace and collaboration found receptive ears.

One of the most remarkable interviews in the film is with an Englishman called Denis Rake, who worked as a secret agent in France. He explains that he wasn’t suitable for soldiering, but as a homosexual wanted to prove his courage. Pretending to be Belgian, he had an affair with a German officer, with whom he fell in love. I was reminded of A.W.Wheen’s Great War fiction, Two Masters (1924), about an Australian who went on a secret mission behind German lines, and formed a close relationship with a German officer, whom he regarded as his soulmate. (The homosexual implication is understated in the story, but is definitely present.) In the story, the secret agent has to kill his lover. Rake simply decided that he had to leave.

The archive film includes a disturbing post-liberation scene of the tonte – the forcible shaving of the heads of women who had fraternised with Germans. Once again, this has its Great War echoes. Philip Gibbs’s remarkable novel Back to Life has a 1918 sequence in the occupied zone where this punishment is inflicted on women; Gibbs says that the same thing had happened after the war 0f 1970, as well.

The film also includes some newsreel footage from the time. This German sequence shows how the fall of France was reported at home, and makes chilling viewing.

Once again, this echoes Great War incidents. In the early days of the War, when each side was accusing the other of war crimes, one of the main complaints of the Germans was that the French were using colonial troops against a European enemy. They regarded this as breaking the rules of civilised warfare.

These are side-issues, though. The whole film is a superb documentary, showing just how complicated the politics of defeat and collaboration could be.


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