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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Realism and the War Years

Guerin, photographer. ARC cinema in Bruges run for benefit of Belgian soldiers and their families. 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

"The universe of French cinema was suspended in 1939...Once or twice a week the average filmgoer abandoned his flirtation with life for a couple of hours to once more take his place in the quadrille of his dreams." - André Bazin, "Reflections for a Vigil of Arms," 1944

The earliest French cinema led to filmmakers experimenting with what a movie camera could do and how film could be manipulated into Surrealist art, yet political and economic events had devastating effects on the film world.

Le réalisme poétique/poetic realism aptly captures the mood of French cinema and society before World War II, a growing dread creeping through France as the nation anticipated the end of the Third Republic and another great war. Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion/Grand Illusion (1937), Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937), and Marcel Carné's Le Quai des brumes/Port of Shadows (1938) and Les Enfants du paradis/Children of Paradise (1945) illustrate this sense of existential gloom, the films typically taking place in an urban setting, where low lighting and stark sets create a dreary atmosphere (see Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève/Daybreak [1939]). Jean Gabin was one of the most prolific actors in this genre. His Everyman look and aura typify the iconic tragic working class hero, a trope of this style.

The Nazi occupation of northern France (also known as Vichy France, where its capital was) starting in 1940 had great ramifications for the French film industry. The Vichy government took firm control of the film world, eliminating the presence of Jewish and communist workers in that field, seizing Jewish-owned cinemas, censoring content, and requisitioning equipment and studio space.

Furthermore, Jews in the film industry were erased literally and metaphorically: Jewish names were removed from film credits, and regulatory bodies required une CIP (carte d'identité professionnelle/professional identity card) as proof of Aryan status in order to work in film.

From scriptwriting to ticket prices to distribution, the Vichy government decided all aspects of the industry. Author Paul Morand acted as head of the film censorship board, essentially Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels' French right hand. Pre-approved themes such as submission to authority, modesty, patriarchy, duty, nationalism, and idealization of rural life formed the contents of the 220 French films made during Occupation.

As a response to these repressive policies, many actors, directors, and technicians fled to the Free Zone in the south of France or emigrated (e.g., René Clair, Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, Jacques Feyder, and Julien Duvivier, to name only a few), while others resisted the Nazis by sheltering Jewish colleagues (as did Jacques Prévert). In other acts of defiance, some workers sabotaged film shoots and equipment, produced counterfeit work papers for Jewish co-workers, or purposefully reduced production through slowdowns.

Audiences also found ways to reject Nazism: Spectators booed throughout propaganda newsreels or refused to buy tickets to movies they suspected had been deployed as propaganda. (American and British imports had been banned at the time.)

A clandestine network of industry professionals, the Comité de libération du cinéma français (CLCF) (Committee of French Cinema Liberation), created in 1943 by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, also resisted the Occupation by filming Maquis activity, circulating unapproved scripts and film-related literature (notably the journal L'Ecran français/The French Screen), distributing political tracts, and recording footage of the Paris uprising, collected in the film Journal de la résistance: la Libération de Paris.

The French film industry permanently changed in several ways during Occupation. Industry standardization and greater government control were imposed onto what had previously been a loosely organized and somewhat chaotic trade.

Aspects of this restructuring remain to the present day. The Comité d'organisation de l'industrie cinématographique (COIC) (Committee for the Organization of the Film Industry), for example, eventually became the Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée (CNC) (National Center for Film and Moving Images), which finances, regulates, promotes, protects, and distributes French films, among other initiatives. Through the COIC, Marcel L'Herbier helped found L'Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) (Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies) in 1944. The prestigious school still trains film professionals and is now known as La Fémis (Fondation européenne pour les métiers de l'image et du son/European Foundation for Careers in Image and Sound).

Furthermore, the tradition de qualité/tradition of quality (also known as la qualité française/French quality, or le cinéma de papa/dad's cinema) developed during this period. The style was informed by the creation of Continental Films, the only Nazi-approved studio in Occupied France. (The company director was personally hired by Goebbels.)

The films produced by Continental set a stylistic pattern, which lasted through the 1950s, characterized by actors' stiffness, measured diction, ornate sets, and a technical correctness that the New Wave would soon shatter. François Truffaut's landmark essay, "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema," published in the film journal Cahiers du cinéma in 1954 was highly critical of this style and can be considered a harbinger of changes that would arrive at the end of the decade.

After Liberation, the French film industry faced a new world financially.

While France had dealt with power cuts, gas shortages, curfews, destruction of studios and film stock, rationing of materials for sets and costumes, and more, Hollywood had suffered much less during the war. France struggled to catch up. High unemployment in the world of film as well as quotas on American-made films set by the Blum-Byrnes Agreement (which erased French war debt to the US) prevented an easy re-establishment of French cinema supremacy and discouraged new, younger filmmakers from the craft.

Meanwhile, on the sociocultural side of the film industry, La Comité d'épuration du cinéma/Committee to Purge Cinema sought to punish those deemed to have collaborated with the Nazi regime. For instance, the actor Arletty was imprisoned and her head shaved for her relationship with a Nazi officer; actor/director Henri-Georges Clouzot was punished for his film Le Corbeau/The Raven (1943), understood to be critical of France; actor/director/screenwriter Sacha Guitry was imprisoned in the Drancy concentration camp for suspected collaboration, of which he was later cleared.

In the aftermath of war, French cinema began to tell the first of its own stories of World War II.

Just after Axis defeat, films such as Boule de suif/Angel and Sinner (1945, dir. Christian-Jaque), La Bataille du rail/Battle of the Rails (1946, dir. René Clément), Le Silence de la mer/The Silence of the Sea (1948, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville), and Patrie (1946, dir. Louis Daquin) mythologized war-time France as a nation of Résistants, and General Charles de Gaulle (who led the Free French Forces and was later president) as a quasi-superhero. As time went by, cinematic representations of France during this period became increasingly complicated, specifically in relation to soldiers from colonized areas.

In the ensuing decades, filmmakers and the French public gradually began to reconsider this mythology. One of the most prominent examples of how film can shape cultural memory is Le Chagrin et la pitié/The Sorrow and the Pity (1969, dir. Max Ophüls), which features interviews with French collaborators, communists, Nazi sympathizers, as well as Resistance fighters in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. The film was one of the first to interrogate public memory of the war.

Documentaries and fiction films about the Holocaust and the Resistance also complicated that somewhat simplistic narrative of wartime France: L'armée des ombres/Army of Shadows (1969, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville), Lacombe, Lucien (1974, dir. Louis Malle), Le Dernier Métro/The Last Metro (1980, dir. François Truffaut), Au revoir les enfants/Goodbye, Children (1987, dir. Louis Malle), Une affaire des femmes/Story of Women (1988, dir. Claude Chabrol), and Elle s'appelait Sarah/Sarah's Key (2010, dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner) help paint a more sophisticated and complete picture of this complex historical period.

Non-Metropolitan perspectives of the war have also been explored through film.

Camp de Thiaroye/The Camp at Thiaroye (1987, dirs. Sembène Ousmane and Thierno Faty Sow) recounts the true story of the massacre of Senegalese tirailleurs by fellow soldiers after they demanded their rightly earned pay for fighting for France in World War II. Indigènes/Days of Glory (2006, dir. Rachid Bouchareb) focuses on North African soldiers who fought for France as well yet were denied pensions. That film led to a partial reimbursement of soldiers' pay.

The bibliography below lists films and resources covering the era of Realism and the War Years in France.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.