Cinema challenges war-time taboos: Films about Petain jog painful memories, writes Julian Nundy from Paris

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The Independent Online
TWO FILMS have the same central character staring solemnly from the screen: the man who, in July 1940, made 'a gift of my person' to France.

Since Philippe Petain's famous speech, the French have continued to debate whether and how far France has come to terms with its widespread collaboration with the Nazis in the Second World War.

The release this month of Petain, directed by Jean Marboeuf, with Jacques Dufilho in the title role, marked what Le Monde hailed as 'the end of a taboo'. At last the French cinema, which has always avoided portraying the central characters in the war, had taken that step.

The other film, released earlier in the year, was a compilation of Vichy newsreels called The Eye of Vichy, by Claude Chabrol, better known for his thrillers. There, without embellishment or fiction, cinema-goers can hear the overtly anti-Semitic talk of French political leaders. The use of the word 'rats' brings a gasp.

Jean Marboeuf's Petain does nothing to hide the Vichy leader's anti- Semitism, hardening up laws which the Vichy regime, apparently unprompted by the Nazis, introduced to deal with Jews. The film revolves around the Hotel du Parc in Vichy, Petain's headquarters. Two bell-boys start out as friends. One becomes a resistant; the other dons the black beret and uniform of the pro-Nazi militia.

Pierre Laval, played by Jean Yanne, discusses with Petain whether or not Jews gathered at the Vel d'Hiv stadium in July 1942, the first big round- up of Jews in Paris, should be accompanied by their children. They agree that they should. In February, President Francois Mitterrand designated 16 July, the anniversary of the round-up, as a commemoration day for the victims of collaboration.

Film critics say that The Eye of Vichy does not have enough commentary to explain the context and that Petain is flat and does not depict strongly enough the tensions that existed between the German occupier and the collaborationist regime.

The debate about Petain himself would not be so tortured were it not for his split biography. The French are divided over whether he was the hero of Verdun, the glory of France in the First World War, or the man of Vichy, the shame of France in the Second. Can he be commemorated in one role and decried in the other?

To mark the release of Petain, the Catholic magazine Le Pelerin published the findings of an opinion poll which had found the French broadly in favour of a shameful image for the marshal. Fifty-two per cent saw him as the 'man of Vichy' against 42 per cent who saw him as the victor of Verdun. Only 2 per cent thought he was both.

Fifty-two per cent believed that his remains should be left on the Ile d'Yeu where he died in exile in 1951, rather than transferred, as has been demanded by his supporters on the far right, to join the graves of his soldiers at Douaumont. Forty-four per cent thought his body should be transferred.

As for his real role at the beginning of the Second World War, when Petain at first justified his conduct by the need for an armistice to stop the slaughter, however, the verdict was less categorical. Thirty-eight per cent thought he had betrayed France, 28 per cent thought he had been of good faith but mistaken, while 30 per cent thought he had tried to protect France's interests.