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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before