The film that cured France of collective amnesia

<preform>When Audrey Tautou played a woman bereaved during the First World War, she awakened national interest in a long-ignored subject. Report by Alex Duval Smith </b></i></preform>
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In the opening scene of A Very Long Engagement, five First World War French soldiers found guilty of self-mutilation are ordered by their officers to leave their trench and walk towards the German lines and an almost certain death. The depiction of the brutal order - said to have been a common punishment for soldiers attempting to avoid battle - has shocked France and put Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film at the centre of a debate about why the country is so ignorant about the 1914-1918 war.

In the opening scene of A Very Long Engagement, five First World War French soldiers found guilty of self-mutilation are ordered by their officers to leave their trench and walk towards the German lines and an almost certain death. The depiction of the brutal order - said to have been a common punishment for soldiers attempting to avoid battle - has shocked France and put Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film at the centre of a debate about why the country is so ignorant about the 1914-1918 war.

More than 2.5 million French people have seen A Very Long Engagement ( Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles) since it opened three weeks ago. It is an event: more than €3m have been spent on the film's French promotion alone. Last Thursday, Armistice Day, the film, featuring Audrey Tautou, the star of Jeunet's previous film, Amélie, premiered in Los Angeles. Its producer, Warner Bros, is said to be pushing the film for an Oscar. But the movie, which also features Jodie Foster, has already achieved its greatest success - to break down 90 years of collective amnesia during which war memorials were built in every commune but the human stories were forgotten. The lack of active remembrance in France is all the more surprising given that the country lost nearly as many soldiers as Germany. Out of an estimated 8.5 million total number of casualties, more than 1.4 million (10 per cent of the working male population of the time) were French against an estimated 870,000 victims from the British Expeditionary Forces.

"The British are so much better at remembrance than we are," said Côme Vermersch, director of tourism for the Somme region. "They have learnt to mourn constructively. They pay their respects to their war dead but also want to understand as much as possible so as to prepare for the future." He added that 200,000 people, most of them British, visit the Somme war graves every year. By contrast, Verdun, whose memorial stands as a French equivalent to the fields of British white crosses at, for instance, Thiepval in the Somme, has never inspired the same degree of ''remembrance tourism".

A Very Long Engagement tells the story of Mathilde (Tautou), who refuses to accept that her fiancé has been killed in action and seeks the truth about his disappearance. It is the first mainstream cinematic attempt to raise awareness about the First World War in France. The French film industry has shied away from the subject since 1958 when the distributors of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory - a graphic account of sadistic military practices in the trenches - refrained from applying to show it in France. The Belgian premiere had prompted an outcry against Kubrick, who was accused of depriving First World War veterans of their honour. The film was strongly criticised by the French foreign ministry and as a result, Paths of Glory was not released in France until 1975.

France did not have the poets that Britain had in the trenches but it did have novelists, including Jean Giono, Maurice Genevoix and Henri Barbusse whose post-war work included graphic descriptions of rats and crows feasting on human flesh. Yet their impact was never as great as that of Wilfred Owen or, in Germany, Erich Maria Remarque. There is not, in French minds, an equivalent to the British image of valiant Tommies, lions led by donkeys who died on foreign fields.

Even though 11 November remains a public holiday in France and the president leads a remembrance ceremony every year beneath the Arc de Triomphe, the commemoration goes widely unnoticed by the French public. The French equivalent of the poppy, the paper cornflower whose blue colour recalls the French sky-blue uniforms, is rarely seen in the buttonholes of television presenters or politicians, and it is almost impossible to find one on sale. Every year, a dwindling number of first world war veterans attend the Arc de Triomphe wreath-laying ceremony but this year none of the surviving 15 Frenchmen - aged between 105 and 109 - were well enough to take part.

However, as if spurred by the men's impending demise, the French Defence Ministry has this year put their biographies on a website called Mémoire des Hommes. One of them, 107-year-old Charles Kuentz - who fought in the Kaiser's army but is considered a French veteran because he was born in Alsace - uses the site to make a plea: "Continue the commemorations, be the conduits of the remembrance of the dead. Never forget that it was thanks to the soldiers who died on the battlefield that Europe was built."

Another new initiative, by the French ex-combatants commission (l'Office National des Anciens Combatants et Victimes de Guerre) mirrors the inventive approach of the Mémorial de Caen which has successfully lodged the Second World War Normandy landings in French minds. Onac sends young French historians into schools around the country to talk about the First World War and the significance of 11 November. "It is easier with the Second World War,'' said one of the historians, Sébastien Touffu, "because we can take survivors and Resistance figures with us. Young people have a tremendous respect for people who offered their lives for a cause.''

Unsurprisingly, the most powerful efforts of remembrance come from the grassroots - individuals who have realised that if they do not record history, perhaps nobody will. Farmer Jean-Luc Pamart from Vic-sur-Aisne farms beet and potatoes on land which used to house the fortified farm of Confrécourt. There, hundreds of soldiers took refuge or were treated for their injuries.

Mr Pamart still comes across new carvings in the limestone - drawings of women, graffiti with names and dates, a laurel branch or a clarion. Deep in one cave he discovered a cross, carved into the rock on a painted ochre background. It was the makeshift chapel of one Farther Doncoeur who celebrated mass for the French 35th and 298th infantry regiments.

In 1980, Mr Pamart realised there was a need to record the relics around him after he came across two men trying to steal a statue of Marianne - the patron of France - which had been carved by soldiers. He said: "I had grown up with all this around me but I took it for granted; I was blind to its value to history. Like all children, I collected cartridges, shrapnel and other metal scrap. We sold them for pocket money. In the 1980s I often received visits from elderly men who asked me specific questions, like, 'Where is Ridge 150?' I had no idea. And with time I became curious and started doing my own research.''

In 1999 he found 11 skeletons. He carefully attempted to keep the bones of each body together. Each skeleton had its own bag of personal effects: pencils, watches, notebooks, wallets. Two of the bodies were identified and buried at Amblemy military cemetery, without a ceremony. Mr Pamart was horrified. "I remember the people with the Fiat Uno who came to collect the bags. They were from the Veterans Ministry. The boot was too small for the 22 bags so they started pushing them together to jam them in. It was disgusting,'' he said.

Mr Pamart, who recently told of the discoveries in his fields in a book, Le Paysan des Poilus ( The First World War Veterans' Farmer) also contrasts French attitudes with those of other countries that fought in the war. "When you see the impeccably kept graves of the Americans, British, Canadians and Germans you realise what bad job France is doing. Who are these careless civil servants and heartless historians and generals who seem to be ignorant of the fact that every country is forged by the sufferings of its past?''

Similarly, in Fressin in the Pas de Calais, a grassroots initiative by four villagers has radically changed attitudes to the First World War. One of the four, Eliane de Rincquesen, explained: "Every year on 11 November, the mayor would read out the names on the memorial, just as happens in every French commune. We realised that, apart from the oldest residents of our village, no one knew anything about those 41 people listed on the memorial. This meant indifference was creeping in. The crowd that gathered around the memorial was shrinking every year. Those people on the memorial were becoming nothing more than letters carved in stone."

Mrs Rincquesen said the group carried out interviews all over France and gathered photographs and objects that told the story of the 41 villagers who gave their lives. The research has resulted in an exhibition in the town hall and the group has written a book of the veterans' stories. Emile Desmons, mayor of Fressin, said: "The group's work has helped us as a village to learn about our past. It means that our children have become curious about the memorial and are willing to attend the 11 November ceremony without being dragged there by their parents or grandparents.''

Mr Desmons admits France has come to address its past rather belatedly. "You know, after the war people were in pain. They had lost all their young men and they had to get back to work. These fields where so many young men left their blood were fields that had to be put back to work by the farmers. The survivors of the war needed to eat,'' he said.

Others say France's approach to remembrance has evolved slowly because French historiography - the writing of history - has not developed in the same way in France as in the English-speaking world. French historians are only now beginning to record wars as stories about life and death rather than as military and diplomatic chronologies.

France already has, in its repertoire of symbols, the little blue cornflower. Like the poppy it represents not only fields of carnage but also life and hope. But most French people do not know what the lapel pin commemorates. So harmful has been the lack of debate around France's 20th-century wars - including the Second World War, the Algerian war and its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide - that the country has yet to reconcile the idea of remembrance with the pain of human loss. But maybe, at last, France is beginning a very long engagement with its past.

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