|A French Village - main characters|
For twenty-five years, I’ve had a book on my shelves titled France Under the Germans. An impulse purchase. One of those times when you buy a book because you think you ought to know the topic it addresses, but soon discover once you sit down to read it that there are any number of other issues that strike you as more pressing.
I’m a great history buff, especially European history, but I burned out years ago on books on the Third Reich. Just couldn’t keep up with all the depressing evidence of human depravity, and kept coming back to the idea that I knew all I needed to about how Germany, a land of my roots, the pride of the loved ones who raised me, could have gone so wrong. I didn’t need to keep beating my head against the wall.
But over the years, with great regularity, I’ve kept coming back to this study in evil, sometimes because I discover a new approach, as I did with Daniel Goldhagen’s argument, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, that one needed to stop putting all the blame on Hitler and start recognizing the extent of anti-semitism that has existed among the Germans since the days of Martin Luther that Hitler was able to tap into. To put it bluntly, it’s not Hitler we should be focusing on, but the whole damned German race.
If you put it that way, it’s but a short jump to the question of why we’re blaming Donald Trump for what ails us as a nation when we should be blaming the white supremacists who have joined hands with Corporate America and the 1% and those who follow a strong executive for any number of reasons: because everybody wants daddy to take care of us, because it’s a cold cruel world and they’re out to get us, because we need to keep foreigners at bay, because the people who win are the people with the biggest guns, because despite all our protestations in favor of democracy, we are all tribalists at heart.
One reads history, I would hope, not to laugh at how foolish people were in the past, but because it sheds light on human eternals, human universals. One reads it to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.
I pulled France Under the Germans off the shelf the other day because I’m nearing the end of a made-for-French-television series called A French Village (Un Village français). A whopper of a series - 72 episodes in all - covering the years from the German invasion of France in May 1940 through the end of the war and the year following as the French nation tried to get back on its feet. Filmed between 2009 and 2017, it is a rich close-up history of the occupation in all its brutality, from a wide variety of perspectives. French history made by and for the French, but a story with a far greater appeal to anyone interested in understanding the human condition. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others it is now at last reaching a broad English-speaking audience.
An objective view of culture and society is hard to come by. Amateurs fall into a common trap; they line the best aspects of Culture A up against the worst aspects of Culture B and conclude, voilà, Culture A is superior. And the observation that history is told by the victors is corroborated by the fact that after the war, there was a huge rush to claim one worked for the Resistance. What we get in A French Village is a more complex picture of the struggle between those in the resistance, and the communists, two groups working at cross purposes for the same goal, and the collaborators. And between those who collaborated with some enthusiasm and those who saw collaboration as a necessary evil. A series such as this is a perfect antidote to our tendency to speak in generalizations such as “Most French supported/opposed the Vichy government,” a statement which, if examined closely, proves to be both true and false.
Some parts of the series will make you want to turn away and run. The lack of will to stand up against the round-up of Jews, for one. One is familiar with German anti-semitism, and Polish anti-semitism, but we often forget that what motivated Zionists like Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow to seek out a national home of their own for the Jews was the conviction that they would never be accepted in any European country as equals, no matter how well integrated they might become. A French Village might be considered a promotional film for that perspective.
The power of the story of Vichy France, the Resistance and the eventual liberation by the Americans lies in the ground that it covers, the countless struggles on a national level to maintain the dignity and values of the Third Republic and the countless individual stories on a human level: a naive German soldier falls in love with a naive French girl - he dies, she bears his child, has her head shaved and is labeled a slut. Stories we have all heard but which take on a new urgency when you’ve had time to grow with the character and develop the kind of sympathy you would toward any other friend. A new consideration for me was the degree to which France was sympathetic to the German invaders to start with. Many apparently felt the Germans provided a kind of disciplined approach to work and to morality and welcomed, at least initially, its new role as a German protectorate. Until, at least, overwhelmed in the end by German brutality.
There is an upside to these binge-worthy series, over normal dramas, the fact that there is sufficient time for characters to grow and develop and become more and more real. The downside, of course, is that to keep the plot active you almost have to give the story a soap-opera series of twists and turns, and fall back entirely too frequently on coincidence to move events along. That’s a definite weakness in A French Village. Hopefully, you will agree with me that that flaw is offset by superb acting. And the plus is also a minus. The filmmakers clearly set out to show human complexity, but there were times when I tired of watching bad guys turn out to be good guys and good guys turn out to be bad guys. I am clearly programmed to see theater in terms of protagonists and antagonists. I don’t want my heroes watered down.
But then I don’t write scripts like this wonderful history of France under the German occupation.
Set aside 72 hours of your life and have at it. You won’t be sorry.
photo credit - photo is lifted from https://oldaintdead.com/review-a-french-village-un-village-francais-season-1/ a good review with much richer detail than I have presented above.