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French Cinema During Nazi Occupation

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French Cinema During Nazi Occupation
A Double Edge Sword for Development

Much has been said about the French cinema industry during the Nazi occupation period. Some claim that it was a dark period due to strong censorship; others say that it becamea dynamic age in which important events took place that ultimately transformed French filmmaking. Undoubtedly, however,those years produced some truly captivatingmovies.

In 1940, prior to the occupation, the French government started to censor the participation of Jews in important roles in their society, what they called “positions of responsibility.” Thus, they were prohibited to direct, produce or participate in any key role in theater or cinema in France.

This repressive legislation caused a dramatic effect in filmmaking, and important figures of the industry left the country to work freely elsewhere. Among those who went abroad were Julien Duvivier, Pierre Colombier, and Maurice de Canogne. According to Coling Crisp, in his book The Classic French Cinema, “47 professional filmmakers ceased all activity following the collapse and the intolerance which then beset the country. This includes no less than 46% of all directors who had filmed 2 or more films between 1936 and 1940.”

But other views argue that there is more than meets the eye during this period. In 2005, the Gene Siskel Film Center of Chicago presented a series called "Gilding the Cage: French Cinema of the Occupation.” This special presented the Germany occupation period in cinema as vital, controversial and troubling, remarking the elimination of Hollywood competition that helped the industry flourish.

The Nazi attitude to cultural production parted from the basic rules that no anti-German sentiments were allowed and that any Jewish presence should be eliminated. Within this frame, French cinema prospered but few of the films were direct propaganda. This proves, then, the argument that the Nazi use of popular narrative features were deliberately kept away from real issues.

Both the Nazi regime and the French industry beneficiated from each other during those years, according to journalist Lincoln Kristein. With superior technical facilities and distribution resources, French cinema was a window for creativity, which at that timeoutdid the Italian industry.  

The content of the films produced during this period is best understood as ambiguous and paradoxical. Many films made during the occupation were comedies and melodramas similar to those before the war. Also, as censorship forced filmmakers to avoid matters relating to the war and domestic social problems, movies approached comedy and romance with impressive performances.

In addition, this era helped the rose of a sub-genre dubbed as ‘woman’s film’. These were melodramas from renowned directors such as Gance’s The Blind Venus (1940), Jean Gremillon’s The Sky is Yours(1943), and Pagnol’s The Well-digger’s Daughter (1942). The specialists differ on their views of these productions: some see these films as reactionary representations of women as they represent the Vichy ideology of domesticity, sacrificial motherhood and patriotism a new form of oppressed role, while others argue that they are positive films because they featured strong women.

Among the most representative filmmakers during the occupation are Marcel L'Herbier, Marcel Carné, Jean Delannoy, Jean Grémillon, and Robert Bresson, who is considered the most important French filmmaker to begin his career during this period. Undoubtedly, the two most significantfilms of the Occupation period are Carné's Children of Paradise (1945), and Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Crow (1943).

About this era, the Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct is a production worth watching, as it is a dramatic portrait, based on actual events, of French filmmakers coping with art, love, politics and fascism in the dark years after Nazi armies conquered France and Vichy collaborators took over the governmentand the film industry.

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