Deep France

Un village français, a French television serial, was first broadcast on France 3 in 2009; the channel began showing the serial’s seventh and final season in October of 2016, and at the end of its run sixty-six episodes had been broadcast.  Around the time it first appeared a Francophone friend recommended it as startlingly good TV, but warned that subtitled versions other than one season with French subtitles had proved impossible to locate.  The belated appearance of a version subtitled in English is a very welcome gift.  Along with the policier Engrenages, which stars several of the same actors, Un village français made even malevolent foreigners concede that French TV, under de Gaulle sometimes pilloried as a medium specializing in documentaries about beehives, had no reason to fear comparison to any televisual culture in the world.

One oddity of the series is that at least for its first three seasons, all that I have yet seen, it seems to get nothing important wrong about what were for a long time astonishingly contentious subjects.  Between 1975 and 1980 I had the great luck to be a student of Robert Paxton’s, generally considered the first great and greatly honest historian of Vichy and Occupied France. Knowing something about the history and tenacity of the Vichy myths I thus watched Un village français waiting to see something being lied about, or at least grossly simplified, but I waited in vain.

The series starts a few days before the Armistice, showing the lives of people in a town in Eastern France pretty close to the Swiss border and just within the Occupied Zone.  Nothing, no matter how awful, seems overdramatized.  In the first episode an Me 109 with its characteristic and eerily pretty bright yellow nose strafes children at a school picnic.  Was this mass murder, or the famous tendency of many wartime pilots flying a few hundred miles an hour to shoot up the largest collection of people they (probably just barely) saw, or did the pilot see the French artillery piece by the side of a road?  The horrific moment, and its aftermath, makes one wonder about these and other possibilities, but to the series’ great credit nothing suggests that the first and worst possibility is in any way the likeliest, because in a war a ghastly outcome does not require a ghastly motive, no matter what kinds of stories about Hitler’s pilots we may have been raised on.  After some months a young woman sleeps with a German Feldwebel, certainly the most charming and handsome man the first few seasons show us, and for the best of reasons; she is utterly in love.  One immediately imagines, with dread, a possible future:  the shaved head, the jeering crowds, and because of splendid acting and very good writing we understand that possible result will be a supremely ugly injustice, the revenge of cowards on an admirable, innocent and very young woman.

Another woman sleeps with an SD man—and SS intelligence officer and torturer—and does so for what is at first a less impressive  reason, but continues for that same better one:  because she, too, thinks herself in love.  For that love she eventually does an almost inconceivably dreadful thing in a dramatic sequence that has nothing to do with political motive and possibly nothing to do with ambition, perhaps not even with calculations about the future.  We watch the character do this thing with the kind of incredulity that yields to what feels like perfect comprehension, because this is the sort of thing people do in movies and novels and almost certainly in life, but in other kinds of story, ones not about politics and war, such a decision would very obviously have nothing to do with such high, solemn and public things.  But Un village français is about a war, and as we were once warned, while we  may not be interested in a war the war will almost certainly take an interest in us, and perhaps in more than one sense of the verb, frame us.  Un village français may make one ponder the possibility that we should be wholly grateful that we never had anything to do with that most vividly imagined and, when we were younger, morally unimpeachable a war.

Un village français is about bystanders, collaborators and resisters.  Its collaborators have many motives, some of them quite nasty but others at least initially unimpeachable.  None can know that the war is not over, that it may last years, and can know least of all that France may yet win it.  The early resisters, however, have almost incomprehensible motives—incomprehensible because the situation seems entirely hopeless, so the impulse to resistance is thus sudden and initially unthinking, and the professions of the first resisters not ones famous for the political acumen of people so employed—a police detective, for example, or a whore.  When the Soviet Union is invaded the Communists very suddenly move from passivity (and hostility to resistance) to the most heroic forms of resistance, also the most doomed and self-destructive forms.  Almost superhuman Communist courage most visibly achieves only the mass shooting of hostages who are ones own comrades—but when a zealot with an unknown cardiac ailment manages to provoke his own death by torture before he can be made to betray his comrades, Un village français teaches that neither political wisdom nor great humanity are necessarily the most impressive of the virtues. La Rochefoucauld observed that vice as well as virtue has its heroes, and Un village français dramatizes some subtleties of that phenomenon.

The Occupation resembles what we may think we know about the world of war—that it fascinates us because it brings out both the very best and the very worst in people—but its stakes seem even higher, and its moral contours and perplexities more terrible.  The awful consequences of an error of deduction in the clandestine word intersect the awful sophistication of Communist casuistry to wretched effect, while what children cannot understand about the world adults must contend with plays out with more terrible consequences.  After a while Un village français also and inevitably reminds us what we already know about genre conventions, but this does less harm than one might think, for the originality and initial absence of any sentimentality or convention seem to earn Un village français a few privileges,  and we give it the benefit of the doubt.  So after a couple of seasons there are arcs of some hope and suspense of the sort endlessly replayed in more conventional tales of the war.  We wait to see whether an amoral and infantile narcissist may be changed for the better by the extremity of the Occupation, perhaps because we suspect that stories with that theme would not be so durably popular if there was nothing at all to them.  Similarly, the presence of one preposterously beautiful and glamourous actress does not seem a mark of the purely fictive; perhaps one reasons that if no-one had ever looked like a movie star there wouldn’t be any.  A decent, admirable and eventually courageous Republican schoolteacher is a French cliché, but a cliché, we remember, is but an embalmed truth.   And after a while, when plot details and characterization occasionally evoke the conventions of ‘30s and ‘40s French film, we are again inclined to give the writers a pass:  after all, it is at least possible that the people who wrote those movies knew something about how people occasionally behave.  It also seems possible that people sometimes behave in extraordinary ways precisely because they have seen a lot of movies, and imitate them.  After all, people sought to imitate Achilles, and it is not impossible that some have sought to imitate some parts played by Jean Gabin.

But many, indeed most of the most interesting characters in Un village français are less conventional, neither impeccable resisters nor the most odious sort of collaborator; they are rather people stranded in a world of extreme and dreadful moral unclarity, also increasing meanness and generally petty difficulty.   A villain, a rich, unhappy and spiteful woman my wife perfectly described as looking remarkably like someone conjured into flesh from the pages of a Balzac novel, inflicts great harms out of trivial and absolutely non-political motives; when not under German occupation, anti-Semitism, snobbery and a lack of moral imagination are comparatively small beer, and the ‘politics’ of a woman who necessarily lacks even the right to vote or the ability to control the property she has brought into a marriage are a pretty harmless collection of inherited prejudices.  Under the Occupation, those trivial prejudices suddenly become matters of awful moment, but in a strange way that spiteful woman does not feel like someone who wholly deserves History’s post hoc battlefield promotion into a villain, for she does not even know that her country will someday be understood to have been still at war.

On what became the other side, the fact that anyone with the ability to imagine the consequences but no probable route to likely victory actually did resist at moments seem baffling.  At the very most I have only a single possible relative who in this sense resisted—a name found in the archives by a cousin who learned Russian in college, not at the dinner table, the name of a man with our spelling of a slightly unusual Slavic surname from our village in Ukraine, who is listed in an archive as “Partisan, betrayed, shot, 1944.”. But he, I think, deserves less credit than any French resister of 1940 or early 1941, because as a Jew in German-controlled Ukraine his choice were a very simple and straightforward one:  certain death, or, through resistance, a tiny chance at life.  But any French resister could almost certainly have had a possibly humiliating and pinched life with only a minute chance of death at German hands, barring the choice to resist, which incurred a possibly dreadful cost.  For the characters in Un village français who make that choice almost everything at first goes wrong; their imagined lives are heartbreaking, and immensely impressive.

For Americans watching it now there is one downside, because little is quite as mortifying as watching the word ‘resistance’ applied by fellow citizens to themselves for retweeting something, or laughing at often hilarious TV sketch comedy, or writing a column in a newspaper whose circulation is rising on the strength of peoples’ admirable detestation of a very nasty elected government.  So far, and with any luck at all for the whole of Trump’s time in government, a lit cigarette in the hands of a policeman is not terrifying.  Ours is a very bad government, one very dangerous and possibly fatal to a number of our non-citizens neighbors—but not at all dangerous to most, probably all, of the rest of usWatching actors portray people who made the amazing choice to resist an inconceivably greater evil under desperate odds, one is not only instructed, but made ashamed.