Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2005

Safe Conduct

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:39 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 19, 2005

Bernard Tavernier’s 2002 “Safe Conduct” (Laissez-passer) is a chronicle of the French film industry during the Vichy regime. It features two historical characters who resisted Nazism, each in his own way, as well as many others who struggled to maintain a sense of dignity if not their lives during this difficult period. One is director Jean-Devaivre, whose memoir the film is based on. The other is screenwriter Jean Aurenche, who exercised a kind of passive resistance to Nazi occupation and who wrote several screenplays for Tavernier, including the memorable 1981 “Clean Slate” (Coup de Torchon),” a noirish tale of a French colonial cop who decides to systematically kill off an African village’s riffraff.

“Safe Conduct” is an extremely ambitious film clocking in at 170 minutes with 134 (!) speaking roles. Although it is a flawed enterprise, it is a must-see for anybody interested in art and politics and how they interact.

Played by Jacques Gamblin, Jean-Devaivre is a decidedly non-ideological opponent of Nazi occupation. At one point when pressed to explain why he risks life and career against the Germans, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I just don’t like them here.” In other words, he seems fuelled by the same kind of raw nationalism as the Iraqi resistance.

What makes Jean-Devaivre’s character all the more interesting is the fact that he (and the real-life director) chose to work for the Paris branch of Continental Productions, the German-owned film company. By day, he directs costume dramas, which are carefully chosen as vehicles for Aesopian anti-occupation messages. By night, he goes out on sabotage missions to blow up railroad trains.

By contrast, Jean Aurenche’s (Denis Podalydes) main goal is to avoid working for the Germans, rather than to get involved with the underground. This does not mean that he is afraid to speak his mind. When he is at a dinner party hosted by a shady businessman who appears to have ties to the Germans, he speaks up for the rights of Communists and Jews. After watching the businessman and his Gestapo associates beat up a elderly beggar in the courtyard below, he decides–helped by one drink too many–to confront him. Before he has a chance to get himself in trouble, his prostitute girl-friend crowns him over the head with an empty wine bottle, rendering him unconscious

Another key scene involves Jean-Devaivre stealing a top-secret memo from the cabinet of a Gestapo officer, who has an office at Continental Productions. He is flown to England, where he meets with British intelligence officers who have trouble understanding why a film director would stick his neck out in this fashion. Since Jean-Devaivre was motivated mostly by a desire to track down his jailed brother-in-law’s whereabouts than to uncover military secrets, it is possible to understand the British suspicions.

We eventually learn that the brother-in-law Jacques Dubuis (Olivier Brun) died in a German prison, but was immortalized in a bit role in a film directed by Jean-Devaivre. We see the historical Dubuis’s appearance in this film, along with numerous other scenes from French films made during Nazi occupation. Unlike Jean-Devaivre, Dubuis was an activist. On his way to Continental Productions for a day’s work, he is stopped by Nazi soldiers with anti-occupation pamphlets in his coat.

Last January I reviewed Alan Furst’s “Red Gold” for swans.com: http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy11.html. The main character in this very fine novel was one Jean Casson, a French film director who joins the Resistance. Recently I learned from Furst that his character is based on the director Marcel Carne, who while not included in the Tavernier film, clearly shared the values of the main characters.

A Nov. 1, 1996 NY Times obituary on the 90-year-old Carne reported that he refused to make propaganda films for the Germans and insisted that French audiences would regard his 1942 “Les Visiteurs du Soir” as an allegory for an occupied France. With backing from Continental Productions, Carne then began shooting “Les Enfants du Paradis” in 1943, but the Allied invasion interfered with the production. Carne concealed the Jewish origins of his set designer Alexander Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma from the Nazis. After French cops working for the Gestapo arrested a French extra during shooting, the man–like Dubuis–was never seen again. Carne said, “I will relive that scene for the rest of my days.”

Much of the film is devoted to behind-the-scenes representations of the difficult job of making movies under the German iron fist. Despite professions by the head of Continental Productions that he is devoted to art rather than politics, he functions more as a gauleiter than a film company executive.

In one memorable scene, he comes to the prison cell where screenwriter Charles Spaak (Laurent Schilling) is being held. He cajoles him into writing a script from inside the cell with the not-too-subtle implication that death awaits him if he refuses. Since the real-life Charles Spaak wrote the screenplay for the masterpiece “The Grand Illusion,” which deals with French prisoners of war during WWI, there is a powerful resonance.

Unfortunately, Tavernier bites off much more than he can chew. This scene occupies only a minute or two, which is far too short to do it justice. Obviously, Tavernier was desperate to recreate this historical period without sacrificing any of these heroic characters but failed to understand that something would have to give. Perhaps the most egregious flaw in the film is decision to include the totally unrelated narratives both of Jean-Devaivre and Jean Aurenche, who had no contact with each other. In effect, you have two movies in one. It would have been far better to concentrate on Jean-Devaivre rather than Jean Aurenche. Since Aurenche was a long-time collaborator with Tavernier, however, it is understandable why he would want to tell his story as well.

There was a lot of controversy around “Safe Conduct” when it came out. Despite the fact that Jean-Devaivre was a member of the resistance, the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma accused Tavernier of justifying collaboration with Vichy. In a November 1, 2002 article in the Independent, Tavernier compared the fate of French film-makers under Nazi occupation to that of American film-makers under McCarthyism:

He’s lately been quite vocal about Hollywood and the Academy for failing to apologise for the 1950s blacklist while giving special Oscars to McCarthyite stooges like Elia Kazan. On a US paper’s criticism that you need a PhD in French film studies to understand Laissez-passer, he says to me: “It’s a simple idea: how can you work for a German company without compromising yourself? It’s very simple. I say to the American critic, just replace the German element with Senator McCarthy and everything will be clear!”

Jean Aurenche is no stranger to controversy either. In January 1954, François Truffaut wrote a vicious attack on mainstream French cinema in the journal of the Cahiers du Cinéma, accusing it of making fashionably vulgar, patriotic, anti-clerical films. He singled out Jean Aurenche and the directors he worked with as tricksters and imposters. They were “bourgeois making bourgeois films for bourgeois people.”

It is clear that Tavernier was making a subtle reference to this controversy in “Safe Conduct” by showing how the films Truffaut attacked were subtle attempts to subvert Nazi domination, or at least designed to do so. In another key scene, Aurenche tells off a Vichy film official. When he is asked how he has such nerve to speak to him in this fashion, Aurenche replies that it is because he is one bourgeois speaking to another.

“Safe Conduct” is now available in DVD. Despite its excessive length and its structural flaws, it is well worth seeing.

1 Comment »

  1. Well this is quite a coincidence. How can one work for a German Company? I think that is really asking how can one indirectly support the Nazis? Well it was recently in the news that Prosecuters in Branau Austria are considering prosecuting a 90 year old man for taking part in massacre in the Netherlands in 1945.
    The man Tobias Tischler is now having the time of his life. You see Tobias considers himself an unrepenet Nazi. Well he never really hid the fact. But since the refugee crisis rocked Austria and Germany in 2015 Tobias has really regained his purpose in life supporting far right wing political parties. It is this activity that caused him to be investigated.
    Tobias was low ranking member of the German armed forces in January of 1945 when his unit was ordered to execute some hostages near Harlem after the Dutch Resistance had executed a Dutch collaborator working as a policeman. Tobias served a few months as a POW in 1945 but due to his low rank there was really no effort made at all to determine if he should charged with any specific war crimes. It was only after a close examination of military records made with in the past year that has brought to light his participation in the events of the massacre.
    But the chances that Tobias will ultimately be prosecuted are probably less than 50-50. As he pointed out himself in a recent newspaper interview, if taking part in a massacre of hostages were the real criteria for bringing someone to trial I could easily prove my prosecution was completely politically motivated.
    But more importantly I will not be charged because I will make the prosecution very uncomfortable if they wish ot challenge me. My position will be that I, and my units behavior on the night in question was no more a war crime than the entire exsistence of the Dutch Resistance and the support the the British and the Americans gave that resistance.
    Of course I am aware that collective punishment is not supposed to be meeted out to an occupied population. But an occupied population also has an obligation to follow the dictates of the occuping power. If a German soldier was killed by a Dutch citizen in a lover’s quarrel it would of course make no sense to carry out a collective punishment. Yet if there is an organized political movement using terroristic means to fight the legitimate authority of the nation, that even more importantly is recieving material support from armed beligerents in an on going conflict then a collective punishment or even a police of collective punishments is a proper response to a policy that is itself at odds with the law of land warfare.
    Furthermore the charge that Germany started the war is pure propoganda that is only one side of the story. The story that the winning side gets to hoist on history. The fact of the matter is that the rulers of the capitalist west and the Stalinist east were both intent on the distruction of Germany.
    In 1933 Germany was in an extraordinarily weak militay position. Germany was essentially a power vacum. Outside powers have always filled power vacums.
    Naturally Germany began a rearmerment program in 1933. Yet the Soviets were rearming even faster than we were. I am not familiar with what kind of preperations the western capitalists were making but the military potential of these countries was so vast they did not need to step on the gas any harder anyways.
    I myself think that Tobias Tischlers comments in the Braunau Wochenschau from last week show that ethics are very slippery. The idea that humans can objectively come up with answers to ethical questions is non sense. Yet we are forced to come up with answers to ethical questions. One question that comes immediately to my mind is, What in the hell should we do with people like Tobias Tischler.
    The understanding that ethics is sloppy and slippery. A good example of this is found in the debate over whether or not to institute a ban on burquas or vels in European countries. I have done comparative religous studies much more than 99.9 percent of the people in Europe or the USA. I have also studied political theory more than 99.9% of the population. Therefore when I say that a burqua ban in Europe is certianly justified and a vel ban is probably justified you SHOULD agree with me. First of all these customs are not Islamic. They predate Islam. Not all stone age customs, even if they would be Islamic, such as counting a womens testimony in a trial only have that of a mans, need to be respected. Tolerence does not need to extend to Intolerance. HEY you just made an arguement against a burqua ban. No I did not. The burqua is harmful to the developement of womens mental health. If there are women who think that they need a burqua in public it is proof that their mental health has already been damaged.
    There is no shame in a leftist being anti religious. The job of a leftist is to honor the truth and support justice. Those are the prime directives. Religion, all organized religion, is not a force for truth or justice in this world. Thomas Paine spelled this out so clearly over 200 years ago that the fact that religions are still conning people is strong evidence of the bad intentions of much of the human population. Yet Thomas Paine was not an Athiest as many say. Had he lived to see the work of Darwin he might have become an Athiest. Yet that is like saying had he seen the work of Marx he might have become a communist. The question that followers of Thomas Paine and Karl Marx must answer is not whether or not to oppose religion but HOW to oppose religion.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 14, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

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