Full disclosure: The DVD which I was watching basically failed 2/3-3/4 through part one, so I am sorry to say I did not actually watch the entire movie, just a majority of it (all of part 2 and, as I said, 2/3-3/4 of part 1).
This documentary, made by the son of the great Max Ophuls, consists of interviews and archival footage about the German occupation of France during World War 2. Most of the focus is on Clermont-Ferrand, a town in northern Vichy France. The interviews are with French citizens on both sides – those who collaborated and those who were punished by the regime – as well as Germans who were in Clermont-Ferrand (despite the supposed independence of Vichy France), and also a few British politicians and officers. Though made in 1969, the film was not shown in France until 1981 as it was considered too problematic in its depiction of willing collaborationists.
In some ways, it’s a little like a briefer Shoah that focuses on French collaboration rather than the Holocaust. This was first and Shoah is the more ambitious and more significant work, but there are some major similarities, notably the point of forcing people to reckon with something that was starting to disappear. I have never been to France but my understanding is that, post-war, many people played down collaboration, claiming it didn’t happen very often. This film says otherwise and as such it’s an invaluable document. The lesson here, and in Shoah, and in The Act of Killing, is that people will do terrible things just to get along, or because they really do feel like they are on the right side of an issue.
It’s a long film, and it’s hard to imagine too many 21st century people who are not French caring about such things. But given the fascist turn that is occurring with The Right in North America right now, now is probably as good a time as any to watch a film in which the people who justified collaborated with the Nazis freely rationalize doing so 20+ years later.
There are also snippets of debates and conversations between people who were there, which makes the film stand out from its obvious comparables of Shaoh and The Act of Killing. This part reminds me more of cultural documentaries like those of Michel Brault. Only this is of people who lived through one of the darkest times in a country’s history.
Though I’ve hardly seen every documentary made up through 1969, I’ve seen a number of the most famous ones. And I have a hard time imagining a more cultural significant documentary (for a particular) country. Nor do I know of another film that was this in-depth in terms of investigating what we might called failed or altered memories. Though I think there are better documentaries as films both before and after this was made, I’m not sure there are too many more significant documentary films of the era. (Night and Fog was already 13 years old by this point but would easily be one of the documentaries that I would argue is more important than, or at least as important as, this film.)
Humans are very good at moving on. And certainly one of the roles of documentary filmmaking is to not let us forget. As such, I think this is probably one of the most important documentaries ever made. And if you’re ever experiencing a little bit of moral uncertainty regarding your government, watching something like this would certainly clarify things.