MICHAEL OREN: It Takes a Village: French World War II Drama Un Village Francais Courageously Depicts The Country’s Holocaust Crimes, Then Whitewashes Them With Moral Equivalence.
For decades after the war, French governments from both the left and the right insisted that the true France had resided with de Gaulle in London and not with Pétain in Vichy, and that all anti-Jewish measures were imposed on them by the Germans. But beginning in 1969 with Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, followed by Columbia professor Robert Paxton’s 1972 classic, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, and then Louis Malle’s Oscar-nominated 1973 film Lacombe Lucien, the myth steadily collapsed. These works portrayed a France that willingly collaborated with the occupation, disdained the Resistance, and sometimes surpassed the Germans in its persecution of the Jews.
Still, it took years before French authorities agreed to assist the efforts of Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld to try former Vichy officials for war crimes. Not until 1995 did President Jacques Chirac finally acknowledge France’s role in the deportation of more than 75,000 Jews, most of whom didn’t return. Only in July 2017 did President Emmanuel Macron state unequivocally that “It was indeed France that organized the roundup, the deportation, and thus [the] deaths.”
Un Village Français continues this process of self-reckoning yet takes it a giant step further. The Holocaust is no longer peripheral to the occupation, but its essence. The Germans did not bring anti-Semitism to France; they gave the French license for its pursuit. Jews, according to many of the series’ characters, are dishonest, conniving, treacherous, and cheap. One of them observes, “Of course, one cannot be Jewish and French.”
This bold and still-controversial statement was the work of the series’ creator, Frédéric Krivine. He is the son of radical left-wing parents and the nephew of Alain Krivine, who was jailed by de Gaulle for leading the 1968 protests. As chief consultant for his production, the writer chose Jean-Pierre Azéma, a noted leftist historian. This no doubt explains the sentimental portrayal of the communists and the brutal depiction of every American GI. But Krivine is also Jewish and has described Un Village Français as “a good Jewish story.” But good in what way?
Clearly it cannot be in France, where the survivors see no future. For two of them, the answer is Palestine. “A land without a people for a people without a land,” one of them says, unknowingly quoting a 19th-century Christian Zionist. “I just want to live in a place without fighting.” All of this is meant ironically, though, as we see in the final season in which the now-married pair—the woman is played by Krivine’s wife, Axelle Maricq—is driving a Haganah ambulance. Ambushed by Arabs shouting “Deir Yassin! Deir Yassin!” the husband explains that this was a Palestinian village in which “our people killed two hundred innocent men, women, and children”—curiously echoing the Palestinian narrative of that event, which is strongly disputed by most Israeli historians. His wife cries, “We’re no better than those who oppressed us in France!”
Voilà. So, this, after 72 episodes, is what Un Village Français is ultimately about. Yes, we were horrible to the Jews, but look—they’re no better toward the Arabs than we were toward them. French guilt for the Holocaust can be conveniently cleansed by the invocation of supposedly equivalent Israeli wrongdoing—which must be monstrously magnified and exaggerated in order to make the equation work. Interviewed by The Nation, Frédéric Krivine compared French indifference to the plight of Jews during WWII to the Israeli public’s lack of response to the IDF’s killing of Gazans.
Far from indicting France for its Holocaust crimes, Krivine has in fact forgiven it. That message was conveyed to the 3.4 million French viewers who, on average, watched every hour of Un Village Français and to the many millions more in the 40 countries that rebroadcast it. They received first-class drama and acting, a courageous reexamination of French history—and a not-too-subliminal message about Israel being the ultimate guilty party, whose Nazi-like actions perversely cleanse the French of their own crimes in a bath of invented equivalence.
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