During the Nazi Occupation of France, when the country was governed by the German-controlled Vichy administration, 220 films were made by French filmmakers. Bertrand Tavernier is fascinated by this fact: "None of them was anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-collaboration, or pro-even Vichy. Except for one film which has two dubious lines, you never had a anti-Semitic remark in the films of that time--even though you had plenty in the 1930s. I wanted to try to understand why."
Tavernier's new film, "Safe Conduct," is an attempt to reconstruct that wartime period when the Germans ordered the French to keep on making films, because they were good for civilian morale. Hundreds of film workers, including famous directors and actors, continued to work--some for the employment, some as a cover for Resistance activities, some no doubt to save their skins or feed their families. But they did not make pro-Nazi propaganda.
The film combines politics with film history, two areas Tavernier relishes. The French director at 61 is a tall, bulky man with a thatch of white hair and a ready smile; after a start as a film critic and publicist, he has directed 29 films and yet found time to write a history of American cinema and to become a familiar face at festivals such as Telluride, where he programs films he loves.
"Safe Conduct" includes characters based on the assistant director Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), who performed daring missions for the Resistance, and the writer Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), a womanizer who became expert at seeming to cooperate with the Germans while not doing so. Many years after the war, Aurenche became a friend of Tavernier's, wrote the screenplay for his first film, "The Clockmaker" and three others, and told him some of the stories which appear in the film. He died in 1991 at 88; Devaivre is still alive at 91, and Tavernier helped revive some of his work.
Tavernier says "Safe Conduct" is an examination of why some of those who made films during the period were heroes and many others, not heroes, resisted the Nazis in a passive-aggressive way. The period could have produced shameful films, but did not.
"I think some people had a sense of responsibility," Tavernier told me, during a talk after the April 25 screening of his film "L.627" (1991) at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana. At the festival, he was in nonstop conversation with everyone from fellow director Neil LaBute to undergraduate film fans; few people have such a boundless love of the movies.
He told a story about a meeting between Jean Aurenche and Alfred Greven, the head of Continental, the German-controlled production company, who asked Aurenche for the names of Jewish screenwriters, allegedly because he wanted to use them.
"Aurenche told me this was the worst moment of his life, because he was talking to somebody who was appointed by Joseph Goebbels.
He told Greven: 'If I knew some Jewish people I don't think I would mention the names to you.' And Greven said, 'You know that I can send you to Germany just like that.' And Aurenche transformed that into a joke. He said, 'You will not do that, Mr. Greven, because we are alike. If I had been working class, a worker, or the waiter there, I would never have spoken to you like that. But we are both bourgeois and the bourgeois do not eat each other.' He made Greven laugh and he got away with it. That's the kind of scene I like to deal with in a film, and the kind of scene 'Safe Conduct' is about."
Aurenche's dodge isn't the stuff of classic movie heroism, but it meets Tavernier's definition: "The French novelist Rolland said that a hero is a man who does what he can."
"I was interested in the story of the screenwriters, the technicians, the workers, people who are suffering. The story of the foot soldier. Those are the people in 'Safe Conduct,' the people who were trying not to help the Germans, or were working for the Germans because that was a way to hide the fact that you were in the Resistance."
Oddly enough, this French film about French filmmakers was not well-received in France, especially by the critics of the legendary magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which launched the early writing careers of Truffaut and Chabrol (and Tavernier). Cahiers showcased the auteur theory, hailed the French New Wave, and attacked the earlier generation for what were contemptuously described as merely well-made films. That generation, of course, includes the characters in "Safe Conduct."
"They thought that by telling the story of the people who tried to be brave in 1942, I was attacking the New Wave," Tavernier said. "That is totally mad. I've been a great defender of the New Wave. I was the press agent of Jean Luc Godard; I worked on films of Claude Chabrol, of Agnes Varda, of Jacques Demy, of Jacques Rivette. But I did a film which is about work, about the people who tried to do films during the Occupation. And working there meant that you could become a collaborator, or you could avoid collaborating. And it was harder for the bottom people."
The character of Greven, who ruled the French film industry during the Occupation, is played by Christian Berkel in the film, fascinates Tavernier.
"Greven who was a mysterious character because he was appointed by Goebbels but he disobeyed every order of Goebbels. Goebbels wanted him to produce empty films, films which had no content, which would simply amuse and entertain. But Greven produced a lot of ambitious films and some of them made Goebbels furious."
The Nazi propaganda czar told Greven that "Le Symphonie Fantastique," the life story of Berlioz, "is superbly directed, it's a masterpiece, but it's a film which is totally nationalistic. It is awakening the French nationalist. I did not put you in charge to wake French nationalism and having people applaud at each screening!" "But two months after that," Tavernier said, "Greven produced 'Le Corbeau' by Clouzot, which is one of the strongest films made during that period. It is about anonymous letters, about people informing. So why did Greven behave like that? And why did he produce an adaptation of Emile Zola, who was first on the Nazi blacklist because of the Dreyfuss case? Those are the sorts of question I'm dealing with in 'Safe Conduct'."