This is a superb film. It takes a worn theme – France under German occupation – and a tale that has been retold in myriad ways (love across the divide) and reworks them in an innovative and engaging fashion.
I had not heard of a single member of dramatis personae yet they were all excellent. The acting was convincing and the characters were mutlilayered. There were no lazy stock characters. The dialogue is spare. It is not overly effusive nor is it jejune. It is credible and gets the tone just right in terms of expressing high emotion without being stilted.
In 1940 the Germans reach the small town of Bussy. Kristin Scott Thomas is the dowager of a substantial country house. Her son is a Prisoner of War. Liliane is Kristin’s daughter-in-law. Liliane had been married for a few years yet no baby has been born. This is one of several sources of animus between Kristin and Liliane. The love has gone out of Liliane’s marriage some time ago.
The mayor of the town instantly makes an accommodation with the Wehrmacht. AFter all France has surrendered and the French Government has ordered its functionaries to facilitate German rule. The mayor is a an old aristocrat and he is a decent sort and believes he is being a good Frenchman by minimising aggro between the townsfolk and the occupiers. At first the German Army behave honorably. They demand that all French folk hand in their firearms. All weapons or handed it – or so it seems. The German soldiers ask French citizens to write to them with reports of bad conduct on the part of their neighbours. The German Army is flooded with letters by Frenchmen denouncing their compatriots. The Germans successfully divide and rule. They know the local gossip – who is suspected of being a thief and who has been having an affair.
German officers are billetted on families. A handsome young officer moves in with Kristin and Liliane. Kristin thinks of him as an enemy. She does what she has to but it never friendly. Liliane perceives his inner goodness and she is courteous towards him. I shall call him Hans. They grow closer and Kirstin chides Lilian for being civil to Hans.
Rupprecht is a German officer who moves in with Gaston and his wife Mariane. Gaston is disabled and his gammy leg forfended military service. Rupprecht is condescending towards the couple. He openly mocks Gaston about his leg and his inability to fight. Rupprecht soon flirts with Mariane. She rejects his overtures and Gaston bridles at this effrontery by his unwanted guest.
The German soldiers swim nude in a lake. Gaston has hidden an unlicensed firearm in his barn. He takes his gun and hides in the wood. He trains his sights on Rupprecht. I am thinking – no, don’t do it. You will be caught and killed. Gaston relents. At this moment Hans tries to persuade Rupprecht not to harass Mariane. Rupprecht testily dismisses this counsel. ”Don’t lecture me on morals. You were not like that when we were ordered to shoot prisoners.”/ ”I did not shoot anyone.” says Hans gravely./”But I did and with delight.”/ ”We were at war then” observed Hans/ ”we still are” is Rupprecht’s riposte.
Rupprecht sees women as spoils of war. French civilians are still the enemy and merit no respect. Rupprecht stands for a large section of the German Army. One of the most laudable parts of the film is there is not a single allusion to Nazism or Hitler. Most people are not very political. The war is about nationality more than ideology. Rupprecht is the sort who would eagerly go along with Nazism without believing in it or disbelieving in it. He is an opportunist who will follow the majority.
Gaston poaches from the mayor’s land. Caught stealing chickens he tells the mayor’s wife,”the day the Germans leave….” He does not need to complete the sentence. Some upper class French people found German rule congenial. They began to realise that if they Germans were defeated they would suffer and not just due to collaboration..
Hans is more reflective. He has some fairly candid discussions with Liliane. He was a composer and joined the army due to a sense of family solidarity. He is asked if he agrees with the war. ”Lets just say I admire the communal spirit.” He is canny enough not to disparage his government but his attitude is plain. He has striven to find something positive to say about the war – the sense of camaraderie among the soldiers.
Soon Liliane discovers that many French girls have begun relationships with German soldiers. Most young Frenchmen are Prisoners of War or are labourers in Germany. She does not look down on them for acting as their nature inclines them. She comes across one of her neighbours having athletic sex with a soldier in the forest. The 1940s stocking add a frissons of kinkiness to the passionate woodland encounter. The girl feels shamed and runs after Liliane trying to justify her actions. ”Some of them are better people than our men.” She makes a very valid point. Someone happening to be German in the war does not make him evil any more than Frenchmen were necessarily good. Liliane has become increasinly attracted to sensitive and cultured Hans.
The Germans decided to arrest Gaston. As a German truck draws near he runs and hides. His wife tries to delay them. In the barn he is confronted by Rupprecht who has found his gun. Possession means execution. Gaston grapples with Rupprecht and overpowers him – shooting the officer with his own revolver. The others hear the gunshot. Gaston gets on a motorbike and speed s out of there.
That night the Germans scour the woods. Liliane goes out in the middle of the night to find him. She brings him back. She lets Kirstin in on the plot. This patriotic brings the two women together whereas previously they have sparred. Gaston is secreted in a priest hole. The Germans search the house.
Hans’ sixth sense tells him that something is going on. He chooses not to pursue it. He knows that if Liliane is found to have abetted a fugitive she will be killed.
Gaston’s wife is arrested and beaten up. Later she is released. She goes to Liliane’s house. Liliane has not told her where Gaston is because Mariane might be tortured into giving him away. Mariane sees Liliane in her finest dress with her hair in a chignon and wearing makeup. Two wine glasses are on the table with candles. Mariane realises that Liliane is having a romantic dinner with Hans. Mariane inveighs against Liliane as a traitor to her people and her husband.
The mayor of the town is arrested in the stead of Gaston. He is in charge of collaboration and a German has been killed on his watch. Unless Gaston is given up within 48 hours then the mayor shall be shot in place of Gaston. The Germans calculate that a well respected and local figure will be saved – someone will betray Gaston. In fact some people loathe the mayor because he is an aristocrat and a rapacious landlord. Hans is told by his superior that he will be in charge of the execution.
Gaston is not apprehended. The mayor is lead out to be put to death in the town square. Hans goes through with his duty depsite clearly being disgusted by it. The anguish is etched onto his face. He hesitates but gives the orders loudly and decisively. To make it even more agonising the doctor takes the mayor’s pulse after a volley of shots and indicates that the mayor is not dead. It falls on Hans to give the coup de grace. He comes close and shuts his eyes before putting a final bullet into the mayor’s chest.
Hans stands for a large number of decent Germans who fought in the Second World War because they were compelled to. They did their duty due to coercion. They despised Nazism but were not heroic enough to oppose it. Hans is easily the most complex and fascinating character in the film.
One of the things that is unrealistic about the film is how many German soldiers there are in a small town. In reality it would have been the Vichy Milice keeping order.
Liliane decides to help Gaston escape to Paris. She will drive him and he will be hidden in the boot of the car. One of Hans’ men said the tobacco he smelt in the house was not Hans’. On the travel pass he wrote an order that the car must be searched.
Hans is frightened. He suspects that Gaston will be in the car. Gaston will be found – Gaston and Liliane will be killed. Suspicion will fall on Hans. Did he collude with them? He was living in the house and he approved the travel pass.
Hans rides his motorbike up to the check point – presumably to insist that the car not be searched. But he is too late. The boot was opened. Gaston shot dead the soldier searching it and also shot another soldier before being wounded himself. Gaston has the humanity not to kill Hans who helps them on their way.
It is based on a true story. I wonder what happened next. Did the dead German sentries kept traced to Liliane?
The film has a fast moving and straightforward tale. Yet it kept me guessing. What would happen next? Would they make it?
The characterisation was superb. The facial expressions with voluble. The wardrobe was brilliant. It was true to life. People were never overdressed and the clothes were faded and tattered as they would have been. It was accurate about the moral compromises and human dilemmas behind the war. It was a gripping film and a delight from first to last. Oddly there were no quips in it.