Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
Original Title: L’oeil de Vichy
France, 1993. Canal+, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee, Délégation à la Mémoire et à l’Information Historique, FIT Productions, Institut National de L’Audiovisuel, La Sofica Bymages, Ministre de la Culture et de l’Éducation Nationale, Secrétariat d’État aux Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre, Sylicone, TF1 Films Production. Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Azéma, Robert O. Paxton. Produced by Jean-Pierre Ramsay-Levi. Film Editing by Frédéric Lossignol, Stéphanie Louis.
The Allied victory freed Europe from Nazi terror and liberated the French from the oppressive government that had destroyed much of the country’s cultural life for more than five years, leading to a celebration of the glory of members of the Resistance and the satisfaction of having always been on the right side.
Director Claude Chabrol digs into the archives to find an alternate timeline for his country’s efforts during the war years, the ugly reality of collaboration that many would love to forget but which was encouraged and celebrated through the propaganda machine being fueled by Petain’s Vichy government of the time.
After a quick bullet point summary gets us up to speed on the events that got the war in motion and brought about the country’s downfall, the narration tells us about the setting up of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s puppet government, which saw safety in playing things Germany’s way. From there we are played almost two hours of file footage from newsreels released between 1940 and 1944, in which an entirely different war is played out than the one we have come to accept as history: the Allied forces are perpetually the enemy in these reels, France’s collaboration with Germany is helping bring home prisoners of war and the “Jewish problem” is one that every citizen will be happy to know is being dealt with.
There are a number of newsreels which pull no punches with their polemics, the screed on comparing Jews to rats, for instance, and it makes for a fascinating narrative to see that as the war goes on, and Anglo-American success becomes more and more likely, the stories get more and more desperate to sell Petain as the father of all that is traditional and good (whatever hopes he had of salvaging his reputation when the war was over, of course, were lost, and quickly).
A fascinating summation of one of the most significant periods in twentieth-century history and a chilling reminder of how different life would be if things had not gone the Allied way, this historical record shows the director being just as incisively brilliant at compiling documentary footage as he is at telling dark suspense narratives.