80 years on, the ongoing relevance and remembrance of Vél’ d’Hiv

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022


Dr Lisa Harper Campbell, author of Reframing remembrance: Contemporary French Cinema and the Second World War (2021)

Reframing remembrance
By Lisa Harper Campbell

July 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the mass arrest of Paris’ Jewish population midway through the Nazi Occupation of France during the Second World War. This operation across July 16 and 17, known as the round-up of Vél’ d’Hiv (so named due to the Vélodrome d’Hiver acting as a holding place between arrests and deportations) was carried out by French authorities.

As the 80th anniversary of the round-up (rafle) approaches, I have reflected on this event and its subsequent interpretations and can see its ongoing relevance. It continues to inform views on French nationalism (particularly for the far-right) and France’s role on the global stage (its positioning as a leader among EU and NATO nations). In the recent French presidential campaigns, candidate Éric Zemmour made global headlines by suggesting that Marshall Pétain (the collaborationist leader of the Vichy regime during the Second World War) had attempted to protect French Jewish citizens. Although this claim has long been debunked by historians, it was one deployed as a clarion call for the far-right who wish to reframe history along positive, nationalist lines.

The round-up’s significance, its consequences, and its commemoration (on and off the screen) in France and beyond has continued to fascinate scholars well into the 21st century. I am one such scholar. My recent book Reframing remembrance: Contemporary French cinema and the Second World War (2021) explores the thematic links between a significant speech delivered by President Chirac in 1995 and French films made after but about the period.  Chirac’s speech marked the 53rd anniversary of the round-up and “with this striking act of commemoration, Chirac, as head of the French state, accepted responsibility for the active role played by French authorities and thus acknowledged French complicity in the execution of the Holocaust. This act also marked the beginning of a new generation” (Reframing remembrance, pp. 2-3). Although read by some with scepticism as an example of political opportunism, this moment featured heavily in obituaries for the former president when Chirac passed away in September 2019 and informed readings of his overall legacy.

On 17 July 2022, in collaboration with the Adelaide Holocaust Museum and Steiner Education Centre, I will launch my book and speak as part of a panel in honour of the 80th anniversary of the round-up of Vél’ d’Hiv. Further details are available here.

Details of commemorative events in France for the anniversary as well as the Journée nationale à la mémoire des victimes des crimes racistes et antisémites de l’État français et d’hommage aux Justes de France, can be found via the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah’s website.

The key focus of Reframing remembrance (RR) is to discuss the function of historical films as acts of commemoration and explore how French films about the Second World War made between 1995 and 2015 shifted the way the Occupation was commemorated on French screens. The filmography includes analysis of well-known classics (Le Silence de la mer, La Bataille du rail, Le Vieil homme et l’enfant, Le Chagrin et la pitié, Lacombe Lucien, Hiroshima mon amour, Jeux interdits among many others) but delves deeper on more recent works aiming to present a nuanced and self-reflective approach to cinematic commemoration. A recommendation list is below.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of French films made about the Nazi Occupation and experiences of the Second World War I consider to be essential viewing:

Nuit et brouillard / Night & Fog (Alain Resnais, 1956) & Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

Alain Resnais’ harrowing 32-minute Nuit et brouillard and Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 9-hour Shoah as documentary works are “both described as artistic missions against amnesia [and] aimed to shed light on the darkest aspect of the Second World War” (RR, p. 120).

L’Armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

“Although Frodon argued that Melville’s L’Armée des ombres (1969) signalled French cinema’s return to representing a Gaullist,heroic image of the Resistance (1995b: 266), this work sets itselfapart from its predecessors by questioning the solidarity of theFrench collective with its detailed representation of French resistantsunable to trust one another. Here, resistants live in a time of fearand betrayal in which each decision you make could determine yourfate” (RR, p. 42).

Le Vieux Fusil / The Old Gun (Roberto Enrico, 1975)

“…a revenge thriller starring Philippe Noiret and Romy Schneider. Although it depicts a French man’s ruthless quest for vengeance against German officers during the war, this is a resistance fuelled by emotion and not ideology, one which consumes the protagonist and transforms him into the kind of monster against whom he rebels” (RR, pp. 43-4).

Monsieur Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)

“… in line with the 1970s’ propensity for condemnation, [Monsieur Klein] sees the titular character, an art dealer played by Alain Delon, punished” (RR, p. 108) for engaging in treacherous smugglers’ exploitation of vulnerable Jewish families seeking safe passage to escape prosecution.

Le Dernier Métro / The Last Metro (François Truffaut, 1980)

“Winner of ten Césars, Truffaut’s work was applauded for its meticulous reconstruction of the time, depicting a divided and fragmented French society … Truffaut’s contribution to the cinematic representation of the Occupation garnered near-universal critical acclaim as a fair and balanced observation of realities of the time, including the black market, denunciations, hunger, censorship and fear” (RR, p. 106).

Au revoir les enfants / Goodbye, children (Louis Malle, 1987)

This semi-autobiographical work “focuses on childhood and solidarity between the Jewish and French populations during the Second World War… [and] is a powerful, and personal, act of commemoration … After Lacombe Lucien, which showed the negative aspects of French identity during the war, this time Malle offered a counter-vision, demonstrating the solidarity present in the face of the moral dilemmas of the French Occupation (Fournier Lanzoni 2002: 203)” (RR, pp. 151-3).

Les Misérables (Claude Lelouch, 1995)

“Lelouch’s adaptation of Les Misérables spans generations and timelines in a French society dividedby class and wartime loyalties and experiences. By creating archetypalcharacters, the film universalises the events of the Occupation inorder to highlight its ongoing relevance” (RR, p. 33).

Un héros très discret / A Self-Made Hero (Jacques Audiard, 1996)

“By telling the story of Albert Dehousse, a young man who takes advantage of post-war confusion to falsely assume the status of a former Resistant, Audiard interrogates the reliability of testimony and how the public (society and film audiences) can be manipulated for different political and personal purposes. It also challenges the ‘official’, Gaullist retelling of the Occupation” (RR, p. 34).

Monsieur Batignole (Gérard Jugnot, 2002)

Through its ensemble of characters, the film depicts French society as one comprising diverse opinions, alliances and identity groups, particularly those wanting to survive. The story follows a man who initially wishes only to stay passive and neutral to avoid any issues. However, after some personal experiences he feels an obligation to actively resist against the German authorities and their oppressive, racist laws” (RR, p. 116).

Elle s’appelait Sarah / Sarah’s Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010)

Elle s’appelait Sarah, through its central characters’ personal engagement with their own history and that of those around them, questions the idea of culpability and how a contemporary society can confront and ultimately come to terms with its past in order to move forward and create a better future” (RR, p. 33).

This final film also stars Kristin Scott-Thomas who graces the cover of the book. Click here to purchase your copy of Reframing remembrance: Contemporary French cinema and the Second World War from Manchester University Press.

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