Inside Vichy: French Cinema during the Occupation

From the Vichy side, from the Paris side…

Between 1940 and 1944, two hundred and twenty feature films were produced in occupied France. A strictly controlled production which had to contribute to establishing the “new order” proclaimed by the Marshal. The state, attentive and nit-picking, supervised the operation of the French cinema alike in the free zone (under the control of Vichy), and in the occupied zone (controlled by the Germans), and film production went on in the three great centres of cinematographic activity under the occupation, in Paris, Marseille (the Marcel Pagnol studios) and Nice (the Victorine studios). During the entire war, censorship prohibited all that might impair the image of France and its army, and the racial laws excluded Jews from the profession. During the four years of the war, the Comité d’Organisation de l’Industrie Cinématographique established structures of which the major part would remain in place at the Liberation, up to the creation of the Centre National de la Cinématographie.
After 1940, the industry quickly found itself deprived of distinguished film makers (Clair, Duvivier, Renoir, Ophüls established themselves in the United States, Feyder in Switzerland) and of many popular stars (Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Louis Jouvet, Jean-Pierre Aumont), but swiftly revived on the coast, earlier than in Paris, where the situation was different. Continental Films, a French company financed by German capital, was established in 1940, under the direction of Alfred Greven, who had worked in the UFA studios in Berlin since the beginning of the Thirties. He had the reputation of an inflexible, not to say emotional, person and quickly became the principal guarantor of the cinema in Paris. He rapidly put together a vast programme which was to give French cinema an âge d’or. Throughout the entire occupation, spectators flooded the cinemas, the films diverted them from their anxieties and sorrows. Anglophone productions were forbidden, and despite the support of publicity, German and Italian films were only modestly patronised, while even the most insignificant of French productions shattered attendance records.
In this four-year parenthesis in the history of French cinema, the most favoured genres were adaptations from literature and the theatre, and police, sentimental or melodramatic intrigues. 

In terms of fiction cinema, very little propaganda. On the other hand, documentary figured among the propaganda instruments appropriated by the Vichy government, the collaborationists and the occupying Nazis. A war of propaganda through images began in 1940. Then from 1943, films of resistance, shot in immediate proximity to the fighting, saw the light, but were not distributed in the traditional circuits.

From July 1940, films of “national interest”, shown obligatorily in the cinemas of the Southern zone, were charged with diffusing the great themes of the Revolution nationale: “Work, Family, Country”. This propaganda had above all, as a leitmotif, to call for the assembling and union of all French around the Leader, Marshal Pétain.

Then, in 1941, the documentaries shot on the occasion of the great exhibitions opened the way and provided the tone. For the Germans of the Propaganda Abteilung and the Embassy, the concern was to exclude those who opposed victorious Germany and the construction of the new Europe, which would be especially beneficial to the workers. The single enemy was called “anti-France”. The hatred which permeates these films was nourished from the same source as Vichy, but here it is expressed in terms of race, of European France and of social Europe.

(Eric Le Roy)

Programme and notes by Eric Le Roy (CNC-Archives Françaises du Film)