Laissez-passer (2002)




Director:  Bertrand Tavernier. 

Cast:  Jacques Gamblin (Jean-Devaivre), Denis PodalydPs (Jean Aurenche), Charlotte Kady (Suzanne Raymond), Marie Desgranges (Simone Devaivre), Ged Marlon (Jean-Paul Le Chanois), Philippe Morier-Genoud (Maurice Tourneur), Laurent Schilling (Charles Spaak), Maria Pitarresi (Reine Sorignal), Christian Berkel (Dr. Greven), Richard Sammel (Richard Pottier), Marie Gillain (Olga), Olivier Gourmet (Roger Richeb), Philippe SaVd (Pierre Nord), Liliane RovPre (Mmaine), Gtz Burger (Bauermeister), Olivier Brun (Jacques Dubuis), Pierre Lacan (Louis Devaivre).

the effects of the German occupation on French cinema


Paris. March 3, 1942.  Jean Aurenche, a screenwriter in French cinema, prepares the staff at his hotel to receive a popular, blonde actress named Marguerite Moreno.  But the movie star sneaks into the hotel because she did not get the part she wanted.  Jean takes her to his room.  The British are bombing the city.  Bombs drop on the neighborhood.  Jean-Devaivre, an assistant movie director, and his wife Simone run to the baby nursery to grab their baby and take him to safety.  While there Simone comes very close to death, as the blast from an explosion knocks her down.  The couple cover the other babies with blankets and then leave. 

There is talk among the French that the Allies will not bomb the Boulogne neighborhood because it is full of artists and movie studios.  Another thing they talk about is that there are informers everywhere. 

Jean-Devaivre tells his staff that they need to film the last scene of their latest movie.  They are able to turn the lights back on in the studio and film the scene.  After work Jean-Davaivre returns home.  His wife is busy typing out releases for the French Resistance.  The headline of one paper on the table is "Punish the Vichy Torturers." 

Jean-Devaivre is scheduled to do a film at the German-backed studio Continental Films.  He has to struggle with his conscience about working for the studio.  The . Fritzes (the Germans) are the problem.  He decides to work on the film for Continental.  While there he learns that Von Schertel, the controller of the SS in the area and therefore not directly involved in the film business, has an office in the Continental studio.  . 

The German Dr. Greven is also a problem.  He is not an easy man to work for.  The Germans tells Jean-Devaivre that the filming will be an August shoot and it will not exceed 28 days of production. 

Jean Aurenche sees a Jewish woman in her shop that is clearly labeled Jewish.  In the hotel every time Jean passes the resident Nazi, the man points his finger like a gun barrel, pulls the finger-trigger and says the equivalent of boom.  This bothers Jean and he asks the desk clerk what does it mean.  The clerk explains that the Nazi thinks that he is a Jew.  So Jean immediately goes up to his room and starts packing.  He then leaves the hotel.  Since he is by no means rich, he heads over to a brothel to see if a favorite prostitute, named Olga, will let him stay with her for a few days.  She agrees and he stays much longer than two days. 

Jean-Devaivre's brother-in-law is staying at his apartment.  His wife asks Jean if he can get her brother a job at the studio.  Jean will look into it.  Suddenly, Jean gets a call and has to leave the house.  He meets a contact man in the French Resistance.  They travel over to the railway yard.  The two men then construct a bomb out of the two grenades.  They place the bomb in the wheel-works of a locomotive, light the fuse and leave.  A couple of minutes later a huge explosion goes off.   Jean returns to the studio. 

The German Bauermeister is always snooping around the studio to make sure everything is going according to German guidelines.  He definitely puts constraints on the making of movies.  Jean Aurenche runs into a music composer who asks him to tell the movie crew that he won't be doing the music for the latest film.  Jean asks why and the man shows him the yellow star on his clothing indicating he is Jewish.  That's all the explanation Jean needs. 

At a fancy dinner Jean Aurenche complains both about censorship and about a certain very anti-Semitic screen-writer.  Olga tells Jean to shut up because the guy he is complaining to is a cop for the Germans.  Jean, however, refuses to be quiet.  Olga gets so worried about Jean's possible fate that she knocks him unconscious with a wine bottle. 

The director of the film tells Jean-Devaivre that his wife has been incarcerated by the police in Vittel.  She's an American and he is worried for her.  He tells Jean that he is too distracted to direct the current scenes and asks Jean to take over.  Jean is very dubious about the idea but the staff gives him a lot of encouragement and cooperation.  Later the director tells Jean that the scenes he shot were very good and says thank you. 

Dr. Greven has lunch with Jean Aurenche.  He tells Jean that the reason why there has been so few good scripts lately is because there are no more Jews:  "The best writers were Jews."  Jean doesn't want to work for Continental and says something inappropriate for the German manager.  Dr. Greven threatens Jean:  "I could send you to Germany tomorrow."  He wants Jean to write a comedy, but  Jean doesn't want to write the script.  On his way out he sees a fellow screen writer selling shoelaces on the street.  He offers him the job.  They both march back to Dr. Greven and Jean tells him that the two will cooperate on the comedy script.  Dr. Greven is pleased.

March 1943.  Jean-Devaivre's brother-in-law is stopped on the street by German security along with a Parisian policeman.  They arrest him because they find that he has two political tracts on his person.  Baumeister watches a scene being filmed.  The actor has a difficult time with the scene.  He shouts:  "I can't act with the watch dogs around."  Baumeister leaves. 

On his way home, Jean-Devaivre sees a German anti-aircraft emplacement on top of his apartment building.  At work Jean tells the man in charge that set construction has been falling behind.  The fellow tells Jean that they can do little about it because the Germans are taking the wood for the fight at the Russian front and for the construction of the Atlantic Wall in France. 

Simone gets a summons to appear before the authorities.  Jean-Devaivre asks his resistance contact for help in finding out about his wife and then doing something about it.  The man just tells him that the resistance is too busy with more important tasks.  When he goes home, he sees Simone there.  They give each other a big hug.  Her brother-in-law is now in prison.  Jean-Devaivre tries to work Baumeister for a favor with no luck whatsoever. 

Jean Aurenche leaves a note for Olga, grabs his suitcases and heads over to see Marguerite Moreno.  He is none too pleased when he sees the evidence of the benefits of her relationships with the Germans.  He grabs the fancy ring off her finger and throws it out of the window.  Marguerite shouts for him to get out.  To make amends he goes outside and looks for the ring in the dark.  Marguerite's friend sees the desperate man and takes him in. 

Jews with yellow stars completely fill a passing trolley car.  Jean-Devaivre says that he is quitting Continental.  He says he is fed up.  His wife tells him to stop being a child:  "We are all fed up."  At work one of the Continental managers leaves his briefcase behind during a photo shoot.  Jean takes advantage of the situation and photographs some papers from the briefcase.  What Jean really wants to know is whether or not his brother-in-law's name is in the documents.  Jean passes the film to Pierre Nord.  He in turn will have it developed and analyzed. 

An air raid siren goes off.  The Allies are bombing again.  Jean-Devaivre goes home to Simone.  They decide that Simone and the baby should go to the country to live with the baby's godmother.  The trip is 250 miles one-way.  Jean goes to work after saying good-bye to his wife and child.  On the weekend Jean rides the entire way to godmother's house on his racing bike.  (At one time he had been a good bike racer.)   Godmother gives him two grenades that she has been holding for him.  After a short visit Jean starts his ride back.  Along the way a truck driver offers him a ride and Jean accepts after some hesitation.  The driver is impressed that Jean works in the movies.  As regards Continental, Jean tells him:  "I want out, but there could be reprisals."  The truck driver drops him off in Paris.  Jean then takes advantage of a disturbance at the local check point to sneak through and back to his apartment.  At home he finds his brother waiting for him.  He escaped from prison.  Simone's brother, however, was never seen again.  He died in a Silesian salt mine.

Jean Aurenche leaves the apartment of Marguerite to move in with Marquerite.  Unfortunately for him, when he arrives at the apartment, Marguerite won't let him in because her husband is there.  Jean waits all day drinking in a bar.  So Jean has to return, hat in hand, to Marguerite's friend's place.  He makes up a ridiculous excuse for his odd behavior, gets caught in a lie and then has to tell the friend the truth.  She is so amused at his predicament that she takes him back into her apartment. 

Jean-Devaivre has to consider his next film project.  His opinion is that the film puts France in a bad light and he is not happy about that.  Jean is sick, but still goes to work.  The desk clerk at the studio entrances gives him the wrong room key.  He realizes that it is the key to the room of the German controller of the SS.  Jean quickly decides to enter the room and steal some papers.  He accomplishes this task.  Jean then gives the papers to Pierre Nord.  Nord has Jean buy a railway ticket.  They take the train and then a truck to a remote airfield.  Quite unexpectedly, Nord virtually forces Jean onto the airplane with the papers he stole.  The airplane lands in England.  There the British grill Jean about the authenticity of the papers.  They want to know all the details about how he got the papers. They want to make sure he was not set-up unknowingly by the Germans.  They finally believe him and send him back on another airplane.  Over France the plane runs into a great deal of flak.  They tell Jean that they have to return to England.  Jean, however, refuses to go back.  He finally agrees to use a parachute and jump out of the plane.  On the ground, he is met by Pierre Nord and his gang.  Jean then bikes home. Once home, he collapses into his brother's arms. 

At home Jean-Devaivre's brother is sick, but he leaves Jean at home to rest while he accomplishes an important errand.  But just as Jean is settling into sleep, there is a loud knock at his door.  Jean opens the door to see two men dressed in black trench coats.  They have come to do an inspection of the apartment.  They find nothing incriminating. 

November 1943.  The French Resistance has changed it policy about the film industry.  There are to be no more contracts made with the Krauts.  They claim that cooperation with the Germans has discredited French films.  The new party line is armed struggle. 

Screen-writer Spaak has been put in prison.  Dr. Greven visits him in prison.  He tells Spaak that the movie has to be finished and so he must work on the script while in prison.  Spaak agrees.  Via the prison shuttle he sends in three pages of script each time.  Dr. Greven then has Spaak brought during the day to the studio.  At night he returns to prison. 

One day Jean-Devaivre tells his director that he wants to go to the drugstore to get some medicine for his ill brother.  Once outside Jean bikes for 17 hours to the maquis.  There the truck driver is waiting for him along with other friends.  Jean Aurenche, the faithful friend, remained close to fellow screen-writer Pierre Bost until Bost's death. Olga had her head shaved for consorting with the enemy.  Jean Aurenche helped her open her shop in 1947, the same year that Jean-Devaivre directed his first film.  53 years later, Jean-Devaivre said that if he had to do the whole thing over again, he would probably be foolish enough to do the same thing. 

My wife and I thought the movie was dreadfully dull and at more than two and a half hours, way too long.  They dropped so many names of directors, screen-writes, movie titles, etc. that there was no way to soak any of it in.  At times I thought I was listening to an accountant's summary of the various projects and directors for the year.  The first part dragged.  The movie got better later, but by that time we were already exhausted by all the dull parts.  And the French are too easy on themselves.  They may have felt a bit uneasy about cooperation with the Germans, but they certainly cooperated/collaborated.  Who could really value films made under the eyes of Nazi censors?  The end result was the production of films acceptable to fascists.  I for one am not interested.  In Germany there were film people who cooperated with the Nazis and produced Nazi-approved movies.  Very few critics will even touch these films.  And the couple they do talk about are examples of brilliant advances in propaganda for the fascists.  Ugh!!

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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