La Question (The Question) (1977)




Director:     Laurent Heynemann.

Starring:      Jacques Denis (Henri Charlegue), Nicole Garcia (Agnès Charlegue), Jean-Pierre Sentier (Lieutenant Charbonneau), Françoise Thuries (Josette Oudinot), Christian Rist (Maurice Oudinot), Michel Beaune (Professeur Fayard), Djéloul Beghoura (Hamid), Jean Benguigui (Claude), Maurice Bénichou (Vincent), Roland Blanche (Derida), Jacques Boudet (Commandant Roch), Christian Bouillette (Gargouille), Gilbert Costa (Garnero), Jean-Claude de Goros (Brull), François Dyrek (Lieutenant Herbelin).

here the word "question" is used as a euphemism for torture;  based on tortured Henri Alleg's small book about the French using torture on the Algerians



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

August 1956, Algiers.  "Martial law has been declared.  The only Algerian nationalist newspaper was suppressed in September 1955.  Its editor and writers, committed to the struggle for independence, are forced into hiding."

The talk among the newspaper men is about the explosion in the casbah.  Supposedly it was a Liberation Front (NLF) bomb factory, but there is no casbah bomb factory.  60 women and children were killed.  The NLF is going to strike back at this provocation.  The editor, Henri Charlegue, says this is a trap set by the reactionaries. 

An assassin shoots the president as he sits in his car waiting for the chauffeur to get into the driver's seat. 

Agnès Charlegue comes into a bar.  The talk is about the assassination.  Agnès says:  "Your president wasn't any saint.  Didn't he organize the private militia?"  The bar tender tells Agnès that she must be careful about what she says.  He also tells her to say hello to her husband Henri.  She says she hasn't seen him lately.

She goes to their hide-out apartment.  Henri tells her that there could be trouble at the funeral. He is staying at the apartment of the sports editor.  Agnès asks is they sent the sports editor to a camp, but Henri says no because the fellow was not a communist.  Instead, they put him back into the army.  Agnès says she's worried that the fellow might talk and suggests that Henri move.  Henri is exhausted from changing his location saying he moved 7 times in less than a year.   

The funeral is held.  Along its route, the hearse is surrounded by hundreds of people. 

Agnès runs into her husband who tells her that the sports editor had the locks changed, so he has nowhere to go for now.   

Agnès tells friends that her husband needs a new place to hide.  She says that he should contact Garnero now. 

General Martin has full police powers which puts the army in charge.  A man tells an army officer that the army can't arrest all 5,000 people on their lists.  The officer says they can interrogate these people one after the other.  That way, they are bound to catch some rebels.  And he is going to arrest all 5,000 people. 

Henri looks out a window.  His hostess warns him to stay away from the window because someone might see him.  Henri pulls back.  The doorbell rings and the hostess says:  "Holy mother!  Mme Campolongo."  She rushes Henri into a closet.  She then lets her guest in.  The woman sets up her cards to read the fortune of her hostess.  The hostess wants to know about her poor husband Ferdinand who is being held in a camp.  Senator Bacri has promised to help get Ferdinand out. 

The doorbell rings again and three soldiers enter the apartment.  The captain asks for Mme Ferrer and the hostess says that's her.  He introduces himself as Captain Fouquet.  They briefly look around the apartment and the captain asks if Mme Ferrer has seen any of her husband's friends?  No.  Fouquet warns her that if any of his friends do show up, she is not to hide anything from him.  Now he and his men leave the apartment. 

Mme Campolongo is spooked by the military police and decides to leave.  And now Mme Ferrer has to tell Henri that he will have to leave. 

Henri puts on a false mustache.  He meets with his wife in the open air.  Henri tells her that he just ran into Miloud who used to work for the paper.  Agnès tells him that she's scared.  Algiers is not a big place and so many people know Henri.  Chasserand has been arrested.  Every day now a person they know is arrested or just "disappears".  Henri says he will be caught too.   

One of Henri's newspapermen, Maurice Oudinot, comes to a colleague's house and says he must sign a petition denouncing trying to turn professors and Arab students against the NLF.  If he doesn't sign, he will be ousted from his university position.   The young fellow says he will sign the petition. 

Henri and his wife have to send their children back to France for fear that they might be harmed.  The kids were very exited to get to fly in an airplane and to see grandmother again.  Agnès tells her husband that Garnero says it's going to get worse for them. 

June 8, 1957.  Captain Fouquet arrests one of the newspapermen.

June 11, 1957,  The young university professor Oudinot is arrested.  A policeman remains inside the house.

June 12, 1957.   Henri goes to the house of Oudinot and is arrested.  The policeman calls for help from the army.  The officer comes in and tells the policeman that this captive is the ex-director of "Democratic Algeria".  Henri is taken to military headquarters. 

Henri says he will not talk.  So the officer telephones someone to prepare a crew (a torture crew).  A man named Derrida takes charge of Henri.  The crew are surprised to be torturing a Frenchman, but they seem very happy about it.  They deride him saying he chose to support the "wogs" rather than the French.  They call him a bastard, fatty, sweetheart and a waste of time.  Derrida helps strap Henri onto a stretcher and tells him that here everybody talks.   

Two soldiers are assigned to watch Agnès.  They love taunting the married woman. 

Henri is going to receive electrical shocks.  He manages to survive the shocks without talking.  Now he is brought face to face with the university man, Oudinot.  They tell Oudinot to tell Henri what's coming up for him.  Oudinot says:  "It's rough, Henri."  Now they whisk Oudinot away.  And now they are going to use a bigger electric shock machine on Henri. 

Henri is subjected to water torture. A light sheet is put over Henri's face and water is poured onto the sheet making it very hard for Henri to breathe and makes him think he is going to drown.  Henri faints and is immediately revived.  Henri is hung upside down.  From there he is handcuffed with his hands behind his back and thrown into a cell. 

In the morning Henri is hooked up to an electrical shock instrument with one end placed on his right ear and the other end placed inside his mouth. 

The officers start wondering if this guy is ever going to talk?  The lead officer says they could kill his wife right in front of him. 

Henri has been denied water for two days.  The main torturer says that in four days without water Henri will die.  They give him salt water to drink.  The party is broken up with the arrival of Lt. Lamaze, aide to General Martin.  Good cop, bad cop routine is applied.  The lieutenant offers Henri a lot of temptations to talk. 

After three days of not eating, they bring Henri some soup.  The feeder says:  "You have to have a lot of nerve to resist."

Now eight men come into Henri's cell.  Two of the men are in business suits and the officer says it may take two or three months but Henri will talk.  Now they tell Henri that his kids will get it good tonight. 

The two guards are removed from Mrs. Oudinot's apartment.  Agnès watches as her soldiers also leave. 

The torture officer, Carbonneau, is brought in to talk with the Secretary General of the Police.  The man is not happy with the torturer.  He says that the torturer will have to bring Henri Charlegue and Maurice Oudinot to court.  The torturer leaves and the Secretary General tells a man on his staff that he thinks he is going to submit his resignation.  He says the only weapon he has is the subpoena where the tortured men have to go to court.  He rants that he has no control over what's going on.  "Already almost 4,000 have disappeared, and are on no list."  And worse goes on at El Biar and villa Sesini.   He adds:  "I didn't escape a Nazi death camp to condone the same thing here."

A friend recommends that Agnès go see the people at the Commission for Safeguarding Individual Rights.  He takes her there.  She tells them that her husband was arrested a week ago and she still does not know where he is.  She couldn't report it earlier because she was held prisoner in her own apartment by paratroopers.  Agnès says she wants the Commission to find out about the status of their husbands.  The man in charge asks her to bring him a dossier with names, places  --  irrefutable facts. 

They try to be nicer to Henri to get him to tell them how to reach Garnero.  Henri won't talk.

Suddenly, the torturers are moving all the tortured and to be tortured out of their little hell so they won't be seen by anyone.  Maurice is put in a room all by himself and left there. 

The Commission for Safeguarding Individual Rights visits the place where people are tortured, but the prisoners are all gone.  The officer in charge lies through his teeth to say that they don't question the prisoners for long here.  Soon they leave the place and are sent to a camp or set free. 

The two wives demand to see Gen. Martin.  His aide says the general can't see them, because they are accused of conspiracy.  The women ask about torture being used.  The excuser tells them:  "I give my word.  It's false."  The women say that the French government prevents the lawyers for their husbands access to Algeria. 

The aide tells Henri that he is glad to see that he is feeling better.  He tells Henri that Gen. Martin is out winning the Battle of Algiers.  He says if Henri will write about the present and the future of Algeria for him, he will be set free.  Henri says he will not collaborate with the army. 

Gen. Martin, the man in charge of torture, is being put under pressure because the press is putting France and the army under pressure.  He has a generator brought in and the terminals attached to him.  But the demonstrator hardly cranks up the generator at all so the general  can show that he is not hurt by any electrical shocks. 

Maurice is put under a lot of pressure from the men to try to insure that he will talk.  It doesn't take long before Maurice dies.  The officer gets angry and calls his staff:  "Assholes!" 

"No one should see the corpse!"  They take Maurice's corpse out and bury it in the earth at night in a out of the way place. 

The meanest torturer now dresses up like a prisoner and will pretend that he is Oudinot.  They handcuff the "prisoner" and send him over to headquarters in a jeep.  Along the way, suddenly the jeep comes to an abrupt halt, the torturer as prisoner jumps out and runs away.  The guard shoots blanks at the escaping prisoner.  Henri hears shots and thinks the paratroopers are shooting at Maurice. 

An officer comes to speak to the Secretary General of the Police.  It's Lt. Carbonneau pretending to be Commander Roch.  He tells the superior officer that Maurice Oudinet escaped.  And he now asks the Secretary General to annul Oudinot's subpoena.  The superior officer asks Roch, so a man is done away with and you expect me to cover it up?  "I shall annul nothing.  I shall destroy nothing.  You can go."  Before Roch leaves, he tells the officer:  "You're working against us."

Josette Oudinot goes in to speak with Gen. Martin.  They tell her that her husband has escaped.  She shouts at the top of her voice:  "You killed him, like the others.  And I swear everyone will know."

A man that was a friend to Agnès and even told her to go to the Commission for Safeguarding Individual Rights is now rejected by Agnès.  He tries to justify his position, saying that Algeria is a part of France and the army has to defend them.  She asks:  "And people have to disappear, be tortured?"  He says no, that's bad, but he doesn't want to leave Algeria.  Agnès is being deported back to France and she is being driven to the airport today.

Henri is taken to see Captain Fouquet.  He asks Henri what would he do to him if his side won the war?  He hates people like Henri:  intellectuals, socialists, liberals, Jews, writers and painters.  Although he can't stand Henri, Fouquet says they are transferring him to Lodi, until they all forget about Henri Charlegue.  When things cool down, then Henri will be brought back to Fouquet and everybody talks with Fouquet. 

Algerians on the streets have to get in line to be checked over at check points. 

Henri goes to Barberousse.  They take his books away from him and he asks why?  The guard says:  "At Barberousse you don't ask questions."  He is put in isolation.  But he is not in isolation.  There are two Europeans there with him.  They tell Henri that about 120 of the prisoners are here under a death sentence.  Moreover, they tell him:  "Almost everyone here is a political prisoner."  There are 2,400 prisoners in a prison made for only 700. 

A lawyer slips by the screening of lawyers by airport security.  He goes in to see the official in charge of lawyers visiting political prisoners.  The guy thinks he will quickly get rid of this lawyer, but the lawyer is sharp and has two statements.  One is from Henri's lawyer saying the new lawyer will represent him in Algeria and a letter from Henri himself asking to see the new lawyer. 

So, finally, Henri gets to see a lawyer.  The lawyer tells him that Agnes sends him her loves and the children are fine.  What about Maurice?  The lawyer says it's clear that they killed Maurice, but they don't have any definite evidence.  He also tells Henri:  "We have to obtain a confrontation with the men who tortured you."  He wants Henri to write an eye-witness account of the tortures. 

The barber gives Henri a shave and tells him that the paratroopers caught Hamed.  The government is through and Bourges is finished. 

The prison won't let Henri study what he wants to study.  They give him a learn Russian book and a notebook.  Henri starts studying Russian.  And Henri is soon writing in Russian which throws the guards off.

Three Algerians on the first floor are being taken out to be executed.  The women watching this start ululating with their tongues. 

Paris, 1957.  Agnès and Josette sit together with their lawyer. A man gets up to give the opinion on the dissertations of Maurice Oudinot.  The jury unanimously awards a doctorate in mathematical science to M. Oudinot.  There is a big applause for this.  The speaker then asks for a minute of silence in honor of M. Oudinot. 

In the prison office, Henri gets a chance to confront his torturer, Lt. Carbonneau.  The lieutenant denies he did anything bad to Henri.  Henri says the man is lying.  Then he gets to confront all the other torturers and they all say it didn't happen.  They all go to the prison where Henri was tortured.  He goes to the room where he was tortured.  It has all been cleaned up and the walls painted.  The place certainly doesn't look like a torture room. Henri bursts past the men in the hall and pushes the door open to another room, that does look more like a possible torture room.  Henri says that he was hung upside down in this room and subjected to the water torture.  In fact, Henri remembers so many little facts about the room that he can rattle off one small thing after another and they are all confirmed to be in the other room. 

Henri passes a slip of paper to his lawyer.  In fact, every week he passes parts of a book to his lawyer.  While Henri is still in prison, his book is published under the name of La Question meaning torture.  So now the guards start taking every piece of paper away from the prison inmates.  There will be no more notebooks and no more paper for the inmates. 

Paris, February 1958. The government has been seizing as many copies of La Question as possible.   A fellow observes that the book has been on sale in France for an entire month already.  And a new edition of the book will be coming out. 

Algeria, May 1958.  There are lots of protests in Algeria.  Charles de Gaulle comes for a visit. 

Subpoena to appear June 13 before the Military Tribunal.  Henri tells his lawyer that's only two weeks away.  His lawyer says he will be appearing with Garnero, Hamid Hassani, Youcef Said, Yohia Berkane and Maurice Oudinot.  The lawyer explains about Oudinot:  "Not to summon him would be to admit they killed him."  Mrs. Oudinot shows up for the trial of her dead husband.  The public is not permitted into this part of the trial.  The lawyer promises Josette that the story of the French torture of its own citizens and others will become known to the entire world. 

Garnero gets 20 years and Henri gets 10 years in prison.  The lawyer tells Henri that he will be transferred to France to testify about Oudinot. 

Rennes, July 1960.   Josette says that the army is really mad at her.  "By publishing the torturers' names, I've calumnized the army's honor."

In the prison Henri is told to go with somebody important.  A car is waiting for Henri.  He says that Henri is flying to Rennes, to Britanny. 

At the airport a nurse asks for Henri's medical visa.  She then whispers to Henri:  "Play sick!"  Henri does and is placed on a gurney.  He is taken to a hospital room.  Later his wife dressed as a nurse comes in.  She tells him there are clothes for him in the closet, but wait for two hours to pass first. 

After two hours have passed, Henri gets up.  He escapes from the hospital October 4, 1961. 

Six months later.  The amnesty made all charges impossible and all accusations useless.  "For the law, Maurice is not dead, and Henri was never tortured."


Good movie denouncing the use of torture by the French in their attempts to crush the Algerian War for Independence.  Of course, the French hid the fact that they were torturing even their own French people sympathetic to the independence fighters.  But there were just too many who were tortured and lived to tell the truth of the use of torture.  A journalist named Henri smuggled out written material on torture in Algeria so that a small book could be published on the subject.  And the names of some of the torturers were released publicly by being mentioned in the book. 

In the USA we recently went through a period of the extensive use of torture.  So it was somewhat satisfying to see how the French used the water torture, which the USA Republicans said was not a torture at all.  Torture and torturers are evil people using evil methods.  Even in advanced democracies like that of the USA, if a populace feels threatened, suddenly torture starts to be administered to those thought to be a threat.  Even completely innocent people get tortured in the process, but excuses are plentiful with a frightened voting population. 

Jacques Denis (as Henri Charlegue) was very good.  A lot of time was spent on showing the different techniques of torture.  There are always some sadistic people around who love inflicting pain on others.  They actually enjoy torturing and taunting other people.  Now that's a pretty disgusting group of people.  And there were lots of these people in the French film.  And let's have three cheers for the wives who tirelessly worked to free their husbands!

I am eagerly anticipating a film(s) on the use of torture by the Americans in the Middle East.  With film, the evil of the torturer is exposed for all to see and condemn.  There are so many historical films exposing torturers.  It's a common theme in historical films and I have by now seen a hell of a lot of them.  Thank God for humane films.  And thank God for a liberal bias against torture.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



Historical Background:


1954-1962  -  the Algerian War for independence of Algeria from France

 1958 (May)  --  the French Fourth Republic dissolves.  Charles de Gaulle returns to power during the crisis and then founds the Fifth Republic with his Gaullist followers.  Over time De Gaulle comes to support the idea of Algerian independence. 

1958-1960  --  first Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic with Ferhat Abbas as the president.

1960-1961  -- second Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic with Ferhat Abbas as the president.

1961-1962  --  third Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic with Benyoucef Benkhedda as the president.

1962 (March)  --  the Evian Accords, which resulted in the independence of Algeria. 

1963-1965  --  the FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, who had been arrested in 1956, becomes the first President of Algeria after an uncontested election.

1965-1976  --  Colonel Houari Boumédiènne, President of the Revolutionary Council.



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