Safe Conduct


posted to on January 19, 2005


Bernard Tavernier's 2002 "Safe Conduct" (Laissez-passer) is a chronicle of the French film industry during the Vichy regime. It features two historical characters who resisted Nazism, each in his own way, as well as many others who struggled to maintain a sense of dignity if not their lives during this difficult period. One is director Jean-Devaivre, whose memoir the film is based on. The other is screenwriter Jean Aurenche, who exercised a kind of passive resistance to Nazi occupation and who wrote several screenplays for Tavernier, including the memorable 1981 "Clean Slate" (Coup de Torchon)," a noirish tale of a French colonial cop who decides to systematically kill off an African village's riffraff.


"Safe Conduct" is an extremely ambitious film clocking in at 170 minutes with 134 (!) speaking roles. Although it is a flawed enterprise, it is a must-see for anybody interested in art and politics and how they interact.


Played by Jacques Gamblin, Jean-Devaivre is a decidedly non-ideological opponent of Nazi occupation. At one point when pressed to explain why he risks life and career against the Germans, he shrugs his shoulders and says, "I just don't like them here." In other words, he seems fuelled by the same kind of raw nationalism as the Iraqi resistance.


What makes Jean-Devaivre's character all the more interesting is the fact that he (and the real-life director) chose to work for the Paris branch of Continental Productions, the German-owned film company. By day, he directs costume dramas, which are carefully chosen as vehicles for Aesopian anti-occupation messages. By night, he goes out on sabotage missions to blow up railroad trains.


By contrast, Jean Aurenche's (Denis Podalydes) main goal is to avoid working for the Germans, rather than to get involved with the underground. This does not mean that he is afraid to speak his mind. When he is at a dinner party hosted by a shady businessman who appears to have ties to the Germans, he speaks up for the rights of Communists and Jews. After watching the businessman and his Gestapo associates beat up a elderly beggar in the courtyard below, he decides--helped by one drink too many--to confront him. Before he has a chance to get himself in trouble, his prostitute girl-friend crowns him over the head with an empty wine bottle, rendering him unconscious


Another key scene involves Jean-Devaivre stealing a top-secret memo from the cabinet of a Gestapo officer, who has an office at Continental Productions. He is flown to England, where he meets with British intelligence officers who have trouble understanding why a film director would stick his neck out in this fashion. Since Jean-Devaivre was motivated mostly by a desire to track down his jailed brother-in-law's whereabouts than to uncover military secrets, it is possible to understand the British suspicions.


We eventually learn that the brother-in-law Jacques Dubuis (Olivier Brun) died in a German prison, but was immortalized in a bit role in a film directed by Jean-Devaivre. We see the historical Dubuis's appearance in this film, along with numerous other scenes from French films made during Nazi occupation. Unlike Jean-Devaivre, Dubuis was an activist. On his way to Continental Productions for a day's work, he is stopped by Nazi soldiers with anti-occupation pamphlets in his coat.


Last January I reviewed Alan Furst's "Red Gold" for The main character in this very fine novel was one Jean Casson, a French film director who joins the Resistance. Recently I learned from Furst that his character is based on the director Marcel Carne, who while not included in the Tavernier film, clearly shared the values of the main characters.


A Nov. 1, 1996 NY Times obituary on the 90-year-old Carne reported that he refused to make propaganda films for the Germans and insisted that French audiences would regard his 1942 "Les Visiteurs du Soir" as an allegory for an occupied France. With backing from Continental Productions, Carne then began shooting "Les Enfants du Paradis" in 1943, but the Allied invasion interfered with the production. Carne concealed the Jewish origins of his set designer Alexander Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma from the Nazis. After French cops working for the Gestapo arrested a French extra during shooting, the man--like Dubuis--was never seen again. Carne said, "I will relive that scene for the rest of my days."


Much of the film is devoted to behind-the-scenes representations of the difficult job of making movies under the German iron fist. Despite professions by the head of Continental Productions that he is devoted to art rather than politics, he functions more as a gauleiter than a film company executive.


In one memorable scene, he comes to the prison cell where screenwriter Charles Spaak (Laurent Schilling) is being held. He cajoles him into writing a script from inside the cell with the not-too-subtle implication that death awaits him if he refuses. Since the real-life Charles Spaak wrote the screenplay for the masterpiece "The Grand Illusion," which deals with French prisoners of war during WWI, there is a powerful resonance.


Unfortunately, Tavernier bites off much more than he can chew. This scene occupies only a minute or two, which is far too short to do it justice. Obviously, Tavernier was desperate to recreate this historical period without sacrificing any of these heroic characters but failed to understand that something would have to give. Perhaps the most egregious flaw in the film is decision to include the totally unrelated narratives both of Jean-Devaivre and Jean Aurenche, who had no contact with each other. In effect, you have two movies in one. It would have been far better to concentrate on Jean-Devaivre rather than Jean Aurenche. Since Aurenche was a long-time collaborator with Tavernier, however, it is understandable why he would want to tell his story as well.


There was a lot of controversy around "Safe Conduct" when it came out. Despite the fact that Jean-Devaivre was a member of the resistance, the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma accused Tavernier of justifying collaboration with Vichy. In a November 1, 2002 article in the Independent, Tavernier compared the fate of French film-makers under Nazi occupation to that of American film-makers under McCarthyism:


He's lately been quite vocal about Hollywood and the Academy for failing to apologise for the 1950s blacklist while giving special Oscars to McCarthyite stooges like Elia Kazan. On a US paper's criticism that you need a PhD in French film studies to understand Laissez-passer, he says to me: "It's a simple idea: how can you work for a German company without compromising yourself? It's very simple. I say to the American critic, just replace the German element with Senator McCarthy and everything will be clear!"


Jean Aurenche is no stranger to controversy either. In January 1954, François Truffaut wrote a vicious attack on mainstream French cinema in the journal of the Cahiers du Cinéma, accusing it of making fashionably vulgar, patriotic, anti-clerical films. He singled out Jean Aurenche and the directors he worked with as tricksters and imposters. They were "bourgeois making bourgeois films for bourgeois people."


It is clear that Tavernier was making a subtle reference to this controversy in "Safe Conduct" by showing how the films Truffaut attacked were subtle attempts to subvert Nazi domination, or at least designed to do so. In another key scene, Aurenche tells off a Vichy film official. When he is asked how he has such nerve to speak to him in this fashion, Aurenche replies that it is because he is one bourgeois speaking to another.


"Safe Conduct" is now available in DVD. Despite its excessive length and its structural flaws, it is well worth seeing.