Saturday, 9 July 2016

Nothing Any Longer is Forbidden: Nazi-Occupied France on Stage, Small Screen, and Page

This essay was originally posted on Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because of the demonstration of courage in the face of terrible adversity by characters in the drama, television series and novel that I  review.

A scene from Soulpepper's production of Incident at Vichy. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only that name we give to that stranger, that agency we cannot feel. Each man has his own Jew, it is the other. And the Jews have their own Jews. 
– Leduc, in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy
  
In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. 
– Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As the lights go down, we hear the ominous sound of a train, chilling because the setting is 1942 in France.Incident at Vichy then opens with a daily occurrence: the systematic rounding up of suspected Jews by the Vichy government as it submitted to German racial laws. On this particular day, a number of men and a teenage boy have been shuttled into a ramshackle detention centre and lined up on a bench, none of them certain why, initially thinking that perhaps the authorities are interested only in checking their papers. But as they get called in one-by-one for questioning (off stage), they begin suspecting more sinister motives – there is talk about trains locked from the outside and rumours about work camps – while at the same time they protect themselves with self-delusions that freedom will come, particularly after the first man called in, the businessman is given a pass to leave. Of course the audience knows precisely the reason: most of them are Jews and the Nazis' purpose is to identify individuals who belong to their designated “inferior races” so that they can be dispatched by train east to Poland. The discrepancy between the audience’s knowledge and the uncertainty of the characters contributes to the tension (for some audience members at the Toronto Soulpepper performance I attended that tension was clearly unbearable expressed through fidgeting, movement as if to leave but decide to stay, almost a mirror of what was happening on stage) that Arthur Miller’s ninety-minute one act 1964 drama is designed to generate.


Although Incident addresses the themes of personal responsibility and our capacity to be complicit with evil, I found the first two-thirds of the drama to be too cerebral and austere when it should emotionally, as well as intellectually, engage us. In a sense, the theatre experience at times felt more like an explication of ideas – aesthetics versus politics, the limits of group solidarity, human nature – than a dramatic enactment of them that occurs when the dramatist focuses on character development. Instead, most of them appear more like types or symbols rather than living people. Among them there is the Marxist electrician who lives his life as an historical abstraction amid the larger class struggle in which the proletarian will eventually emerge victorious; the businessman who believes in the need for order and people with false papers are a threat to state security; the painter who expresses a Kafkaesque anxiety wishing that he might have committed a crime so that his detention would make sense; the performer who takes solace in the illusion that since German audiences are so sensitive to art, they can hardly be barbarians who would send innocent people to a death camp; the Austrian aristocrat (mistakenly rounded up in the dragnet because he spoke French with a German accent) whose purpose is to shred illusions, that “art is no defence against this barbarity” and the vast majority of ordinary people who worked on his estate were devout Nazis; the gypsy who serves as the quintessential scapegoat illustrating the psychiatrist, Leduc’s contention that even Jews “have their own Jews.” We can appreciate the power of Miller’s insights and the splendid language for how he expresses them. But I felt for the first hour most of the characters are speechifying rather than engaging with each other.

Eventually, when only two of the detainees are left on the bench, Von Berg (Diego Matamoros) and the army captain-turned-psychiatrist Leduc (Stuart Hughes), sometimes joined by a wounded Major in the German army (Oliver Dennis), who is assigned to what he regards as distasteful administrative duty, a powerful drama unfolds. Enhanced by strong performances by these three fine actors, genuine sparks flare up as their characters spar about truth, responsibility and complicity: Leduc berates the prince and forces him to accept his complicity with the Nazis by ignoring his cousin’s direct involvement, but at the same time, the French war veteran admits that everybody discriminates against “the other” and he admits to the Major that for all his high-minded talk about responsibility, he too would choose survival at the expense of another person’s life. Given the eventual outcome, which some audience members might consider improbable, it is worth noting that it is based upon a true story that was told to Miller.

The program notes indicate that Incident is not only about the Holocaust but that it is a metaphor. In this spirit, director Alan Dilworth has assembled a multicultural cast – an astute decision, given the play’s contemporary resonance perhaps more now when refugees in record numbers are fleeing war zones and seeking asylum in the West than in 1964. To boot, when Von Berg says that the world has entered a new age of barbarism, spurred by demagogues, his words carry a powerful salience to the world of 2016 when Trumpism, Brexit and the emergence of European anti-immigrant populism embolden the far right voices to come out of the shadows once again to peddle their messages on the Internet, social media and in the public space.

A scene from Un Village Français.

The third season of the excellent French television series – and now available in North America – Un Village Français is also set in 1942, but I doubt that anyone could say that it is not emotionally engaging. Divided roughly into two parts, the first half of this season begins with a train full of Jewish prisoners arriving into the Villeneuve station. Its connecting train will not arrive for several days and so the prisoners must be housed in the school. While there, the Gestapo demands that the local police round up nearly thirty local, illegally immigrated Jews and imprison them. The conditions within the school and the ferreting out of foreign Jews and eventually those with French citizenship test the personal loyalties, professional responsibilities, ideological convictions and basic human decency in ways that we have not seen in the first two seasons. Those loyalties are further tested in the second half after the train with hundreds of Jews leaves, and the focus moves back towards the resistance fighters and the French police efforts to stop them. Watch in particular for the machinations of Marchetti (Nicholas Gob), the French detective who, prior to this season, has been an unambiguous, opportunistic scoundrel with no conscience, after he falls for a foreign Jewish woman, and for the vulnerability of a resistance member, Crémieux (Laurent Bateau), who seems lost after his wife and daughter are swept up in the expulsion of foreign Jews. It is rare to watch a series that is both historically accurate and dramatically compelling. The best thing about it is that it is created, produced and acted by the French themselves who have been generally reluctant, especially on television, to honestly face their dark history.

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale (St Martin’s Press, 2015) has been a resounding commercial success and it is not hard to see why. It is a gripping, character-driven novel about two strong but vulnerable sisters who respond from different motives to the Nazi occupation. But in the end they both find the courage and resilience to confront the almost insurmountable adversity in war-torn France. Unlike Incident at Vichy and Un Village Français, Nightingale is framed by two brief vignettes in present 1995. An elderly widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her son. This move is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. We are then thrust into spring, 1940: Viann says goodbye to her husband Antoine as he heads off to the Front. She returns to tending her small farm in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and protecting her daughter Sophie while they ride out the war. That fragile world is abruptly overturned when the Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning her land. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone – food rationing, systematic looting, and the dropping of bombs upon civilians – a German officer is billeted in Viann’s home forcing her to co-operate with him, and at the same time inviting suspicion that she is collaborating with the enemy. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools for her outspokenness, is sent to live with her sister by their father in Paris, a drunken, shell-shocked Great War veteran who was incapable of looking after his daughters after their mother died. Unable to restrain herself with the enemy living in the family home, Isabelle returns to Paris and joins the Resistance that gives her, for the first time, a purpose in life. She volunteers for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the hazardous – both geographic and human as German patrols search for her – Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle, fully aware of the price that she will likely pay, rescues many pilots before the almost inevitable outcome. (Hannah acknowledges that Isabel’s narrative is loosely based on the experiences of a Belgian teenager during the war.) Meanwhile, Viann struggles to retain her humanity, naively acknowledging to the Captain that her best friend is Jewish and later owning up her mistake to that friend. As Nazi barbarities escalate culminating in the deportations and deaths of thousands of Jews, including some who were most dear to Viann, she makes decisions which she never thought she was capable of in order to protect her family. She also surreptitiously secrets the lives of several young Jewish children, but her quiet resistance is undertaken at a high personal cost. From the perspective of these two women, Hannah vividly and movingly depicts these cataclysmic events. Her novel was such an engrossing page-turner that I read it in a few sittings, and yet something bothered me about it.

If the first half of Incident at Vichy is too abstract and cerebral, I have wondered whether the emotionally-charged Nightingale verges on the sentimental. This was particularly evident in the passages at the end of the war and in the last chapter, the vignette about the 1995 present. It’s not so much about the adult son who accompanies Viann to Paris who knows nothing about his mother’s war experiences, not even learning French because his mother wanted to start over again in America and forget the past. Charles Kaiser’s non-fictional heroine in The Cost of Courage is no different – for years she refused to talk about her wartime experiences – except she remained in Paris and there was an annual family remembrance. The whiff of sentimentality in The Nightingale hovers over Hannah’s need to tie up all the loose threads leaving nothing to ambiguity, mystery or unresolved feelings. And yet I feel torn as I am grateful to her for narrating heroic tales of extraordinary courage and endurance about women who put their lives on the line to save others, feats that are rarely acknowledged in general historical monographs. In addition, her narratives resonate with and reinforce those that are dramatized in Village Français, and there are dramatic tableaux in that series that will remind audience members of the powerful language spoken in Incident at Vichy. When the Austrian prince utters “Nothing any longer is forbidden,” he could have been speaking for the characters in the television series and the novel as they grapple with conditions that were only a short time before unimaginable.

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