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1993, André Pierre Colombat.
Posted at www.chambon.org with the permission of André Pierre Colombat.
Pierre Sauvage's documentary Weapons of the Spirit presents itself as a very personal investigation about a rather disorienting mystery. Pierre Sauvage's work is a deliberate attempt to understand why an entire population rescued thousands of Jews so "naturally," with so much "simplicity" while the whole world appeared to have turned its back on their persecution by the Nazis and the Collaborators. The entire film tries to understand not only how the Christians of the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon saved the lives of at least five thousand Jews but also why it appeared so obvious to them that "it was the only thing to do." Pierre Sauvage's own parents found refuge in Le Chambon where the director himself was born on March 25, 1944. Consequently, the most apparent characteristic of this film is that it presents, in a very personal manner, a whole community of rescuers, as very solid, independent, religious and simple people who acted without agonizing rather than agonizing without acting.[i]
Thematically, three main leitmotivs will reappear throughout the film, explaining in part why Le Chambon was such an exception in occupied France. First, Sauvage and the villagers themselves recognize that the community was able to learn from its past as a population of Huguenots that had been persecuted for their religious beliefs since the seventeenth century. Even at a more individual level, Pastor Trocmé and his wife Magda had been able to see with their own eyes and to tell the people of Le Chambon what had happened to the Jews during the thirties in Mussolini's Italy (Magda Trocmé) and in Hitler's Germany (Magda and André Trocmé).
Second, their own historical awareness combined itself with an unpretentious and solid faith that always refused to separate its actions from values. When the director asks Pastor Edouard Theis to summarize his faith, his answer is:
E. Theis: You shall love your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your neighbor as yourself (E. Theis' emphasis).
P. Sauvage: That's the summary?
E. Theis: Yes. (Pause.) Of course.
In any other context, this answer could have sounded like pure rhetoric and somewhat pretentious. However, the history, the reserve, the simplicity, the directness and the conviction of the people of Le Chambon make of this unadorned definition a very powerful and convincing statement. Consequently, as we will see in the following pages, the very first quality of Pierre Sauvage's film is its perfect respect and rendering of the "spirit" of the people of Le Chambon.
Third, the people of Le Chambon are presented from the very beginning of the film as totally opposed to Marshal Pétain's armistice and politics of Collaboration with Germany. As Edouard Theis put it: "We considered Vichy as nothing." It was indeed the very day after the signature of the armistice that André Trocmé made his most influential sermon:
“The duty of the Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit. We shall resist when our adversaries will demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hatred” (my emphasis).[ii]
The Chambonnais had made up their minds since they had heard the speech of former government minister André Philip explaining that one of Pétain's first decisions was to return the German refugees to the Nazis. Throughout the documentary, dozens of crossed references will repeat these three important themes. They characterize the Chambonnais as an actively religious and simple people who are both historically and politically aware of their time.
Beyond the attempt to understand what happened in Le Chambon, Pierre Sauvage's film is thematically unified by a more general question. As the film constantly recalls that the entire community took part in the rescue effort, it also analyzes the influence the attitude of the Chambonnais had on the local authorities and on some German soldiers as well. The film suggests clearly that what took place in Le Chambon for five years was also possible because the Préfet Robert Bach, some members of the Vichy police, some Vichy officials, some German soldiers and even a German officer (Major Julius Schmähling) never really reported to higher authorities what was going on in the village.
For Pierre Sauvage, the Chambonnais also succeeded because they had involuntarily started a "conspiracy of goodness." Weapons of the Spirit analyzes ultimately how such a "conspiracy" worked and what it could teach us for our own future facing anti-Semitism, bigotry, and intolerance in general. This point raises the question of Pierre Sauvage's still ongoing interpretation of what happened in Le Chambon. On the one hand, one can wonder, for example, if this film does not exaggerate the power of active "goodness" when directly faced with mass murderers. On the other hand, Sauvage never fails to recall that Le Chambon is geographically isolated and that it constitutes an exception. Only a more detailed study of the film itself can provide us with the beginning of an answer to the various problems it raises about the limits of this "conspiracy of goodness."
In many respects Pierre Sauvage appears to be obsessed with his unending attempt to understand this "conspiracy of goodness." In a similar manner Claude Lanzmann was obsessed with the impossibility to represent the unspeakable horror of the Shoah. Like Lanzmann, Pierre Sauvage keeps on repeating similar questions to different people and each time he gets a slightly different answer. He also needed to meet the people of Le Chambon, to film their faces and their emotions, to ask them precise questions, to draw a map of the region, to understand who was doing what and when. In the end the mystery is not solved, however the memory of a people is saved while the film raises many key questions that directly concern our future.
Consequently, Weapons of the Spirit develops according to two parallel axes. The first one is a very personal search and study of the "spirit" of an exceptional community; the second is a presentation of the history of the same community within the general framework of the history of persecution of the European Jews during World War II. The two combine in the general analysis of the implications of what happened in Le Chambon for our own future ethics of action.
Weapons of the Spirit is first of all Pierre Sauvage's quest for understanding of what happened in Le Chambon. Combining the three themes of historical awareness, active values, and political commitment, the documentary chronologically develops as follows:
—The director returns to Le Chambon to find out why he was saved while "the spiritual plague" that produced the Holocaust had exterminated most of his mother's family.
—Arrival and first encounter with Le Chambon; thankful rescuees and simplicity of the rescuers. A picture of M. and Mme. Héritier during the war with the opening credits.
Part I: (1940-1941)
—Historical summary of the first months of the war, the defeat, the invasion, the Occupation, the Collaboration, Pétain and the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Vichy regime.
—General presentation of Le Chambon (geography, history), its people, what they did and why they did it ("They risked their lives"; "It happened quite simply").
—"The area found spiritual leaders it needed and deserved": André Trocmé, Edouard Theis, Magda Trocmé ("a dishonorable armistice," "love one another," "resist with the weapons of the spirit," "We just had a different past").
Part II: (1942)
—Heydrich in France, the systematic persecution and deportation of the Jews in France (drawings, names and photographs of the victims).
—The Jewish children in Le Chambon; Peter Feigl returns; finding a home for the children (Mme. Dreyfus); taking some children out of the French concentration camps; international help organizations (Swiss and American); organizing school for the children; a perfect integration; the underground railroad to Switzerland ("If we'd had an organization we would have failed"; "It was a general consensus," Magda Trocmé).
—The total respect for Jewish religion ("For us they were the people of God," Marie Brottes).
—Non-violent resistance to Lamirand and the Vichy Government; Lamirand in Le Chambon; a Vichy police raid in Le Chambon.
Part III: (1943-1944)
—December of 1942: Invasion of the "free zone" by the Germans; organization of the armed resistance; the Germans in Le Chambon.
—A center for the making of false identifications (Oskar Rosowsky, alias Jean-Claude Plunne); a Vichy police man in Le Chambon; ("I'm just about the only Jew in Le Chambon," Emile Sèches; "We were very scared," Ginette Weil).
—An orthodox Jew in Le Chambon (Marguerite Kohn). All her family was murdered in extermination camps.
—Christian apathy and responsibility in the Holocaust (Christian anti-Semitism and Pétain going to mass).
—What kind of Christians were the people of Le Chambon? ("It was a very solid faith that was put to the test and was not found wanting," Lesley Maber).
—Albert Camus in Le Chambon ("He was writing a book I think, and he was going for walks," Emile Grand).
—The "plague" arrives in Le Chambon. Arrest, beating and deportation of twenty four by the Gestapo. Daniel Trocmé's choice and death. The birth of the director. The murder of the doctor who had brought him to life (Roger le Forestier).
—Final contrast between Pétain's popularity and Le Chambon's freedom until the very last days of the war.
—Did the Jews forget about their rescuers?
—The director's own story.
—What can be learned from the people of Le Chambon?
As this schematic summary shows, each major section of the documentary is introduced by historical footage. In this manner, the story of Le Chambon is always presented as an exception in its time. It also allows the director to indicate how the community reacted progressively to every new situation. It is Magda Trocmé who says in the film that if the village really had had an organization, the enterprise would have failed. Consequently the evolution of the film itself stresses the different ways of resisting the community created as it had to face constantly and rapidly changing historical situations.
Consequently, the ultimate repercussions of what happened in Le Chambon reach far beyond Pierre Sauvage's film itself. The director indicated ten directions for future research on who exactly were the Righteous Gentiles.
1) Just how Christian were these rescuers?
2) What sort of Christianity did they practice?
3) Can we learn something about non-violent resistance from the rescuers?
4) Do conventional male values limit our own perspective on resistance to the Holocaust?
5) How determinant was the sense of being socially marginal to the sense of active empathy for the plight of the Jews?
6) If self-esteem was characteristic of the rescuers, then how did they succeed in developing it in themselves and from their upbringing?
7) How do we learn to view the rescuers as ordinary people whom we can emulate rather than as inimitable saints?
8) How important is historical memory in the genesis of righteous conduct?
9) How does one recognize leaders in a time of moral decay and what form does their leadership take?
10) Did communal rescue efforts result because people placed their trust in the beneficence of collective responsibility or from understanding that collective responsibility can only occur when there is individual responsibility?[iii]
Weapons of the Spirit already suggests many partial answers to these questions. There is however one question I would like to add based on the documentary's final chapter.
The story of the people of Le Chambon deserves undoubtedly our deepest respect and our most profound reflection. However, as the end of the film requires, one must also consider what the exact limits of a "conspiracy of goodness" are. In its final chapter, however, Weapons of the Spirit recalls that the community of Le Chambon had been also very lucky. In spite of all the precautions taken, nothing could be done to prevent the arrest, the deportation and the murder of some of its people. If the village had long created and benefited from a "conspiracy of goodness" that had extended to some Vichy officials, to the Préfet Bach and even to the German soldiers and officers in convalescence in Le Chambon, all of these efforts were powerless when directly faced with some of the most violent murderers the Third Reich produced, i.e. the Gestapo and men like Klaus Barbie.
One cannot simply deduce from this film that, for example, if the Polish farmers had acted like the people of Le Chambon it would have meant the end of the "Final Solution." On the one hand, as Shoah recalls, the deeply rooted Christian anti-Semitism of the Polish farmers facilitated greatly the extermination of six millions Jews. On the other hand, Weapons of the Spirit testifies that the active goodness and the faith of five thousand Christians living in the geographically isolated Le Chambon area was able to save some five thousand Jews. But one cannot forget that when it is already too late to change the people itself, when directly faced with the SS, the Gestapo, war criminals and men like Klaus Barbie, saving lives requires strategies and actions that are entirely different from the ones mostly shown in the film. Consequently, a quite different but complementary film could also be made on the Jewish armed resistance as it is briefly shown in Pierre Sauvage's masterpiece.
In many respects, Pierre Sauvage's Weapons of the Spirit can be considered as a "little brother," a very modest but essential supplement to Shoah. Pierre Sauvage did not see Shoah until after he completed his own documentary. However, both films reveal striking similarities in the ways they deal with their very different and specific subjects. While Lanzmann's work is a monumental presentation of the uniqueness of the Shoah that excludes France and insists on the systematic extermination of the European Jews in Poland; Sauvage's modest documentary analyzes the exception of a small French village of five thousand inhabitants that saved the lives of five thousand Jews against all odds. Moreover, Lanzmann's and Sauvage's works can be often characterized by the same fundamental qualities: the urgency they felt to return to the sites where the events they describe took place; their need to meet the "actors" of these events on the same sites; the image and the interviews they selected in order to respect and render the specificity of their respective subjects, i.e. the unspeakable horror of the Shoah for Lanzmann, and the "extraordinary simplicity" of the rescuers of Le Chambon for Sauvage.
While Lanzmann's most exceptional work confronts us once and for all with the fact that no European Jew, not even the children, were to be spared by the Nazis and their accomplices, Sauvage's work concentrates on one exceptional village which saved thousands of Jewish children. Only quick generalizations and a misunderstanding of the specificity of these two films could justify opposing them to each other. They both deal with different subjects and serve different purposes. However, they both participate in the same necessary preservation of the memory of the Holocaust for future generations.
Unfortunately, the differences between Lanzmann's and Sauvage's works are sometimes presented as being opposed and irreconcilable. In the United States, Michael Berenbaum rightfully insisted on the fact that: "the Holocaust is primarily about defeat not about victory, about tragedy and not triumph, about failure not success."[iv] Pierre Sauvage is very well aware of that fact and has never put it in question. However, Berenbaum went so far as to characterize the Holocaust as the "mysterium tremendum," "the awesome mystery—which cannot be penetrated," because "the Holocaust defies meaning and negates hope. The scope of victimization reduces even survival to a nullity. The reality of Auschwitz should silence the optimists."[v]
Berenbaum's extreme interpretation could in part illustrate Lanzmann's focus in the making of Shoah insisting on the heart of the systematic extermination of the Jews. Indeed for Lanzmann, as we have seen in the [book’s] preceding chapter, "understanding" why the Jews were massacred would provide a logical genesis of death, and ultimately, an excuse for the executioners as victims of their times. For this reason, in Berenbaum's words, the Shoah will always "defy meaning." However, it is also to be remembered that, as Lanzmann wrote: "the purpose of the theory of the aberration (of the Holocaust) is today to sweep away the idea of historical responsibility, the responsibility of Germany and that of the nations" (Autour de Shoah, 310-311). Then, in parallel with everything he wrote against the "understanding" of the mass murder itself, Lanzmann concludes that: "we must hold strongly both ends of the chain: the Holocaust is unique but not aberrant" (Autour de Shoah, 311).
What is "aberrant" is what Lanzmann called: "to pass to the act; to kill" (Autour de Shoah, 289). Understanding or comprehending a historical period is not synonymous with making logical or forgiving the atrocities that have been committed in these times. Collective and historical situations never free anybody from individual choices and individual responsibilities; they just make it easier to find false justifications to personal actions. For this reason, it is essential to understand the historical and collective contexts that allowed many individuals to make many personal choices and commit aberrant crimes under the cover of historical pressure. It is also to be recalled that, for similar reasons, Marcel Ophüls refuses to believe in collective guilt.
Consequently, Berenbaum's conclusion, with its total rejection of hope, does not derive directly from its premises and it mixes up various issues that are not synonymous as his argument pretends. What is missing in order to articulate the two aspects of Lanzmann's thought—"it is impossible to 'understand' the Shoah" and "the Holocaust is not aberrant"—is a detailed reflection on the relationship between collective and individual responsibility. Indeed, the Shoah itself defies meaning because the murder of six million Jews serves no purpose whatsoever. However, this does not systematically imply that it negates hope. In equating the hopeful with the optimistic, Berenbaum ironically assimilates hope with dull and blind optimism. The Shoah generates no hope. However the people who tried to fight it do. The kind of hope they inspire has not been created by Auschwitz but has survived in spite of Auschwitz. The people of Le Chambon acted the same before, during and after the war. They are exceptional people precisely because their self esteem, their life style and their values were strong enough so that they did not vanish when their faith was put on trial.
Consequently, Pierre Sauvage's film does not derive hope from the Shoah but from an extraordinary exception making it clear that each individual is always entirely responsible for his/her "illogical" actions of love or of hatred. Regarding another reproach indicating that he paid too much attention to an exceptional situation, the director himself answered:
"'There were so few of them.' As if moral or spiritual significance is a matter of numbers. As if we even knew the numbers in this largely uncharted chapter of our past. As if we did not believe, we Jews especially, that even tiny minorities may own important, perhaps even divine, truths."[vi]
Pierre Sauvage's Weapons of the Spirit constantly recalls that the villagers of Le Chambon represented an almost unique exception. His film allows no one to forget about widespread anti-Semitism nor about the most horrifying reality of the Holocaust. It simply recalls that for a very few ordinary people, it was indeed possible and quite "natural" to save the Jews. Such a statement does not give any "meaning" to the Holocaust nor does it let us forget that the Shoah was perpetrated by Christian anti-Semites. It simply and realistically teaches us that the Holocaust was not part of an unavoidable fate and that the attitude of some rare and isolated men and women can teach us how to prevent it from happening again. As many American critics did, Laurence Jarvik noted that for Sauvage, "Le Chambon is an indictment of every other community that could have done what Le Chambon did."[vii]
For this reason Pierre Sauvage's hopefulness is vital to many precisely because it has nothing to do with a blind "optimism." Next to Lanzmann's gigantic masterpiece about the extermination of the European Jews, Weapons of the Spirit remains a modest but fundamental film, a dim and extremely fragile light in an ocean of darkness. After seeing Shoah the spectator experiences an infinite part of the despair of a man who has spent ten years of his life "licking the poisonous heart of humanity," while Weapons of the Spirit is a tribute to the few anonymous Gentiles who risked their lives to save some Jews including the director himself and his family.
The film starts in a small, bright and totally opened mountain train. This convoy contrasts with the deportation trains that run throughout Shoah. Instead of bringing to their deaths thousands of anonymous victims, this train saved three very precise individuals: Pierre Sauvage, his mother and his father. Like Shoah, the film also insists on a very specific place and still living bystanders. These are directly opposed to the concentration camps and the anti-Semites shown in Lanzmann's film. Finally, while there is no music in Shoah except to evoke the anguish, the despair and the suffering of the Jews, the music used in Weapons of the Spirit is very reassuring, light hearted, never ironic and never anguishing.
Considering the specificity of its symmetrically opposite subject (the rule/one exception; the horror of an unspeakable crime/the simplicity of goodness; a monumental work/a modest tribute), Sauvage's film reveals some of the key reactions of the director confronted with his subject that are also found in Shoah. As Lanzmann did, Sauvage felt the need to return to the places where "the event" took place (Poland/Le Chambon). This first encounter provoked a violent shock that completely changed both Lanzmann's and Sauvage's lives because they realized that the same people were living in the present in the same places with the same values (the Polish anti-Semitism/the simple goodness of the people of Le Chambon).
Finally, both films are based on an unsolvable mystery. For Lanzmann, there is no "understanding" possible of the horror of the Shoah. The goal of the film is precisely to "transmit" the memory of this most unspeakable event as such. For Pierre Sauvage, the exact reason why it was so "natural" to the people of Le Chambon to decide to "pass to the act" of saving Jews will always have a part of mystery. It is however essential to try to understand in what historical, geographical, moral and religious contexts their action was possible, even if none of this will ever absolutely explain what they did nor totally protect us from the resurgence of hatred. The individual remains at all times responsible for his choices and actions. For all these reasons, I consider the success of the modest Weapons of the Spirit as being in part comparable to the best achievements of the monumental and irreplaceable Shoah.
Like Shoah, Weapons of the Spirit starts with a long silence allowing the audience to read a text on a dark screen. This text is the following quote from Albert Camus' The Plague:
“There always comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that two plus two equals four is punished with death. And the issue is not what reward or what punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is simply whether or not two plus two equals four.”
We will learn later on in the film that Camus wrote part of The Plague in Le Chambon and that his stay in the community had a strong influence on his composition of this literary masterpiece. While imposing silence on the spectator before entering the community of Le Chambon, this text reminds us that in critical situations like during World War II, the simple fact of standing up for basic truths and human values can be punished by death. In such a context, real heroism does not consist in making great self-justifying speeches but in acting according to some very simple but fundamental truths.
Historians have rightfully emphasized the fact that the people who rescued Jews during the war were very often farmers, workers, people of popular origins with little formal education. Unlike some members of the Resistance or official party members, these people neither gained nor asked for official glorification after the war. As their deeds did not influence major wartime turning points but represented an everyday life total commitment, historians of the Second World War have largely forgotten to study them. As their religious convictions and basic moral principles often underlined the inefficiency of modern ideologies when faced with crimes against humanity, ideologues have also forgotten to analyze what appears to be the only beliefs that directly lead to an unquestioned action for the rescue of victims of the Nazis' mass murders.
For this reason, the very first quality of Pierre Sauvage's film is its absolute success in rendering the simplicity of the total commitment of the Chambonnais. When asked why they hid Jews at the risk of their lives, the people of Le Chambon give answers such as: "We never asked for explanations. Nobody asked anything. When people came, if we could be of help..." (M. Héritier), "We were used to it" (Mme Héritier), "It all happened very simply. We did not ask ourselves why we were doing it. It was the human thing to do or something like that... that's all" (M. Darcissac).
The camera never fails to show the uneasiness these men and women feel at being made some sort of local heroes. They look at the interviewer to see if he has any other question and then they look at their feet because there is nothing else to say. They "just" did what had to be done and there is nothing else to say about it. As Mme. Barraud put it "It happened so naturally, we cannot understand the fuss. It happened simply (....) I helped because they needed help." While Sauvage's film has been sometimes criticized for its "simplicity," one has to underline the fact that the same "simplicity" characterizes best the people of Le Chambon. Consequently it is the only "style" Sauvage could use in his film without betraying the essence of the community he wanted to portray. Moreover it is this "simplicity" that saved at least five thousand lives including thousands of Jewish children. For this very reason it deserves no irony and it demands our most dedicated attention.
What is most disturbing for a "modern" audience, as Jean Hatzfeld underlined in the Cahiers du cinéma, is the fact that "no one in this film plays the role of the hero, the traitor, the victim as we find them in classical drama" (Cahiers, 9). This explains in part the limited success this film had in France, a country in which largely elitist intellectual life is still very much oriented by belief in the leading role ideologues should play based on their prior education in highly selective government controlled schools. Albert Camus himself can be considered as a victim of such an exclusive conception of the formation of an intellectual. On the other end, Sauvage's film was a much greater success in the United States, where one's immediate community life plays a much more important role in determining individual commitments.
There was indeed no "hero" in Le Chambon, no "theory" and no "heroic" leader either. As Laurence Jarvik put it, this film is about a community who was "actively doing good instead of rationalizing doing nothing." Even Pastor André Trocmé, who gave most of the cohesion to the community, is presented as nothing but the leader that this community deserved. He and his wife were militant pacifists who always stood up for their beliefs even when, in 1939, all the villagers disagreed with them. André Trocmé could play the major role he did in Le Chambon only because the whole community accepted and recognized his authority based on his active values and sincere faith. In this simple but fundamental manner, Weapons of the Spirit establishes a very clear relationship between individual responsibility, collective responsibility and leadership. By contrast, at the end of the film, Marshal Philippe Pétain will also be characterized by Sauvage as "the leader (France) deserved" at that time.
Following the quotation of Camus, the first words of the film are pronounced by the director himself: "I am a Jew." While Shoah reveals nothing directly about the identity of its director, Weapons of the Spirit appears from the very beginning as a personal film based on a clear personal motivation. From this point on, Sauvage's film also becomes a quest towards one's origins and the understanding of why what had been possible and so "natural" in the village of Le Chambon remained an exception in France and throughout Europe where the apathy and the bigotry described in Shoah dominated.
Sauvage's film is constantly linked to the personal experience and personality of its director. It is a film Pierre Sauvage made for three parallel purposes: so he could himself understand "the mystery" of Le Chambon; so he could pay tribute to the memory of the people who saved his family; so he could try to learn what moral lessons we can drawn from this community's actions for future generation and especially for the director's own son, David. It is always presented as an exceptional, individual and ordinary tale. Consequently, Pierre Sauvage's work, like the actions of the Chambonnais, can be best characterized both by its personal and collective implications as the two cannot be separated from each other. In this sense we are here at the direct opposite of Ophüls' and Lanzmann's works which privileged individual or collective responsibilities respectively.
After spending the first four years of his life in France, Pierre Sauvage moved with his parents to New York City. He attended the Lycée Français in New York and then went back to France to pursue literary studies at the renowned Lycée Henri IV in Paris. He took some classes at the Sorbonne. After dropping out of school he started working at the Cinémathèque Française under the direction of the famous Henri Langlois. From that date he became a dedicated man of cinema. His parents, journalist and writer Léo Sauvage and Barbara Sauvage née Suchowolski, did not tell him he was Jewish until he turned eighteen. Pierre Sauvage grew up as a non-religious man. They did not want him to live in the past and they did not tell their son about Le Chambon either. As a result they did not support the project of making the film. It is mostly after he met his wife, Barbara M. Rubin, and had a son that Pierre Sauvage felt a strong need to learn about his past and his Jewish heritage: "Without the birth of my son and my wife's prodding, Weapons of the Spirit would not have been made. For me, making the film was a growing experience."[viii]
In this regard, the project of making this documentary fits perfectly with the teaching of the people of Le Chambon as it always refuses to separate one's values and ideological commitments from one's actions and concern for one's immediate surroundings and vice versa. If this film was to make sense for thousands of anonymous spectators worldwide it first had to make sense for the director's own son:
“This is why, as I tell David of these things, as he learns that there is in all of us a capacity for evil and an even greater and more insidious capacity for apathy, I want him to learn that the stories of the righteous are not footnotes to the past but cornerstones to the future. I owe my life to the good people of Le Chambon. I owe even more than that to my son.[ix]”
Here again, individual commitments are inseparable from collective or more universal responsibilities. It is because this film was made from a personal, sincere and profound need of its director that it was ultimately able to convey the complex simplicity of the people of Le Chambon without reducing its mystery to a purely "objective" reasoning or to the point of view of a specialist. As Sauvage himself indicated, the people of Le Chambon were "very reluctant" when he told them he wanted to film them: "The were very wary. They believe that to appear to trumpet your deeds is to devalue them."[x] A villager of Le Chambon confirmed the same statement:
“An attempt was made by a American team to make a film about Le Chambon as a harbor for refugees and a center for active Resistance to the Occupation. For that reason, at his request, I had a very pleasant meeting with Mr. Carl Foreman who was supposed to write the scenario of the film. He was famous for having worked on films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone.
“We feared, Dr. Rosowsky (Jean-Claude Plunne) and myself, that a large audience film would be forced to respect the commercial requirements and that it would be unable to limit itself to the strict reality of the facts. For that reason, we rejected his offer.
“On the contrary, we had a great interest in Pierre Sauvage's project because of his attachment to Le Chambon where he was born in 1944 and because he decided to base his film only on interviews of the witnesses, without any intrigue. This seemed to guarantee his sincerity (Pierre Fayol, 22).”
Like the director of Shoah, but dealing with an opposite subject, the director of Weapons of the Spirit felt a powerful personal need to tell his "story" in a manner that would respect entirely the complexity and the mystery of its subject, even if in this case the subject is the "simplicity" of a rural protestant community.
Consequently, Weapons of the Spirit is best characterized, at the same time, by its clarity, its coherence and the complexity of its structure and of the questions its raises. The director combines international and local events, various studies of characters and personal history with outstanding mastery. The film is never confusing in spite of its alluding to dozens of different and most often unknown individuals, including thirty four villagers of Le Chambon. If the main "story" is a very personal search for the understanding of an exceptional community, the backbone of the narration follows the chronology of the war and that of the persecution of the Jews in occupied France. The film does not forget one key aspect of the history of this community and always situates it within the more general frame of French history. At the same time it is able to present a most faithful and vivid analysis of the people involved with the events described. Because it was able to successfully achieve all these goals at the same time, the apparent "simplicity" of Pierre Sauvage's film is certainly its most complex achievement.
As the work of a man of cinema about Occupied France, Weapons of the Spirit often recalls some of the best sequences of Marcel Ophüls' The Sorrow and the Pity. Like Ophüls' masterpiece, Pierre Sauvage's work intertwines historical footage and black and white pictures with contemporary interviews while following the chronology of the events. Sauvage's film is also a very successful attempt to make visible the personality, the emotions and the deep motivations of the witnesses he interviews. In this regard, the director never fails to include an expression, a gesture or glance from the witnesses that reveals more about these people than any word could. The camera also includes all the elements of the setting that can bring more information about the witness being interviewed.
In this respect, the second interview of Pastor Edouard Theis is extremely revealing of the best cinematographic qualities of Sauvage's film. The sequence starts with a vertical panning showing a picture of Martin Luther King and a picture of Gandhi posted on Theis' bulletin board in his study. In the same movement, the camera encounters drawings made by children, a photograph of a woman holding a child in her arms, a copy of the Old Testament, other books and Theis' hands while Sauvage asks the Pastor to summarize his faith in a few words. After this, the camera films Theis' face, looking at the director while he gives his answer: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." In the middle of this answer, we see Theis' hands opening up, a raising up in order to reinforce the idea that this answer is so obvious that the question itself seems a little dull. While finishing his answer, Theis lightly raises his shoulders and looks Sauvage straight in the eyes. Sauvage asks him: "That's it? It just had to be applied?" Theis firmly replies: "Yes! Of course!" and then he lowers his eyes simply because there is nothing else to say until the next question comes.
In such a sequence, the cameraman included all the elements of the natural setting that could reveal the personality of the interviewee. This is extremely important as the people of Le Chambon are very soft-spoken and uncomfortable at being made the stars of a film. Pierre Sauvage's interviewing technique always respects the personality of these people and his editing of the film reveals in a powerful manner everything that Theis' simplicity does not allow him to put in words, i.e. Theis' pacifism and non-violent activism (King's and Gandhi's pictures), his dedication to children and his community (the photograph with a woman holding a child), his faith (the Old Testament), his rugged life in a mountain village (his hands and face), the strength of his faith (the movements of his opening hands and his straightforward look at the interviewer) and his sincere unwillingness to become some sort of a local hero (his looking down at his hands after he is done answering the question). All this is expressed in the same and continuous movement of the camera that insists on the fact that all these elements are part of Theis himself. The editing had to bring no exterior element or tricks in order to reveal the personality of this man.
In contrast with this sequence is the interview of Lamirand, the former Youth Minister of Vichy. Lamirand is filmed sitting in a heavy armchair that holds his body perfectly, limiting uncontrolled gestures to the strict minimum. At first he looks at the director straight in the eye, bending slightly his head on his left shoulder in order to show that he has nothing to hide and that he is doing his best to understand and answer the questions.
Lamirand's first answers about his visit in Le Chambon are obviously well prepared. However, when he is being asked about his personal responsibilities in the deportation of seventy five thousand Jews from France, his eyelids reveal a very nervous and uncontrollable agitation. The camera then shows him joining his hands as he justifies himself by explaining that, at that time, he did not know anything about the deportations of the Jews. The interview ends with a short segment in which Lamirand explains that he has "many Jewish friends." Therefore, he had nothing to do with the persecution of the Jews.
Lamirand's conclusion represents one of the very few touches of irony in Sauvage's film. Sauvage borrowed many interviewing and editing techniques from Ophüls but, because of his subject, he almost never used Ophüls' characteristic irony. By contrast, the villagers are often very humorous especially when describing the various subterfuges the village put together to hide the identity of the refugees. In order to respect and render the "spirit" and the goodness of the people of Le Chambon, Sauvage could not use sarcasm nor too much irony while they represented perfect tools for Ophüls' subject and witnesses.
Finally, like Ophüls, Sauvage uses much historical footage or newsreels in order to reinforce the chronology of the film and to put the testimonies in contrast with national and international events. However, Sauvage's use of old photographs is very characteristic of the director's personal style. Prior to making his film, Sauvage gathered literally thousands of pictures of Le Chambon. These pictures are included in the film with three main purposes.
First, many pictures disclose what it was like to live in Le Chambon. That's what happens for instance with the many group pictures showing children studying or at play or people doing farm work. In this case, pictures allow us to visualize the various testimonies heard in the present and to see some of the children refugees. They take us back from the nineteen eighties to the nineteen forties. Second, other pictures show places that no longer exist like the terrace of the Coteau Fleuri. They also take us from the present to the past while allowing us to imagine everyday life in Le Chambon.
The last use of pictures by Sauvage is most crucial and characteristic of his film. It consists in showing old portraits of the people involved, in putting them in parallel with the faces of the same people in the present or in superimposing old pictures of the same people at different ages in order to indicate their growing up. By using the first technique, the audience is constantly being reminded that the children of Le Chambon looked just like today's children. This is a story that could be ours. These people cannot be reduced to names or statistics in a history book.
Second, by putting in parallel old pictures and contemporary faces of the same people, Sauvage insists on the fact that the Chambonnais, like Henri and Emma Héritier, have not changed since the war. Of course they became older but their expressions, their lifestyle and their values remained the same. Consequently, the story of Le Chambon belongs to our own present. Even today it is possible to think, live or act like the Chambonnais did almost fifty years ago.
Third, the superimposing of portraits of the same people at different ages underlines the fact that throughout their lives these men and women, at least in spirit, belonged to the same community and that the moral strength and simplicity shown on their faces was not just an attitude put on for the time of a picture taking. For this reason, the openness and calm shown on the pictures of Daniel Trocmé and Roger Le Forestier contrast violently with the commentary's evocation of their violent deaths as they were both assassinated by the Nazis. By using these three different ways to include old photographs in his documentary, the director once more characterizes his film as a work dedicated to saving the memory of a community of individuals that always claimed responsibility for each one of its actions, even when facing the utmost danger.
Pierre Sauvage's Weapons of the Spirit is a personal and modest masterpiece that nonetheless can be compared to the best achievements of the monumental Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity. It represents unfortunately a tiny event and an extraordinary exception in the history of the extermination of the European Jews during World War II. However, what happened in Le Chambon raises many fundamental questions for our own future. Because Pierre Sauvage's film renders the "spirit" of the Chambonnais with outstanding faithfulness and integrity, it can and must play a key role in our necessary reflection on the best strategies to be adopted in order to fight bigotry, intolerance and ultimately hate crimes.
[ii]. Quoted by Pierre Fayol, 38.
[iii]. Pierre Sauvage "Ten Things I Would Like to Know About Righteous Conduct in Le Chambon and Elswhere during the Holocaust." Volume 13, Numbers 1&2 Humbolt Journal of Social Relations (1986), 252.
[iv]. Michael Berenbaum. Unpublished paper presented at the Association of Holocaust Organizations (U.S.) in Dallas, June 17, 1987. Quoted by Pierre Sauvage in his address to the International Scholars' Conference at Oxford University, England, July 10-13, 1988.
[v]. Michael Berenbaum "The Americanization of the Holocaust" Tikkun Vol. I, No. 2. Quoted by Laurence Jarvik "The Banality of Good" Tikkun March-April 1988.
[vi]. Pierre Sauvage "A Most Persistent Haven: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon." Moment (October 1983) 31.
[vii]. Pierre Sauvage quoted by Laurence Jarvik "The Banality of Good." Tikkun (March/April 1988). See also New York Magazine (September 18, 1989).
[viii]. Mary Johnson "A Filmmaker's Odyssey" Facing History and Ourselves News (Winter 1989-90).
[ix]. Pierre Sauvage "A Most Persistent Haven: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon" Moment (October 1983) 36.
[x]. Richard Bernstein "A Movie Maker Preserves Those Who Preserved Him." The New York Times (Sunday, August 27 1989).
Weapons of the Spirit
André Pierre Colombat Interviews Pierre Sauvage
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