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"Weapons of the Spirit"

An Interview with Pierre Sauvage
by André Pierre Colombat

About Weapons of the Spirit

From "The Holocaust in French Film"
(Scarecrow Press, 1993)

© 1993, André Pierre Colombat.
Posted at www.chambon.org with the permission of André Pierre Colombat.

What are the circumstances that brought you to make Weapons of the Spirit?

To begin with, I could not have made it earlier, as I was not interested enough in the subject or psychologically equipped to deal with it.  I also was not professionally in a position to make such a film.  The film really happened precisely when it needed to happen.  And since my parents initially did not want me to make the film, it was also something that I had to undertake at a time when I was able to negotiate this with them.

Your wife also played an important role?

My wife played a very important role in telling me that being Jewish was important.  I cannot overstate how inconceivable it is that the film could have been made earlier considering what it is saying: that a sense of rootedness and identity is important; that religion can be a source of good.  These are things that I did not believe at all a few years before making the film.

There was also a great curiosity on your part at the outset?

I think there was.  At the point when I decided to make the film, I was already quite interested in the Holocaust, and had begun attempting to understand it and figure out what its importance is to me personally.  I had also begun realizing that one legacy that my father had tried to give me was a very dangerous one:  that one can simply discard the past; that it is not important.  Then I went back to Le Chambon on a visit and was just stunned by the people there.  I felt that there was something special about them, something special about their faces.  But even when I started shooting I had no idea what the film was going to end up being.

You had no script.

I have never done a documentary with a script.

How did people in Le Chambon react when you told them you wanted to make a film about them?

They were wary.  They were certainly not excited about the idea.  They are very modest people, and the last thing they would want is for others to think that they are promoting themselves.

Did they put any restrictions on you in terms of making the film?

They really did not.  Nobody refused anything—even the old family photographs I asked to film.  I think a certain trust set in.  I started by filming people I knew and the word got around.  I do not doubt for a second that the fact that I had been born there meant a lot.  It was simply a sense that . . .

. . . They could trust you?

Yes.  And that this was meant to be.

There had been other films made about their story.

Not really.  There have been small attempts, little television programs.  Marcel Ophüls told me afterwards that he had been thinking of doing it but had learned that I was about to do it.  It didn’t matter that I was doing it, but that someone was doing it.

You use a lot of faces in your film as well as pictures, old and more recent pictures.  What is their precise role in your film?

I really think faces are important and I really like knowing what people look like.  I have always been curious about what people look like at various stages of their life.  Probably the boldest sequence along those lines in the film is when, in talking about Roger Le Forestier’s death, I show pictures of him as a child and then as he gets older and older.  I realize that it is sort of a strange sequence, and I am still not sure if the viewers get it right away or if they think it’s someone else.  I guess they understand it eventually.  But it was very meaningful to me.  When a man is killed it is the person he was in all the previous years and the child that he once was who are killed too.  This brings it home in a way.

Concerning the filming of the faces and the people... did you give any instructions to the cameramen?

Nothing important.  I had a very good cameraman, Yves Dahan.

You worked with the same team all along?

Yes.  They were very committed—just fantastic.  They really got into it.

They did not understand what people were saying?

Oh no.  This was a French crew and so they understood everything.

Did you give them any kind of instructions before filming?

Well, the main “battle” I would always have—and this is a traditional issue with cameramen for documentaries—is that the cameraman always wanted to set up the nicest shot he could and I was mostly willing to let them do that but sometimes it’s more important not to break the mood or not to tire your subjects.

And so, sometimes you had to ask the same question again to the same witness?

No, this would happen before the interviews.  But sometimes you would have to set up the light and ask the person to sit so you can set it up.  But I realized that older people can get tired.  I remember one story which is sort of funny.  When I first called Joseph Atlas on the phone, he is the Polish Jew that appears several times in the film…

He is also the first one you name in the film.

Yes.  He is sort of my starting symbol in a way, the little boy of fourteen.  He talks about his experience almost in fairy tale terms.  I’d had an assistant who had talked to a number of people and had said, “This one’s good, this one’s not so good.”  And I made up my mind who I was going to interview.  So I called Joseph Atlas and he started asking all these annoying questions about what my attitude was and what my approach was, and I said to myself, “The guy is a pain in the neck.”  I did not cancel the interview but I told my cameraman “I don’t care about the image.  Just set the cameras, we have to go quickly.”  And it turned out to be one of the most important interviews.  The moment I asked my first question I realized, “Oh, this is good.”  It does not look very pretty because I did not allow my poor cameraman to set up the lights properly.  So you just cannot predict these things.

When you were editing the film, what were the main problems you ran into?

There were so many.  I would say that the main problem was understanding the material, understanding what these people were saying.  I do not mean that literally.  I just mean that I knew nothing about religion.  I knew nothing about Christians.  I spent months just listening to the footage over and over and over again.  And in fact a lot of the footage that is in the film is footage that I ignored the first forty or fifty times I heard it.  It did not seem important.  I thought something else was important.  It took a long time for me to realize, “No!  That was the important stuff.”

There were also a few sequences that were important at first and that you could not include?

Yes.  There were a number of sequences that I am extraordinarily surprised now are not in the film.  They were passages that sometimes had things that were too explicit, in a way.  At first I thought, “This is perfect.”  And then I got bored with it.  It did not really have the authenticity, the mystery too, but also the authenticity.  In the first section—it is because it is the first that it is so important—when I use M. et Mme. Héritier, I say to her, “But you kept them anyway.  Why?”  O, j’sais pas,”  J’sais pas”—”I don’t know”—is not something that right away I saw as important.

Now as opposed to some survivors who sometimes, in their interviews, are telling stories for the first time, the people of Le Chambon you interviewed had had the opportunity to tell these stories before.  Was that a problem?

It is a very interesting question actually because I think unlike films that include interviews with survivors who have told their stories over and over again, these people had not told their stories over and over again.  These were stories they did not tell.  The Jews who were in Le Chambon did not talk about it that much, and certainly the people of Le Chambon did not. There were a few young Chambonnais who sort of hung around and listened and they had never heard these people talking about these things.  And when there was family, the family would listen with incredible attention.  No, I did not have that problem.

Sometimes in the film, one gets the impression that you have been influenced by Ophüls and Lanzmann.  Is that a real influence?  Did you do certain things on purpose?  I am thinking about two or three different things.  In the interview of Lamirand there is a close-up on his hands and Ophüls does that a lot, showing people’s hands as they hesitate or when they are embarrassed.  And of course the train that is completely opposed to the train shown in Lanzmann’s film, and the village that is the opposite of the Polish villages in Shoah.  Did you think about these parallels when you were making the film or did you realize this after?

There are rather simple answers to these questions.  First of all in terms of Shoah, I had not seen Shoah when I finished my film so Shoah had absolutely no influence on me.  It has since but it had no influence on me at the time.  In fact, when I saw Shoah, I was stunned because one of the strongest impressions one gets from Shoah is that sense of having been constantly on a train, and here was my little film with its little train.  And it did look like it was a deliberate counterpart—there were “good trains” too.  Ophüls, of course, I had seen his films and I admire them.

What about the interview of Lamirand?

The interesting thing is that Lamirand comes out rather well in The Sorrow and the Pity.  You know, he is very charming and dapper, and he comes across fine.  In fact, I believe that is one of the reasons that Lamirand agreed to be interviewed by me.  I will tell you that I do not like shots of hands.  I do not like cutaways.  But it’s an editing technique that one almost has to use.  You are not like a writer:  you cannot jump from one sentence to the next sentence.  You have to get from point A to point B.  If you have a jump cut you have to bridge it and it’s going to be a painting on the wall. . .  The biggest cliché in cutaways is hands.  So the last thing I would want to do is hands.  There are only two real cutaways like that in the whole film.  And they are both hands.  No, one is not a cutaway, one is deliberate.  When you see Lamirand’s hands, his hands are closed and the other hands are Pastor Theis’, and his hands are open.  It is very trivial metaphorically but I liked it.  I needed a cutaway at that point.

But you did not think of Ophüls while doing this?

No, I really did not.  I needed a cutaway.  I was cutting something in what Lamirand said.  I was not distorting him.  I doubt that there is a filmmaker—this may sound like a terribly boastful thing to say—who is more cautious than I am in terms of representing fairly what people say.  You can make anybody look like anything.  The power that we have when we edit these things is immense.  No matter how I present somebody, I want them to say, “This is what I was.”

Did you choose the setting for the interviews?  For example, the picture of Martin Luther King behind Pastor Theis—it just happened to be there?

That was the retirement place where Edouard Theis was living, and that was what was indeed on the wall behind his desk.  That is the shot that actually ends with the hands.  It was an irresistible shot.  I did not put the picture of King there.  I would not do that.  There was even in that shot, as it is panning down, the Bible.  It is the Ancien Testament—the Old Testament.  I did not put it there.  It was there.

What kind of scenes did you have to prepare for?  The train is not running anymore.

No, that is right.  The train, I rented.

Anything else?

I had to rent the services of the two railway engineers.  It is their hobby.  One, I think, is a chemist and I do not know what the other one does.  They used to like doing that.  Unfortunately they cannot do it anymore.

What is your answer to people or critics who say that your film is too optimistic?

I must tell you that people used to express that concern before they saw the film.  They have not said that after seeing the film.  I think the fear existed that focusing on the good would somehow create an alibi that would let the world off the hook.  But people realize that that is not what happens.  In fact, the good makes you accountable, because against the good you have to ask yourself, “What would I have done?”  Those are tough questions.  Next to the evil, you do not ask yourself these questions.  You walk out feeling wonderful.  “I am such a wonderful guy.  I am not Hitler or Goebbels.”

It makes people aware that it was possible to act differently.

It also underscores the fact that it was possible for people to act well.  The survivor community was traditionally very concerned that one might play up the righteous Gentiles in a way that would do exactly what you were quoting.  I mean, that it would take the edge off the experience.  But not a single survivor who has seen the film has come away with that feeling.  In fact, I have been criticized in exactly the opposite direction.  I have been criticized a few times for a line that some people think is much too tough, rather than the opposite, and that is the line on Christianity: “The Holocaust occurred in the heart of Christian Europe and would not have been possible without the apathy or complicity of most Christians, and without the virulent tradition of antisemitism that had long infested the very soul of Christianity.”  People have said to me: “This is like a slap in the face.”  But the good Christians that I have known are Christians who are ready and eager to face the extent of Christian responsibility.  And the Christian responsibility is massive.

How do you situate your film in comparison to The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah?  I ask this because it is a documentary and it is one of the excellent documentaries made in French dealing with the Holocaust.

First of all, I am flattered by the question because those are both extraordinarily important films.  But at the same time, I would not even know how to answer that question.  I think The Sorrow and the Pity is a remarkable film in many respects.  It is also very much a film of its time.  I doubt that Ophüls would have made the same film today.  The most glaring omission is probably that the film conveys no real sense of the importance of the Jewish question in France at that time.  You know, that was the test of France then, that was the moral test.  And the film talks about all sorts of things, but it does not talk about that.

It is not a film on the Holocaust.

No, but it is a film about French attitudes and French responsibility.  There is a very brief interview with Claude Lévy, which is very good actually, but it is very brief.  And there are, I think, one or two other references.  But again, if I had made a film in 1968, I probably would cringe at what it would be because I have changed so completely since 1968.

The context is different.  I mean, at that time it was a necessary step also for the French to face their responsibilities.

Perhaps it was a necessary step.  I do not know that anybody would have been capable of making a film that would have realized the importance of the Jewish question at that time.  There are still people today who do not realize it.  So it would be the most unfair of criticisms to self-righteously make that point.  However, having said that, that to me probably would be the main difference with The Sorrow and the Pity.  My film, Weapons of the Spirit, puts the Jewish question at the very heart of any moral assessment of France.  Even to the point of almost deliberately brushing aside things that other people consider important.  For instance, I have very little on the Resistance because the Resistance simply did not interest me.  I think anyway, that the French Resistance is essentially a myth.  I mean, there was a small Resistance, but what has been made of it is simply not historically accurate.  Incidentally, the Resistance failed that test which people are still having great difficulty facing.  The Resistance never realized the importance of helping the Jews.  The Resistance did not stop a single train to Auschwitz.

What about Shoah?

I told Lanzmann that my fantasy was that my film would be considered a little bit like the little brother of Shoah.  One deals with the magnitude of the evil...

...The systematic extermination.  While yours is about an exception.

Weapons of the Spirit is certainly about the exception.  Obviously, I believe that the exception is important.  I believe that many people would go see Shoah after seeing Weapons of the Spirit who might not have gone otherwise, because Weapons of the Spirit is an entry point for this material, for this history.  Shoah is not an entry point.  Nobody goes to see a nine hour film who already does not have a certain commitment.  Also, it is very scary material.  People need to be brought to this material.

How do you see the role of responsible leaders in all this?  Pastor Trocmé was a leader but the people of Le Chambon were still doing the main work.

It is a very good question.  I worked very, very hard to find the balance.  I think that Trocmé is a strong presence in the film.  At the same time I do not have this image that leaders create something out of nothing.  I believe that leadership is overvalued, that leadership, at its best, reflects.  I tried to suggest the extraordinary balance that occurred in Le Chambon.  Trocmé was an extraordinary man, Pastor Theis was an extraordinary man.  These were brilliant people who really understood what was called for.

You are a man of cinema.  How do you think this influenced your representation of the Holocaust as it is, in comparison with the work of an historian or a philosopher.  What is specific to your experience as a filmmaker?  Did you learn something by making other films that helped you to make this film?

I am sure that of course is true.  But I like history very much.  I am fascinated by history.  I was just having lunch today with Michael Marrus, who is one of the greatest historians on the Holocaust.  I am proud that I have such friends.  I really admire Michael’s brilliance.  I say that as a prologue to say that historians place such a large emphasis on the written word, on the document.  And that is only a pale reflection of the richness that is history.  We filmmakers have the opportunity of showing pictures, of showing faces, of showing photographs and directing the eye on a photograph where we think it’s important.  We have the opportunity of playing music.  I believe there’s an almost magical connection between things.  I remember talking to an historian once, a very important historian, about something that I had discovered in a newsreel.  He was quite surprised because I realized he had never bothered to look at newsreels.  I think there is extraordinarily valuable information that a film can provide.

Like information about everything that cannot be put in words.

And also things that can be put in words.  Part of the tremendous danger of film is that you have to make things so simple.  There are no footnotes.  It is hard to get away with a parenthesis in a film.  It has to have this clean, linear structure, and you’re chopping away.  There is a great danger in that, and I am envious of what an historian can do.  On the other hand, that very obligation to simplify can force you to really look for the most profound truths.  In a way, historians can get away with: “On the one hand, on the other hand...”  And you do not really know what anything is about.  That gives you massive information, but it does not cut down to the bone about what was going on.  When I was editing the film, I was wondering how long the film was going to be, and I did not want it to be long.  I wanted it to be reasonably short.  At one point I thought three hours was wonderful.  And then I realized it cannot be three hours because it had to be modest in appearance, like its subject.  The form had to match the subject.  Which is also why I could not do any movie tricks. I could not do anything fancy.  It had to be extraordinarily simple.  It is hard to be simple.  In order to shorten the film, in order to remind myself of this need to trim, trim, trim.  I wrote in big letters over my editing table a sentence I had stumbled on at that time in the writings of Jacques Maritain, the great Catholic thinker:  Plus un artiste est grand, plus il élimine”—“The greater the artist, the more he eliminates.”  In books you do not have to eliminate.  You do not have that pressure to eliminate.  With film, you have no choice.

And you have to pick the size that fits the subject.

That is true.  Also, I truly believe that the more you understand something, the more you should be capable of explaining it to a smart ten-year-old.  I truly believe that.  With some exceptions of course, some things that are beyond a ten-year-old’s emotional and psychological experience.  But that is really the test:  to say things simply.  And that is a test for filmmakers.  That challenge is tremendously energizing.

Were you thinking about the future when you were making the film?  Was it a way for you to tell people, “Well, if anything similar happens again this is a way to react”?

It was a way of telling myself that.  It was a way of convincing myself that I can raise my children with a certain level of optimism that humanity is not irredeemably evil.  I think humanity is pretty terrible, but it is a cop-out to forget that the choice is ours.  And that it is possible to resist evil at any time.

Weapons of the Spirit

André Pierre Colombat on Weapons of the Spirit

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