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A true story in German-occupied France

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Bertrand Tavernier

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- We meet the French director who is in Rome to present Laissez-passer, a film about the Nazi occupation of Paris and to talk about the films of those years

Bertrand Tavernier

Bertrand Tavernier is an extraordinary storyteller and he uses this gift in a formidable way in his latest film, Laissez-passer. Set in Paris during the German Occupation, it is about the difficulties filmmakers encountered during that dark period, It is also about the artistic and intellectual resistance put up by Jean Aurench, who wrote screenplays for celebrated directors like Claude Autant-Lara, and the more physical opposition of Jean Devaivre, the assistant director to Maurice Tourneur at Continental, the film production company set up in 1940 by Max Winkler and managed by Alfred Greven, on orders from the German propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels.
Tavernier, 60, tells this emotionally charged story with essential clarity and none of the judgemental sentimentality a similar subjects sometimes engender. Tavernier does not subscribe to Autant-Lara’s 1980s statement that this was the Golden Age of French film; and lists the names of some of the actors, directors, writers and technicians who were imprisoned, executed or exiled during the Occupation. Tavernier does however agree that artists like Bresson, Clouzot, Tourneur, Carnet and Becker were “energised by the political climate of the day and reacted intellectually by creating masterpieces”. Tavernier drew inspiration from the protagonists’ recollections. Although Tavernier is still very angry about the controversial reaction of some French critics, he willingly travelled to Italy for today’s presentation.

You, and many of your fellow directors, like Istvan Szàbo, chose to make a film set in a precise historical context of the II World War...
“It is not a coincidence. There is no international filmmakers’ movement that sits down and decides which subjects would be good for a movie. More than anything else this film is a personal reaction of mine”.

What drew you to the subject of filmmaking under the German Occupation?
“I’d been thinking about this for a long time. It is a subject that interests me and forced me to look for answers. As I studied the reactions and the motivation of those directors, I wondered what I would have done in similar circumstances. How would I have reacted?”

Although this is not a film about the Occupation, it is the story of a difficult and contradictory period of history...
“I wanted to make a film that was free and different from those that were made at the time that were mainly plot-driven. I wanted to make a film that changed its tone continuously, with one sequence covering a range of sentiments from drama to comedy and farce to high emotion”.

The protagonists of your film are also different men who discover they are similar.
“Precisely. This was a real challenge for my co-screenwriter Jean Cosmos and me. Aurenche and Devaivre were nothing like one another. The former was a great ladies’ man, and a friend of the Surrealists and Prévert. He also criticised and attacked the institutions through his writing. Devaivre was more technical, a born opposer who was always ready to jump headlong into the next adventure. These men were opposites who discovered and even completed one another when they found themselves living in a completely different context, the Resistance. That was when Aurenche’s doubts consolidated Devaivre’s certainties and his (Devaivre’s) courage illuminated Aurenche’s intelligence”.

Did you find the answers to your questions?
“Yes. I don’t know if I’d have had Devaivre’s courage, his physical courage I mean. I could never have ridden a bike for 380 kilometres as he did just to see his family, I could not even manage the 120 he covered twice a day after joining the Resistance. Perhaps I share some of Aurenche’s strength and determination. Nobody could ever accuse him of having used even one single image from a film to make a point about the political ideology of the day”.

Your two heroes live amongst “complex”, if not contradictory characters like Charles Spaak and Alfred Given...
“I discovered and, in some cases, rediscovered them. Charles Spaak, for example. I felt an immense gratitude and admiration for the way he fought. While I was researching this film I found that when he adapted one of Georges Simenon’s novels, he changed a thoroughly unsympathetic Jewish banker into a Frenchman. Although this was a minor character in the story, Spaak felt duty bound not to make even the slightest contribution to German propaganda”.

What can you tell us about Greven?
“He was enigmatic and will stay that way forever. This is unfortunate because although he worked as a film producer in Germany until 1972, he was never interviewed by either a journalist or an historian. Greven was a close friend of Goebbels who appointed him to direct Continental. His mission was to produce films that put the audience to sleep, films that were meaningless. Of the 34 films Greven produced, 20 of them produced exactly the opposite reaction, from Christian-Jacque’s L’assassinat du Père Noêl to Clouzot’s two films. Greven may have fired Jewish writers and directors, but he also allowed Jean-Paul Le Chanois, a declared Jewish Communist, to work for 18 months undisturbed”.

Laissez-Passer generated a wave of controversy in France where some critics accused you of historical revisionism...
“This film has been accused of many things: of paying tribute to films made in the studio, and of being the assistant director’s homage to the director. Fortunately this was the view of just 10 per cent of press representatives, most of whom were Parisians. The remaining 90 per cent loved this film. No law exists preventing a film critic from writing nonsense or demonstrating his or her stupidity. Unfortunately it’s not an offence that’s punishable by a prison term”.

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