Thursday, March 25, 2010


Drama is character and character is choices, and hard choices make good drama. I can't get enough of European films about the Second World War, probably because there was little separation between scenes of armed conflict and the home front. It was All-War All-The-Time; a war fought every waking moment by every occupant of the continent. And the wide swath of Nazi occupation made for difficult, really impossible choices for nearly every adult, the kinds of choices Americans have rarely been confronted with, and which would paralyze many with a Manichean view of the world.

The title of Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct (2002) is better in the original French: Laissez-Passer, "let pass." What will you let pass? Arguably a companion piece to Truffaut's Last Metro, its filmmaker-heros try to maintain personal and artistic integrity working for a German-owned film company operating in occupied France. Whereas in The Last Metro, all of the heroine's choices proceed from her fateful choice to marry a Jew, here our two heros, a screenwriter and an assistant director must constantly slalom through the obstacle course set by their German masters as they maintain their own integrity and loyalty.

From a film history perspective, these men and women are engaged in making the polite middle-brow "Cinema of Quality" against which the French New Wave violently rebelled in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For most Americans, the going will be a bit thick with names and film titles tossed around which will have little or no recognition. When they express regret for the death of Harry Baur, it means so much more if one has seen something of Baur's marvelous work. I would certainly recommend one see Le Corbusier either before or after seeing Safe Conduct in order to view the one certifiable masterpiece produced by Continental Films during the Occupation.

It is easy to condemn these men after the fact as collaborationists, but to do so you must honestly assess what you yourself would do under the circumstances. And they still take tremendous risks, in one case biking hundreds of miles and parachuting into Allied territory to deliver intelligence to the British, who throw their doubts about the informer's honesty in his face. They dodge long-term commitments, resist propaganda and try to live honestly and decently in a deceitful and indecent environment. Safe Passage is a demanding, but fast-moving and thoroughly absorbing and humane document.

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