The killing it; clearly gaining satisfaction from killing

The occupation of France during World War II presented huge challenges with regards to collective memory surrounding ideas associated with collaboration and resistance. During the immediate postwar period, the French Resistance emerged in order to unite French society behind a national narrative termed as mythe de la Résistance by Henry Rousso. This dominant narrative depicted a distorted view of the French collectively resisting the German occupiers while downplaying the true nature of French complicity in collaboration. With the aim of reuniting a divided and occupied nation during a period of national crisis, France had to ‘simultaneously bury the dead, exalt the heroes, punish the traitors and hurl them into an ocean of opprobrium –or oblivion– compensate the victims, and provide them with a status.’ Therefore Charles de Gaulle presented French Resistance as a national movement at his speech for the liberation of France to regenerate the country. The image of la Résistance française remained unchallenged until the 1970s when the reality of French collaboration with Nazi Germany actively emerged. 

The 1970s was known as ‘la periode du miroir brisé’ due to the disintegration of the established national narrative and demythification of the French Resistance. French cinema contributed to the turning point in the revision of collective memory, such as Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien which was released in 1974. The film challenged these myths through the story of a young peasant boy who represents a new collaborator. This is due to Lucien’s lack of ideology or political conviction which is emphasised repeatedly, as he has no knowledge of the events of the war and attempts to join the Resistance first, followed by being accepted into the Gestapo by accident. By doing so the film serves as a ‘vecteur du souvenir’ as Malle questions historical representations of a collective commitment to the Resistance and suggests an alternative narrative.

During the postwar period, the wartime memory of France was portrayed as a country united in resistance, whilst representations of collaboration were minimised. However Malle’s development in Lacombe Lucien mirrored the changing views with regards to the understanding of collaboration by depicting Lucien in a manner which contradicted his actions. For example, moments of animal cruelty appear to portray Lucien as evil. He kills a bird with a slingshot for no apparent reason, shoots a rabbit which he presents to his teacher and chases a chicken before killing it; clearly gaining satisfaction from killing as he continuously smiles whilst affirming his authority. Yet before the audience can condemn Lucien, Malle evokes empathy for the character by presenting an image of Lucien mourning a dead horse as he strokes its head. According to Altman, Lucien ‘steals from our fund of sympathy in order to legitimate the most unjustifiable aspects of his existence.’ Moreover, the struggle that the Horn family experience to judge Lucien as inherently evil is identical to that of the audience. Albert Horn says: ‘C’est curieux. Je n’arrive pas à vous détester tout à fait’ and Lucien’s mother: ‘Ce n’est pas un mauvais garcon’. In addition to this, France holds a rock above Lucien’s head whilst he sleeps, suggesting that she is questioning whether she should kill him, but fails to do so. These actions and statements mirror the wide degree of the audience’s inability to deem Lucien as a villain, as his condemned behaviour is met with moral ambiguity due to his naivety and tender actions. This defied the prevailing image of a unified France, which alluded that the Resistance was ‘ubiquitous’ and collaborators were ‘outsiders, foreigners and un-French.’ The inability to determine Lucien as a predominantly good or bad character therefore blurs the boundaries between resisters and collaborators, whilst challenging the established belief that ‘a collaborator was necessarily a monster’, hence an abnormality. Despite de Gaulle viewing collaboration and resistance as opposites, Malle refuses to visibly differentiate between the two by showing that good and bad can coexist in Lucien. Therefore Lacombe Lucien reviews the previously dominant distinctions between collaborators and resisters. 

Lucien represents a curious case of a collaborator due to circumstances possibly determining whether French citizens joined resistance or collaboration, and their selfish reasons for participating either way. Initially Lucien is rejected by the Resistance and falls into the Gestapo by accident. Had he not experienced a bicycle puncture late in the evening, he would not have encountered the militia. In this way Malle defines Lucien as ‘a young peasant who might just as well have become a resister and who enters the service of the Gestapo by accident.’ The purpose of presenting both groups is to highlight that he collaborates out of convenience rather than conviction. He acts out of self interest as collaboration gives him power and allows him to escape from working at a nursing home. For example, at the beginning of the film he performs domestic duties at work; the interior of the home appears to be drained and is contrasted with the colourful detail outside, and he articulates to his mother that he intends to resign. Therefore his previous subordinate position differs from his new-found authority in collaboration. In this way Lucien’s accidental initiation into collaboration serves to demythify the Occupation and reveal that collaboration was not based on conscious moral decisions. According to Malle, ‘Par son immoralité candide et son appétit de vivre en ignorant toute idéologie, le Lacombe Lucien de 1944 est un jeune homme d’aujourd’hui’. Malle addresses the issue that people’s motives were not patriotic, as citizens were encouraged by greed. Their reasons for collaborating in order to improve their way of life were relatable. Therefore to what extent can Lucien be held responsible for collaborating? Perhaps he is predominantly a victim of external circumstances and class oppression, which Jankowski observes as ‘creatures of impulse jumping at short-term solutions.’ Therefore circumstance challenges the conventional ideas surrounding the relations between collaboration and resistance in terms of agency; not all collaborators upheld certain values and convictions, making it difficult to distinguish good from evil. Many critics felt that this ambiguity sought to undermine the memory of resistors and legitimised collaborators, however the role of chance coincides with society’s turning point in the representation of Occupation, which denounces distinct discourses between resistance and collaboration. 

Moreover, Malle questions previous attempts to define reasons for collaboration deriving from political opinions through Lucien’s failure to articulate any notion of political beliefs. In Sartre’s essay ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un Collaborateur?’, he concludes that collaboration provided the opportunity to join the New European Order, removing the possibility of Communism and Judaism. He declares a collaborator as a criminal, and states that even though all collaborators were not necessarily in favour of fascism or supporting Germany, most were willing to accept Nazi ideology to better themselves. This obsession with ‘foreign ideologies’ is demonstrated through Stéphane Faure, as he reads a fascist newspaper and compares Jews to rats, stating that they are the enemies of France. However, Lacombe Lucien offers no insight into Lucien’s political stance, as Lucien fails to express any ideological commitment towards collaboration. For example, when he initially seeks to join the Resistance, he does so out of desperation rather than patriotism; the same motivation that enables him to be drawn into the Gestapo. Moreover, Lucien appears to be ignorant to the events of the war which is evident in the film’s first scene. Whilst working in a nursing home, Lucien cleans a picture of Pétain; a Vichy radio broadcast is playing in the background, with the voice of Radio Paris, Philippe Henriot, stating his disapproval of radio London’s propaganda and the Resistance. Despite this, Lucien pays no attention to politics and fails to display any interest in the propaganda surrounding him. When a resistance fighter who was taken prisoner offers to assist Lucien in order to get his freedom, Lucien refuses to listen as he says ‘je n’aime pas qu’on me tutoie.’ and covers the man’s mouth with duct tape. He only appears to wish to silence the resistor to reinforce his power, and draws a red mouth on the tape which shows his immaturity. In this way Lucien’s character reflects that people’s reasons for collaboration may have had little to do with ideology. As Malle depicts Lucien as the new collaborator without political convictions, similar to the average French citizen, this refutes Sartre’s idea that collaborators were driven by foreign ideologies. Therefore the lack of conviction in the film moves away from previous historical representations by offering a new reevaluation of the past. Lacombe Lucien reflects the realities of Occupation which were being investigated during the time it was made. 

During the postwar period it was thought that collaboration had been mainly a middle class action, however Malle’s portrayal of Lucien being a peasant and uneducated character challenges this. According to Sartre, ‘All the workers and almost all the peasants were resisters; most collaborators, it’s a fact, came from the bourgeois.’ He claims that this is due to the bourgeoisie’s desire to maintain their social position. Lacombe Lucien appears to support this understanding, as affluent collaborator Betty Beaulieu says: ‘Je m’en fiche pas mal, moi, si c’est les Anglais ou les Allemands qui gagnent la guerre.’ However, Malle illustrates that collaboration cannot be linked to a particular political idea such as fascism, nor a certain social class like the bourgeoisie. He presents a realisation of class-wide collaboration, highlighting that any Frenchman such as a peasant was capable of becoming a collaborator. Lucien’s social standing is demonstrated throughout his exchanges with a Jewish family living in occupied France. For example, Albert Horn and his daughter France examine how Lucien devours his soup in an uncivilised way and allows the champagne to spill, showing that he has never opened it before. Therefore Lucien’s lack of manners expose his lower social class and lack of education. His inferiority is highlighted when he uses his gun as a way of maintaining authority over the Horns. This representation clearly defies how collaborators were portrayed during the postwar period, as Lucien defies the previously accepted narrative of only the elites participating in collaboration. Jankowski concludes that there were largely identical motives for all social classes to join either side; pulled in one direction or another by chance, prompted by self-interest. Through this character, the film serves as a vector of memory by providing a different narrative to the immediate postwar depictions of collaborators being primarily affluent. As a result of this, the audience are compelled to reconsider their understanding of the different classes who joined collaboration and resistance. 

Lastly, Lacombe Lucien’s final scene challenges to what extent those who collaborated against France and the French people should be punished. Postwar French society were in favour of purging collaborators to ensure a united France would be restored, as Jackson examines that before and after the Liberation, around 10,500 suspected collaborators were executed. These judgements are called into question by a bucolic scene where Lucien lays on a riverbank after helping France and her grandmother to escape. However superimposed text informs viewers of his arrest and execution. Despite the story being fictional, in notifying the audience of Lucien’s sentence, Malle challenges the true meaning of justice. The film asks if Lucien’s lack of ideological commitment and his last act of redemption void his collaboration and evil crimes. The timing and severity of this announcement portrays Lucien as an average person whose moral judgment was immature, as he was caught up in a downward spiral. This suggests that viewers must contemplate the complexities of who can be held accountable. Malle challenges to what extent purging was justified, as many had collaborated and perhaps like Lucien, their reasons had little to do with ideology. Malle reexamines collective judgements of collaboration and determines that there can be no simple judgement of Lucien’s guilt. Lacombe Lucien acts as a vector of memory by modifying a simplistic image of the Occupation which the French believed until the 1970s, which naturally distressed viewers. 

In conclusion, ambiguity, characterisation, lack of conviction and attitudes towards punishment in Lacombe Lucien contribute to ‘Le miroir brisé’ of the Gaullist myth of resistance and offers a counter-narrative to previously dominant discourses of the Occupation during the postwar period. The characterisation of Lucien as a peasant with an apparent lack of ideological conviction for either side challenges the idea that collaborators were affluent and were fascinated by foreign ideologies such as fascism, showing that any Frenchman could be a collaborator. Moreover, the theme of chance and circumstance serves to show that collaborators and resisters were not necessarily committed to the cause and had selfish reasons for joining either group. Finally, the last scene shot at the riverbank questions whether the incessant purging of collaborators was necessary, and assesses the issue of guilt as Lucien’s ambiguity proves difficult to judge as good or evil. Lucien disturbed viewers as he failed to conform to established ideas surrounding collaboration. The film challenges the audience to reconsider historical representations of the Occupation and contributes to the reconstruction of France’s past in World War II.