The darkest period of modern French history was the nation's humiliating defeat by Germany in 1940. France boasted of having the greatest army in Europe but was led by inept leaders who mistakenly used tactics of WWI. The French squandered the opportunity to strangle Hitler's rising armies in their cribs, preferring to simply protest the building up of his armed forces in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. France and England declared war on Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. However, a period of inaction followed, leading many to call the conflict "The Phony War". Although France had ample time to come up with strategies, its armed forces decided to fight a defensive war on French soil. The plan proved to be woefully inept in the era of the blitzkreig. The fall of France in 1940 led to a period of political discontent that is still being debated today. In the aftermath of the war, General Charles DeGaulle, leader of the free French forces fighting from England, successfully marketed the notion that his nation was filled with patriots who consistently did all they could to resist their German occupiers. In fact, countless French patriots did indeed sacrifice their lives in order to do so - both on the battlefield and through the Resistance. Paris was liberated prior to to arrival of Allied forced by brave men and women who rose up to violently resist the most feared army on earth. Nevertheless, collaboration was the order of the day in occupied France. Hitler installed the WWI hero Marshall Petain as the head of state in Vichy, a region that was supposed to be free of German occupation. However, the world recognized it was a puppet state with Petain acting as a toady for his German masters. Petain and his co-collaborator Pierre Laval, maintained that appeasement of Germany was the only practical way for France to maintain some measure of independence. Indeed, France did avoid many of the atrocities committed in other occupied countries. However, the price of peace was full compliance with the Reich's obsessive oppression against Jews and any other group that was deemed a threat. Consequently, Petain and Laval capitulated by willingly complying with orders that meant certain death for countless French citizens.
The subject of French collaboration was deemed so sensitive that Marcel Ophul's landmark 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity could not be shown in the nation for years because it addressed the issue in a devastating way. In 1993, acclaimed director Claude Chabrol made his own statement on the subject with the release of his documentary The Eye of Vichy, which consisted entirely of French propaganda newsreels released during the German occupation. It's a fascinating glimpse into life in a totalitarian state. On the surface, Germany rewarded France for collaborating by allowing the niceties of every day life to go on as usual. The opera houses and movie theaters were packed and the elegant shops and cafes were doing brisk business. Behind the scenes, of course, the Resistance movement was being brutally suppressed and the nation was subject to a massive propaganda campaign designed to show the folly of siding with the "barbaric" Allies. Petain was given audiences with Hitler himself in order to propagate the falsehood that he was the leader of an independent nation.
The dozens of newsreels compiled by Chabrol illustrate how life in France began to deteriorate as Germany's seemingly endless string of military victories came to a halt with Hitler's disastrous decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. The Eastern Front became a death zone for German forces and it wasn't long before French "volunteers" were called up by the thousands to fight the Soviets. The propaganda reels gave the impression that these were French patriots who believed in the German cause. In fact, many were browbeaten or forced to volunteer. Despite the collaboration between governments, Germany still held hundreds of thousands of French POWS in prison camps. They were allowed a brief visit to their families in return for volunteering on the Eastern Front. As Germany's fortunes declined, France was used as both a piggy bank and a force of labor for the Reich. Countless French workers were imported into Germany to help bolster the military's needs. At home the French laborer was working largely for the benefit of Germany, with most of the top-line goods forcibly exported. Newsreels gave the impression all of this was being done willingly by French patriots who realized that Germany was acting as a guardian against the spread of Bolshevism.
What is most fascinating about the propaganda newsreels is that they did provide some soft-peddled uncomfortable facts that indicated Germany was less than invincible. The footage acknowledges German retreats in Russia and the threat of impending Allied invasion. Naturally, the populace is assured that Hitler's massive Fortress Europe could never be breached. There are also cartoon segments incorporated into the newsreels that have anti-Semitic overtones. A radio broadcaster from London is represented in the most reprehensible way, having all the stereotypical Jewish physical characteristics as envisioned by the German propagandists. In one bizarre segment, popular Western cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Popeye are seeing flying Allied bombers over France and murdering innocent villagers.
First Run's DVD of the film presents the newsreels in French with English sub-titles. However, there is occasional narration in English to clarify certain historical points. What the DVD lacks is a commentary from a historian or at least some printed essays to give further perspective to the key players in the aftermath of the war. The Nazi-controlled propaganda shorts were still being produced until shortly after the D-Day invasion in June 1944, after which France fell back into Allied hands. Petain and Laval were both sentenced to death but only Laval was executed. Petain, because of his record as a WWI hero and his advanced age, was spared death by Charles DeGaulle. Both Petain and Laval's legacies remain hotly debated by historians. Some claim the two men did the best they could to spare France the kind of brutal desecration that other occupied countries had experienced. Yet others argued that they went far beyond doing the bare minimum to please Germany and aided and abetted in areas they did not have to. For example, Laval oversaw the creation of a French version of the dreaded S.S. that committed horrendous crimes on citizens suspected of being in the Resistance or simply being Jews. None of this is explored in the DVD. The only extras are a few skimpy propaganda photos of Hitler at his peak of power. Curiously, although the DVD sleeve depicts Hitler's brief but triumphant visit to Paris in the aftermath of its fall, there is no newsreel footage of his whirlwind tour in any of the films contained in this documentary. Perhaps German propagandists felt that actually showing Hitler in the French capital would incite even more citizens to join the Resistance.
The Eye of Vichy is a remarkable and disturbing historical document. Anyone with an interest in WWII will find it as illuminating as it is disturbing.