A new review for my Continental Films book in the Times Literary Supplement:
The compromises of a French studio during the Nazi occupation
By Ginette Vincendeau (Times Literary Supplement, June 2, 2023)
Sitting at the terrace of the upscale Fouquet’s bar-restaurant on the Champs-Elysées in the autumn of 1940, the young actor Paul Meurisse (then Edith Piaf’s lover) nearly burst into tears at the sight of German soldiers parading down the famous avenue. “We were defeated”, he said, “but at that precise moment, we understood that humiliation escorted defeat.”
By contrast, the film mogul Alfred Greven – head of the powerful German company Continental, whose offices were situated across from Fouquet’s – loved the daily parade as much as he enjoyed lording it over French cinema, creaming off the best of its available talent (including Meurisse). During meetings he would invite his French employees to step out to the balcony to admire the military display. On one occasion this proved too much for the film-maker Henri Decoin, who left. When asked sarcastically by Greven’s right-hand man, Rudolf Hans Bauermeister, if music wasn’t his thing, Decoin replied: “I like music, especially when it’s played by French soldiers”.
These are a couple of the many stories recounted in Christine Leteux’s captivating book (translated from the French original published in 2017) that pointedly reflect the heartache, compromises and paradoxes of the period. In Continental Films: French cinema under German control, Leteux offers the first book-length study of Continental Films, its enigmatic director, Greven, the film personnel that he hired (and fired) and the films he produced, encompassing run-of-the-mill entertainment as well as masterpieces such as Decoin’s Les Inconnus dans la maison (1942), which provides the cover picture, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943).
The German occupation of France during the Second World War holds a seemingly unending fascination for historians, journalists, biographers and the public at large, as does the cinema of the era. In France especially, many books and articles have been written about the 220 films made during those years, often referred to as a “golden age” during which French cinema could flourish in the absence of American films. In those accounts mention is always made of the thirty features and eighteen documentary shorts produced by the Nazi-controlled Continental. Headed by Greven in Paris, Continental answered to Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry in Berlin. If the topic is familiar, Leteux succeeds in making it fresh, not just by focusing on Continental, but through painstaking research in French and German archives. In particular she pored over the mass of transcripts of the épuration (“purge”) trials held at the liberation to hold to account those who had continued to work in the industry during the war – that is, practically everyone. This makes for reading that is in turn poignant, absurd and frequently shocking.
The cinema of the occupation, whether made at Continental or not, has long been called a “cinema of paradox” (the title of Evelyn Ehrlich’s book on the same subject, published in 1985). In a monumental study of 1989, [i]Le Cinéma français sous l’occupation[/i], the French historian Jean-Pierre Bertin-Maghit documents this at the level of the film industry as a whole. By concentrating on Continental and delving deep into its notorious history, Leteux shows that a “cinema of compromise” might be a better title. And how could it be otherwise? In a profoundly divided country – Germans vs French; resisters vs collaborators; Jews vs antisemites; a privileged elite vs a starving population – people had to get on with each other if they wanted to work. Between the minority of heroic and monstrous extremes, most French men and women struggled messily to survive, including in the film industry. One of the merits of Leteux’s book is to deepen this picture by detailing the extraordinary degree of manoeuvring, double speak and pressure exercised by the occupying forces and, in some cases, the depths of depravity plumbed by some individuals, French or German. Two such episodes provide fascinating, if at times harrowing, passages in the book.
Chapter eleven, “A trip to Berlin”, revisits a well-known propaganda exercise in which, in March 1942, film personnel (many from Continental) made a trip to Berlin, Vienna and Munich at the invitation of Carl Froelich, the head of the Third Reich Film Office. Among them were Danielle Darrieux, the leading female star of the time, the actresses Suzy Delair, Junie Astor and Viviane Romance, and the actor Albert Préjean. The much-photographed episode, beginning with radiant actresses in mink coats boarding the train to Berlin, has become, as Leteux puts it, a “symbol of artistic collaboration during the German occupation”; indeed, those involved, not least Darrieux, are still routinely condemned for it. But Leteux demonstrates that while Delair, for instance, enthusiastically embraced the project, others only acquiesced under German pressure akin to blackmail. The screenwriter André Legrand, who had written an anti-Nazi volume in 1940, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse: he had to go or be made destitute. Romance was threatened with an investigation into her allegedly Jewish Polish grand-mother. Darrieux, who had more clout, made the trip on the condition that she could visit her fiancé, the diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, held in a German internment camp.
The Harry Baur case (chapter twelve) is truly horrifying. Baur was then a star of stage and screen, and as such, like Darrieux, a real catch for Continental, for whom he made two films. But Goebbels, in an attempt to attract French artistes to Germany, wanted him to make a German film, which he resisted. When Baur’s wife, of Turkish origins, was threatened, the couple gave in, moving to Berlin in summer 1941. Yet on their return to Paris they were arrested. Baur, in his sixties and in poor health, was repeatedly tortured and eventually sent back home, where he died in April 1943. Leteux’s research finally elucidates this mysterious episode. It turns out that, out of a mixture of fanatical antisemitism and professional jealousy, Edouard Bouchez, a former close friend and godfather to one of Baur’s children, had denounced him to the Gestapo as enjuivé (“tainted by Jewishness” through family and other connections). The chilling conclusion to the story is that, at the liberation, Bouchez was put on trial, yet escaped scot-free.
With the might of the Third Reich behind it, Continental, from its creation on October 1, 1940, until June 1944, when Greven decamped, was a key player in French cinema. Able to hire the best technicians, writers such as Georges Simenon, stars like Darrieux, Baur, Fernandel and Raimu, and seasoned directors such as Maurice Tourneur, as well as to foster new talents like Clouzot, Continental spurred a revival of the French film industry (after the break caused by the beginning of the war, that is). A francophile, Greven had worked with French film personnel in Berlin in the 1930s. In France, while he exercised an iron hand on shoots through Bauermeister, he accorded a margin of freedom to his creative staff. From the beginning French directors and writers established the right to choose their own topics, bereft of propaganda. As a result, several Continental films – L’Assassinat du père Noël, Les Inconnus dans la maison, Le Corbeau – are the most darkly caustic works of the period. In another of those paradoxes Greven gave work to a few Jewish film-makers, including Jean-Paul Dreyfus (known as Le Chanois), when most had to go into hiding. Hoping to create an American-style vertically integrated company, he built a cinematic empire with studios and a circuit of film theatres, vacated by the forced departure of their Jewish owners. In another ironic twist this branch of the business survived the end of the war and became UGC, a chain of multiplexes still with us today.
Leteux’s book is equally good at the wide-angle picture of a country and a film industry at war, and the small, unexpected detail. Among other things we learn that Jean-Paul Belmondo’s father, the sculptor Paul Belmondo, had also taken a trip to Berlin with a group of artists to visit the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker. Equally surprising, a man named Pierre Léaud (father of the new-wave actor Jean-Pierre Léaud) was the first member of the script department at Continental. We witness the best of behaviour and the worst.
If one wanted to nitpick, one could say that Christine Leteux is too economical with references to the numerous scholars who have worked on the topic before her; at the same time this makes for smooth reading. Equally, the book is well illustrated, notably with wonderful posters, although the black-and-white reproduction dulls their original colourfulness. Beyond these minor reservations, one can only agree with Bertrand Tavernier’s enthusiastic foreword and share his “jubilation” at this enlightening and, in spite of its dark and tragic setting, entertaining book.