“I want to face those shameful times with integrity.”
Safe Conduct is a French film by Bertrand Tavernier that focuses on a difficult period in the history of French cinema, the German occupation of France during WWII. In very typical Tavernier fashion, the film is absolutely fascinating, but cumbersome in spots.
The film begins in March 1943, and Jean Devaire (Jacques Gamblim) is an assistant director who works in Paris for the German run Continental pictures. Although he’s reluctant to work for Continental, he needs employment, and his job, working for director Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud) acts as a cover for his Resistance activities. Right under the nose of his German “masters,” Devaire manages to conduct some very interesting resistance activities, and one section of the film illustrates exactly what Devaire did while he was off of work with a cold.
Writer Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), on the other hand, an incorrigible womanizer, does not integrate into the French cinema industry during the German occupation. Instead he remains on the fringes, looking in while his actress girlfriend consorts with Nazis and various collaborators who are looting the victims of the fascist Petain regime.
French collaboration with their Nazi occupiers remains, understandably, a sticky subject. Tavernier’s film seems to be an attempt to offer an explanation of sorts. Yes, there are those who remain working (even with the Germans in charge), and there are those who refuse to participate. Those who work with the Germans in the French film industry are shown to labour under stressful conditions with the Nazis breathing down their necks while their films are confined to strict rules for content. One of the prevailing arguments for carrying on even under German management is that someone has to ‘save’ French cinema. Given the conditions of wartime (endless allied bombing campaigns and rations) it’s difficult to envision anyone mustering the energy to get out of bed in the morning to go and make a film. But this really happened. WWII raged and some of those within the French film industry carried on as best they could while in the background of the story, we see busloads of Jews leaving Paris to meet their grim fate. For lovers of French cinema, Tavernier offers a fascinating, complex glimpse into a troubled time in the history of French cinema. There’s a lot of French film name-dropping here. For example, in one scene, Clouzet’s film Le Corbeau is mentioned, and a handful of characters briefly debate the meaning of Clouzet’s film and whether or not it was intentionally subversive. In French with subtitles.