Showing posts with label Alan Furst. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alan Furst. Show all posts

25 October 2017

Collaborators

David Edgerley Gates

French actress Danielle Darrieux died this past week. She was 100, her career beginning in 1931 and lasting until 2016. Her death notices all remark the fact that she stayed on in Paris after WWII broke out, and kept making pictures during the German occupation. Some of the obits go so far as to call her a Nazi collaborator. I'm guessing the story admits of rather a few more complications.


Let's begin with the fiction that French resistance to the Germans was fierce and widespread. Don't kid yourself. This was a wartime convenience, for Allied propaganda, and for French domestic political purposes after the war. De Gaulle insisted on it. It lifts us on angels' wings above the black market of hypocrisy, corruption, and grievance that characterized the Occupation. The pre-war climate in France echoed the America First movement in the States, a strong dose of appeasement and anti-Semitism, and there were more than a few French admirers of Hitler's scorched earth Jewish policies. And as for the Resistance, the Maquis itself was never organized into any unified chain of command, it was bitterly factionalized and fragmented, the Communists, the Free French, fugitives and draft dodgers and deserters. Lines of authority were disputed, one partisan group was as likely to rat out rival operations to the Vichy milice or the Wehrmacht military police as not.

How do you accommodate your occupier? Good question. We can look at Alan Furst's novels about wartime Paris and get a flavor of what it might be like, daily life in a captive capital. The World at Night, as it happens, is about the French movie biz, even, during the war, and how it was subject to German censorship. More accurately, pictures that didn't fit the bill simply weren't approved - were never greenlighted - so censorship, in that sense, before the fact. What do we make of the real-life example of Danielle Darrieux? When the Germans took Paris, in June of 1940, she'd just turned twenty-three, and her 30th film had been released, Battement de Coeur. I'm not making excuses for her, but twenty-three? In the movies since she was thirteen? Maybe she was a sheltered princess. We suspect, though, that she was a pretty savvy gal. She'd gone to Hollywood the year before, and made The Rage of Paris with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She was a bankable star, and the German movie industry understood both market value and how useful pictures were in the climate of opinion. Alfred Greven, the Nazi film czar in France, supposedly offered Darrieux a deal. She'd stay and make movies, they wouldn't send her brother to Germany as slave labor.

Blackmail puts a sifgnificantly different complexion on things. You give in the once, you're on the hook for more. The hole only gets deeper. Danielle divorces her husband Henri Decoin, who directed her in half a dozen pictures, and falls for the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. (Army officer, diplomat, bag man, race car driver, and polo player, a favorite of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, he's usually characterized as the 'notorious' Porfirio Rubirosa - and the model for Dax Xenos, in Harold Robbins' novel The Adventurers. A whole other story, there.) Rubirosa fell foul of the Occupation authorities because he made no secret of his anti-Nazi sympathies, and they put him under house arrest in Germany. Danielle gets him sprung by agreeing to a publicity tour in Berlin. When next heard of, the two of them have managed to get to Switzerland, and they spend the rest of the war there.


In other words, we've definitely got some missing pieces along the way. Maybe it was all very ordinary, or maybe it was one hair's-breadth escape after another. Again, a nod to Alan Furst. I'm thinking Mission to Paris. But the story reminds me even more strongly of the Andre Cayyate movie Passage du Rhin - released in the U.S. in 1960 as Tomorrow Is My Turn, a truly cheesy title. (Cayatte directed Darrieux in 1942's La Fausse Maitresse, made under the German film industry's wartime sponsorship.)

Cayatte's picture is about two French soldiers, taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war and sent to work on a German farm. One of them (Georges Riviere) seduces the farmer's daughter and escapes to France. The other one (Charles Aznavour) stays at the farm. Back home, Georges takes up sabotage work with the Resistance, but he's eventually sold out to the Germans. A last-minute reprieve saves him from the firing squad, and then Paris is liberated. Charles is repatriated, and takes up where he left off, working as a baker, bullied by his wife. Charles goes to Georges and confesses he's miserable, Georges agrees to take Charles back to the German border. Charles crosses the bridge over the Rhine, stepping into an uncertain future, and meanwhile, the clouded past catches up with Georges. His girlfriend was sleeping with a high-ranking German officer during the Occupation, and he kept Georges from being shot. When the truth comes out, Georges' record as a war hero will be ridiculed, his girlfriend a German whore. She has to leave him. Fade-out on the two men at the Rhine bridge.

Okay, the summary makes it sound stupid, but it's not. It's about loyalties, and betrayals, and compromise, honor and shame, love and deceit, the whole nine yards, and the kind of thing French pictures are really good at. For our purposes, it's a late-breaking discussion (fifteen years after the fact) of questions the French preferred to turn a blind eye to, wartime derelictions. There's no denying some people showed incredible bravery, and some people were utterly contemptible, but a fair number were probably just trying to get by. It's a variation, or the obverse, of the Good German. 


I don't know what the moral is, or even if there is one. I suspect people play the hand they're dealt, and some of us rise to the occasion better than others. Darrieux didn't embarrass herself. Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry? A little less honorable. Arletty, whose acting career flourished during the Occupation, most famously Les Enfants du Paradis, got jail time for sleeping with the enemy. ("My heart is French, but my ass is international," she later remarked.) Sartre, who wrote for the underground paper Combat, says, "Everything we did was equivocal." Not to put too fine a point on it, pretty much everything they did was self-serving.

David Bell, reviewing Alan Riding's book about Paris during the Occupation, And the Show Went On, reminds us that the French basically lucked out, compared to what was going on in, say, Poland. French artists and intellectuals suffered chaos, and scarcities, and many dangers. But more than a few prospered. And most of them survived to argue about it another day. [The New Republic, 03-03-2011]

It's instructive, I guess, that I'm still raking over the coals myself. We simply don't know how we'd react in a claustrophobic climate of fear, which makes it harder to judge what they did. When you hear the tumbrels passing in the street, you don't want them stopping at your door.

27 April 2016

Berlin Noir

David Edgerley Gates


I mentioned last time around that I'd discovered a new enthusiasm, the Bernie Gunther mystery series written by Philip Kerr. These are period stories, set mostly during WWII, and because Bernie's a German homicide cop, he has to answer to the Nazi chain of command.

I picked up on Bernie mid-stride, reading A MAN WITHOUT BREATH first - the ninth book, which takes place in 1943, and involves the murder of Polish military prisoners by the Russians, at Katyn. My habit, generally, if I happen on a writer I like, is to go back and read their books in the order they were written. Right? Seems only fair. In this case, as it was with Alan Furst, I snatched up what was immediately available, and took one step forward, with THE LADY FROM ZAGREB, and one step back, with PRAGUE FATALE, and then FIELD GRAY. Next on the list is the Berlin Noir trilogy, the first three Bernie novels. I couldn't help myself. I grabbed whatever title was on the library shelf. I was too impatient to wait my turn.

I think there are three elements that make the books so fascinating. The first is historical irony. In more than one novel, actually, the story's framed with a look back, from the later 1940's or the early 1950's. Secondly, there's a constant sense of threat, the Nazi regime a bunch of backstabbers, and Bernie hangs on princes' favors. One dangerous patron is Reinhard Heydrich, a chilly bastard who meets an appropriate end. And thirdly, Bernie is really trying to be a moral person, against all odds. You go along to get along, to simply survive, in a nest of vipers, and hope it doesn't rub off on you. After seeing the Special Action Groups at work in Russia, and himself participating, Bernie is sickened by the whole enterprise. He suspects, too, that the handwriting's on the wall.

Bernie's a Berliner, a guy with street smarts, and too smart a mouth. He fought in the first war, in the trenches, and started out as a cop during Weimar. He has no politics. He's as contemptuous, early on, of the Communists as he is of the Nazis, and then, the better he gets to know the Nazis as they consolidate their power, he comes to realize they aren't the lesser of two evils. They are evil. And it does rub off on you.

This is the question often raised in Alan Furst's books, and the two writers have some things in common, aside from the time-frame and the context of their novels. We don't in fact know how we might behave at a personal breaking point, in the context of Vichy France or Nazi Berlin. It's comforting to think we might Bogart through, but daily life becomes an enormous struggle, for the simplest of things. Having a conscience, or a moral compass, might be a luxury we couldn't afford. We might not rise to the occasion. One of Bernie's superiors in Minsk even quotes Luther - "Here I stand" - and then dismisses it. You can't be serious, he tells Bernie. There's no room for that.

And in the middle of all this, institutionalized murder, mass hysteria, people still commit common crimes for common reasons. They kill people for shoes, or bread, or envy. FIELD GRAY has Bernie trying to solve a homicide inside a POW camp. The fact that he's a POW, and the camp is run by the Russians, only makes the whole thing more surreal. Often enough, it isn't some crazed Nazi weirdness at work, although that usually informs it. Everything's out of square. The truly strange thing is that you begin to see this unbalanced world as somehow the norm, at least to the degree of understanding how to navigate it, and once you go there, you've stepped over the edge. The pit opens.

14 November 2012

ALAN FURST: The World at Night

by David Edgerley Gates

[I had thought to preempt this post with remarks about SKYFALL, the newest Bond picture, the best in years, and I decided, not; or to comment about the fall of David Petraeus, but anything I had to say would be speculation at this point.]

Alan Furst, no more than Charles McCarry, shouldn’t need an introduction, or at least I hope not.  He was, for a time, something of an acquired taste, but then a hot agent got ahold of him, he jumped publishers, and they turned him into a household name, at least in my household. 

He himself names Eric Ambler as a chief influence, and you can easily see it.  The darkened Polish railway stations, or perhaps French, the dubious alliances, the quiet men in the shadows who admit no loyalty either way, or the loud patriots that generally don’t survive chapter two.  This is the slippery no-man’s-land of real espionage.

The earlier books, NIGHT SOLDIERS, for example, work on a broad canvas: the Iron Guard, the Spanish Civil War, the world war itself, and even after.  The later books curl in on themselves, narrower, more hermetic, if no less fluent and convincing, but sideshows of sideshows, Greece, or Norway.  The trick is that we know how the war turned out. But in 1939, or 1940, or even 1943, nobody on the ground had any real confidence Hitler was going to be beaten.  And his proxies were everywhere, the Fascists going after the Italian press in exile (THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), or a local cop trying to save Jews leaving Germany (SPIES OF THE BALKANS), knowing the Gestapo already have him in their sights.  They are often stories about everyday heroism, and if not bravery, then endurance.

THE WORLD AT NIGHT came out in 2002.  One reviewer remarked that it was like seeing CASABLANCA for the first time.  I think this is pretty much on the money.  “These papers have expired…”  Paris, the German occupation.  Gas rationing, and so on, ordinary and everyday life made inconvenient, if not always for the privileged.  The guy at the center of the story is a French movie producer, who keeps working under the Nazis.  He makes silly comedies, nothing politically inconvenient.  Because he can move easily between France and Portugal, or France and Italy, he comes to the attention of British intelligence, and this of course bodes ill.  But the point of the story isn’t the spook shit, it’s his increasing moral burden.  It reminds me of André Cayatte’s PASSAGE DU RHIN (TOMORROW IS MY TURN in American release, terrible title), which is also about the occupation of Paris, ambiguous loyalties, and difficult personal choices. 

The question posed in THE WORLD AT NIGHT is how we ourselves might behave, not in the face of inhumanity, per se (the Holocaust is far off the page), but in the actual daily humiliation of living under an occupying power. Why and how would we resist, or would we simply accept it?  The dog barks, the caravan passes.  The lights stay on, the cafés and brasseries are open, the wine gets poured, the choucroute garni is served. “This ought to take the sting out of Occupation,” Sam says in CASABLANCA, lifting his glass to toast Ilsa and Rick.  The difference, in Furst’s story, is the lack of romance– Casson, the hero, gets into bed with enough good-looking women, but it’s not romantic in the sense of being a fairytale, of taking place in a world of heightened, and reductive, passions.  The book is anchored in very simple, pedestrian realities.  What the guy gets sucked into could easily get him killed.  (There’s a terrific set-piece of a jailbreak, for instance.)  And something else, that his choices are incremental, as ours in life so often are.  They aren’t sudden.  They don’t add up to a turning of the earth, until it’s too late to go back on them.  Casson, essentially, backs himself into a place of no retreat.  It feels very real, but also entirely necessary, as if, without foreknowledge, he took the path of least resistance, and found himself, or honor, something he never expected.

The ending is a jaw-dropper, which I won’t give away.  Suffice it to say that it seems so uncharacteristic, but when looking back over the book, so utterly characteristic, it takes your breath away.  I was flattened by it.

Heroes, like spies, often wear odd uniforms, and change their clothes more than once, if not their stripes.  THE WORLD AT NIGHT is about a man who refuses to change his clothes.  It’s about the intransigence of human nature, or its resilience.  We’re mortal, and of course weak.  When we rise to the occasion, as some of us have, it’s generally accident.  Here, too.  But the occasion of accident doesn’t mean our motives are false.  Intentions count for little, in the end.  To my mind, this is why THE WORLD AT NIGHT is so compelling: a man’s worth is in what he does, not in who he hopes or imagines himself to be.