'Weapons of the Spirit' documents quiet bravery in wartime France


December 12, 1990|By Michael Hill

The traditional image of the hero comes from the Greeks. He's brave, strong, masculine, standing up proudly against the forces arrayed against him. We celebrate that image today in phrases such as "He's a stand-up guy" and in our weekly worship of the armor-clad warriors of the football field.

There's only one problem with such heroes. In the post-Orwellian, smart-weapon world of totalitarians and oppressors, such stand-up heroes are usually the first to be mowed down. They might make for good myths, but they don't do that much good.

Documentarian Pierre Sauvage found a different kind of hero when he went looking for his past. He was born in 1944 in the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which would not be such a noteworthy event except that Sauvage's parents were Jewish. Pierre may very well never have been born if the citizens of Le Chambon had not given his parents shelter as they did thousands of other Jews during World War II.

Sauvage's homage to Le Chambon, "Weapons of the Spirit," comes to PBS tonight following a brief theatrical release earlier this year. It will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock.

What Sauvage found in Le Chambon and the surrounding communities were people whose acts of greatness came not out of posturing and posing, but from quiet deeds demanded by their deep faith.

Many of the inhabitants of this mountainous area in southeast central France were once refugees from religious persecution themselves, Huguenots, Protestants in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, who had found refuge in this rocky land.

When others came to the area seeking similar asylum, Sauvage finds, the locals did not ponder the possibilities, they simply took them in. It was the right thing to do and they did it, actions that reveal the simple strength of their form of Christianity, which left no room for rationalizations.

At times Sauvage's film seems a bit scattered and confused, but it always comes together when he interviews the inhabitants of Le Chambon, in many cases getting them on film just before their deaths.

Though nowadays agents would be all over a contemporary version of Le Chambon negotiating a TV movie deal, these people honestly don't seem to see what the fuss is about. Sheltering the refugees was as natural to them as getting up in the morning and putting food on the table.

Sauvage is particularly revealing in a post-film interview with Bill Moyers, when he gives his personal reasons for making the film -- actually an act of rebellion against his parents, who buried their Judaism along with their memories of wartime -- and his opinions of the people of Le Chambon who told him that they wanted to make sure they were not depicted as romantic heroes.

Some of the more striking scenes in the film are those of wartime France, filled as it was with those who sought accommodation with the Germans through the Vichy government. There's a newsreel story of an anti-Semitic exhibit in Paris called Jews in France. Other footage includes thousands cheering Vichy leader Marshall Petain.

Since France became a post-war ally, we rarely hear or see anything about its collaborative days, focusing instead on the relatively few Frenchmen who joined its brave resistance. Even in France there is a collective amnesia about these years.

Though Sauvage takes his one cheap shot at a Vichy official, the film actually raises a difficult moral question. It could be that the now universally denounced Vichy government provided the cushion that allowed places like Le Chambon to survive, collaborating for sure, but in doing so keeping the Gestapo and SS away.

Sauvage does find that the local Vichy administrator apparently covered up what was going on in Le Chambon. And according to his own figures, though the Vichy government deported 75,000 Jews, that meant 275,000 were not handed over to the Germans.

So if most Frenchmen had adopted the traditional heroic pose and resisted, would more Jews have been saved, or more killed? Would Le Chambon have been protected, or overrun by ruthless Nazis?

Who knows? The point is that most of us are probably like the citizens of Le Chambon, trying to do the right thing day by day. It's history that decides who made the correct decision. What we should learn from "Weapons of the Spirit" is that those in Le Chambon were possessed of a simplicity of vision that made them more certain of the judgment of the ages.

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