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The Eye of Vichy

The Eye of Vichy
First Run Features
1993 / b&w / 1:37 / 110 min. / L' Oeil de Vichy / Street Date January 21, 2003 / $29.95
Starring Brian Cox (narrator)
Film Editor Frédéric Lossignol, Stéphanie Louis
Written by Jean-Pierre Azéma and Robert O. Paxton
Produced by Jean-Pierre Ramsay Levi
Directed by Claude Chabrol

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Eye of Vichy is an excellent historical record, and an eye-opener for students of propaganda. The concept is deceptively simple: the facts of WW2 leading up to the German occupation of France area precede a compilation of four years' of Franco-German newsreels, that show exactly what the public learned officially of the war, and how the Germans expected them to behave and think.

Claude Chabrol, the maker of many moody French mysteries (The Cry of the Owl) is listed as director. As it contains some very hateful propaganda material, the opening narration is careful to state the film's mission: "This film is not a record of the Occupation period 1940-44, but the version that the Anglo-Allemagne newsreels wanted France to see."

Phillipe Pétain tried to adminstrate a collaborationist government from the city of Vichy, in the unoccupied zone. A helpful narrator fills in the details - when the French officials are shown meeting with Hitler, well into the occupation, the narrator lets us know that Pétain had to wait six months for the meeting. His requests were scoffed at and he was given the bum's rush. In the newsreels, however, all is presented as harmonious.

As well it should, for the French government did everything but cartwheels trying to accomodate the Germans, beginning the arrest and deportment of 'fugitives from Germany' practically before they were asked to. The newsreels openly spread the anti-Jewish propaganda, with lifts from the most notorious hate films. We see a lot of coverage of 'how to recognize a Jew'-type information, and are repeatedly told that the Jews started the war, and that the aggressors are Jewish interests in Great Britain and the United States.

For WW2 buffs who've seen numerous Allied accounts of the war, the newsreels will be fascinating. A map shown early on envisions an 'united' Europe that, with its other allies (I don't remember the Japanese being mentioned at all) will conquer all of Russia and Asia. When war breaks out with the Soviet Union, Finland is praised as a heroic German ally. Naturally, nothing is mentioned of the Battle of Britain, but the Atlantic Wall shore defenses from Spain to Denmark are touted. And we also hear Pétain's call for the French Navy (which defected to the Allies) to ignore their commanders and stay faithful. When the Russian counterattack beats back the German invaders, the German forces are said to be 'realigning themselves'.

Victories in Russia and Africa are extolled, with General Erwin Rommel serving as the poster boy of Nazi invulnerability. Intriguingly, his African campaign, and that of the Germans invading Russia, were meant to converge in the Middle East, where Hitler could avail himself of the area's natural resources. Very interesting. Later on, when Rommel was reportedly under house arrest and censure, we see him reviewing Atlantic defenses, still serving his P.R. function under duress.

The newsreels appear to have been a strong tool for Germany to get what it wanted from France. With most of the country's products already being siphoned off, the newsreels were used to promote voluntary work programs where Frenchmen had to relocate to Germany. The big issue for Frenchmen was the release of their POW's, many of whom weren't returned for years, with some withheld for a workers-for prisoners exchange. The voluntary work programs became mandatory anyway.

The newsreels are also a good record of the French fascist collaborators. Many of these Parisian publishers, writers and pundits are seen and heard delivering (some pretty rotten) speeches. Names like Jacques Doriot now have faces and voices. When one is murdered by 'terrorists' (the resistance), the newsreels regret the necessity of executing civilian hostages in reprisal.

Pitiful propaganda efforts, such as returning the body of Napoleon to Paris with German military honors, are used to tell Frenchmen how warmly their German compatriots feel about them. Adolf Hitler appears in file footage, but never addresses the French public. This is evidence of his lack of interest in France as anything but a resource, and also of the fact that these newsreels were German-supervised but probably French-made.  1

Of immediate interest to viewers not looking for a history lesson, is a jaw-dropping cartoon that dramatizes the foolishness of listening to English propaganda on the radio, something almost everyone did. A moronic French couple is excited when they hear the Free French announcer in London (represented by a hideous Jewish caricture with a huge nose) saying, "We're coming, we're coming!" Cut to bombers piloted by Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, Felix the Cat and Popeye! The characters trade quips in bad French imitations of their cartoon voices. Popeye has a vat of whiskey from which to drink, and asks Mickey if French spinach is the best in the world. Then they bomb the excited French radio listeners to kingdom come.

All of this is helped by the narration, but not overly explained, making The Eye of Vichy potentially out of reach for many unfamiliar with the period. This is a shame, for the propaganda methods we're shown here are more relevant today than ever. Having been lead by curiosity to read several books on the occupation, I was eager for every detail and nuance. Collaborating entertainer Maurice Chevalier is heard singing a jaunty song supporting the propaganda; but other actors are chided for leaving the country. We even see some scenes and ads for movies made during the occupation, like Les visiteurs du soir, and a now-unknown mystery sold like a horror film.

First Run Features' DVD of The Eye of Vichy is a good rendering of this docu's English version. The newsreels have thankfully been left in French, but the surrounding narration and many of the intertitles have been reworked in English. Brian Cox is the narrator of choice. At first the switch between the languages is distracting, but it quickly became evident that it would have been far too confusing trying to keep up with all of the French original's different voices (newsreel soundbites, newsreel narration, feature commentary, historical explanation narration) while simultaneously reading all the text of maps, newspapers, ads, etc. Just the same, the English subs are not removable - this is an English version only disc.

The quality of sound and picture are frankly better than we see on most of our newsreel clip shows. Still images are good enough to freeze to study the text of newpaper headlines, etc.. The only real extra is 'Inside the Third Reich: a Photographic Tour', which turns out to be ten stills of generic non-occupation Nazi subjects, tinted so as to inadvertently look like a set of Lobby Cards.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Eye of Vichy rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Still selection
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 25, 2003


1. Andrew Mollow and Kevin Brownlow must have had access to these newsreels while making It Happened Here, because they imitated them so perfectly, right down to the chummy insistence on German-French friendship while talking of imposed hardships and cruel punishments for the conquered French.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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