Group presentation structure


Representations of communities through paradox : a case study of Lacombe Lucien by Louis Malle.

Research question

To what extent is ‘community’ represented as paradox in the movie Lacombe Lucien by Louis Malle and how is this relevant in the contemporary context ?

Scene selected

Marie (the waitress) and Lucien in Marie’s bedroom

00:44:34 – 00:45:21


Marie : Faut pas te mêler à ces gens-là. C’est pas des gens comme nous. D’abord, c’est les américains qui vont gagner la guerre. Tout le monde le dit. Tu m’entends ? Les boche ils sont foutus. C’est les américains je te dis.


Marie : Don’t mingle with that kind of people. They are not like us. And anyway, the Americans are going to win the war. Everyone says so. Are you listening ? The “boche” are fucked. It’s the Americans, I’m telling you.

Themes we have to talk about
  • Responsibility
  • memory and post memory
  • disunified critical reception
  • violence
  • grey zone
  • community through exclusion
Introduction 2’30” 375 words
  • summarise origins of Lacombe Lucien
  • summarise Lacombe Lucien
  • summarise critical reception
  • summarise Vichy shame
  1. Community through exclusion 7’30” 1.125 words

Summary of what we are going to say in this part

In Lacombe Lucien the characters’ identities are defined by opposition to others’. For instance, France Horn defines herself as a French citizen when she first meets Lucien, by opposition he defines himself as being part of the ‘German police’. Then, when Lucien takes her to a party in the gestapo headquarters, she is called ‘Jewish’ by the waitress, as opposed to the non-Jewish people in the room. Finally, the last opposition which is highlighted during the last minutes of the movie is the youthfulness of France and Lucien by opposition to the old age of the grandmother.

Summary of what Astrid is going to say according to my major (Politics)

In politics, communities are often constructed or strengthen by naming an enemy of defining themselves by opposition to someone/something else. Mouffe highlights that “Consensus is by necessity based upon acts of exclusion”, which means that in order to make sense of a group and create a sense of belonging for its members, there is a need to define what they are not and what they do not want to be. In the movie Lacombe Lucien, this tendency is clearly present in the way characters change their sense of belonging to a specific group depending upon the person they are facing.

Summary of what Kay is going to say according to her major

Community as a construction, as written into societies and thereby into societal expectation and thereby the conscious/deliberate fabricated formation of ‘norms’. How ‘normative’ communities and community behaviours are thereby justified and frameworked and how inclusion/exclusion therein justified is then portrayed through the ‘community activity’ of cinema. Discussion of political nature of the release of political films such as Lacombe Lucien, and the repercussions even now due to residual contentions surrounding Vichy Shame. Parallelity offered with recent film Get Out and acclaim/criticism. Consideration of: significance, utility – why is it useful to depict social exclusion/inclusion through film? What are its implications and limitations? Should it be done? – and implications of representations/criticisms of communities through pop. culture mediums (film). Finally, summative comments on whether or not considerable change may be enable through, or with the aid of, cinematographic representation of community and paradoxes therein encountered, particularly political corruption. Offer reference to the words of a wiser woman to conclude.

Summary of what Martyna is going to say according to her major

2. The ambiguous relationship between community and responsibility
7’30” 1.125 words

Summary of what we are going to say in this part

One of the major themes from Lacombe Lucien is the question of responsibility and by extension, whether or not the main character is responsible for his own actions. Indeed, Lucien does not seem to have enough intellectual capacities to make a conscious choice or even realise what he is doing. Louis Malle portrays the main character as a young boy without any ideological or political convictions, employed by the French Gestapo out of pure coincidence.

Summary of what Astrid is going to say according to my major (Politics)

The movie was among the first ones to outline the responsibility of French citizens in the Jewish genocide. Indeed, the myth of a unified France wholly against the Nazi regime was omnipresent after the Second World War and the Vichy regime was not even mentioned at school in the history programs. This surely explains why the movie was considered as highly controversial when it came out in 1974. The responsibility of French people is portrayed in the movie through two main elements. First, the people who are part of the French gestapo – and thus collaborating with the Nazi regime – come from all social, cultural or even ethnic backgrounds, representing the whole French nation. Second, the character of Lucien portrays the complexity of the French collaboration with the Nazi regime. Indeed, it is difficult to blame the young boy because of his lack of knowledge and understanding of what he is really getting into. Lucien is a clear metaphor of Hannah Arendt notion of the ‘banality of the evil’. A notion which is going to be at the centre of the political debate not so long after the movie was released during the trial of Maurice Papon – a French civil servant who participated to the deportation of 1600 Jews during WWII.

Summary of what Kay is going to say according to her major

Summary of what Martyna is going to say according to her major

Conclusion 2’30” 375 words
  • how is Lacombe Lucien and its depiction of communities still relevant nowadays

News Articles:

Worth a read if you have a spare moment:

Summaries to follow…

An Introduction: Vichy France, the Nazis and the Holocaust by Dr Chris Millington (Swansea University)


On 22 July 2012, French President Francois Hollande gave a speech that was closely watched by the French media.  The subject of his speech was the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Jews in Paris, which took place on the night of 16-17 July 1942.  On that night and in the following days, the Parisian police arrested 13,152 Jewish men, women and children.  Many of those arrested were taken to an indoor cycle stadium, the Vélodrôme d’hiver, where they were held for five terrible days without sufficient food, water and sanitary facilities.  From the ‘Vél d’Hiv’, they were sent to a French internment camp near Orléans before being deported to Auschwitz.  Only 811 of them survived the war.  President Hollande was not the first French president to mark the anniversary of the ‘Vél d’Hiv roundup’.  In 1995, Jacques Chirac recognised the French state’s responsibility in this affair.  However, his predecessor, Francois Mitterand, had always argued that given the illegitimacy of the Vichy regime, the deportation of Jews from wartime France was not the responsibility of the French people.  Hollande broke with his socialist forebear in speaking of ‘France’s responsibility’.  He stated that though German officials had ordered the arrests, not a single German police officer or soldier had been needed in the operation.  It was a ‘crime committed in France, by France.’

In attributing responsibility for the persecution and deportation of Jews from Occupied and Vichy France, it has always been difficult in getting the balance right.  The Nazi occupiers, the Vichy French authorities and the French population all played a part.

As with the history of Vichy France, collaboration and resistance (see here for a further explanation), the historiography of Vichy’s anti-Semitism has developed in phases.  Until Robert Paxton’s Vichy France (1972) histories of Vichy, such as Robert Aron’s Histoire de Vichy (1954), neglected the issue.  Paxton was different because he argued that Vichy’s anti-Semitism was rooted in French cultural and historical tradition, not imposed by the Germans.  Paxton followed up this work with Vichy France and the Jews (1981) written with Michael Marrus.  In this book, the authors argued that anti-Semitism was an essential component of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s programme for ‘National Revolution’ – a right-wing renovation of French politics and society.  These works laid the foundations for all subsequent histories of French involvement in the Holocaust.  We should not forget, though, that other groups fell victim to racial discrimination in France; recently historian Shannon Fogg has researched the persecution of Gypsies during the war.

Anti-Semitism in France during the interwar years

After the First World War, French society was quite tolerant of the national Jewish population.  Many Jewish French had given their lives in the war, and this fact made it less plausible to accuse Jews of betraying France.  Evidence of this more tolerant climate can be found in the collapse of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole in 1924.  At its height, this newspaper had had a circulation of over 300 000 copies.  The 1920s was a time of governmental tolerance too: in 1927 naturalisation procedures were relaxed and many immigrants became French citizens – 270 000 between 1927 and 1930 alone.

The Depression changed this tolerant atmosphere.  Rising unemployment and the influx of Jewish and Eastern European refugees revived old prejudices.  Anti-Semitism resumed a prominent place in political discourse, thanks in part to the efforts of the hugely successful extreme right-wing leagues.  The newspaper of the Action Française league routinely pilloried Jews.  Charles Maurras, leader of the Action Française, called for the pummeling of Jews and political opponents and even demanded that Léon Blum (Jewish leader of the socialist party) be murdered, preferably by a shot in the back.  Action Française was read by up to 70 000 people. But the most prominent anti-Semitic weekly newspaper was called Gringoire.  By the late 1930s, it had 650 000 readers and this perhaps gives an indication of the popularity of anti-Semitism in France at this time.

Xenophobia was not the preserve of the extra-parliamentary leagues.  In August 1932, a left-wing parliament limited the number of foreigners in certain professions.In July 1934 a law imposed a delay of ten years on naturalised foreigners before they could hold public office or enter the legal profession.  In 1935, a protest by medical students against foreigners in their profession prompted more legislation.  Newly naturalised foreigners who had not completed their military service were prohibited from practicing medicine for at least four years.  Foreign Jews were banned altogether.

It was the government of Edouard Daladier that set a new precedent in its treatment of foreigners.  (Daladier was Prime Minister from April 1938 to March 1940).  Anti-immigrant feeling had intensified after the influx of half a million Spanish refugees in early 1939.  Mainly Spanish Republicans, the right had vilified them as revolutionaries, thieves and murderers.  Daladier’s laws on exclusion and discrimination anticipated the more severe measures under Vichy.   French police were given the power to fine and imprison illegal immigrants.  They were ordered to send illegal immigrant Jews back to Germany.  As well as having restrictions put on their voting rights, naturalised and foreign individuals were placed under surveillance and a central identity card service was set up.  Furthermore they could be deprived of their French nationality if they were deemed ‘unworthy of the title of French citizen’.  Daladier’s government also set up internment camps and these would later be used by Vichy.

These measures set a dangerous precedent.  After June 1940, civil servants found it easy to adapt to Vichy’s policies and implement them precisely because they had honed their skills under the Third Republic.  In a similar way, jurists and lawyers had become used to dealing with a two-tier citizenship system in which naturalised and non-naturalised foreigners were effectively of second class status.  Vichy was therefore able to make use of the Third Republic’s existing administrative and legal apparatus, while tapping into a latent public anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

Jews in wartime France

Living and working conditions for Jews were different in the Northern Occupied Zones and the Southern Free Zone.  In the North, Jews were subject to measures familiar to Nazi anti-Semitism.  From August 1941, Jews were banned from owning a radio or a bicycle.  From February 1942, they were subject to a curfew.  From June 1942, they were allowed only to travel in the last carriage on the metro and shop only between 3pm and 4pm.  Jews were banned from all public spaces.  That same month the Germans introduced the wearing of a yellow star for all Jews in the Occupied Zone.  Nevertheless, it was French police who enforced the wearing of the star in the North.  Vichy actually refused to do likewise in the South, but largely because it feared a negative public reaction to this policy.

Yet as with other matters, Vichy and German policy were not independent of each other and the regime usually went one better than the Nazis with its own policy – and without German pressure to do so.  Some of Vichy’s actions made the Germans’ job easier in an obvious way: French police participated in arrests and round-ups, for example.  Other Vichy actions made the task easier in indirect ways.  In July 1941, for example, Vichy ordered a census of all Jews in the Unoccupied Zone.  The data, though not intended to help the Germans, certainly made it easier to track down Jews as the Final Solution intensified after 1943.

Vichy’s first anti-Semitic policies took effect in October 1940.  In September 1940, the Germans ordered that all Jews in the Occupied Zone be voluntarily registered.  The authorities defined as Jewish anyone of the Jewish religion or with three Jewish grandparents.  They did not use the word ‘race’.  The following month, under no pressure from Germany, Vichy went one better.  On 3 October 1940 the French passed the first ‘Jewish Statute’.  The statute was drafted by a man named Raphael Alibert, Vichy’s Minister of Justice.  Alibert was a former Action française sympathiser and an anti-Semite.  But don’t think that Marshal Pétain had no influence on this new direction in policy.  He may never have mentioned the Jews directly in his speeches but when it came to legislation such as the Jewish statute, he was one of the harshest voices in government.  It was at the Marshal’s insistence, for example, that under the statute Jews were excluded from public posts.

The first Jewish statute was the first French law to define a distinct ethnic group – the Republic had not explicitly distinguished between citizens on the grounds of race or religion. Vichy’s definition of Jewishness differed slightly to that of the Nazis: You were a Jew if you had three Jewish grandparents, or if you had two Jewish grandparents and you were married to a Jew.  Significantly, your religion did not matter – even if you had converted to Christianity, Vichy still classed you as Jewish.  Unlike the German definition, Vichy’s rested on race and therefore more Jews were subject to the French law than to the German one.

The statute excluded Jews from political office, judicial appointments, diplomatic and prefectural posts, and the senior branches of public services.  Jewish French people could not be managers or directors in cinemas, theatres, radio or the press.  Some Jews were exempt, for example, those who had served in both wars, and those recognised as having rendered exceptional service to the state.  These were the ‘good’ Jews.  Vichy further distinguished between foreign and French Jews.  From 4 October 1940, foreign Jews could be interned at the discretion of prefects.  They were held in internment camps originally intended for refugees from Germany and Spain.  By 1941, 40, 000 foreign Jews were held in seven camps across France.  The French administered all but one.  By 1942, 3000 Jews had died from cold and undernourishment in these camps.

In the 12 months after the first statute, Vichy issued 26 laws and 24 decrees against Jews.  French judges, lawyers and law professors accepted the new legislation.  It was discussed in legal journals in a seemingly neutral fashion, using allegedly scientific objectivity to examine and condone the laws.  Some were no doubt influenced by latent anti-Semitism, believing that Jews were too influential in the legal system.  Others acted out of mercenary or opportunistic motivations, or they defended the statute simply because they believed that the law, whatever it was, should be obeyed.

On 26 April 1941, the Germans extended their definition of Jewishness.  You were now a Jew if you had two Jewish grandparents and were married to a Jew, unless you were divorced before April 1941.  On 2 June 1941, a second French statute widened the definition of Jewishness.  The second statute widened the number of occupations from which Jews were banned to include all posts in public administration.  Quotas were introduced in the fields of medicine, law, architecture and university students – usually 2-3% of non-Jews in these areas. Like the first statute, the second one used a wider definition of Jewishness than the Germans.  Vichy’s second Jewish statute changed the date of divorce to June 1940, meaning more people were subject to the Statute.  Significantly, when the German round ups of Jews began in summer 1942, the Germans used Vichy’s definition of Jewishness, feeling that their own was too restrictive.

Vichy’s desire to please the Germans, in the vain hope that they would grant political concessions, meant that anti-Semitism spiraled in an ever more radical direction. On 23 March 1941, Vichy created the General Commissariat on Jewish Questions.  The Germans had been pressing for the establishment of a Jewish office to co-ordinate anti-Semitic policy throughout France.  To pre-empt this, rather than see the Germans set up an office in the North, Vichy set up the Commissariat which had jurisdiction over the whole of France.  Its job was to prepare and propose legislative measures concerning Jews and to participate in the ‘Aryanisation’ process.  This meant dealing with the sale and liquidation of property and assets owned by Jews.  This policy is a radical example of the French pre-empting the Germans in an effort to retain sovereignty over domestic matters. The Germans had no major plans to Aryanise the French economy, yet they were happy for the French to believe that they did.  By May 1944, 40 000 Jewish businesses had been placed in trusteeship and three-quarters of these had been sold to Aryans.

We must be clear that Vichy’s policy was not driven by the desire to exterminate the Jews just as the policy of state collaboration was not, in the main, pursued because the French were committed Nazis.  Few were concerned about a final solution to the Jewish question.  Vichy’s main preoccupation was to extend the boundaries of French jurisdiction and to eventually reunify the country.  The political leadership used the so-called Jewish problem as it did other issues: for wider political advantage.  Vichy clung to its inflated sense of its own importance in Hitler’s New Order.  However, for the Germans, France was just a part of a Europe-wide enterprise – and this was the same in the case of the Final Solution.

France and the Final Solution

In January 1942, the Nazis decided upon the Final Solution at Wannsee in Berlin.  Jews would be deported to the East from the occupied territories.  Already though in France on three occasions during 1941 the Germans had, with the help of French police, arrested Jews in Paris as a reprisal for resistance attacks.  The arrestees were mainly foreign Jews, though over 1000 French Jews were among those arrested.  These Jews filled internment camps, the most notorious of which was called Drancy.  Drancy was an unfinished municipal housing estate just outside Paris.  From its creation it was administered by the French but was so lacking in basic amenities that in October 1941 the Germans ordered the release of 900 prisoners they considered too ill to stay there.  When the deportations of Jews from France began in summer 1942, Drancy became the main departure point for trains leaving for Auschwitz.

Arrests of Jews in France began in earnest from May 1942.  This was a German policy but arrests were carried out mainly by French police even in the Occupied Zone because in doing so Vichy believed that it was preserving French sovereignty.  In mid-June the Germans demanded a first transport made up of 40 000 Jews from both zones – 40% of them were to be French.  On 2 July Vichy managed to negotiate with the Germans and the quota was restricted only to foreign Jews.  It was agreed that French police would make the arrests.  The round ups in the Occupied Zone came on 16-17 July 1942.  On 16 July 9000 French police arrested nearly 13 000 Jews.  6500 Jews were arrested in the Unoccupied Zone between 26-28 August.

July 1942 was a turning point in Vichy’s anti-Semitism.  Firstly, it drew French authorities in both zones into the Nazi timetable for extermination.  In both the North and the South, officials worked to meet German quotas.  When these quotas were not met in the North, Vichy offered up foreign Jews interned in the South to make up the remainder of the quota.  Secondly, up to July 1942, police had arrested only adult men – it was therefore easy for some French – and some Jews themselves – to believe that these men were being deported to work in Germany.  But in July, the Germans arrested children too.  This was not the Germans’ plan – it was a special request by Pierre Laval.  After all, if the Germans were arresting adults, who would look after the children? Certainly not the French authorities.

In total 36 802 Jews were deported from France between July and December 1942.  Almost all of them were foreign.  Vichy’s post-war apologists claimed that French police co-operation was the price paid for saving French Jews.  Despite the moral dubiousness of this argument it ignores the fact that without French information and manpower the Germans could not have rounded up significant numbers of either foreign or French Jews.  French decision-makers rarely considered the broader implications of German policy or developments in other countries.  The Jews were viewed as expendable, a necessary price for retaining control over French policing.

From the spring of 1943, as the Final Solution intensified, the Germans took over the arrests of Jews in the whole of France.  They also took over the running of Drancy and conditions in the camp actually improved.  French police still participated in the arrests of non-French Jews, but most work was done by the Germans with the help of the Vichy’s Militia.


In 1939, there were about 300 000 Jews in France; 190 000 of them were French and the rest were foreign, mainly eastern European and German refugees.  Recent calculations of the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in France stand at 80 000 if one takes into account the number deported and those that died in French internment camps.  Approximately 24000 deported Jews were French (32%) ad 56 000 were foreign (68%)  Three quarters of arrests were carried out by French police.  Few other semi-independent governments in Nazi Europe were as helpful in this respect as Vichy.

It cannot be denied though that a large proportion of France’s Jewish population survived.  Historian Michael Marrus argues that this can be explained by several factors.  For one thing, conditions in Western Europe in 1940 were different to those in the East.  In Poland, the Germans could begin rounding up and murdering Jews earlier than in France.  The Germans were still unsure of public support in the West.  In any case, their agenda was different.  They were not looking for ‘living space’ in France as they were in Eastern Europe.  France therefore occupied a minor place in the Nazis’ mobilisation against the Jews – before 1942 the Germans were more concerned with excluding Jews from the Occupied Zone than exterminating them.  Another reason for the survival of many Jews in France is that the country was liberated almost a year before the end of the war.  If the Occupation had continued it is likely that more if not all Jews in France would have been deported.  These reasons better explain the survival of many French Jews than the reason cited by Vichy apologists – that the regime protected French Jews.

There is one final question that we must ask: Did Vichy and the French ‘know’ what the Germans had planned for the Jews?  Michael Marrus argues that the question should perhaps be ‘Was Vichy interested?’  There is no evidence that Vichy paid any attention to happenings in other countries or was interested in the ultimate goal of the Nazis’ Europe-wide policy.  Laval told cabinet meetings and foreign diplomats that the Jews were going to a new state in Eastern Europe where they were building an agricultural colony.  He did not press the Germans on whether this was true or not.  The real conclusion then isn’t about whether Vichy knew or not: Vichy did not want to know.


I used several sources to write this essay.  I have removed references for ease of reading.  Below is a bibliography of useful sources on France’s involvement in the Holocaust.  You can find information on this topic too in general historys of 20th century France such as Charles Sowerwine’s France since 1870 and Rod Kedward’s La Vie en Bleu.

Key texts

Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981).

Susan Zucotti, The Holocaust, The French and The Jews (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993)

Jacques Adler, ‘The Jews and Vichy: Reflections on French Historiography’, The Historical Journal 44 (2001), 1065-1082.

Work by Vicki Caron

Vicki Caron ‘The Path to Vichy’ online article

Vicki Caron, ‘The ‘Jewish Question’ from Dreyfus to Vichy’, in Martin S. Alexander (ed.), French History since Napoleon

Vicki Caron, ‘Prelude to Vichy: France and the Jewish Refugees in the Era of Appeasement’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20.1 (1985), 157-176.

Vicki Caron ‘The anti-Semitic revival in France in the 1930s’ Journal of Modern History 70 (1998), 24-73

Other useful works

Shannon L. Fogg, ‘”They Are Undesirables”: Local and National Responses to Gypsies during World War II’, French Historical Studies 31 (2008), 327-358.

Shannon L. Fogg, The Politics of Everyday Life in Vichy France: Foreigners, Undesirables and Strangers (Cambridge: CUP, 2008).

Pim Griffioen and Ron Zeller, ‘Anti-Jewish policy and organization of the deportations in France and the Netherlands, 1940-1944: A comparative study,’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies Winter 2006 20.3, 437-473.

Julian Jackson, The Dark Years: 1940-1944 (OUP), chapter of France and the Jews.

David Lees, ‘Remembering the Vel d’Hiv roundup’ online article


SourceFrenchHistoryOnline Created and maintained by Dr Chris Millington, Swansea University (

Accessed: 27/02/2017

A Lecture on Vichy France, Collaboration and Resistance Lecture by Chris Millington

Vichy France, Collaboration and Resistance : A lecture by Chris Millington for second year undergraduates, 2012

Following the armistice in June 1940, France was divided into several zones: a small zone in the north-east of France known as the ‘forbidden zone’, an Occupied Zone in the North (which included the Atlantic coastline) and an Unoccupied Zone in the South.  An internal border, known as the Demarcation Line, separated the two zones.  Germany wanted to keep the Empire out of Allied hands and Hitler believed the best solution was for France to defend the Empire itself.  The unoccupied zone was therefore technically an independent state.  This zone was known as Vichy France, named after the town where the French government set up its headquarters.  Pétain was head of the Vichy state and he governed with a team of ministers.

The period 1940-1944 is known as the Dark Years in France and not without good reason.  During these years, 650, 000 civilian workers were deported to work in Germany; 75 000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz; 30, 000 French civilians were shot as hostages or members of the Resistance, another 60,000 were sent to concentration camps.

Yet in August 1944, when France was liberated, General Charles de Gaulle, recognised leader of the French forces, was asked to proclaim the restoration of the Republic.  He refused: on the grounds that the Republic had never ceased to exist.  What did he mean?  He meant that Republican France, the ‘true’ France, had always existed – in the form of himself and the Resistance.  Vichy was an abnormality, an aberration – it was ‘not really France’.

According to this history, the horrors inflicted on the French people had been the work of the Germans; Pétain had worked hard to spare the French people from German excesses – he was the shield and de Gaulle had been the sword.  The Resistance movements had incarnated the ‘true’ France and the mass of the population had been behind it.  This is now known as the Gaullist Resistance myth.  In the post-war years, it provided a comforting image of French wartime conduct at a time when national unity was vital to the reconstruction of the country.  Intellectuals, journalists and filmmakers reinforced the myth and it went largely unchallenged until the 1970s.

From the 1970s though, the myth began to crumble.  Films such as Marcel Ophuls The Sorrow and The Pity showed the wartime French to have been selfish and attentiste – which means they preferred to ‘wait and see’ what would happen, rather than resist.  In 1972, American historian Robert Paxton’s book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, shattered the resistance myth for good.  Based on research in French and German archives, Paxton showed that collaboration was not a policy imposed on France, but one that originated in France itself.  Furthermore, Paxton concluded that the majority of French people did little to oppose Vichy; in fact, their very apathy had allowed the regime to remain in place.  The resistance myth was thus turned on its head – the French had not been a nation of resisters but a nation of collaborators.  There was a danger though that one myth would be replaced by another – but since the 1980s a more balanced view of Vichy has emerged, which we’ll look at later.

Today’s lecture will look at the issues of resistance and collaboration in light of this scholarship.


From summer 1940 to November 1942 (when Germany occupied the whole of France), Pétain and his government made a concerted effort to step beyond the armistice and agree a more permanent treaty with Hitler.  Historian Stanley Hoffmann has called this ‘collaboration d’état’ or state collaboration.  State collaboration was informed by the view that Hitler would defeat England, win the war, and that a new German and Nazi order would prevail in Europe.  Vichy therefore needed to get the best deal possible for France.

1)      State collaboration reached its highpoint in May 1941 when France agreed the so-called Protocols of Paris with Germany.  The Protocols were a set of agreements in which France hoped to regain some political powers in return for military concessions to Germany.   Germany wanted access to French military facilities and bases in Syria, so to exploit the Iraqi rebellion against the British.  Meanwhile, France wanted a new era of Franco-German co-operation and political concessions from the occupier.  When the Allies invaded Syria and the Germans no longer needed French bases there, Hitler lost interest in negotiations.

The story of the Protocols of Paris is representative of the pitfalls of state collaboration.  We see a Germany willing to negotiate only when it suited it; and the French overestimating their importance to Hitler because Vichy was desperate to reach a permanent arrangement with Germany.  In reality, Hitler was more concerned with planning the rest of the war than hammering out a French peace treaty.

2)      Collaboration was not totally pragmatic: Certainly there were men in France who were fervent collaborators.  In the occupied zone, committed French fascists vied with each other, and with Vichy, for political influence in Paris.  Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union gave collaboration a further ideological base.

3)      Laval seen after the war as arch collaborator; the evil mastermind behind the policy.  According to the Gaullist resistance myth, Laval was the real force behind collaboration, a shady character who operated without Marshal Pétain’s consent.  Laval was a former deputy and had been prime minister for a time during the thirties.  In Vichy France, Pierre Laval, saw collaboration as part of a long-term strategy of Franco-German reconciliation.  He was powerful at Vichy because his close relationship with the German ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz, meant he had the ear of the Occupier.   As Vichy’s prime minister, in June 1942, Laval infamously stated ‘I desire the victory of Germany because without it Bolshevism would install itself everywhere.’ Yet since the breaking of the resistance myth, historians have shown that Pétain was just as bound up in collaboration as Laval; the Marshal was not an innocent old man.

4)      There were other issues that influenced collaboration.  Vichy went above and beyond what the Germans asked it to do because it hoped to stave off German intervention in French domestic affairs.  The Forced Labour Service is a prime example.  When Vichy failed to meet the target for volunteers, Laval drew up a law in September 1942 that allowed the French government to recruit workers by force.  By the end of the year, the target had been reached.

The story of French relations with Germany between 1940 and 1942 is therefore one of Vichy persistently trying to negotiate with a very indifferent Hitler.  Germany allowed Vichy to believe that France would be a partner in Hitler’s New Order and not just a satellite state.  In reality, the reverse was true.  Vichy therefore grossly overestimated the degree to which France mattered to Hitler.  France was only useful to the extent that Germany could milk the French economy.  In fact, practically the only negotiations the Germans were willing to enter into were economic.  For Hitler, there was no connection between economic and political matters.

By November 1942 one could argue that Vichy had had ‘negative’ success – France had not re-entered the war and the southern zone was still free.  This state of affairs was shattered when the Americans landed in North Africa on 8 November 1942.  At 7 a.m on 11 November 1942, German troops crossed the demarcation line.  France was now occupied in its entirety.


Let’s now move on to the resistance.  When considering the resistance, a distinction must be made between Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Free French’ movement, which was based in London, and the resistance movements based in France itself.  They were separate entities and though their histories begin to converge by the end of 1941, they nevertheless remained distinct and there was sometimes tension between the two.

De Gaulle arrived in London on 17 June 1940, the day after Paul Reynaud’s government fell.  On 18 June he broadcast to the French nation via the BBC – his speech is on the handout.

He stated that France had lost the battle but not the war.  The government had given into panic and, forgetting its honour, had delivered the country to servitude.   This speech is taken as the beginning of the French resistance – it has acquired huge symbolic importance, and a plaque with part of the speech on it can be found today under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, near to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Yet in June 1940, few French actually knew who de Gaulle was, let alone listened to his speech.  In fact, though de Gaulle claimed to embody French sovereignty, he had attracted no great political personalities to London and the French Empire had largely remained loyal to Vichy.

De Gaulle’s relations with the Allies were difficult.  Only the British government immediately recognised him as leader of what they called the ‘Free French’.  The British vetted all speeches made to France via the BBC – de Gaulle was permitted to speak for five minutes each evening.  If Britain wanted to punish de Gaulle they would withdraw this privilege.  Following a disastrous Anglo-French attack on the Senegalese port of Dakar in September 1940, Britain froze de Gaulle out of all military planning involving France.

But what of contact between de Gaulle and France itself?  As well as de Gaulle’s nightly BBC broadcasts, the Free French co-operated with the newly created British Special Operations Executive.  By the end of 1941 the Free French had sent 29 agents to France.  Yet even 18 months into the war, the Free French and de Gaulle knew virtually nothing about the resistance within France.

This did not deter de Gaulle from claiming to speak for all French.  In September 1941 de Gaulle set up a National Committee with himself at its head – it began to take on the appearance of a provisional government, though it was not recognised as such.  Furthermore, on 2 October 1941 de Gaulle announced that he was directing resistance in France.  The problem was that this was patently not the case.  He had no means of applying his orders in France.  Lack of information and contact meant that the French resistance was not integrated into any strategy that the Free French had.

In 1940, the resistance in France was disjointed and diverse; there were many different groups.  Before mid-1942, few people had probably heard of the resistance movements.  It is only in the second half of 1942 that we see the first signs of masspublic disaffection from Vichy.  On 14 July 1942, for example, the resistance movements requested the French demonstrate in the street wearing the national colours.  66 demonstrations took place, two-thirds of them in the south.  This was the first mass public demonstration of discontent.

One of the problems confronting resisters was the division of the country.  Apart from the practical obstacle of the demarcation line, the different conditions in the Occupied and Unoccupied zones complicated matters.  It was much more difficult for groups and newspapers to survive in the German-occupied North than in the South.  In the north the resistance was fragmented and groups found it difficult to produce propaganda.  But, in a sense, the need for propaganda in the north was less urgent.  The French living in the Occupied Zone didn’t need to be made aware of the conditions of war – the German presence sufficed for this.

But in Vichy France, the resistance had to work harder to break public complacency because, if many French were anti-German, fewer were anti-Vichy.  Even some early resisters were sympathetic to the regime and to Pétain.  Only by the end of 1941 did the southern resistance movements come to realise that the underground war against Germany necessitated a form of civil war against Vichy.

The first tangible contacts between the Resistance in France and de Gaulle in London came through a man named Jean Moulin.

Moulin first met de Gaulle in London on 25 October 1941.  He provided the general with information and suggested that resistance movements could make a military contribution to the war effort.  De Gaulle sent Moulin back to France to persuade the Southern movements to recognise de Gaulle as their leader and co-ordinate their meagre military forces under Free French control.  In return the Resistance would receive material aid from London.

Resistance leaders may not have wanted to bring their movements under the general but they desperately needed funds and arms.  Some resisters were suspicious that de Gaulle was not committed to the restoration of democracy in France.  To reassure them, the general wrote a ‘Declaration to the Resistance Movements’ of June 1942 in which he stressed his commitment to democracy and promised elections after the Liberation. On 13 July 1942, the British agreed that the Free French now represented all French opposed to the armistice – inside and outside France.

There was a section of the resistance that would never recognise de Gaulle as its leader – the Communists.  Daladier had outlawed the French communist party (PCF) in August 1939, forcing it underground.  Because of the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, the PCF followed a neutral line until June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  It denounced the war as an imperialist venture and condemned both Vichy and the German occupier in equal measure.

After June 1941, Moscow ordered French communists to disrupt factory production, commit acts of sabotage and organise armed groups.    Activists assassinated German officers and soldiers, sometimes in broad daylight.  But this was not the beginning of an armed insurrection.  These murders were limited to a handful of men who possessed the necessary weapons and strong stomach for killing.  This paramilitary action made them different from other resistance groups, including de Gaulle,  who condemned communist anti-German violence as it often led to the shooting of hostages.

Even by mid-1941 most non-communist resistance movements still opposed violence.  Rather they encouraged boycotts of collaborationist press and the sabotage of industry.

The tactics of the communist resisters raises an interesting question: What counted as an act of resistance?  I would suggest that when we think of the resistance we probably think of the tactics the communists used – assassinations, attacks on trains, the sabotage of communications.  But the underground press was one of the most important forms of resistance.  Newspapers served as a source of information and of moral support, urging the population to help patriots and containing debates about the future of France. These papers were not mass produced and it’s impossible to know how many people read the newspapers.  In some cases only a handful were printed.  They were be left on train carriages, on park benches or in the foyers of apartment blocks.  People read them and then left them for someone else.

The Ordinary French

So far then we’ve looked only at what we may term ‘activists’ of collaboration and resistance – that is, the people who were actually involved collaborating with the Germans and those who were members of resistance movements.  But what about the ordinary French, the mass of the population?  Historians have disagreed about how to judge the actions of the ordinary French.

According to Robert Paxton, immediately after the defeat, the French public were in shock.  The growing hardship that French civilians encountered in daily life meant little attention was paid to politics.  Most people were worried more about getting by from day-to-day.  Such apathy gave Vichy a broadly compliant public support base.  In the early years of the war, anti-German feeling was not as widespread as one might expect – and it was actually weaker than anti-Allied feeling, especially after the Allies bombed parts of France.  It was only in 1943, when the Forced Labour Service began to affect many French that the tide of public opinion turned definitively against Vichy and Germany.  Paxton estimates that 2% of the adult male population were resisters, so about 400,000 French.  He estimates that 2 million people, about 10% of the population, read the underground newspapers.

Consequently, Paxton concludes than that the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Frenchmen, though they longed to be rid of the Germans, were not prepared to do it by violence. Paxton’s most controversial claim is that anyone in France who did not actively oppose the regime through the Resistance was essentially a collaborator in a ‘functional’ sense – a sort of collaboration by default

The second historian I shall look at is Philippe Burrin.  Burrin rejects the term collaboration and favours ‘accommodation’.  He argues that from winter 1940 most of the French population wanted victory for England and were sceptical or hostile to the policy of collaboration.  This rejection of collaboration though was neither general nor immediate.  The French were grateful to Vichy for sparing them total German occupation and they believed that the government was working to improve their living conditions.  By spring 1941 though, the postal censorship authorities reported that the public was ‘hardly favourable at all to Vichy’ and even affectionate feelings for Pétain were declining.  This feeling grew during 1941 with the German attack on the Soviet Union and increasingly repressive measures against acts of resistance, such as hostage taking.  By spring 1942, Vichy surveillance reports showed that  ‘Down with Pétain propaganda’ was no longer a rarity and that images of the Marshal were no longer greeted with applause in cinemas.  In June 1942, Laval’s wish for a German victory was met with quote ‘intense emotion’ and ‘general stupefaction’.182  By October 1942, many French had come to believe that there was no longer any justification for the Vichy regime.

Burrin concludes that for the period of June 1940-November 1942 it is reasonable to suggest that between 1/5-1/6 of ALL French ‘favoured collaboration’ – so between 6.6 million and 8 million.  However, Burrin makes the important point that support for collaboration was not continuous, coherent or committed from all people.  Most believed that collaboration was an expedient measure.  They were not confident in an English victory, therefore, if collaboration could win concessions for France then why not? A lot of French simply wanted to ‘get through it all’.187

Finally historian John Sweets has criticised historians such as Paxton for replacing ‘the myth of the nation of resisters’ with another myth – that of the ‘nation of collaborators’.  Sweets argues that the popularity of the Vichy regime declined from 1941, much earlier than Paxton suggests(1943).  Sweets questions Paxton’s definitions of collaboration and resistance – in short did apathy really mean collaboration, and was resistance limited to the Resistance movements themselves? Clandestine newspapers and graffiti probably didn’t win people over to the resistance but they would have reinforced anti-Vichy and anti-German feeling.  If Paxton argues that the apathy of the French public created an atmosphere that was favourable to Vichy, Sweets counters that in 1943-44 public opinion was overwhelmingly favourable to the resistance.

Sweets also reminds us that French reactions during 1940-1944 were diverse – they involved a multitude of daily choices over which one had limited control. Furthermore, should we limit the definition to members of active resistance groups?  What about the men and women who contributed to the resistance in a meaningful way but who were not on membership lists, who were not killed, who were not deported or arrested?  Sweets gives several examples.  First, the village priests who sheltered resistance fighters from the Germans.  Second, the men and women who gave work, food and shelter to resisters?  Third, the doctors who signed false certificates of physical incapacity for men called to work in Germany. Fourth, workers who while working in factories producing goods for Germany produced faulty parts for German airplane motors.  These people were not ‘official’ resisters but their contribution was not negligible.  Sweets argues then that what is required is ‘…a reformulation of the definition of resistance is required’.


At the end of this lecture, I stress several key points to students:

1) We must bear in mind that the opportunities for collaboration and resistance were affected by one’s location.  To resist in the North was much more difficult due to the presence of German soldiers and the German authorities.  On the other hand, in the South, though we could argue that resistance groups had more room for manoeuvre, it was more difficult to convince ordinary citizens to resist.  This was because the Occupier was not visible (at least before November 1942) and many French still held an affection for Petain – and one question we might ask is ‘Was resistance to the Germans the same as resistance to Vichy?’

2) If geography affected collaboration and resistance, then so did chronology.  When examining all things to do with Vichy we must consider the date, and with it the course of both the war and the Vichy regime. Developments in the wider war affected France.  For example, it was only after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that the French communist party passed to active resistance.  Before then, it had been hamstrung because Germany and the USSR were technically allies following the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939.  As for Vichy, the regime in 1944 was much different to the regime in 1940.  As the war progressed Vichy developed a much more repressive apparatus, the most visible expression of which was the paramilitary Milice under Joseph Darnand.  The Milice was charged with hunting down resisters and often executed them without trial.  This represented an escalation in the war between the resistance and Vichy, with evident consequences for resistance groups.

3) Collaboration and resistance were not monolithic.  We must remember that there were many different resistance groups even if it is tempting to think of the resistance as a single movement under de Gaulle.  Each group had its own agenda and politics – and the communists never accepted de Gaulle as their leader.  We must bear in mind too that there were different types of collaboration, from Vichy to the Parisian fascists – what did each want?

Finally, if we no longer accept that the French resisted en masse, is there a danger of replacing the resistance myth with a collaboration myth?  It is worth asking ourselves how satisfactory the terms ‘resistance’ and ‘collaboration’ actually are.  When historians argue that the French resisted or collaborated, should we ask whether the people at the time actually understood the choice between the two?  Was it even a question of choosing one or the other?  The Vichy years were complex – they should be viewed in shades of grey, not black and white.


Lecturer Comments:

‘I gave this lecture on my course ‘From War to Revolution: France 1914-1968’ at Swansea University this year.  The text below is exactly the text that I used in class – so bear in mind it was intended to be read aloud.  If you’d like to know more about Vichy France’s role in the Holocaust, you can find an essay [here].’

‘NB: I have removed references from the document to save space.  In writing the lecture I referred to several key works, all of which are required readings for the student of Vichy.  They include: John F. Sweets, Choices in Vichy France (NY/London: OUP, 1994); Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (NY: Columbia University Press, 1972); Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 1940-44 (Oxford, 2001); Stanley Hoffmann, ‘Collaborationism in France during World War Two’, Journal of Modern History, 40 (1968), 375-395; John F. Sweets “Hold that Pendulum!Redefining Fascism, Collaborationism and Resistance in France” French Historical Studies 15:4 (Fall 1988): 731-58; Fabian Lemmes, ‘Collaboration in wartime France, 1940-1944’, European Review of History 15.2 (2007), 157-177; R. Vinen, The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation; R. Kedward, Resistance in Vichy France (Oxford, 1978); R. Kedward, In Search of the Maquis (Oxford, 1994); Philippe Burrin, Living with Defeat – also published as France under the Germans.’


SourceFrenchHistoryOnline Created and maintained by Dr Chris Millington, Swansea University (

Accessed: 27/02/2017


Aurélie Fest-Guidon • Lacombe Lucien de Louis Malle. Histoire d’une polémique, ou polémique sur l’Histoire ?

Aurélie Fest-Guidon studies the influence Lacombe Lucien had on the perception of WWII, particularly the notions of Collaboration and French culpability in the Holocaust. First, she looks at the context in which the movie was created. Second, she examines how the main character Lucien evolved throughout the different scripts. Finally, she analyses how and why the film was heavily criticised and gives her interpretation of the problematic reception it encountered.

  • Origins of the film

The origins of the film can be traced back to two main events the film director (Louis Malle) experienced.

First, in 1974 when Louis Malle went to Mexico, he witnessed student protests in response to the presidency of Luis Echeverria (in office 1970 to 1976 and a CIA colloaborator). Louis Malle wrote a script from this experience, titled The Faulcon. However, he had to give it up because of the Mexican government’s opposition.

Second, during his trip to Algeria in 1962, Louis Malle met a soldier in charge of torturing prisoners. The film director was shocked by how banal the task was for this soldier.

Furthermore, in 1969, a young marine was decorated for his actions. After the ceremony, it was found out that same marine participated to war crimes. This further alarmed Malle.

These events participated in building a strong reflexion around the notion of responsibility and banality of evil.

Louis Malle chose to shoot the film in the south of France probably because of his traumatic memory of the war and the occupation, a memory which strongly inspired another one of his film, Au Revoir les Enfants.

  • Lucien Lacombe

Louis Malle chose to screate the scenario with a young writer, Patrick Modiano. Modiano was known for his ambiguous treatment of the Nazi occupation in France. He helped reduce the violent scenes, turned the relations between persecutors and victims into something more complex and worked on the characters to make them seem more obscure. Indeed, the motivations of Lucien or the members of the Jewish family are quite opaque.

Furthermore, Louis Malle chose to open the movie with a quote from the Americano-Spanish philosopher and writer George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it”, proof of the allegoric dimension of the movie.

  • Reception

The media coverage of the movie was extensive. At least 300 articles and shows mentioned it. The allegoric meaning of the film was completely put aside. Critics were centred around the political controversy the movie generated because of the representation it gave of WWII. Each political party no one agreed about the movie, and similarly for the different media which covered it. Inside the same newspaper you could find an article stating the movie was a masterpiece and another calling it trash. Only the extreme-left was uniformly opposed to the movie.

The critics highlighted three different concerns: (1) the topic was taboo because Charles de Gaulle promoted ‘national reconciliation’ and the film clearly went against that ; (2) the way Louis Malle portrays French people is too partial and ambiguous ; (3) the film targeted the bourgeoisie, not the people (Louis Malle was himself part of a bourgeois family).

  • A subversive movie ?

Lacombe Lucien questions the official memory of WWII. According to that official revisited version of history, all French people were pretty much resistants and collaboration between French government and Nazi regime did not exist.

In the movie though, the Resistance is weak, formed of isolated individuals who fail to achieve any kind of purpose. On the other hand, people who collaborate lack any ideological motivation. The realism of the movie participated to its controversial reception.

The narration is circular, highlighting how evil does not leave any trace whether it is from a victim or an oppressor point of view, as if it were not that important.

Finally, Lacombe Lucien evokes Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, highlighting the absence of any form of ideological or political conscience. This raises an important question regarding the responsibility of individuals. Indeed, is it really possible to condemn Lucien when he does not have sufficient intellect to make any conscious choice ?

  • Conclusion

The reception of the movie Lacombe Lucien focused on its historical meaning when the strength of the film imagined by Louis Malle relied on its allegorical sense. Indeed, the origins of the movie and the transposition of the scenario into different historical and political contexts proves the importance of its allegoric dimension. The heavy criticisms this movie encountered emphasise the complexity of the conflicts between memory and History within a given society.

To have access to the original thesis click on the following link. The original version is in French.

Looking at research questions

Lacombe Lucien by Louis Malle 1974

We have decided to work on representations of communities through paradox.

We are now looking at several subthemes related to this idea:

  • Responsibility

Communities are usually theoretically constructed on the concept of responsibility. In Lacombe Lucien however, responsibility is controversial. Lucien is not defined as an intelligent individual. It raises the question of whether intellectual capacities define or not your responsibility in a matter. Can someone who does not have the intellectual abilities to take a decision be considered as responsible for his/her actions?

  • Memory and post-memory

The myth of a unified France resisting the Nazi regime is completely questioned by the way in which the characters are depicted. Lucien, who is part of the German police, does not have any ideological convictions, neither do the other characters in the movie. Thus, there are two main paradoxes. First, Lucien’s commitment to the German police whereas he actually has no ideological opinion about his actions. Second, the Gaullist myth of a unified resistant France (very popular when the movie was released) which is completely questioned in the film by putting an emphasis on the banality of evil. Everyone could and is acting for the benefit of the enemy or at the very least not against him.

  • A disunified critical reception

In her essay Lacombe Lucien de Louis Malle. Histoire d’une polémique, ou polémique sur l’Histoire ?, Aurélie Fest-Guidon highlights to what extent the critical reception of the movie was completely heterogeneous even among already formed and strong political groups. In January 1974, Le Monde, for instance, gave a very good appraisal of the film and one month after highlighted the political controversy the film entailed. It is a very good example of a rare phenomenon: a single newspaper taking different standpoints about the same movie. Within political groups, people had completely different opinions about Lacombe Lucien apart from the extreme left which remained highly opposed to Louis Malle’s movie.

Meeting Week 5

We began by talking about the scene we have chosen – Marie the waitress seduces Lucien, invites him to her room and talks about her pro-American sympathies. We then discussed how this fits into the larger themes surrounding the film’s production and reception. Firstly, the film is a product of post-memory. The generation of people who were a part of the war ignored or rejected all accusations of collaboration or support for Nazism, and it is only their children, who have no first-hand experience of the war, who are becoming more self-conscious of the stains on national history and want to bring it to light. Thus, the reality the film highlights is different from the reality that people remember, or want to remember.

Secondly, Astrid pointed out that the 70s were a time of the freeing of morals, including the relaxation of stigma about having sex. It could be argued that this period is specifically represented by the upstairs of the Gestapo headquarters: this is the private sphere filled with bedrooms and bathrooms, where all the immoral and morally questionable acts such as sex, torture and murder happen. Hence, we discussed the significance of the bathroom. It recurs multiple times throughout the film and is the location of Lucien’s more intimate encounters with subversives and Jewish people. Thus, a place that is supposed to be used for cleaning and cleansing is repurposed into one where all the dirtiest acts (both literally and metaphorically) are committed.

We then talked about the scene with Lucien and Marie in the context of power dynamics and the physical space they occupy. While Lucien is very forceful, dominating and abusive towards France despite being, allegedly, in love with her, Marie is the one who seduces Lucien and guides the conversation and action. We thought it was interesting that while at first she physically towers over him as he is sitting on her bed and she is standing, she physically lowers herself onto her knees so that he is the one looking down at her.

We concluded that the upstairs of the headquarters is symbolic of paradoxes – Lucien’s morals, the belonging to and exclusion from community… Everything is a paradox including the concept of community.

We then talked about the character of Lucien. The film’s reception was completely centred on the representation of World War II and no one mentioned Malle’s allegorical intentions – the general banalisation of evil and responsibility of the individual within the national context. If Lucien didn’t have the intellectual capacity to determine right from wrong, is he still responsible for all the bad things he has done? We suggested that this dilemma differs depending on the type of community via which it is discussed: the patriarchal where the leader is responsible for everything, or the democratic peer group where decisions are made collectively and responsibility is shared.

We decided that our research question, to become more focused in the future, will be about the construction of community through paradox in the filmic representation of Vichy France.

Tasks for next meeting:

  • Background reading about the discussed topics
  • Other questions to consider
  • Narrow down research question

Lacombe Lucien – possible scenes

Lucien and France dance – Lucien blackmails France into going to a party at the Gestapo headquarters with him. None of the members of the French gestapo have any problems with fraternising, dancing or making advances on France – in fact, the only person who explicitly expresses any negative sentiments towards her is Marie, who, even though previously proclaiming to be pro-American, goes into an anti-jewish rage upon seeing Lucien and France dancing together. This raises the question of whether anti-semitism arose out of real ideological beliefs or much more banal sentiments like jealousy over a boy you like dancing with another girl. Also interesting is the wider theme of the portrayal of women – there are only four in the entire film and the two who were likeable, France the victim and Marie who until this point was on the right side of history, are pitted against each other. After this, Lucien takes advantage of France in a bathroom in which, days before, he saw his teacher being tortured. Is Lucien’s moral stance supposed to be representative of the majority of the population or is he just a psychopath? Furthermore, rape is often used as a metaphor for the invasion of a country by brute foreign powers – what does this say about France, since in the film the Jewish girl’s name is literally France, and she is attacked not by the Germans but by her French suitor.

The partisan – Lucien is sent upstairs to guard a partisan being tortured (in the same bathroom as the previous events.) The partisan keeps calling him kid and tells him he doesn’t look like a thug, like the rest of the collaborators. The scene could be seen as representative of the motives of all Nazi supporters and collaborators as Lucien keeps constantly repeating the phrase “I don’t like being talked down to” in reply. This suggest that Lucien only joined the Gestapo because he was ostracised from every single other community he had tried to be a part of prior to this one. Throughout the scene he plays with powderpuffs and draws on the prisoner’s face with lipstick, which shows him as childish and the lighting – the lamp and the shadows it casts, can be seen a mockery of a classic bad cop interrogation scene. This is ironic since Lucien is definitely not a bad cop character, yet, his anger management issues make him just as dangerous – as France had experienced first hand. The fact that after Gestapo base is attacked Lucien shows no concern in helping to defend it and instead hides suggests that he has no real dedication to the Gestapo and no political standpoint on the issues in question and simply goes along with whatever suits him best.

The shooting – Lucien is attacking a resistance base with his comrades, then goes to France’s house to boast about it to her dad. While Lucien sees himself as part of the team, he is portrayed as the village fool of the Gestapo. Within the film, while there is a lot of animal violence on screen and we see Lucien brutally murder many chickens and rabbits, apart from one ‘real’ (German) Gestapo, all the human deaths happen offscreen. In this particular scene, while everyone else is busy shooting at their respective enemies, Lucien gets bored and starts killing rabbits instead. Are the animals supposed to symbolically represent the brutality of the murders that would be too drastic to be shown, or does this suggest that Lucien is so primitive and singleminded that for him killing people and animals is the same, or he is so obsessed with pointlessly shooting rabbits that he doesn’t notice his boss getting shot. Afterwards, Lucien arrives uninvited at France’s house in the middle of the night and makes gun noises at her dad and tells him that his friends the Bolsheviks got his boss. If he is mindlessly recycling all the derogatory things he’s even heard without understanding them, where does his individual responsibility for the discrimination lie?

Other general issues:

  • What is the significance of the dog? He is constantly lounging on the stairs between the public sphere of parties and private sphere of torture and rape.
  • One of the French Gestapo is black
  • Biopics are usually made about national heroes, not the wrongdoings of the “everyman”.

Lacombe Lucien: Summary, main themes and reception


The movie Lacombe Lucien takes place in 1944. The main character – Lucien Lacombe – is a seventeen years old peasant who lives in the south of France. At the beginning of the film, Lucien tries to join the Resistance but the local Resistance leader, who is Lucien’s former school teacher – refuses to let him do so because of his young age.

Following a series of coincidences, Lucien finds himself in the local headquarters of the French Gestapo. Without even realizing it, Lucien denounces his former teacher and realizing he could be helpful, men from the French Gestapo decide to recruit him. It is worth mentioning however that this recruitment process is done in a really insidious way. Indeed, the more Lucien spends time at the French Gestapo headquarters, the deeper he becomes involved in the movement.

Lucien enjoys being a member of the French Gestapo considering it is a huge step up from his position at the bottom of the social ladder (being the son of farmers).

However, things get complicated when Lucien meets France Horn. Indeed, France is Jewish. She lives with her father – Albert Horn – and her grandmother – Bella Horn. The family escaped Paris which is occupied by the Nazis to hide in the south of France which is supposed to be a zone free of any occupation. Albert Horn tries to use his connections to get a member of the French Gestapo to help his family flee France to go to Spain.

In the meantime, Lucien falls in love with France and becomes more and more involved in the daily life of the family. Albert Horn does not seem to approve of the feelings Lucien has for his daughter but he is tied up by his fear of deportation. Eventually, he realizes that his contact had not had any intention of helping his family flee to Spain and, desperately, he gives himself up to the French Gestapo.

A group of people from the Resistance attack the Gestapo headquarters and kill a lot of people. As a revenge, the Gestapo sends German soldiers to arrest many Jewish, among which France and her grandmother. Lucien participates in the arrest but, last minute, he takes the decision to kill the German soldier and escape with France and her grandmother.

They take refuge in an abandoned cottage in the countryside. The film ends with scenes from the cottage of Lucien, France and Bella with very few dialogues and images of the characters living a wild life in a sort of rural and contemplating atmosphere.

At the end of the movie, a final message on a black screen indicates that Lucien was captured and executed by the Resistance a few weeks after when the country was liberated by the allies.


  • Violence

At the beginning of the film, violence is present in almost every scene. Lucien kills a lot of animals out of pure cruelty and seems to enjoy it. The movie also highlights how violence is trivial and part of day-to-day life at this time in the French countryside. One scene, in particular, is really striking. Lucien runs after a chicken and kills it. The scene lasts for several minutes. Around Lucien, children are playing and some women are plucking chickens, nobody seems to notice what Lucien is doing, proof that violence is a usual part of the day-to-day life.

As the movie goes on, violence increases considerably while becoming less visible on screen. Lucien does not kill animals anymore, he kills humans. However, it is never shown, Lucien simply brags about it to the Jewish family. Several scenes of rape are suggested but again never shown.

There might be two reasons for that. First, violence increases so much that it becomes unbearable to watch for the audience. Second, it might be a choice of the film director to increase the impact violence has on the audience throughout the movie. Indeed, when violence is suggested throughout the movie, we can only imagine what is happening, thus our imagination turns violence into something maybe more serious and powerful than it would have been if the scenes were shown.

  • Community through exclusion

Another important theme in the movie is the construction of a sense of community through exclusion. The characters define themselves in opposition to others. For instance, Lucien is an intruder when he first meets the French Gestapo. Then, when facing the Jewish family, he describes himself as someone from the ‘German police force’. Finally, at the end of the movie, when the German soldier arrests France Horn and Bella Horn, Lucien becomes part of France and Bella’s community by killing the soldier.

In the same way, France’s sense of belonging changes throughout the movie. When she first meets Lucien, she is a French citizen, as opposed to Lucien being part of the German police. Then, Lucien takes her to a party at the French Gestapo headquarters and there she is called ‘Jewish’ by a French woman. Finally, during the last scenes of the movie, when they are in the abandoned cottage, she is clearly defined as a young girl as opposed to her grandmother.

  • Grey zone

Finally, the last theme I wanted to highlight is the importance of the grey zone. In Lacombe Lucien, very few characters are clearly part of the Resistance or part of the French Gestapo.

Lucien is supposed to be part of the French Gestapo but he falls in love with a Jewish girl. France is Jewish but she goes to a party at the French Gestapo headquarters and has a relationship with Lucien who is part of the German police. Albert Horn is Jewish and desperately wants to escape the country to protect his family but, as a tailor, he agrees to make suits for people from the French Gestapo and does not prevent Lucien from raping his daughter and invading their privacy by imposing himself in their home. Finally, the grandmother who seems to be clearly against the Gestapo and German occupation, still tacitly agrees to be saved by Lucien when the German soldier comes to deport France and her. Furthermore, even if she does not talk to Lucien during the whole movie in order to express her disagreement, she still cooks meals for him and by that tacitly agrees for him to be in her home.

These are only a few examples of the complicated reality this movie highlights.


The reception of the movie was highly problematic. The main character – Lucien – was qualified as a “dumb bastard” by Jean Delmas, a well-known film critic. His reaction is a good example of the extent to which the movie gave rise to a lot of moral criticisms.

The film director (Louis Malle) was accused of being indulgent towards the main character. And, this is not surprising. Twenty years before Lacombe Lucien, the film director Alain Resnais had been forced to mask – from one of his movie – the kepi of a French policeman standing in the Pithiviers internment camp to prevent people from realising that the French police collaborated with the Nazi regime.

Moreover, apart from the moral criticisms, there were also several political criticisms directed to the movie. Indeed, Lacombe Lucien questions the official standpoint French government took after the war, a storyline according to which French people were all against the Nazi regime and all took part in the Resistance.