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.

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.