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.