Tangled in the Garden of Good and Evil
The most widely acclaimed TV series ever about the Nazi occupation of France is a relentless epic with little use for the familiar images of craven collaborators and selfless resisters. Un village français focuses on a fictional rural community that endures a tightening vise of German control for more than four years. The villagers live far away from black-and-white tropes. Even a ruthless Nazi official eludes the usual monochrome. The humans are all too human.
Un village averaged about 3.4 million French viewers during 72 episodes between 2009 and 2017. The dramatic series has also aired in upward of 40 countries, according to producers. Now gaining an audience in the United States via online platforms (under its English title A French Village), Un village is far afield from routine US media assumptions about bright lines between good and evil.
From the start of the series, when German troops suddenly arrive in mid-June 1940, the choices for locals are bad and keep getting worse. Un village is riddled with dilemmas that often go from painful to insoluble. The drama’s creators aimed “to bring some shades of grey to the public memory of World War 2 in France,” historian Marjolaine Boutet wrote; they had “the ambition to evoke an empathetic response from the audience towards every character”—while bypassing the timeworn formula of “collaborators as villains and Resistance fighters as heroes.” Based on solid historical research, the poignant and often heartbreaking script comes alive with a superb ensemble cast in more than 20 major roles. The result is a dramatic tour de force that undermines Manichean views of the world.
After watching the 63 hours of Un village français, I was eager to interview its head scriptwriter, Frédéric Krivine. We met on a rainy Paris morning at a café not far from Place de la République. My first question: “How and why did you want to make a Nazi human?”
Krivine, who is Jewish, responded with a fleeting quip—“It’s a good Jewish story”—and quickly turned serious. “A good show, especially a show to last for a while, needs to have characters who are really representative of the complexity of human nature,” he said. “Otherwise, you mustn’t use them.” Nazis, he went on, “were human beings, with desires and problems,” at the same time that “in another point of view, they were kind of monsters.”
The main Nazi character in Un village is a powerful intelligence officer whose romantic charm and steely wit coexist with willingness to torture and execute if necessary to get the job done. I asked Krivine whether there was a message in the mixture.
“People who do horrible things are human beings,” he said. “We have to find a way to talk about them without hiding what they do and without treating them as nonhuman people, nonhuman beings. They are human beings; like us they belong to, we are in, the same species, human species…. It’s humans who kill now everywhere in the world where people are killed. It’s because they are human beings that we have problems—because if they were just extraterrestrial or monsters we could just erase them.”
Un village is an intricate counterpoint to Marcel Ophüls’s landmark 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which left many viewers with the broad-brush impression that occupied France was virtually a nation of collaborators, except for a few heroes. Krivine balks at such sweeping categories. In his script, some of the resisters are unable to resist their own egotism, opportunism, dogmatism, or lethally displaced rage. The purpose of the plot points is to engender not cynicism but realism.
Overall, Krivine commented, most people are apt to remain bystanders. In the case of wartime France, an overwhelming majority of the population were neither resisters nor collaborators and didn’t do anything, “bad or good.” (Meanwhile, many more French citizens cooperated with the occupiers than resisted them.) When I asked about human tendencies to go along with evils, Krivine replied that “it’s a very complex matter,” and then swiftly reframed my question this way: “Of what is made indifference, and what are the consequences of indifference?”
Krivine brought up two current examples. He pointed out that several million people have died of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade—yet life-saving medicines exist and could be delivered for use in a far-reaching program. “But we don’t do it.” Krivine then spoke of how snipers in the Israeli military had recently been killing Palestinians along the Gaza border. Yet scant opposition came from the Israeli public.
When I remarked that such cases are forms of collaboration by the majority, Krivine demurred. “I don’t feel it as collaboration,” he said. “But it’s not nothing.” When I suggested the word “complicity,” he differed again, and said: “People don’t react when they don’t have the horror in their eyes.”
During the first year of the occupation, the tightening repression of Jews caused little critical response from the French public, he said. It was only when police began to separate Jewish parents and their children in 1942 that a widespread negative reaction from the population set in. German authorities took note and started to implement similar policies more discreetly; the public concern dissipated.
Near the close of Un village français, two scenes notably bring the past into the present.
After barely eluding the dragnets of Vichy and German forces, Rita and Ezechiel escape to Palestine. But, contrary to boilerplate story lines, the Jewish couple doesn’t get a happy ending in the Promised Land. On a desert road one day in 1948, they come under attack from Palestinians; when Rita expresses bafflement at the ambush, Ezechiel tells her that Jewish settlers have recently massacred Palestinian families in a village called Deir Yassin. More than one layer of tragedy hangs in the air.
The postwar trajectory of the central Nazi character—Heinrich Müller, the top SD (Sicherheitsdienst, or Security Service) intelligence official in the town—also goes against the familiar grain. As German forces retreat from advancing Allies in the late summer of 1944, Müller deserts with his French lover in an unsuccessful effort to reach Switzerland. Soon the American military captures Müller and discovers his identity. Later, when he resurfaces in the series, the year is 1960, the country is Paraguay, and—as a CIA operative—Müller is overseeing a torture session. The goal is to extract information from a woman who is part of a guerrilla insurgency against a fascistic regime being propped up by the US government.
With both narrative twists, so different than what we’re apt to see in US mass entertainment, I asked Krivine: What’s the big idea?
“The idea was,” he said, “we need to show the long-distance consequences of an event like occupation. And it was interesting to show one guy in Paraguay in the sixties. And the Jews who escaped—it was so for Rita and Ezechiel a narrow escape, they were survivors, and then they’re in another place, in another story. The idea was to say: there is no ending to that kind of story.”
The next day, I crossed a bridge over the Seine and kept walking toward an appointment with the Nazi intelligence officer Heinrich Müller—or so it almost seemed, against all rational thought, because the chilling portrayal of that character in Un village français demands the suspension of disbelief, willing or otherwise. As I hurried toward our rendezvous, there were moments when I couldn’t help wondering whether Müller’s icy fascist gaze might confront me at the little café where we were to meet.
Richard Sammel greeted me with a smile and a wave as he came through the door, carrying a motorcycle helmet in the other hand. I’d read that (like Krivine) he was born about 15 years after the end of the Second World War, that he speaks several languages fluently in addition to his native German, and that he has acted widely since the early 1990s. Concentrating on his big role in Un village for much of a decade must have absorbed a lot of psychological energy. I wondered what insights he might share after “being” a Nazi for so long.
Early in our conversation, I mentioned the assumption that there’s nothing human about really bad people like Nazi officials.
“That’s the biggest mistake you can make,” Sammel said. Moments later he was citing Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, “where you actually found out that Eichmann was a completely normal guy.” High-ranking Nazi officers “were wonderful fathers and wonderful husbands and actually very tender,” he added, “which would not fit at all with this common idea that they’re all brutal sadists.” Nazis were “normal people who turned into murder machines.”
Soon Sammel brought up the famous experiment that Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began in 1961 (the same year as Adolf Eichmann’s trial for overseeing large-scale Nazi crimes against humanity). The professor found it easy to “make people torture other people, for the benefit of science. And they go until three times administrating a potential lethal electrical charge on another person, who is an actor who mimes the pain, but still—those people do not know it.”
What about mass entertainment that, like so much nationalist rhetoric in the United States, thrives on depicting people as all good or all bad? “I guess in terms of catharsis, I get the Hollywood recipe,” Sammel said. “It’s complete crap. But it’s an ideology that pumps us up. It will not help society grow.”
“If we come to understand that people who are ‘bad’ have some good qualities,” I said, “then maybe also we would be confronted that people who we know are ‘us’ and good might have some really bad qualities.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” he replied. “Isn’t it like that in America? You are the only society in the world who have only good guys. How amazing for you. But then explain to me how come that you are the very nation who have the biggest rate of people imprisoned. Tell me about that—if you are so good, how come? You tell me. You are believing in shit. Excuse me, to say that.”
He went on: “How come that you do not understand—I mean, it’s not [only] you, it’s even Europe—you bomb the Middle East 30 years and then you are kind of surprised that there is a refugee movement, people go out, or a terrorist movement even. Every fucking terrorist movement that was born in the Middle East was funded primarily in the beginning initially from us. They have our weapons because we gave them to them. So we play the fucking game and then it gets out of control. So the bad game is not started by them, it’s started by us. And now we blame it on them.”
Sammel grew up in West Germany, near Heidelberg. During childhood, he saw horrific footage from concentration camps. “I got to know all those documentaries the American soldiers filmed when they discovered the camps…. It traumatized me for the rest of my life. But I tell you what—you get your lesson…. Never ever again. That’s how you learn from history.”
An imperative is “understanding human behavior,” Sammel said. “How the hell could that happen? And you will not understand how this has happened if you say, ‘They’re all bad, we killed them all, let’s kill them all as quickly as possible, done, good job.’ … In a historical analysis, you have to go deep into society to find out where it started, how was the process of indoctrination, how a whole nation turned into believing an ideology completely disconnected from reality, and how this collective fury or enthusiasm could have happened—in order to prevent it.”
The German official whom Sammel portrayed for eight years “took the ideology of the Nazis because it’s the most powerful, the best way to make a career and a good living. And that’s what he did. So, he’s not a convinced Nazi, he’s a convinced Darwinist.” When his capture by the US military leads to a new career with US intelligence, “he’s very happy that the Americans take him over. Very happy—perfect—safe.”
The café was closing, so we found a quiet spot in a bar around the corner. “Know your biggest enemy most,” Sammel said as we sat down. “All kind of caricature doesn’t help you understand the other side.”
He added: “Don’t put the Nazis in a place where you think it has nothing to do with yourself. That’s the biggest danger, historical danger, I think we can make.”
“ A historical series, like a historical book, speaks of the period that it talks about and also of the period it was made,” Frédéric Krivine told me. In the current era, his deeply nuanced scripting of Un village français is at odds with countless tales of sheer goodness in the fight against evildoers—the kind of narratives that have retained huge power in spite of diminished credibility. Shaking off a propagandized worldview requires seeing not only what we abhor in others but also what others abhor in us—a sharp departure from outlooks that have dominated the US political culture. Facile accusations about the crimes of others beg the questions about our own. In such light, Un village français can be viewed (with English subtitles) as particularly relevant for Americans, whose country—while never experiencing a successful invasion by a foreign power—has often occupied other lands.