Monday, April 28, 2008

Le chagrin et la pitié

Der Spiegel reports on an exhibition of photographs of Vichy-era Paris that have caused an uproar. The 270 full-color photographs were taken by Andre Zucca, a photographer who worked for the Nazi magazine Signal, although the photographs were apparently not intended for publication. They show an occupied Paris that seems mostly unaffected by war and regime change: families at market, fishing in the Seine -- ordinary street scenes, neither glittering propaganda or subversive underbelly.

The Paris Historical Library, who'd displayed the photos, received criticism that the photos essentially whitewashed the occupation, especially the persecution of Jews in the Vichy regime (only two photos show Parisians wearing the yellow star). The exhibit didn't identify Zucca's employer, and didn't try to appeal to this larger context. After a push to close the exhibit, the exhibit was modified to include new captions and a statement in the catalogue, noting that Zucca "chose not to show anything, or very little, of the reality of the occupation and of its dramatic aspects."

The difference between the French and American myths of World War II is vast. No American exhibit of life during World War II would pause to add captions noting that Japanese-Americans were being rounded up and sent to internment camps. Our myth is the myth of national heroism and national innocence (or at least ignorance). The French myth is different -- the myth of the heroic resistance. But the Zucca photos aren't staged or manipulated. They're not really propaganda. Instead, they really do show a different "reality of the occupation." Its crime is that it is inconsistent with the national myth of heroic resistance.

My favorite film ever made about World War II is Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity. If you only know it by the jokes at its expense in Annie Hall, you've done yourselves a disservice. It makes the point again and again -- the numbers of the resistance were smaller and the numbers of the collaborators larger than anyone would have you believe, and that the huge numbers of people who were simply indifferent dwarfed them both.

What I hope is that the Zucca photographs' captions teach a different lesson than either Zucca or his employers wished to teach or the critics would like to say, that they're not dismissed, but noted accordingly. In the middle of atrocities, we blinded ourselves to them, and went on with our lives.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

"In the middle of atrocities, we blinded ourselves to them, and went on with our lives."

And we continue to do so every day, complaining about the price of gas.