And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, by Alan Riding, Gerald Duckworth & Co, RRP£20, 432 pages
Bleak humour was one of the inevitable by-products of Germany’s occupation of France during the second world war. A popular joke to do the rounds went: “How will the war be won? With American gold, British tenacity ... and the Comédie-Française.” The inference was inescapable: through wretched military impotence the venerable Parisian theatre had become the stage for France’s greatest triumphs.
In his full-blooded and meticulously researched history of French cultural life during the occupation, Alan Riding notes that Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government, responsible for national cultural institutions, was “eager to show that, while crushed militarily, France was not defeated culturally”.
In this she was abetted by her occupier. “[It] suited the Germans perfectly,” writes Riding, a former European cultural correspondent for the New York Times. “They were sure to face fewer problems if the French, particularly Parisians, were kept entertained.” Despite censorship and the numerous constraints placed on their work by the Nazis, most French artists and writers were only too happy to oblige.
Hubris played its part. Not for the last time Riding quotes Jean Guéhenno, a waspish literary critic: “The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest of human species. Incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print.”
Guéhenno’s principal target was André Gide, the self-appointed conscience of the French literary establishment, whom he castigated for a lack of commitment: “Everything for him is literature, an occasion for pleasure.”
A variation on this accusation can be applied to many of the French icons who people this captivating work. Edith Piaf professed: “My real job is to sing, to sing no matter what happens”; while Jean Cocteau noted: “At no price should one let oneself be distracted from serious matters by the dramatic frivolity of war.”
Among several telling interviews Riding conducted with survivors of the occupation, perhaps the most revealing is with the period’s leading French actress, Danielle Darrieux, now aged 93. Darrieux remembers a time that was “totally carefree” and how she and her actress friends would have their “feet done” and “go to the beauty parlour all the time”.
The real cultural heroes of the French resistance – as opposed to opportunistic latecomers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras and André Malraux – tended to be humble water-carriers such as the literary critic and publisher Jean Paulhan or Rose Valland, “a frumpy-looking 42-year-old spinster”, who through her job as a curator at the Jeu de Paume gallery risked her life to record the art looted by the Nazis.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest stains on cultural life during the occupation was the blind eye turned to anti-Semitic fascist writers and artists. One incident stands out: when Heinrich George, the German star of Jud Süss, a grotesquely anti-Semitic film, visited Paris to perform at the Comédie-Française, the French film industry commandeered Maxim’s and fêted him like a hero.
Though the war years have since been hailed as a golden age in French cinema and theatre, what is striking is just how few masterpieces were produced. Riding takes note of Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger, plays by Sartre (Huis Clos) and Jean Anouilh (Antigone), Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps and Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du Paradis, which wasn’t released until after the war.
So the show went on, but in a lowly fashion. It was not to displease the Führer. When asked by Albert Speer, his architect-in-chief, whether the spiritual health of the French people mattered, Hitler replied: “Let’s let [the French] degenerate. All the better for us.”
Tobias Grey is a writer and critic based in Paris