(La Colline aux Mille Enfants—The Hill of a Thousand Children)
French with English subtitles.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, “Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person without intent or by mistake may flee there; they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. The slayer shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain the case to the elders of that city; then the fugitive shall be taken into the city, and given a place, and shall remain with them
Joshua 20:1-4 (NRSV)
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison, and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Matthew 25:37-40 (NRSV)
One wonders why it took so long for a filmmaker to dramatize the story of Pastor André Trocmé and his fellow conspirators against the Nazi “Final Solution.” It is a story with high suspense and drama, comedy and tragedy, and inspiring nobility, as anyone who saw the fine documentary Weapons of the Spirit will readily agree. For some reason the filmmakers have changed the name of the real people, perhaps giving the script writer great leeway. Much of the drama of the real Andre Trocmé is left out, such as his flight from the Gestapo and his near fatal arrest at a train station by local police who were too busy to check their “wanted” list to find his name on it, but enough is included to give viewers some idea of the ordeal and tremendous courage of the people of Le Chambon and their resourceful pastor and family.
A good companion to either Le Chambon or Weapons of the Spirit is a book by Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.
The film begins cold with scenes of collaborating French police and Nazi forces rounding up Jews in France, children being torn from their mothers’ arms and sent off in separate cattle cars. It ends with a father arriving in a large car at a French farmhouse and a little girl walking away with him. Then she runs back to the couple, crying and embracing them. All of them have tears in their eyes as her Jewish father drives her away, the little girl continually waving at the couple. She and 5,000 other children and adults are alive at war’s end because this Christian couple and hundreds of others like them would not turn them in, despite visits and raids by the local police and the Gestapo. They risked death and the razing of their village, but there were no betrayals.
Both the maker of Weapons of the Spirit and the author of the book are fascinated by the question of why the Le Chambonaise were so different from most other villagers in France who went along with the persecution of the Jews. It was not because they were Protestant, for a neighboring village was also of this persuasion, and there was no organized hiding of Jews there. A major part of the answer was in the character of Pastor Andre Trocmé—in this film renamed Pastor Jean Fountain. (Magda Trocmé becomes Martha, and just two of the four Trocmé children are depicted.)
The Pastor had come to the village early in the 1930’s and won the hearts of his people. In his sermons he reminds them of their great Huguenot heritage of resisting the French government over the centuries. In one sermon he tells them of young women who once had been arrested and imprisoned. All they had to do to win their release was to renounce their Protestant faith. This they would not do, even though it meant that some of them would die behind bars. One of them scratched on the cell wall “Resist!” And this is what Pastor and flock agree to do against the orders and threats of the current government. Resist, not by picking up the arms of the French Resistance but with weapons of the spirit. This was not an easy choice. In one powerful scene, the Pastor faces the Jewish girl Myriam, who tells him that his pacifism is useless and that she is going to join the Partisans. In the movie version, Pastor Fountain is joined and supported in this resistance by his wife, who works day and night to provide assistance for the stream of refugees who come to the village.
Like his real-life counterpart, Pastor Fountain is depicted as a man of contrasts. A pacifist, he yet has a fiery temper that erupts at times. A boy makes a poor play in basketball, and Fountain angrily scolds him and yanks him from play. A few moments later, having cooled off, he tousles the boy’s hair and sends him back in. In another scene, Magda and her husband quarrel. His temper flaring up, Fountain splashes Magda with water from his glass. She picks up a pitcher of water and pours all of it on her husband. Flabbergasted, he is speechless for a moment. Then the two hug and break out in peals of laughter. Fountain is at times an overly strict father, becoming angry when he catches his daughter dancing with a friend to some American music. In short, he is a courageous resister of evil, but he is also a human being.
There is so much more to this finely acted film.
How can you see this Film?
Unfortunately, the film is only available in the old VHS format from Amazon—but, of course, many congregations still have VHS equipment for small-group viewing. If you search around the Internet, you may be able to find downloadable versions of the film. However, it’s easy to find the movie’s brief trailer, which is inspiring even as a 3-minute snapshot of the movie:
Review reprinted from May 1998 VP.