Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 min. Documentary.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
I was a stranger and you welcomed me…
During the terrible Nazi domination of France more than 75,000 Jews were turned in, many of them by their neighbors. 10,000 of these herded off to the camps were children. Yet in the little village of Le Chambon 5000 Jews were hidden. Not one was betrayed. To find out why this village was so different, filmmaker Pierre Sauvage journeys back to interview many of the rescuers and the rescued. He has a personal stake in his findings — he himself was born and given sanctuary in the village during that era. The result of his quest is one of the most uplifting and rewarding films you are likely to see this year (in case, like me, you missed it both in the theaters and on PBS).
He soon discovers that he is in Huguenot country where the local Protestant church preserves a long tradition of resistance to persecution. The pastor then was Andre Trocme, ably assisted by Edouard Theis. At the beginning of the occupation Trocme penned the statement that the people accepted as their charter:
“The duty of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their conscience through the weapons of the spirit. We will resist whenever our adversaries demand obedience contrary to the order of the Gospel. We will do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.”
The villagers and farmers interviewed lived up to the last part of the pledge remarkably well. They talk matter-of-factly about the dangerous task of taking in refugees, feeding them on their own meager rations, and hiding them under the noses of the Germans. When pressed as to why they took such chances for strangers they respond that this is the right thing or this is what a Christian does. They were all involved in what Trocme called “a conspiracy of goodness.”
There are some wonderful stories told, such as of the forger who started a village industry of forging identity papers and of them being hidden in such places as bee hives; of Jews staying in the hotel right next to a building full of Germans. There are sad stories, too, not only of the refugees who lost so many loved ones to the extermination camps, but also of the arrest and death of one of the teachers associated with the pastors. Trocme himself was arrested and held for a month.
The villagers apparently had some influence upon and subsequent help from high officials in the Vichy government. When a group of these came to Le Chambon to urge cooperation with the Nazis, the villagers went about their business, their leaders making it clear what they believed. The Germans seemed very lax compared to those in other parts of the country; there is the possibility that the local commander sympathized with the villagers.
This 90-minute documentary (some of it in French with subtitles) is a tonic for anyone tempted to give up on humanity. It is more exciting, and certainly more inspiring than a dozen fictional adventure films
Reprinted from the March 1992 issue of Visual Parables.
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