This was the third Costa-Gavras film to be shown in HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit season. Unlike Z and State of Siege, it deals with a historical period, but one in which similar kinds of anti-democratic and criminal behaviour in fascist regimes is exposed. The setting is Vichy France in August 1941 and this film, along with others such as Marcel Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), helped to question the myths that had developed around resistance and collaboration in France following the German occupation of Paris and the Second Armistice of Compiègne in June 1940.
As in the earlier films, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter Jorge Semprún were dealing with historical facts and documents but they also used a secondary source, L’affaire de la Section Spéciale by Hervé Villeré. The story begins with the actions of a group of young men and women in Paris, who stage a seemingly impromptu demonstration/march in Paris with the Tricolour and singing of the Marseillaise – and with attempts by some to sing the Internationale. The march is disrupted by German troops and some marchers are shot in the confusion. Later, two of the young men are executed by firing squad. In retaliation, the group decide to kill a German officer. A naval officer is publicly assassinated in the Paris Metro and the youths escape. The German authorities then demand that the Vichy government take action very quickly. It’s worth noting the timing of these events. ‘Operation Barbaraossa’ was the codenmame for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The fascists in the Vichy government needed little encouragement to turn against communists in France – which included many of the young people in the march.
The key issue in the narrative is that, given seven days to respond, the Vichy authorities represented here by Michel Lonsdale as ‘Le ministre de l’intérieur’ formulates a plan by which a ‘Special Section’ of senior judges searches back through recent court convictions to find six men whose sentences can be changed through new court hearings. These will be the sacrificial figures who will be guillotined in Paris to satisfy the Germans. The judges in the court hearing were willing to go along with this with only one exception and majority verdicts were accepted. The cases selected were all deemed to feature ‘Communists, Anarchists and Jews’.
I agree with Isabelle Vanderschelden who introduced the screening and suggested that Costa-Gavras took great care in presenting a very detailed mise en scène and marshalling a large and highly talented cast. There are many familiar faces on screen and many more drawn from French theatre and television, including some comic actors. This all makes sense in terms of the dialogue requirements – and some of the absurdist and frankly comic sequences. As Isabelle pointed out, this does feel like a return to the approach adopted in Z rather than the cooler and more distanced approach in State of Siege. There are two kinds of absurdity or almost surrealism. The first is prompted by Vichy as a location. This spa town in the centre of France with 25,000 or less residents had the largest concentration of hotels outside Paris, so the Vichy regime set up in the main hotels and used the art nouveau Opera House as its ‘debating’ chamber. Special Section actually opens in the Opera House with a recorded speech by Pétain played to the audience of dignitaries at the end of a performance of Boris Godunov. Later we see Michel Lonsdale attempting to work in a hotel where he is interrupted by his children and then by an escaped chicken being chased down the stairs. Through a window we see a promotion for a local Jockey Club event as a trap is driven down the street. (An interesting article by Julia Pascal in the Guardian was published in 2002 when a later Costa-Gavras film, Amen., was released and created controversy in France.) Later, during the court hearings, we are offered in short vignettes, flashbacks to the stories given in evidence by defendants. At least a couple of these are quite comic and in one, the hapless youth whose petty crimes are nearly always immediately uncovered by the police, the events play out like a silent cinema comedy.
What is the point of these absurdist moments? In relation to Z, Coast-Gavras said that what he actually showed was, to a certain extent, toned down. He is referring here to the behaviour of the senior police officers interrogated at the end of the film. It does seem to me that the comic scenes make the representation of events seem more ‘real’ and therefore more chilling. Life is sometimes absurd and we struggle with that absurdity. Many mainstream films that remove that absurdity seem banal because of its lack. Costa-Gavras encourages audiences to become involved in political stories. He doesn’t attempt to use avant-garde techniques to expose those stories/issues. Instead he allows audiences to find them through his skilfully presented but conventional narratives. Special Section packs a real punch. In a further disturbing irony, Michel Lonsdale appeared earlier in the ‘States of Danger and Deceit’ season in the heroic figure of the Police Commissioner who finds the ‘Jackal’ in Day of the Jackal (UK-France 1973)