Home Sweet Home

I finally found a place where I fit in, and it’s France, because like me, the French are impatient and unfriendly-going-on-surly. I can’t overstate this enough: I’m not a fuzzy, cuddly person, so it was this introvert’s dream come true to go to Paris and be surrounded by millions of people who didn’t ask, “How was your day?” or care how my day was or come anywhere near making eye contact. Vive la France!!

My affinity for all things French began with my love of the works of Dumas and grew over the decades as I also became interested in World War II. Somehow, however, the movie Is Paris Burning? had eluded me because all along I had the impression it had to do with radicals in the 1960s, which interested me not in the least. But no! It’s about the end of Nazi rule in Paris in 1944 and was made in the mid-’60s as the French answer to Darryl Zanuck’s formula of taking a popular military book and turning it into a blockbuster picture with an all-star cast; Zanuck had just done it with Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day and director René Clément would repeat the process with Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (a book I haven’t read but need to).

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert MatzenThe French have this understanding that they’re the coolest people on earth, and this theme permeates Is Paris Burning? In the last days of the occupation of the city, the Germans were besieged by various factions of Resistance fighters who squabbled amongst themselves. Into this scenario backpedaled German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, given Paris to administer by Hitler. Their meeting comprises the first sequence in the picture and von Choltitz instantly becomes human and not your typical robotic Nazi when one of the Fuhrer’s aides asks the general if he’s nervous to meet Hitler. “Ja,” says von Choltitz, and that simple line of dialogue as delivered by Gert Frobe (fresh off Goldfinger) sets him up as a sympathetic character for the remainder of the picture. Hitler states that he is placing von Choltitz in charge because he has always been a loyal officer and the order is clear: If it looks like Paris is about to fall, burn it.

Throughout, Paris is treated like a beautiful princess, bound and gagged, held at knifepoint by thugs, and menaced periodically. The audience is held captive alongside her, and we don’t want a pore in her face or a hair on her head to be so much as touched.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Two of the cool kids, Marie Versini and Jean-Paul Belmondo of the Free French who are out to save the beautiful princess.

A parade of famous French movie stars marches through the picture: Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and so on. As with any all-star epic, some vignettes work and others fall flat. Frobe lugs the entire German P.O.V. on his burly shoulders for hours of run time and is more than capable of handling the assignment. We also see a fair number of American stars sprinkled in like salt and pepper to suit the tastes of U.S. audiences. First of these and a shock to see was my old friend Robert Stack. I wish I had had the foresight to ask him back in the day about Is Paris Burning? but I was woefully ignorant when I knew him. Most of the American actors in the cast play generals. Stack is General Sibert; Glenn Ford is a generic Omar Bradley; Kirk Douglas takes on Patton in name only and for a reported one-day’s work on camera. The French have this way of subtly or not-so-subtly portraying Americans as clods—even the good guys edging closer to break the German Occupation. In Paris today we Americans can be spotted at once, and we’re merely tolerated because we have money and don’t tend to carry bombs, but we’re notoriously gauche and anything we touch needs to be disinfected. That same view seeps down into the cans of film onto which Is Paris Burning? has been imprinted. I say this with great affection because the French are discerning and know gauche when they experience it, and when I interact with them I realize it’s up to me to deal with my lower status because all they want is my money and not my friendship.

The version of Is Paris Burning? I watched the other night On Demand ran about 3:20 but it went by fast and I’m reading that the original clocked in at more than four hours and a number of bits have been cut over the years, including E.G. Marshall as an American G-2 officer. I wonder if he was portrayed as just another American simpleton, rattling sabers and over-rounding the R’s in the dialogue.

 

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I imagine Leslie Caron is thinking, Orson, you look terrible.

Orson Welles shows up playing Orson Welles playing a Swedish diplomat and looking, as usual, terrible. How do you become that just a quarter century after serving as Hollywood’s latest “boy genius?” Anyway, he spends a fair amount of the picture serving as the German commandant’s conscience; in real life Nordling the diplomat may or may not have influenced von Choltitz, who ruled Paris for all of two weeks, to spare the city and not carry out Hitler’s orders.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Wretched advertising poster for Is Paris Burning? I’d have taken a match to this campaign that left would-be audiences wondering what the hell this picture was about.

Director Clément supposedly was intimidated by making this picture and I can see why, starting with knowing he had a country full of critics awaiting–not just any critics but French critics–and with having at his disposal the entire city of Paris as a stage. When you see a line of German tanks in front of Notre Dame, you are looking at a line of German tanks in front of Notre Dame. The entire city center is on display with most of the action taking place on or around the Ile de France. For scenery alone this picture is magnificent, and Maurice Jarre used these stunning visuals as inspiration for a musical score that infuses scenes with romance and majesty as various French units—republican, communist, etc.—find ways to work together, contact the Allies, and systematically take back their city. Check out various clips on Youtube to get a sense of what I’m talking about, like this one where two Resistance leaders (Belmondo and French actress Marie Versini) brave snipers to get to the Hotel Matignon held by Vichy-French soldiers, walk in, and calmly take over. It’s French enough to make me cry, and do yourself a favor and watch the entire six-minute clip because after these two civilians review a line of French troops suddenly under their command (accompanied by Jarre’s scoring), just, WOW! Belmondo surveys the opulent 18th century Matignon—shot on location—and sums it up with a blasé, “Adequate.”

The downsides are there in plain sight. The title Is Paris Burning? is pretty awful as titles go and the 1966 publicity campaign reeked. It’s a black-and-white film, which of course disqualifies it for a portion of modern cinema goers. There’s no CG and nobody jumps out of a plane at 15,000 feet without a parachute and lives to tell the tale. Nor are there any zombies. Dubbing is an issue; dubbing has marred many an international picture. Here the actors spoke their native languages—French, German, English—and then were looped over depending on country of release. The result, nicht sehr gut, and I would have preferred subtitles. I’m blaming the dubbing for shortcomings in narrative flow because Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay, and with that comes pedigree. All in all, even though I’m German, feel free to give me an armband and sign me up for the French Resistance.

8 comments

  1. To live in Paris would mean scale down everything to fit in a 60m2 flat and it seems to me you are a “house with a garden” kind of guy–if you tell me that your pastime is to build things and that you love “do it yourself” projects, then yes, you are German!

    1. Priscila, I live in an almost-rural setting with deer and turkeys roaming the property. That said, I have killed everything I ever tried to grow in a garden. Yes, there have been a fair share of successful “do-it-yourself” projects, it’s true. After living here with the trees and wildlife and a lazy stream next door, I would definitely be claustrophobic in the kind of Paris flat you describe. I guess I belong with the turkeys.

  2. Well, Robert, I will tell a story from the time I lived in Paris. I went there knowing a lot of French but not able to speak it well. After a few months in Paris, it was going much better. I’d learned some of the Parisian ways of saying things and was feeling pretty at home. An outsider, but tolerated.

    One day I was on the metro, bored after a day at school, and a pair of Americans got on. It was a father and daughter. They actually were of Hispanic origin. I had a blast listening to them talk about their tourist day and impressions, and watching the French people’s reaction to them. They never looked at the Americans but I could read their faces. It was like,”hmmm, them, they’re there, always there.”

    So these Americans were sweet and enthusiastic and open. Very nice people but they were butchering the French language. I listened until I couldn’t take it anymore. On my own behalf, but also because their bad French reflected badly on me in front of the Parisians. So I said, with an air of forbearance pushed too far: “No. Lay Alles. Not Layz Alles.”

    I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow these nice people got the idea that I was French but spoke a little English. Immediately I played along. I don’t remember if I affected English with a French accent. I think I did. The three of us had a lengthy discussion about Paris, French people, the French language. I spoke in French and a bit of English. I even tried a little Spanish and let them correct me. I gave them some “insider tips”: about the French language and how French people do things.

    I let them practice their French with a French person!

    A Frenchmen sitting across the aisle made eye contact with me. He had a slight sparkle in his eye. Not quite bored Gallic. Something extra. I haven’t thought about this moment for years. It used to be one of my favorite moments ever. He knew exactly what I was doing. And he knew that I knew he knew. We both also knew that everyone in the car knew that I knew my own accent was American, and we all knew that these other Americans couldn’t tell, and that I was embarrassed to be doing this in front of the French people, but that I couldn’t help myself and was enjoying the heck out of it.

    Everybody knew except the Mexican-Americans. They thought they’d met a super-tolerant, even friendly, and of course, chic French woman.

    I imagined this middle-aged, slightly cynical French person going home and telling his family about the gauche American on the metro who pretended to be French to other Americans so she could set them straight about France, and the naive Americans who were so thrilled to talk to a French person!

    1. Your story confirms everything I experienced in Paris. Mary had prided herself on her high school French…had being the operative word…until we stepped in a cab outside the Paris train station and she tried to speak to the cab driver. In the rear view mirror I could see that he looked as if he’d been knifed in the ribs. He turned around and said in English, I kid you not, “Don’t even try. Just tell me where you want to go.” I watched Mary shrink like James Arness at the end of The Thing. (Note: Her French still impresses me.)

      I envy you being “in” with the most discerning people in the world, receiving an education I Paris and speaking French like a native. Unbearably cool. Americans just have no idea what a breed-apart the French are. They have brains, health, style, culture, and history on their side and they know it. They also realize there wouldn’t even be a United States if they hadn’t come over and saved our asses in 1781 just to spite the Brits, so what right do Americans have to feel like they own the world?

      1. I am sorry someone treated Mary that way, and I wonder if that bad experience made her too shy to try again. Honestly, although I did meet a fair number of condescending Parisians, most of the people I met there were more nice than nasty. No one in Paris ever did anything to me like what that man did to Mary. And my French was NOT good when I got there.

        I even met many kind and welcoming Parisians, who helped me in many ways. I only remember two hostile encounters. There was one extremely nasty guy in Brittany who pretended he couldn’t understand me, and a vegetable seller who threw a head of lettuce on the ground and swore at me — but not because of my French.

        So from my experience, I would guess that guy was just a jerk with low self-esteem and saw Americans as an easy target. Maybe Mary can try again!

        How was it in Normandy?

      2. This was a cab driver in the heart of Paris who didn’t have a lot of time for pleasantries. It was kind of funny in context. Mary and her daughter Val would speak French all the time, and I was always impressed. Then we got off the train and ….. clang ….. it didn’t go quite as either of us envisioned. But having spent a fair amount of time in New York City, it’s much the same thing: locals who are used to living in the fast lane don’t slow down for interlopers. As Tom so aptly put it, gauche interlopers. I admire New Yorkers as I admire the locals in Paris. They are simply awesome. And no one in either city seems to be soft and out of shape. They are the fittest and walk everywhere and live by their wits and survive.

  3. It’s always wonderful to hear the anecdotes of those who have visited or lived in some of the great cosmopolitan centres of the world like a Paris or London or Rome.

    But, quite frankly, Robert, if you are fortunate enough to live on a semi-rural property in which you can glimpse deer or wild turkeys outside your window, there are many, myself included, who would be deeply envious of you, gauche American that you may be.

    1. Yes, Tom, yes, I am a gauche American who lives far from a cosmopolitan center (Pittsburgh doesn’t count). And I have no desire to live in Paris, but visiting it is always a good thing.

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