In 2015, Louis Malle’s 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien, may not look like much. It’s a movie set during World War II, but it’s not about battles, Nazis, or the Holocaust.
Yet a little context might explain its provocative power.
A Generation Later
French director Louis Malle was born in 1932, which means he would have been about 8 when Nazi Germany occupied France. He would have spent many of his formative years living under that occupation.
As soon as the war was over, there were lots of French citizens who claimed to ba aligned with the resistance. Yet when the war was still underway and Allied victory was far from assured, the French resistance wasn’t nearly that populous. In other words, a lot more French citizens collaborated or didn’t resist than would be willing to admit it after the war.
The year of Lacombe, Lucien’s release was released was only a generation removed from the end of World War II. It would have still been very hard for anyone to admit that their family had been collaborators. Lacombe, Lucien, with its sympathetic portrayal of collaborators, would have been a very provocative movie at the time.
Malle doesn’t actually sympathize with the political notion of joining with Nazi Germany. What he does is paint an honest portrait of the overlap between human drives — comfort, power, love — and what options are available under an occupation.
Looking For Work
Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise) is a teenager growing up in rural France. He has a terrible job - cleaning up at a hospital a day’s bike ride from home.
Back at home on leave, among the buzzing insects of summer, Lucien shoots rabbits. It is 1944, and the privations of war surely make the meat even more appreciated.
Lucien is not much of a boy anymore. His voice has changed. He’s probably 16 years old, looking and acting more like a man than ever. We get the sense he wants to grow up even faster because of the war.
He brings a shot rabbit as a gift to his old schoolteacher. “I want to join the resistance,” he says. The teacher weighs Lucien, then says it’s too risky; they’re not hiring. So it’s back to his hospital job for Lucien.
A flat tire ruins his timing. He passes through a town after curfew, walking his bike. He’s is stopped by a French civilian member of the German police. The guard brings Lucien into the hotel that serves as bar, club, and German police HQ, and says he caught Lucien “spying.”
Unlike the schoolteacher, these Frenchmen welcome him with open arms. They ply him with alcohol and feminine attention. Before the night is through Lucien gamely tells them what they want to knows about the resistance in his little village.
The Bully Cycle
Naive Lucien didn’t seem to understand the risks of telling these people about his schoolteacher. The next day, the teacher is hauled in and tortured, which Lucien witnesses.
Yet still it doesn’t seem to affect Lucien. He is a simple teenager from the sticks. He’s not interested in politics and doesn’t seem to have an idea of the different ideologies at play. He just knows it’s better to be with the group that has some power than to be a commoner. It’s not a matter of right and wrong; this is just how the world works.
Lucien’s new employers take him to have a suit made by the Jewish tailor Mr. Horn (Holger Löwenadler). Mr. Horn has a pretty daughter named, yes, France (Aurore Clément), who catches Lucien’s eye. Mr. Horn is not very pleased with that look.
Lucien fills out his suit, and also his new role as an enforcer. He starts wielding his power as a German officer. For example, he tries to impress France (the girl) by dragging her to the front of a bread line. That doesn’t go over so well, but most people do defer to him once he shows them his badge or his gun, in spite of his boyish mein, which only reinforces the bully in him.
Mr. Horn sees this in Lucien, and yet, he says, “somehow I can’t manage to completely detest him.” That’s true for the audience, too. It’s hard to like Lucien, but he’s not particularly evil; he’s just a hormone-riddled teenager finding his way and making the most of his situation. And since he’s our protagonist, we see the good in him and forgive the worst.
As an experience, the film is an episodic drama. The first scene shows Lucien at the hospital, but then we never return. Lucien shoots rabbits at home, but we never return. Lucien’s story doesn’t seem to have an arc. It unfolds like life, in an unpredictable line — and at the movies that’s sometimes unsatisfying.
It is afterwards that the film’s power sinks in. It’s not the cinema that makes the film good, it’s the characters. Every decision of every character invites you into their heads.
Mr. Horn in particular is an intriguing enigma. On the one hand he benefits from his dealings with the Vichy/German police. On the other, as a Jew, he is constantly at risk of exile or death. He can’t stand the thought of Lucien with his France, yet it’s better to have him as a friend than a foe. Mr. Horn makes a bold move at one point; guessing his motives is a satisfying and rewarding exercise that outlasts the duration of the film.
In 1974 France, Lacombe, Lucien, could have invited you to forgive the collaborators in your family. Or it might have invited even more severe condemnation of your neighbors who collaborated.
Right after the war, there was moral clarity. Collaborators were bad; resistance fighters were good. That notion remained for maybe a generation. But with Lacombe, Lucien, Malle said that the only black-and-white decision was death. Executions were final, no matter who carried them out. And nobody deserved that blackest of judgments, because things really weren’t black and white. The moral clarity was an illusion.