The story of a thoughtless young man during the occupation of France in World War II, who becomes involved with the Vichy Gestapo, is an exploration of the nature of evil and the possibility of escaping it through love.
In his 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien, the versatile French director Louis Malle dealt with the painful issue of wartime collaboration during the German occupation of France. The story takes place in 1944, when Lucien, an aimless and uneducated rural youth played by Pierre Blaise, falls by chance under the influence of the local Fascists, and ends up becoming a member of the Gestapo’s Vichy police. While mutely going along with the cruelty of his Nazi mentors, an encounter with a Jewish tailor leads to his falling in love with the man’s daughter, played by Aurore Clément.
In Malle’s portrait of this shameful era, we can see how ideology is often a mere smokescreen for the desire for power, money, and domination, and how even the worst people (such as the vicious police spy played by Stéphane Bouy) have something of ordinary charm or friendliness in their nature—qualities that nevertheless don’t prevent them from committing atrocities.
The film’s approach is most interesting in the case of Lucien himself, who has no moral sense, and doesn’t know enough to even be petty. Blaise’s delicately handsome baby-face is like a blank slate on which is inscribed all the insanity around him. And the point of the film is not merely that social backwardness is ripe for exploitation by evil forces—this would hardly be worth making a movie about—but Lucien is, rather, a portrait of blind self-will, vacant of ideas, that only seeks affirmation. He has not known love, and therefore he finds his self-worth through power. The movie shows how the brute power that a human being can wield over another leads to a twisted kind of self-esteem. For the first time in his life, Lucien is “somebody.”
The only hope that Malle offers us from this bleak vision is that, before the mind is forever ruined by hate-justifying ideas, the need for love can pose a counterforce to evil. Lucien becomes obsessed with the Jewish girl (her name, ironically, is “France”), and although his efforts to win her are as selfish and grotesque as his acts of allegiance to the Gestapo, his unspoken need for her love inevitably clashes with his Nazi training.
The film’s period detail is very fine. Most compelling is the relationship between Lucien and the elderly tailor. The old man is afraid of, and exasperated by, the attentions of his daughter’s Nazi suitor, but for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, he can’t completely hate the young man. There is, perhaps, a deeper innocence in Lucien that he recognizes on some level. This idea of innocence, as salvageable from within the heart of evil, albeit only by means of the most fortunate circumstances, is the source of the picture’s troubling power.
Louis Malle presents this character, this young Lucien, to us as an open question, something that will cause us to consider, uneasily, our own vulnerability to that which is worst in human nature. It also prompts us to seek what inner resources can help redeem us from the urge to power and turn us instead to a way that is guided by love.
The profound and disquieting film Lacombe, Lucien is available on DVD.