When offerings on Netflix and Prime don’t appeal, or the eternal-infernal roundy-roundy of low bandwidth buffering frustrates, there are always DVDs from the public library. A couple of months ago, I picked up “A French Village” (Un Village Français), a 2009-2017 French TV drama set during the German Occupation of France in the Second World War. I had never heard of it, but now I recommend it to everyone.
It is like a novel, with intertwining subplots & character development, moral dilemmas & political maneuvering. Love, adultery & bedhopping, too, of course — it is French, after all, and there’s a war on, right?
Do you collaborate? Do you resist? Do you welcome the fascist order and say the nation needs discipline, trust Marshall Petain? Keep your head down and just go along? Where is your line in the sand? When they come for the Jews and the communists, do you care? What can you do? Where are your loyalties?
One concept in “A French Village” that struck me was, “The war is over.” I hadn’t realized that the occupied French thought of the occupation as, well, “We lost the war and this is the new reality.” From the facile viewpoint of 70 years hindsight, we never think in terms accepting that the story is over, the war is lost. Or maybe it is because I have consumed too much American and British media on the subject — we would never surrender, whatever the cost…
You Have to See What Happens Next
There are 72 episodes in all. After 3 episodes, we were pretty much hooked. The directors (there were 5) and chief writer Frédéric Krivine have the cliff-hanger episode ending totally down, so that you turn to each other and say, “Okay, one more…” because you have to see what happens next.
The actors were unknown to me, as they are French, Belgian and German, but I will definitely keep my eye out for other productions they may be in. You can see the complete list of them at the Wikipedia entry for the program.
Evolving Characters Keep it Fascinating
The cast of characters include a full array of village inhabitants, from the doctor/mayor to the Jewish maid to the French fascists and Gestapo villains, children, teachers and school principals; deputy prefects, socialists and communists, French police and Gaullists; regular German Army soldiers and officers, maquis partisans in the forest, farmers, refugee Jews and the Resistance underground.
None is as simple as you think, no character is straightforwardly evil or good. But don’t worry about feeling conflicted about the Gestapo officer Heinrich Müller — he is an insidiously evil guy and you can loathe him freely, despite the complex portrayal of him by German actor Richard Sammel.
There are plenty of female characters, too — this is not a testosterone fest. In fact the best Resistance leader is a woman farmer named Marie Germain, played by Nade Dieu.
The characters evolve over the course of the series as the stresses of occupation and the choices each person makes take their toll. It is engrossing to know the characters and, knowing what they’ve been through, to see how circumstances change them. Some get their comeuppance. Some die by accident. Some lose their sanity, some survive.
The Reckoning After the War
The later episodes detail the reckoning of all the choices people had to make along the way. Did they reduce the casualties by collaborating/bargaining with the Germans, or were they simply tainted and no excuses? Rebuilding a society and government after the destruction of occupation, war and genocide is no small task.
The finale is the only part of the series I was not wild about. It jumps around from wartime and just after, to the mid 1950s, 60s, 80s and 2000s, and back again, but in a very chaotic way. It attempts to show how the surviving characters muddled through, and how life changed for them and society. It would have been better with more organized flashback/flashforward sequences. But only one weak episode out of 72 — I’m not complaining!
No Zippers on Musketeers Here
One of my pet peeves in period dramas are ahistoric haircuts and eye make-up: don’t show me guys in layered haircuts or women with modern-style make-up — it is as incongruous as seeing a zipper on a musketeer.
Fortunately, there is none of that in “A French Village“. The production values are very good, with detailed attention to accurate costumes & sets. You get an excellent idea of what everyday life was like during those difficult times. It is authentic and meticulous.
The DVDs also includes some very enlightening extras about the history of the occupation and the French chapter of the Holocaust. They include interviews with people who were in the military, the Resistance or who were survivors of deportation and concentration camps.
However You Can Find It, Watch It.
So check your public library to see if they have the DVDs available. If not, you can find the complete DVD series on eBay, or buy each season individually from Amazon. I may buy the whole set one of these days — yes, I like it that much, and besides, it is good for improving my French.
The complete series is available to stream on MHz, a streaming service which has a lot of European mysteries series available. You can try out MHz through your Amazon Prime, with the first 30 days free and thereafter it is $7.99 a month, which isn’t too bad. We may try out MHz this month or next, because they have a lot of intriguing shows that I haven’t heard of. Cheaper than a single cinema ticket a month, isn’t it? And, let’s face it, cinemas rarely have good films for educated grown-ups anymore — streaming is where the good stuff is coming out.
Definitely give “A French Village” a try. It’s complex, engaging and immensely watchable.