The Paris Cinema Project

Just a few days before France surrendered to Germany in June 1940, only around 50 of the 250 or so cinemas in Paris still were showing movies. By the time the Germans began their occupation of the city, all of the cinemas had closed. The process had been a gradual one, with all manner of businesses shutting down in the first few months of the year as so many Parisians, confronted by the inevitability of the Nazi army, fled the city.

The Nazis, of course, wanted to give the idea that Paris was back to business-as-usual, and they understood that reestablishing the film culture of the city was central to that project. They published two film magazines, in French, for all of France but with a focus on the capital: Vedettes (thanks to Judith Mayne for telling me about this one) and Ciné-Mondial. They also established a film company to produce French movies, and with a name so vague that it couldn’t really be associated with Germany—Continental Films. And they reopened at least some of the city’s cinemas, which also supplied German authorities with convenient sites of surveillance.


Ciné-Mondial from 6 August 1943, with Michèle Alfa on the cover

The first record I’ve found for these exhibition sites is from the week of 6 January 1943. By then, around 40 were back up and running, and that number would increase just a little by the liberation of Paris in 1944. These cinemas were disproportionately in the best parts of town, the areas so central to the concentration of Nazi power in the most well-heeled areas of the city, those with the fewest Jews and immigrants. Ten of those cinemas were within just a few blocks of each other on the Champs-Elysées—Le Biarritz, the Elysées-Cinéma, l’Ermitage, the Lord-Byron, the Portiques, and the Normandie, as well as a few more. For the duration of the Occupation there were no cinemas that reopened in the more peripheral areas of Paris, in terms of distance from the center of the city and also in terms of class and ethnicity, for example the densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods of the nineteenth and twentieth arrondissements.

Regardless of location, none of these cinemas showed movies all week. Almost all of them were closed on Tuesdays and many of them chose one other day as well to shut down, probably a result of the crippling shortages in the city, and particularly of electricity.

The Nazis staged gala reopenings for a few of these cinemas. In December 1940, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées showed a movie for the first time in almost a year, since Ennuis de ménage (Boy Trouble, 1939) played there in the middle of January. This cinema, at 118 avenue des Champs-Elysées, wasn’t particularly large but it was nevertheless prestigious, and advertisements ran in Parisian newspapers announcing both the newly reopened cinema and a new star for French audiences, Brigitte Horney in Les Mains Libres. Horney, the daughter of psychoanalyst Karen Horney, was already a star in Germany, and she had come to be characterized by her elegance, intellect and cosmopolitanism. Making this subtitled version of her 1939 movie, Befreite Hände, the first film shown in such a significant, and newly reopened, venue shows how hard Nazi authorities tried to turn her into a more international celebrity, one who might signify the benign, culturally uplifting nature of the Occupation.


A publicity still of Brigitte Horney, probably from the late-1930’s

Along with the cinemas in Paris, the ciné-clubs had closed, too, at the beginning of the Occupation. The Germans seemed interested, though, in not only reestablishing the everyday experience of cinema in Paris but also the more serious aspects of the city’s film culture. As a result, by 1943 they had started two new ciné-clubs, each connected to one of the film magazines I mentioned earlier. The only listings I’ve come across, however, are for the club linked to Ciné-Mondial.

That club met at first in the Salle Pleyel, a concert hall in the fashionable eighth arrondissement, and then moved to the building of La Societé des agriculteurs de France, which the Ciné-Club de Phare Tournant had used as its headquarters before the war. The club itself really looked little like those from the 1930’s. In this new ciné-club movies were almost never shown. Instead, it was a place for film celebrities to gather and entertain an audience. At a meeting in early-January, 1944, for instance, the stars Bernard Blier and Charles Moulin were present, and so too were Jean D’Yd and Pieral, two of the supporting actors from the Jean Cocteau film L’éternal retour, which had been produced during the Occupation and released in Paris just a few months before. At another club session later in 1944, Louis Jourdan was there with the actress Françoise Perier, the latter telling stories about the early years of her career. The following week Sessue Hayakawa was the club’s special guest. To the extent that evidence exists, the stars at the clubs always seem to have been French rather than German, or, as in the case of Hayakawa, foreign performers who had had extraordinary success in France.

There was still some vestige of previous clubs in the Ciné-Mondial group. Those earlier clubs typically took took their pedagogical function very seriously, and always had speakers talking about film history. In the spring of 1944, Ciné-Mondial sponsored just such an expert, the journalist Jeander, who spoke to club attendees about the future of French cinema. The following week, however, all of the club’s functions went back to normal, as guests would be amused by the movie stars Georges Marchal, Yvette Lebon, Alexander Rignault, and Armand Mestral.


The Salle Pleyel concert hall, the first meeting place of the Ciné-Mondial ciné-club

The Germans believed that this Ciné-Mondial club, at least, was so important to the Nazi cultural project in Paris that it remained open even as Paris was on the verge of being liberated, and as power shortages were closing down almost everything in the city. At the end of May 1944, Ciné-Mondial ran an ad stressing that its club would continue to meet, “despite the crisis in electricity” (“malgré la crise d’électricité”).

The splashiest film event of the Occupation was the 1944 Paris premiere of Les Aventures fantastiques de baron de Münchausen, produced in Germany at Ufa to mark the studio’s 25th anniversary and starring a who’s who of German cinema, including Hans Albers as the baron, Brigitte Horney as Catherine the Great, and Ilse Werner as Princess Isabella. The rococo, Technicolor fantasy of Münchausen seemed to remove it from the realm of ideology, probably just what Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels hoped for when he commissioned Ufa to make the film.

Ciné-Mondial ran articles about the move and photographs from it for weeks in preparation for the film’s opening at the Normandie cinema on 9 February 1943 (although accounts of the opening date differ just a bit). The Normandie, at 116 avenue des Champs-Elysées, had closed in early February 1940 (Les quatre plumes blanches/The Four Feathers had been the last film to play there), and its reopening, along with the other cinemas on the Champs-Elysées, had been a priority for the Nazis. At least by early-1943 the Normandie was back up and running with Mariage d’amour, a French film from the German-run Continental studio.


The Normandie cinema on the Champs-Elysées, during the 1944 run of Les Aventures fantastiques de baron de Münchausen

Münchausen played at the Normandie through 16 May, when it was replaced by yet another Continental film, La vie de plaisir, starring Albert Préjean. That three-month run was a long one for the Occupation, but not unheard of; the week Münchausen opened at the Normandie, L’Inévitable M. Dubois, starring Annie Ducaux, was finishing up a four-and-a-half month appearance at the cinema next door, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées. But leaving the Normandie didn’t mean leaving Paris. Münchausen reopened immediately and exclusively at the very fashionable Caméo cinema at 32 boulevard des Italiens in the ninth arrondissement. The film played there for more than two months, at least through the week of 26 July 1944. Those are the last listings I’ve found for Parisian cinemas during the Occupation. In fact, it’s possible that as the Allied army closed in on the city, and with a surge in fighting in the streets between the Resistance and the Nazis, often right in the center of Paris, cinemas began closing once again, just as they had four years earlier. The move to liberate Paris began in full on 19 august 1944, and the city was free by the 25th. I have yet to find any records of cinemas from the immediate aftermath of the Liberation.


The Mercedes-Benz dealership that used to be the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées





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