The Paris Cinema Project

I underestimated the Nazis’ desire to get Parisian film culture back to something resembling that of the pre-war period. In a previous blog post about the Occupation, I wrote that the Nazis had reopened cinemas after the French surrender only very slowly and very selectively, so that by 1943 there were around 45 locations for seeing movies in the city, a number that remained stable until the intense fighting that marked the 1944 Liberation of Paris. I noted, as well, that most of those cinemas were in the center of Paris, in the most affluent neighborhoods, and that no cinemas had reopened on the outskirts of the city.

Well, I was wrong. I based that original post on the cinema listings in Ciné-Mondial, the French-language Nazi movie magazine for all of France, but with a concentration on Paris. Starting a year or two into the Occupation, the monthly magazine listed those 45 cinemas and the movies they showed. Just the other day, though, I found another source in the online holdings of the Bibliothèque nationale, the weekly Comoedia, the “hebdomadaire des spectacles des lettres et des arts.” While Ciné-Mondial had been a creation of the Occupation, the no-less collaborationist Comoedia had been around since 1906, telling Parisians about each week’s varied cultural activities in their city. And they included complete film listings.


The issue of Comoedia from 28 June 1941

The first available Comoedia from the Occupation comes from late-June 1941, and it shows that just one year after the French surrender and the brief closure of all 220 or so Parisian cinemas, the Nazis had reopened around 150 exhibition sites throughout the city. These would indeed be concentrated in the most well-heeled parts of Paris, with the “cinemas d’exclusivités” in the second, seventh, eighth, and ninth arrondissements. But there were also cinemas on the periphery, the “cinémas des quartiers,” in the twentieth arrondissement, for example, around Menilmontant, where the Pyrénées showed films, and, later in the year, the Avron, a photo of which rests on top of this blog. So too were a few cinemas open in the equally working class nineteenth arrondissement at the northeastern edge of the city, as well as in the fourteenth and fifteenth in the south.

In fact, it seems as if reopening all of these cinemas was more important to the Germans than having enough films to fill them. French films, of course, dominated these screens, but there were far more reprises than new films while the production side of the German-controlled French film industry got itself up to speed. There were also a number of German films that very likely hadn’t played in Paris before, as well as some Italian movies; of course, there were no American or British films playing in Paris, precisely the films that had had such a dominant place in the city’s cinemas before the war.

The newest French films—and there weren’t many—were playing at the most prestigious cinemas. L’enfer des anges, for instance, from 1941 and directed by Christian-Jaque, played at the Ciné-Opéra on the avenue de l’Opéra in the second arrondissement, and Maurice Tourneur’s Volpone, also from 1941 and with two great stars, Harry Baur and Louis Jouvet, showed at the Marivaux just a few blocks away on the boulevard des Italiens. Elsewhere in the second, where cinemas before the war had shown the most recent films from Europe and the United States, movie fans had to settle for reprises. They might go to the boulevard des Italiens to see Charles Boyer in Orage, from 1938, at the Imperial-Pathé or Pierre Larquey in La Grifée du hasard, from 1937, at the Cineac Italiens. On the boulevard Poissonière, they might watch Boyer yet again in Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Bonheur (1935) at the Parisiana, or the 1937 Italian film La grande révolte (Condottiere) at the Gaumont.

Marivaux 1941

The Marivaux cinema on the boulevard des Italiens in 1941

German films played throughout Paris during those last couple of weeks in June 1941. The great star Zarah Leander appeared in two movies. Première, from 1937, played throughout Paris, at the Voltaire-Aubert Palace in the eleventh arrondissement, for example, and also at the Montrouge-Aubert-Palace in the fourteenth. The film she made for Douglas Sirk in the same year, La Habanera, also showed in the city, and a fairly new German movie, Musique de rêve (Traummusik, 1940), played at several cinemas, including the massive, Egyptian-style Louxor-Pathé on the boulevard Magenta in the tenth arrondissement as well as the Pyrenées in the twentieth. And, as one might expect, that 1940 hommage to anti-semitism, Le juif Suss (Jud Süss) also showed in Paris, at the Jeanne D’Arc in the thirteenth.

Parisiana Occupation

The Parisiana cinema in the second arrondissement during the Occupation

Mostly, though, there were French films, and most of them were older, some of them quintessentially French, like Marcel Pagnol’s César (1936), or movies with popular French stars, not only Boyer, Jouvet, and Baur, but also Maurice Chevalier in Julien Duvivier’s L’homme du jour (1937) playing in the nineteenth arrondissement and also Danielle Darrieux; a film of hers from 1932, Le Coffret de laque, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play, ran in the tenth at the Folies-Dramatiques.

So this was the Parisian film culture the Nazis created. Cinemas open throughout the city, and an international film culture that stressed French and German movies and stars rather than French and American. The last available issue of Comoedia comes from Christmas, 1942. Edith Piaf was performing that week at the cabaret Le Perroquet au Nid, and the great “diseuse” Lucienne Boyer appeared at Le Beaulieu while her husband, Jacques Pills, sang at Le Doge. A few more cinemas had opened in the last year-and-a-half, and the most significant film from the end of 1942 was the Marcel Carné fantasy Les visiteurs du soir, playing at the Madeleine and the Lord Byron, both in the eighth arrondissement.


Les visiteurs du soir, the major attraction in Paris in December 1942

The errors I made in my first post about the Occupation point out some of the difficulties of doing research about the period. The archive of materials can often seem scant, much of it destroyed by the end of the war, or perhaps caught in a bureaucratic shuffle between France and Germany and winding up in scattered, difficult to locate holdings. But I also made the mistake of thinking that Ciné-Mondial might be more thorough than the typical French sources. Newspapers like Le Petit Parisien, l’Humanité, Figaro, and others always gave frustratingly incomplete film listings. They listed no suburban cinemas, and, really, even for Paris they concentrated only on the best first-run locations in the city. Ciné-Mondial showed the same, limited sense of what constituted Parisian film culture, and we’re still very much in need of other materials to help us understand more fully the cinema of the Occupation.



The Paris Cinema Project

Just after the Liberation of Paris the city’s cinemas were allowed to show movies only two nights a week. In their bulletin of 23 October 1944, however, the Comité de la Libération du Cinéma Français announced that cinemas would now be showing movies on five days, all except Tuesday and Thursday. And instead of just a single evening screening at 9:30, cinemas would be authorized to show one matinee on Saturday and two on Sunday. The Comité itself had been formed by filmmakers Jacques Becker, Jean Painlevé, and others in 1943, and the group had been working since then as part of the Resistance and also in making plans for postwar French cinema. But two months after the late-August liberation of Paris, things were still moving slowly in bringing the city’s film culture back to anything resembling the vibrancy of the pre-war period.


The 23 October 1944 Bulletin Officiel du Comité de la Libération du Cinéma Français

Assessing the last few weeks of the Nazi occupation and the first few months after the Liberation is extraordinarily difficult, at least for the film historian based in the United States. The evidence remains sketchy at best, and is often non-existent. Here is what seems to have been the case. By the end of July 1944 there were still some 45 cinemas open in Paris, a number that had remained stable throughout most of the Occupation. Just three weeks later, around the middle of August, with the Resistance fighting Nazi forces in the middle of Paris and more than holding their own, that number had gone down to three: the Normandie cinema on the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement and two other first-run cinemas in the eighteenth, the Palais-Rochechuart and the Gaumont-Palace. During this period, these three cinemas seem mostly to have been screening documentaries, and within just a few days the Gaumont-Palace would be closed. Cabarets and theatres were closing as well, with the latter often presenting their shows only in the daytime (“jouant à la lumière du jour”), probably to save on the electricity that was in increasingly short supply in the city.

On 25 August the Germans surrendered Paris. As difficult as it is to find information about the cinema there in the weeks just before the Liberation, it is, seemingly, impossible for the five weeks that followed. By 1 October at least five cinemas had opened: once again the Gaumont-Palace and the Normandie, but also Le Savoie in the eleventh arrondissement, the Ciné-Batignolles in the seventeenth, and the Paramount in the ninth. Audiences didn’t have much choice, however, about what they saw. All of those cinemas showed the same thing, France Libre, a compilation of actuality footage made by the Comité de la Libération du Cinéma Français and that documented the liberation of Paris.


Parisians lining up to see France Libre at the Normandie cinema

By 15 October at least seven cinemas were open, and audiences had a limited range of films from which to choose. In the second arrondissement the Rex cinema, one of the largest in Paris, was back up and running. The Rex had been a “Soldaten Kino” during the Occupation, one of several in the city reserved for members of the German military, but now, open once again to the general public, it presented Deanna Durbin in Eve a commencé (It Started With Eve) from 1941 but making its first appearance in Paris. Durbin was popular in Paris that week; her film also played at the Avenue cinema in the eighth arrondissement. The 1939 World War One melodrama starring Junie Astor and Léon Mathot, Deuxième bureau contre kommandantur, which had been released initially just a few days before the 1940 French surrender and so probably didn’t play widely in France because of its anti-German sentiment, also showed at two cinemas, the Aubert-Palace and the Club des Vedettes, both in the ninth arrondissement. At two cinemas just a couple of blocks apart on the boulevard des Italiens in the second arrondissement, a new French film, Coup de tête, premiered at the Marivaux and Jean Delannoy’s Pontcarral, colonel de l’empire, from 1942, was in reissue at the Imperial. Just two weeks after France Libre had blanketed the city, the only real reminder of the war was at the Normandie, which showed a documentary that became something of a hit in Paris, Un jour de guerre en URSS.

Over the next few weeks more and more cinemas opened, many of them among the most important in Paris. In early November there were around 30 cinemas open, including the posh Biarritz in the eighth arrondissement (showing the Paris premiere of Julien Duvivier’s 1942 Hollywood film, Six destins/Tales of Manhattan) and also, in the second arrondissement, the Ciné-Opéra, one of three cinemas in the city showing the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film M. et Mme Smith (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) which was playing in Paris for the first time. As typically had been the case in pre-war Paris, there were also important reprises: L’extravagant Mister Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936]) at the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, and perhaps most significantly given the recent Liberation, Jean Renoir’s celebration of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise, at the Moulin-Rouge in the eighteenth, and Jean Gabin in Quai des Brumes at Les Portiques on the Champs-Elysées. Gabin’s films seemed to play continuously in Paris from the mid-1930’s until the beginning of the war, but then the Nazis banned his movies when it became clear that the star had no intention to leave the United States and return to France. As far as I can tell, this presentation of the great 1939 film he made for Marcel Carné, and that co-starred another French exile to Hollywood, Michèle Morgan, was the first Gabin film to play in post-Liberation Paris.


The Paramount cinema, around 1946

By the end of 1944 there were more than fifty cinemas open in Paris. They showed new French films (Jean Delanoy’s Le Bossu at the Vivienne in the second arrondissement), Russian movies (L’arc-en-Ciel at the Max Linder in the ninth), a range of American films from before the war (Ames à la Mer/Souls at Sea, from 1937, at the Gaité-Clichy in the seventeenth), and Hollywood films that had been kept out of Paris because of the Occupation (John Stahl’s comedy Mme et son clochard/Our Wife, from 1941, at l’Ermitage in the eighth). One such Hollywood film playing at the time was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated movie event of the immediate post-Liberation period, René Clair’s Ma femme est une sorcière (I Married a Witch), from 1942, showing at both the Biarritz in the eighth and the Caméo in the ninth. At least in the popular press, Clair was understood at the time as the father of modern French cinema, and a Clair film that Parisians had to wait more than two years for seemed to cause even more excitement than a new film by the master.

Along with the much-anticipated opening of Clair’s film, the event that marked the full return of Parisian–and French–film culture was certainly La Grande Quinzaine du Cinéma Français. We tend to think of the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, held for the first time after the 1939 planned opening was put on hold by the war, as the sign that French cinema had regained its prominence. As important as that may have been on an international scale, on a more local level La Grande Quinzaine (or “fortnight”) marked Paris once again as a film capital. For two weeks beginning on 4 December, the Normandie cinema, always one of the most important in Paris, would show fourteen “grandes productions” made between 1940 and 1944. These films played in addition to the newly-released movie showing exclusively at the Normandie throughout December, the Annie Ducaux vehicle Florence est Folle. A film schedule for La Quinzaine seems no longer to exist, but it’s safe to assume that nothing shown there would have been made by Continental, the German studio that made so many French-language films during the war. The only film I’ve been able to identify so far is Jacques Becker’s murder mystery Goupi mains rouges, from 1943.


Georges Rollin and Blanchette Brunoy in Goupi Mains Rouges, one of the films in La Grande Quinzaine du Cinéma Français

There were also less elevated signs of the film culture of Paris having returned to pre-Occupation levels. Also in December, just as La Quinzaine was getting under way at the Normandie, the major cinema chains in the city announced an end to the post-Liberation policy of giving French soldiers discounted admissions to Saturday and Sunday screenings


The Paramount cinema, now the Gaumont-Opéra, in 2015