It was originally going to be a movie about Vietnam in the wake of the My Lai massacre, but ultimately Louis Malle decided that an American should tell that story. So he turned to the history of his own country. He had horrifying memories from growing up under Nazi occupation, but he was not yet ready to tell that story. Instead, he became interested in portraying how a teenage boy could become an active part of the Milice, a French paramilitary force that helped the Germans round up Jews and Resistance fighters.
After a while, Malle found out that there really was a person very similar to Lucien Lacombe, the character he had created – and that this boy had been living in Malle’s abandoned house during the war. Truth is stranger than fiction.
In 1944, 17-year-old Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise) lives in southwestern France. Life around him is marked by the struggle between the Resistance movement and the Milice; the war will soon be won by the Allies, but the Nazi propaganda tells a different story. When Lucien approaches a teacher who has connections within the Resistance, he’s rejected because of his youth. He is subsequently recruited by the Milice who rewards him with authority, a gun and a new suit. The latter is prepared by a Jewish tailor, Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler), who has fled Paris and is allowed to make a modest living in the Lot region because of his connection to one of the Milice members. When Lucien falls for Albert’s beautiful daughter France (Aurore Clément), the tailor is far from pleased…
Controversial right from the start
This film became one of Louis Malle’s most celebrated, but it was controversial in France right from the start. He was accused of tarnishing the reputation of the Resistance fighters, as if they were some kind of saints, not human beings. Malle wrote the script together with the novelist Patrick Modiano, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize decades later. Modiano’s books often deal with questions of identity and what took place during the German occupation of France.
High-level political maneuvering is undeniably interesting, but so is ordinary people’s experiences from living in France at the time, and this film realistically addresses the stark choices they were faced with. Life in the countryside may seem tranquil, far away from actual combat, but as Malle and Modiano show the war was very much alive because of the constant harassment of Jews and battle between the Milice and the Resistance. Our perception of Lucien is negative from the start, when he kills a bird for fun. This is a dangerous boy who will easily do evil things if given the chance. We see his morals challenged over time, his character gain depth, but it is essentially a portrait of youthful stupidity – which is also true for the girl he falls in love with, France. In the end we should ask ourselves how easily impressionable teenage boys can be swayed from joining hate groups, making the film relevant beyond its period in time.
Blaise, an amateur who sadly died in a car accident a few years later, captures the sullen temper of his character perfectly (and according to Malle, it wasn’t far from his actual behavior on set), and Swedish actor Holger Löwenadler gives a memorable performance as the tailor, far more dignified than anyone of his enemies in the Milice.
A decade later, Louis Malle was ready to tell the story of the childhood trauma that had haunted him since the war. That movie became Au Revoir, les Enfants (1987). Together with Lacombe Lucien, it’s a quiet reminder of what happens if we don’t fight Fascism wherever it rears its ugly head.
Lacombe Lucien 1974-France. 137 min. Color. Produced by Louis Malle, Claude Nedjar. Directed by Louis Malle. Screenplay: Louis Malle, Patrick Modiano. Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli. Cast: Pierre Blaise (Lucien Lacombe), Aurore Clément (France Horn), Holger Löwenadler (Albert Horn), Therese Giehse, Stéphane Bouy.
BAFTA: Best Film.
Last word: “The moment I invented characters and situations even if they came directly from my research, I was exposing myself to controversy. I knew this was a minefield, so I was very cautious; for months I conducted research, interviewing ex-collaborators and members of the Resistance, seeing historians who were specialists in the period.” (Malle, “Malle on Malle”)