The highly controversial French documentary film, “Terrorists in Retirement,” offers a striking revelation that, on reflection, should come as no surprise at all — Eastern European Jews played a prominent role in the most daring exploits of the World War II French resistance movement. This truth comes as a jolt only because French popular myth and official histories have so thoroughly suppressed it, considering it harmful to the nation’s heritage to admit that stateless immigrants, facing deportation and almost certain death, fought harder for France’s freedom than did many citizens who were content to collaborate with their German conquerors.
The film, produced in 1984, sparked a huge uproar in France when a state-television network initially banned it. Now Los Angeles audiences can see for themselves what the brouhaha was all about when “Terrorists in Retirement” — in the original French title, the word “Terroristes” was placed in ironic quotation marks — screens at the Laemmle Theatres this month.
In 1980s France, the basic facts about Jewish resistance fighters were only the beginning of the film’s disturbing disclosures. The most contentious news that the documentary delivered concerned the 1943 betrayal of the main Jewish resistance group based in Paris — the public execution of 23 men arrested by the Gestapo and French authorities. (For propaganda purposes, the Nazis put up a red poster with the dead men’s pictures on it, asserting that France was well rid of these despised foreign troublemakers.) The film’s claim, in few words, is that the French Communist Party was responsible for their deaths.
It’s a complex story, but also a simple one. Much of it is told by a small number of Jewish resistance survivors, men who were in their teens during the war — mainly Polish Jews whose families had fled to France in the 1930s — and who had strong ties to the Communist Party through their parents or because it appeared to be the most militant opponent of fascism.
When the film’s director, Mosco Boucault, an Armenian Jew, found them 40 years later, they were working in obscurity in garment trades. Boucault filmed them at their sewing machines, or with scissors or needle and thread in hand, and somewhat incongruously presents the 60-year-olds re-creating several of their wartime exploits, with extras awkwardly standing around in makeshift uniforms representing German guards or assassination targets.
One of the film’s most important charges maintains that the party’s first betrayal of Jews in France came through the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the non-aggression treaty that was in place when the Nazis overran France and set up the Vichy regime. When Jews were ordered to register and even when the first roundups occurred, the resistance survivors recall, the party’s advice was to acquiesce. By the time the Nazis invaded Russia and the Communists resumed the struggle, it was too late: The apparatus for deporting Jews to the camps from France was firmly in place. (At that time, the film suggests, the Jews’ dire situation served as an effective recruiting device for the resistance — fight or die, or at least die fighting.)
After nearly an hour of filling in the background, the film abruptly opens the debate over the 1943 betrayal. A fighter who had been captured and tortured had revealed many details about the Jewish group to the Germans. Communist leaders were aware for some time that police and Gestapo agents were tracking the Jews (as well, as Spanish, Italian and other foreign segments of the resistance organization). The question is, why were the endangered fighters not sufficiently warned or hidden or sent to other regions? (Among the survivors interviewed, several had chanced to go out of Paris at the time of the mass arrests.)
The film — bolstering its grim argument by interviewing several French historians — contends that the Communist resistance needed to get rid of its foreign fighters at just that time. Maneuvering had already begun toward post-liberation political alignments: With Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement either a potent rival or a potential ally, the Communist resistance wanted to ready itself for postwar power struggles by refashioning itself as quintessentially, patriotically French. That its fiercest and most effective fighters were Jews and other foreigners was a major handicap that the roundup conveniently took care of. In fact, if it hadn’t been for that red Nazi propaganda poster, about which the literary surrealist Louis Aragon later wrote a poem, the significance of the non-French role in the resistance might have been almost completely lost.
The battle over the film back in the 1980s took place while the French Communist Party was still a viable political force. Reports at the time suggest that the party began agitating against the film as soon as it heard about the production, several years before the work had been completed. As one of his narrators, Boucault enlisted actress Simone Signoret, who had recently broken with the Communists after having been a longtime supporter — a casting choice that surely increased the film’s potential damage to Communist mythology.
Some 16 years after it was made, “Terrorists in Retirement,” if at times unpolished, tells a tragic and compelling story.
“Terrorists in Retirement” screens Nov. 23-Dec. 8 as part of the Laemmle Theatres’ “Bagels and Docs” A Jewish Documentary Series.” For information, call (310) 478-1041.