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Is Paris Burning?

by Glenn Erickson Aug 19, 2023

They said ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ but for three weeks in 1944 the survival of the City of Light was in grave doubt. This gigantic all-star national epic didn’t please everyone yet will dazzle viewers willing to accept the city itself as the star. Working from a screenplay by two Americans, director René Clément shows how France took back its capital, and how a German General stalled, sidestepped and disobeyed Hitler’s orders to burn it to the ground. Over forty speaking parts are played by as many name actors; just as appealing is Maurice Jarre’s stirring, patriotic music score. Brennt Paris?!  Brennt Paris?!


Is Paris Burning?
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1966 / B&W (+ color) / 2:35 widescreen / 173 min. / Street Date August 15, 2023 / Paris brule-t-il? / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Jean-Pierre Cassel, George Chakiris, Bruno Cremer, Claude Dauphin, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Gert Fröbe, Daniel Gélin, Georges Géret, Hannes Messemer, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins, Michel Piccoli, Wolfgang Preiss, Claude Rich, Simone Signoret, Robert Stack, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Skip Ward, Orson Welles, Albert Rémy, Bernard Fresson, Suzy Delair, Patrick Dewaere, Michael Lonsdale, Billy Frick, Joachim Hansen, Günter Meisner, Sacha Pitoëff, Paul Crauchet, E.G. Marshall.
Cinematography: Marcel Grignon
Production Designer: Willy Holt
Art Directors: Marc Frédérix, Pierre Guffroy
Film Editor: Robert Lawrence
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Screenplay by Gore Vidal, Francis Ford Coppola, French and German material by Marcel Moussy, Beate von Molo from the book by Larry Collins, Dominique LaPierre
Produced by Paul Graetz
Directed by
René Clément

France hopes to open a re-built Notre Dame cathedral on the 8th of December, 2024. Watching it burn four years ago was traumatic. But a nearly-forgotten 1965 movie restaged true events from 1944. Retreating German occupiers came very close to burning Paris to the ground, and dynamiting its every nationalist landmark.

Is Paris Burning? (Paris brule-t-il?) is a monster epic, a spectacle of French national pride directed by René Clément, an old-school filmmaker who loved technical challenges. It relates the story of the liberation of Paris from its German occupiers. Perhaps conceived as a national morale booster after France’s messy, divisive exit from Algeria, it’s a celebratory docu-drama ensemble with parts for dozens of name French actors, plus some Germans and Americans. That was the game plan of Darryl Zanuck’s big hit The Longest Day, an all-star extravaganza that found a role for most every Hollywood actor who could to tote a rifle.

Like Paramount’s In Harm’s Way of the previous year, Is Paris Burning? was filmed in B&W, in 35mm Panavision. Both features were blown up to 70mm for fancy initial bookings. The IMDB hints at the political maze the film went through during production, claiming that it was filmed in B&W because Paris officials would allow swastika flags to be flown on the Hotel Meurice only if they were in tones of gray. That sounds like a patriotic gesture, but the real reason for B&W is that it allowed director Clément to interpolate a wealth of archived B&W film footage. Numerous scenes of the occupation are real — the fierce battles in the street, and the astounding celebration when de Gaulle returned, on September 9, 1944.

Clément’s epic fell short of its goals — it went down in the books as a box office failure that, using the words of William Bayer, ‘didn’t capture the exact fantasy the audience wanted to see at a precise moment in time.’ (paraphrase)  Two French producing companies are named but Paramount and Ray Stark may have controlled the script, because the credited screenwriters are the Americans Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. Neither writer touted it as their best work. The nonfiction book they adapted is a compilation of interviews and memoirs. The three-hour film dramatizes three crucial weeks in the Summer of 1944, from the moment that Adolf Hitler dispatches General Dietrich von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe) to Paris, to the day of his surrender. A quick look-up of dates indicates a time frame of August 1 to August 25.

 

A lot happens. Various underground resistance leaders meet in secret, but can’t decide whether to start shooting at von Cholitz’s 20,000-strong occupying force, or to wait for the Allies (who landed at Normandy back on June 6). The Paris police are the first to defy the occupiers by going on strike. Four days later factions of the underground start seizing public buildings, and engaging the German forces that try to dislodge them. The Swedish Consul Nordling (Orson Welles) brokers a cease-fire, that many insurgents ignore. A week later, von Cholitz receives a cable with Hitler’s prime directive:

“Paris must not pass into the enemy’s hands, except as a field of ruins.”

German demolition experts were already mining a hundred key facilities — power stations, all the bridges on the Seine, and dozens of monumental structures, including the Eiffel Tower and Napoleon’s Tomb.

The Allies are not coming to the rescue.

The resistance learns  that the Allied forces plan to bypass Paris: they’ve assumed that the Germans will simply give it up when it’s time to retreat. The resistance Major Roger Gallois (Peter Vaneck) is smuggled through the German lines. He makes contact with the American generals Sibert, Patton and Bradley (Robert Stack, Kirk Douglas & Glenn Ford), and convinces them that the Germans must be forced out right away if Paris is to be saved. His mission succeeds. Eisenhower detaches the French General Leclerc (Claude Rich) to spearhead a tank column to retake the city.

 

In the meantime, General von Cholitz plays a stalling game — ordering his dynamite-happy Captain Ebernach (Wolfgang Preiss) to ready all of his demolition sites, but to await written orders before proceeding. Even with Berlin demanding that the destruction commence, von Cholitz delays. Will Paris be saved?

Is Paris Burning? received mostly negative reviews. Bosley Crowther dismissed it with the argument that everyone knows the city didn’t burn . . . so where’s the suspense?   But knowing the outcome in advance doesn’t invalidate a good drama. That argument crumbles with the first mention of James Cameron’s Titanic.

 

Staying true to its docu-drama concept, the film treats its enormous cast as an ensemble, and elevates Paris itself to star status. René Clément was a master of war pictures, what with his Battle of the Rails, an ode to the resistance of France’s railroaders. His very realistic submarine movie Les maudits was filmed partly on the open sea. For Is Paris Burning? Clement stages scores of set piece action scenes on prime boulevards, violent skirmishes that require taking over entire neighborhoods. Tanks fire shells at rebel-held buildings while civilians with Molotov cocktails sneak up on them across the open spaces of parks and bridges. Trucks burn on street corners and in famous plazas.

 

The street-to-street fighting is shown in chaotic detail. Civilians walk their dogs, unaware they’re in the middle of a battle zone. Thousands turn out to greet Leclerc’s relief column as it nears Paris. The advancing French soldiers are able to phone from the suburbs to tell relatives they’re on their way. The Germans put up tough resistance in some places, while the Allies just roll into others, accepting free drinks from the corner cafes. Von Choltitz can’t get good information from his better-armed but outnumbered troops. The final battle to take the German headquarters is filmed on the Rue de Rivoli where it happened, with an added façade to represent the entrance of the Hotel Meurice.

Filming in B&W allows the use of stunning real footage from 1944, cleverly integrated into the newly filmed material. Director Clément staged new action to match what’s in the real scenes — a 1966 molotov cocktail blows up a truck, which cuts to burning men tumbling out, as filmed in 1944. The accuracy of the recreation allows direct comparison to the old footage — for instance, we can see that the iron ‘fences’ used to reinforce resistance barricades were actually sidewalk gratings, pulled right up off the street.

The French cast is a who’s who of name performers. We’re surprised to see so many familiar faces; we sit with the IMDB at the ready to look up where we’ve seen THAT guy before.  Some stars seem included just to pad the credits with famous names. Typical are married couple Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who have bits as a tank commander and a woman in a bistro. Other celebrities have significant roles to play, like Charles Boyer’s doctor who helps smuggle a messenger through enemy lines. Leslie Caron is given an emotional workout trying to liberate her husband from the SS. It’s the film’s least believable scene. Alain Delon, the star of René Clément’s masterpiece Purple Noon takes the unglamorous role of a resistance executive trying to delay the uprising, on orders from de Gaulle in exile in England. Bruno Cremer of Friedkin’s Sorcerer is Colonel Rol, the top resistance man in Paris.

Favorite Jean-Louis Trintignant is a slimy French Gestapo agent who helps the Germans trap and murder student resistance recruits. Jean-Pierre Cassel gets the plum role of the gallant French lieutenant who storms the Meurice and takes the German commander’s surrender.

 

Other big stars are given rather corny scenes (Anthony Perkins) and a few others (George Chakiris) are barely on screen long enough to wave at the camera. We’re convinced that a Frenchman seen emerging from a manhole cover is Nino Castelnuovo of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but he’s not in the extended cast list. Could he have been overlooked in the flood of credits?

The least imaginative material shows guest stars doing ‘special guest dying’ at the hands of German sniper bullets, etc.. But other actors turn their small roles into memorable moments. Sacha Pitoéff is a resistance chemist who organizes an assembly line to produce molotov cocktails, emptying a wine cellar for its bottles. Günter Meisner’s SS officer is a screaming sadist. Karl-Otto Alberty is a slow-witted SS man dispatched to steal an artwork from the Louvre.

As the Swedish consul, Orson Welles really hustles about — he either believed in his extended role, or director Clément knew how to make him behave. Welles appears to dub his own dialogue, in both English and French. We remember a film review (Time magazine?) that scoffed at the idea of Orson Welles as a Swedish diplomat. Although no such scene seems to be in the movie, the critic credited Welles’ distressed face to a desire to eat a German officer’s sandwich.

 

As we might expect, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s guest shot is a winner. Paris is an open-fire zone. He’s told to race across town and take command of an official ministry-palace known to be in the hands of collaborators. With snipers on the prowl, Belmondo and his girlfriend Marie Versini must crawl with their bicycles to cross a broad avenue. Once at the lavish building, they bluff their way through the protocol. They’re shown an ornate 19th-century bedchamber, which a major-domo says is at their disposal.

The U.S. reviews for Is Paris Burning? cited story clichés, and dismissed as irrelevant the foreign stars that meant little this side of the Atlantic. The star casting for the American generals was a main complaint: Kirk Douglas is a ridiculous choice for General Patton, and Glenn Ford barely has one close-up before exiting the picture. Peter Ford wrote that his father’s 5-day contract came with a three-week stay in Paris, on Paramount’s dime.

The show must have been a political football.

It’s more than likely that every detail in Is Paris Burning? was micro-managed by a French cultural committee. Getting two Frenchmen to agree on the occupation is impossible, which is why the script avoids political controversy. Collaborators?  Petty rivalries?  Betrayals?  We are assured that almost all Frenchmen worked together against the German occupiers. To vote on a course of action, the Resistance executives meet after hours in a Museum. The dissidents in their ranks honor the will of the majority.

Sticklers about history might not be pleased by the marginalization of Communists in the resistance. A leader calmly tells the German commandant that his ranks include Reds, and anti-Reds. The only other mention comes when some naïve students congregate to oppose the occupiers. A pretty girl and a handsome comrade shake hands:

“Hi, I’m from the Young Christian association!” “Young Communist League! Nice to meet you!”

 

The storyline instead nominates the Paris police as the heart of the resistance. The gendarmes are the first to defy the (weakening) occupation and go on strike. But there’s an untold backstory to that. The judicial system and police spent four long years collaborating with the Germans. The Vichy courts made it easy for the Nazis to impose draconian laws, as detailed in Chabrol’s Story of Women. The argument that the French had little choice doesn’t hold up — postwar tribunals gave long prison terms to German judges that abetted the Nazis.

In addition to ducking the issues of collaboration and infighting within the ranks of the resistance, the movie says nothing about Vichy France’s wholesale cooperation with the Nazis’ Final Solution. The prisoners we see being jammed into trains are identified as political dissidents, not Jews.

The film recreates memories of Paris in 1944, just 21 years earlier. Cars are outfitted with natural gas canisters, as there was no gasoline to be had. At one point we see the movie theater where the Germans screened their propaganda films. I assume more expert eyes will find anachronisms, but the only aspect of the movie that gets really low marks is the depiction of the French women on screen. Just as in most American films of the ‘sixties, the period hairstyles and clothing are just wrong. The young resistance women belong in Swinging London, not Starving Paris. When compared to the Parisiennes seen in the authentic old footage, the difference becomes obvious.

 

That’s where the reviewers missed the mark: the film’s hero is the city itself.

When push comes to shove, the movie tells us that France owes a huge debt to General von Choltitz. Paris was saved not by the resistance or Leclerc’s last-minute spearhead, but by a Nazi commander who placed commonsense decency over his military duty. Von Choltitz must exercise extreme caution to avoid a firing squad — for almost a week he hides his disobedience from all but his closest staff, hoodwinking Field Marshals, SS investigators and his own demolition team. Von Choltitz was released in 1947 and lived into the middle 1960s.

The final reel of Is Paris Burning? celebrates with astonishing documentary footage of the liberation. The bells of Notre Dame peal as hundreds of thousands overrun the streets to cheer the city’s survival. Airplanes buzz famous monuments in the long boulevards. The jubilation climaxes in a montage of color aerial footage of Paris from 1966, to show the grandeur of what was spared destruction. The final shot is of the grand cathedral. It’s a breathtakingly happy ending.

Those emotions are heightened by composer Maurice Jarre’s title waltz. The theme is teased throughout the picture, whenever a flag is raised or events turn hopeful. The music becomes a concert piece for the documentary finale. Paris emerged mostly intact from four years of occupation, seemingly by a miracle.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Is Paris Burning? is a fine remaster of this unusual Road Show item. The exterior action scenes indeed have a slightly gritty B&W look, and the interiors are fully-lit studio work. Given an Overture and an Intermission, the show plays out a few minutes shy of three hours. If you plan to watch it in two sessions, know that the Intermission break comes late, at the two-hour mark. The B&W Panavision images show dozens of locations in Paris, familiarizing us with the streets around Notre Dame, and the large park across from the Hotel Meurice.

The quality drops in the footage from 1944, with shots re-formatted for the wide Panavision frame. Paris surely celebrated when the Germans left on August 25, but the giant liberation party appears to have taken place on September 9, when de Gaulle returned. In the news footage we can see the real General Leclerc walking at his side.

Maurice Jarre’s music will remind of his other ’60s soundtrack scores. The main patriotic theme Paris en colére may be his most joyful waltz. With added lyrics it became a hit for singer Mireille Mathieu. It can be heard online, from 1966 and at a commemoration of the Eiffel Tower in 2019. We wouldn’t know if the lyrics are any good, but she sounds magnificent.

 

In an interview before the film’s release, screenwriter Gore Vidal presumed that French, German and American characters would all speak their proper languages. By 1965, even escapist war adventures like Von Ryan’s Express were going multilingual, with subtitles. That’s not what happened. The show comes with one track all in English and another all in French. One of the English tracks is encoded in 5.1 stereo. The French track is preferable until the Americans arrive; the Generals and GIs just don’t sound right speaking French. It’s too bad that Paramount abandoned the ‘international’ track mentioned by Vidal, that would jump between languages as needed. At present, the only Deutsch is heard in the opening sequence in Hitler’s hideaway.

Daniel Kremer and Howard S. Berger recorded the marathon audio commentary, an off-the-cuff conversational track that covers a lot of information on the picture, and wanders off in okay tangents about Hitchcock and Francis Coppola. Three hours is a lot of real estate to cover. We hear plenty of free associating, which also can be rewarding. We were hoping to learn more about those 101 actors with speaking roles, but only the big names merit discussion. I listened to hear if they confirmed the presence of Nino Castelnuovo, but no.

The pair offer a nice discussion of director René Clément’s status as one of the Old Guard French directors declared invalid by the French New Wave. They also note that Orson Welles appeared in no New Wave pictures while guest-acting in a number of more traditional features — but we’d think that’s because Welles was looking for paychecks, not creative challenges under other directors.

A few of the English subtitles seemed late in my screening copy. The subs also omit a key dialogue line. We see a close-up of a telephone and hear a voice calling from Berlin — Brennt Paris?!  Brennt Paris? — with no translation.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Is Paris Burning?
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent French and English tracks
Supplement:
Audio commentary by Daniel Kremer and Howard S. Berger.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
August 16, 2023
(6980burn )
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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dick dinman

Having seen IPB? in the first L.A. preview at the Warner Hollywood I can’t for the life of
me figure out why IPB? seems so much better to me today than it did then. (At the time
I thought it to be a rather muddled and haphazardly directed opus). No longer!

Beowulf

You’re older and wiser now.

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[…] stirring music plays like a concert. It’s like a dry run for his great score for Is Paris Burning? two years later. Kino has been able to retain the Isolated Score Track produced for the older […]

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