ARIS, Jan. 8 —- By his own admission,
Mosco Boucault was looking for a heroic father figure in the early 1980's
when he began combing Paris for elderly foreign Jews who had joined the
French Resistance. As a Bulgarian-born Jew whose father had died shortly
before he came to France at 10 in 1956, he felt drawn to these forgotten
Jewish combatants. As an aspiring movie director, he was also well placed
to tell their story, and a version of his own.
The immediate result was a screenplay in which a Frenchman discovers
that his dead father had been an immigrant Jewish fighter executed by the
Nazis, a fact hidden from him by his mother, who had changed the family
name to disguise her Jewish roots, just as Mr. Boucault's surname was changed
from Levy after he moved to France. He even persuaded Simone Signoret to
play the role of the mother.
"But I then thought the actors will end up assuming the roles," recalled
Mr. Boucault, 54, "and the real people will die without trace." So, instead,
begging Ms. Signoret's pardon, he decided to make a documentary about the
so-called Manouchian Group, an armed unit of Communist immigrants, mainly
Jews from Central Europe, who carried out assassinations and bombings of
Nazi targets in Paris.
Through a handful of survivors, Mr. Boucault hoped to rescue a crucial
piece of Jewish history and to counter the commonplace notion that Jews
did nothing to resist their Nazi executioners.
"Terrorists in Retirement," which is to be seen in Manhattan for two
weeks beginning on Wednesday at the Film Forum in the South Village, achieved
this and more. Between the time Mr. Boucault began shooting the 90-minute
documentary in 1982 and its single broadcast on French television in 1985,
it also provoked a heated debate that mirrored France's growing discomfiture
over its wartime role.
The movie focuses on seven Jews, five from Poland and two from Romania,
all Communists, who were among some 200 members of a "direct action" hit
group called the Immigrant Workers (Main d'Oeuvre Immigrée), which
was in turn linked to the Communist Party's Francs- Tireurs et Partisans.
Best known by its initials, F.T.P.-M.O.I., the group was almost alone in
1942 and 1943 in targeting Nazi officers, hotels, military convoys and
even Paris cafes and nightclubs frequented by the occupiers.
After its leader, Missak Manouchian, an Armenian poet, and 22 others
were arrested in late 1943 and executed on Feb. 21, 1944, the Nazis plastered
Paris with a red poster carrying the photographs of a dozen of them and
denouncing them as "Jewish, Armenian and other stateless terrorists." After
the war, however, the poster became a badge of honor: Louis Aragon wrote
a poem, "L'Affiche Rouge" ("The Red Poster"), which Leo Ferré put
to music; two decades later Philippe Ganier-Raymond's book by the same
name helped inspire Mr. Boucault's film. In the movie, the old combatants,
several of them still working as tailors in eastern Paris, tell the story
of their flight to France in the 1930's and their shock when Stalin signed
a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939. As loyal Communists, they obeyed
instructions to accept Germany's conquest of France in June 1940, but they
were also delighted when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in July 1941:
at last the French Communist Party was under orders from Moscow to terrorize
the Nazi occupation forces.
Mr. Boucault said that at times it was hard to follow the men as they
excitedly recounted their guerrilla actions, so he persuaded them to re-
enact some dramatic moments on the streets of Paris, even to the point
of having them wave pistols and hurry down escape paths. "I thought, `Why
not recall the incidents with movements as well as words?' " he said. "And
they really got caught up it in all. I think they enjoyed going back to
When they came to discussing the circumstances of the roundup of the
group, however, things became more complicated. There was consensus that
they were betrayed by one of their number, Joseph Davidovitch, who was
arrested and tortured by the Nazis (before being released and shot by the
Resistance). But some survivors also felt the French Communist Party had
sacrificed the unit by refusing to smuggle vital Jewish combatants out
of Paris after the French police began to tail them.
This was certainly the view held by Manouchian's widow, Melinée.
In the last letter she received from her husband before his execution,
he said that he forgave everyone except "the one who betrayed us to save
his skin and those who sold us." For her and several others, foreign Jews
who joined the Resistance because "they had nothing to lose" were not given
the same protection as French Communists. For some, the Communist Party
even preferred to have heroes with more French names than, say, Mitzflicker,
Gronowski and Rayski.
"I had wanted to show that Jews were not only victims," Mr. Boucault
recalled, "and I learned only later of the Communist betrayal." It was
this charge, however, that almost sank his film. After he made it for the
government television channel Antenne-2, the documentary sat on a shelf
until it was finally set for broadcast in June 1985. The French Communist
Party, which from 1982 to 1984 had been part of President François
Mitterrand's Socialist-led coalition, immediately protested.
The channel then sought the view of the government's High Authority
of Audiovisual Communication, which in turn consulted five Resistance heroes.
They criticized the film, and Antenne-2 canceled it. A fierce debate followed,
with charges of censorship pouring in, including from Ms. Signoret, who
had recorded the voice-over commentary. One month after originally scheduled,
the film was finally shown.
The controversy proved useful. Not only did the film draw a large audience,
but it also threw the spotlight on neglected Jewish heroes and added momentum
to cautious moves to look afresh at France's wartime record. Today "Terrorists
in Retirement" would no longer provoke discord here, partly because the
Communist Party is now a shadow of its old self, but, more important, because
little remains of the Gaullist myth that France stood firm against the
Movies, books and two war-crimes trials of French collaborators, Paul
Touvier and Maurice Papon, have told a less uplifting story of the deep
involvement of the collaborationist Vichy regime and of the French police
and militia in the deportation of 76,000 Jews from France to Nazi death
camps. Inevitably, though, this new information has reinforced the image
of Jews as victims. With three of the film's "terrorists" still alive,
perhaps it is time for the documentary to be shown again in France.