July 08, 2008

La Veuve de St Pierre: Responsibility and Orders

A central problem at the Nuremberg trial was, for those who do not remember it, a simple legal problem. Are you guilty of a crime if your excuse for committing it is that you were just following orders? It is a problem larger than the circumstances of Nuremberg merely- the trials established the principle in international law that you are guilty of any crime you commit, no matter the orders which force you into doing it. It is a philosophical problem whose pedigree stretches back in time- it was discussed for example during the Putney debates in the English Civil War. But it also has a contemporary salience- as the film La Veuve de St Pierre (the widow of St Pierre) describes. The film is set in the nineteenth century, 1849-50 to be precise, on the small French colony of St Pierre just off the coast of Newfoundland, the last remnant of French imperial possessions in North America. Two men murder an old fisherman. They are convicted: one of them dies swiftly following conviction but the other remains alive and is sentenced to the guillotine- which gives the title a double resonance, the guillotine in 19th Century French slang was called La Veuve- but the island has no guillotine and no executioner and so he has to wait, a prisoner, for the guillotine to arrive from Martinique and for an executioner to be found on the island.

Whilst he waits he becomes an object of sympathy for the commander of the garrison's wife, played by Juliette Binoche. She befriends him, gets him to plant her garden and eventually turns him into a model citizen on the island. He rebuilds the roofs of houses, takes sledges around, stops carriages wrecking cafes, generally is a good help and a good man. He even finds a wife on the island- getting her with child and then getting married to her. This creates a good amount of gossip- what exactly binds the Captain's wife to the prisoner, furthermore it puts pressure on the Captain himself. He is accused of fraternising with a prisoner, eventually he is accused of neglecting his legal duty and of sedition. The point of the story is less the redemption of a murderer, than the difficulties that that redemption creates. The murderer is in my view redeemed far too easily- the message of the film could be caricatured as give up drink and all your problems will disappear. But that is not a realistic message. What is realistic, what does make sense is the dilemma that such a miraculous transformation has for two individuals that it really impacts upon- the Captain and his wife. They are caught between the town officials, keen that justice take its course and that the majesty of law and state be respected, and the local populace with their own inclinations, which do not see the point of executing a good man.

That dilemma places them in a difficult position. At one point in the film, one character basically says that either the prisoner dies or you die- he is not at that point referring to the captain but he could as well be. The issue is that stark and it is the Nuremberg principle- at which point do you disobey what is an unjust order- at which point do you stop the process that leads to a crime by the state. The captain and his wife are in different positions here. For her sympathy is easy- it comes with no price- and her sympathy whilst it is more wideranging and impressive to the viewer of the film is also easier. She can afford compassion, she can afford to cry when the prisoner marries because his wife will soon be a widow. The Captain though has always a double pressure- his sympathy is constrained. The drama of the film is really the decision that he has to make about his future- does he lay down his life for a principle? Viewing the film in this way it makes much more sense. His love for his wife- which we see again and again through the movie- is weighed against his fears for her as a widow. His professionalism is weighed against his sense that this is the wrong thing to do and that he should stop it insofar as he has the power to, even if that delay or stop is ruinous for himself. In the end, he does make a decision- and from the first moment of the film when Binoche addresses us in the garb of a widow, we know what that decision will be. It is a brave decision and ultimately a futile one- but what it does is save his conscience at the cost of his life.

The film places this story into a stark landscape of northern mist, fog and snow. This is a beautifully filmed film- Binoche gives the kind of sensitive and thoughtful performance that we have come to expect from an actress of her standing. Daniel Auteil playing her husband is as I have argued the most interesting character, but he also gives a fantastic performance and the rest of the cast is good too. But it is more than that, the scenery and photography makes this a slow watch but an impressive one. Occasionally the director, one feels, has sacraficed speed for the enjoyment of a langorous shot of the landscape. There are some lovely movements with the camera, one can feel through the shooting the way that justice is often a matter of violence as much as of judgement. Foucault got that right in his histories of punishment and Leconte is eager to show us here, the impulsive violence that lies behind the system of courts and conviction. There is a semi-fascistic tone to this all, very much an emergence out of a France still reeling decades later from the memory of Vichy. Vichy permeates this film, it surrounds it and is embedded within it- indeed the point of the film is really about the responsibilities of minor officials when totalitarian or tyrannical government becomes the mode of the day. That has obvious resonances for European and world history in the 20th Century.

Coming back to Nuremberg, the most interesting issue there was of course the futility of resistance. If I don't agree to take a job at Auschwitz, somebody else will. What La Veuve de St Pierre argues is that that doesn't matter. It is still important to take the right decision, no matter whether realistically it can have any effect. We should revel in those who contradict through conscience the mistakes of their state and their government. Reading the film as a tract against the death penalty locates the drama in the wrong place- the characterisation of the convict is too thin to warrant an impressive argument- reading it as a treatment of the Nuremberg issue makes much more sense of the film and is a much more interesting argument.


Ian Appleby said...

This is a fascinating counterweight to the American production, Band of Brothers, that I am currently contemplating upon. Essentially, that series' message seems to be that the heroes are those who do follow orders, regardless of the effects upon themselves, both physically and emotionally, or on others. Of course, the history of WWII is written by the victors; here, even the one US soldier who is depicted committing a war crime, the officer who shoots PoWs, is effectively redeemed by his valour in combat.

Naturally, a 'good' soldier is one who follows orders unquestioningly, but as you imply in this post, to what extent is the adjective being misapplied here?