War Stories- Jackie Morrissey

He found the old woman disturbing.  It wasn’t exactly anything she did, more what she didn’t do.  Speak, for example.  Each morning, as he entered the dining room, he offered her a polite ‘bonjour’ in his best French accent, and each morning she met this with a long look, followed by what sounded like a snort.  And she stared.  Often, mid anecdote at the breakfast table (and he prided himself that he was a good raconteur) he would spot her from the corner of his eye, her black gaze fixed on him with just a hint of scorn.  It upset him, although, since she spoke no English as far as he could tell, her scorn could hardly originate in criticism of his stories.  No, he knew it couldn’t be anything personal, but it bothered him all the same.

He worked hard to get along with the communities he wound up in.  It was important to get them onside, and fortunately, most found the presence of a film crew glamorous enough to forgive a great deal of inconvenience. The old woman excepted, people in this little French mountain village had been very accommodating. It helped that they had arrived off season.  The whole crew had booked into a local hostelry which did its main business in the summer.  It had a small winter trade for those using the ski slopes higher up, but it was not well situated for that.  The winters were sleepy times, often snowbound.  The restaurant part of the business, once a village shop, had been extended to barn-like proportions to accommodate summer coach tourism.  From October to May however, most of the space was screened off, and the place catered mainly for locals in search of Sunday lunch.  The film crew were a bonanza for the couple who ran it. They were delighted with the business, and accepted requests for vegetarian meals and egg-white omelettes with apparent equilibrium, although the locals favoured beef and pasta stews or bloody steaks. Only Grandmère seemed less than welcoming.  Oh well. ‘C’est la vie,’ he said, as he completed a witty account of the situation to a colleague.  It wasn’t important.

The film’s subject, at least, was one geared to win French hearts and minds. The French Resistance.   Every local he met had stories to tell.  Those too young to have direct memories told instead of heroic deeds performed by their parents or grandparents in the Maquis, and of atrocities committed by the Boche.  The massacre at Oradour sur Glane, a village in central France, was mentioned more than once. Although he listened with polite interest, the stories had little affect on his plans.  He had a brilliant script already, and a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve.  This would not be a simple war adventure tale with good guys and bad guys. He had done his share of those. No, this film was going to be a post-modernist masterpiece. It would present the conflicting narratives of the protagonists in a non-linear temporal exploration of the moral relativity of war. This one would win him the intellectually heavyweight praise which had so far eluded him.  He felt it in his bones.  

These subtleties did not impinge upon the enthusiastic extras, locals delighted to earn some money by dressing up like resistance fighters, clutching rifles and leaping heroically among the rocks and snow.  There were fewer in line for the German roles, although some were star-struck enough to take any film part on offer, and others just wanted the money.   

The lead actors were more of a problem.  The main love interest, a rising star described by Film Fan magazine as combining the vulnerability of Munroe with the toughness of Bette Davis, wanted a body double for the cold outdoor takes.  He said no, of course (what sort of budget did she think he had?), but she had promptly developed ‘flu, and lost them several valuable days shooting.  She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t told from the start of filming which of the men she ended up with. His explanation about maintaining the mystery in order to get the best performance from her had been taken as an insult to her acting ability.  He had tried explaining how, in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman didn’t know whether she went with Rick or Victor until the final shoot, but she hadn’t seen that movie. He suspected she didn’t know who Bergman was. After a day of that sort of thing, returning to face the old woman’s dark scrutiny really got to him.

His days had developed a pattern. Up early – first light – and out on location. Some mornings they even began in the dark, shooting the night scenes in the empty village streets and surrounding lanes and fields. The working day was long; they stayed out as long as the light held and often beyond, returning for dinner in the late evening.  Discussion of the day’s work continued throughout the meal, and often extended into the night, as they moved to the bar and settled in front of the fire with their drinks. The owner, now acting barman, was friendly and efficient. The dinner, and postprandial brandy, blurred the impact of the malevolent old woman in the corner.  Sometimes, in a haze of goodwill and alcohol, he even thought of putting her into the movie – he could imagine her impassive peasant face, peering from a black shawl, watching as the German army moved through the village, or the resistance fighter get shot.  Somehow, he didn’t dare suggest it though.  He had once asked the patron whether she had any stories of the war years, but the man had shaken his head:  

‘No. It was quiet here, just farmers.  Not many strangers came to the mountains in those days.  There were some Germans stationed a few miles away, but never any problems.’   

He could believe it. The place must have been a complete backwater, cut off for much of the winter, and catering for a small and inbred population of farmers with no interests beyond the pigs and the harvest. The local dialect, still evident in random words and phrases used among the old people, wasn’t even French, as far as he could tell.

As locations went, it was dull but comfortable, and the food was good. He would have been happy, had it not been for the difficulties in explaining his vision to the lead actors.  He despised actors.  Vain, stupid, greedy…  in the old days,  directors had power and actors were nothing,  but now it was essential to humour them in order to get the best performances.  He was diplomatic.  His actors liked him, mostly, and did not suspect his true opinion.  The situation could become tense, though, when they tried to rewrite his script.  

The leading man was sulking about his character – the French resistance hero.  He didn’t like the denouement, where the man was revealed to have a dark side, as he betrayed a comrade in a fit of sexual jealousy. ‘My character just wouldn’t do that, he just wouldn’t,’ he kept bleating.   The German soldier, a complex character who justifies reprisal executions of hostages, yet falls in love with the Resistance heroine, did not like the fact that in the end, he chooses duty to the fatherland over love, and betrays her.  The leading lady was upset that she escapes, in unheroic fashion, by sleeping with another German officer, and leaving with him for Paris.  They all wanted an old style war movie, with glamorous and heroic roles for all, but that wasn’t his game.  He wanted to show the reality, the view from each flawed character, no heroes. His American (there had to be an American, or nobody would watch the film at home) was a sort of strong, neutral presence, putting the story together after the liberation, and in the end pleased to get home to the US, away from other people’s wars and dirty secrets.

It wasn’t just the actors being stroppy, either.  As the project approached its end, some locals had begun to mutter.  A rumour had spread that it was a pro-German movie. He had to buy a lot of drinks in order to squash that one. Others, spotting the heroine’s tryst with the German, had also disapproved, insisting that no French woman of the area would have collaborated in such a way.  He held his tongue, but was tempted to mention the deportation of Jews from France during the war, a process in which the French police had collaborated with enthusiasm.  He was himself half Jewish.  Collaboration was a major industry here he said, in a sour aside to the cameraman following an exchange with a local shopkeeper, but he kept such thoughts for his fellow countrymen.  

As he explained to the patron that last night, while drinking a third brandy to celebrate the completion of filming,  he would show every side, the complex narratives of individuals, not the imposed meta-narrative of history or politicians (he liked that phrase, and thought it would be one to remember for the press interviews).   The Resistance hero cannot help his jealousy and betrayal, since he was abandoned by his mother as a child, and this unresolved conflict re-emerges when the woman he loves sleeps with another.  The female lead thinks she is a cool, idealistic heroine, but ultimately sees that she is really a woman of passion, whose life force is too strong to permit her to die for a cause (and who could blame her).  The German is damaged by his upbringing and training, and cannot break free of his belief in his moral duty.  Really, of course, in an ironic twist, he is the nearest thing to a classical hero, since he holds firm to his beliefs, but these require him to turn in his lover…  

The patron seemed impressed, but the old woman chose that moment to spit into the fire.   He wondered again how much English she understood. The patron’s eyes flicked towards her as he replied.  

‘It sounds wonderful.  It will be such a good thing for our area, to have a big film set here, the tourists…’  

He broke off at this point and spoke to his mother in rapid French. The film maker understood that he was translating, as the word ‘tourist’ was much the same in both languages.  The rapid speech was too fast for his limited school French, but the tone seemed to convey a warning.  He guessed the patron was trying to keep the old woman in check by reminding her of their livelihood.   She really was a miserable old hag. It seemed to him that she had hovered over his enterprise like some sort of bad fairy, ill-wishing the project.  He was not a superstitious man, but he believed that, somehow, bad vibes affected performance.  His mood was dropping.  It always did once filming was completed.  Suddenly, he felt less sure about the movie. Maybe nobody would get it.  At fifty, he needed some recognition. He was entitled to it; he was clever and hard-working. He felt like a fight.

‘And you, Madame,’ he said to the old woman, cutting across the patron’s speech, ‘what do you remember of the war?’

She looked surprised at his address, but responded with a dismissive shrug before turning back to her drink.

‘My mother has very little English, I’m sorry, she does not understand,’ said the patron, ‘perhaps I can give you another brandy, “on the house” – is that the right way to say it?  To celebrate the end?’

The film maker nodded, although he had heard that alcohol was a depressant, and his mood was dropping by the minute. He rested his head in his hands.  A silence pervaded the bar as the owner moved away to sort bottles in the back, and the producer closed his eyes and drifted into thought.  The old woman’s croaky voice brought him back with a start.

‘And the American…the soldier, what does he do in this film of yours?’

Her unexpected speech disorientated him.  She was as crow-like as ever, still watching him with a malevolent intensity.

‘Well, he’s not really involved in things, you know? He comes in to clear up the mess. I wanted to make the film about ‘old Europe’,  that sort of thing, acting out historic animosities, people trapped in their own hatreds…Even the characters can be read as metaphors, you see, damaged by their histories…’

He thought he might be getting too complicated here, so he cut that line of explanation short.

‘Really, the American is not involved. He’s a device to tell the story, and his investigation into events is to show how dirty war is, and how everybody is contaminated by it. He goes home with an insight into things, and an appreciation of life back home…This film will break taboos, it will tell the stories nobody wants to hear, not the myths…’

The old woman fixed her eyes on him without speaking.  He picked up his drink, but found her impossible to ignore.  Eventually, he decided to confront her full on.

‘Well?  I suppose you think I should have stuck to showing the dirty Boche killing heroic French people?  I’m not into fairy tales.  My film will show the full complexity of human existence…I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but I am committed to my artistic vision… I don’t expect you to understand.’

He was aware, as he spoke, that drink was making him seem pompous, perhaps ridiculous. The old woman got up, without comment.  She moved towards the door with a slow and heavy tread, but stopped before leaving. She spoke without looking at him.

‘I remember the war,’ she said.  ‘For us, it was quiet. The Germans around here, they did not …interfere… with us, with our lives. They were young – country boys, glad to be in a safe place, with no fighting. They paid for their provisions, top price, no problem. The Maquis – bah! Braqueurs. City thieves, from Marseille. They took what they wanted, and put a gun to our heads if we argued.  And then the Americans came, and raped my sister.’

She paused and turned her eyes to his face, as if to gauge his reaction.  After several seconds of this scrutiny, she flapped her hand at him in a dismissive gesture.

‘Put that into your film, Mr Film maker, into your vision, and then tell to me about fairy tales, and stories nobody wants to hear.’

With that she heaved herself out the door, which closed behind her with a sharp click.  The patron, embarrassed, looked away.  After a minute, he spoke.

‘My mother is very old, she is indiscreet, please ignore her.  It is true that my aunt was raped after the liberation, but the Americans were very fair, they hanged the ringleader, and disciplined the others. These things happen in war. Nobody wants to know about such stories, and why should they?  Your story will be far more interesting. Another brandy?’

The film maker declined. On his way to bed, he had a sense of deep foreboding.  This one wouldn’t win an award either.

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