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PIERRE SAUVAGE: Documenting Heroes of the Holocaust

December 09, 1990|Susan King

Film-maker Pierre Sauvage, who is Jewish, was born 47 years ago in Nazi-occupied France in Le Chambon, a tiny farming village in the mountains about 350 miles southeast of Paris.

At that time, thousands of Jews were being turned over by the French to the Germans for deportation. But the small Protestant peasant community became a refuge for more than 5,000 Jews, many of them children. No one in the village ever betrayed the refugees.

Eight years ago, Sauvage returned to Le Chambon to make "Weapons of the Spirit," the acclaimed feature documentary about the townspeople who saved thousands of lives, including his own.

On Wednesday, PBS premieres "Weapons of the Spirit," preceded by an introduction by journalist Bill Moyers and a Moyers interview with Sauvage.

Sauvage discussed his odyssey of making "Weapons of the Spirit" with Susan King.

Did the world know of Le Chambon until your film?

There was a book written about 10 years ago, but by and large, until the film, the story remained very obscure.

Was this film something you had planned for several years?

Actually, I decided to do it pretty quickly and was able to start shooting pretty quickly. But unfortunately, I only had the resources to shoot, not to edit or put it together, so that was a problem throughout the rest of the process.

But in addition, it was simply a difficult subject for me to understand. I really hadn't been, in a sense, prepared to deal with such a subject. I come from a very anti-religious background, and here I was planning to make a film in praise of committed Christians.

Anti-religious?

Well, I was brought up in an extremely un-Jewish home, insofar as my parents kept the fact they were Jewish a secret. In fact they kept it from me. I only learned I was Jewish when I was 18. The film was an attempt to connect with an identity and with roots which had been severed.

It must have been an amazing experience then to go back to the town where you were born.

In a sense, every trip back there has been an amazing experience. That trip to make the film was an extraordinary experience. For anybody to be able to reconstruct the circumstances of his or her birth is lucky under any circumstance.

In my case, it was a historical event of some importance, but there was also the mere challenge of making the film and concern if these people would cooperate. It was so much against their nature to talk about what they did, to attach importance to it, and here I was asking them to not just to talk about it, but to lend me their own photographs and allow me to make them characters in a film. That was certainly of great concern to them.

Did it take you a long time to win their confidence?

I can't say it actually took a long time, but I started with people that I knew already. I started with people who had helped my parents. They weren't going to turn me down. I think when people found out that I had been born there, there was a sense of trust that developed very quickly.

Watching the documentary, one is struck by the fact the townspeople seem so matter-of-fact about what they did.

That's exactly right. That was the single most surprising thing I learned about them in the course of trying to understand all of this better. People who do such things with their lives under any circumstance are far from being people who agonize over the decision and make a big deal about it.

They are people who do it because it appears to them to be the only thing to do and hence, when they express surprise when people consider it a big deal, this isn't modesty. They are doing what comes naturally to them. And they can't understand how anybody could consider that they would have done anything else.

Have many of the Jews who were hidden by the townspeople returned?

There are a number who have returned periodically. There was a reunion, in fact, which took place in October which was a big event. It was also the occasion of the local premiere of my film. It was the first time the villagers were seeing the film.

What was their reaction?

It was a very exciting experience. The most important thing to me was that they liked the film. I don't think there was any other approval that mattered more to me than theirs.

The film, while attempting to preserve their simplicity, underscores how special they were for us. And I knew that would make some of them uncomfortable, but I think they measured that I had tried not to make cardboard heroes out of them and not to sentimentalize them. They were very responsive. That was very moving to me.

Is the film currently in theaters in France?

At the same time we had the premiere in Le Chambon, it was opening in Paris. It is doing well. I think that the response by people in the audience has been extremely good. The response by the press has been very good, but hesitant. These are still subjects that the French are not thrilled to talk about.

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