In very short:

There are several films that deal with France's troubled struggle within World War II, but “Un héros très discret” is one of the most recent and perhaps the most interesting from a stylistic and thematic point of view.

Plot synopsis:

“I’ll tell you a story. During the Winter of 1944-45, the U.S. Army broke through the Siegfried Line. Two years later, a French mine-clearing crew was demolishing the remains of the blockhouses. Suddenly through a hole in the ground there appeared a group of thin, blind, ghostly figures. With great long beards. There were six of them. The sole survivors of a German army division. Two years before, the U.S. bombardments had flattened their bunker, trapping them inside. They had food, they drank moisture from the walls. They lost all sense of time. They survived from habit, living like vegetables, mushrooms or moss. The war passed over their heads, and they were forgotten. The point of this story, is that within a few days of being rescued, all six of them died. The cause of their death was a mystery. Was it a virus? Some new disease? I know why they died. They could no longer face real life, that’s all. I think I’m the same. I never could face up to real life. Some one once said “The best lives are invented”. I think it was me.” (Albert Dehousse)

“Un Héros” is a comedy – a dark one certainly, but it happily deals with many of the guilt-ridden themes brought about by World War II. A man who, during the war period, remains ridiculously cocooned and unaware of things going on around him is suddenly thrust into a world of lies and ultimate power as a consequence.

The film first shows our hero (anti-hero?) Albert Dehousse (played by Mathieu Kassovitz, who also directed La Haine) as a young boy reading fantastical novels, creating his own little world from his secluded bedroom and the fantasy being broken by his mother calling him to eat his lunch. The lies start early on, but are nevertheless significant and soon, a feeble lie to answer the question “qu’est-ce tu fait dans la vie?” results in a marriage to the daughter of a Resistance chief.

A sudden moment of realisation – of the war and what it means to live as a dull neutral (non-collaborator / non-resistant) in the post-war period, spurs Dehousse on to a mission that although seems unplanned and arbitrary, nevertheless produces remarkable results. The path to power and acclaim for a “self-made hero” is the subject of the remainder of the film resulting in a climatic and yet somehow comic finale.

Discussion of the themes in the film and the effects used to show these themes

The theme of lies versus truth is prominent throughout – the use of light / dark contrasts in the cinematography mirrors this very well. This contrast also brings into focus the more serious and general questions of France's history – Collaboration versus Resistance, Pétain versus De Gaulle, Vichy versus Free-France. And of course the impossible question – what would you do in that situation? Would you resist, collaborate or remain inactive and by choosing the latter where you in fact collaborating unaware? In the aftermath, could you cope with being seen as a non-entity or a coward? Dehousse is not the only false hero within the film either – he comes across many such individuals on his path to fame and glory – Monsieur Jo and most notably “le capitaine” who encourages Dehousse to “invent everything from A to Z”. And yet, we do not despise Dehousse for his lies, we come to admire his ingenuity and also his profound luck – being in the right place at the right time. We are also made aware of how easy this must have been for people to have done in reality, to pass themselves off as heros when in fact they did little or nothing, or even worse, collaborated with the Nazi occupier and then recreated a new life as Resistance hero in the post-war period. We know that this has actually happened to some extent – Maurice Papon is a case in point, a man who effortlessly eased himself from pen-pusher for the Vichy government to Prefect de la Police in Paris after the war. Papon was eventually questioned over his part in the Final Solution and his Nazi collaboration, we wonder whether our fictional “hero” Dehousse will be discovered for what he really is too?

The string ensemble with its percussive accompaniment interrupts the action at regular intervals. Is this to remind us that the life of Dehousse is orchestrated or composed just like the piece of music? The music reaches its frenetic climax as the result of the lies reach their perturbing dénouement.

Dehousse’s “imagination” is also pointed out early on, as if to fore-warn us of what this bodes for his future. He invents scenarios in his childhood bedroom – playing different characters, pretending to smoke a cigarette and taking the pretence so far as to even bother to supposedly stub it out when he is rudely awakened from his dream world. The fact that he invents himself as a writer in order to gain the affection of his wife is then followed by a period of having to make the pretence into something of a reality – i.e. actually writing some of the novel he claims to be working on. His succession of jobs are all equally in the realm of pretence. A job in Sales – the ultimate “sleeping with the devil” job – lie to people in order for them to buy your goods – put on your best smile – affect your best sales pitch. All of this is a prelude to his ultimate lie which is happily ingested by those who surround him – to the extent that lies perpetuate lies – the use of “intereview footage” of those who knew Dehousse, claim to have worked with him, to have met him, make his “success” all the more convincing and real.

About the cinematography

This film is beautifully crafted. The story in itself is fascinating and brings many ethical questions to mind and yet, in a similar way to “La Vita e bella” it manages to use comedy for a dark subject in a most brilliant way. The acting is superb – Kassovitz is innocently charming as the young Dehousse, Trintignant is provocative, serious and alluring as the older version who introduces and closes the film. We are drawn in by the character, we are captivated by him despite knowing that what he is doing is wrong. This is the key to the films success – a character who in essence possesses traits that one would normally despise becomes somebody whom we admire.

In an historical perspective...

France's experience of World War II was not a happy one. As an occupied country, outwardly collaborating with the Nazi regime via the Vichy government, it ultimately faced a very difficult period of guilt and self reproach in the post-war period. For the average Frenchman or woman during the war – the ultimate question was – should one resist, collaborate or stay inactive? And by staying inactive, are you in effect a silent collaborator? All of these are questions that this film address.

The Milice were more numerous than the Resistance – a little known truth because, the propaganda of De Gaulle and Churchill was so potent in the post-war period and ultimately remained in place for a long time. The picture is of a down-trodden but nevertheless valiant France opposing the Nazis throughout. This is understandable for the sake of national continuity in a very vulnerable period in French history, but it has meant that the truth about France's part in WWII and therefore the final solution, has been clouded and denied to an extent until the recent public trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon. The latter took place in 1996 – this was somebody who could finally be considered a “real” frenchman “one of our own” – he held the position of Secretary General for the Gironde region - a civil servant who wrote lists of jews to be put to death. He became Paris police chief after the war and then worked as Budget Minister within the government of Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. This was France facing it's history – and not the one perpetuated in text books for so long.

“Feel this light. This warmth. I’ve always loved it. That’s what we should keep inventing. When death comes, we’ll lie to it. We’ll say it’s too early, it’s got the wrong guy. You know what? We’ll give it the address of some evil bastard. That’s what. In the end, only real human beings will be left. Good people. Like you and me. What do you think? Was it good? Did I look natural?” (Albert Dehousse)

Film stats:

Original title: “Un héros très discret” English title: "A self-made hero" Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenplay: Alain Le Henry and Jacques Audiard
Photography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Producer: Patrick Godeau
Available on “Artificial Eye” video. French with English Subtitles.
Actors: Mathieu Kassovitz, Anouk Grinberg, Sandrine Kiberlain, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Albert Dupontel.

For further viewing:

Nuit et Brouillard” (Alain Resnais)
L’Oeil de Vichy” (Claude Chabrol)
Le Dernier métro”(François Truffaut)
Lacombe, Lucien” (Louis Malle)
Au Revoir les Enfants” (Louis Malle)

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