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"Is Paris Burning?" Hitler reportedly demanded an answer to this question in August 1944 as the City of Light slipped from his grasp. His orders to General Dietrich von Choltitz (the German military commander of Paris) were to destroy the city rather than let it fall into Allied hands. On the eve of Paris' liberation, explosives had been set around the city - but they were never detonated. Many believe von Choltitz ignored Hitler's orders and spared Paris. Others credit French resistance fighters with rescuing the city while some cite growing Allied pressure as the key to the city's salvation. The film Is Paris Burning? (1966) tells the story of the city's liberation on each of these fronts - from the German high command, to the French underground, to the Allied invasion forces - presenting a complex picture of the final days of occupied Paris.
The film was originally made in French, English and German (with each group speaking its own language). For the US release, the French sections of Is Paris Burning? were dubbed into English. Many of the actors (such as Leslie Caron and Charles Boyer) dubbed their own dialogue. The German sections were subtitled. The film itself was a genuine international effort and its cast reads like a who's who of world cinema. There's Orson Welles as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling, Anthony Perkins as a young sergeant and Leslie Caron as a wife searching for her captured husband. Kirk Douglas and Glenn Ford play key roles with Douglas as General Patton and Ford as General Bradley. Charles Boyer plays resistance leader Monod, Simone Signoret appears as a cafe owner and French heartthrobs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon portray resistance fighters. And the entire picture revolves around General von Choltitz, played by Gert Frobe, the title villain from the James Bond adventure, Goldfinger (1964).
Is Paris Burning? was directed by Rene Clement, the French director best known for his Oscar®-winning Best Foreign Language film Forbidden Games in 1952. Based on a book of the same title by journalists Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, Is Paris Burning? was adapted for the screen by Francis Ford Coppola, Gore Vidal and others. Composer Maurice Jarre, who had previously won Oscars® for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) wrote the score.
Paul Graetz, the producer of Is Paris Burning?, deserves special credit for his painstaking attention to detail. For purposes of authenticity, he enlisted the help of the French army, various Parisian ministries and branches of the French government in every aspect of the production, from acquiring period military gear to shooting on actual locations. For example, the rail yard sequence where Welles and Caron go in search of a missing person was filmed in the actual location where many Parisians were shipped off to concentration camps; many of the extras used, in fact, had been living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. In the case where actual locations were not available, replicas were built and filmed at the French army base at Satory, near Versailles. Unfortunately, Graetz never got an opportunity to see the completed film; he died of a heart attack - possibly caused by the pressures of filmmaking - only a few weeks after production wrapped.
The film would be nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Its black-and-white photography evoked the quality of a newsreel, seamlessly integrating 1944 footage with new material shot in 1965. According to production notes, the decision to shoot in black-and-white was based partially on the French authorities' refusal to allow red and black Nazi flags to fly in Paris. Only black and gray flags were allowed for filming. Nevertheless, the appearance of extras in German uniforms was enough to cause a commotion. In one reported incident, a French postman fell off his bike, shouting "they're back!" when he spotted some 'soldiers' on lunch break.
Is Paris Burning? showcases the grandeur of Paris while establishing an underlying sense of urgency about the city's future. It contemplates a world with no Eiffel Tower, no Notre Dame, no Louvre. Hitler's orders were to destroy not only bridges and key military positions, but anything of value. In Is Paris Burning?, even General von Choltitz is moved by the futility of such destruction - realizing the war was lost and nothing could be gained by destroying one of the world's most beautiful cities. He signed a truce with the French Resistance forces on August 25, 1944 and surrendered the city. Von Choltitz was held in a US POW camp until 1947. He then returned to Germany where he died in 1966.
Producer: Paul Graetz
Director: Rene Clement
Screenplay: Larry Collins (book), Dominique LaPierre (book), Gore Vidal, Francis Ford Coppola, Marcel Moussy, Beate von Molo, Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, Claude Brule
Cinematography: Marcel Grignon
Film Editing: Robert Lawrence
Art Direction: Marc Frederix, Pierre Guffroy
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Pierreflot/Morandat), Charles Boyer (Docteur Monod), Gert Frobe (General Dietrich von Choltitz), Orson Welles (Consul Raoul Nordling), Leslie Caron (Francoise Labe), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Lieutenant Henri Karcher).
BW & C-173m. Letterboxed.
by Stephanie Thames