Ag dul chuig pictiúrlann, 2/2

Although I was a frequent cinema-goer during the 1960s, it was impossible to see every movie that came to town. Some cinemas, like the Carlton, changed their programmes every week.  Others, such as the Ambassador, charged top dollar for the big money-spinners, e.g. My Fair Lady, making them unaffordable for an impoverished schoolboy like me. Nevertheless, time and cash permitting, I kept up as best I could with the latest productions from Hollywood and British studios.

Many of these films focused on some aspect of World War II. Audiences could not get enough of films like The Guns of Navarone, The Longest Day, or The Desert Fox. One commentator has suggested that the enduring popularity of World War II on celluloid is due to the subject's perceived “moral certainties”.[1]  In the 1960s there was no doubting who the heroes were. The movies I saw were made by the victors, i.e. America and Britain, and so the Germans and Japanese were always portrayed as the “enemy”.

Recently I watched one of the few World War II epics I missed the first time around. Is Paris Burning? tells the story of the liberation of the French capital from Nazi rule. The title reflects the orders issued by Adolf Hitler to destroy the city lest it fall into Allied hands. It’s no plot spoiler to confirm that Paris survived Hitler’s threat.

The movie is set in the late summer of 1944 as the War turned against Germany. What we don’t see to any great extent is what life was like for ordinary Parisians before the liberation. So other sources are needed to fill the gap. 

Allan Mitchell, in his study of the Nazi occupation of Paris, provides vivid insights into the four-and-a-half years of German rule.[2]  One of the first things the occupiers did after they arrived was to hang huge banners bearing propagandistic slogans at prominent sites, like the Eiffel Tower. They also imposed restrictions on citizens’ movements, but because these were constantly changing they caused confusion as well as frustration. When food shortages developed, people had to queue outside shops in order to buy the essentials they needed. As they lost faith in the impartiality of the media, Parisians were prone to sometimes wild rumours about the progress of the War and the prospect of rescue by the Allies. Then there were the collaborators and snitches, ready to inform the new rulers about any infringements committed by their neighbours. 

After watching Is Paris Burning? and reading Mitchell’s book, I found it hard to ignore the parallels with present-day Ireland. Like those Parisians, we now live with constantly-changing restrictions on movement, are often compelled to queue outside shops, and cannot avoid the many outdoor messages urging us to “join the fight against Covid-19” and the like. In addition, anyone who does not wear a face mask on public transport or who hosts large gatherings indoors risks being reported to the authorities by their fellow citizens. Media bias is also an issue. The unquestioning acceptance by journalists of the government line on the pandemic has been challenged by several elected politicians.[3]  

There is a fundamental difference, however, between Paris in the 1940s and Ireland in 2020. During the Second World War there was a clearly identifiable enemy against whom the people could unite. The Nazis were distinct and different and there was a consensus among Parisians that they should leave or be driven out. Sadly there is no similar unity of perception today in Ireland. 

Yes, there is general agreement that we face a profound and unprecedented threat. But we are divided on the nature of that threat. For some, it is a lethal virus than can destroy lives unless we all follow government regulations. For others, it is the same government that is causing irreparable damage to the social and economic fabric of the country through its disproportionate response to the pandemic.

As I pondered a resolution to this dilemma, I took some solace from the final scenes of Is Paris Burning? The streets are thronged with Parisians, their faces shining with relief and joy as their purgatory comes to an end. Then the giant bell of Notre Dame Cathedral rings out across the city, proclaiming a new dawn of liberty.

[1] The Guardian, 17 Jul 2014.

[2] Allan Mitchell, Nazi Paris: The History of an Occupation, 1940-1944 (New York, 2008), pp 13-9. 

[3] Michael McDowell [], 7 Nov. 2020. [], 7 Nov. 2020.

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