The most widely acclaimed TV series ever about the Nazi occupation of France is a relentless epic with little use for the familiar images of craven collaborators and selfless resisters. Un village français focuses on a fictional rural community that endures a tightening vise of German control for more than four years. The villagers live far away from black-and-white tropes. Even a ruthless Nazi official eludes the usual monochrome. The humans are all too human.
Un village averaged about 3.4 million French viewers during 72 episodes between 2009 and 2017. The dramatic series has also aired in upward of 40 countries, according to producers. Now gaining an audience in the United States via online platforms (under its English title A French Village), Un village is far afield from routine US media assumptions about bright lines between good and evil.
From the start of the series, when German troops suddenly arrive in mid-June 1940, the choices for locals are bad and keep getting worse. Un village is riddled with dilemmas that often go from painful to insoluble. The drama’s creators aimed “to bring some shades of grey to the public memory of World War 2 in France,” historian Marjolaine Boutet wrote; they had “the ambition to evoke an empathetic response from the audience towards every character”—while bypassing the timeworn formula of “collaborators as villains and Resistance fighters as heroes.” Based on solid historical research, the poignant and often heartbreaking script comes alive with a superb ensemble cast in more than 20 major roles. The result is a dramatic tour de force that undermines Manichean views of the world.
After watching the 63 hours of Un village français, I was eager to interview its head scriptwriter, Frédéric Krivine. We met on a rainy Paris morning at a café not far from Place de la République. My first question: “How and why did you want to make a Nazi human?”
Krivine, who is Jewish, responded with a fleeting quip—“It’s a good Jewish story”—and quickly turned serious. “A good show, especially a show to last for a while, needs to have characters who are really representative of the complexity of human nature,” he said. “Otherwise, you mustn’t use them.” Nazis, he went on, “were human beings, with desires and problems,” at the same time that “in another point of view, they were kind of monsters.”
The main Nazi character in Un village is a powerful intelligence officer whose romantic charm and steely wit coexist with willingness to torture and execute if necessary to get the job done. I asked Krivine whether there was a message in the mixture.
“People who do horrible things are human beings,” he said. “We have to find a way to talk about them without hiding what they do and without treating them as nonhuman people, nonhuman beings. They are human beings; like us they belong to, we are in, the same species, human species…. It’s humans who kill now everywhere in the world where people are killed. It’s because they are human beings that we have problems—because if they were just extraterrestrial or monsters we could just erase them.”