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In 1940, the Vichy government created the forerunner organizations to the modern French film bureaucracy. The primary organization, the COIC (Comité d'Organisation de l'Industrie Cinematographique), "rationalized" the French film industry and attempted to reverse the decline in profitability caused by the war. The COIC established yearly quotas limiting the number of French films produced, and it required that all film financing be approved by the Vichy government. The quotas, combined with guaranteed financing for approved projects, virtually assured the profitability of French movies. The French government was allowed to finance up to 65 percent of cinematic projects that were deemed worthy by the COIC, usually at very low interest rates. At the same time, the Vichy government banned American movies. French movies suddenly held 85 percent of the local market, a level they were never to attain again.
The Vichy program of cinematic control was based explicitly on the model then used in Germany. State rationalization of industry was a centerpiece of Nazi ideology and economic policy.
While Vichy policies assured profitability, quality suffered. With financial support came censorship and restrictions. Filmmakers lost their autonomy, as they produced bland and predictable films to assure access to studios and financing. Vichy films were moralistic, conservative, and propagandistic; many dramatized such themes as respect for authority, the sanctity of the family, the corruption of city life, and the need to return to the country. Few of these productions have achieved any subsequent recognition. (The Vichy government also began a campaign against the cinematic masterpieces of the laissez-faire Golden Age, portraying them as effete and decadent. The supposed depravity of Golden Age films was sometimes even blamed for France's fall to the Germans.)
Vichy's regulations were justified on both ideological and economic grounds. The earlier practice of cinematic laissez faire was portrayed as financially unstable and irresponsible. At last, French filmmakers would have their chance to operate in an economically rational environment, without subjecting their fortunes to the unpredictable whims of the marketplace.
French cinema did produce masterpieces during the war, but not under the Vichy regime. Rather, the best works were produced in Nazi-occupied France. For reasons of their own, the Nazis allowed French filmmakers more artistic freedom than the Vichy government did. French film creativity blossomed despite the state, not because of it.
The Nazis' early cinematic policy flooded occupied France with German films dubbed into French. Even Vichy films were kept out, and many prewar French films were confiscated or destroyed. But French audiences did not enjoy most Nazi movies. Despite high initial attendance for these films, moviegoing petered out. Concerned about creating a discontented occupied populace, German authorities switched course. Nazi policy began to encourage French-produced films as both entertainment and pacification.
The Nazis even set up a new cinematic company, Continental Films. Its funds came ultimately from Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, but most Continental films were not explicitly political. As long as the company's productions did not directly threaten the Nazi ideology, it could operate unhindered. Unlike in Vichy France, Continental filmmakers were not required to adopt a patronizing, moralistic tone in their pictures.
These productions proved to be surprisingly popular and sophisticated. Joseph Goebbels himself was disturbed after viewing two Continental films; he feared that the new company might prove to be a powerful competitor to German films in overseas markets. The Germans nonetheless continued to tolerate and encourage French cinema. The Nazi "tolerance," however, was in no way benevolent but was based upon the Nazis' quest for cultural protectionism and imperialism.
The Germans saw the American film industry as a cultural threat to their quest for ultimate international hegemony. Nazi strategists decided to cultivate the French film industry as a counterweight to the growing American presence in world film markets. French movies were "fun" and "frothy," qualities that Nazi films lacked. The French had the most prestigious and most popular film productions in Europe, and the Nazis did not want to squander their newly captured asset.
Continental, as a German company, was not subject to Vichy controls or COIC regulations and quotas. French filmmakers preferred the artistic atmosphere of occupied France to that of Vichy, and by 1942 few French filmmakers were left in Vichy except for paid propagandists.
The occupation years became an amazingly fruitful era for French filmmaking. Directors Robert Bresson and Henri-Georges Clouzot started their careers during this period. Theatrical talents such as Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh, and poet Jean Cocteau, turned their efforts to the cinema as well, often with notable success. The team of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert actually attempted to subvert the Nazi regime with such extraordinary allegorical period films as Les Visiteurs du Soir and the famous Children of Paradise, widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. "[F]ew, if any, periods of French film history," writes film expert Alan Williams, "have produced so many acknowledged masterpieces and near-masterpieces in so little time." That achievement is a tribute to French filmmakers who overcame the state authorities attempting to exploit them.
After the Liberation, the French government decided to keep the cinematic institutions, and the system of regulation and subsidization, that had been set up by the Vichy government, with changes in emphasis only. The film institutions and regulations created by the Pétain regime were maintained intact. The COIC was converted into the CNC (Centre National de la Cinematographie) and given a new task. Rather than limiting the number of French films, the CNC was to help the French film industry battle Hollywood by limiting foreign films.
Moviemakers who had left France during the war were struck by the changed atmosphere they encountered upon their return. René Clair, one of France's leading prewar directors, was especially disillusioned. He contrasted "the atmosphere one breathes in our country with the freer air of America....For someone who has not seen France for five years, there can be no doubt that Nazism has left its mark on it. Yes, a country cannot live through fascist rule for so long without suffering in some way. For instance, I'm struck by the artificial barriers placed in the way of any activity. I can't accept that someone wanting to make a film should have to submit requests to so many authorities, who will refuse if he can't prove he's conformed to various arbitrary regulations."