Film / Is Paris Burning?

Paris brûle-t-il ? (Is Paris Burning?) is a 1966 historical film directed by René Clément, based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, based itself on a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It depicts the events leading to the Liberation of Paris in August 1944.

The title comes from Adolf Hitler's question to his chief of staff Alfred Jodl on the eve of the liberation of Paris (August 25): "Brennt Paris?". The military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe), had been ordered to destroy the city rather than let it fall undamaged into the hands of the Allies.

The film follows historical events as Dwight D. Eisenhower refuses to divert troops to liberate Paris. His hand is forced by the French military leader, Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque, and by a Resistance uprising in the city. Von Choltitz keeps details of the uprising from the German high command in an effort to save the city being destroyed in retaliation. The film follows his turmoil as a soldier and as the man who doesn't wish to be seen by history as the cause of a beautiful city's destruction. In this he is helped by the intervention of the Swedish consul, Raoul Nordling (Orson Welles).

The film looks not only at the taking of Paris by French and American troops but at rivalries within the Resistance. Of the two main sections, the branch loyal to General Charles De Gaulle was against an uprising while the branch linked to the communists, led by Henri Rol-Tanguy (Bruno Cremer), believed action was necessary. De Gaulle tried to overcome communist influence during and after Liberation, believing the communists planned to take control of the city and then of France.

For a political contrast on resistance movements, compare The Battle of Algiers, made the same year.

Paris brûle-t-il? provides examples of:

  • Les Collaborateurs: The man who guides the resistant student group right into a German trap.
  • Cute as a Bouncing Betty: The huge cannon Von Choltitz used to destroy Sebastopol is named "Karl".
  • Deliberately Monochrome: To give the film a documentary/newsreel feel, just like The Longest Day. It features some actual footage too.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Of course, as well as several other famous Paris spots. Most distressingly, they are seen while the German soldiers are filling them with explosives.
  • Epic Movie: By French cinema standards at least.
  • Honor Before Reason: Depends on your point of view. Von Choltitz is ordered to burn Paris to the ground. Realizing that history would never forgive him if he did, the general does what he can to arrange a quiet surrender instead. It may have been dishonorable to the Nazis, but it was reasonable and honorable to the French. In Real Life, the French regarded him as "The Savior of Paris" and French officers attended his funeral in 1966.
  • Large Ham: Hitler, unsurprisingly.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: All of the historical protagonists of the event show up at some point.
  • Molotov Cocktail: Prepared by Pr. Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Von Choltitz.
  • Refuge in Audacity: When "Pierrelot" (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is tasked to retake Hôtel Matignon from Les Collaborateurs, he cannot get any men in insurgent Paris. So what does he do? Walk into the place with just his female aid, and ask for control of the place in the name of the temporary government. It works, and he's treated like a minister.
  • La Résistance: Most of the French protagonists, naturally.
  • Spiritual Successor: To The Longest Day. Black & white historical epic, international All-Star Cast, loads and loads of characters, Allied victory in WW2... you got it.
  • Title Drop: Although in German — toward the end, Hitler is insistingly asking "Brennt Paris?" (Is Paris Burning?) on the phone.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Averted — except for Adolf Hitler, of course.
  • Urban Warfare: Resistants establish strongholds in several key buildings, and shoot at German troops from there. They also use Molotov cocktails.