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A criminal for some, a hero for others... Joseph Joanovici was all that, and more.
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Il était une fois en France (Once Upon A Time In France) is a French comic book written by Fabien Nury and drawn by Sylvain Vallée published from 2007 to 2012 in six volumes. It is a Very Loosely Based on a True Story historical thriller centered around the life of Real Life figure Joseph Joanovici. The comic was a commercial and critical success, gathering several distinctions and selling more than 1 million volumes in France.

In 1925, Joseph Joanovici is a penniless Romanian Jew who has just emigrated in France. Joseph doesn't even know how to read but through cunning, expertise on metal and dishonesty, and with the help of his loyal brother Mordhar and secretary Lucie Schmidt, Joseph goes from scrap merchant to biggest supplier of iron in France, just in time for World War II. As the Germans invade and occupate France, Joseph realises that to survive as a Jew under Nazi rule, he has to make himself useful and actively collaborates with the Germans to supply them with French iron. But at the same time, predicting that the Allies will eventually win, he'll need to have a solid reputation, so he supplies and assists La Résistance too, notably the resistance ring "Honneur et Police". This double dealing proves difficult to maintain, and one night, he is forced to betray Honneur et Police. Joseph uses one young man, Robert Scaffa, as a scapegoat and assassinates him to silence him. When the war ends, Joseph is hailed as a war hero.

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However in 1946, Robert Scaffa's mother draws attention to Robert's murder, and the local judge Jacques Legentil, feeling personally invested in the case, spends the next few decades trying to bring Joseph to justice. However, Joseph is a powerful man and harasses Legentil in order to stop him. As time passes, this case degenerates into a personal feud between the two, and the lives of both are ruined because of the other. By 1965, Joseph is discredited, ruined and lives in constant fear of Legentil, while Legentil is a lone old man separated from his family and obsessed by Joseph. The night of February 6th 1965, Joseph dies and Legentil is here to witness an ambulance take him away.


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Il était une fois en France provides examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: When Legentil stages a shakedown to frighten Joseph's wife Eva and his daughters to get at him, the encounter goes horribly wrong when one mugger shoots Eva and kills her.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Although the story keeps Joseph's most heinous moments, such as his assassination of Robert Scaffa, the authors went out of their way to humanize Joseph's reasons for doing so, portraying his misdeeds as more motivated by pragmatism than greed (as is usually accepted by historians) and Joseph has several Pet the Dog moments. He is also visibly shaken by the horrible things he's done, although he keeps it to himself.
  • Affably Evil: Many people in the story are this, otherwise ordinary people who commit shady or outright evil deeds. Joseph first and foremost.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: When Attia and Boucheseiche threaten to slit Lucie's throat, Joseph begs them to spare her and pays them 2 million Francs every month.
  • Amoral Attorney: Joseph has many judges and attorneys in his pocket due to his ties to "Honneur et Police".
  • Apathetic Citizens: In general, French citizens just kept to themselves during the Occupation, with only a handful of people entering La Résistance. In 1942, Joseph predicts that the shame of not having done anything against the Nazis will turn into violent anger against collaborators. He's ultimately proven right.
  • Asshole Victim: No one regrets Otto's murder as he was a Nazi who pillaged France's resources for Germany.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Joseph doesn't enjoy the unsavoury things he has to witness or do for his survival and all his crimes blow up to his face one way or another. His family rejects him and he dies a broken, ruined, and fearful man who expects going to Hell.
  • Blatant Lies: Otto presents himself as a Belgian businessman, despite his heavy German accent.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Joseph, a Corrupt Corporate Executive against Nazis and Les Collaborateurs.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Bags full of money, gold ingots or other goods are a frequent sight since Joseph bribes many people.
  • But Not Too Foreign: Joseph change his brother Mordhar's name into Marcel, because Mordhar sounded too foreign to xenophobic French ears.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Sénéchal, who tries to have Joseph judged for his crimes and contrary to Legentil, stays within the law.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Thérèse violently calls out Joseph on his crimes, blaming him for the death of her mother.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Each and everyone of Joseph's crimes have a negative repercussion on his life, even if it takes years to happen.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Joseph figures that the Germans still need a local businessman to help them supply French iron to the war industry. Despite being a Jew, Joseph is kept alive since he's the best scrap merchant in France.
  • Category Traitor: Eva accuses Joseph of being a traitor to the Jews, having acquired his wealth by selling their possessions and indirectly contributing to Nazi industry.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Joseph's Gestapo card comes in handy when he smuggles weapons to the resistance, but is also the instrument of his demise after the war, when a patrol of zealous resistance fighters arrest him because of it.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The petty gangsters Joseph gets rid of in Vol. 1 come back in Vol. 2, forcing Joseph to call the German and French Gestapo for help.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Joseph's ability as a scrap merchant. After years of plotting unrelated to scrapping, Joseph is exiled in the small village of Mende and he uses his craft to build a second fortune.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Joseph and Eva have been together since childhood. On his deathbed, Joseph still thinks more about Eva than Lucie.
  • Children Are Innocent: Joseph's children Thérèse and Hélène remain unaware of his crimes until they're adults.
  • Co-Dragons: Lucie and Mordhar are Joseph's closest associates and underlings.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Naturally, Joseph has to deal with them, most notably Lafont, chief of the French Gestapo. In fact, when Legentil asks Wybot from the DST why nothing has been done against Joseph yet, Wybot answers that he has 35,000 files to take care of, all businessmen and industrials like Joseph, who collaborated with the Germans for a profit.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Deconstructed with Legentil. He's obsessed with putting Joseph in jail for the murder of Scaffa. But his commitment to the case separates Legentil from his family, and he becomes as miserable as Joseph.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Joseph knows that the Nazis could use his family as leverage, thus for most of the war, he keeps away from them. The rest of the time, he doesn't visit his family because he's managing his business.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: During their youth, Joseph and Eva survived a pogrom.
  • Death Song: Desbois and Masiée, two members of Honneur et Police, are forced to dig their own graves. As a last act of defiance, they sing La Marseillaise just before the Germans shoot them.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Joseph kills Scaffa and frames him for his own treason.
  • Determinator: Legentil stalks Joseph for eighteen years.
  • Dirty Cop: Before and after the war, Joseph Joanovici deals with corrupt French policemen who don't look at his shady business in exchange for money. Some of them outright commit crimes for him.
  • Dirty Coward: Fournet, aka "Belette" from Honneur et Police. He always fears for his life and was ready to betray his friend Piednoir to Joseph in order to be spared.
  • Double Agent: Joseph was one during the Occupation, playing with the Nazis and the Resistance alike to stay alive and also ensure his future.
  • The Exile: Joseph exiles himself to Israel in order to flee his past, to Mordhar's shame as he sees the hypocrisy in a war profiteer who sold French Jews' possessions to the Nazis trying to take advantage of Israel's Law of Return, and Lucie's sadness as she cannot go with him. Israel eventually expells Joseph back to France.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Desbois and Masiée face their execution calmlt and sing La Marseillaise.
    • Likewise, Lafont keeps his nerve when he is shot by a firing squad.
  • Family Man: Joseph is attached to his family, but is uncaring to the fate of others.
    Joseph: Mon pays, c'est ma famille. Les autres peuvent crever.note 
  • Faux Affably Evil: Wilhem Korf, a nice individual who doesn't hesitate to decimate a whole monastery during a perquisition and execute priests.
  • Heel Realization: Downplayed. Joseph realizes that he's too involved with the Nazi, and out of guilt and pragmatism, begins to side with La Résistance, who then proves that they aren't much better.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Legentil's frustration at his inability to bring Joseph to justice gradually leads him to more and more dishonourable ways to get back at him, culminating in the Accidental Murder of Eva Joanovici.
  • Hope Spot: One for Joseph when he manages to flee to Israel. But Legentil contacts a Tel-Aviv journalist to make Joseph's story public, resulting in Joseph returning in France and prison.
  • How Themighty Have Fallen: In 1965, Joseph is a ruined, emaciated and withdrawn old man who just got of his second prison term. One journalist and his cameraman, hoping to have an interview with the former biggest shot of France are surprised and disappointed to see him in this pitiful state.
  • Informed Judaism: Joseph is Jewish, but not devout. During the Occupation, Joseph naturally doesn't practice his religion, but his true nature is an open secret. The one time Joseph uses his status as a Jew to flee to Israel, Mordhar calls him out on his hypocrisy.
  • Ironic Echo: Twice during the series.
    • One doctor who is forced at gunpoint to attest that Joseph is Aryan casually tells him that "He's Aryan now." Joseph realises how far he's fallen when the phrasing sinks in.
    • Similarly, after the war, Eva tells Joseph that he'll never be safe because of his crimes. When Attia threatens to kill Lucie and extorts Joseph, the latter mutters the exact same words.
  • I Want My Mommy!: When Joseph kills Scaffa, the latter's last words are begging for his mother.
  • Justified Criminal: Joseph's fall into criminality is as much due to his own faults as the circumstances he find himself in. The uncle who took him in France was already involved with local gangsters and the corrupt Police, so Joseph quickly learns to live with both. Then a couple of Germans force him to sell them iron at gunpoint, and he finds himself a collaborator. It all goes downhill until Joseph is obliged to kill someone else for his own safety, a crime he regrets dearly.
    Joseph: You do what you can in life, with the cards you have... Me, I had scrap.
  • Karma Houdini: Jo Attia and George Boucheseiche manage to make it through the story unscathed despite being Les Collaborateurs, committing murder and blackmailing Joseph into giving them 2 million Francs every month until Joseph goes to prison again. The last time they're seen, they are eating at a luxurious restaurant.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: Downplayed. When Joseph is thrown in jail during his trial for collaboration with the Nazis, his influence allows him to get commodities such as cognac, cigarettes and other goods.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: Two thugs wear ski masks in order to harass judge Legentil's wife and rape her.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: When judge Legentil investigates Joseph on the murder of Robert Scaffa, Joseph uses the police a little too much to stop Legentil's efforts, exposing at the same time the fact that he is bribing them on a large scale.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The very first scene of the series is Joseph meeting Eva while hiding during a pogrom.
  • The Mistress: Lucie. She is Joseph's lover and cares deeply for him, even being satisfied to simply remain by his side as Joseph still loves Eva.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: Robert Scaffa's girlfriend (who wanted to testify that Scaffa didn't know anything about the German raid on "Honneur et Police") is frightened, by policemen no less, into remaining silent.
  • Moment of Weakness: After months of frustration, especially after one of Joseph's organisation's goons raped his wife, Legentil cracks and publicly calls Joanovici a "Damn Jew!"note . His partners are appalled and immediately throw him out of the investigation team.
  • Morality Pet: Thérèse and Hélène are this to Joseph.
  • Morton's Fork: Half of the story is set during the Occupation of France by Germany. Joseph is rightfully afraid of what the Nazis will do to him and his family if he ever stops making himself useful. Later Joseph becomes afraid of what the French will do to him and his family should they learn that he collaborated with the Nazis.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Joseph is traumatized when he commits his first murder. Killing Scaffa temporarily makes Joseph disgusted with himself, and Lucie has to snap him out of it.
  • Neighbourhood-Friendly Gangsters: Being the benefactor of La Résistance makes Joseph popular in his neighbourhood, but he remains a criminal.
  • Never Learned to Read: Joseph Joanovici was illiterate in French for most of his life. It is only during his time in prison during the 50's that he bothered to learn to read and write.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: During his first years in France, Joseph fakes being the naive immigrant in front of his uncle, the better to steal money from him.
  • Once Upon a Time: In the very title, which translates to "Once Upon A Time in France".
  • Pet the Dog: Joseph intends his involvement with La Résistance to be one big Pet the Dog moment after the war, in order to clear his name when the Germans are driven out and the French hunt down collaborators. He still has genuine instances of selflessly helping someone and he always shows care for his family.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: The Nazis and their French counterparts. Germany needs metal more than they need one useful Jew dead and everyone profits from the iron supply. Lafont, who was ready to execute Joseph, spares him when Joseph says:
    "Better to milk the cow than slaughter it."
  • Precision F-Strike: Legentil calls Joseph and his clique "sons of bitches" right before his children, shocking the whole family.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: On the two occasions someone is shot in the head, Scaffa and Eva, only small bleeding bullet holes are shown.
  • Rags to Riches: Joseph goes from poor immigrant to billionaire in the span of a decade. The Occupation only makes him richer.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Legentil reveals to Joseph that one of his men raped Legentil's wife, which shocks Joseph as he would never have ordered such a thing.
  • Red Filter of Doom: The panels are tinted red for the two most promiment murders in the series, that of Robert Scaffa and Eva.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Legentil, judge of Melun's jurisdiction, is reassigned to the even more remote Provins, Seine-et-Marne, when he begins to hinder Joseph too much.
  • Red Baron: Lucie is nicknamed "Lucie-fer", a play on her name, the word "fer" for "iron" and of course "Lucifer". This nickname exclusive to the circle of French and German metal suppliers is a token of their respect for Lucie's competence and strength of character.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • When Lafont tells Joseph a "Au fond pour moi, tu n'es qu'un sale Youpin!"note  publicly during a dinner, Joseph answers back "And how much is it to not be one anymore?". Lafont finds it Actually Pretty Funny.
    • After a bombing, Lafont is furious to find out Joseph has been trafficking behind his back and is ready to shoot Joseph, but Joseph defuses the situation by publicly proclaiming his relief and his love for Lafont.
  • La Résistance: Portrayed Warts and All in the comic. They do fight for France's liberation, but after the war, some rings, especially "Honneur et Police" became little more than gangsters, and some Résistance members are more criminals than freedom fighters.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: La Résistance has a history of bombing places, assassinating people and even after the war, harassing perceived collaborators, notably shaving the heads of women who slept with Germans.
  • Riches to Rags: All of Joseph's possessions are seized by the French government when he is condemned as a collaborator.
  • The Scapegoat: Robert Scaffa. Joseph has to denounce his resistance ring and to remain clean in the Resistance's eyes, takes the blame on Robert.
  • Shamed by a Mob: Joseph storms into a doctor's office in order to get his Aryan certification done. The angry stare of the whole crowd of people here to get themselves examined manages to make Joseph ashamed with himself.
  • Spiteful Spit: When the police "welcomes" Joseph is Mende, one of the policemen spits at Joseph's feet to signal how much he thinks of him.
  • Start of Darkness: Averted. Joseph's fall into crime is a continuous descent spanning over years during which Joseph is pressed by circumstances and simply grows accustomed to the criminal life.
    Joseph: You begin by tricking your uncle, because he's a scrooge. You continue by giving scrap to the Krauts because it's better than a trip to Auschwitz...You carry on to the Resistance because they're a guarantee for the future...etc, etc... and one day, you find yourself in the woods, a gun in your hand, and a kid just died.
  • Swiss Bank Account: In his later years, Joseph built a second secret fortune and put the money into a Swiss bank account since they do not look too much at the money. However it turns against him when the French order the assets frozen, and the Swiss keep Joseph's money to themselves, ruining him with hope of ever recovering the money.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Joseph is furious when he sees that Eva continues to expose her menorah in the apartment, even when the Nazi can come search his house at any moment.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Joseph nervously observes a mob shaving the head of women who had relations with German during the Occupation.
  • Undying Loyalty: Lucie to Joseph. She remains by his side all his life, come hell or high waters. Legentil even twists this loyalty by persuading Lucie into secretly testifying against Joseph so that Joseph must return to France and depend on Lucie's help again.
  • Villain Protagonist: Joseph is undeniably a dishonest businessman, an enthusiast collaborator, and a murderer. Yet the story manages to make him sympathetic by making him a partial victim of the circumstances and portraying him as having second thoughts about his crimes.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Joseph Joanovici, publicly lauded French resistance fighter who counterfeited identity cards for his employees, financed La Résistance, and still contributes to his community. However, he is little more than a gangster who collaborated with the German for his own profit.
  • Wet Blanket Wife: Eva's main role is to remind Joseph how immoral his crimes are.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Maitre Sénéchal who was cooperating with Legentil against Joseph gives him a piece of her mind when Legentil reveals he staged a robbery that went wrong, resulting in the death of Eva Joanovici.

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