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, Jodl?". 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:
- Anyone Can Die: Several characters are introduced and killed quickly thereafter, like an American soldier who dreamed about seeing Paris, the French tank driver, etc.
- Bait-and-Switch Accusation: Two SS officers show up in Von Choltitz's office. He fears that they come to arrest him for treason. He has his gun ready (maybe he wants to resist or maybe he wants to commit suicide). The SS officers actually want to pick up an old tapestry from the Louvre.
- Big Damn Heroes: Subverted. The consul Raoul Nordling and Françoise Labé arrives in a train station just when a train full a prisoners is going to leave. They have a release order for Françoise Labé's husband. Unfortunately, the SS officer refuses to release the prisoner. Bernard Labé is even shot dead by a soldier when his wife runs to him saying he is free.
- The Cavalry: Finally, the French and American troops arrive in Paris to support the insurgents who needed help because they did not have enough amunition.
- 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.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: When a resistant tries to reach the American lines across a field, he hears a gun cock behind him. These are German soldiers, but they choose not to shoot him, because this would indicate the Americans their position.
- 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.
- Foregone Conclusion: The viewer should know that Paris was not destroyed.
- Gadgeteer Genius: Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a Nobel Prize laureate who manufactures Molotov cocktails for the resistance.
- Historical-Domain Character: Loads and loads of them.
- French Resistance: Pierrelot, Dr Monod, Henri Karcher, Rol-Tanguy, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Alexandre Parodi, Edgard Pisani, Roger Cocteau-Gallois, Claire Morandat, Charles Luizet, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Claude Arnould.
- French Army: Pierre de La Fouchardière, Raymond Dronne, Philippe Leclerc.
- US Army: George S. Patton, Omar N. Bradley, Edwin L. Sibert.
- Germans: Adolf Hitler, Dietrich von Choltitz, Alfred Jodl, Hans von Boineburg-Lengsfeld, Walter Model, Wilhelm Burgdorf.
- And the Swedish consul Raoul Nordling.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Whether Von Choltitz was as high-minded and honorable in his actions as the film depicts remains disputed by historians, who note his complicity in Nazi round-ups of Jews within Paris, his past involvement in the destruction of Rotterdam and Sevastopol (albeit under different circumstances) and that most accounts of his decision-making come from Von Choltitz himself, who had obvious motivation to burnish his own reputation. The less generous interpretation is that it simply wasn't feasible for Von Choltitz either to hold the city or to carry out Hitler's demolition orders.
- 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. Von Choltitz himself wanted to fight for the city, but when promised reinforcements did not arrive, he decided that destroying buildings and monuments was pointless.
- I Kiss Your Hand: Pierre de La Fouchardière kisses the hand of an old woman when he enters her flat.
- Large Ham: Hitler, unsurprisingly.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Pretty much all of the historical protagonists of the event show up at some point. And there's a lot.
- Molotov Cocktail: Prepared by Pr. Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
- Officer and a Gentleman:
- Von Choltitz.
- Pierre de La Fouchardière who enters with his platoon in the flat of an old lady and shows her all due respect. When he leaves, he asks his soldiers to pick up the cases of their bullets.
- Questioning Title?: Brennt Paris, Jodl?
- 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.
- Road Block: The Germans have set road blocks around Paris, so that the resistants cannot communicate with the allied forces.
- Salt the Earth: The tactic of the Germans is to destroy Paris if they have to withdraw from it.
- 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.
- Stock Footage: Stock footage is used throughout the film, most notably in the final scenes of the victory parade.
- 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.
- Token Minority: There are a few shots of black French soldiers, but they have very little screen time.
- Urban Warfare: Resistants establish strongholds in several key buildings, and shoot at German troops from there. They also use Molotov cocktails.
- Wartime Wedding: The insurgents take control of a town hall during a wedding ceremony. After the quick replacement of the collaborateur mayor, the ceremony resumes.