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Film / Is Paris Burning?

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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 up to the Liberation of Paris from the forces of Nazi Germany 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 German 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 the Liberation, believing the communists planned to take control of the city and then of France.

Other actors in the All-Star Cast include Charles Boyer, Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Leslie Caron, Alain Delon, Michel Piccoli, among many others, including many cameos by big stars.

For a political contrast on resistance movements, compare The Battle of Algiers, made the same year. See also Diplomacy, a recent take focusing on the story of Choltitz and Nordling.

Not to be confused with Paris Is Burning, which plays on the title.

Paris brûle-t-il? provides examples of:

  • America Saves the Day: The American Army provides key support and manpower for the final liberation (albeit somewhat reluctantly, and not without careful consideration).
  • 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.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Von Choltitz initially seems unimpressed with the beauty of Paris and determined to follow any order Hitler gives him, but ultimately shows a more reasonable side.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Subverted. The consul Raoul Nordling and Françoise Labé arrives in a train station just when a train full of 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 Cameo: Much of the film's all-star cast only appear in brief, one-or-two scene cameos that sometimes only last a few minutes.
  • The Cavalry: Finally, the French and American troops arrive in Paris to support the insurgents who needed help because they did not have enough ammunition.
  • Cobweb of Disuse: The bells of Notre Dame, not rung in four years, are covered in cobwebs. The cobwebs are shook off as the bells are finally rung again, to celebrate the liberation of the city.
  • 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".
  • Decided by One Vote: The decision by the resistance to end the ceasefire is decided by one vote.
  • 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 Maj. Cocteau-Gallois 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: One of the biggest, if not THE biggest, French movie productions of the 1960s.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The viewer should know that Paris was not destroyed.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: The SS Officer who murders Labe, and Georges the collaborator.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a Nobel Prize laureate who manufactures Molotov cocktails for the resistance.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: The rain pours as the SS train leaves the station, bearing 2400 political prisoners to Germany despite Nordling's best efforts, the dead body of Françoise Labe's husband lying on the platform.
  • Handshake Refusal: Parodi, the representative from De Gaulle's government, pointedly refuses to shake Von Choltitz's hand, even after Von Choltitz abides by the cease fire and releases him and his comrades into Nordling's custody.
    Von Choltitz: Get these men out of here before I change my mind!
  • 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 de Hautecloque.
    • 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.
    • 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: It 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.
  • Literal Metaphor: As Col. Rol-Tanguy leads his men into the Paris catacombs he says, "Well, now we're going underground — and I mean literally."
  • The Mole: Commander Georges, who sells out over a dozen other resistance fighters, who are murdered by the Gestapo.
  • Molotov Cocktail: Pr. Frédéric Joliot-Curie prepares molotov cocktails for the French resistance, which uses it to attack the German forces in the streets of Paris.
  • 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 aide 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. This is arguably one of the definitive "French Resistance" movies.
  • 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.
  • Splash of Color: The credits roll over aerial footage of 1966 Paris, in color.
  • Stock Footage: Stock footage is used throughout the film, most notably in the final scenes of the victory parade.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: An American M24 Chaffee was mocked up as a German Panther, due to the scarcity of remaining German war material after the war.
  • Title Drop: Although in German — toward the end, Hitler is insistently asking "Brennt Paris?" (Is Paris Burning?) on the phone.
  • Token Minority: There are a few shots of black French soldiers, but they have very little screen time.
  • Too Happy to Live: An American GI whose absolutely giddy to see Paris, only to be shot by a sniper, as well as a French tank commander, happy at seeing his wife again after six years of separation who is blown up.
  • Translation Convention: The film was actually released in differing versions, namely an international version where everybody simply spoke in their native language, and a version for Anglophone markets where all the French and German actors were dubbed over into English and the Translation Convention was deployed. Interestingly, this was not done with Adolf Hitler, instead, actor Billy Frick speaks in German with onscreen subtitles.
  • Two Halves Make a Plot: Two Resistance members recognize each other in a cafe by matching halves of a torn ticket.
  • 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.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: There is a great deal of dissension among the Resistance groups in Paris, who are only loosely organized. Some want to rise up immediately, some want to bide their time, and some want to follow De Gaulle's orders and not rise up at all and instead simply wait for the Allies to arrive. In the end the Communist faction starts the uprising on their own, and the Gaullist faction follows along.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: The French lieutenant who takes the general's surrender shows a triumphant side of this, calling his father to brag that his military career is not as unexceptional as the old man thought.