m on January 13th, 2012

Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville
Change plus vite, hélas! que le cœur d’un mortel

Escúchela, la ciudad respirando

These men love Paris too much to raze it.

In honor of an article I had run in The Classical, “Paris is Earning,” I watched Paris brûle-t-il ? earlier this week. The 1966 movie, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal, is a bizarre piece of work.1 Though it’s rather obviously (and unashamedly) a piece of pro-French propaganda—no cheese-eating surrender monkeys, these!—the central role played by the city itself was rather startling, though obviously signalled by both the title and the plot:

The Germans are under orders to burn Paris to the ground. Can the French stop them in time?

Opening at the Wolfsschantze, Paris is first mentioned by Hitler, who brings General von Choltitz before him to tell him that he’s now in charge of Paris and that Paris cannot—will not—be liberated by the Allies. Should it come to that, von Choltitz is under orders to burn Paris to the ground. Von Choltitz agrees, and we cut immediately to the title sequence beginning with a shot of the Arc de triomphe.

When von Choltitz later refers back to his interaction when discussing the dire situation in Paris with the bonvivant Swedish consul Raoul Nordling (played by Orson Welles), he points out that he could tell that Hitler had gone mad judging from the fact that Hitler insisted that the city be razed, even if it did not help the war effort.  No matter what, the city is to be destroyed.

Yet, on the other hand, there’s a similar mania on the part of von Choltitz and Nordling. Von Choltitz stalls as long as he can before ordering explosives put in every bridge and in several landmarks around the city.2 Nordling talks to him earlier in the movie and explains that if von Choltitz calls in an airstrike against the Préfecture de Police that the French have occupied on Île de la Cité, and if one of the bombs misses its target, which it will, Notre Dame will be destroyed. Von Choltitz is almost at the point of tears, frustratedly shouting that he must obey the orders he was given by the Führer.

Once the general agrees to the cease-fire, Nordling lights him a cigarette. “History will be grateful to you,” he says, blowing out the match, “for having saved a… very beautiful city.”

What these three men are doing, and what the movie does throughout, is treat Paris as some kind of ontological entity that can be conceived of as a single thing with which one has a relationship of some sort. Paris isn’t buildings, it’s not people, it’s not the 48 (or whatever) bridges that von Choltitz has set to blow up. That is, it is obviously all those things, but it is also some network of unknown internal relations between these constituitive objects that then turns it into its own object. And the men are absolutely not self-conscious or metaphorical about how they interact with this object called Paris.

“He’s already got a date, but I don’t!”

The above epigraphs come from a more poetic tradition, perhaps, than dialogue in movies. But the point here is that these men in the movie are not speaking metaphorically. To them Paris exists as a thing to save, to defend, or to raze. Welles plays Nordling as a sort of man just on the verge (maybe I’m being kind) of a gluttonous piglet suckling at the Parisian teat. He’s either talking about food (when he is petitioned to help a woman free her political prisoner husband from jail, he does so largely since he remembers fondly the trout mousse he ate with them once) or he’s eating, like when he greedily eyes the various tortes on von Choltitz’s table and starts helping himself to them, while hearing von Choltitz’s confession of insubordination in the name of saving Paris. But the way it plays out is that he lives and dies for what Paris has offered him and his waistband during his posting. The man loves Paris.

Even more notable is Sergeant Warren’s reaction. Played by Anthony Perkins, the young American is completely stunned that he will have a chance to see Paris. He asks his companion about the geography of the city, eager to make sure he knows on which side of the Seine the Eiffel Tower is.

Though he foreshadows his own death by coining the aphorism “See Paris and die,” while he rolls into the city, a woman hops into his lap and says she has been waiting four years for him to come to her. He replies that the US has only been in the war for three. They kiss, but he’s suddenly distracted. His buddy pulls the woman away, guessing why Warren’s face is frozen. He sees the Eiffel Tower.

The four years the woman has been waiting cannot compare with his earlier “I never thought in a thousand years that I’d get to see Paris!”

This is not anthropomorphizing. Paris is not a substitute for the woman in a simplistic, humanist way, in which his relationship is somehow pathological and wrong. Sergeant Warren is simply moving through and object-oriented ontology, and it’s the object of Paris that affects him most profoundly. And when the camera cuts to give us Warren’s view, we are also invited to be affected by Paris via the synecdoche of the Eiffel Tower. And it works. The movie caused an affect in me for the object of Paris that I did not expect.

Paris, possibly more than most cities, lends itself to an easy and clean objectification like this, to being considered as an ontological entity capable of competing with, say, a woman for a man’s attention, or of being so despicable to deserve destruction at any cost. If “Paris movie” isn’t a genre, it certainly could be.3 And it’s a genre that reproduces itself in the fantasies of nearly every American (and probably far beyond Americans…) who comes here as a tourist.

But for the tourist, Paris is a set of practices, either experienced or performed, along with some kind of local interaction with constitutive objects within Paris. What I mean is that Paris becomes “going to the Louvre” or “having a coffee at a bistro” or “complaining about the smell” or “buying a croissant at CDG as a souvenir.” In Paris brûle-t-il ? it’s precisely the point that it’s not a set of practices or constitutive objects that require saving, love, destruction, or protection. Nowhere is the call for Paris to be saved made in terms of “protecting the Parisian way of life.”

It’s just Paris. No more, no less.


  1. The DVD I had gave me the choice of audio in French or English. But it looks like the movie was filmed with original audio both in English and in French (and in German). So if I have English audio, I can hear Kirk Douglas and Orson Welles with their normal voices, but the French have dubbed voices. Or the opposite happens. Gert Fröbe, who plays one of the most central characters in the movie, is certainly dubbed by someone else into French. It sounds like it’s his voice in the English version (Fröbe is better known to American audiences as Auric Goldfinger), but even that seems dubbed. Considering the opening scene is all in German in the French version, and in English except for the scene with Hitler in the English version, which is, for some reason, kept in German, things are confusing. Weird, but, well, whatever. The Sixties. []
  2. The movie in general, but this scene in particular, makes for some fun rounds of “spot the landmark!” “There’s the Hémicycle!” Etc. When I saw the lion at Denfert-Rochereau, I was confused, until I figured the Catacombs would soon make an appearance. And they did. []
  3. I lied earlier. Part of why I watched this movie was also since had plans broken to see Charade, which is my favorite Paris movie (so far), at the Le Desperado theater on Tuesday night. This was a consolation of sorts. []

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