The photographs from the early 1940s show Paris as sunny, airy, bursting with color. Its inhabitants appear carefree, content and refreshingly unaware of their proclivity for looking très chic. It's all very much at odds with the prevailing image of the French capital suffering and smoldering under the yoke of its Nazi occupiers. Indeed, that very dissonance has made the current photo exhibit "Parisians Under the Occupation" one of the city's most controversial cultural events of late. Was life in Nazi-controlled Paris really as idyllic as these pictures suggest?
The exhibit at the City of Paris' Historic Library has drawn what organizers say is an unexpectedly strong turnout of 11,000 visitors since it opened on March 20. But in recent days the exhibit's 250 photographs have become the subject of a heated debate over how history ought to be presented. Detractors claim the curators neglected to inform spectators that the pictures were outright Nazi propaganda, commissioned and shot to show a German public just how happily the French lived under Occupation. That contextual omission, critics contend, not only allows the photos to broadcast a deceptive view of Nazi rule more than 60 years after they were shot; it also insults the memory of Holocaust victims from the traditionally Jewish right-bank neighborhood within the Marais, a stone's throw away from the exhibit.
"It's total manipulation, and it made me ill," protested Christophe Girard, the Socialist deputy mayor of Paris in charge of cultural issues, in the weekly Journal du Dimanche Sunday. He has called for the show to be canceled before its planned end of July 1.
But pulling the plug on the show isn't going to happen, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë said Monday night. Delanoë regretted that the exhibition hadn't made more explicit the great suffering, privation, and death that amounted to the larger context for "people who also weren't living too badly" in the photos. But he said canceling the show would constitute "adding a fault to errors," and ordered its continuation.
By the time Delanoë made that call, the curators had moved to provide that context. Visitors to the Historic Library are now informed in several languages that the pictures were shot by André Zucca, a Frenchman hired by the German magazine Signal to capture scenes of Paris flourishing under Nazi rule. Zucca's bosses' gave him extremely rare and valuable rolls of Agfacolor film to shoot his busy shoppers, café-lounging lovers, parks filled with parents and playing children, and ultra-chic Parisiennes sporting the last word in fashionably enormous eyewear.
Despite the photographs' propagandistic intent, curators note that their esthetic quality not to mention their rarity as color prints from that period make the case for their display. Indeed, even Girard noted that "had it been clearly explained to the public that these were propaganda photos on display, the exhibit could have been very interesting." While most photos clearly present an idealized and flattering picture of occupied Paris, other shots featuring Nazi flags, German installations, and huge numbers of uniformed soldiers mingling on familiar Parisian streets leave little doubt as to the actual context.
"What shocked a lot of people were the advertising posters and outdoor displays of the photos that seemed to suggest, 'This is how it really was; it wasn't so bad,'" says a woman who has seen the exhibit and identifies herself as Anne, a long-time resident of the traditionally Jewish rue des Rosiers just down the street from the Historical Library. "Almost everyone here lost family in the Shoah, and knows that wasn't how it was. In fact, I don't think anyone who lived in or knows people who lived in Paris during the Occupation thinks those photos show how it was." Still, she emphatically agrees with those who say that the curators should have been more explicit in laying out the darker context of death, deportation and repression: "That's the one thing people can never be reminded of too often."