Weapons of the Spirit: Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage

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Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was a tiny Protestant farming village in the mountains of south-central France. Defying the Nazis and the French government that was collaborating with the Nazis, the villagers of the area of Le Chambon provided a safe haven throughout the war for whoever knocked on their door. Bill Moyers presents a documentary about the story of the town, entitled Weapons of the Spirit, and then interviews filmmaker Pierre Sauvage about his film.

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MOYERS: How old were you when you set out to make this film?

SAUVAGE: Well, let’s see. I guess I was in my mid-thirties. A long time ago…

MOYERS: A long time ago metaphorically?

SAUVAGE: Yes, that too, that too.

Oh, it’s almost hard to justify having spent that much time making this film except that making the film was a quest for understanding where I came from, who I was, what life meant, what I was going to pass on to my kids.

All that sounds awfully pompous, but I think it really amounted to that. And the project took hold of me and I just had to bring it to completion.

MOYERS: You grew up in New York. Did you hear growing up about Le Chambon? Did your parents constantly refer to it, make you mindful of that part of your story?

SAUVAGE: Well, I guess the answer to that is perhaps a big paradox about the making of the film. The answer is no, my parents did not talk much about Le Chambon. Oh, I knew I was born there. But I didn’t know that Le Chambon had mattered in any particular way.

They basically were people who had put the past behind them to the extent of not even allowing me to know that they were Jewish and that I was Jewish.

MOYERS: They didn’t tell you?

SAUVAGE: They did not tell me. Till I was 18.

MOYERS: You were 18? Nothing in the home had indicated this, nothing in the conversation had indicated this, nothing in your own intuition had indicated this?

SAUVAGE: You know when you were raised under a taboo, the power of that taboo is extraordinary. People sometimes can’t believe that I could have not suspected or known. But the truth is I did not. I did not.

It may not be meaningless that the film was not the work of a dutiful child fulfilling his parents’ fondest wishes. It was the work of a rebellious child, laying a claim to a part of the past, indeed to a heritage, indeed to an identity that he had essentially been deprived of.

MOYERS: In what sense, rebellion?

SAUVAGE: Well, the mere fact of becoming Jewish was a rebellion. I was sort of sent forth into the world as a “nothing.” I wasn’t a Christian, I was simply a “nothing.”

That satisfied me for quite a while, by the way. I was a student in Paris and it never bothered me. It took a long time for me to start measuring that that was not a productive way to live your life. I think two major influences: one, my wife, who is Jewish, and who sort of was working on me—a lot.

And the other, actually, was Le Chambon. Because I realized that a lot of what they did came out of their strong sense of self, their intimate knowledge of who they were, of what their history was. And I realized that, well, if they were getting such strength from being who they are, then I had to aspire to be who I was.

MOYERS: When you went back and said, I’m going to do a film, how did they respond?

SAUVAGE: They were wary. They were certainly uncomfortable that I might do what filmmakers do, which is to dramatize their story, to sentimentalize them in some way, to make heroes out of them. They genuinely don’t feel that they were heroes.

Incidentally, the biggest mistake one could make is to sort of chalk this off to some form of modesty or, God forbid, false modesty. They think they simply did what was natural, what came naturally to them.

MOYERS: Somehow when I look at those people in Le Chambon, however, I’m not surprised that they did what they did. Were you?

SAUVAGE: I’m maybe less surprised than I was when I started out on this. I mean, it started to make sense to me. Whenever I learn something new about them, some minor facet that I stumble across, some anecdote that somebody tells me, it always seems to fit in. And I realize that there’s truth there. There’s something to be learned.

I had to undo a lot of preconceived notions in order to come to this, the most fundamental one, I think, being one that’s been handed down by the dramatists and the novelists and the artists, to an extent. The very process of that is to build around conflict and tension and drama, and they’ve sort of passed on the notion that good people, people who put their lives on the line, people who take major risks, are people who agonize over their decision, spend sleepless nights worrying about what they’re going to do, and then maybe in the morning, because their conscience tells them to—but even the conscience has a raspy, nasty edge to the sound of its voice—finally do the right thing.

I’ve come to believe this is nonsense, that people who agonize don’t act, people who act don’t agonize.

MOYERS: How exceptional do you think they were? I mean, there were other rescuers in Europe. Were these people exceptional?

SAUVAGE: Well, the rescuers in Nazi-occupied Europe almost by definition were exceptional because there were few of them. The vast majority of people were not murderers, they were simply apathetic. They simply did not rise to the challenge. They ducked the issues somehow.

Of course the film was a quest to understand in what ways Le Chambon was both special and very ordinary.

MOYERS: What made it special?

SAUVAGE: I think what made it special was an extraordinary confluence of circumstances and people. A singular group of people with a singular history: this Huguenot stock, this memory of their persecution; not only the fact that they had a history of persecution but that they remembered it, that it mattered to them.

MOYERS: How do you think this influenced their openness toward you and the others who were sheltered?

SAUVAGE: Well, I think on the one hand, there was that sense of identification with somebody else who was persecuted. On the other, there was their particular slant on their Christian faith which both mandated deeds—that was essential—but also involved a certain, special kinship with the Jews.

MOYERS: Through persecution, through…

SAUVAGE:  Well, even broader than that. Simply because the Jews, for many of the Christians of the area, were the People of the Book. These were Christians whose sense of roots went that far back that they were comfortable with the Jewish roots of their faith.

On the other hand, one shouldn’t overstate how exceptional or unusual they were, and distance ourselves from them in the process. They were, in very fundamental ways, no different from you and me, very ordinary people with simply a good hold on what is important.

MOYERS: But they were different from other Christians, down the road, around the corner, across the border, who either collaborated actively or, as you indicated earlier, stood by frightened or indifferently while thousands of people were rounded up and shipped off to death.

What particular influence did their faith have on them? How Christian were they?

SAUVAGE: You know, I think the most fundamental paradox of this issue of Christian rescuers during the Holocaust, it seems to me, is that Christians facing that period have no choice but to face up to the enormity of Christian responsibility. Not that Christians were behind the murders—certainly they weren’t behind the murders as Christians. But that it happened in the heart of what could be called Christian Europe and that Christians allowed it to happen.

And yet, when you look at those who resisted, when you look at those who recognized what was at stake, it is my contention that when you probe these people, the Christian influences on their conduct become very clear.

I think maybe it’s a question for Christians to answer, “How Christian were they?” Maybe they were not typical Christians, but I would like to believe they were certainly exemplary Christians.

MOYERS: Two things struck me about them as I watched the film. One was their serenity. There just seemed to be such an inner stillness, a powerful inner stillness, and it reflected in their posture toward each other, toward you, toward the world. Serenity.

And the second was a sense of, well, for lack of a better term, self-esteem, whatever that is.

SAUVAGE: You know, the psychological dimension of the film is the least explicit. The most explicit one is probably the historical and the religious; things are defined. Psychology is just embedded in it. But I think it’s a crucial component. Somehow these people were raised with, yes, that healthy sense of self-esteem.

MOYERS: What was the source of it?

SAUVAGE: I haven’t done the research into their upbringing. I think respect for one’s parents and ancestors is certainly a very important component of it.

I’m sometimes surprised that people who argue for religion don’t make this purely sort of psychological, pragmatic argument that we are, in large part, who we were, who our ancestors were. That’s programmed into us. And psychology rightly believes that you derive strength from knowing who you are.

Well, knowing who you are is also connecting with your spiritual heritage. Not necessarily adopting it. Not necessarily embracing it. Learn about it and see what happens.

MOYERS: When your film was shown at a convention of the American Psychiatric Association it got a standing ovation, didn’t it?

SAUVAGE: Yes. I was very proud of that actually.

MOYERS: Why, do you think? What did they see in it that caused them to rise in applause?

SAUVAGE: I think it was the mental health that shines through from these people. These people sort of exude that sense of mental health, and I think the recognition mattered to these professionals.

I thought of a line that a relative of mine said about them, which is one of my absolute favorite lines. She had come to Le Chambon when I was there, and I introduced her to Madame Brottes. (Madame Brottes is the woman defined as the fundamentalist Christian, with the white hair, raking the garden.)

And my cousin Lizzie [Elizabeth Horowitz] hugged Madame Brottes, and my cousin was crying. And I said to her afterwards, “Lizzie, you were really very moved.”

And she said, “Yes, it was like hugging a tree.”

There is that inescapable sense of solidity that emanates from them. Of course, a tree has roots, and that’s a crucial part of it.

MOYERS: And it has real texture, unlike the goodness we so often talk about, you know: ephemeral, sentimental, saccharine, self-serving. There is a reality to these people that is not unlike the tree that is there.

SAUVAGE: That’s right.

You know, the other striking dimension about it is that all this was so effortless. I mean, life to me and…

MOYERS: You mean what they did was effortless?

SAUVAGE: What they did. I live in Los Angeles. To anybody who lives in a big city, life seems difficult. Rearranging your car pool is a big production. And these were people who took in two, three strangers, had their whole routine disrupted. But it was… natural.

They don’t look upon effort as being something depleting. They look upon effort as something through which you live fully and you derive strength. It’s really quite different.

And of course people like them exist all around us.

MOYERS: Do you find people like the people of Le Chambon in your regular, ordinary world now?

SAUVAGE: I think so.

Oh, I’ve gone so far as to say—and this is probably a fairly bold assertion—that if there were another Holocaust, and if they were going after the Jews again, and I was again targeted, that I probably would have a better sense of whose door to knock on than the average person. That there is something you can learn. You can develop a sense about certain attributes that are likely to produce this sort of conduct.

I also know that there are certain places that I would be more likely to go.

MOYERS: We meet a lot of women in this film. Is that just a coincidence?

SAUVAGE: You know, it was women who often played the key role in rescue. It was the woman who’d often be opening the door of the house. The men might be away, might be at war or might be tilling the field. It was often the woman who made the decision as to whether that needy refugee would be taken in.

And I have no doubt that women played a very important role in this. Maybe that’s one reason that the activity itself has been comparatively under-recognized.

MOYERS: Because?

SAUVAGE: Because men don’t resonate to these things as readily. We boys are more interested in guns and battles—even when they produce no important result—than indeed in the weapons of the spirit.

MOYERS: At the opening of the broadcast I asked the audience to imagine that the United States had been occupied. Now you imagine. What do you think you would do if we were occupied, and you were called upon to shelter, to rescue the other?

SAUVAGE: I don’t know. And I don’t think we ever know. I would never dream of presenting myself as a model of somebody who would know enough to act morally.

And indeed I would say that whatever thinking I’ve done about it or reading I’ve done about it is also irrelevant. This isn’t an intellectual exercise. There’s a wonderful line by one of my heroes, Emerson, where he says that it takes a great deal of thought to produce a tiny elevation of life.

You know, it isn’t the thinking and the analyzing that produces good deeds. It’s being a better person. And that is the product of influences on us that determine what we are going to be.

Intellectuals acted terribly during the Nazi era.

MOYERS: Many of them joined the cause.

SAUVAGE: There were many Ph.D.’s in the top Nazi leadership.

MOYERS: I was struck at how the people in Le Chambon refused to submerge their own particular individual values to some idea of “the public interest,” “the common good.” They resisted that. They acted out of their own particular faith and their own particular values.

SAUVAGE: I think that’s a fundamental point, and a really fundamental lesson: the notion that these people were acting out of their own conscience, indeed breaking immoral laws.

I’m sometimes a little surprised when Americans in particular overstate the importance of laws. Sure, laws are a mechanism to structure society and are necessary. But they are certainly not sacrosanct. And immoral laws should be violated. They should be cheerfully broken.

The Holocaust was entirely legal.

MOYERS: Slavery was legal.

SAUVAGE: Slavery was legal.

MOYERS: What happened to the Jews in Germany was written into law. It had the sanction of majoritarianism.

SAUVAGE: We are responsible. Individually. We cannot defer that responsibility to the government, to the leaders. “Well, they passed a law, so that’s what it should be.”

And we’re also responsible for our leaders. Something I also learned from Le Chambon is not to overstate the significance of leadership. Now it happens that Le Chambon, as we saw in the film, had extraordinarily inspired leadership. Pastor Trocmé was a brilliant man. And an extraordinarily committed man. But at the same time, you had a community that had it in its nature…

MOYERS: Leaders don’t create communities. Communities raise up leaders to express and manifest their character.

SAUVAGE: That’s right.

I think that we are all individually accountable, responsible, for what we do and what we fail to do. That the buck stops here. And the here is always with you.

Certainly we’re not faced with the type of choices, normally, that people during the Holocaust were faced with. We’re faced with far smaller choices. Or they seem smaller.

And yet we’re constantly faced with choices that are somehow parallel, that involve extending yourself to lend a helping hand, maybe even taking a slight risk. It won’t be your life, but it’ll be your job, or it’ll be bucking the company, or it’ll be saying something in defense of somebody else that may not be popular.

You know, if Hitler had been alive and available to me, of course I would have welcomed the scoop, but at the same time, he would not have been the perfect villain for me. This film was not about commission. It was about omission. It was about the difference between being a bystander and not being a bystander.

And that’s the choice that most of us are faced with all the time. That’s what makes the rescuers so relevant. We’re not faced with choices of being murderers or not being murderers.

Of course, if we compare ourselves to Hitler and Goebbels, we come out smelling like a rose. We have to compare ourselves to people who realize that one must not be apathetic when one’s own identity is at stake.

MOYERS: When you first showed me the film some time ago now, I argued with you, remember? I said you shouldn’t call it Weapons of the Spirit, because I didn’t believe you should mix the military metaphor with what was essentially a spiritual and religious manifestation.

You clung tenaciously, stubbornly, and, I must say, rightfully, to your original title. Why did you call it Weapons of the Spirit?

SAUVAGE: All through the making of the film it was my working title, and I always thought that maybe something else would leap out at me—I wasn’t sure I wanted quite that abstract a title. But the title helps to underscore a certain toughness to the spirit.

A great director I know called Sam Fuller, the [late] great “B” director, years ago I was telling him about the film. We were at a party and he was walking around. I told him that I was looking for a title. And he came back to me and he said, Bullets of Faith. And that went a little far…

But the idea of underscoring the toughness of the spirit appealed to me, I think.

MOYERS: There’s something contentiously paradoxical about it, though. Because if the spirit can be used as a weapon, it was insufficient to prevent the darkness, the ruin, the devastation, the horror and the evil that fell upon Europe in what you say is, or was, a “Christian” culture.

Isn’t there a danger is suggesting that the spirit can withstand the onslaught of human nature as manifested in the opposite of what we see in your film?

SAUVAGE: I think on balance there’s a greater danger in not believing it, in believing that somehow the spirit does not have the power to transcend everything.

You know, even when it comes specifically to the experience of Jews during the Holocaust, and certainly for many years there was that concern that paying attention to the rescuers might somehow take the edge off the experience, as you’re suggesting. I think that is simply not the case. I think that we need to know that it was possible for people to care.

If we pass along a legacy that does not include the righteous, does not include the rescuers, then we’re giving humanity an alibi. One doesn’t even have to aspire to do better, because it isn’t possible.

And in fact, yes, the G.I.’s liberated the camps, the American G.I.’s. But let’s face it, it was an accident. That was not the reason they were there. In fact, you talk to troops and they were stunned by what they saw because nobody had ever even told them that that’s what they were going to be encountering, along the way.

MOYERS: Americans did not go to war to save the Jews.

SAUVAGE: No, they did not. The people who went to war to save the Jews were the people who were using the weapons of the spirit.

They were individuals here and there, throughout Europe, often acting alone, unlike Le Chambon, which at least had the strength of being a community—of course, that’s also what makes it interesting—and who simply exercised nothing else but the powers of the spirit.

MOYERS: Well, it’s very important, it seems to me, to remember this as the century comes to an end, and to teach our children that there were the Le Chambons.

But not at the expense of constantly reminding and training our children that this was a horrible century, and that the darkness fell. And that seems to me to be the… Does it not seem to you to be the primary lesson of the 20th century? That darkness is real, and evil is there?

SAUVAGE: No question about it. No question about it.

Of course, this century has been a terrible century, but I will even say that contrary to what people might assume I am not particularly an optimist about human nature. I think—I won’t engage in a profanity here—but I think the world is a pretty awful place.

But I think that the only way to survive the experience of living in it is to realize that it need not be that.

And the only way to come to any such realization is to have examples. Kids, I think, will, in fact, be able to absorb the magnitude of the evil if they have something to hold on to. If it doesn’t sap them of their… spirit.

Stories like Le Chambon, stories of rescuers, are really almost like a banister which you can hold onto while looking at the evil of this world.

If we don’t feel deeply, within ourselves, that we are capable of good we will be extremely reluctant to face the extent to which we are capable of evil. And indeed, without question, we are capable of both.

This transcript was entered on June 29, 2015.

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