Even If She Had Been a Criminal: A Past Unwatched


The counterfeits of the past assume false names and readily call themselves the future. This ghost, the past, is liable to falsify its passport. Let us be aware of the trap. The past has a face, superstition, and a mask, hypocrisy. Let us denounce the face and tear off the mask. 
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Documentary images of historical violence should never be classified as “unwatchable.” They can be so disturbing that there is no language with which to articulate their horror. But this does not make them unwatchable. Images may arouse feelings of terror, confront us with our greatest fears, challenge our understanding of the world, but they must be watched—again and again. How else will we know what happened? How else do we learn about the past and prevent history from repeating itself? For this very reason films such as Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956) and Frontline’s Memory of the Camps (1985) reused archival images as evidence of past crimes to expose the past in their own present moments. As long as crimes against humanity continue, we have not yet learnt the lessons of the past and we must keep watching.

Jean-Gabriel Périot’s film, Eût-elle été criminelle (Even If She Had Been a Criminal, 2006) recycles footage of les femmes tondues, women ritualistically shorn for “horizontal collaborations” with the Nazis during the occupation. The images are now very familiar, having been often re-published over the past twenty-five years  (For a non-exhaustive list of the appearance of these images, see Alison M. Moore, “History, Memory and Trauma in Photography of the Tondues:Visuality of the Vichy Past through the Silent Image of Women,” Gender & History vol. 17) However, Périot’s film claims that they must be watched again if the chain of repetition of the past is to be broken. They may be of a different genre, but for Périot, these 1944 archival images of French men humiliating French women accused of sexual relations with Germans suffer the same fate as images of the Holocaust: we are blind to their message. Périot’s film asks us to watch these images and recognize the hypocrisy of a strain of French history for which no official acknowledgement has been given, no responsibility has been assumed, and no justice has been served. We must keep watching this history to arrest its perpetuation into the present and the future.

The film opens with color images of the 1938 celebration of Joan of Arc’s liberation of the city of Orléans. The aristocracy, clergy, and officials in ceremonial vestments parade through streets in Kodachrome footage, bathing in the glory of French history. Suddenly, the French gentry are placed in a montage with Nazi rallies, and war then breaks out in fast motion on the fields of Normandy, in color and black and white. The montage speeds up, and with success on the horizon, General de Gaulle meets the Germans. The film cuts to a rally in which the masses salute the Führer. The Marseillaise, the French national anthem as a revolutionary hymn to freedom, accompanies these archival fragments.
When the film arrives in 1944, people dance, clap, and hail the nation’s freedom. Crowds raise their hands to the camera, their fingers signing V for victory, faces in close-up, holding the French tricolor, seen from a viewpoint on high, from moving vehicles passing through the streets. Everyone in the crowd is watching, but the object of their fascination remains outside of the frame.

The Marseillaise slows down, and the camera finds a woman struggling on the back of a truck in long shot; she tries to free herself from the man shaving her head. The crowds part for another woman being led by three men, her face is slapped by an onlooker, and her body shies away from her attacker, the crowd, and the camera. This second time, the framing is wider and deeper to reveal what the crowds watch: the parade of women, their heads being shaved, publicly humiliated. Patriotism and allegiance to the flag, whether by followers of Vichy or the Liberation, are easily distorted to suit the occasion. France might be free, but the war continues: in the chaos of peacetime, the battleground is transposed to the bodies of women as the receptacle of the nation’s guilt for its having been in bed with the Nazis. Scholars remind us that “she slept with a German” is the false narrative of the tondue stories. Men and women were shorn for a variety of activities labeled “horizontal collaborations.” And women who had sexual relations with Germans were not always punished (Fabrice Virgili, Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, London: Bloomsbury, 2002). But the spectacle of women being paraded and shorn has captured the postwar French imagination and been upheld to symbolize national rehabilitation.

As Périot repeats the tondue footage, so we are twice confronted. First, we are met with what French history chooses to ignore: the Vichy regime’s celebration of Joan of Arc—another woman, accused of betrayal and spectacularly burned at the stake for dubious reasons—to invoke authority, national pride, and conservative family values (Miranda Pollard, Reign of Virtue: Mobilizing Gender in Vichy France, University of Chicago Press, 1998). The film doesn’t ask who among the tontes (shearers) gave up Jewish fellow citizens to be persecuted, deported, and annihilated. Their cruelty begs the question: who are these perpetrators to hand out retribution for collusion with the Nazis? Punishment of allegedly errant women as a way to alleviate the nation’s guilt is familiar in French history. As with the fifteenth-century sacrifice of Joan of Arc, the tontes project their shame of collaboration onto the bodies of women: it’s a strategy that has been used before, and will, we assume, be used again. This is the mask of hypocrisy, and as Victor Hugo warned, the mask must be torn off if the past is to be put to rest. History is celebrated, for Hugo in 1789, for the Vichy regime in 1938, and for Liberation in 1944, disguised as honorable and progressive. Périot, like Hugo before him, implores us to recognize the ghosts of the past so they can be put to rest.

Accordingly, the second lesson of repetition is addressed to the viewer: Périot implicates us in the humiliation and claims it is our responsibility to stymie the repetition of French history in the present, in the twenty-first century (Political philosophers discuss the inheritance of past injustice by each generation when a nation does not admit and atone for its doings. See, for example, Janna Thompson, Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Injustice, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002). We watch the performance of perpetrators: Men pull a woman’s hair to distort her face in direct address to the camera, a man tickles another woman under her chin while she stands shorn and held in place by two others. He repeats the action with one eye on the camera, making sure his gesture is documented. Throughout their ordeal, the women look unflinchingly into the camera while the razor is dragged over their heads. We are thus also the addressed of their gaze. We are the audience of the audience, the performers and the persecuted, and are thus, as has been argued of the cameramen before us, complicit in the continuing act of humiliation.

Women are ritualistically paraded with their shaven heads on trucks as onlookers applaud their degradation. Humiliation is thus proliferated: from shaving, through performance for a camera, to public spectacle at a particular height and angle to ensure full view of the crowd and the camera. The Marseillaise is sung louder on the soundtrack, and the fervor of national pride is intensified. The proliferation forces us to recognize that the shearing of women’s hair is a performance, not a punishment. Their crimes are not necessarily sexual, but such performances that displace the nation’s shame for its own penetration by the Nazis most certainly are. As the onlookers of crimes, crowds, and their victims, we are asked to take responsibility for the significance of historical events to which we had previously been blind.

For Hugo, the revival of the past masked in celebrations of revolution, or in this case, liberation, is a “hideous progress” towards evil. Périot’s film shows how easy it is to get lost in the excitement of liberation, and implores us as viewers, to assume our responsibility to expose the lies of the celebration. Périot shatters the fragile certainty of our knowledge of history: until France can remove the mask of its own hypocrisy, then history will be repeated, and its counterfeits and violations therefore remain, as yet, unwatched.


Frances Guerin
Unwatchable (Rudger University Press)